Many years have passed since Olive & Company Co-Founders Tom Keekley and Rob Haskin worked together on the UW Stout student newspaper. After forging separate paths through agency and corporate design positions, Tom and Rob eventually reunited to form Olive & Company. Ten years later, the tools and methods have all changed dramatically, but Olive & Company is still running strong.
As a Partner, Tom works closely with Rob to provide studio direction and management. He spends more time developing new business relationships than designing concepts these days, but his passion for exceptional design hasn’t wavered. We spoke with Tom about Olive & Company’s origins, and about how things have changed over the years.
What was your pre-Olive & Company professional life like?
My first job was as a designer for a non-profit journalism association, then I jumped to a small design agency that worked with large clients, and then to a corporate position, so I like to think that I had a good taste for a variety of environments. Certainly that helps when understanding the challenges facing our clients.
Where did you and Rob meet? Did you have any inkling that you two might start a company together some day?
We met as designers for the student newspaper at UW Stout. We were involved in the creation of a magazine-styled addition to the paper called the “InSection” which covered arts, music, and things we thought were “edgy” at the time. Since it broke from the conformity of the rest of the paper, we were able to build the page layout from scratch so we really put our Aldus Pagemaker skills to the test.
Actually, it was a great time to learn design. Our staff had some of the only Macs on campus at the time, but much of the production was still done with traditional paste up techniques, so we got to grow with desktop publishing technology and we developed a practical appreciation for the mechanical traditions we were leaving behind.
After we graduated, we occasionally joked (after many beers) that we should start an agency together, but I certainly never thought we would. I never considered myself “business” material and was fulfilled as a designer. It wasn’t until a stint in big corporate bored me to tears that I got a hankerin’ for a challenge. Thanks to a surprise call from Rob’s lovely bride, Tieran, we went out for enough beer to dream up Olive and get it started.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
On paper, it looks boring. Lots of email replies and phone calls mixed with meetings in the studio. In practice, I love it. I’m pretty comfortable talking about how Olive can help companies and organizations achieve their objectives through a variety of projects, so every opportunity is interesting to me. Plus, if I have to spend nine hours away from my family and my guitars, the Olive studio and team is an enticing alternative!
How has Olive changed since the early days back in the old Grain Belt Brewery Bottling House building?
That’s a good question. I think we are almost completely transformed. Even though a good portion of our staff was there 3 years ago, nearly everything we do is done better and with more confidence today.
I often analogize the past couple of years at Olive as like moving the company out of adolescence into adulthood. Rob and I always hoped that Olive wouldn’t be dependent on either of us, personally, to be successful in the long run. Now it feels like we’ve grown into a sustainable creative agency. It seems silly, but for a long time I just didn’t think about that.
How do you define “design”? Has that definition changed over the years?
I think my definition has broadened. It used to be primarily visual, and now I think design is more fundamental than that. I think everyone in our studio “designs” in some manner. It can be a very difficult concept – and process – to explain sometimes.
What are your favorite types of projects these days?
I think projects where we have a wide variety of people contributing are the most fun: writers, strategists, designers, and developers all banging out ideas. It’s collaborative and the work ends up more thoughtful and impactful.
Why don’t we hear more Rush on the studio playlist?
I hardly ever listen to Rush on my own. They have passed being a “favorite band” and are more like pictures that you keep in your desk drawer that you know by heart. I do think it’s cool that I latched on to a band 30 years ago that are still putting out killer albums that don’t feel like “dad-rock.” I despise bands that slowly wimp out instead of just moving on to something they still have passion for.
Now, the new Karnivool? I should be adding that to the Olive Mix today.
If your boys told you they wanted to start a design firm, what advice would you give to them?
Don’t do it together. They would implode in a cloud of LEGO and dirt.
It’s 12:30 pm, and you haven’t eaten anything all day. Where are you headed?
Well … that’s pretty late for me. By that point I would probably skip lunch (bad) or drop into Pracna for one of their awesome Caesar salads.