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The work of Shane Cranford and Ross Clodfelter of Device Creative Collaborative is nuanced and deep, something a casual observer may not discern. But look closer: You will see combinations of scores, folds, die cuts, embossings, duplexes, varnishes, hand-lettered type and amusing copy tucked into the fine print on the back of a package or in the margins of a printed page. You see it on labels, cans, bottles, hangtags, invitations, box wrapping, corrugated shippers and apparel. You see it applied in 2-D, 3-D and online. These guys are media agnostic: if they can think it, they will make it and apply it to any media, especially print. The final product often looks too good to toss—you’ll want to put it on the shelf and admire it.

Clodfelter and Cranford are a two-man operation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with just one employee, Noemi Zlaya, who handles production. The partners say they go the extra mile because they enjoy it, not because it’s in the creative brief. Their enthusiasm for the surprise fold, the print detail and the witty remark on the margins of the page can be infectious—they are evangelists of great design, and their clients, and anyone within earshot of their homilies on the subject, often get swept away by their passion and fervor. I did.

Cranford, 37, is an extrovert. The son of a military officer, he grew up all over, including stints in California and Japan. A graduate of East Carolina University (BFA in communication arts, with a focus in graphic design), he and his wife, Melissa, live in Winston-Salem. She is a degreed interior and textile designer and works as a showroom designer.

Clodfelter, 32, is the more reserved and conservative of the two. Aside from attending Pensacola Christian College in Florida, where he earned a BS in graphic design, Clodfelter has always lived near Winston-Salem. In 2005, his photography skills led to frequent requests from high school friends to shoot their weddings. He called his enterprise F5, and, he says, he made a living with it. Today, Clodfelter’s passion for photography has been subsumed by his greater passion for design, but he still pursues photography as a hobby and craft, occasionally shooting images for Device.

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Being very family-oriented, Clodfelter chose to stay in North Carolina to be close to his relatives. He married his high school girlfriend, Ashley, who works in the medical field, and they have three small children, Jaidon, Willow and Max. Today he lives in Winston-Salem, just sixteen miles from his hometown.

I asked Clodfelter’s first boss, Todd Kinley of Crobar Creative Leverage in Greensboro, what he thought of the designer when he hired him as an intern right out of college. “His spectacular talent didn’t show,” says Kinley, “until I gave him an all-type poster project for an account selling to architects and interior designers—the kind of audience that appreciates style, form, space and color. Most young designers get lost with type projects,” he adds, “so they make great teaching tools.”

Kinley said the challenge of the type poster triggered something in Clodfelter. When he finished it, Kinley knew he had someone special. “I felt like a basketball coach who suddenly realized he had young LeBron James on his team. When I told my peers that Ross could be the next Joe Duffy, they gave me a lot of tilted heads, squinty eyes and looks of disbelief. ‘He’s how old?’ ‘He went to school where?’”

After nearly three years at Crobar, Clodfelter landed the gig that would unite him with Cranford in 2008—at Wildfire Ideas in Winston-Salem, under the direction of Mike Grice. Within their first year, two of the pair’s Wildfire projects were featured on commarts.com, and in 2010, the team’s marketing campaign for Wake Forest University’s athletic department earned accolades in the Communication Arts Design Annual. “I hired them within months of each other, and they immediately shared a creative bond,” recalls Grice. “With each passing year here, they honed their skills and grew stronger as friends and colleagues.” Starting in 2009, occasional freelance work together led to more appearances in CA, marking their first steps toward formalizing their partnership in a business of their own.

Prompted by a keen desire to create real artifacts, the designers rescued a throwaway 1920s Chandler & Price letterpress and placed it in the basement of Krankies Coffee, a café popular with local Winston-Salem artists and creatives. In 2010, they named the print studio Device Printshop, where they began hosting workshops and producing small runs of business cards and posters in their spare time. The friends soon realized a shared passion and work ethic would make them strong business partners. In July 2012, they left Wildfire and opened Device Creative Collaborative.

“We started our business so we could have a more personal connection with our work,” says Cranford, “and we believe that many people want the same. With electronics, we spend too much time isolated from other human beings. So when we make an object, we want it to establish a human connection. We want people not only to buy it, but also believe in it and hold onto it.”

Our clients don’t want our look; they want our ideas. They want us to help them distinguish their brands in a way that connects at a human level.”—Shane Cranford

One member of their praising choir is Sarah Mason, an experienced writer who often collaborates with them. She spoke of one project, the Junior Johnson moonshine work, that embodies their passion. “These guys are never satisfied with an idea perfectly printed on a page or rendered on a flat screen. They want more. They give more. They bring good ideas to life, catapulting them off a page or screen and into personal experience. And that’s the ultimate goal of any designer.”

When you meet these two men, you’ll not hear boasts about awards. Clodfelter and Cranford want to talk about what they’re working on now. They’re unpretentious and humble, often dressing in shorts and plain black T-shirts. They even share the same e-mail address. Except for the fact that Cranford is tall and Clodfelter, comparatively, is not, it is hard to distinguish them.

“There are few differences between us in regards to design,” says Cranford. “We are both type junkies. We are both dreamers, and we both know how to turn our dreams into reality. Our responsibilities as designers and business owners are shared. From designing to taking out the garbage, we split the responsibilities fifty-fifty.”

They also share the same philosophy about design durability, says Cranford. “We started our own studio because we wanted to create stuff people would keep. We wanted to design things for people who understood the value of good design and custom details. My wife complains that I never throw anything away. Well, I do. I get rid of crap. But I keep the good stuff.”

When you are deeply involved in a client’s business, you are not an order-taker. You are equal partners.”—Ross Clodfelter

As for their signature sensibilities, Clodfelter adds, “Some say we have a distinct aesthetic. That may be so, but my view is that it’s constantly changing. Different clients, different needs, different approaches, different techniques. We just keep adding to our list of services as we get better and try new things.”

“What we see is not so much a house style,” explains Cranford, “but a consistent level of detail and craftsmanship. I think that’s what distinguishes us. Our clients don’t want our look; they want our ideas. They want us to help them distinguish their brands in a way that connects at a human level.”

Lisa Vorce is a discerning client who knows a good thing when she sees it. The renowned Los Angeles event planner has clients who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a wedding. In her business, she says, the invite is vital to launch any celebration. It cannot miss.

“The paper suite sets the tone and helps brand the event. It’s the first impression, so it’s of paramount importance. I believe in creating a story without an obvious logo, stamp or motif. Cranford and Clodfelter can do this in the most out-of-the-box creative ways. How much do I respect their work? I asked them to rebrand my company. They are the most talented team out there.”

Sophisticated and demanding clients such as Vorce are making Device better, faster and more versatile. This attracts startups trying to establish their core audiences, no matter who they are. Cranford and Clodfelter don’t get hired because they “get” the millennial generation. They get hired because they know how to connect with people.

Clodfelter says, “We want to be considered valued partners. We want to be considered professionals who clients trust with every facet of their branding, from logos to swizzle sticks. When you are deeply involved in a client’s business, you are not an order-taker. You are equal partners.”

Sarah LeRoy, senior vice president of marketing at Piedmont Distillers, makers of Midnight Moon, is one of those clients who views Device as a true partner. I asked her what she believed Device had brought to her company. Her response was suitable for framing:

“There is a depth to their design. It is rooted in a time, place and space. The Midnight Moon brand, for example, is inspired by the 1940s because that was Junior Johnson’s moonshining heyday—Midnight Moon is based on his family recipe. It would have been easy for Device to mimic design references from the time period—an old nostalgic gas station sign replacing Esso with Midnight Moon, but that’s not what they did. Rather, Shane and Ross did extensive research into the time period and understood its nuanced style. Their work reinterprets the decade’s design cues in a way that makes Midnight Moon relevant today, successfully positioning our brand as modern while maintaining its rich connection to history.

“Today, Midnight Moon is found on shelves in every state. Our explosive growth and mass-market acceptance has been fueled by Device’s branding. Women think it’s cute, and men think it’s cool. It’s the packaged-goods equivalent of Johnny Depp, with universal appeal. That’s extraordinarily difficult to do.”

Device Creative Collaborative is making the extraordinary look effortless. They are storytellers and craftsmen. And after only two years as business partners, they aren’t just making a mark on American design—they’re taking it to a whole new level. North Carolina’s craft traditions are alive and well. ca

Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.

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