Name: Will Tams, Founder and Director of Creative
Business Name: The Collective Spark Creative
Describe your business
The Collective Spark Creative is a thriving digital design agency that works with innovative and cause-driven organizations. By applying our systems and principles of design, we help our clients multiply their positive impact on the world.
Tell us about your self-employment journey
I am a serial entrepreneur. This is my third design firm and, with the help of Collective, my first S Corp, which has helped me save money on taxes.
In addition to working for myself, I’ve had the opportunity of working in a few other constellations, each of which has informed my experience as a designer, creative, and small business owner in terms of how I want to structure my days, workspace, client interactions, and own creative process.
I worked at Apple about 15 years ago, and prior to that ran my own business, Dragonfly Design, that I founded shortly after moving to San Francisco in 1996. Since then I worked for a couple of mid-size design firms in SF, on some very large projects with many or most of the big players in the tech, innovation, and health sector.
I’ve also launched two more companies, with my most recent one in 2015. I’ve been in the same (beautiful) workspace in The Strawberry Creek Design Center in Berkeley for over a decade now.
I graduated from Brown University with extensive coursework at RISD and ultimately wrote a Senior thesis on the Creative Process. It’s something that has directly influenced my professional decisions, and I am as fascinated with the process today as I was then. It directly informs how I approach my work, my client relations, and even my children.
What area of your business are you most passionate about?
Creating innovative design solutions that help tell a company or organization’s story around how they create an impact in the world.
Crafting design systems where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—digital, print, experiential, all fit together seamlessly…almost like creating a puzzle that, when completed, becomes a beautiful final image/expression of the brand.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned early in your career that has contributed to your success?
In the late 1990s, there was a small but vibrant group of independent designers and design firms in Levi’s plaza near North Beach. A number of us would meet for dinner and drinks every couple of weeks and talk shop.
Over the years it evolved into an online discussion group that grew to photographers, writers, and other neighboring creatives, many of whom were or became close friends.
Through those conversations, and the ensuing collaborative work that we’ve done, I’ve come to realize that the best networking opportunities are not born out of stilted events with potential clients, but through genuine conversations, oftentimes with other creatives in the same or neighboring fields as mine.
How are you pivoting your business during the COVID-19 pandemic?
This period of time has proved to be an enormous blessing in an incredibly elaborate disguise. When the San Francisco Bay Area mandated a shelter in order place, I had a number of large projects that had to be postponed or canceled. For many of us, this was initially an incredibly stressful experience as small business owners rely on these larger contracts in order to thrive.
Once the dust settled, I realized that my past two decades of experience, and my company size, allowed me to be agile and versatile, and pivot where other larger companies simply couldn’t do that.
I was able to turn my focus to developing a product that has evolved out of a branding and identity process that I have been developing, testing, and refining over the past two decades.
Essentially I have been taking the branding process and ‘gamifying’ the key elements of that approach into what is now called The Branding Game™.
Through a series of fun and approachable exercises, an organization, company, or entrepreneur can build a brand guideline document. The document evolves out of their identity as a company and their responses to the various exercises, at literally a fraction of the cost of going through a traditional branding agency.
When the pandemic hit, not one but two of my prior clients contacted me and suggested the same idea: that I create a ‘product’ from the process that I had taken them through in previous years. Those conversations, and some following ones with my advisors, ultimately spurred this process.
Finally, the newfound time and all of the events of the past several months have inspired me to begin writing again—and sharing my work publicly on Medium which I have not done for many, many years.
You can read my recent reflections on Langston Hughes poetry from 70 years ago and its prophetic anticipation of the racial justice movement taking place today.
What’s a recent project that you’ve worked on that you’re really excited about?
One of the projects that I’m currently most passionate about focuses on the connection between Hope and Action in relation to Climate Change. In collaboration with Stanford University, I’m creating a series of interactive digital and physical assets and an interactive website to gather and showcase both the participant’s work and research findings.
Our first area of study centers around Climate Change and its impact on the California Coastal Redwoods. As part of the project, we will be distributing a series of posters, postcards, and other resources to help educate and gather participant input. With the recent California Wildfires and their impact on Big Basin and other redwood forest areas, the urgency has become more heightened.
As this progress evolves, we may launch a series of ‘kits’ that are distributed to K-12 classrooms that will allow teachers to facilitate discussion with their students around climate change, both specifically in relation to the redwoods, and also in terms of its broader impact and implications.
The kits would provide a more tangible form of experiential education where students could actively engage with materials that have been thematically created around these ideas.
Are you a part of any freelancer communities? Which ones and how do they support you?
As part of my business model, I run a small shared studio in Berkeley informally called the Spark Collective. It’s a shared workspace of designers, writers, photographers, and other independent creative professionals that each have a dedicated desk and workspace in the larger community.
We collaborate on projects, share client war stories, celebrate our victories, and mostly just enjoy being in the same space while we each work on our own projects. Typically there are 5-6 individuals that lease the space at any given time and we currently have one desk that has opened up recently.
What advice would you give other self-employed people?
Ask yourself if you truly, deeply want this life for yourself. If the genuine answer is “yes” then do it.
Do everything you need to do to make it a thriving reality. Ignore the naysayers (there will be many) find your allies (they exist) and keep your dream and fire alive.
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