Chad Cheek, owner of Winston-Salem, North Carolina design agency Elephant In The Room began his career in 1998 doing marketing, sales and business development for the Hanes apparel brand. In 2005 Cheek received an MBA at Wake Forest University, and became a partner at Elephant In The Room in 2007. He purchased the business from the founder in 2012, adding his expertise in marketing and marketing strategy, brand development and relationship management to the firm’s strength in design.
A Head for Business
What excites you about design right now? Many things are happening that make great design more accessible and mainstream for common folk. People are beginning to understand how to recognize when something has been touched, crafted and designed well. People are beginning to expect and demand great design more and more, and that’s good for all of us.
Who have been your most influential mentors and why? I respect and trust the advice I have gotten from folks like Hayes Henderson, who have elevated the creative standards for firms in our area. Interestingly, I have found lately that a few of my long-term clients have become close confidants and mentors.
What has been inspiring you lately? I’ve been really excited about brand ideas like Shinola (watches, bicycles and leather goods made in Detroit) and Best Made. I’m also geeked out on what I call “lifestyle curator” brand ideas like Mr. Porter and Huckberry.
What’s the biggest challenge facing designers right now? It’s very hard today to distinguish the work a great designer has done for a paying client from great design that someone has done at their leisure or in their spare time. Designers will always face the challenge of having to sell their work if they want to thrive in this business. A cool poster or a T-shirt that you make on your own dime is nice, but making a business out of it is a whole different ball game.
What personal/pro-bono creative projects are you working on, if any? We have been fortunate to do some really cool work for our local Winston-Salem Arts Council, creating a brand look for their annual report and campaign. We have also been asked to create a new campaign look for the RiverRun International Film Festival, which I’m very excited about.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your work and what did you learn from it? The biggest mistakes have involved not getting rid of bad clients soon enough. Sometimes clients are bad when they first walk in the door, and we decide that we can change them or coax good work out of the relationship, but I have learned that you can’t get great work out of a bad client. There must be a shared idea about the strategy and the best way to execute it.
Which designers do you most admire, and why? Matt Stevens, Eric and Christine Strohl, Brandon Rike, Dusty Summers and probably fifteen others. I admire them not just because they design well, but also because they have figured out how to produce great work for clients who value the craft. And, they are genuinely nice people. Mostly, though, I admire the talented designers that I get to work with every day at Elephant In The Room. I sit on their shoulders, and at the same time, I look up to them.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Learn from the people around you and find out, as quickly as possible, how to think through the best solution to a problem. Most people can occasionally figure out how to be clever. The best designers out-think the other guy.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Great design or solid brand strategy is not something that can be rushed. It takes what it takes. You can’t just throw money and people at a problem and hurry to an elegant, smart solution.