Stefanie Weigler and David Heasty eat practically every meal together because, when you’re married, and business partners, that is just par for the course. As the founding, and only, employees of Brooklyn-based Triboro Design, they spend an inordinate ordinate amount of time together. Even when one has to work on deadline over the weekend, the other will usually join them in the office. “We go for solidarity,” says Heasty.
The two met through their previous boss and mentor, Design Machine creative director Alexander Gelman (though they worked at Design Machine at different times).
Almost immediately after meeting, Heasty, a native Texan, and Weigler, originally from Germany, hit it off. At Triboro, their nine-year-old studio, they’ve focused their efforts on print and branding projects. They’ve created the identity for the clothing company Everlane, developed a custom typeface for one of Vanity Fair’s “Best-Dressed List” issues, and reimagined the word Nike as NYC for a Nike NYC campaign.
During the workday, the two sit next to each other. When one needs space for an idea to come to life, that person will move to their USM Haler table, which is purposely free of a computer and phone, or take a walk around their Greenpoint neighborhood. As for whose job it is to cook dinner, that generally falls to the person more adept in the kitchen. “Stefanie is certainly more successful,” says Heasty. “But David knows how to cook now,” says Weigler. “That’s stretching it,” says Heasty. “I can prepare food.”
In a series of candid interviews, Weigler and Heasty discussed what it is really like for a married couple to run a studio together, why they don’t sugarcoat their feedback on each other’s projects, and how it can be impossible to separate work life from home life.
What happened first, the crush or the business partnership?
Stefanie: The crush, actually. We got along right away, but we didn’t think about working together for a long time. He’s a charming guy and a nice person. Super relaxed also.
David: We actually met through Gelman. In addition to him being a mentor, he was also matchmaker. After I left and was doing other things, he hired Stefanie and was like, “Oh, I have this lovely intern working with me. I think you would like her.”
Stefanie: But I actually had a relationship at the time.
David: After we met, though, we started dating almost instantly. Then we got married about a year later and then started our company a year after that.
What opened the door to you two working together?
Stefanie: We were both working independently at different design firms and were not very happy in terms of the creativity and freedom we got there. Since we were already working on a few side projects together, we thought that since we both had cheap rent and were young, why not go for it?
David: We hadn’t planned on working together, but because we had the same mentor, we had similar aesthetic and abilities. It just made perfect sense.
What’s it been like collaborating with your spouse?
David: Being husband and wife, we can just say, “You know what? You’re on the wrong track,” or “This is totally good.” Whereas, I feel like when you’re talking to your peers and you don’t love what they made, then you’re going to have to always sugarcoat it. At least with us, our relationship is strong enough that we can really butcher each other’s designs if we have to.
Stefanie: I think it’s a benefit, because sometimes you get blind about your work, so you need to step away from it and have someone else look at it. Everyone knows the feeling when you’ve worked really hard on something and you’re excited, and you show it to your partner and they say, “Come on. Are you kidding me?” That’s always really tough, but then you know it must be true because I believe in his opinion so much.
What was it like having a pretty young marriage and a young business and trying to build both of those at the same time?
David: It was all-consuming in the beginning, trying to create some kind of a foundation. On the other hand, it was awesome because you’re with your wife all the time. It’s not like you’re going away and leaving her twelve hours a day. You’re spending a lot of time together – a lot of quality time. Then, because you’re so invested in each other’s success, you really have each other’s back. Some people tell me, “I could never work with my spouse.” I think they’re probably right, too.
Can you separate your home and work lives?
David: No. It’s impossible. It all melds together. When it’s your own business, it takes all of your energy and thought, or most of it. For better or for worse. Obviously, there’s a downside to it. The number one downside, I would say, is that you end up becoming so aligned and connected that it’s hard to bring in new people. It’s hard to expand your team. Every once in a while we bring in a collaborator when there is something that we are not capable of doing on our own. But if there’s something we can physically do ourselves, we tend to do it ourselves.
How do you decide who works on what projects?
Stefanie: It depends on the project and client. By now we have some long-term clients that each of us handles projects for. When there is a new client coming in, we both work on it, drafting ideas and coming up with concepts. When it comes to execution, it really depends on what the client picks. We show them different directions and sometimes they pick mine and sometimes they pick David’s. That person is then usually more involved than the other.
David: It’s pretty seldom when we both work equally on a project because it’s just hard to hand over the whole project and have the other person design something for it. It doesn’t make sense, so we pretty much stick with our own clients or projects.
Stefanie: David has a strong editorial background, so he does most of the custom typography. I like to do a lot of hands-on stuff. Both of us come up with ideas. For us, it’s really about who creates the best idea or the best form of execution, and that’s the winner.
It’s not about me needing to feed my ego. I think maybe that was true early on, but now, after so many years, you feel like you’ve done it and you’re fine. You just want the best work to be done. We also need enough time. We don’t like to work on something that should be done by yesterday. What can the client expect if you have no time to think about it?
Rather than getting bigger and bigger as an agency, your definition of success seems to be reaching a place that you’re happy with creatively, making enough money to live that life, and feeling content there. How did you come to that?
David: Back in the day, when I started, all the designers that I looked up to ran tiny studios – Alexander Gelman, Todd St. John, Peter Saville all had tiny studios. And for decades it was just Stefan Sagmeister and an assistant.
Everybody liked touching the job. So if all the cool work that I admire is coming out of small studios, why would we try to make a big studio? We’ve only once had our small size been an issue with a client. If anyone ever asks that question, our selling point is that if you talk to a big agency, you’ll have a meeting with the creative director or a partner, but as soon as your job comes through the door, there is a likelihood that they’re going to hand you off to a junior designer. In some ways, you’re paying for this big agency, but you’re actually probably interfacing with a very small team.
Stefanie: By staying small, we also feel we have better control of the work and a lower overhead that allows us to not take on every project. It’s important for our mental health that we don’t become like a headless chicken just trying to get everything that’s out there.
Stefanie, you are originally from Germany and are currently working in Brooklyn. To what degree does your background influence your design style?
Stefanie: I’m not sure because I feel like since we both worked for Gelman, and he’s Russian, I learned from his background. His design was very minimalistic. David and I both come from the aesthetic world of doing something more progressive or modern. Now it’s a bit more organic than it used to be. I wouldn’t say that David is the quintessential stereotypical American designer, either, with the work he puts out. It wouldn’t do him justice. For me, I’m not the typical German designer. Now having some distance from German design, I think it’s sometimes too cold and there’s something missing. In New York City, worlds come together in general. You don’t see too much typical American design. It’s always a clash of the cultures here.
In addition to Triboro’s client work, you’ve started turning personal projects into business opportunities, like the fluorescent New York City subway posters you’re producing. Tell us about the evolution of that project.
Stefanie: When we used to commute to work on the subway, we saw the horrendous New York subway map. It’s pretty insane. It bothered David, too, and he said, Let’s try to do it better. That became a challenge. The first idea was to strip it all down to one color, which led to another challenge, because you had to figure out how it still functions with one color. It actually does; it’s just harder to read.
David: It’s a neon red, so it’s sort of pink. It’s impossible to photograph that color. So when you see it online, it looks more red, but it’s actually a completely different color.
Stefanie: The response was positive and we sold our entire 500-print run. We didn’t get any jobs from it, but the map did create awareness for our company. Over the last six years since we made that map, we’ve gotten about 700 emails from people inquiring about it. So we recently decided to do a new version of the New York subway map. While it would have been easy to repeat ourselves and do another one-color subway map, we wanted to try something else. What we’ve come up with is the wrong-color subway map, where we made the Red Line green, and the Green Line purple, and the rivers red. Then we contacted the 700 people who had expressed interest in the idea. They haven’t all ordered one yet – the price is higher now – but they’re selling well. We want to do more personal projects like this, because we’re the client.
When you look at the field of design, how has it changed over the 10 to 15 years that you’ve been working professionally?
David: When I got out of school, the only things that mattered as a designer were that you do good work and work with good clients. If a designer was doing that, they were cool. Today, I think it’s like you have to also be involved in somehow saving the world, in a way. Also, having a million Twitter followers. The point being that there’s more and more pressure, certainly among my peers from what I hear, about having to work on all these different things that they never had to think about when they first got into the industry. That was never what we, or at least I, signed on for. If you change the world, that’s awesome, but no one ever thought that this was something that we could do or should do.
Stefanie: It’s true that there are more demands now on a designer than there used to be. In our case we kept our main focus on the work and the freedom that a small team provides. Technology changed the field of graphic design tremendously. It allows designers to share their work with a large audience via design blogs, social media, and at conferences. For young designers, the design scene has become much more transparent. There is a lot of information out there about pretty much any design company. Of course, our workflow has been more streamlined, and it allows us to work more remotely.
How did you decide on the name Triboro?
David: When I moved to Greenpoint in Brooklyn, there were a lot of businesses called Triboro – Triboro Shelves, Triboro Carpers, Triboro whatever. I liked the sound of the name. And then, as more of the industrial businesses have left this area, the name maintained a connection to the past, because as all of the industrial firms leave, creative firms come in. If I really thought about it more, however, I might’ve picked a different name. It doesn’t really mean anything to people outside of New York. And in New York, people sometimes have a negative connection to it because they think of things like the shelving company.
Or a bridge with a lot of traffic.
David: Which was thankfully renamed. I was so happy when they renamed the bridge. At the time I started my studio, the tendency in the industry was to name your studio using a generic-sounding name, like Bureau or Default. I didn’t want my studio to be something where it has a certain connotation in your head. Triboro is that word that fits in the ether of New York, and I liked that.