Mad Dog Graphx Turns 20

In June 2016, Mad Dog Graphx passed a major milestone – our twentieth anniversary! To mark the occasion, we designed a commemorative logo and created some new swag to share with the clients, vendors, designers, and friends who helped us get here.

Over the next few months (before we turn 21), Mad Dog will be sending out some goodies so that you can celebrate with us. If you're not already on our mailing list, just “like” our Facebook page to join the dog pack!

[L] Mad Dog will be commemorating our twentieth anniversary with a custom “XX” logo!  [R] New tees, in mens and women's styles, are already available!

In the meanwhile, we thought we would take the opportunity to let owner and senior designer Michael Ardaiz answer some FAQs about Mad Dog’s first 20 years.

How did you start Mad Dog?

Well, I didn’t. It was founded by red bradley, who had previously owned and operated Nine Star Productions, a film and video production agency. He opened Mad Dog as a one-man design and print studio in Anchorage. While he was still setting up shop, red was offered the opportunity to complete his master’s degree at Cornell University. red pitched the fledgling company to me – we had worked together in video production for a few years. Within weeks of opening, Mad Dog Graphx had a new owner.

Why “Mad Dog”?

If you know red, you know why. He named the company, and the name fit.

Did you ever want to change the name?

The plan from the start was to change the name. At first, I was afraid to make any changes – Mad Dog had only one client, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. In my third year, I floated some options by clients, and the consensus was, “You can’t change the name.” A lot of my clients called me Mad Dog, and I’m not entirely sure they knew my actual name. So I decided to make lemonade. I adopted the name and finally designed a logo for the company. Our dog still makes me very happy.

Did you have a background in design?

No. I have degrees in journalism and radio and television production. I had always dabbled in art and design as a hobby, but I had no business believing I could run this company. I realized immediately that my skill set was lacking, and read everything I could get my hands on to help me come up to speed. It was probably three years before I felt proficient.

Were you successful immediately?

I was able to keep bills paid, and the company’s financials improved every year, but it sure felt like a struggle. Finally, in my fourth year, the company made enough to start thinking about hiring a second designer.

That second designer was Kris Ryan-Clarke. How did you find her?

Mad Dog had one of the first color laser printers in Anchorage, so many of the advertising agencies in town would bring over files to print. I got to know several designers really well. Kris was one. She was working for the Ken Flynn Agency when I first met her. Shortly after I moved to our current office, I told Kris I was planning to hire an intern. She told me “no.” She said I was going to hire her. She named her salary, and told me she was giving Ken three month’s notice. It was a total Jedi mind trick, and it worked. I knew her work was superb, but I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to afford her. But it all worked out very nicely, and we’ve been together for 16 years.

You’re not a print shop anymore.

No. That ended when I hired Kris. I figured that if I was going to be a boss, I wanted to be the kind of boss I’d want to have. Kris is too talented as a designer to have her pushing buttons, making copies. So we became a design-only studio. I asked Kris to write our employee handbook, so that it would be created from the employee’s point of view. We also started entering competitions, because I thought it would be a good way to publicly acknowledge her work. We’ve been very fortunate in the awards arena.

Have you had any favorite projects over the years?

I am grateful for every job that’s come through our doors, but some have stood out as especially fun or creative. I loved our work for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. We got to use their “Wild about Anchorage” animal illustrations in a series of original ads to promote the arts, and that was nothing but fun. The annual report Kris and I collaborated on to mark the 30th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act for the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation of Barrow was a favorite, creatively. Seeing Northern Air Cargo’s new fleet of jets roll up in the livery we designed for them made me pretty giddy. Now I’m suddenly realizing how many cool projects we’ve been a part of, and it’s making me feel a little overwhelmed.

Mad Dog has a reputation for successful logo designs.

We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great companies to create their brand image from the ground up, or to help them refresh their brand. We’re producing a little overview of our logo designs as part of our 20th anniversary celebration. Logo design can be tricky, and stressful. A lot of designers avoid them. But we love the challenge.

You recently opened a second office, in Seattle?

Yes, but “office” is being generous. Kris and I often daydreamed about opening a second branch in Seattle. We even visited a few times to check out the city, the culture, and the available office space. The restaurants and concerts were merely coincidental perks. Then in 2014, Kris’ husband had an opportunity to move to Seattle for work, and Kris decided it was time to open Mad Dog Seattle. I would do anything to keep working with Kris, so we started planning. We bought all new equipment and software. We figured out convoluted phone systems that would allow her Anchorage clients to call her local number and get her in Seattle. I jumped through Washington state’s business license and tax system hoops, and made sure we were legal to operate in two states. Payroll reports had to change. Project tracking had to be revised. And the whole time, I thought, “There’s no way we can break into the Seattle market.” But Kris is amazing, and she’s made the whole thing look easy.

That left you alone as Mad Dog’s sole designer in Anchorage.

Not for long. I started scanning local designers to see who might be a fit even before Kris left. I spoke to a few casually. I checked out some portfolios. I needed someone who had design skills, but I also wanted someone who took a different approach to design than I did. Early in the year, Aurora Hablett was on my radar. She was a UAA grad with a degree in graphic design, and had been freelancing for a short while. We talked about one of her client projects, and I liked the way she thought about the process. She came into Mad Dog months later to show me her portfolio, because she was going to apply for a position at an agency. But I asked if she’d like to work with us instead, and she came on board shortly after Kris opened in Seattle. We’re a good match. She reminds me every day that I’m a thousand years old.

What’s in the future for Mad Dog?

We’ve never endeavored to be a huge design studio. I want to make sure we can give each client and each project the time they deserve. We actively seek out projects we think are going to be fun or challenging. But a big part of enjoying the job is being able to balance work and life, and I think we do that pretty well here. With a third designer, we have room to expand our client base. But I’m more concerned with quality over quantity. Of course, you have to have a certain quantity to keep the doors open. So I suppose Mad Dog will get a little bigger.

Growing a Startup

Delaney Thiele, founder and designer at Cloudberry, is partly of Yup’ik and Athabaskan descent, and takes inspiration from her Alaska Native heritage when choosing the materials and patterns for her line of handcrafted beaded earrings.   MORE