Selective Focus: Michael Smisek

Michael Smisek is a designer and artist whose work would be hard to miss around here. He and his wife operate the DLH Clothing company, and also Šek Design, where they have worked with a number of high-profile clients in the area.

MS: I primarily work as a graphic designer but my background is in drawing and painting. I have a degree in Fine Art from UMD and I find that a lot of my work still takes on a ‘painterly’ quality – especially when designing posters and other collateral for print. I tell all of my clients that I begin every project with open ears and a pencil in hand. I know it sounds corny but it’s absolutely true. Some designers jump right on the computer and use Photoshop tricks and things before truly thinking through the goals or issues that a client faces. If you look at our Šek logo, you can see that the accent above the ’S’ actually doubles as the tip of a pencil.

MidCoast Catering is brand new here in Duluth. It’s under the same owner as the Rambler food truck. We named the business, designed the logo, website, vehicle wrap, exterior signage and other marketing collateral. It’s meant to represent beautifully plated food with the elegance of the East Coast mixed with the flair and spirit of the West Coast.

My style depends on the project that I’m working on, but I’d say that I’m a minimalist at heart. I try to distill things down to their most basic elements by using only the necessary shapes, words and images to represent whatever it is that I’m working on. There’s also a fair degree of witty or clever wordplay and symbolism in my work and that’s definitely evident in a lot of the DLH Clothing designs that I’ve created. However, creating work for myself as a form of individual expression is a rarity these days, as most of my energy is poured into Šek Design projects, DLH Clothing ideas and our little family.

This is the new Destination Duluth logo that we designed in preparation for their new website (forthcoming) and some other marketing purposes. It incorporates a folding book (stories from Duluth), a social media ‘bubble’, and it also represents a location pin.

I’ve been creating paintings for people since the 3rd grade but I’ve been designing professionally for about 7 years. I realized a couple of years ago that I had been subconsciously choosing jobs that would prepare me to a business in the creative field. After graduating from UMD, I moved to Maine where my first job was at an auto body shop, where I learned more about working with automotive paint, metal and finishes. I was a College Pro Painters franchisee for 2 years and managed young students and large renovation projects with a focus on customer service, sales and safety. Before leaving Maine, I held an internship at Portland Monthly Magazine where I studied print and editorial design. When I moved back from Maine, I took a job at a sign shop in Duluth where I learned more about large-scale printing and applications. Finally, I was the in-house designer for a couple small businesses until one was sold and so I took the jump set off on my own.

Here’s an example of a logo study that I worked on for CASDA (Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse). It captures all of the elements of their mission statement and is one of my personal favorite logos that I’ve ever designed.

The challenges that I face in my line of work mostly have to do with the day-to-day operations of running a business. Balancing the attention that I give to employees and contractors as well as the our clients and what they have coming up in the future. If you’ve ever worked from home it’s similar: You can’t really start getting into your work if you’ve got dishes in the sink or toys on the floor. Organizing my time so that I can have the ‘house’ clean before diving into deep work, is one of the things I’m constantly trying to improve upon.

For the ‘New Perspectives’ season, we wanted to focus on seeing things in a new or different way. The season poster imagines a huge violin on Michigan Street in Duluth, with the season name written on the street. All of the individual concert posters illustrate their titles in surreal, multi-vantage point perspectives based on the context of each performance.

There are many rewards in the work that I do. Of course, I love the feeling of finding a creative solution for a client and helping them discover how their brand can be the best version of itself. The process of creative problem solving can be an eye-opening experience for most people and it doesn’t actually always require design. Like most artists or designers, there’s a certain pride in seeing your work around town or hearing about something you’ve helped to launch or create becoming successful within the community. The successful projects and happy clients keep me moving forward, constantly pushing myself to be better. Finally, I love the autonomy that owning my own business brings. My schedule is packed but flexible so I don’t have to miss out on as much with our family. Sarah’s at work with me for a few days each week and our daughter Piper get’s to tag along whenever possible too.

I was honored to be asked to work with Vikre Distillery on their ‘Honor Brand’ whiskey bottles. They were shooting for an early 1900’s mixed typeface label to pay homage to the past tenant of the Pallucci Building where they house their production and tasting room. It’s a great tasting whiskey, if you have to chance to buy a bottle.

People can always visit our website to view and read about some of our most recent projects. They can also see some of my work in our office space. My wife Sarah (co-owner of DLH) and I have creatively split our space into a dual purpose showroom and studio which allows for visitors to view our entire DLH line while still having room for us to work and meet with clients in our bright and inviting space.

Our office is split into a DLH showroom and Šek Design studio. We love the bright, airy, open feel, which allows us to do our best creative thinking. It’s located directly above the Electric Fetus – stop up and say ‘Hi’.

DLH Clothing was created by Sarah and myself in 2014 while sitting on our couch. We wanted to create a brand of clothing that could show our pride for this area without feeling touristy or gimmicky. It’s been an amazing experience and our biggest take-away from that business has been the relationships we’ve forged with so many of the other wonderful small, craft-type businesses here in Duluth. If you’re out and about in town you can find a variety of DLH items at Trailfitters, Electric Fetus, Duluth Coffee, Golly G, and Glensheen, just to name a few.

This is an airbrushed painting of a young boy showing off his toy. Painted on a Victory motorcycle gas tank using automotive pant. I painted it as a fun play on the fact that all of the people at the Victory Bike Rally were showing off their toys and that part of us never really goes away as we grow from children to adults.

I’m really excited about all of the projects that we have going on right now but unfortunately I can’t share most of them until they unveil their new brand identity or business. However, we’re going to start putting out some work that we’re doing for Lyric Opera Of the North, and I’m very excited about that partnership. Working with an arts organization allows for the marketing materials to have more spirit and interpretation than, say, product marketing. There’s a certain amount of freedom that you’re allowed when creating a concept for a performance, musician or other artistic event that you just can’t find anywhere else.

This is a poster for a special Bent Paddle and Vikre Dinner at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar. I included shot the raw ingredients in such a way that it represented what the dinner would feel like, including an old paddle in the composition.

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