Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Get the picture October 12, 2011 by Anne Cantrell • Published 10/12/11

You may not know Ames Bros by name, but you might have seen this Montana duo's designs

They are not brothers and they are not Ames.

The Ames Bros is the name of one of the most successful design firms in the Northwest. The company counts MTV, Pearl Jam, Nike, the NFL, Billboard Magazine, Virgin Mobile, Snoop Dogg and Dave Matthews Band among hundreds of its high-powered clients.

Coby Schultz and Barry Ament, the duo at the company's helm, forged their partnership in a Montana State University student graphics design studio. Soon after college - about 16 years ago - Ament, who grew up in Big Sandy, and Schultz, who was raised outside of Kalispell and in Livingston, formed Ames Bros. They migrated to Seattle and have since designed iconic images (many of which were chronicled in the book, Pearl Jam vs. Ames Bros: 13 Years of Tour Posters) that have been woven into the fabric of contemporary culture. More recently, they've added an e-commerce clothing company to the business.

Jeffrey Conger, one of their MSU professors, put it this way: "The Ames Bros' illustration style is distinctively inventive and their clever solutions have a sense of humor. The fresh visuals they create stick in your brain and bounce around for a while.... All you have to do is look at their posters for Pearl Jam and you can see that Coby Schultz and Barry Ament are brilliant."

Ament and Schultz recently sat down at their downtown Seattle office to discuss how they got to where they are today. Here's a hint: their Montana childhood influences - including the power of boredom - are hugely important to their success.

Mountains & Minds: The two of you met at MSU. Why did you decide to go into business together?

Barry Ament: We saw opportunity in the posters we were working on at the time and the clients we were working with.

Early on, we wanted to work for all the coolest companies...and we met that goal really quickly...Pearl Jam [Barry Ament and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament are brothers] and K2 (Sports) were our first clients, so we had some heavy hitters right out of the gates...

Within five years, we were working for MTV, Nike, rock bands, K2... But probably the most exciting time was a poster show in '99, out in New York. It was a real small show. But we took that opportunity to go out and call some people up and say, 'Can we get five minutes?' ... We walked away with MTV as a client. That relationship lasted 10 years.
Coby Schultz: At first, (it) spawned out of just really liking to draw, and wanting to do a really good job at whatever it is that we did.... We could zone out for hours and listen to music and work. In a way, that was a good thing, because we're not the type of guys who are out hitting the street (with) business cards. We are no good to each other (as) marketers. It was a good thing our work marketed itself...Because we weren't tenacious at all.

M&M: How did you generate business?

CS: We would create some promotional material and send it to people that we wanted to work for. That was always our philosophy -- that the work speaks for itself...And it always works. It's amazing that if you actually take the time to do something, it works. It's just getting the time to do something when you're busy.

M&M: What's the story of your company's name?

BA: It's an Acme-type of generic name that we actually thought about changing and pseudo-changed a few times, but always came back to. There's not a lot of flair to it, but it's a solid, old school, real generic name, that I think has worked for us.

CS: Yeah, very Acme-esque.

M&M: Why did you choose to be based in Seattle instead of another location such as New York, Denver or Los Angeles?

CS: I had been to Seattle a few times growing up and always pictured myself living out here after school. I knew that doing what I wanted to do would require leaving Montana, at least (for) awhile. There was a lot to enjoy out here and I was able to stay close to the mountains (and) ski, bike, fish and stay within a day's drive of home.

M&M: Has your work been affected by the landscapes of your youth?

BA: Living in Big Sandy, if you didn't have an imagination, there really wasn't a lot to look at. It's a pretty flat, barren landscape. Growing up in the era that we did... was almost a generation back. I didn't play video games; I rode my bike. If I was bored, I drew pictures. There weren't a lot of other opportunities or distractions. Looking back, I think that was a great thing for my development and my imagination.

....It was just a great place to grow up, to be a kid. I look at my own kids in the city now, and we're always with them. We're always watching over them. They can ride their bikes on the little half block that we have. Whereas I took off for the day, and I was home by dinner.... I was also very sheltered, and didn't get a lot of culture, so I think there's good and bad about it. But more than anything else, my childhood influences the work that I do.

CS: We (lived) right in the Flathead, kind of at the base of the Swan Mountains, with the Bob Marshall (Wilderness) behind us. And it was really wild.... We would pound slats of wood 35 feet up in a tree as a makeshift ladder and build a platform out of some carpet samples and a box, and we would sit up there and just dream.... All of that definitely seeped through and influences me.

M&M: Are your own kids' childhoods [Barry has a 11-year-old and a 6-year-old; Coby's kids are 1 ˝, 8 and 11] similar to that now?

CS: Our kids' lives are a lot different. I think we both probably try really hard to get that creative thing for them, and time for them to be kids.

BA: My kids both go to a Waldorf school, so basically I'm paying extra to recreate the childhood I had...The education that they're getting reminds me of how I grew up, but it was just the way it was then. Now you have to swim against the stream a little bit..... My (11-year-old) daughter will sometimes say she's bored, and my answer, which she knows by heart, is 'Good. Figure out something to do.' It's great, because out of boredom comes creativity.

M&M: How did your time at MSU influence your lives and your work?

BA: MSU gave me my first foothold in what would be and continue to be a long road towards any kind of success as a designer. So MSU was a starting-off point, where I was able to have a bit of confidence to move forward.

CS: I actually started as a chemical engineering major. It took about a year of that to figure out I'd made big mistake. While I stayed up racking my brain trying to understand protons and neutrons, my buddies were working on art projects and building designs. It made me super jealous....(graphic design) looked like something I'd enjoy, so I signed up and changed my major. Right away I loved it and stuck it out through graduation. Undoubtedly, the entire education I received gave me some of the skills I needed to head out into the workforce. More importantly it gave me enough structure and time to figure out what the heck I wanted to do with my life, at least part of it.

M&M: What one thing about MSU do you still remember frequently?

CS: Bridger Bowl...the whole reason I went to school there.

BA: Pre-exam ritual, the Pickle Barrel.

M&M: How do the two of you work on projects together?

CS: Unless it's a big project like a catalog, CD, or brand i.d. project, we divvy things up and whoever is working on it has full control. We have 100 percent faith in each other.... We also value each other's opinion and abilities and freely communicate as we work. If I get stuck or need an opinion, Barry's about five feet away.

M&M: What's your creative process, particularly when the turnaround time is short?

CS: We try to hound people for as much information as we can. We try to cut to the chase. Instead of two billion and three possible things that we can choose from out there, let's narrow it down to 500,000.... It's often times a great way to work, because you can be efficient. Get it done.

M&M: You like having deadlines?

CS: Yeah. I always do.

BA: Even if we have an extended deadline, we always put it off 'til the day before. [Laughs.]

M&M: How do you describe the look of Ames Bros?

BA: We've always tried really hard not to do that, because we never want to be defined by a look. I think you can look at our body of work and see a common thread. We've always tried to push ourselves to do something stylistically different than the last thing that we did. So ultimately I think we're able to do a lot of different styles of illustration.

CS: It probably has more of a feeling than a look. Like we might have captured some nostalgia, but then added something modern and drew some humor in it.

BA: We always want a client to think, 'Well, I have this project and I think that Ames Bros could pull it off.' ...We don't even know if we can pull it off, but we'll give it a shot.

M&M: What are you most proud of in your portfolio?

CS: We get pretty darn into whatever it is we're doing at the time.

BA: There are things that as a piece of art I'm proud of...but I'm proud of all the crappy work we've done, too. The work that we'll never put into our portfolio. Here we are, 17 years later, and the doors are still open. There were a lot of projects we didn't want to work on, but it kept us around. So I'm proud of my Britney Spears poster and my Bon Jovi flier.

M&M: Why have you chosen to generate the majority of your designs by hand?

CS: At the end of the day we're illustrators so I don't know if there's really any other way. No magic has happened over the years that makes a person not have to actually draw if they're going to create a piece of art. Depending on what the medium is, you still have to use your hands.... It's a direct connection from your brain.

BA: Probably the scariest thing is to get back to drawing after being distracted for awhile, working exclusively on the computer, or whatever...if it gets past a month it's really easy to lose your confidence and you almost have to fumble for a couple days.

CS: Your hands feel like they just came out of the Arctic in subzero temperatures with no gloves.

BA: That's why it's still exciting. You get butterflies. You get nervous. There's this excitement about creating something from nothing... from a blank piece of paper.

M&M: Has technology changed your workflow?

BA: We use the technology to do what we used to do, just more efficiently. We aren't using a lot of filters... we just use it as a tool to do what we've always done.

CS: Before we had a hammer; now we've got a pneumatic nailer. You can just work way more efficiently. ...But we wouldn't be able to do that unless we knew how the old way worked... You have to be able to know how to work backwards... You have to know the printing process for printed artwork. I'd imagine that is highly lacking in students or professionals today that are fairly new to the trade, because the computer just does it all, right? But really, it doesn't, it's the ink that goes onto the paper that actually is where the rubber hits the road.

M&M: What have been some of Ames Bros' biggest challenges?

CS: Accounting. General accounting. Cash flow. Rent. [Laughs.]

BA: The business end of it. I think the creative always took care of itself. Bidding on projects, knowing your own value, budgeting time. It's all trial by fire. We've made a billion mistakes and tried to correct all of them.

M&M: Is this what you expected Ames Bros would look like when you were just starting out 16 years ago?

CS: We had no idea what it would look like...it's enough to know what you're gonna do from one year to the next.... I never would have imagined that (the clothing company) would be part of this business.

BA: Initially we wanted to be just a design firm...Then, in hindsight, it's a good thing that we diversified a little bit and started an e-commerce site. We created a few different businesses within one business. That wasn't the plan. It came out of opportunity and out of necessity. We knew we could have a lot more control...if we did it ourselves.

M&M: You've been innovators in this field for more than 16 years. Are you now the traditional artists since you've been around for so long?

CS: When you're working, it's a personal thing. You're just trying to make the coolest possible thing you can. You kind of stew over it and maybe even go a little bit crazy. And let's say we're working on posters, we do go to Crazy Town for a while.

M&M: Is it a leap to go from your rural Montana backgrounds to this?

CS: Opportunity is all over the place, but once you know there is an opportunity, you have to work really hard to turn it into something.

BA: It's a craft, too, that's not really based on a diploma or your credentials. At the end of the day, you're going to show people your portfolio and give them your résumé. But the résumé really doesn't really matter. It's your work. So I think somebody from Montana has all the opportunity that somebody who went to Rhode Island (School of Design) does.

M&M: What advice would you give to recent college grads entering the field?

CS: The very first thing is put some serious time into thinking about what it is you want to do. And then decide who you're gonna contact to do something about it. We get a lot of phone calls that are people pleasing either the unemployment department or their parents or whoever, maybe even themselves.... If you're going to go through college, and all the work it takes to get out of college and graduate and pay for it and all that stuff, then you owe it to yourself, literally, to find out exactly what it is you want to do...But don't just graduate and expect it's all gonna be waiting for you, 'cuz it's not.

BA: We show off all of the cool things that we've done, but people don't see the path that it took. We did a lot of CDs for free for people. My first job I made 12 grand a year, but I did that all willingly, knowing that it was the kind of work that I wanted to do.

M&M: What's next for Ames Bros?

CS: We're putting a lot into the clothing company.

M&M: Why is that a priority?

BA: We're always excited to do our own work for ourselves and have it be unfiltered. That said, either the shirt sells or it doesn't. Ultimately, you're going to be judged by the consumer. There's no getting away from the fact that it's commercial design. But any time we can stretch our wings and have the opportunity to do what we like to do, that's what we're going to be most excited about.

M&M: You've worked with a lot of musicians. What's your favorite band?

BA: That's the toughest question you could ask us.

CS: You know who I really like? I like the Gorillaz. I'd say they're up there in the top five for sure. They always do something new all the time...(and) Jane's Addiction.

BA: Midlake. We listen to a lot of Midlake. Flaming Lips.

M&M: Are there albums you listen to when you know you want to be creative?

CS: Gorillaz for me for sure. But we like so many different kinds. We'll listen to Hank Williams, Scorpions. It just depends.

M&M: What still motivates you?

BA: That's the beautiful thing about our job. There's this reward at the end. If you don't put everything you have into a project, you don't get the reward. There's nothing like when our printer sends the newly printed posters over, and you unwrap them and look at the final piece for the first time. That's just a great moment. I'm always working towards that satisfaction. If you cut some corners, the thrill just isn't there.