Maybe Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman were never meant to be rock stars, anyway. Despite not headlining an arena near you, the childhood friends from Southern California sure had all the right plans.
Step one: Start a rock band in your garage. Step two: Design sweet gig posters and merch. Step three: Land that massive record deal.
Thing is, Kuhlken, 31, and Goldman, 32, never quite made it past step two. And judging by their lives at the moment, maybe that’s for the best. Their initial foray into graphic design happened while in college, when the duo obsessed over having just the right gig poster. Soon, a poster for themselves turned into making posters for the Troubadour concert venue in Los Angeles, for acts like the Dave Mathews Band, the Black Keys, and Phish. The steady work (done for free, at first) led to the creation of their studio: DKNG.
Today, DKNG is on the precipice of the design industry’s own version of the hit record. Whether it’s their nontraditional, transparent approach to marketing their business or the steady expansion of their client base and offerings, Kuhlken and Goldman are getting a second chance at stardom. They’re steadily accruing a fan base of fellow designers as they repeatedly peel back the process behind some of their most popular work — and it’s still just the two of them.
But just like those days in the garage, you wouldn’t know it. They are notoriously (and sometimes frustratingly) pragmatic and low-key. There will be no victory laps or launch parties. Just two childhood friends in two separate studios in L.A. and San Francisco doing their best to get better every day.
We spoke to Kuhlken and Goldman in an effort to learn what it takes to build a small design studio, one where you have all the control, but also all of the burdens of running a business.
Dan, you studied fine arts in college. Nathan, you studied film. Does it feel like you backed into the design business?
DK: Painting fine art takes an extraordinary amount of talent and skill and time to get good at it. I see that in graphic design. There’s not going to be a point where I’m a master and I’m perfect at it. Every single week I’m learning something new; it’s like an endless abyss. And Nathan is an excellent art director, which I think he gets from learning how to direct films.
NG: That idea of leading people through narrative I learned from filmmaking. The other thing is collaboration. We rely on different people and teams, much like making a movie.
Why the early obsession with gig posters?
DK: Our love for posters started with Scrojo, who basically did all the posters for [San Diego music venue] Belly Up. My mom sent me an article about him, and up until then, I had no idea that you could make a career out of making posters. He quickly became an idol. In a weird coincidence, Nathan knew someone at the Troubadour who said the artist there was leaving. We looked at each other and thought, “We could actually be poster artists! Like Scrojo!” Nathan was way more into graphic design than I was, and I was more into fine art illustration. But those are the two avenues that get posters done. It turned into a passion before we knew it was.
NG: Part of that initial interest in posters grew out of necessity. Dan and I were playing in a band together and we wanted to promote our shows, to make gig posters for our own band.
How have the two of you worked together for so many years, all day, every day and not wanted to kill each other?
DK: Most creative people are very sensitive. Luckily, we grew up together, are good friends, and know we are coming from a good place when we say things. It’s for the benefit of the project. It takes a lot of tough skin to get there. It’s been a long 10-year career, and there was definitely some turbulence along the way. We’re in different locations, so we go back and forth with emails 20 times a day and call each other twice a day. The hardest thing is to be honest and not hurt the other person’s feelings.
NG: It’s learning how to share opinions and critiques. At this point we now know what the other person’s criticism is going to be and we can almost preemptively make changes. It took years to get to that point.
How do you fight that lizard brain defensive reaction we have when people criticize us?
DK: Whenever a disagreement comes up, I have to listen and realize that maybe there’s something in this I’m not seeing, or I am wrong, or I might not be hearing all the information. We both know what we’re talking about. No one is right or wrong. It’s more about, How can we get there better?
NG: Any criticism is just an exploration of making the best possible art that we can. One thing that helps: If you just spent days slaving away on a piece of art and you just put your pencil down and someone immediately tears it apart, that can be hard. So if you have the luxury, walk away from it for a day. Give it some space and look at it with fresh eyes. That’s when criticism is much more palatable.
How do you deal with heated disagreements, when one of you is an “11” in how much you care about it? Does someone cave?
DK: We sometimes get so determined in our individual vision that it’s a matter of convincing the other person. No one ever says “I still think you’re crazy, but fine.” It just becomes a longer conversation.
NG: I can’t really think of a time when someone was an “11” and someone was a “0.” It’s more often that someone is 50/50, and we trust the confidence of the other person.
Reading praise for your work, many cite that you don’t have a defined style, that it’s hard to pick out a DKNG work. So if there’s not an aesthetic thread, what are the design principles of DKNG?
DK: Our main goal is to create an aesthetic unique to a client.
Sure, but lot of people that do client work say that. How do you “get” a client in such a limited timeline?
DK: A lot of times, the client will present how they think they appear, which is good and bad sometimes. We pride ourselves on concept development, so when someone asks us to create something exactly, it takes the process out of it. It’s important to know how they’d like to look. We listen to all of their music, go through all their interviews, and see what’s already been made.
NG: We have a shared Dropbox where we put all of the collected material into a client folder and throw together lots of that material onto a mood board. Then we put together a text document with initial concepts, lyrics, and other things. That document gets turned into three separate concepts of what we think the piece could be. Sometimes we present that research to the client while mentioning what else is in the marketplace. It can get pretty in-depth.
DK: A lot of companies that are similar to us would spend a lot of time on this part. But we don’t have the luxury. Most of the emails ask us to turn stuff around in three weeks.
How do you remove your ego as a creative person and make something that a client wants?
DK: There is one client I have in mind that had the concept and wanted us to make the artwork. That takes a lot of pride to swallow, because we’re basically being asked to be production artists. Sometimes, though, that’s worth doing. Not to be crude, but if the paycheck is worth it, we can make that. It just might not be something we put in the portfolio.
NG: If people are paying us to work with them, we feel we owe it to give them our opinion and not just bend over and say “We’ll do what you want!” It’s part of the reason people are hiring us. Sometimes we stand up for ourselves and people go with our concepts. But there are some situations when someone is paying us, and they don’t want to budge, and we both say, “Let’s make them happy.”
You do posters. And packaging. And tutorials. And Skillshare classes. How do you do all these things and still remain focused enough that people know what to come to you for?
DK: It’s about what we present to the public. Our portfolio was gig posters for a long time, even though we were doing other stuff. We only put up our most exciting stuff, because that’s the stuff we want to do again. It’s worked. But gig poster work is starting to decline. If we had all of our eggs in that, we’d be out of business, so we’re exploring new avenues all the time. The world of graphic design and illustration is huge. As an example, we just got into packaging, and we may add that into our portfolio in the next several years.
NG: Whether it’s classes or events, we try to keep the quality at a certain level, to maintain focus within each area. And always refining what we are willing to take on in a curated way.
DK: We’re developing our brand as we go. We can’t predict what we will look like in five years’ time. I don’t want us to be easily defined. But when you see you it, you understand.
What do you prioritize as a business more: growth or control?
NG: It’s a little bit of both. I think measured is a good word. There are things we aspire to when it comes to growing. We won’t hire 12 designers and try to blow this thing out as much as possible. It’s more looking at each business area and seeing what tweaks to make.
C’mon, you guys can’t be that pragmatic and middle of the road on everything.
NG: [laughs] Sorry we can’t have a crazier answer like “We want to own a private jet and go on tour!”
DK: We like to say we’re lean. We don’t want to hire an employee and give them the jobs we used to do. We don’t want to be full-time managers. We want to be illustrators and designers. We’re not out to be this enormous company. It’s about making our lives as fulfilling as possible as individuals.
You often share video tutorials explaining the design process behind an illustration. Why?
DK: Process videos started as an experiment. We knew other people did them and we enjoyed watching them. It turned into something that became a marketing piece. They weren’t making any big splashes until we released the band Explosions in the Sky’s mammoth poster. We got a bunch of hits to our site from that and the poster sold out. So a flag popped up that said this was a way to market ourselves and show our products and portfolio. Now it’s a strategic way of getting our name out there.
NG: Not to be cheesy, but the way that we learned was by talking to our peers and other designers. It’s amazing how generous people are with us, so we enjoy sharing our process. People ask if we’re creating an army of imitators to put us out of business. But we’re happy to pull back the curtain. We’re confident in our abilities.
I don’t buy the reasoning of those who believe creatives should be secretive.
NG: Right. Me neither. There still some secret sauce to what we do. It’s amazing to see people take what they learned and put their own style on it and have great careers.
What does the design world talk too much about?
DK: Rules. When there are certainties about how things are supposed to get done. People see the rules and think My life doesn’t allow me to do that, so I can’t be a professional artist. A lot of people ask us how we got here and I say, “Whatever I say is different than what you need. We have different lives.” When I see a list of rules on how to become a pro, everyone has a different story. Unless those rules are super general, it’s not helpful and it’s deceiving.
I feel it’s because blogs like writing about the “one thing” we need.
NG: The scary thing about any creative field is that it’s not like being a doctor, where you go to school and get licensed. There’s no path to being a designer. Maybe you’ll hit. Maybe you won’t. Having a notion of the ‘one thing’ you need can be helpful, but it can be limiting.
What do we not talk enough about?
NG: The business side. It’s almost taboo to talk about finances. There’s a lot about following your passion and dreams, and the business stuff gets swept aside in favor of focusing on creativity. You can be a smart businessman and artist simultaneously.
At what point in the education process is this aversion to money distilled in the creative community?
DK: If anyone wants your work, it’s a compliment. A lot of artists take this to an extreme and then will do it for free. They’re like, “Wow, someone wants to give me exposure. I’ll finally have my foot in the door!” You wouldn’t do that if you were a plumber or an architect.
Didn’t you guys do posters for Troubadour for free in the beginning of your career, though?
DK: Exactly! We’re guilty of it. I’m glad we did because it gave us a portfolio that led to clients. We did it longer than we needed to, though. It’s a matter of letting your sensitivity not be part of your business decisions. Look at it cut and dry: You gave them your work. What did they give you? A lot of artists are blind from their sensitivity. They value being “accomplished” more than making money.
To push back, you can only have that opinion because you’ve reached some degree of success. It’s easy for someone with clients knocking on their door to say “always charge money.” When you’re 22, you don’t have that option.
DK: Absolutely. It’s hard for us to tell students to never do spec work. They could say, “That’s fine, but I’m starving.” There’s a balance. Ideally you build work up as quickly as you can so you can charge as fast as possible.
It sounds like your guiding philosophy is to just decide what you personally want to do and that’s it. There are no rules.
NG: There’s a second layer where we look at three questions: Is this something we’re passionate about, that we want in our portfolio? Is this a client we want to build a relationship with? And then the financial component: I’d love to only take on work we’re excited about, but we have to pay the bills. Those three criteria lead us to an answer. It sounds straightforward, but it doesn’t always go that smoothly. At the end of every year we do internal awards. What are the best projects? How do we do more of those? The worst ones that dragged us through the mud —how do we avoid those? Every year we fine-tune that spider sense of what is good and bad.
DK: It’s interesting to look at the hard numbers. What did client work bring in? What about retail sales? Just having those talks is a great way to decide how we’re going to run our business. Every year we run into a new set of problems, and that’s great. It’s the reason we grow.