Getting to Know St. Louis Creatives with Mike Spakowski

As Partner and Creative Director, Mike Spakowski is still actively involved in day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management of Atomicdust. As Creative Director, he strives for design excellence and setting the tone for the work created by Atomicdust. In addition, Mike has served as the Co-Chair for St. Louis Design Week on the board of AIGA Saint Louis the past three years. In today’s Getting to Know St. Louis Creatives Mike gives us insight into being a creative leader in St. Louis.

How does St. Louis differ from other design cities?

St. Louis is different from other design cities for a couple of reasons. First, we have a pretty large population of creatives. Whether it’s UX designers, developers, industrial designers, architects, writers, or graphic designers, the amount of people here making their living with their ideas and talents is remarkable.

Our current, visual-design-oriented community is built on the rubble of large agencies that shaped the world of advertising through the beer industry, specifically, brands like Budweiser. They showed the world what great creative thinking could accomplish. And although most of those large firms are long gone, their spirit and the people who fueled them are still here.

Also, and this is not my area of expertise, but St. Louis is also fueled by architects that have influenced and shaped the world around us. From legendary firms like HOK, to progressive disrupters like SPACE, our designers leave the footprint of their imagination for all to see.

St. Louis is a creative playground. If you can imagine it, you can get it done in St. Louis. The community is connected and supportive. So if you’re crazy enough to believe you can pull off something like an entire week focused on design and creativity in our city, you’re half way there.

And lastly, this city has its problems. Political, social and economic. There are lots of things that divide us. Lots of legacy thinking that doesn’t fit today. You will find closed minds on all sides. Every day there is an opportunity to do some good. Every day is a chance to lead by example.

What makes the design process at your agency different?

Design processes are interesting. I don’t believe that there is one linear, consistent way to arrive at a brilliant idea. There is no single formula for great work.

At Atomicdust we have a structured process consisting of research, strategy, writing, and visuals, but we balance it out by being open enough to explore ideas that don’t always fit neatly into that process.

We know the elements of great work, and the value our solutions can bring to a client’s business. That’s more important to us than doing the same thing the same way every time. In other words, we’re very rigid in terms of structure, but open in method.

What makes a great designer/creative?

A great designer is someone who’s good at finding a problem’s constraints. They’re the kind of people who like solving a jigsaw puzzle by putting together the edges first, figuring out what shape the solution will take. They walk through life observing and dissecting how other people have solved problems.

How do you know if you’ve succeed?

For me, design is successful when it solves the problem, but is pleasing enough that people consider it art.

For a designer, success is reputation. When your name alone adds value and credibility to the work. When people believe in the work because of the designer behind it.

In life, I don’t know if you can ever really feel that you’ve succeeded. I think things fill to their own capacity. So as you grow in your life, so does your capacity and your expectations for yourself. The goals of the past don’t fill who you want to become in the future.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a design leader?

There are endless ways to solve a problem. Endless. Our job is to come up with one great, beautiful solution. The biggest challenge a design leader faces is knowing when it’s time to say, “This is the one. We’re going with this one.”

In any industry, leaders have to appear certain in times of uncertainty. Often the inability to decide, or the self-doubt and what-if’s are what plague teams.


More than twelve years after founding Atomicdust, Mike Spakowski is actively involved in day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management. As Creative Director, his collaborative attitude, drive for design excellence and even-keeled temperament set the tone at Atomicdust.

Under Mike’s direction our work has been recognized by the One Show, Step, Print, and Create Magazine, the ADDY Awards, and countless local publications and design competitions.

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