Ocean & Sea’s Brendan O’Shaughnessy talks design, being a small business owner, and KC pride in The Pitch Questionnaire
Owned by Brendan and Amanda O’Shaughnessy, Ocean & Sea has been kicking it in KC since 2013. They love showing off their KC pride in their merchandise while helping big-time clients like Big Brothers Big Sisters define their visual brand.
If you haven’t yet heard of this studio yet, chances are you’ve seen their work, as they’re the ones to thank for the now-famous “LA KC NY” T-shirt design. The Pitch sat down with Brendan to talk about how he balances being a small business owner and an artist, and just how much he loves Kansas City.
The Pitch: What do you do for a living?:
My name is Brendan O’Shaughnessy, and I run Ocean & Sea with my wife, Amanda. It’s a design and branding studio and we do client work from logos to different graphic design needs, illustration, things of that nature.
A lot of what we do is client work and brand identity design, and so there are always projects coming in and out. We work with big businesses like John Deere to local coffee shops, so definitely a variety of client work, which keeps things interesting.
We also do products—we sell T-shirts and accessories and anything we can dream up. We’ve done some fun shirts over the years and love to tap into our Kansas City pride, so we have some Kansas City-centric designs, as well as other explorations.
How did you come to be a graphic designer? Did you know all along that this was your career path?:
I would say it definitely evolved over time. Originally, I was leaning more towards illustration. Comic books were definitely something I thought I would be doing full time before I realized more of the business side of how art and design operate. As time went on, my interests slowly evolved into graphic design. The transition from being a child to exploring art in general to knowing exactly what I wanted to do—probably around 16 is when my interests started to align towards graphic design.
Before that, it was a mixed bag of photography, illustration, design, and I did a lot of printmaking. I also explored a lot in college, but everything was funneling towards design.
Where did you get the idea for the name Ocean & Sea?:
It was with the help of my wife, Amanda. She came up with the name Ocean & Sea during our honeymoon. We were in Mexico, and we were just looking at the ocean, and Amanda made the connection between our last name, O’Shaughnessy, and the words “ocean” and “sea.” It’s a homonym, a play off of our last name—we really wanted to have our name be ownable and uniquely ours.
Names are important. Similar to an actual name of a person, it’s your identity. As much as I put a lot of weight and pressure on the logo and execution as a designer, I think a lot of people forget that business names are more important than the logo. They’re more permanent. We recently did some rebranding of our company and changed our logo for the first time since we started in 2013, so even that’s an example. We’re evolving visually, but we’re always going to be Ocean & Sea.
It’s worked out, and it also confuses people and gets people curious in a good way. People want to investigate further. Like, “Hey, you’re in Kansas City. What’s up with the name?” Even though the answer isn’t super obvious, it still kind of leaves some breadcrumbs of some of our history. It’s uniquely fitting for us because we’re really a family-owned business, and actually, my mom’s been a big help—supporting us and actually offering illustration and different collaboration.
What is it like running a business with your spouse?:
Well, there’s a lot of ups and downs. Amanda is a huge part of helping us out, and she also teaches. She’s an art teacher and she started a business called Studio Art Club, which offers art workshops. She definitely has a full plate, and I’m the person on the ground here on a weekly basis, taking care of various needs.
Can you tell me more about Studio Art Club?:
Studio Art Club offers art workshops. Right now, there’s a combination of virtual and in-person opportunities where Amanda will rent out a space for classes and then you collaborate in that environment. We’ve done events at the Crossroads Hotel and coffee shops.
They’re not all printmaking classes, but a lot of them have been focused on printmaking. So an example of a class is leaf-transferring prints using accessible materials. Like, you’re not using a $10,000 press to print. You can actually use very kind of low brow techniques with tape and paper and jelly plates and make awesome prints, which really correlates with the ethos of Ocean & Sea.
For a lot of what we do, since it’s client-focused, we have to utilize art techniques that are fast, but being fast doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. I think there’s a connotation that in order to make something good, you have to spend five, ten, 20, 30 hours on something, but there’s a lot of techniques that you can create textures and art from scratch that are beautiful. That’s what Studio Art Club offers, and we also pull that inspiration into Ocean & Sea.
While the core purpose of your business is to sell art and designs to brands, not everything about running a creative business can be focused on those creative elements. What else goes into your daily work responsibilities to keep Ocean & Sea running?:
There’s a lot of maintenance that people forget about when running a business. We have to deal, as a small business, with wearing many more hats than a traditional graphic designer. If you work at a company, specifically an agency environment, you go in, you do design, and there are other roles involved, but your focus is much more narrow. But we have to market ourselves and we have to have a sales funnel of how we attract new clients.
Then once you attract a new client, you have to go through a proposal stage of sharing what your capabilities are, your pricing, and negotiation. Then you have to do the work with a constant flow of client communication. I’m also the person taking out the garbage. There’s nothing I don’t do with Ocean & Sea.
Personally, I enjoy the multifaceted approach to work in general. I like the variety—even the boring stuff breaks up the creative aspects. Doing some of those more mundane tasks reminds you of why you do what you do, and also leads you to enjoy the time that you do get to do design that much more.
One of your most popular designs is the “LA KC NY” T-shirt. What was it like to create that design?:
That one’s really special to us in a lot of ways, not only because it’s our most popular design that’s circulating in Kansas City, but the “LA KC NY” design really helped solidify our foundation. When we started Ocean & Sea, it was just a creative project. And then it evolved into a product line. That product line—with the help of the “LA KC NY” graphic—was a really good way for us to be able to market ourselves and our company and what we do.
We relate that early success with Ocean & Sea, of people resonating with the graphic, as a way of reaching our next step. So although we’re not doing 100% T-shirt designs, it is that T-shirt that allowed us to advance.
What design or product are you most proud of?:
I would say on the client-side, definitely the Big Brothers Big Sisters logo. That was really fulfilling and I got to do it through Barkley Agency in Kansas City. It was an opportunity for me to do work for an organization that I probably wouldn’t be able to do as a small studio by myself.
The ability to collaborate with agencies like Barkley from time to time has been very fulfilling. The Big Brothers Big Sisters Logo is definitely my most visible branding project in terms of how big the organization is, and they’ve been around for a very long time. It was definitely an honor to do that.
On the product side of things, I recently completed an alphabet project where I created a typeface going from A to Z and zero through nine—the entire Latin alphabet. I’m really proud of that. Not only did it win an AIGA award recently here in Kansas City, but it was also just personally satisfying.
I experimented with photography techniques that I’ve never explored before. It was really fulfilling in that A) I enjoyed it and, B) it pulled me out of my comfort zone. I think a lot of times what happens with designers is you forget to continue to learn, especially when you get busy.
If you’re not continuing to learn, then you ultimately have reached your plateau. And for Ocean & Sea, creative projects have always been the backbone of who we are and what we want to be, which causes us to always learn and always push ourselves. Although creative projects come with a lot of stress and turmoil in that art-making process, it’s ultimately the way we keep things fresh and discover new possibilities.
Do you have any advice for designers just starting out, especially designers that want to be entrepreneurs in the future?:
The biggest thing that I push and recommend for designers that are starting is that you don’t want to wait until a perfect season comes around to start whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Whether you’re starting a business, or you have a creative project idea, or there’s an ideal job that you’re going after where you don’t feel quite adequate enough or good enough, you still have to start.
The biggest thing for people, including myself, is just starting; there’s a huge chasm between having an idea and then actually starting to execute on the idea. Most people have great ideas. But what separates the great designers and artists from those that kind of ultimately fade away is that execution.
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself and do what you can with the tools that you have today, with the time that you have today. And don’t worry about the big picture, because the big picture is never going to happen unless you take small baby steps.