Duration: Three and a half years.
Location: New York, New York.
Key creatives: Jose Fresneda and Justin Colt. Justin grew up in the backwoods of State College, Pennsylvania, and Jose hails from the city of Bogotà, Colombia. Both Jose and Justin received an MFA in graphic design from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan, New York.
Career path: Jose used to work for the studio Dark Igloo while Justin worked at Milton Glaser, Inc. Both Dark Igloo and Milton Glaser, Inc. worked for clients they respected and went after the work they wanted. So when we started The Collected Works, we took what we learned from these studios and applied it to our own. At SVA, we connected with talented designers and enterpreneurs who had amazing networks. Through these networks, we introduced ourselves to people we wanted to work with—focusing on art, music and culture clients. From there, more of the work we were interested in making started to find us, including for New York–based startups, musicians and music festivals.
Favorite projects: A couple come to mind. The first is Day of the Dead, a massive Grateful Dead tribute album we completed in 2016. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National brought together some of their (and our) favorite musicians to reinterpret the Dead’s songs, releasing them as an epic ten-vinyl box set. We designed and developed the whole system, including all the packaging, animations, apparel, posters, collateral and website. This will always be one of our favorite projects; not only did we get to do work for musicians we’ve looked up to our whole lives, but also the project, which was produced by the Red Hot Organization, raised a ton of money for HIV/AIDS awareness and support.
Another favorite client was The Meadows, a music festival that debuted in New York City in 2016. We were already interested in working on a music festival, but it was even cooler to get in on the ground floor and work with a festival from the beginning. The Meadows needed everything from a logo to festival posters to sweet apparel, and we defined and designed a tight system that unified all these pieces. Then we got to go to the festival and hang out backstage like rockstars.
Work environment: Our studio is located on the ground floor of Milton Glaser’s building in Manhattan. It’s a small space filled with books, random things we’ve found and think are cool, a couple of drones we fly around and an HTC Vive—as we do work for some virtual reality clients. It’s typically four of us: Justin, Jose and an intern or two.
We keep our workforce diverse culturally: Jose is from Colombia, Justin is from Pennsylvania and all of our interns, whom have mostly been women, have come from different parts of the world. We surround ourselves with people we can learn a lot from—and who don’t mind our pretty dumb sense of humor. We also hire our friends and hit up artists we respect for collaborations. Overall, the studio approach has always been to stay small, staffing up when we have bigger projects and slimming down when we don’t.
Approach: When we first started the studio, we told ourselves that we wouldn’t have a specific aesthetic. Not only did we not want to be typecast as a studio that can only do a certain type of work, but also we weren’t especially talented in any one style. It’s more interesting for us to work with a range of clients on a bunch of diverse projects that, hopefully, end up looking completely different. Our real strength is designing systems for these clients, simplifying their design problems and then unifying all the pieces of the puzzle.
Philosophy: Everything is a design problem. Anything a company, person or project wants to achieve can be broken down into a design challenge. We’ve looked at running a business as a design problem: how to select clients, how we make money and how we help others. It’s an incredibly empowering realization and has changed how we look at the world.
For other people starting a studio, ask yourself from the beginning: What does success look like? This answer is different for everyone, so make sure you’re working towards your own definition of success. Stay small, but look big. Keep your overhead low to stay afloat, and eventually, the clients you want will start to find you. Feel lucky. We’re incredibly lucky to make money doing a job we love—a large majority of the world can’t say that. Lastly, be interesting. That’s half the battle right there.