Designer Spotlight: Mike Spakowski


Your name?
Mike Spakowski

Where do you work, and what is your title?
I am a partner and creative director at Atomicdust, a marketing and design company. I’m also on the board of the AIGA Saint Louis, and serve as the St. Louis Design Week Chair.

How long have you been in the design industry?
About 18 years.

How did you end up in your field?
I needed an art credit for school and my only two options for classes were “Nude Figure Drawing,” featuring some of the residents of the local senior citizen center, or a class called “Computer-Aided Graphic Design.” I choose the latter, and it just stuck with me.

I bought a PC and a copy of Adobe Illustrator 4.0 and sat in front of it every day for hours. Also on the computer was this new thing called “the Internet.” My friends and I started making logos and graphics for people online, and eventually we learned how to code our own webpages.

This led to a bunch of small freelance work, and it all kind of snowballed from there.

Tell us about one of your most memorable projects.
Years ago we did some temporary window signage for Maryland Plaza in the Central West End while it was undergoing renovation. It was one of those things that was supposed to hide the mess of construction while people walked or drove by.

The signs were only up for a couple months, but the project still stands out in my head.

I think it was the first time we did something that we could actually watch the public respond to. At the time, we were only considered a web shop, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make something amazing for our client and our own reputation. We wanted to bring art to a type of project that’s been done a million times before. We wanted it to be sincere.

Maryland Plaza


It was great to see people have a positive reaction to it, and we were super proud of the work. While it was up, I would go out of my way to drive by and think about what we’d accomplished.

I think your most memorable projects are the ones that get you out of your comfort zone and are risky. You tend to take them more personally, and their success sticks with you and builds your confidence for the next one.

What is your favorite place in St. Louis to find inspiration?
The answer to this used to be bookstores. The Library Limited was like a zen garden to me. Even Borders was pretty solid. Now there aren’t a lot of bookstores around with a decent design section.

Lately I’m more inspired by architecture and interior design than graphics or websites. I don’t know anything about architecture, but I like to walk around spaces and think about why decisions were made, how the designer wanted a visitor to feel as they moved around the space, and the inevitable arguments between the designer and client.

Total nerd shit. But it gets my brain to think about the everyday in a new way. And then I can take it back to my work.

In St. Louis, I think Citygarden is pretty amazing. And I love walking around the Wainwright Building.

Who is your design hero?
I don’t even know where to begin. A lot of them are dead, or cliched choices. Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jobs, Saul Bass, Eero Saarinen, Bucky Fuller, Ian Anderson. The weird thing is that I’m not a fan of a lot of their work. I like the way they project how they feel about the world through their work.

I just take little pieces from each person, little ideas.

Do you have favorite music for fueling your creativity?
Modest Mouse, Eminem, Stan Getz, Childish Gambino. It all depends on the mood. I’m manically all over the map. I’m also getting old, so I listen to the same stuff I always do.

Tell us about a design-related book, essay, film, video or other form of media that’s important to you.
I read a ton of books on design and marketing. One of my favorites is by Bill Cahan called I Am Almost Always Hungry. I also love Designers Don’t Read by Austin Howe and Steal Like an Artist by another Austin named Kleon.

YouTube is also a wonderful source of design inspiration.

How important is it to know what other designers are doing in your industry?
It’s important, but not particularly important. I like to know where people are heading, and the direction of their work, but I try not to study the work itself. I would rather be a pony that does a couple tricks really well than chase every new trick out there. I want to know a lot, but look at very little.

What advice do you have for an up-and-coming designer?
Your job is really to think and solve problems. The tools for that will change over time. The tools are just tools. They work for you. Don’t let them define what problems you able to solve.

Design in St. Louis is up to you.

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