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The Case of the New, Aged Designer

An old friend can design like a fiend, but at what cost?

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Briderlite Signs’ success centered on sign design. Years back, President Don Brider hired twins Amy and Lynn Topp, fresh from art school, for the art department. The young women immediately excelled at sign layout. Their mastery of CorelDraw, Photoshop and CAD-based programs drove the department, earning them the title of “Twin Pistons.”

As a bonus, while creative people can be a tad moody, the twins had level temperaments and worked well under pressure. Additionally, they were great with clients, who sat with them to see designs evolve.
During this “Golden Age” at Briderlite, Don Brider oversaw production, while brother, Ted, commanded installation and sister, Sue, managed sales. Their complementary management skills, combined with the design expertise of the Twin Pistons, made the Briderlite engine hum.

The harmony ended one day when Amy Topp assembled upper brass to meet. She explained that while she and Lynn loved working at Briderlite, a new opportunity had arisen. A cousin was selling a small sign company and their father was lending them money to buy it. They had never considered leaving Briderlite, but the offer was irresistible.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LAWRIN ROSEN is the president of ARTfx (Bloomfield, CT). Email him at [email protected]

The Briders pleaded for reconsideration. They enumerated the difficulties in running a small business and offered the twins substantial raises to stay. However, the lure of business ownership proved decisive. Respectfully, they submitted a two-month notice.

The Briders ran ads online and hired employment services to find competent design help prior to the twins’ departure. As time passed, they continued using freelancers. However, clients accustomed to working directly with Amy and Lynn grew restless. A few even jumped ship to work with the twins and their new company.

Just then, Don Brider received a call from one of the sign industry’s leading designers, Anton Balanito. Apparently, Anton, who had worked with Don years back at a local sign company, was returning home to assist his aging parents. Anton had been recruited afar by one of the world’s largest sign companies, Continental Sign Erectors. At Continental, he ascended to art director, overseeing the most formidable sign programs.

In his call, Anton inquired about a work position. Although Don remembered Anton as temperamental, hiring him for design seemed like a no-brainer. Briderlite was desperate and Balanito was available. He accepted an instant offer from his old workmate, which equaled the Topp sisters’ salaries combined.

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A month later when Anton arrived at Briderlite, Don was shocked seeing the world-famous designer for the first time in years. Once a slim, squeaky clean-shaven geek who dressed in a blue blazer, grey slacks, and bow tie, Anton was now tattooed from his bulging arms to his size-18 neck. His face, what little appeared through a bushy beard and mop of blue-dyed hair, was abuzz with piercings. In place of the old sport blazer was a black T-shirt emblazoned with a mysterious symbol comprising a stylized fish, a hatching egg and an onion cluster. Encircling the peculiar graphic, bold letters read, “BLESSED BY SARKOON.”

Anton pulled Don into a tight bear hug and bellowed, “Great to see you, buddy! It’s been too long. I’m gonna help you with some super sign design.” Speechless, with mouths agape, Ted and Sue stepped back. Don, attempting to gain composure, managed to reply meekly, “Great to see you, too, Anton. My God, you look different.”

“Well Don, it’s a long story, but you probably remember my temper-management issues. Over at Continental, the HR manager referred me to specialists promoting a new science — Cognitive Tranquility Reprogramming. That’s how I met renowned CTR guru, Henrique Sarkoon. The rest is history.”

“O-kay…” responded Don. “By the looks of things, I imagine you went through intensive therapy.”

“No,” Anton countered. “It came down to diet. I was eating pure junk. Now, I limit my intake to fish — usually walleye and free-range eggs with healthy toppings of fermented Vidalia onions.” He then explained, “I feel like a million bucks, I have a worldwide group of friends and my volatility has subsided. I can’t thank Dr. Sarkoon enough!”

The Brider siblings led him to his new office, where the twins had sat. Once in, Anton reached into a duffle bag, fetching a clump of sage that he lit afire and shouted, “Nasty spirits… cast yourselves to the netherworld!”

Sensing uneasiness from Ted and Sue, Don pulled them out of the office, saying over his shoulder, “We’ll let you settle in, Anton. These guys will stop back shortly. They’d love to see your portfolio!”
Once in the hallway, Ted and Sue accosted Don. “What in God’s name were you thinking?” Sue burst out. “This guy is a full-fledged nut job!”

“Do you really think clients will like him?” Ted asked.

“Guys, he’s eccentric, but trust me, he designs like a fiend,” Don said, adding, “Anyway, who’s perfect? At least he’s friendly.”

An hour later, Ted and Sue returned to Anton’s office; he was hunched over, fast asleep. “Anton,” Sue called out while tapping his shoulder. “We wanted to see your work, but you’re snoring away on your first day. Geez!”

“Oh, oh, oh,” Anton stammered. “It was the plane flight. I’m bushed — sorry about the extra Z’s! I feel dopey. Anyway, come… check out my work.” Ted and Sue were instantly silenced by Anton’s remarkable sign sketches. Don was right. The guy was talented.

The two then brought their new art director to meet their staff, who greeted him with polite smiles concealing surprise. Anton eagerly “shook” hands — three fist-bumps followed by a deadly, two-handed palm crunch.

At lunch that day, a new odor wafted from Briderlite’s cafeteria and through the offices, art room and shop. In the microwave sat steaming a heaping serving of walleye, quail eggs and fermented onions.

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The Big Questions

  • What, if anything, should the Briderlite management team do about their eccentric new designer?
  • Attempt to tactfully groom Anton’s workplace habits at the risk of upsetting his “chi?”
  • Or cut their potential losses immediately?
Todd W.
Reisterstown, MD

My thoughts would be to see if you can set him up remotely in a design space and utilize his design expertise while isolating his personal habits from the rest of the team. The skills can be valuable, but you don’t want to disrupt the workflow of the office.

Elaine S.
Clearwater, FL

This is not an issue limited to our industry. Historically, it is not uncommon for people to judge the book by the cover. However, when we do that we miss out on opportunities to meet the brightest, most intelligent and creative people. And it doesn’t stop with tattoos. Hairstyle, hair color, height, weight, speech impediments or accents and ethnicity have unfortunately factored into hiring decisions for years. As a society we are improving, but we still have a long way to go.

Edward S.
Mt. Morris, MI

I always think in terms of “best case, worst case” when considering major decisions. As such, best case he would create really great designs; that is the major key to closing a sale and producing the work. Worst case, he would “freak out” some customers who might get offended by his eccentricities.

To that, I say, “Welcome aboard. Let’s get this company back on track, get the creativity flowing, set the new design standard in town and make some real money.” Business is business and get over it.

Theresa C.
Plano, TX

Embrace the eccentricity! Introduce him as “our Sign Guru.”

Jake Z.
Randolph, VT

As long as he gets along well with everyone he needs to work with and he is getting his work done, there is literally no problem here. I can see how a total straight-arrow manager with little experience dealing with artistic personalities might be a little nervous meeting a guy like this, but this is a graphics shop we are talking about here (as a manager of a creative space, you should want your people to be a little colorful). I don’t really see how getting a real artist to do design work could possibly be a bad thing, particularly when you know he does stellar work (and gets it done when it needs to be done). Just point him in a direction, get out of the way, and enjoy the show.

And maybe ask him to smudge your office between naps and design sessions. Sounds like your stress levels could use some smudging.

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Lawrin Rosen founded ARTfx Signs (Bloomfield, CT) in 1983. The company focuses on artistically based production of signs, awnings, architectural elements and corporate art. Contact Lawrin at [email protected].

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