It's two days after the US Presidential election, and Coudal Partners' own small attempt at influencing the outcome almost paid off. Rather than placing hectoring or impassioned pleas on their website, the forthright design studio created lowercasetees, a spin-off business selling T-shirts for kids. Two text designs were available: one proclaiming, "Mommy wants a new President", and the other, "I wouldn't vote for Bush if I were you."
"The funny thing is, we've actually sold a bunch of them in the last two days," says Jim Coudal, Coudal's affable founder. "We produced a lot more of the Mommy T-shirts as, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the Mommy message is still valid to a large part of the US."
While it may not be unusual for this "fairly traditional small design firm in Chicago" to launch a clothing design site, the political messages have caused a stir - as has the business, which went from idea to end product in just over two weeks. "We made a conscious effort about 18 months ago to find ways to take greater control over our creative output," says Coudal. "So last summer, we started Jewelboxing, to produce great-looking packaging for CDs and DVDs. That was one of the first examples of what we wanted to do."
A simple but effective idea, Jewelboxing gives designers and artists the chance to produce professional-looking CD/DVD cases. Coudal couples high-quality cases with precise design templates for every component, and sells both as a package.
"What's interesting is that the entire marketing plan for that was defi ned by us," Coudal explains. "We built it for us; we needed those cases for a project we were doing, and developed the entire thing with us in mind.
"Lowercasetees came more from the political situation in America. My wife came up with the idea at dinner, in fact, and then my seven-year-old daughter said that she'd like a shirt saying, 'I won't vote for Bush, I can't, but I wouldn't if I were you.' This was only a month before the election, so we had the idea, the shirts produced, the site built, the IP issues and everything sorted in about 15 days. Two weeks later, we broke even."
Predictably, lowercasetees attracted its share of negative feedback. "Some people, mostly Conservatives, have criticised us for putting a political message on a child, but my boy Spencer's mommy does want a new President, and my daughter Isobel wouldn't vote for Bush, so there's no exploitation at all there."
Although it launched at a fortuitous time, lowercasetees isn't a flash in the pan. Coudal intends to grow the brand in the same way as Jewelboxing: "We're using the attention from the political shirts as a way to build an ongoing brand for kids. If you search Google for kids' T-shirts you can click from now until next Tuesday before you find something you'd even put your kid in. It's a bunch of crap."
But 15 days? Really? "We worked hard on it. We had one person on the identity of the company, another on the shirt designs, another building the site, and another interfacing with a firm called Threadless, who are good friends of ours, to handle the quick production of the shirts. Then there was someone jockeying a spreadsheet to make sure we weren't making a terribly expensive mistake. We used PayPal for transactional stuff, because we didn't have time to do our own," says Coudal.
"I'm not sure we could have been successful if we had started it cold - if we didn't already have a built-in audience for Coudal Partners. So, yeah, it was a busy week. But without a client involved, creative can get done really quickly."
If you build it, they will come
Coudal's not boasting about the company's built-in audience - the website regularly pulls in 10,000 hits a day, and more on Fridays. The site looks more like a community portal than a design firm: there are blogs, discussions of Stanley Kubrick, book recommendations, photography submissions, short films... Indeed, just about everything but a standard portfolio.
"You have to do a little work to find out what we do," admits Coudal. "That was intentional from the beginning in 1999. We do great work and we love to show off our portfolio, but our experience is that assignments are given based on the dynamic between the people involved first, and the actual work you've done for other people second.
"So we've built our site as a way for a potential client to see what we're all about as people. Someone here once said: if you're chatting up a girl in a bar, the first thing you don't talk about is the other girls you've dated. And that's how we feel about the portfolio."
When the website launched, says Coudal, the company was trying to figure out the internet just like every else. Even before blogging became a recognised term, everyone on the team would post links and thoughts on an ad hoc basis.
"We saw the traffic patterns of our site go north all the time, so we thought, 'Well, that's interesting.' It's like that phrase from Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come," says Coudal. "Our whole thing is to turn that on its head and say, 'Well, if they come, we will build it.' We built the audience before we even knew what we wanted to do, and the site easily pays for itself. We have a unique policy for ads: we won't take an ad from an advertiser whose product we haven't paid for and used ourselves."
Identifying the "real" work
Coudal seems almost as modest about the company's "real" work as he is the website, casually tossing out the names of some huge projects. Roughly a third of their time is spent developing brand names, company names and identities. A third is advertising: "We do TV commercials, websites, print ads, all that sort of stuff, especially in sports." And the other third is indefi nable, involving projects such as Jewelboxing, lowercasetees, and so forth. "Jewelboxing is now our biggest client, which is interesting," says Coudal. One recent triumph is the naming and entire identity for a new fast-casual restaurant chain called Go Roma. "It's really high-end, quality food, it's growing fast, it's a major brand and a huge project for us. We're involved on a work-for-hire basis and also in a small participation in the success of the project."
To Coudal, the company's work for the Tom Peters Company is a perfect example of how building a community can lead to better results. Tom Peters is a well-known business guru in the States, yet the website wasn't performing as well as expected. "We immediately turned them into a portal and a blog. Their traffic went up fivefold. Tom's very popular, but they didn't realise that all they needed was to have him personally post to the site."
Coudal Partners has also just rebuilt a network of sites for Fox in Chicago, while rebranding and renaming "a big Chicago biz media company, which we can't talk about." Actually, there's a lot Coudal can't talk about: "Lately we're being brought in early in a product's development," he explains. "Sometimes, no-one else knows we're doing it, we hand over the creative, and we walk away never knowing what happened to it."
Thank God it's Friday
Lowercasetees isn't the first project to have made Coudal Partners "instantly" famous. That project occurred a few years ago when the studio unleashed the concept of Photoshop Tennis on the world. It's simple enough: two designers send an image back and forth, adding one layer for each turn, each trying to outdo the other. Games can last for hours, and the winner emerges when everyone's had enough. It's frenetic, demanding, sometimes cruel and huge fun to watch as the image develops.
So, Jim, when's it coming back? "I'm not at liberty to tell you that..." he says mock-ominously. "That was a catalyst to our success on the web. When that was at its peak, we were doing 35,000 people for a match on Friday. I think it will come back."
But why on earth was it so popular? And why hadn't anyone thought of it before? "It captured people's imagination. We hired witty smartasses to write commentary in real time, which added a whole other layer. Also, as designers, we all work in our quiet little offices and do work for our quiet little clients, and have small victories here and there. We compete with each other in broad, general ways, in terms of businesses, but we never compete as individuals.
"And, more importantly, it was scheduled on Friday afternoon, and no-one schedules anything on the web... It's guaranteed that if and when Photoshop Tennis comes back, it'll be on Friday afternoons - because, frankly, no-one's working anyway."
"It's always Friday afternoon, all around the world. People have decided, 'Well, that's all I've got for this week'." Coudal pauses, then adds wryly: "After all, if you're looking to go online and waste time, Coudal is a very good place to do it."