Alphabetica is one of our favorite design studios in Boston—and not just because they happen to be our roomies here at 43K global headquarters. Alphabetica rocks thanks to a killer portfolio that spans some of Boston’s best higher ed players, from Harvard University to MIT. Founder Chris DeFrancesco gave us the lowdown on how he and his team keep the creative juices flowing.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOU STARTED ALPHABETICA?
I worked as a senior designer at a firm called Studio E. We focused primarily on education work. I was there for roughly seven years. I was the longest-running employee they ever had before someone beat me out of that title shortly after I left.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW IT WAS TIME TO STRIKE OUT ON YOUR OWN?
Studio E was a small company—about three to five people. I had hit the ceiling there and realized that I had two choices: move to a bigger company or break out and do my own thing. I decided that building something on my own was the right move.
LOOKING BACK ON ALPHABETICA’S WORK, WHAT PROJECTS MAKE YOU THE MOST PROUD?
I don't have a favorite. But the most memorable projects are the ones that start off small—that on the surface feel like “bread and butter” work—but eventually grow into something bigger. And I'm not talking about bigger budgets. I love when we collaborate with a client to take a small idea and develop it into something really big and fun and exciting for everybody.
YOU’VE CREATED CAMPAIGNS FOR SOME HEAVY-HITTING CLIENTS OVER THE YEARS. WHAT’S YOUR PROCESS FOR KEEPING THE CREATIVE FRESH?
It's all about building on past experience. Every time we start a new project, we build on what we've learned from other clients and other work to further refine our process. We’re constantly trying to evolve the way we work to make it the best it can be. That process often needs to change based on the client, and that variability helps us remain agile. We're always looking at things from a different perspective.
HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE MARKET CHANGE SINCE YOU STARTED YOUR BUSINESS?
I started Alphabetica in 2008 in literally the worst economy we’ve had in a long time. But because we’re small, we’ve been lucky enough to see continued growth every year. Almost all of our work is in the education and non-profit sectors, so our market and our clients haven’t really changed. One thing that has changed is that many education clients are relying more on in-house talent for small projects. They’re approaching third parties like us for the “bigger" stuff.
WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY WHEN IT COMES TO WORKING WITH WRITERS AND OTHER CREATIVE PARTNERS?
The first thing we always want to establish is who owns the project. Is it ours? Is it our creative partner's? The answer sets the stage for the working process. At Alphabetica, we have a specific way of working, and we know our partners do, too. We’re not bullies. We’re really good at adapting to other working styles, and it’s important to us that everybody get along in the way that’s best for reaching a common goal.
SPEAKING OF BEING PART OF A TEAM, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS?
If you can’t mold yourself to work and play well with others, you’re going to be a solo designer for the rest of your life. The big projects I want to work on I can’t do by myself. I need other people who can bring different skill sets to the table. Together, we’re going to do a better job. You have to be open to other people’s ideas.
WHAT’S ALPHABETICA’S ONE-SENTENCE ELEVATOR PITCH?
Alphabetica is a design collaborative that crafts digital products, websites, and print communications for the world’s leading educational institutions.
ASIDE FROM YOUR CREATIVE TALENTS, IF YOU COULD HAVE ANY SUPERPOWER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I’d want to be invisible. It would be the ultimate alone time.
IMPORTANT FINAL QUESTION: SOUTHWEST, JETBLUE, OR VIRGIN AMERICA?
Definitely Virgin America. I’ve only flown with them a few times, but the experience was top notch.
Learn more about Chris and his team of design superstars at alphabeticadesign.com.