I LOVE interviewing inspiring, creative couples like Jen & Dave Cooper and Elan & Aidan Morgan, Kayla & Josh Cagan and Ashley & Gabe Rodriguez. Writers, photographers, videographers, editors, illustrators - they create AND they are in a relationship. Some collaborate together, some don't. Some have kids. Some don't. All are making it work.
We NEED to make our art. And we need our life too with friends and family.
How to do both when you value your creative work AND your relationships? Read on for another take on being a creative couple - today it's William and Susan Brinson of House of Brinson. I met them at a portfolio workshop they led at Altitude Design Summit in 2012. (That's where I met Gabe, the Artful Desperado, too - love who you get to meet at conferences!).
It was an amazing workshop - these two are ridiculously talented AND practical. They talked about how to put together a strong photographic or graphic design portfolio.
They are also renovating an old country home north of NYC called Stonyford. You can follow the progress on their blog as well as find gorgeous food images and recipes.
Let's get to the interview (Susan is in italics).
Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been together?
We are the Brinson's, William and Susan. We are a creative team of photography and art direction who works in the commercial world. We have been together for 21 years now.
My name is Susan Brinson, and I work as half of the photographic team with my husband William Brinson. We also blog together at House of Brinson. We've been a couple since my freshman year in high school, about 21 years, and married 11 years.
What are your strengths? What are your partner’s strengths? How do they help you work well together when you are collaborating?
I think one of my strengths or advantages is that I love what I do photographically. It's not just the ability to document, but also to create a story from a memory or an imagined idea. I love putting the viewer in a place at certain time of day or even state of mind.
Susan has a great ability as an art director to set a tone for projects, with stylistic options, color pallets and overall mood. Together we bring much of the same thing to a project, but it's just that much more that takes the project from one level to the next.
Stylistically we have the same vision, but we each have our own life experiences and accounts of how things happen, which lets us round out each others ideas, which in my mind is a perfect collaboration.
This was a hard question to answer for me because I believe our strength is creativity, but we approach that creative aspect from very different angles. My background is in graphic design, art direction and styling. I'm always thinking about the way type will lay down on the page, and how the consumer will be drawn to an image.
While William does the same thing, he is very good at making the technical aspect of photography look like ice skating (you know, it looks easy, then you try it and it's really hard). He is so good at creating mood with light, which is very technical, but you rarely notice it when you work with him because he's so good at making it look like second nature.
I think William and I have a good yin/yang feel for each other. There are some projects I'll be fired up about and very emotionally invested in, and he'll be the down to earth one, and very level headed about it. And on other days, he'll have some wild idea that he wants to explore, and I'll have to think tactically and figure out the "how are we going to do this?'"
That's the great thing about working as a couple, we're a constant team and are well tuned to each other's creativity.
What have you learned from your partner?
Project management is just as important as the idea for a project.
Susan ran teams of people when she was in the AD world, and she can tell you, if the project is not managed the idea gets watered down and not completed to your expectations.
To better articulate and express myself. When you work by yourself, it's easy to get caught up in your own ideas, but when you have to clearly explain them to another person before you move forward, you are sure to have solid, well thought out ideas.
I think the team aspect adds a layer of vetting to concepts and in the end they are really solid.
What are you most impressed by/proud of your partner?
Wow, I think that's just too long to answer, but the fact that we work together makes me pretty proud every day.
I think most people would say creativity, but there are a lot of creative people out there. I'm most impressed by William's dedication. Not only as a husband, but his dedication to producing a high quality product, and his dedication to creativity.
Things change so quickly in our world of social media, trends, and business strategy, but what never goes out of style is dedication.
William has a great sense to get shit done, do what he says he's gonna do, and a sense of purpose.
How best do you support your partner and his/her goals?
Listening to the input when taking about a project is key. Sometimes you have to just let the other person run with an idea.
First, we talk about them! And get to the core of what success looks and feels like to each of us.
We each clearly define goals, and if there is a measurable item that we can do to get closer to those goals, we help each other.
We constantly revise this 'bucket list' of dream clients, so when we work for one of those dream clients, it's really rewarding.
How do you split the day-to-day administrivia?
We have a meeting almost every morning to write up a list of to-do's and who does what that day. We try to play to each other's strengths and we have figured out what each other likes to procrastinate about!
William does a lot of the office work, and I return emails and manage our blog. We switch off tasks from time to time and are not stuck doing this this way, so we're pretty flexible if the other person needs help.
If you have children, how did you decide who does what/when re: childcare?
We have a boxer named Nero, and he doesn't care who takes him out or feeds him - he'll whine at both of us equally.
We don't have children, but our dog, Nero, does in fact go to daycare. He is very active and he enjoys playing all day with other dogs. Photo shoots can be 12+ hours, so we try and add activity to his day by giving him a chance to play.
Are you ever envious of each other and if so, how do you handle it?
We are so intertwined that we are rarely envious of each other, unless someone ordered a better looking dish and won't share.
Before we were working together and I was in a 9 to 6 job in advertising, I used to envy William's schedule. He had such a great flexible schedule, he could work at night, take a long leisure lunch in the middle of the day. I was stuck behind a desk with no window and most days could barely take lunch. It really sucked, and for a creative person, a very uncreative and unproductive way to work. But hey, now I have the same schedule as William, so I don't have anything to envy. :)
How do you decide whose career takes priority at different points in time? Money earning potential? Goal achievement? Time required?
Well we figured it out and just started working as a team together. I will say in the beginning (14 yrs ago) Susan really let me follow my dream to be a photographer and she sacrificed long hours at work to pay for us to live while I was getting my start.
We mutually agree on projects, but we try to balance the type of projects we work on.
The blog for us is a creative outlet that we don't earn directly from, but we might get to explore a topic that we love, or try new techniques.
We also have projects happening in the background that we set timelines for, and try to keep focused on. Of course, client work is first as the deadlines are normally sensitive and we are respectful to that.
Are you a goal setter? And if so, how do you figure out how to balance your goals with your partner’s goals?
I would say we are both goal setters and we work in tandem to help each other achieve those goals. I think as we both visualize what those goals would be like, we couldn't see it complete without each other there. We try not to put an order to our goals, but sometimes you know you are so close so that one will move up a bit.
I am a crazy goal setter. I can conceive of the wildest 'fake' job and then think: what do I need to do to get this going? What's the ask, and who can make this a reality? We really don't have to balance each other goals, but we do put priority on projects that we need to get done. That priority of a project or our goals is a mutual agreement.
What advice do you have for other couples?
Working with your spouse can be an amazing thing, but know that it is just like a marriage and there is plenty of give and take.
Learn how each other works and you will figure out your groove. Once you figure that out, it's just up and up.
Be real, and by real I mean painfully, honest with each other. Get to the root of issues or the work relationship and your relationship will not last long term. I also say: screw the job description.
I think in the creative industry job descriptions are over rated, think about the product you produce.
In our case, we produce photography, and for our blog we produce the content as well. People get real hung up with couples, and 'who does what'. Don't worry about it, again go back to your product. Is it good and are you proud of it? That's all that matters.
What speaks to me in this interview is their dedication to excellence. And how that excellence comes from the creative concept AND the hard work to execute that concept.
Goal-setting and project management sometimes get short shrift in creative fields. Like somehow it's all meant to unfold organically and if you set goals, it's being too rigid, not following the muse. Well, looking at what they've accomplished, I think it's safe to say that this is another example of an "and" rather than an "either/or". Creative vision AND project management/goal-setting.
Did you notice how Susan said that the blog isn't a moneymaker but instead a place to try out new ideas? You know me, I'm a huge fan of the creative side project, especially when you want to explore something that you aren't yet being paid to do. No matter how experienced you are in your field, there's always some new technique or concept to explore.
Are you into photographic styling? Want some practical advice and creative direction from photography professionals who work in the field? The Brinsons are curating a day of styling online through Alt On Topic on May 17th. I'm taking it.
Also, you'll soon be able to hire Susan for style consultations for websites and portfolios. Trust me, the feedback you'll get will be worth it.