Dec 11, 2017

The narrow hallway leads us to a frosted glass door with an outline of the human eye plastered on it. We see little movement from the outside, no chatter or flurry of activity, but the faint click-clacking of computer equipment suggests people inside are busy at work.

The eye reminds members of Serious Studio to keep their eyes wide open for opportunities that will push the boundaries of conventional design. “The eye is all-seeing and all-knowing, so it symbolizes what we do on different levels.”

“We’re called Serious Studio because when we were starting out, no one took us seriously,” quips Lester Cruz, who, in 2012, founded a design and brand solutions company with his then-girlfriend Deane Miguel-Cruz. They were fresh out of college and had no idea they were plunging headfirst into their big break as the country’s new breed of creatives. “Clients always got thrown off by how young we looked, to the point that we actually made an effort to power dress for meetings.”

Deane Miguel-Cruz, Kookie Santos, and Lester Cruz (left to right)

Fast forward to 2017, the couplenow married in their mid-20sruns Serious Studio, a branding and design boutique turning heads here and abroad, with business partner Kookie Santos, who is even younger than the Cruzes. The rest of the team are millennials, too; their humble two-room office in Ortigas looks as if it’s a space assigned to interns.

“We’re called Serious Studio because when we were starting out, no one took us seriously.”

For those who need an introduction, Serious Studio is the company behind the identities of good-looking brands such as the bar Yes Please, auction house Casa de Memoria, adult toy shop Ilya, restaurants 12/10 and The Girl and The Bull, lifestyle store Satchmi, and 375°, a loaded fries shop in Hell Square, New York.

The young professionals of Serious Studio

“We just churned out work and people really liked it, and they told their friends. It was really just as organic as that. As long you put good work out there and you’re sincere about it, the right people will find you somehow,” Deane says.

Although the pair knew the venture would be a huge risk, it was something they knew they had to try. Being young wasn’t a setback. Rather, it gave them drive: Should the business fail, they’d have time for damage control. As Deane puts it, “It was a good time to make mistakes.”

Deane, at the helm of external affairs, marketing, and client relations

But the business didn’t fail. And Serious Studio would later prove that it was no mistake at all. In fact, they’re transferring to a bigger office to accommodate their growing team. Of course the House of Serious, as they fondly call it, also came across a few speed bumps on the road to establishing their brand.

The studio is home to countless graphic design posters and wall art.

Years back, they were commissioned by a big company and after weeks of unlimited revisions and pushing pixels, it was finally time to reap the fruits of their labor. “When they saw what they had to pay for our services, one of them told us, ‘I don’t get why you guys are charging that much. It’s not like what you do requires technical skill,’” Deane says, evidently more amused than annoyed. They learned their lesson and laid out some new ground rules. And they never worked with the same company again.

A Christmas spread conceptualized by the House of Serious 

“If you make sense to the people listening to you and you look good in the process, you create loyalty to your brand.”

But there were also moments when feedback proved they were on the right track. “We’ve made clients tear up out of joy. One client was so happy with our work, he wanted to fly us to New York.”

Millennial appeal
But to discover the secret behind Serious Studio’s success, one must first understand that design isn’t just a decorative notion. “The end result of every project is to make people feel,” Lester explains.

There’s also the matter of gaining a client’s trust, on which the success or failure of the project depends. “[I]f a client doesn’t trust you, they’ll micromanage you to death and they’ll want you to completely follow their taste for design. It can be a good thing or a bad thing,” he says.

“As long you put good work out there and you’re sincere about it, the right people will find you somehow.”

Northern Living, Dec. 2017 cover design by Serious Studio

To clients, it’s clear from the start that hiring Serious Studio means collaboration and not just one person deciding for the entire team—quite unlike older design studios and agencies. This practice is in line with one of Serious Studio’s goals: to build a creative economy and ecosystem of like-minded individuals who value good, genuine, meaningful design. After all, their trademarked mantra is “Make sense and look good.”

Lester, overseer of business development

As Lester explains the simple formula their company lives by, it is clear that these young professionals know what works for the audiences they want to reach. And at the end of the day, it really is about stirring emotions and tapping into the consciousness of those who come across their work. “Other people bombard you with buzz words and hifalutin terms, but we just want to make it really simple. If you make sense to the people who are listening to you and you look good in the process, you create actual brand followers and loyalty to your brand,” Lester notes.

Inside the House of Serious, odd objects adorn office equipment.

There’s another secret to the studio’s success: the distinct heart and grit of millennials. “In the first place, Deane and Lester starting this fresh from college despite what people said was a very millennial thing to do. It was all about taking that leap,” Kookie muses, explaining that while millennials are infamous for being a tad too entitled, their generation’s need to constructively voice opinions helps a lot in the Serious way of doing things.

Kookie, all-around creative director

That and an impeccable work ethic are what make Serious Studio a well-oiled machine. A typical day in the studio starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. for most of its employees. The reason for the early start is simple: If you begin earlier, then you can leave earlier, which means you can still have a life outside of work.

A simple, constant reminder of what Serious Studio aims to do in every project they engage in: “Make sense and look good.”

“I understand that they have their own lives. Serious Studio isn’t their life and I completely respect that,” says Deane, who also mentioned that they are now looking into the possibility of working remotely. “Our being millennials and running a millennial workplace allow us to understand what they need. We adjust to find the common ground in everything.”

A peek into Serious Studio’s new office space

The millennial way of thinking has also helped them foster a quirky, laid-back office culture. For Halloween this year, they held a “lapida-making” contest, and the winner had their design made into an actual gravestone. One particular Valentine’s Day, the team spruced up some condoms by designing them. And on another random occasion, they announced on social media that they were giving away a rock for free. Now, they’re in the middle of producing Serious Studio merchandise, which is their way of furthering the spread of good design. And what better time to do so than the season to ‘deck the halls’ and ‘be jolly’?

But how does one exactly have a merry millennial Christmas at the House of Serious? For starters, the studio implements an extended holiday shutdown and a mental health break. There’s also Christmastime team building, just because they’re a clingy bunch that’s “always coming up with reasons to hang out.” All those provisions were made to address Serious Studio’s admirable obsession with proper work-life balance that’s not just an on-paper memo.

“It really started out as just the two of us doing what we wanted to do,” Deane concludes. “I would have never imagined this: an office with lots of people in it, me signing checks. That wasn’t exactly our picture of what was going to happen, but I’m thankful that now, it is.”

This story originally appeared in Northern Living, Dec. 2017

From Serious Studio to you: Christmas wrappers and gift tags especially designed for readers

Serious Studio has always reminded people that “we deserve nice things.” In the spirit of spreading the joy of good design this holiday season, the team designed gift wrappers (12 x 18 inches) and gift tags (2.3 x 3.5 inches) especially for us. To download the printable wrappers and cards, click here.

Read more:

Creatives, you don’t need a day job to survive

Photographer Koji Arboleda practices minimalism at his new home

A designer not afraid to tell it like it is

Jim Torres redefines Filipino design

TAGS: art branding Deane Miguel-Cruz design graphic design Kookie Santos Lester Cruz Serious Studio