AN INTERVIEW WITH
BY JONATHAN PELTON
Jonathan: What drew you to design as a career?
Brendan: I definitely had a long, non-linear path into graphic design. I guess you could attribute it to growing up, especially on my mom’s side, in a very creative family; and always having things like watercolors or pastels or charcoal around. It was a huge inspiration; something to look up to but also something to just experiment with outside your typical classroom setting, and literally do for fun as opposed to a homework assignment or chore. So that was the kind of environment I grew up in and through that I just kind of started exploring. Some of my initial inspirations were to be something like a comic book artist, although it changed quite a bit growing up. But whatever it was, I was so very intently focused in those seasons that it was like nothing else existed outside of being a comic book artist or whatever it was. And then eventually discovering that a lot of those skill sets I was exploring, like photography, typography and layout design, how that can all come together under one pseudo-label. So my background is just very diverse, I found my artistic voice probably more in photography and then that evolved into printmaking and that evolved into graphic design and that just kind of went from there.
So I listened to the interview that you did with CMYKC, and you were talking about your printmaking, is it intaglio and mezzotint?
Yeah, so the printmaking started in high school. I didn’t really know I started it at the time because I was like about 16 or 17, later years in high school, and some friends and I decided to create a company. That was kind of my first effort in lifestyle brands clothing.
LVSK clothing, yeah, so it was a great project; I can really attribute everything I’ve ever learned, whether it was coding websites or learning how to use photoshop to that project. I think, as I was learning all these different skill sets, it helped me to work on something that had a definitive purpose instead of just wandering around with fake projects; it was good for me to jump into real world problems. So, for instance, I didn’t have a website and obviously we had no money; so I learned how to build a website. We had just enough to buy, I think we were getting off brand t-shirts at Target, and we’d get a dozen shirts and screen print with a do it yourself setup in our parents’ basements. So that process, and that business that we all started in high school, I think really started adding fuel to the fire; I feel like things started clicking where I was like “Oh I can use the computer and combine all of my interests into one single path.”
So once you graduated from high school, did you go directly to UMKC?
Yeah, well, it was Longview Community College first and then I transferred to UMKC, and ended up getting my degree from there. I didn’t even get my Associates Degree at Longview, which probably wasn’t super smart but like when I started going, it wasn’t for degrees. I mean, sure it was my end goal, but at the beginning it was really about learning, and that learning element ended up taking me down different paths. I took a lot of courses I didn’t need, like every single design and photography course that longview offered, so that was at least 40 credits of almost throw away electives. And for me it was just a time to explore, to not worry about careers, and to just figure out what I am interested in. So then I transferred and got what is really a generic design degree.
and then you graduated from UMKC in 2009?
Yeah, December 2009
That was kind of at the height of this latest recession. How hard was it for you to land that first real design job?
I think I was somewhat ignorant as to how difficult it was going to be, and even some of my professors at UMKC, you know, they knew that everyone was going to have a hard time at that point, but for a few people they were somewhat confident like “they’ll figure something out” but it was way harder than I thought. I felt like, being at UMKC, knowing what was around as far as my pseudo-competition, and what everyone else was doing at different schools, I felt somewhat confident that I would find a job. But then you get to finding an opportunity and just none exist, and so I ended up turning onto different paths, different internships, continuing to run some of my own businesses, and then even taking some courses I probably wouldn’t have taken otherwise. For example, I worked at an event design studio which very much integrated my design skills but was much more varied, so I could have been designing the layout of their lookbook, and then putting a coat of paint on a pedestal, and then literally setting up, you know, flowers for a wedding. So it wasn’t exactly what I went to school for, but I loved their passion for business; and it really coincided with what I enjoyed a lot, which was not only design but also that entrepreneurial factor; and I was still learning even though it looked like, maybe on paper, I was deviating. And I feel like that’s what you might have to do, you know, when doors shut you have to get really crafty at how you’re going to continue on your course without having that salaried job you were anticipating.
And so it sounds like through all the different jobs you’ve had, you were always trying to tease out that design element, and allowing that element to continue to shape and form you.
Yeah, especially at the Blue Bouquet, they were concerned that I wouldn’t be happy in that job because they felt like I was overqualified. I mean, at times, I’m just, like, painting stuff; and so I’m obviously qualified to use a big paint brush; but they were also recognizing “Hey, we can use your skill sets in ways we weren’t really anticipating” and so we kind of both bent a little bit in terms of what they needed and what I was looking for. And then, from there, I continued the weaving course and did a job for a year at a sign shop; and, again, not really what I was wanting but kind of close, maybe closer, but also not close. So after a year there, I started doing on site jobs through a placement agency called Landa Jobs. I got some Hallmark experience and some Payless experience being in a designer role, and that gave me not only a lot of confidence, but I was just so incredibly happy to be doing design; to finally be doing what I had always been wanting to do after, now, two or three years of searching.
Along the way, though, LVSK kind of went it’s course and ended, and that gave me the opportunity to start Ocean and Sea. And all throughout all of this, I’ve always done my own projects and side businesses. There’s been this theme in my life where I feel like things have been, um, maybe just a tad harder than I thought; so I was just wanting ways to not let me fall into the trap of having excuses. Just because I didn’t have x and x job doesn’t mean I shouldn’t still be producing the work I feel like I’m capable of. So in a way, these side businesses were ways that I was trying to take responsibility: how do you respond versus react to what comes at you.
Let’s see, so then, after all that is that when you landed at Springboard?
Yeah, so after I did Hallmark, Payless, and I think there might have been one more, but after those agency placement jobs I ended up getting a job at Springboard. The guy who hired me, he was my original mentor in a scholarship program I won, so we already had, like, a five year relationship at that point, and so he invited me in and the joke is that we didn’t really have a formal job interview, I didn’t even know I was being interviewed. He said “Hey, come on by the studio, I just want to catch up” is the way he phrased it, but really it was secretly a job interview because he was looking for someone but really trying to make sure it was the right fit. And it was the right fit; and actually, I just recently told Kevin, the owner, but I was 5 minutes away after our hour conversation from slipping in a letter of recommendation form for a graduate program, and so I was potentially going down a totally different course when he offered the job that leads me back in to something closer to what I really wanted to do from the beginning. Now in retrospect I’m really glad I didn’t go back to school. A lot of times, graduate paths right after school, especially right after art or design, is more just deviating. It’s like you’re trying to play it off like “No, things are going for me, I’m in school still.” And that’s not bad for everyone, but sometimes I feel like it can be a crutch, if that makes sense. So I’m just glad that it worked out to where I got denied with the program and got the job. So at that point, the three years at springboard felt like I was learning what I was really passionate about and doing the right work and not being, like, here for two months and there for another two months, but really able to sow in some seeds to building up the design firm from the ground up; from growing the team, to figuring out the way we were going to approach clients, it was a very encompassing opportunity.
Ok, so tell me more about Ocean and Sea. What exactly is Ocean and Sea?
So, it originally came about as a creative project, always knowing that the end goal, behind the scenes, was to do a clothing and lifestyle brand. Like I mentioned earlier, with LVSK, it’s definitely always been a passion of mine, since I was 16, to do design but to do it in a way that is a little more personable and creates more of a sense of community instead of just creating various collateral pieces where you feel like sometimes the end results just end up getting recycled. And with a clothing brand, you have the ability to create something very personal. It becomes this ultimate sense of affirmation when people wear or publicly embrace a brand; it’s very personal. So, for me, it’s always been a challenge to see if I can achieve that.
So, to explain Ocean and Sea: the name is actually based on our last name O’Shaughnessy; it’s a homonym; and we knew it was going to be a family effort with my wife and I, and even my mom helps; but we knew it had to be bigger than us. So it was just kind of a way to create a confine behind what we were doing that was about us and our story; but was also much more inclusive, which I think distinguishes LVSK and Ocean and Sea. LVSK had a super narrow focus and Ocean and Sea is much broader; and that’s not a bad thing. It’s like kind of honestly my goal to be relevant to a large group of people. It’s almost like you’re trying to be a pop artist in design. It’s not like I wanna be the Justin Beiber of design but there are definitely some things that you can look at when someone is able to reach a large group of people. Whether or not you like the music, it’s such an incredibly hard task to speak to so many people. So, I’m trying to do that, but I’m also trying to elevate the quality and artistic direction so that I’m not only personally proud of it but it does have that wide reach as well.
So, you’re designing with your wife Amanda; does she have a design background as well?
She’s more illustration based. She also went to UMKC and did things like the illustration academy, so that’s definitely her strength, although we joke that sometimes I’ll have the best illustration ideas and then she’ll execute them, and vice-versa with her and design. So we definitely have a dual hat kind of role, but when it comes to execution, I’m more the design and Amanda’s more illustration. It’s a good symbiotic interplay, we’re not stepping on each other’s toes too much with our strengths.
It sounds like it’s a good mix of two good strengths together.
Exactly, I almost feel, sometimes, and I know there are a lot couples out there that are both designers and it totally works, but I could also see that being a source of conflict where you’re both so close to the same thing that you don’t know when to step back and just listen to the other perspective.
So, what made you decide to go out on your own and start Ocean and Sea.
Well, there was one job in between there that was kind of like the stepping stone to getting to where I am right now. I was at an agency called 7 and they’re kind of a smaller agency, but they have big clients, like Microsoft and Honeywell, and working with a different client subset was interesting for me at the time. I was anticipating on staying there a bit longer; but then, based on how the business worked out, I had to get laid off. So, in the back in my mind I was thinking, you know, I would love to do Ocean and Sea and freelance full time, but sometimes it’s so easy to just push things like that off; and so, when I didn’t have a job, it was a perfect timing of like, hey, I might as well try; you know, I’m being handed this golden opportunity and so we’ll see if this works out. From there, it’s been probably the last, like, since January to where I’ve been doing Ocean and Sea and selective freelance design full time. I feel like I’ve been training for it for ten years, so it’s about time.
Right, so it seems like your whole journey up to this point was preparing, in some ways, to take this on.
Yeah, because even when I was twelve and thirteen I created a landscape company. You know, I’ve always been creating companies and been entrepreneurially minded; and I was really honestly thinking LVSK was going to be my prized future career; and it just didn’t happen, and I feel like it was for good reasons, but also, since it was a ten year project, it was also a little frustrating like “Man, did I waste time on that?”
What were some of the challenges that you had in starting Ocean and Sea and getting it off the ground?
I don’t think there were many challenges getting off the ground, like I was talking about before, because we didn’t put much pressure on ourselves; when we started, I was at Springboard, and I always knew the long term goal was for it to be a full fledge clothing brand, a lifestyle company. But when it started, I wanted to grow it organically, so Amanda and I started this creative project: the Daydreams Project. The goal of the project was super loose, there weren’t really like rules; we were just trying to create imagery and build this aesthetic, a world that we wanted to create our products within and enforce the brand ethos. The project also gave us a chance to be creative again; cause sometimes when you get so into the day to day of clients, you kind of like lose your sense of creativity. And so for us this was kind of like the return to our original passions of literally doing stuff simply because we loved it. The original plan was to like do that creative project for six months and then in July of 2014 we were gonna create products from that project; but then when we were posting elements of the Daydream Project on Instagram and started to gather somewhat of a following, we started getting stores reaching out to us, asking if they could carry our products even though at the time we didn’t have any products. So it kind of accelerated things and this method of growing in a public way was a very transparent process; because when we started we were literally nothing. We were just putting out pictures and illustrations and design, but pretty much we weren’t really anything at that point; but I think people saw through what we were trying to achieve. So I try to give this as a sort of tool for people, especially designers, to grow is to just force yourself out into the limelight so the stakes are higher; cause if you don’t have that pressure, then nothing will really get done.
And for us we were doing all these creative projects and exercises outside work; and so it literally would be long days for a year where we’re pretty much working two full time jobs, not a sustainable long term model but it was cool for that season. You just have to know for yourself, are you in that season where you feel like that burst of energy or do you need to pull back? You know, you just have to evaluate what’s right for you.
One thing that you touched on a moment ago with how the business came about: you’ve talked a little bit about your products “living in an environment.” This was a bit of a new concept for me. I don’t normally think of products living in an environment; I don’t go to target and think of, you know, the cereal box living in an environment; so what do you mean by that?
Yeah, yeah, I think that for me, I’m thinking so much about how a customer sees, gets attracted to, and ultimately purchases something. So if you were to look at like how big movie companies promote films, you know, it’s about the film but it’s also not; they’re also creating an experience. Take the Star Wars that came out where there’s so much hype it almost became more just about your childhood than it really was about going to see a new Star Wars movie. And so for us, we’re not trying to replicate that but we’re trying to look at how we can make a product that feels like it’s in it’s own universe, so to speak, and suddenly you can actually get a little bit more into what you’re buying into. For us, with the creative project, it was just kind of a way for us to start building out what does that look like? How are we gonna curate the world and present that through product to other people? Because the way I look at it, ultimately, someone’s not just buying the product, they’re buying the belief systems of the company, they’re buying the quality of the product, the presentation of the product, the marketing of the product, the way you display that product online. So much more is put into ultimately getting someone to click buy; and I’m interested in that whole experience; like it could be a smile at an event, or just having someone feel welcomed when they come by your booth, or just not being arrogant. That’s your brand experience; and so all of those things matter to me as much as the product. That’s always what I’m trying to focus on.
It kind of sounds like, maybe with a brand like New Balance, where you don’t just go to the store and buy a shoe, you almost become a New Balance person. You’re buying into their culture and their beliefs, the values that this company represents, running and fitness, and all of this comes with the shoe. And so then you might also buy a New Balance whatever else they sell because it’s part of this world that you now belong to.
Yeah, like you wear their product, and maybe you’re not even exercising hard but you feel better because you’re part of that fitness world. And so some of it is false in a sense that like, us as customers, we think we’re part of something and we’re really not. I mean you could just boil it down even to just high school cliques where we’re always trying to find where we belong; and we’re finding that in friend groups, we’re finding that in community groups, and product grouping is the same. It’s all just bringing people together.
Right, and getting back to Star Wars, I come in and I see you wearing Star Wars socks and now I automatically know that I can talk to you about Rey and Finn and everything that goes on, and all the questions we were left with; and so while it can be false, and if you do it the wrong way it can even be manipulative, but it can also be a very positive thing, it can create community. You’re helping people to connect with each other through your brand.
Another good example is Pokemon Go; like, for few weeks there I was playing Pokemon Go, and ultimately it wasn’t a sustainable life mechanism, so I stopped, but what I did appreciate about it was the ability for it to bring people together. And I’m interested in replicating that. And so I look beyond these weird animals in the Pokemon universe or the Star Wars universe or whatever, because I know that they’re breaking barriers and bringing people together; and that’s the big goal that I’m always trying to strive for myself.
Nice, that touches on something that I feel is maybe an undercurrent in some of the interviews you’ve done before and some of what you’ve talked about here. And that is the power that designers have to affect and change the world in different ways. So, can you speak a little bit to the responsibility that we have to use our persuasive powers in ethical and intentional ways.
Definitely, I think that’s tricky because it definitely stems from different peoples’ value systems; and so, ultimately, I think a simple way to answer that question is that we don’t really have any responsibility to do anything ethically right or for the better of the world at all. But the ability to choose it even when you don’t need to is what I’m really interested in. It’s an act of selflessness where you’re literally sacrificing for that better collective good. And I think that’s one of the huge challenges of just life in so many different ways, where you’re just choosing you or choosing others; and it’s definitely a balance whether we’re talking about, for example, products, or the way we treat people, or the way we welcome people into whatever we’re creating. But we always have to be somewhat self-serving as well because no one’s going to take care of us; but I think that that’s just the surviving part. The thriving part comes when you realize that you can’t do it alone and things get much more interesting when there’s more to the pot. The more spices you have, or the more people you have in the mix giving suggestions, giving input, I think the more interesting the outcome is going to be. Which is why, for us with building Ocean and Sea we’re not interested in this kind of one man show like “Hey look what I did, I’m super talented, this was all me.” type of perspective because I just don’t care about that. I’m trying to create a sense of the best curated products at, hopefully, a fair price, or as fair as we can get it just based on economics; and if I have to get out of the way in order to make whatever it is that we’re designing the best it can be, then I want to get out of the way. Knowing when to not be the hero is sometimes the heroic thing to do.
That’s really cool. What are some mistakes that you’ve made and how have you learned from them; how would you like other designers to learn from those experiences?
Oftentimes our biggest flaws are our biggest strengths; and in retrospect I feel like I might have worked a little bit too long on LVSK as a project and a company, maybe like one or two years too long. I wasn’t really getting anywhere, just kind of repeating the same things and expecting different outcomes. And so, for me, I’m super committed when I start something but sometimes that’s my downfall; I need to know when to stop. So the good thing is that we kind of learn from our mistakes; and that’s why with the daydreams project, one of the fun things for us was having a very concise time limit on when we could start and stop so it didn’t become like this perfected pure holy thing that you’re putting out in the world. Going back to my printmaking, that’s what I was doing, you’re working for six months on just a single print and then you get 50 images and it’s like “Man, that took a long time.” So it’s trying to flee away from the idea that you have to be that lone artist that hides for years and then does an exhibition. I’m trying to just do things quick and have it be more inclusive; to have your creativity be a way where you could welcome other people along that journey. That’s where most artists fail the most, they’re not including, or creating a sense where anyone would want to be a part of your own growth. And the reality is it’s not just about art because the best artists are also the best socialites. The thing that I always kind of go back to is the printmaking teacher at UMKC, Craig Suttler, he was one of my favorite teachers, he would always talk about being a “smartist” and not just an artist. Being smart about how you’re approaching a problem is just as important as being a great artist. It could be about, potentially, the way you’re choosing vendors or how you’re distributing your product; but in every path along the way of how you’re coming out with a piece of art or a piece of product, in our case maybe even clothing, you can be creative and you can question every step of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
It’s also about sharing so that people just kind of see that you’re just a real person, pursuing similar ideologies and plateaus of excellence. And that’s how you grow a following, it’s not like you just put out this perfect thing and everyone just starts worshiping you. Life is not that way, right? There are ups and downs, low lows and high highs, and hopefully you can kind of like ride that middle; and so as much as life isn’t always this cloud nine experience, as we’re just being honest about that reality in our growth and design, then more people are going to cling to that and think, like, “Hey, this could be a friend of mine.”