“Here is the key to all of this: in a small-town like Lancaster, which is highly collaborative, your name is all you have. If you make one bad move, word gets around really quick.”—Ryans Smoker + Martin
Ryan Smoker + Ryan Martin: Principals + Creative Directors, The Infantree / Lancaster PA
“here is the key to all of this: in a small-town like lancaster, which is highly collaborative, your name is all you have. if you make one bad move, word gets around really quick.”—ryans smoker + martin
How do you establish a large footprint when you’re in Lancaster, PA?
We were in Brooklyn a few weeks ago visiting several different studios, and it surprised us that people in Brooklyn knew where Lancaster was. Well, no one in Brooklyn is from Brooklyn. It’s like San Francisco.
Field Trip to Brooklyn
courtesy of the infantree
Lancaster has really blossomed over the past few years. A lot of people think, “Oh, we know the Amish.” But Lancaster is definitely becoming a place with an arts and culture scene. It’s like a weird microcosm. Lititz and downtown Lancaster are riding that small-town title, and it’s bringing people in. When I worked in Philadelphia, I couldn’t imagine ever doing the kind of work that we are doing in Lancaster. We enjoy seeing the work that comes out of the new maker culture, and how it has taken off. But Lancaster has been doing that for the last 300 years, and it’s what Lancaster has always done: canning food, knife grinding, making sustainable goods that are passed down from generation to generation. The industrial age came late to Lancaster, and we’ve seen a lot of the effects from it, but there is still a culture of people who want to do things with their hands. That’s why I think we’ve had a lot of artists emerge here before heading off to New York, or Baltimore, or Seattle, or Portland. We sometimes forget that we are not just in podunk Lancaster anymore.
Did you guys decide to stay in Lancaster on purpose?
We like being big fish in a small pond. The truth is, we grew up in the county and tried to leave. We are both from here, but didn’t know each other growing up. We met in the Communications Design program at Kutztown University. In college, we found out that we worked well together. We benefit from each other’s skill sets. Collectively, we worked at six different agencies in five years prior to starting Infantree. We worked out of Philadelphia and Reading before slowly shifting back toward Lancaster. However, when the rest of your family is in a small-town somewhere, even though you try to leave, it eventually sucks you back in. Natives want to move to the metropolitan area. We talked about it, but it never happened. Ryan and I both married young and started families, so we realized that we would be in Lancaster for a while. We stayed and started a business because we wanted to do something with creative freedom. Plus nowadays, designers can get clients from anywhere.
That all happened somewhat by accident. We tried to gain as much knowledge as we could in the field prior to starting our own business. Then Ryan and I both left our jobs to give the Infantree a whirl. We each had our own individual clients for a while, and we were able to gravitate toward the stuff that we were good at. Eventually, we merged our client portfolios, which benefited both us and our clients. In the beginning, we didn’t have huge budgets, but our clients gave us freedom to do a lot of things.
We’re fortunate that Lancaster is in this period of resurgence. When I was in high school in the late ’90s, there was nothing here worth coming to see. When I came back after college, I saw that things were starting to happen. By the time we started the Infantree, First Fridays started kicking off, and are now a big deal downtown. The restaurant scene has opened up, galleries have really taken off, and schools are bringing in lots of young artists. There is energy and vibrancy in Lancaster now, with people to sustain it. Downtown Lancaster has really started to become a community. In fact, if you took Lancaster and multiplied it a couple of times, we’d be like Brooklyn. There is now enough arts and culture here that satisfies the creative niche that creatives need to stick around. And that was huge for us in starting a business together, because the Infantree has never advertised or marketed. All of our business has been word-of-mouth through the clients that we have. All of the work that has come to us is because we are local; it started small, and grew. We’ve spent six years developing the business, but now we can shape it to be what we want it be.
One of the things that I kept coming back to about Lancaster, is the connectivity. Everyone is connected to one another. It is a small-town for design. Everybody comes together and says, “Here’s what I can do. How I can be a part of it?” Lancaster is kind of like a giant collaboration as a town.
Here is the key to all of this: In a small-town like Lancaster, which is highly collaborative, your name is all you have. If you make one bad move, word gets around really quick. We’ve realized that in the small-town setting, we need to treat everyone with the respect and dignity that everybody deserves, no matter the size or budget of the client, because if we screw up, we’ll be out of business the next day. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere—especially bigger metropolitan areas. Any larger agency can fire someone for their failures, or even move operations elsewhere entirely, whereas the Infantree cannot do that. Any one of our employee’s fault is our fault collectively. Our client base is mostly all in one place. Ryan and I started this thing, but we are no more important than the team that we have. Our reputation in the community is extremely important for us in making the collaborative team work. Our team either succeeds together or it fails together.
courtesy of the infantree
How do you structure your team?
Every person on our team is a designer first, and their individual disciplines are secondary. For instance, Kasey is the Project Manager, and Betsy works at the front desk handling all the admin stuff, but both Kasey and Besty also do design. Each member of our eight-person team has a design background. Kasey and Betsy are also in a lot of the meetings. All of our employees often attend client meetings. It’s not a “don’t look behind the curtains” deal. We really want our clients to be a part of the creative process from start to finish.
We always pick on agencies. Agencies will often go for the WOW, and once they win the account and clink their champagne glasses, the creative brief gets filtered down to the designers. And the designers are like, “What are we making? Why does this matter?” Our hope is to keep the levels as flat as possible. We want our clients to know our designers. We want them to be able to talk to everyone. I don’t think the Infantree ever wants to lose that, even if we go to twenty people. As businesses scale, they risk losing that personal touch and need to work hard to protect it.
When we first started, several people told Ryan and I that partnerships were stupid. They also said that it would never work out for us because you can’t have two creatives running a business. But we very much need each other to do this job. As soon as one of us decides that we’re not interested in doing this anymore, or if we ever fall out of sync, the whole operation will fall. We have the same kind of commitment to our team. We recognize that we have different skill sets, yet we often find ourselves switching between roles, depending on the client. I don’t personally know anyone who possesses every skill set we need, so we very much depend upon each other. That’s what has made it work out, the fact that we can come at problems from two different sides. Our team reflects that too—they are intentionally not rockstar designers. They all have skill sets that marinate with each other and that compounds the success of the team.
Why should creatives be worried about running a business together?
People thought we had no idea how a business worked.
Probably not. We sort of made things up as we went. But, we were pretty adaptable, and that helped. Jumping between agencies taught us what we did and didn’t want to do. Ryan and I never kept anything too tight, always asked questions, and sought people who were already doing something similar. It was like having many counselors.
Staying financially smart and on track helps. I think we realized pretty early on that running your own design business isn’t all about just making pretty pictures. We realized that if we were ever going to grow this thing, then we would have to have a foundation, and we found out that we actually knew more about business than we originally thought.
Some of what contributes to our success is the fact that we are a week apart in age and at similar stages in life. We value a lot of the same things. We have similar lifestyles. I think that is very important to having a successful partnership. You have to find common ground on something more permanent, but then you also need a tension point. The idea is to have skill sets that are different enough that you’re not stepping on each other’s toes.
Even though we both have design backgrounds, some skills aren’t necessarily taught to you in design school. We have both expanded our skills in areas that we were comfortable with, to cover more roles. I really enjoy getting to know people and learning new skills from them. If I was just a designer on my own for the rest of my life, I feel like at some point, I would crave collaborating with somebody else to be inspired by outside perspectives. Bringing in more people has helped our design ethos.
What did you look for when hiring additional designers?
When it was just us, we would work individually, and then check back in three days later. There was not a whole lot of conversation, because we had worked together for two years prior to that. We’d sit in the same room and hash stuff out. We’d play music or listen to podcasts while we worked together. We were nervous to hire at first. We brought in more people because we were getting in over our heads with too much work. We didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities that kept coming in. The natural thing for us was to hire somebody that was just like us, which is pretty much what we did.
We brought in Jordan, our seventh intern. We were excited because he was from Ephrata, PA, and he knew people that we knew. His skills complemented ours, and in fact, he’s actually better at some of what we do than we are. We also hired Derek, who is becoming the perfect UI/UX designer. We knew Kasey from college. With all of our hires, it’s cool to see how people grow with a variety of projects we throw at them.
We also have a character and personality test. I’d say that’s even more important to us than raw talent. We’ve worked with, and interviewed, a lot of “rockstars.” That’s great, but they just want to have their name in lights, and I don’t fault them for that. They are very talented individuals, but it’s just not the kinds of people we bring into the environment that we work in. The Infantree doesn’t have the space for the one-man band. We need everyone to wear hard hats and pitch in to do the grunt work, even when it’s not necessarily the most fun thing. People have to fit the personality of the culture we have here. Obviously, our hires also need to be proficient and have a design sensibility, but I think that our wish list might be a little bit different from larger design studios and agencies. That’s why when we conduct interviews, we take candidates out to dinner or drinks and introduce them to the rest of our team to make sure that everyone gets along.
We also try to foster team spirit by doing stuff as a group, like this recent trip to Brooklyn. We hang out. Every quarter, we schedule field trips. We go to cities and check out other studios and agencies to see how they do things. We also visit restaurants and retail boutiques to see new trends and how they manifest. Other times, we just need downtime together. Because we spend more time with each other than we do with our families, we better enjoy it. That’s the truth.
I don’t think it’s relevant anymore to be a big agency that offers everything. It’s just not necessary. We don’t want 20 or 30 or 60 people with offices worldwide. We want to keep things loose. Having more management levels means less collaboration.
Do your clients come into the studio?
100% of our clients come to the studio. Our process forces them to come to us. We bring clients into our office and put up 300 or 400 images on a mood board, and then just allow them to react. They get to feel like they are a part of the creative process, because they are a part of the creative process. We learn a lot from what they say NO to, rather than what they only say YES to. And then the work is pretty much sold, because the clients have created this thing before they see the creation. This is another gross generalization, but when you go to a big city, there is an understanding that you must take a client out to dinner and drinks, and ensure them that you are hip and cool. Whereas at the Infantree, our perspective is we are who we are; come see our space and meet our team, because they’re the people who are going to work on your project with you. Most of our clients know the entire Infantree team, or the majority of us. We spend a lot of time upfront just getting to know our clients even before we show the pretty mood board pictures.
How does your studio space impact your ability to work with clients and each other?
We thought that we would never outgrow this space, and that it would be our home forever. The design team works in one room together, with an open staircase in between. If we continue to grow, there will be some separation, and that really scares us. In fact, it’s making us look for another space. Right now, everybody’s backs face each other in a circle, so people can spin around and look at each other’s work. We conduct team meetings on a big table in the center of the room. There are couches and coffee tables. We don’t have a separate conference table, and that was intentional. Creative people need to be around other creative people, and we need open collaborative spaces.
Is there an intrinsic link between group size and level of collaboration?
Yes, and I think we are scared of discovering the limit. If we manage more and force collaboration, it’s not really collaboration at all, it’s a dictatorship. For instance, there are only so many people that we can take on a field trip to Brooklyn. Eight of us fit into two cabs, and it’s still a family. Having fifteen or twenty people would require us to rent a bus. A twenty-person weekend retreat to the lake house is too chaotic. When a team gets too big, sectioning starts showing up naturally. It’s just how it is. For the most part, our entire team lives downtown and walks to work. It’s not like we could develop an equal relationship with everyone if we had twenty people.
Another part of it is that we don’t want to take our hands off of the entire operation. We don’t want to be distanced from everyone and the work that’s being done. At the Infantree, we can proudly say that we know what’s on everyone’s plate. We know what projects are running and their deadlines. We don’t want to grow to such a size where we can’t do that anymore.
Why do designers need to work near other designers?
It’s hard to design by yourself. Passion either needs to come from a community, or a team of people, but we have found that really good work comes from six people touching the same project. It’s not always cost-effective, but we get the best work with multiple, different perspectives on one idea that we can Frankenstein together. A lack of perspectives makes work look the same.
Designers need to find people that inspire them to do things better. I think hanging out with somebody who is different from you is incredibly inspiring. For example, maybe you absorb the music that somebody else is listening to, learn about their hobbies, and eventually all of these pop-culture things rub off on you, and you start to merge influences. That person, or that experience, might inspire you to work in ways that you wouldn’t have ever thought of before.
In the past, we have worked separately on a strategy, then came back together and compared notes, then worked separately again, then compared again. But some of the best ideas that we have come up with, happened when we were casually throwing darts together, literally. I don’t think that on my own, I’ve ever come to decisions as smart as those.
A designer doesn’t necessarily have to be next to a designer, but someone like a writer or project manager, can push them. I love it when two of our designers quite purposefully pit themselves against each to work on a project. It forces them to work in completely different ways before they meet to review concepts. Then they naturally come together. Without us formalizing the project to spell out six points to it, our designers do that on their own by challenging each other. It’s friendly of course, but it’s like a collaborative competition.
courtesy of the infantree
Why did you make the game, Creative Clash?
We like games. To be completely honest, there were just so many completely nutty personalities in the agencies that we have been a part of, and we thought that somebody has to know about this. We wanted to do a little tongue-in-cheek humor, and poke fun at ourselves with things like markup and tattoos.
Being print designers, there was also a level of being really interested in making a product that was unique and allowed us to flex our skills in new ways. A design game was a chance to make the gaming community accessible to the design community, and vice versa. We conceived the idea for the game while hiking the Appalachian Trail, then wrote out the cards on a trip to a gallery show in Pittsburgh, then spent three years slowly hashing out all of the details in our free time.
courtesy of the infantree
This project also switched our role to client, and forced us to understand client problems from a first-hand perspective. Such as, “We don’t want to put any more money into this!” which is what clients tell us all of the time. It has been an amazing learning experience to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes, and eat from our own humble pie.