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AMA: Helen Rice, Founder / Creative Director at Fuzzco

almost 3 years ago from , Creative Director at Fuzzco

Hello! I'm Helen Rice, founder and creative director at Fuzzco, a creative agency in Charleston, SC and Portland, OR.

Fuzzco is the only real job I've ever had. I taught myself the Adobe Creative Suite (including Flash) when I was working as an artist back in 2003. I think I spent as much time designing postcards and working on my website as I did painting. Long story short my then boyfriend (now husband and business partner) and I decided to combine forces to start Fuzzco in 2005. We had no idea what we were doing.

We figured things out along the way. You can see some of our work here, including our recently launched photography portfolio.

In 2013, we started Pretend Store which has come to house products and brands that we create in house. My favorite product right now is E.d'E. Black - one of our unisex perfumes. We created the scent with MCMC Fragrances in Brooklyn and designed the brand, brand story and packaging. We just had our first pop-up for the store which was a blast.

In 2015, we opened our office in Portland.

During the 11.5 years we've been in business we've moved offices seven times. You can see a few of the renovations we worked on here.

I'll start answering questions at 11:00am ET (6/30). Ask me anything!

33 comments

  • Max LindMax Lind, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen! - thanks for joining us. :)

    • What does the Fuzzco toolset look like? (design tools, project management, resource calendar, time tracking, etc...especially as it relates to the seperate offices)
    • With the recently launched photography portfolio, is it a new focus entirely or more like something you see an opportunity to push?
    • The idea behind Pretend Store is great, talk a bit more about how do you see it growing and where you'd like to take it.
    • What's the coolest and/or most random thing on the internet you keep coming back to as of late? (could be a website, service, album on Spotify, etc)
    2 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi!

      • We design in illustrator mainly and will on occasion get into Photoshop. We just did our first project in Sketch which has been a learning curve but we get it. Our project managers use a combination of Trello, Goes to Work, Google Drive & Docs and Slack.
      • We've been offering photography for a couple years now. We see it as a way to approach being fully responsible for a brand. So often we were creating identities and websites that we loved and the photography wasn't quite there. Now we can help with that too.
      • We are loving Pretend Store. Our process is completely organic at this point. We would love to see it grow and become more independent from Fuzzco. Right now we are working on figuring out how to make it financially sustainable without limiting ourselves too much creatively.
      • I can't get over Smoothie the cat - insanely cute. I'm obsessed with cats.
      0 points
  • Niamh Falter, almost 3 years ago

    Hi Helen! I'm a huge fan of Fuzzco's work. One re-branding that stands out to me in particular is the work you and your team did for The Kickin' Chicken; I love the colors that were used and I think you hit the nail on the head as far as keeping the brands' original feeling and updating it to something a little bit more fun and timeless. Plus, that icon set is just so freaking cute!

    I'll go ahead and be forward, I'm planning to apply as an intern to Fuzzco very soon, and like you I'm completely self-taught. Personally I think I have a style that stands out as something which would be really synergistic with the work that Fuzzco does, but I'm concerned that my lack of real-world experience will make me come across as less passionate or ready for the job.

    What would you recommend I do to show that I am capable and ready, despite the lack of past design experience?

    Thanks so much for doing this AMA!

    -Niamh

    2 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Niamh!

      Awesome! I'd recommend only showing the work that you are really proud of, even if it's just a few things. You can always bolster your portfolio with personal projects. I'd also love to see what you are interested in outside of design. What do you care about? What are you obsessed with? Who do you look up to? What do you hope to get out of the internship? How hungry are you? Real-world experience is helpful but so is life experience.

      2 points
      • Niamh Falter, almost 3 years ago

        That's great advice, I'll work on injecting a bit more of my personality and other interests into my application!

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, have a great day!

        1 point
  • Daniel Steik, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Fuzzco is so great. I love that you guys take on such varied projects. You're always doing something new and interesting. Such cool stuff with Pretend Store and Content and Candor (I didn't realize that was you guys), not to mention the interesting client work.

    I've heard Fuzzco doesn't allow designers to do freelance work. I've never heard of any employer doing that, and I'm wondering what the reasoning is. I know most designers working at cool studios have to supplement their income with freelance work. Maybe you compensate your designers differently because of this rule?

    Thanks!

    1 point
    • Helen RiceHelen Rice, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

      Hi Daniel!

      Thanks so much.

      Every studio strikes this balance differently, and we’ve settled on something that has worked well for us.

      Designers want to work with us so they can work on a broad range of really interesting projects for all kinds of clients. We work with everyone from Google to the sandwich shop around the corner, and everything in between. Many designers working at other studios with less diverse ranges of clients and projects freelance not just to make money but to add this type of diversity of work to their experience.

      This is an environment where our designers get their hands on a ton of projects and in some indirect ways this policy enables us to support working with smaller clients and keeps the work more interesting. As a result everyone here benefits from the variety. We also compensate our designers well, give out performance bonuses and referral compensation, have a strong parental leave policy, and recently initiated a profit sharing plan for everyone in the company.

      The approach has its pros and cons like any other, but we’ve found that the overall balance has worked well.

      1 point
  • Andrew AskinsAndrew Askins, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen, love the work you all do. I run a little software design and development company (also in SC) called Krit. One of the things I've been struggling with lately is how we can help increase our client's chances of being successful after working with us. My long term goal is for working with Krit to be like activating cheat codes for building a product.

    Right now I feel like we've got the design and development side down pretty well. And we're working on honing those skills every day, but we know how to improve there. What I want to figure out is what the other things are that we need to do to help our clients be successful. Do we need to pick our clients more carefully? Do we need to spend more time helping them to validate what they're working on? Do we need to offer marketing services, or help connect them to people who do?

    I know that's a hard question, but would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    1 point
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Andrew,

      This is really hard! We've run into the same issues. We've approached this problem in different ways - we've had clients put us on retainer for ongoing work, we've developed detailed brand guides and training manuals in the hopes that they are followed, we've been on call to review things that a client does independently and we've also been completely hands off. All of these solutions have had different results and very much depend on who the client is.

      I think the answer is that it's different for every project but there are some things that you can do to help. Brand guides and training manuals help. Periodic checkins help (and clients seem to love them). If you are able to structure an ongoing relationship with a client that is probably the best as far as keeping up the integrity of the brand/website but not every client can afford this. There are also choices you can make during the design/dev that can make it easier/harder for a client to maintain the work. For example, if you create an identity system with too many moving parts it may be really confusing to the client. What it all comes down to is communication. A client should have a clearly defined program and understand the extensions and the boundaries - and when to contact you when they need something. A client should also know that their brand and site are alive and very much like a new car - when you drive it off the lot, anything can happen. The expectation should be set that repairs will be needed at some point in order to keep the car/brand/site in top form. Sorry for the cheesy analogy.

      3 points
  • Mr Kyle MacMr Kyle Mac, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Office spaces, identity / brand, digital experiences.. to even the flavour of your website copy — I always feel the Fuzzco touch no matter what I eye-ball!

    What's the Fuzzco-method behind designing such a personable, cross functional, level of aesthetic? Can you share any 'red rules/values' you use when approaching each project?

    ps. (Hi Helen!)

    1 point
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Kyle!

      Thanks!

      The Fuzzco-method is based on taking things personally, working really really hard and letting intuition help guide the work.

      • Before the project even starts we ask the question - do we think we can do great work for this client? I really think that is the most important step.
      • We feel personally invested in the projects we take on. We put an incredible amount to work into our projects. We are very efficient and decisive.
      • We value our instincts immensely and we make it a point not to overthink things.
      3 points
  • Kimberly Patt, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Hi Helen,

    I love all of the work that you folks at Fuzzco produce. I recently graduated college, what is the best advice that you can give those of us just entering "the real world"? What do you like to see in a portfolio? What don't you like to see?

    What is the most challenging project you have worked on at Fuzzco? And what is your favorite project? I would love to hear some of your insights about web design as well.

    Thank you for doing this AMA.

    Best, Kim

    1 point
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Kimberly,

      I'd encourage you to go work at a small studio. You'll get to wear more hats than you would at a big place and get more exposure to the nitty gritty parts of the job. Make it a priority to become great friends with your project manager (if you have one). The better your relationship, the healthier the communication the more fulfilled you'll be and the better the work will be.

      Consistency in the work is very important to see in a portfolio. I look for a strong design aesthetic that aligns with ours and I love seeing a lot of identity work.

      There have been so many challenging projects for so many different reasons. As we've gotten more experience things have tended to become less challenging / more expected, which is nice. Gosh... my favorite project... so hard. Right now we're working on a bunch of fun things - we're working with Montessorium on some really fun projects , we're also working on a suite of identities for a hotel in Charleston which is really exciting.

      0 points
  • Austin PriceAustin Price, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Hi Helen!

    Thanks for taking some time to answer some questions. I'm a huge fan of Fuzzco's work.

    What are some key processes do you go through with clients to start projects?

    Also, what's your favorite coffee shop in Charleston?

    1 point
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Austin,

      We ask a ton of questions on the front end to really get to know the client, the business and the project. We create mood boards to communicate about design in a visual way. We set up a detailed schedule that we follow to get the project done on time. We set client's expectations on what the process will be like and how we'll be collaborating with them along the way.

      My favorite coffee shop - it'd have to be a toss up between The Daily and Black Tap.

      0 points
  • Linsey Peterson, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen,

    One thing that stands out about Fuzzco to me is that you're always doing really cool work for really awesome companies. I've worked in the digital agency world for a few years now, both for companies that 'attract' the type of clients that love to do the exciting, fun work that inspires us to create and we love to provide, as well as companies with a lot of talent but we tend to get stuck doing a lot of mundane work for clients that really don't get on the same page with us creatively.

    Do you have any advice for young companies learning to position themselves to find the right type of work and clients?

    Thanks so much!

    1 point
    • Helen RiceHelen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Great question. When we started we took on anything and everything. I would suggest anyone else starting out to do the same thing. You learn so much in the process. Every project - no matter how mundane - is an opportunity to do something great.

      You aren't going to want to share all of the work you do at first because some of it will not be the type of work you wish you were doing. You want to put the things in your portfolio that you want to do more of.

      3 points
  • J LiJ Li, almost 3 years ago

    Hi Helen!

    I love your products; been following your work for a while now.

    • What were some of your biggest challenges during the 11.5 years?
    • Why are you so successful?
    1 point
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi! Thanks!

      • So many challenges. Figuring out how to manage a team has been the hardest and maybe the most rewarding.
      • Successful? I think because we have very high standards and we work extremely hard.
      0 points
  • Hayden MillsHayden Mills, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen!

    Fuzzco does a really great job of communicating each clients unique brand and message through design. What is the process like at Fuzzco for understanding who the client is and their mission before starting the design process? How do you communicate this with the rest of the Fuzzco team working on the project?

    Thanks!

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Hayden,

      We have several meetings with a client before we start. We ask a ton of questions and make sure that everyone understands the project goals. We always have a kickoff where everyone on the project joins. We have a project lead and a project manager who make sure that the project goals are top of mind as the work happens. We also use Slack like crazy.

      0 points
  • Bobby GeorgeBobby George, almost 3 years ago

    Can you do your written text interpretation of Wiley, Geraldine and Goose? Please!

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Wiley: TTTuuumpff TTTTuumpfff TTummpf Pfrmpf

      Geraldine: MMieee Meeeeem teep teep teep feemp

      Goosey: Heeyyyy Heyyyyy hey hey hi hi hi hey hey hey now now mine mine mine

      0 points
  • Jon HargreavesJon Hargreaves, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Hi Helen!

    I absolutely love all of the work that you and Josh have done with Fuzzco over the years. The design work at Fuzzco is always so refreshing and very unique, which I think sets a great example for designers. Also, thank you for taking the time to answer questions today. :)

    • When you first started Fuzzco, how did you and Josh start building a client base?

    • What is your favorite part about living in Charleston?

    • Who are your top 3 favorite painters?

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Jonathan!

      :) <3

      • We were constantly looking for opportunities to do work. We took on anything and everything. We worked for very little and often for free and we took very good care of our clients.
      • My friends and family, the architecture, the heat and the small size of the city.
      • I love Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Francis Bacon - my answer might be different tomorrow.
      1 point
  • Art VandelayArt Vandelay, almost 3 years ago (edited almost 3 years ago )

    Thanks for doing an AMA!

    Would love to know how y'all managed the growth of the business, in terms of clients and employees? When did you know it was the right time?

    Also - any stories of times that y'all didn't do it "right"?

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Art,

      We grew pretty organically. We always had more work than we needed which helped. We were never sure it was the right time to grow, we just did what felt right according to what we thought we needed, and after lots and lots of conversations. It was incredibly stressful.

      Man, we've gotten so many things wrong. We've hired the wrong people, charged too little for work, order way too many products for Pretend Store, signed off on print jobs with errors, adopted a neighborhood cat, etc.

      0 points
  • Rachel MerskyRachel Mersky, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen! I often site you and Josh as my career heroes and am so impressed that you have turned making cool shit with people you love into a successful business and lifestyle. Major kudos!

    I tried doing this myself years ago, directly out of school, with my best friend at the time. We started getting work and doing projects, we even got ourselves an office, but then halfway through our first year, my partner bailed and I wasn't able to keep it afloat by myself. I attributed it to us not having enough proper work experience in the field, but apparently it's ~totally possible~ given your story.

    • What would you say was the biggest challenge you guys had to face when you were first starting out (like, the first year)?
    • What resources did you use along the way to ~figure it out~ along the way?
    • At what point did you really feel that you were doing the work that you wanted to be doing?

    Thanks!

    (unrelated- shit, Smoothie the cat is the best)

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hi Rachel,

      Thank you!

      I will say that it was really hard during the first years - and by that I mean it's still really hard. I don't think I could have done it alone at all. Josh and I have an incredible relationship and we really depend on each other to make it happen.

      The biggest challenge was finding work and then how to convince people that they should pay us to do it. We struggled so much with how to bill for our work. We had to figure everything out - rates, contracts, scope of work, scheduling, negotiating, sticking up for the work, etc. We had other jobs for the first two years so it was also balancing all of that.

      We didn't know anyone who did what we were doing so we tried to meet people in our industry here in Charleston. That ended up being kind of helpful - people tended to keep things pretty close to the chest so we had to make a lot of it up on our own. We iterated and iterated on our processes, for years! We're still changing how we do things. It never ends! People are the best resources. There are books out there that are good too, like these and like this although to be honest I haven't read them.

      We've become more focused in the last few years - more aware and deliberate about the kinds of things we actually want to be doing which feels great.

      One day I want Fuzzco to be the kind of company that people come to for creative experiences. We'll still do branding and web and content but they will be more of the means to an end. I want to help create the business, the product, the bigger picture. That's where the really interesting opportunities are. That would be fun.

      1 point
  • Tyler Cecchi, almost 3 years ago

    Hey Helen thanks for doing this AMA!

    What advice would you give to help designers and developers succeed in smaller markets like Charleston where opportunities are more limited than in larger cities?

    0 points
    • Helen Rice, almost 3 years ago

      Hey Tyler,

      I'd say to embrace the difficulties - maybe they will force you to work differently and maybe that will be a good thing. We've felt limited by being in Charleston in some ways, but have traded those limitations for things that we would have never found in a larger city.

      0 points
  • tu patu pa, almost 3 years ago

    Hi Helen, hope you're still answering questions. I've seen some of your work, and they're absolutely amazing!

    Today, I'd like to ask you some questions regarding emotions.

    • At this very moment, what is your mood? Mine happy because you're doing this AMA. Thank you so much xD!

    • How do you define the meaning of the word "emotion"?

    • How it affects your work, especially on graphic design. And are there some advices you want to give us in designing for emotion?

    Wish you a great day with us, thanks Helen!

    0 points