For fourteen years and counting, Design Ranch (DR) has been Kansas City’s rising star. This branding and graphic design powerhouse boasts six full-time employees at work inside a contemporary building in the Crossroads Arts District west of downtown. Ingred Sidie and Michelle Sonderegger founded and lead the company. “The Girls” (as they are referred to by many) are a dynamic design duo.
Riding in from the airport, they communicate freely, finishing unspoken sentences, with nods and glances. They are warm and welcoming and I sense immediately an uncommon connection here. This, I later learn, has led to more than just good design work; it has led also to good thinking and a harmony rare, appealing and profitable.
Hallmark, the 100-year-old All-American icon, is just around the corner. It employs more communication arts professionals than any corporation on Earth. Its definition is design. They can choose any creative agency or artist anywhere to help it forecast trends and change. Among others, it chooses Design Ranch.
Jeff Wilson, Hallmark vice president, creative innovation, admits he has never dwelled on the women’s distinctions. “They blend together,” he says. “Their value to us is their ability to hear what isn't being said and bring that to our attention. They do this by listening. They help us see beyond the familiar. Design Ranch provides a valuable external perspective that helps us reinterpret familiar emotions.”
The goal, he says, is connecting people at both extraordinary and ordinary moments. He continues, “Hallmark is about emotional connection, unconditional love, the flow of life and tokens of affection as expressions of gratitude. Making this happen requires individuals attuned to cultural forces shaping human relationships. Design Ranch does this very well.”
It is uncommonly hot: 103 degrees. We arrive at Genesee Royal Bistro in the West Bottom historic district, the first of three gas station restaurant conversions we’d visit. The former petrol station is unvarnished yet stylish, an oasis in the treeless, sweeping prairie of sun-baked, buckled asphalt outside. The mute brick edifice of the old Kansas City Cattle Exchange looms over us, offering neither cattle nor shade. Cattle arrive downtown these days only on a plate; the shade flees the high-noon sun. To my surprise, Michelle admits they eat lunch together every workday—and have for fifteen-plus years. Really?
I ask what characteristics each bring to the partnership. Without hesitation, Michelle replies, “Ingred can pull together ideas and concepts faster than anyone I know. She helps us focus on the big picture. She does not get bogged down in the details like me.”
Of Michelle, Ingred says: “She fleshes out details and makes concepts come alive. Her attention to details makes our work shine. She filters out the unnecessary and arrives quickly at the solution.”
Yet, I remind them, Michelle hates typing e-mails, so she’s an unlikely account manager. Ingred, though, is good at such details. “Well, that’s true,” admits Michelle, “Ingred is better at some details than I....Who am I kidding, we are one person! I mean, it’s pointless to differentiate us. In the old days, when we had one computer, I’d start a spread, Ingred would finish it. We think alike. We know what works and anticipate the other’s reaction.”
Ingred picks up the conversation: “A healthy ego signals a passion for design, a passion we share. We try to channel our egos for the better good of the work. We demonstrate to our young designers that our experience will positively impact the solution and make their work better. Call it a collaboration of passionate people.”
We head towards the museum district in the swelter—it’s too hot to get out so Michelle drives on, occasionally too slow or failing to notice when a light is green, or red. While Michelle enthuses, Ingred keeps the tour moving apace. We stop for a cold beverage at another gas station conversion called The Filling Station. The Girls both order ice tea, no sugar. I begin to see double as the conversation turns to history.
Ingred attended Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles; Michelle went to the University of Kansas in nearby Lawrence. Early on they discovered many coincidences: both were born and raised in Kansas City and both have older sisters who (then) lived in Austin. Both boast moms with design knack and husbands who worked in the same building. Ingred told Michelle her father's name, Merle; thus Michelle told Ingred her dad’s name was Earl. I am reminded of those HOJO paper placemats enumerating the Lincoln and Kennedy coincidences: “both had VPs named Johnson, both had seven letters in their name, one was elected in 1860, the other in 1960...”
They would meet and bond at Willoughby Design while traveling extensively for Lee Jeans. Their fashion experience led to a stream of business that helped launch DR. Client Bob Carlberg, vice president of men’s merchandising at fashion retailer Buckle, says: “We moved away from Design Ranch for a short period but we happily came back. We’ve worked together now for years because they continue to innovate, have fun and offer a deep understanding of our business and customer. They’re an amazing duo—and a nice reflection upon Kansas City. They deserve the attention.”
With a growing reputation for sterling work and clients, Michelle and Ingred early on began to attract Kansas City’s best and brightest. This remains true: Among the young and talented, DR is the “go to” place for experience and opportunity. The feeling is mutual: While the young learn and grow, Ingred and Michelle get a steady stream of fresh energy and ideas that keeps their work relevant and leading edge.
At day’s end, all Ranch hands gather at Oklahoma (not Kansas) Joe’s BBQ located in, oh yes! another service station—but this one still sells gas. It’s 6:45 pm Wednesday and already patrons are out the door. But queue, ’Q and carbs move quickly here. It is a young group, and a lively talk: With the exception of our 40-something founders and long-time office manager, Kathleen Dorris, everyone is south of 30: Michelle Milbourne, Laura Berglund, Claire Gude and Frank Norton. If they follow tradition, they’re destined for fine careers. Take former DR hand, Mike Weihs, now senior studio designer at Wieden+Kennedy:
“Ingred and Michelle taught me to share ideas without being defensive or letting ego get in the way. They showed how good creative partners make the work better. They let me observe and learn across the process, but never lowered their creative standards to accommodate my inexperience. When young designers come into our studio today, I make an extra effort to reach out to them. Some people are intimidated by younger talent, but it makes sense to nurture them because one day that newcomer could become your career-making creative partner. Look at Ingred and Michelle.”
Ingred and Michelle credit their moms with their design intuition. Ingred’s was a career elementary school teacher who taught her how to “create a mood”: “Mom has a classic style, not old fashioned, but comfortable. She’d replace all plastic condiment bottles with glass and china at every meal. We used cloth napkins, sterling salt and pepper shakers—never plastic. Everyday meals were ‘set’ with style with a lit candle. It sounds formal but it wasn’t, it was more about creating a mood and surrounding us with beauty. She still does this, lighting a candle for my kids at breakfast.”
Michelle’s mom was a designer at Hallmark, who later worked in Dallas, New York and Chicago and, later still, in Los Angeles, on Barbie at Mattel. “Mom was the vice president of product design for Barbie Collectibles working with fashion designers, Bob Mackie, Vera Wang and Nolan Miller. She was working and traveling in the field when it was a male-dominated business. She had courage and integrity and she stood up for herself. She showed me how women could make careers for themselves in this business.”
In 1998, Design Ranch opened in a storefront on Summit Street, just west of downtown. The offices were cheerful but cramped, sandwiched between a vegetarian restaurant and a joint that changed hands frequently. There, the duo built a reputation for excellence that would carry them far. Their desks (actually one big desk), however, didn’t move another inch for thirteen years.
Ingred recalls they worked strictly on cash basis. If they wanted a computer, they paid for it. “No debt,” she says, “and 80-hour weeks were common because we did everything ourselves.” They paid themselves the same amount, taking only what was needed. There were no luxuries. “We invested and saved and hired when we felt certain we had the work to sustain it.”
In 2006, Michelle and Ingred built their Dream House space. They call it “The Ranch," but you will find no horseflies, hay bales, rusty nails or broken spokes in this picture. It is tall, lean, angular, white, sunlit, Neutra-esque. Designed by 360 Architects, a client and a national force in arena design, it is a bold statement about success, aesthetic and international style. It is a statement about two uncommonly connected, talented “girls” with true Giddy Up.
In Kansas City, prim simplicity and practicality can blush when confronted by the art, architecture and born-again gas stops. It occurs to me as I head to the airport that this is the only place a Ranch like this could thrive.
Talent and hard work got Ingred and Michelle there. Abiding respect keeps them here. Design excellence keeps their clients coming back. If this is what “Midwestern Values” are all about, I think I will have to start looking for an apartment. ca