John Gallagher| Detroit Free Press

When the Skidmore Studio graphic design firm moved to downtown Detroit a year ago, its owner, Tim Smith, remained a little uncertain how the move from the suburbs would impact his business.

Today, Skidmore Studio is celebrating a 30% growth in staff, several new clients, and a projected revenue increase of 30% this year.

“I was very optimistic that it was going to work out, but I had no idea it was going to be as positive as it has been,” Smith said of the move to the M@dison, the digital entrepreneurial hub created by Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert and his partners.

The M@dison “has just become a lightning rod for the creative rebirth of the city,” Smith added. “Us being part of that has been beyond my expectations, and I had pretty high expectations.”

The firm opened in 1959 in Detroit’s New Center area, founded by former General Motors illustrator Leo Skidmore, who moved the firm to the suburbs after several years.

Smith was a client of Skidmore in the 1990s, then joined the firm in 2000. In 2010, he bought out founder Leo Skidmore’s heir to own 100% of the company.

Today, Skidmore works in two distinct tracks. The first is its traditional work for advertising agencies, which often hire Skidmore to flesh out a concept. And the second is direct work for clients, which is growing more common.

“A corporate client will call us and say, ‘I’ve got a challenge, a problem, I don’t know how to solve it. Can you come in and help us?’ And then we sit down with them and figure out what it is that they need,” Smith said. The “deliverable” may be a brochure, a website, an illustration for an ad or some other product.

Given the nature of graphic design, the public almost never realizes that they’re looking at Skidmore’s work, but that work is surprisingly common around town.

Skidmore designed the Detroit Tigers’ 2013 season ticket package materials, crafted the Metro Times’ new look that just hit the newsstands, and designed the brochure for the high-profile Techonomy conference held in Detroit recently. Corporate clients include Quicken Loans, DTE Energy and the Detroit Regional Chamber.

A lot of the work is brainstorming, trying to understand the client’s needs. For the Techonomy conference booklet, Skidmore created a booklet that not only had the right look — a sleek, mostly black background with an up-to-date typeface — but also designed the booklet with a ring binder to make it easier to flip open during the busy day.

“We call that design thinking, where you’re always asking how is the end user going to interact with this,” Smith said. “Our concept is to start with the end user, start with what they’re looking for, and work backwards.”

After Gilbert and his partners bought the defunct Madison Theatre Building and redesigned it as a hub for digital entrepreneurs, the building quickly filled up with start-up firms, many of them backed by Detroit Venture Partners, the investment fund started by Gilbert and a few others.

“Creative people are inspired by the surroundings that they’re in,” Smith said. “And when you’re inspired and more energized, your work is naturally going to get better,” Smith said. “So I’ve seen the quality of the work, which was already at a very high level, get even higher just because they’re emotionally more engaged.”

One of Skidmore’s new clients is Josh Linkner, CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, who said he was looking to rebrand and relaunch a website for his book career and speaking engagements.

“Skidmore rocks,” Linkner said. “Simply put, they hit it out of the park for me. The strategic work was spot-on, the visual design was gorgeous, and the support and responsiveness was unparalleled.”

Of Skidmore’s 28 employees, many are in their 20s and 30s — designers, photographers and illustrators.

“I’m the old guy here,” Smith, who is 49, quips. “I don’t feel old, which is nice. You get to come to a place every day where you hang around people who are very talented.”

Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or

More Details: Skidmore Studio

Business: Graphic design firm that creates ad illustrations, websites and other products.

Location: Moved recently to the M@dison in downtown Detroit.

Employees: 28

Clients include: Detroit Tigers, Quicken Loans, DTE Energy, Detroit Regional Chamber.

Owner: Tim Smith

Website: www.skidmore

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