Eric Ruffing and Dave Parmley of Orange-County based 13THFLOOR design for the youth market-or at least for those who think and act young. Clients have included Mattel, Hot Wheels, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, EA, Hasbro, Oakley, Giro, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Nike, Converse, and MTV. But they also have worked for more staid, larger agencies such as 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, Frog Design, TBWA Chiat Day, Infinity Broadcasting, TL Partnership, and JWT Team Detroit.
They have been remarkably successful in the much-imitated skulls/flames/goth/lightning bolt category for a remarkably long stretch of time: 13THFLOOR's virtual office opened in 1993 after both designers left positions at O'Neill Surf in Santa Cruz. Their work has the feel of Mad, Surfer and Hot Rod magazines graphics that so many kids grew up doodling in the margins of school notebooks. By a lucky twist of fate, Ruffing and Parmley never had to stop.
Largely because they walk the walk (and surf the surf, and flip the board, and manual the bike-they both are involved in about every action sport imaginable), they can truly talk the talk. A successful design is one that appeals to them personally, as they are in the target audience. But they have also learned the degrees of "skullitude," so to speak. What appeals to a Hot Wheels-car-buying mom may not appeal to a hard-core, 19-year-old skateboarder. The designers know how to ramp it up and down.
"There are a lot of artists in this market who cross the line to being very evil and satanic. We go to the edge of the abyss but don't fall in," Parmley says. What appeals to clients is the freshness in their work: All of their art and type is custom (or, as they prefer to say, "kustom"). Every skeleton, every flame, every horned and/or fanged creature is brand-new. Each design may go through 30, 40 or 50 revisions. Every new face is massaged and tweaked carefully-so much so that their next step in business will be to sell the finessed fonts as products. They love the details, shooting designs back and forth between their offices (Eric is in Ladera Ranch, while Dave is in Dana Point). The work may look impulsive, but it is anything but.
"We look at the trends around clothing stores and in magazines and wherever, and everything has the 'use this font, place your logo here' attitude. Whether it's the art or the attitude, it is so incredibly similar. We really give uniqueness to our designs. That's what gives our clients equity in the designs we give them," Parmley says.
Ruffing shares one of his favorite stories that illustrates how they create work that connects with clients' customers directly. "We were called in by a global action sports brand to look at the work they were doing. They had every style they could think of in skulls, flames, gothic, wings, whatever. They asked us what style we thought would be best for their company. I said, 'All of them.' You just can't say that this one is cool for every person. You have to make a personal connection. The skateboard industry is the only one that still does that: There is no prevalent style. It's so important to know what the usage is for the art-embroidered? One color? Printed? What kind of stores will the art be in? Sport goods store or surf shop? Gift shop or supermarket? Local or national marketing?"
Parmley says their unwritten rule is simple: Would I wear that design myself? "That is the litmus test for us to check if a logo is done," he says. Once their work hits the street, waves or dirt, their true joy comes from seeing an end user put their design on his board or car, or from seeing someone wear their logo design on apparel.
He cites a particular success story. "When we did the Pro-Tec helmets logo, the main requirement was to make sure the kids didn't remove the Pro-Tec logo the minute they got out of the store. Years later, we still see that logo on kids' melons. That's a huge accomplishment," says Ruffing.
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