Creative Characters S2 E12: Jason Debiak: Let's start a design agency from scratch.
On Creative Characters, we meet creative people working at the intersection of type and everyday life. You can listen below, or on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and wherever quality podcasts are available.
This week we’re welcoming Jason Debiak, friend of Creative Characters co-host, Carl, and co-founder of Paper Tiger, a family-owned design agency. Jason runs the agency alongside his brother, creating designs for user-friendly websites and mobile applications while having a Helvetica of a good time. Tune in as Jason shares his story from the world of indie music to launching a basement design agency, to today’s full-house agency.
A calling to create.
Like many kids, Jason started drawing at an early age. Once friends (and family) started asking him to make things for them—band posters and other typical high school stuff—he realized his hobby might be something more. He recalls always having a need to be challenged by requests and prompts from others.
“I remember when I was a little kid, I’d be at the diner, coloring on the back of the placemat. And I’d always ask my mom, ‘Mom, what should I draw?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t know, draw whatever!’ And I’m like, ‘no, no, no, I need to know!’”
Jason began trying out various art forms based on what friends needed from album covers to t-shirt designs.
“I really went down those rabbit holes and started exploring how to use [different tools] and how to really push myself creatively using them. Then over time it just kept going.”
Working on these projects taught Jason how to work with different personality types along with the design process. Little did he know, all of these lessons would later be the core foundation of Paper Tiger.
Jumping in feet-first.
After high school, Jason migrated into the music industry alongside his brother, Marc. He worked for a record label and toured the country with his other brother’s band.
“You learn so much meeting people all over the country and exploring all new places, but at the same time, you’re also pretty broke the whole time,” Jason recalls. “By doing that, and even working in the music business on the marketing side on an indie record label, you don’t have much, you have to do everything yourself.”
When the group finished touring (after a tree fell on their van), they decided it was time for something new. In, 2008, he and Marc co-launched an agency with the mindset of helping other businesses improve their design. Again, the duo just jumped in, figuring it out along the way.
“With our original clients, it was almost like working with a band. Every band has a brand, they have a thing that they do, they have to be marketed, they have to be understood and you have to really understand what they are and what they represent. Bringing that to a company was a natural transition for us.”
Some of Paper Tiger’s recent work; credit: Paper Tiger Creative Director Mirko Santangelo.
Kar Properties website design; credit: Paper Tiger Creative Director Mirko Santangelo.
Paper Tiger’s website; credit: Paper Tiger Creative Director Mirko Santangelo.
Fort Point Beer website design; credit: Paper Tiger Creative Director Mirko Santangelo.
Sizzer website design; credit: Paper Tiger Creative Director Mirko Santangelo.
Creativity through limitations.
One of the “aha” moments for Jason has been realizing the power of limitations. Sometimes having more restrictions can help create moments of innovation and growth during the design process.
“I never quite knew why I would be inspired or why it was something that I was able to do. But once I started leading other designers I realized that by providing them guardrails, they’re given more creative freedom.”
Another lesson has been learning how to get work done efficiently while also maintaining a high-quality output. According to Jason, a lot of it comes down to having a process.
“It also helps us stay smaller. I love wearing a lot of hats and I expect that our team is okay doing that as well. We stay small on purpose.”
To hear more of Jason’s insights on leading a team of designers, listen to the podcast now.
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Posters Jason created using AI design tools.
Posters Jason created using AI design tools.
Mentoring the next generation.
While Jay is forever a designer at heart, these days he’s leaning more into the strategy side of things. Helping young designers grow and teaching them skills has been a huge passion point.
“I think the decision to be less hands-on with designing less has purely been because I love working with young designers - creating what I think is this kind of symphony of amazing things that we can orchestrate and it doesn’t necessarily have to be me in there.”