Amy and Jason Schwartz have a new baby and run their own agency, Bright Bright Great, which they’re rebranding. As life has changed, so has their work.
Photos by Alyssa Schukar
Amy Schwartz sits on a couch next to Lucas Nelson, a young designer on her team at Bright Bright Great, a design and branding firm in Chicago. A cold, bright November day shines through BBG’s frosted windows as Amy, creative director of BBG, taps her fingernails on a coffee cup and sings aloud to herself. “OK!” Amy says, focusing on Lucas’s laptop screen; he’s pulled up illustrated icons he designed for Health Champion, a startup client whose website and brand BBG is building from scratch. Health Champion will be an app that collects patients’ health data, making medical records portable—Amy and her husband Jason Schwartz, founder and managing director of BBG, are fresh from the belly of the healthcare system, having given birth to a child three months prior. They felt a personal connection to the startup’s mission of easy access to medical records. Part of their work philosophy is to collaborate with people who are innovative and passionate, another is to put good work out into the world. If you’re creating something that’s bad, Amy says, you’re a jerk; if it’s neutral or mediocre, what’s the point?
“If we add multicolor icons, do you think it’ll be all over the place?” Lucas asks Amy.
“I don’t think that it’ll be good for these,” says Amy, 28. She has a cherubic face and wears a hoodie with torn jeans. “Keep it single color.”
Health Champion will need more icons for tools, she says, like BMI calculators and planned-conception calendars—maybe those can be multicolor. Lucas nods; Amy talks aloud as she types into the company’s task management system; “Icons… needed… for… the tools. Perfect!” For the rest of the morning, Amy has to quality-assurance (QA) test a development website and Lucas needs to move on to designs for other clients. They’re both doing the jobs of multiple people—Jason says that everyone at a small firm should be maxed out—and use a triage system to peck away at projects for each client. Clients come first; the year-long rebrand that BBG has been working on comes last. The rebrand’s delay has been frustrating for Amy and Jason, but they can’t sacrifice client quality for their own sake. And if quality goes, what do they have left? Jason believes that high standards are the only true incentives for creatives.
The heart of Bright Bright Great—ceilings covered in copper and aluminum pipes, walls decorated with murals, awards, wacky toys and bizarre photos of women pouring mustard into a high-heel hot dog—is a rectangular group of 10 white desks bunched into the middle of the room, including Amy’s desk, which is filled with half-sheets of paper, a purposefully misspelled pennant that says “problmes” and a note to herself posted to her monitor that says “green is not a creative color.” Jason’s wooden desk sits just 15 feet east, a sparse arrangement highlighted by a bright-pink Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Jason’s slightly graying beard rests in his left hand as his right hand scrolls his calendar, which looks like a disastrous game of Tetris. At 39, Jason is the BBG patriarch, a veteran compared to his young staff. He wears a black hoodie and cuffed jeans, his legs pumping like pistons underneath his desk. Amy turns around and asks Jason if he has time to take another call today.
“I’m booked at 10, 11, 1, 2, 3…”
“It looks like you’re free at 2, actually,” she says, scrolling Jason’s schedule and finding an empty space amid the falling blocks. “Should I just tell them you’re busy all day?”
“I have time, then,” he says, quickly looking back at his screen as a new block is shoehorned in. What others may see as terse communication, Amy and Jason see as necessary amid hectic schedules.
Earlier in the week, Jason was out of office for a day—not even a vacation day, but a day spent visiting the new McDonald’s headquarters—and came back to a schedule filled with meetings, contracts to review, clients to pitch and designs to approve. It would have been easier to be in the office, he thinks. “I think I had a dream about hiring last night,” Jason tells Amy, rubbing his eyes and loudly exhaling before clicking through his messages, rapidly responding to each. BBG’s design team is short-staffed by one and Jason had recently hired a new director of technology. Jason, the man who used to stay in the office for 12 hours, must fit as much as possible between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. He’s a dad now and wants to be there for his 3-month-old son, to watch him squirm and crawl and grow and see his first horror movie—a passion he and Amy share, branding themselves at speaking engagements as the Dracula Family.
Amy’s schedule has changed, too, simply by force of nature—she’s a breastfeeding mom and spends at least an hour each day pumping. Sometimes when she’s gone, Jason looks at her empty desk and frets about how much time they’re losing from an already dwindling day. Sometimes, Amy makes do by pumping while working, muting her computer’s mic and aiming the camera up at her face during video meetings. Finding time in a short day is an experiment for Amy and Jason, but it’s one that must succeed. Their new life depends on it.
“Hooo,” Jason says to himself, looking back at his calendar.
“What?” Amy says, swiveling around, eyes on her husband and hands on her work.
“Nothing, just my next meeting.”
Amy had a crush as soon as she saw Jason speaking at a design event in 2011. She was a design student on break from college, he was a professional designer in Chicago. This guy knows what he’s talking about, she thought before tempering herself: You’re a college student still living off cereal, he’s a business owner working on huge projects—why would he like you? But in what felt like an instant, their lives merged: She introduced herself at the event, he liked one of her tweets, she sent him an email that turned into dozens between the two of them. In 2012, Amy applied for an internship at Jason’s company and, within days of starting work together, they fell in love. Two years later, they married.
By 2014, Amy had earned her master’s degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art—her dream school—and worked full time as a designer. She soon landed her dream job as design director of game company Cards Against Humanity. Meanwhile, Jason’s company, Bright Bright Great, was growing rapidly. Amy marveled at it all; there was no single, sweeping change, but a series of small changes that swelled into their new lives.
Those changes never seemed to stop; in 2017, Amy became creative director of BBG, the firm Jason founded 12 years prior. Jason gave Amy creative control, but he kept final creative approval and became managing director, now dealing more in contracts and phone calls than fonts and pixels. She and Jason would now be working 15 feet apart. Jason was and is one of Amy’s mentors, but she had also become a respected designer. They were growing together and would push each other without filter, never quite arguing but always freely disagreeing without worry of hurting each other’s feelings.
Like Amy and Jason’s lives, BBG had also changed amid a flurry of small refinements. Jason and his employees would work on new projects, gain new skills and slowly feel comfortable offering those skills to clients. What was once a design firm turned into a marketing, strategy, research, hosting, digital tools, content development and design firm. No matter the skill, Jason says that BBG’s mission is to create a usable experience, one easily perceived by users and well-liked by clients.
But BBG’s website gave little indication of these refinements. By 2017, BBG’s 4-year-old website barely mentioned marketing, research or strategy—it’s out of date in both design and information, and it needed to be updated. In the meantime, Jason filled the gap between BBG’s old identity and its new reality on pitch calls to potential clients. Jason would tell potential clients that BBG has worked with everyone from startups to giants like Comcast, but no matter the client’s size, BBG wants to figure out the bigger picture: What’s the client’s brand identity? What story does their website tell? BBG focuses on four brackets, Jason says: design, research and strategy, development and technology, and ongoing marketing support. Whatever you tend to need, he’d tell clients; we’re a thinking agency, and that goes beyond design. BBG won’t stop working for a client after launching a new website, Jason tells them, as he wants his team to bring clients new ideas and push them into the future. BBG’s staff is small, nimble and mostly Chicago-based; it doesn’t outsource its work to India, Jason says. He’s worked as a designer at Fortune 500 companies and there was too much talk and not enough work—Jason wants to cut the red tape from the design process and make the client’s life easier.
But Amy and Jason needed to figure out a way to say all of this on their website. The company had tried in 2017, working with its young team to design a new brand. After excitedly gathering the ideas as a team, the ideas suffocated and the rebrand died. It was a 7.5 out of 10, Jason says; why would we launch a mediocre design that didn’t feel 100% like us?
When you’re designing an image for yourself—one that will tell your story and sell your services—the process is slower. As a designer, you become your own toughest client, as finding your story can feel like an endless soul-search. Amy and Jason set a deadline of July 2018 for the rebrand.
But then, one afternoon in December 2017, Amy and Jason’s life took another sharp turn. Before lunch, Amy extended her hand toward Jason. He looked toward her hand and saw what he believed was a candy bar, then realized was a pregnancy test. Two stripes; positive. They’re going to be parents. Jason felt ecstatic and nervous and afraid and… He was going to be a dad. How do you take care of a baby? How do you balance that new life with your business? But there was also beauty, and that was obvious when he thought of Amy becoming a mother. They figured everything else out together, he thought—raising a baby would be no different. It’s the next phase of life, he thought. His fear turned to joy, his nerves to excitement.
Amy and Jason wrote a list of baby names, searching for a boy’s name that wasn’t boring, winnowing the list from dozens to one: Hyperion Wolf Schwartz, due August 2018. Hyperion is a Marvel superhero and Jason is an avid comic book collector; Hyperion Avenue is also where Disney’s first art studio was built, with Disney being Amy’s biggest creative inspiration. Their son, Hyperion, would be born a month after the BBG rebrand was scheduled to go live. By the end of summer, Amy and Jason would have a new house, a new brand and a new baby. They were designing a life together.
On the night of Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, Amy and Jason drove to the hospital. Amy recalls sending messages on Slack until she was 10 centimeters dilated, ready to push. On Friday morning, Hyperion—Hype, as they call him—was born. They took a few hours to be alone as a family before Jason sent out messages announcing the birth.
On Monday, Jason once again took over as creative director of BBG, while Amy stayed home with Hype for six weeks. They had missed their deadline to rebrand BBG—that was supposed to be independent of the baby, Jason says—but it could wait. Amy became a mother, Jason a father; their living story became more important than how they told their brand story.
Jason wipes exhaustion from his eyes, a cowlick sticking up on the back of his head. He plops into his chair and shakes his leg under the desk. It’s November 2018 and Hype, who barely let Jason sleep last night, is 3 months old. Jason carried Hype around all night, trying to calm him, but the baby awoke, screamed and puked. “How could you throw up on me?” Jason continues to wonder hours later at his desk.
BBG’s 9 a.m. meeting will start in five minutes and Amy hasn’t arrived yet, nor will she until she finishes feeding Hype and hands him off to the nanny. Across the office, someone whispers that the baby may be teething. Employees slide their chairs toward Jason’s desk; Amy and two others join the meeting through video chat as Jason lists the today’s work: More illustrations for the development site of Health Champion, which will launch in January. Another client, Stern Pinball, is launching a full site within a month and needs to be QA tested, as does the website for Cranbrook Academy of Art, Amy’s dream school and now dream client. Another client needs to be prodded to pay before their demands for early launch are met. Jason also wants Lucas to work on a font, one that may be used for the rebrand but will likely be sold as a font by Avondale Type Co., a typeface company and one of BBG’s offshoots (they also run a videography and photography studio called MLMTR).
Just after the meeting ends, Jason’s smartwatch buzzes—his and Amy’s watches alert one another when they leave home or the office. Amy arrives 30 minutes later, tired, with two cups of coffee. She hands one to Caroline Ruark, the company’s accounts and project manager. Hype kept Amy awake, too, but she already misses him. When Amy first came back to work after maternity leave, she wanted to cry. He needed so much from her; how do people leave their babies? But Amy also missed working and talking to people and being creative; she wanted the balance of raising her baby and practicing her passion. Hype is well taken care of by the nanny and Jason’s mom while Amy and Jason are at work, it’s just hard to pull away from snuggling with her perfect little baby.
BBG’s ringtone, a bleeping electronic beat, gets the once-tired Amy up and grooving. “Doesn’t it just make you want to dance? Doo doo doooo…” She dances on one leg toward the phone, but Jason rushes over and answers, taking the phone into the conference room, beckoning Caroline to follow. It’s the client who has yet to pay but wants to launch early. Jason doesn’t think that the client has been respectful to his employees—the client has been sending discouraging emails to Caroline and the account’s designer, Kara Shim—but as BBG’s client list grows, he must trust employees to take care of client demands, good and bad. Caroline tried handling this client with an email, but the client quickly called BBG’s office.
Jason’s voice—declarative, nasal and firm—echoes from the conference room into the office: “You don’t understand that we’re working double for you on an unreasonable launch date,” he says. Employees soften their typing, eyes locked on their screens. After a few minutes, Caroline leaves the conference room and heads out the office’s back door, Amy leaving her desk to follow.
Perhaps Jason’s defense of Kara and Caroline was paternal; after all, BBG was his first baby. One of Jason’s goals at BBG is to foster the same atmosphere he experienced as a student in Wheeling High School’s art room, a place where he refined what he calls “The Eye.” He’s had The Eye—others might simply call it artistic taste—since he was 5, when he’d sit transfixed by attractive road signs, action-packed comic books and grotesque Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Jason likes helping young designers develop their Eye, allowing them creativity with clients. He’ll coach them and quickly sketch ideas to illustrate what he’s looking for in the next version, allowing young designers to meld their ideas with the client’s desires. But sometimes, like today, Jason needs to take control.
Fifteen minutes later, Caroline and Amy are back at their desks. Jason’s voice echoes into the office—the conversation seems to have ebbed. “I assure you,” Jason says, “if everything stays constructive, everyone stays happy.” Their relationship can stay good with better communication, he says. “Let’s keep everything productive,” Jason tells the client, reminding them how much work his staff puts into their website.
Caroline and Kara laugh at Jason’s comments from their desks and Brandon Hammer, BBG’s director of marketing and strategy, smiles.
“I love how hard he’s standing up for this team,” Brandon says.
“Yeah, I’m really glad for it,” Caroline says.
“This man has earned a standing-O when he gets out here,” Brandon says.
The following week, Monday morning, Health Champion approves BBG’s design work on its development website. “The changes you made were perfect,” the client tells Amy and Caroline over speaker phone. Health Champion is nearly three weeks late with content and Amy handles it gently. “We just want to do really good work for you,” Amy says, asking the client to send the content by the end of November. In creative work, clients are frequently late—Jason recalls that one client took 29 days to decide if they wanted a truck as their logo. As the call with Health Champion ends, Amy sighs, “I love them.” Then her mind moves back to her baby. Amy shows Caroline photos from the weekend when Amy and Jason hosted family at their new house—a grinning niece holds Hype, Jason pours chocolate sauce into a nephew’s mouth, a smiling Jason holds a smiling Hype. “I love this baby,” Amy says. “I miss him already.”
A year after the first attempt to rebrand BBG, Amy and Jason are still stalled. It’s hard for Jason to stop tinkering. He’s frustrated that the rebrand isn’t finished, Amy knows; she’s frustrated, too. It’s hard to give yourself a new face, to find who you are visually and be satisfied with the result. Amy and Jason work through the frustration, each designing their own unique mock-ups, then attempting to blend their drafts into something they feel looks like BBG. Amy says that the process is akin to two crossing streams moving apart, then crossing again later before hopefully flowing together. It’s much different from their usual process for clients, where multiple BBG employees work on the same files. But after their last rebranding failure, Amy and Jason must finish the job themselves.
But they’re just so damn busy. There’s Hype, the clients, the employees, the job vacancies, the new house, the groceries and exercise and sleep and commute—then there’s everything else, the gigs and side-hustle and volunteerism endemic in the ambitious. A friend of Amy’s, a man who also works with his wife, once gave Amy some advice: Never talk about business when one of you is wearing something with a drawstring or an elastic band. Sometimes, like last night in bed, Amy and Jason break that rule. Jason says that he told Amy he worries she has too many ongoing tasks outside of caring for Hype and BBG—she works as adjunct design faculty at DePaul University and, until recently stepping down, served as vice president of member experience for the American Institute of Graphic Arts Chicago. Jason fears that she’ll spread herself too thin if she teaches again. Over the past couple years, Jason has quit or paused most of his hobbies and sidegigs—his band, his work as director of marketing for the Chicago Design Museum, his role as co-chair of design-student resource The Secret Handshake—but Amy says that she isn’t thinking about quitting anything yet. She wants to be the one to decide what’s too much for her, to know herself that she’s is being spread too thin. Amy describes herself as impatient, as someone who will do something she wants to do no matter what, but anything she does will have to give her more value than being with Hype. Even so, Jason worries about time; the baby keeps them awake now, but soon he’ll be potty training, having friends over, going to school… Everything will change so quickly. Time is Amy and Jason’s most in-demand resource, especially as Hype grows.
Plus there’s the matter of the rebrand. If it isn’t done by Thanksgiving break, Jason says that he’ll just finish it himself. Who knows when he’ll find the time, but it needs to get done. The new site’s logic will need to be impeccable, Jason says, a cleaner look with sub-sites that explain what BBG does. It’s also going to be a big stylistic change, which is what they’re hung up on. A lot of the style will be on Amy, he says, but she’s slammed at work; her design team is short one employee, which can devastate a small team. Jason may have to finish the rebrand for his sake and Amy’s, who’s looking forward to time with Hype over a long Thanksgiving weekend.
But Amy doesn’t want to stop working on the rebrand; BBG is Jason’s baby, but it’s her company, too. In the past, Amy would work nights and weekends until a project like this was finished; now, when her workday is over, Amy just wants to go home to snuggle with Hype. Amy loves design work, but being with Hype fills her with a joy like nothing else—she no longer works for fun until 7:30 p.m. because her perfect little guy is waiting back home. Even on nights when Hype keeps her awake, there’s nowhere else Amy would rather be than with him.
It’s early December now, night cannibalizing the day. Amy and Jason worked together on the rebrand over a quiet Thanksgiving weekend. Amy scrolls through one of her design concepts for BBG’s new website and presentation deck; gone are the photo and video backgrounds of the old website and deck—they’ve been replaced by a minimalist white background and black text. Gone is the “BBG” logo with the bubble-rounded corners—it’s being replaced by a logo that’s sleek and slashing. The old layout was busy, she says. None of this new layout is live or approved, but both Amy and Jason say they’re close to something that feels right, a sparse design that gives space to their work and story.
They extend BBG’s rebrand deadline to the week before Christmas.
Two weeks later, the BBG office is quiet, as some employees have left for the holidays. By the end of the year, many of their current clients—such as Cranbrook and Stern Pinball—will have new websites live and BBG will have a new list of clients and projects. Appointments are still stacked like bricks in Amy and Jason’s calendars. BBG’s rebrand will now be done by 2019, Jason says. Working together over the break will give he and Amy time to focus, just as they were able to over Thanksgiving weekend.
Amy and Jason meet with Caroline to go through the various designs for the rebrand. Amy shows a classic Tiffany’s-style design, sparse and minimal. Another design is too refined for their brand, all agree. Another is too gothic, but they all laugh—Amy says that this could be their Sabrina the Teenage Witch look. Then Jason shows his work, a similar clean style that’s sparse, largely black and white with flares of faded, neon rainbow colors along the borders of the page. They discuss whether to have headers on the page or go straight into the content. Should they add a third color like gold or coral? Should the rainbows stay or go? Jason shows one idea that he’s particularly proud of, a series of cards that users could flip to read about BBG’s services.
“When you touch it on an iPad, the tile could raise a bit,” Jason says.
“Cool, I dig it,” Amy says.
“I think we have the elements,” Jason says. “We should try to do a content or blog post page. Most of the stuff that’s designed isn’t going to change all that much.”
“OK,” Amy says. “Do you think we’re still each working on different ones?”
“You could try to pull it together,” Jason says. “I think it’s gonna happen between Christmas and New Year’s.”
“Well, I need things to work on now,” Amy says. “Also, I don’t know how realistic it is to say that the whole website is going to be designed between Christmas and New Year’s, because who’s watching the baby?”
Amy and Caroline laugh. “All of the pages are designed,” Jason says. “It’s just converting some styles. We’re not going to reinvent how we do blog posts.”
“True,” Amy says. Over the next few days, Amy will try different styles and fonts on BBG’s new content page. She says that Kara and Lucas also have ideas for changes. “My goal would be to get through one of these and show them so they can jump in on this, too,” she says. “I want everyone to have some say and involvement to put into all this.”
“Just be careful,” Jason says, “because of what happened last time.”
“I know,” Amy says. “I think that we need to know what’s on the table for changing and what’s not.”
“Yeah,” Jason says. “Opening this to everybody, what will happen is we’ll have everybody’s perspective back in the mix, which for better or for worse, it’s good to have that perspective. But at some point, because we have been working on this for so long and we have heard the perspectives and we know where people’s feelings are on pages, we don’t need to reopen it to every single person. But we absolutely can ask for opinions on stuff like, does this feel more like us or less like us than in the past?”
“Cool,” says Amy. She has a lot of rebrand work to do but must now QA test a website, eat lunch and then pump, all in the 70 minutes before her next meeting.
The BBG office was closed between Christmas and New Year’s, and the rebrand went unfinished. Jason planned to work the entire holiday, just like he had in years past, while Amy expected not to work at all, save for taking care of Hype. By January, Amy and Hype had won—Jason, mister 12-hour workdays, worked the first and last days of their time off, spending the rest of it with his family.
Amy was relieved to have the time with Hype. Taking care of Hype is still work for Amy, but being with him feels natural. Jason, on the other hand, felt anxious—not because of Hype, but because of the “stress of waiting to work.” Working has always been his advantage; BBG’s success didn’t come from luck, he says, but rather a lot of hard work. Those long holidays allow Jason to get out the ideas that have been in his head the whole year—he once completely redesigned the Avondale Type Co. website during his time off.
Even with Jason’s anxiety, Stern’s and Cranbrook’s websites launched over the holiday. There’s still more work to do on the BBG rebrand. Amy and Jason have been slowly pushing out copy changes and believe that they’re close to finishing a design; Amy says that Kara and Lucas liked what they’ve seen so far.
But the rebrand wasn’t the focus of Amy and Jason’s holiday. While the office was closed, they took care of Hype, who was teething and, for the first time, sick. Jason and Amy doted on Hype, who needed to be held to fall asleep—they never knew whether he’d sleep for three minutes or three hours. But they played with Hype, too, and he reached new milestones: rolling over, scrolling through an iPhone, putting two fingers in Jason’s nose and one in his mouth. As soon as Hype learns to answer messages, Jason jokes that he’ll be on the clock. As Hype grows, Jason and Amy will be there to teach him about the family business, about the way things can be arranged seamlessly.
Though Jason was anxious about not working, he felt that the time spent with Hype was better than work. Family time is his present, but also his future; he believes that these holidays will now be spent with Amy and Hype. What he once called the next phase of life is now just life. Rather than filling their time off with work, they lived simply and minimally, slowing the pace and watching life’s little changes in real time.
BBG could launch any of the art-direction concepts they’ve created, Jason says, but they only want to launch what truly feels like them. What felt like them over the holiday was being in the moment with Hype, watching as he discovers the world for the first time, free of the distractions of work. You only get one chance to enjoy the days where everything is new, where the rewards are better than launching a new website and richer than money. In those moments, you see life anew.