Ellen Bruss Design – EBD began after I had been working for a few years in both the music business and for agencies big and small. I primarily worked for Fey Concerts, the largest music promoter between the Midwest and Bill Graham in the West. It was exciting, fast paced, and I had huge access to shows. At the time, Fey was mostly focused on promoting the ‘Summer of Stars’ at Red Rocks with a few stadium shows in between, so I had time to freelance between October-April. During those months, I experienced a wide variety of agencies – there were national advertising agencies like DDB Needham and large local PR agencies like Schenkein, there were 10-20 person agencies, and small graphic design firms. This exposure gave me a clear view on the business, and what style of working fit me best. With the larger agencies I found I was too removed from the clients and hearing what they wanted, however I found their business approach was appealing. With the smaller design firms, I liked their approach to creative solutions. So when I started EBD, I decided to try to strike a balance between efficient business solutions and wild creativity, something I found was a rare combination.
During those days, I was overrun with referrals to people who needed design work. Those referrals turned into full time clients, so in October of 1990 I hired a part-time bookkeeper (a friend from the concert business) and a young designer, and officially started EBD. Our core clients were Janus Mutual Funds, MCA Concerts, Public Service Credit Union (now Canvas Credit Union), and a few others. Janus Funds was 30,000 investors when we started, and grew to 1.3 million during our tenure.
Starting a business with a lean staff meant that nights and weekends were filled with billing, estimates, and the like. I had always had a lot of energy, so this was a good fit for me. I didn’t think about taxes, HR, and managing staff ahead of time, so it was lucky that I had a great team surrounding me.
Our first office was at 1660 Lafayette in Denver. The photographer Larry Laszlo was downstairs and architect Jay Vanderlip was next door. There were random cats and dogs and with other creatives around, it was an interesting building. We worked on marketing for Renaissance Fair Entertainment, who had five fairs around the country. We traveled to those and created a line of custom line of products for their shops. We worked with the illustrator Greg Carr on the LoDo Music Festival and the Downtown Denver Parade of Lights. In addition to paying clients we did a lot of non-profit work, for both artist friends and great organizations like the Diana Price Fish Foundation (it is now part of The Denver Foundation). I also met a lot of the printers, paper merchants and vendors that would eventually make Denver the vibrant creative city it is today.
The 90s were a period of rapid technological advancement, and I embraced it all. We started running our own film for printers before they were doing it themselves. There was a leap for the printers to make, but they worked with us to make it happen. We finally sold our stat camera, which was the basis for our paste-up boards prior to this time.
In 1991, I found a building at 822 East 19th (Clarkson) that would be the first office space I owned. It was in a group of old homes that photographer Gifford Ewing and his wife Mary rescued and renovated in the late 80s. The dot-com era was in full force, and thanks for the foresight of a tech saavy staffer, we purchased www.ebd.com. My first email address was at this time, and the stack of messages when I would return to my desk dwindled and became emails. We grew from the original three to eight in this office. We did amazing work for Lisa Herzlich at Cherry Creek Shopping Center including marketing, large Holiday Décor programs and interesting special events like a benefit for Race for the Cure. In the Race for the Cure program, we curated a large group of photographers to take portraits of breast cancer survivors and displayed them in the center. Many of our programs were so popular that they traveled to other Taubman Centers. Real estate work became a core part of our business, including work for the new Lowry redevelopment and eventually Continuum Partners. There were still lots of dogs around, however we had ditched the cats.
In the early 2000’s , I joined AIGA, the national graphic design organization whose mission is to recognize individuals that raise the standard of excellence within the design community, eventually becoming Vice President of the AIGA Board. In 2015, I was honored with a Fellow Award.
In 2005, we were busting out of the seams of our 19th Street building, so I found the next building we would purchase in what would become the RiNo neighborhood. We moved to 2500 Walnut Street in early 2006, again being real estate trailblazers. Our new building was an old warehouse, which we were able to customize for our needs. In this office, we have grown to 12 people, finally breaking my mental barrier of not having a firm larger than 10. Everyone told me I’d have to give up some control at that stage, and I did. We transitioned to a boutique agency structure at this point and hired Account Managers to refine our process and transform EBD into the Strategic Agency it remains today. We did some nice work during this period for Larabar, Aerogarden and The University of Colorado, Colorado Springs’s Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Another unique project at this moment, which exemplified both the firm’s growth and Lakewood’s forward-thinking, was the Belmar Shopping Center mixed-office development. We built the brand and did everything from a welcome gift to The Integer Group, holiday décor programs with recycled trees (like Lakewood city street signs), advertising, digital, events, environmental signage, and even interiors over the course of 13 years.
Our most beloved collaboration during this time was with Adam Lerner, who started the Lab at Belmar. We created a brand, evolved how museums marketed themselves and created some of our of most interesting work. Adam became director of the MCA/Denver and merged the two institutions together. We continued evolving the brand, which lives on today. Adam did a TedTalk on the subject.
In 2008, the world entered a recession not known to the United States since 1929. Again, we had to be nimble because our real estate clients were hit hard. We expanded our food and beverage clientele at this point, seeing that those necessities were thriving. Hammond’s Candies became a client, and we’ve expanded into sauces, starters, liquors, wines, and even a pantry line for Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Since 2010, the onset of digital design increased. The speed of the industry and the downturns has made everyone a digital publisher and digital influencer. Today, the expectations of an agency are to complete more complex tasks at a much faster pace, all within a lower budget. The team and I have risen to the challenge and we’ve had to figure out how to pivot the company to successfully meet these new demands. What made an agency successful when I started has changed, and that change continues to evolve.
As a company owner, I feel strongly about local community involvement, so the agency donates 4% of our overall business annually as a community giveback to non-profits and cultural institutions, including the Denver Art Museum, MCA/Denver and Redline. Over the years we’ve also worked for The Denver Zoo, The Children’s Museum and The Denver Film Festival. EBD has always been involved with local design schools, hosting internships within the agency and doing student portfolio reviews. I was a part of a strategic planning team in 2008 for an Aurora Public Schools effort to better prepare their students for the future. My work included individual tutoring sessions with design students.
In 2019, I had the honor to be the keynote speaker for the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design graduation, a frequent source of EBD interns. As one of the only 3% of female Creative Directors nationwide, I was at the forefront of female agency creative leadership. The percentage of female CEOs in the Agency world is even lower than CEOs in Business—only .1%. And these numbers were even lower when I started in 1990. I wanted the female students at that graduation to know they could become a Creative Director, too. Currently, I am helping to establish the women’s co-working space, TARRA (tarra.co) whose mission is to support women in the design world.
And 2020, my 30th year at the helm of EBD, has been one of the most challenging yet. However, our team has risen to the occasion, learning to design, sell, collaborate and manage over zoom and from all corners of the city. The best part? We are maintaining our humor, love of dogs (now up to 11 in the office!) and dedication to creating honest, durable & aesthetic brands that last.
Cheers to 30 years and all the incredible clients and employees who have made EBD into the force it is. It’s been an amazing ride!
Since the founding of the firm, EBD’s creative efforts have resulted in national and international recognition in over 250 publications including Graphis, Print and HOW Magazines. In addition, Ellen has also been featured in GDUSA’s 2014 People to Watch and 2019 Sustainable Designers issue.
We’ve been celebrating the last 30 years on our Instagram as well, click here to see it for yourself.