Less than two years after picking up their degrees from the IU Herron School of Art and Design’s visual communications (VC) program in May 2010, Dustin Lynch and Courtney Kuhstoss Moore have successfully launched Attic Design Collective.
The two forged a game plan in their junior year that is now a reality—they’ve staked out a place in the public health communications sector, and built new ties to Herron and to a growing number of IUPUI-based departments and programs, many in the IU School of Medicine.
“Life can take you down some roads you don’t expect,” says Lynch with a smile.
Communication is Vital
Attic Design Collective has become a “go-to” firm for high-value, reasonably priced communications plans that help improve the quality of life for Indianapolis neighborhoods.
Lynch and Moore often work in tandem with one of their favorite Herron faculty members, Helen Sanematsu. Sanematsu is a familiar face in local public health programs, and she is convinced that one of the problems such programs face is lack of communication with their corner of the world. And that same problem applies to academic-based programs such as those with the School of Medicine.
“I’ve worked on several projects with (the School of) Medicine in the last few years, and knew that Courtney and Dustin would be able to help them,” Sanematsu says, adding that she knew these collaborations also would help Attic Design establish itself.
For their first project, Lynch and Moore worked with the Indiana Coalition to Improve Adolescent Health and the Adolescent Health Department at the IU School of Medicine.
“At first, they wanted us to do some flyers, but it was clear to us pretty quickly that they needed more,” says Lynch. Despite being a new firm, the two took a leap of faith and counseled their clients to go in another direction: a small, pocket-sized guidebook with basic, useful tips for young kids called The Little Book about a Whole Lot of Stuff. The idea clicked with their clients and, with the help of two fellow VC alums, the book hit the marketplace about four months later.
“People at the State Department of Health loved the book and were interested in what we could do for another project, so we did that one, too,” says Lynch. “Those two projects helped people realize we could do more than flyers or brochures.”
The Little Book about a Whole Lot of Stuff also has accentuated the value of project evaluation. “We learned that the book works best among suburban high school kids,” Moore says. “For us, the key is to find what messages our clients want to convey, figure out the best way to do that, and then see if it connected as we all wanted.”
That means listening—closely—as clients lay out their desired outcome. “You want to be able to help them reach their goals, and sometimes that means you have to show them that their first idea isn’t always the best way to do that,” says Lynch.
“If you know your client, you can accomplish a lot and build a trust that you’ll get out the message they want, and get results,” adds Moore.
That’s an example of what Sanematsu believes that clients on the campus and in the community value. And it’s the biggest reason she continues working with her former students. “They’re so good at it that they have become my de facto lab, my research team,” she says with a chuckle. “I love working on public health projects, but I don’t have giant NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants to support my investigations, so they fill a real need.”
Began as a Fantasy
Attic Design Collective began “as a fantasy for us when we were still juniors at Herron,” says Lynch, adding that the first time they worked together was on a class project. Neither was sure how a real-world business would work.
“We didn’t seem to have anything in common, generationally, professionally, or otherwise,” says Lynch. “But it turned out we complemented one another.” Moore also believes that her strengths are Dustin’s weaknesses, and vice versa.
The differences include their ages (he’s 37, and she’s 25), geography (he’s from Colorado, she’s from Whiteland, Indiana) backgrounds, and personal styles.
“Courtney is much more practical than I am,” Lynch laughs. “I’d have gone out of business in about three months if I were on my own. She’s very realistic about the business side.”
Lynch also has an extensive background in the health-care field that Sanematsu believes has been invaluable to Attic Design. “Dustin worked in a hospital setting for years,” she says. “He’s full of stories because he keeps up with things (in the field). He’s worked with doctors and nurses, so he’s familiar with the hierarchy, the language, and the way things work.”
Their collaborations with research-driven organizations have earned them an unexpected credential—they have been listed as co-investigators on public health-related grants. “We didn’t really have that in our (business) plan,” laughs Lynch.
“That’s something they have earned, even if they weren’t expecting it,” Sanematsu chuckles. “They have helped several organizations develop information-gathering tools that will be a big help to those groups.”
Moore and Lynch enjoy their work with Sanematsu, the School of Medicine, and other campus and community groups. The niche in which they find themselves has been an important part of Attic Design Collective’s early successes, which recently allowed them to move into the Stutz Building, a popular artist’s enclave located on Indianapolis’s near north side.
They are interested in expanding their horizons and wouldn’t mind the challenges of fields beyond public health. “Our process can translate into almost any field, but the one we’re most interested in exploring next is politics,” says Moore.
Whatever field they tackle, both Lynch and Moore fully expect their Herron training to be a crucial tool.
“One of the basic things we learned at Herron was that when you collaborate, you have to be in sync,” says Lynch. “More than once, we’ve had to stop a project because we realized we weren’t together. But we know how to think things through and get back on track.”
Finding their way, in fact, often involves a return to Eskenazi Hall for inspiration, to talk a problem over with Sanematsu or other mentors in the school, or even to recruit assistance on a project-by-project basis from current Herron students. “There is an awful lot of talent in that building,” Lynch says.
Those are the types of relationships that Sanematsu treasures, as both a teacher and as a community activist. She likes the symmetry of Herron students getting their degrees, opening businesses, then building or renewing ties with IUPUI to help other schools and programs achieve their goals.
“There is such energy on the IUPUI campus, and these kinds of collaborations help us all succeed in our own goals, those of our students and graduates, and for our community,” she says.