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Amy and Jason Schwartz have a new baby and run their own agency, Bright Bright Great, which they’re rebranding. As life has changed, so has their work.
Amy Schwartz sits on a couch next to Lucas Nelson, a young designer on her team at Bright Bright Great, a design and branding firm in Chicago. A cold, bright November day shines through BBG’s frosted windows as Amy, creative director of BBG, taps her fingernails on a coffee cup and sings aloud to herself. “OK!” Amy says, focusing on Lucas’s laptop screen; he’s pulled up illustrated icons he designed for Health Champion, a startup client whose website and brand BBG is building from scratch. Health Champion will be an app that collects patients’ health data, making medical records portable—Amy and her husband Jason Schwartz, founder and managing director of BBG, are fresh from the belly of the healthcare system, having given birth to a child three months prior. They felt a personal connection to the startup’s mission of easy access to medical records. Part of their work philosophy is to collaborate with people who are innovative and passionate, another is to put good work out into the world. If you’re creating something that’s bad, Amy says, you’re a jerk; if it’s neutral or mediocre, what’s the point?
“If we add multicolor icons, do you think it’ll be all over the place?” Lucas asks Amy.
“I don’t think that it’ll be good for these,” says Amy, 28. She has a cherubic face and wears a hoodie with torn jeans. “Keep it single color.”
The heart of Bright Bright Great—ceilings covered in copper and aluminum pipes, walls decorated with murals, awards, wacky toys and bizarre photos of women pouring mustard into a high-heel hot dog—is a rectangular group of 10 white desks bunched into the middle of the room, including Amy’s desk, which is filled with half-sheets of paper, a purposefully misspelled pennant that says “problmes” and a note to herself posted to her monitor that says “green is not a creative color.” Jason’s wooden desk sits just 15 feet east, a sparse arrangement highlighted by a bright-pink Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Jason’s slightly graying beard rests in his left hand as his right hand scrolls his calendar, which looks like a disastrous game of Tetris. At 39, Jason is the BBG patriarch, a veteran compared to his young staff. He wears a black hoodie and cuffed jeans, his legs pumping like pistons underneath his desk. Amy turns around and asks Jason if he has time to take another call today.
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They say don’t mix business with pleasure, but for these creative couples, that’s just the perfect working formula between themselves and their clients in producing some of the best work in the industry today.
For this series, we’re speaking to creative couples at the top of their game, running small design studios near and far, who prove that there really is such thing as a better half. As for ‘who’, well, that depends on what day of the week it is.
Romance strikes the heart when you least expect it. This is true of Jason Schwartz and Amy Nicole Schwartz whose initial meeting at INsight in Indiana was nothing more than a mutual exchange of coolness. Three years later and they are INto each other, facilitated in part by social media ties and good old fashioned curiosity.
“I would ask Jason questions like, ‘should I take this unpaid internship?’” says Amy, who is eleven years Jason’s junior (just like Jay Z and Beyoncé). This couple has found a way to collaborate and work together outside of the traditional 9-5.
ADC: Everyone here is refreshingly breaking the cardinal rule: Don’t date in the workplace. Do you think it’s time we changed this traditional sensibility?
Jason: Depends. People who bring work stress home shouldn’t work together. It just turns into a vicious cycle of complaining about clients. People who can leave work and work-related stress at work are fine to work together. Amy and I actually both tend to have very fluid work/life balances where a lot of cool things we do bleed into nights and weekends. We are always on the lookout for creative inspiration and we both are deep in the horror, comic and gaming worlds.
Amy: I’ve worked at agencies full of creative couples and I think it’s fantastic when two people share the same passion and can share that intensity with one another. It’s nice to have a partner who understands why you’re cancelling plans to work late, or why you enjoyed the title sequence more than the film, or why purchasing dope looking comic books from the 1980s should be a business expense.
ADC: Sometimes you end up liking the people you work with and I think that’s okay.
J: We liked each other from outside of work. Now it’s nice to like someone you work with. As long as you make each other better, why not.
I could write a pretty long list of design power couples I admire. I think their work and their love lives are probably better off.
Amy Nicole Schwartz
ADC: Did you think this would work from the get go? Any doubts?
J: Amy and I are insanely alike. It’s rare that we have non-aligning opinions, so it’s really easy to get along.
A: I knew that we would work– both in a romantic and professional sense– from the beginning. I am very much a Type A, get shit done, lead the team person, and it’s so refreshing to have a partner who is exactly the same way. It’s nice to not have to be the person doing everything. We split things up evenly in everything we do. It also doesn’t hurt that Jason has impeccable taste and enjoys the same brand of humor.
ADC: Has a client ever been skeptical to approach or have you ever been turned down work given the work dynamic? Some people feel like work may not get done, or there are too many emotions involved.
J: People who we want to work with should look at our existing work and know that work gets done. We make each other better. People should pay extra for that. Fun fact: At BBG, our development team is also led by a husband and wife. If you can find one of them on Slack, the other is usually close.
A: That’s never happened, and I don’t think we would want to work with people who think that would be an issue. Anyone who thinks emotions would keep us from doing work clearly doesn’t know us. The most emotional this relationship has been was when Jason brought home 3 boxes of Count Chocula for me last week and I was overwhelmed with happiness. He knows that spooky junk food is the way to my heart, and also knows how to get things done.
ADC: How do your employees feel about the fact that their bosses are together?
J: They totally don’t care. We don’t bring anything weird into the office.
A: They don’t care.
ADC: Is this one of those things that “isn’t for everyone”?
J: I have done this in the past (and with that particular person), it totally didn’t work. We were two people who could not work and play together. We brought all of the stress home and it was just a compounding snowball of madness.
A: I think it depends on the people, their preferences, and their communication abilities. It takes a lot of confidence to voice your opinion to someone you respect who has more experience than you, and it takes a lot of respect to hear a person’s side of view when you disagree. You have to be open with each other and remember that your critiques and suggestions in the workplace are not correlated to that person’s feelings on the relationship.
ADC: Have you ever had a moment where you guys were like “that’s it, I quit!”
I don’t quit things.
A: We were playing a zombie survival horror video game recently, and I quit because it was too creepy. That’s the last time I quit something we worked on together.
ADC: What are some of the main differences between working in this dynamic versus working in a larger agency setting with different people?
J: I don’t think it’s husband/wife as much as I personally like working in small teams. I don’t ever plan to work in a large agency ever again. I like the hunger of small teams. No fat.
A: Jason is my go-to person for everything. It’s amazing to have a person you can rely on when you need advice on how to handle a client, need feedback on a project, want to celebrate even a mundane personal victory, and set big life goals with. That really amplifies the level of trust and compassion in a relationship.
ADC: How does it help each of you personally, to be able to work with someone you also cook with and do laundry with?
J: We actually don’t do laundry together. I’m too OCD to let anyone else touch my clothes. Also I don’t cook.
A: I am too afraid to touch Jason’s clothes! He says he doesn’t cook, but that’s only because unlike myself, food is not his prime motivator. In the kitchen, I’m the head chef and he does the prep work. Like all tasks, we divide and conquer.
ADC: Are you guys like a soundboard for each other?
J: We have a slight age gap, so there’s a few things going on. We aren’t at the exact same spots in our career. I’ve been doing this for 16 years, so I feel like I’ve seen everything and don’t get surprised as much. I am definitely able to help with process and business stuff. I think we both run a lot of ideas off each other as a sounding board for each other. We make each other better, which is independent of skill and can be used in all facets of our lives together.
A: Jason is definitely a mentor for me, especially in my new role at CAH. We both have a lot to offer each other in terms of advice and support, with Jason’s years of experience and my range of experiences. Not a day goes by that we don’t help each other out with something we’re working on, big or small.
ADC: Any tips, tricks or advice?
J: Set up an Apple family account. We get each other’s app downloads. 😉
A: Always be honest. Always be kind. Always work towards the same goal.
ADC: Do you generally work together as a team or as individuals and have check-ins?
J: Most of the things I do, I do in teams. I feel like creative in general is typically worse solo. I like people to bounce ideas off of. I also like people to tell me I’m doing something wrong. My goal is to always surround myself with people who I think can add to the bigger picture.
ADC: How do you balance the work/life thing? Do couples have a rule that when you aren’t at work you aren’t talking about work or does it blur into personal hours?
I wrap all work at work. I don’t bring anything home. My New Year’s Resolution 2013 was to take work email off my phone, which was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It let’s me breathe.
A: If we’re ever talking about work in personal hours, it’s usually a short conversation about what things happened today. After a quick recap, it’s back to personal.
ADC: Do you give yourselves or each other days off?
J: I don’t take any work days off. If it’s not a holiday, or a weekend, I work. 2015 was actually the first year in about a decade I took a sick day. Even during that day, I still pulled a mostly full-day and got all of my inboxes to 0.
A: I only like taking days off for things that are still related to work, like conferences, and even then, I find odd moments to work.
ADC: Do you guys see eye to eye on most things?
J: Yes. We are building a house together that we are designing ourselves. If we didn’t, we probably would’ve killed each other by now.
A: For sure. Sometimes we disagree on some taste level things, but that’s because I tend to love “ugly” and odd design. I have that Cranbrook sensibility, whereas Jason is more Bauhaus.
ADC: Do you have more freedom?
J: Because I run 3 active businesses, I have less freedom. I feel guilty taking vacation. I need to be better about this. New Year’s Resolution 2016?
A: I feel like I have more freedom than most. Yes, I am often working– but I am working for my vision, or the vision of a small team. I’m not a cog in a bigger agency machine, a nameless face behind a campaign for a major company. I am connected to the work, and I am pushing my team’s ideas forward. I wouldn’t give up this level of creative freedom for anything. No salary or benefits could give you the feeling of owning your craft, and owning your time.
ADC: It seems like the work came first and then the relationship. Does work still come first or are there more important things?
Family first. In the end, you only have family and friends. No one will care about your website, or Dribbble shots. Love and life are the only things that are important.
A: Life is first. Work is just a vehicle to do the things we enjoy, like creating things and spending time together. It’s important to remember that we can spend time together without working, too.
ADC: What is one thing you wish people would understand about working as a creative couple?
J: Think of all the carpooling!
A: I recently heard Michael Beirut speak about his time working with Massimo and Leila Vignelli, and he was explicit in pointing out that Leila’s contributions kept the studio running. Massimo referred to himself as the engine and Leila as the brakes; while that sounds like Massimo was more crucial to the dynamic, it’s important to remember that you don’t die because your car won’t start– you die when the brakes fail. Creative couples work in different ways and distribute tasks differently. Whether you’re the brakes, the engine, or both, each person’s contributions are crucial, despite how unglamorous they might be.
ADC: Please fill in the blanks: I ______ working with my significant other because____.
J: Please fill in the blanks: I ALF working with my significant other because waffles.
A: Please fill in the blanks: I will never stop working with my significant other because we see the opportunities in everything.
You’re not going to believe this bullshit. Cards Against Humanity created this holiday promotion called Holiday Bullshit, where they promised to send anyone 12 random gifts for $12. And they sold out of their 100,000 spaces in less than a day with zero advertising and zero guarantee that you’ll get anything halfway decent. Now that is some brand trust.
If you’re unfamiliar with CAH, it’s a foul card game that was kickstarted back in 2011 and quickly became a party-game sensation. Last year, CAH created a pay-what-you-want expansion that generated $70,000 for Wikimedia. This year, they have this bullshit.
Cards Against Humanity Co-founder Max Temkin explained the reason for the season to Wired: “We’re a very small, independent company, so it’s hard for us to compete for attention during the holidays, when all the huge companies spend millions of dollars doing all kinds of crazy advertising. So, we always like to come up with something kind of clever and kind of weird and kind of dumb, just to remind people that we exist around the holidays.”
Clever, weird and dumb are all great words to describe the accompanying video, website and not-to-be-missed FAQ. Of course, to coordinate an effort this herculean, they had to limit the number of receivers, so sorry for all you suckers who missed out. Gifts ship the first week of December. I’ll let you guys know how awesome mine are once I get them. CAH assures me that if I don’t like them, it just means my expectations for the quality of my life are too high.