Press Club

ARLnow Profile: Top Shelf Design

Top Shelf Design
Phone:  571-431-6101
Email: [email protected]

When people think of graphic design, they might picture a single person in their basement designing printouts and posters, banners and brochures. But at Top Shelf Design (TSD) in Rosslyn, you’re more likely to see a team of designers and developers sitting at their computers, bouncing ideas off of each other and thinking of solutions to their client’s design problems.

This scene has changed in the past 11 years since the business opened its doors because the company does 70 percent web development work instead of 40 percent, as they did five years ago. Design in 2015 is about staying current and going mobile, says Gregg Hurson, lead developer at TSD.

“What we’re seeing now is we’re seeing a shift towards digital which is universal. We’re seeing that we’re doing digital annual reports and things like that whereas 5 or 7 years ago that would be straight print, straight to the printer,” said Brendan Kiel, founder and CEO of the company. “We’re also seeing clients that, even if they do a print piece, they’re thinking about how they publicize it on the web, and how people access it on the web, and how they market it that way.”

Kiel and his business partner at the time, started the company around Kiel’s kitchen table in 2004, and the business grew rapidly, from six to 65 clients in the first year. Since then, the company has grown to a staff of 10 and has worked on about 7,000 projects for 1,000 clients, president Kathryn Kiel estimates.

Kathryn says that even as the company has transformed and grown, the staff has had a commitment to what they believe are the most important aspects of their company: great design and attentive customer service.

“I know a lot of clients are really scarred from bad past experiences where their designer goes MIA, or never knowing what they’re going to get or when they’re going to get it, or what’s the next step in the process, or they’ve been trying to reach their developer for who-knows-how-long and they can’t, so I think that’s something that sets us apart,” Kiel said.

When she began doing market research, Kiel called ten design firms, asking about pricing and just general information about them. She says she only got one phone call back from one of the firms. That’s when she knew that an emphasis on communication with customers was going to be a big part of TSD.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy. Respond to people quickly, give them what they want, make sure that your deadlines are hit and exceeded their expectations,'” Kiel said.

Another way TSD gets inspiration for its customer service is from an employee, Cassie Stewart. Stewart started at the company working in sales and marketing, but had an idea. With lead designers managing their own projects, much of their work time was spent answering clients’ questions.

“We wondered, how much more creative could we be if designers weren’t interrupted by the phone ringing?” Brendan said.

In January, Stewart became a project manager. She is dedicated to managing client’s successful project. She says it gives our designers more time to focus on excellent and innovative design.

The shared focus on design and service has paid off in both realms. Its high-quality design of packaging for gourmet honey won the company the GDUSA Package Design award in 2014. Their work was also recognized in the 2013 American Business Awards with a prestigious Gold Stevie Award for Best Online/Interactive Annual Report for the National Retail Federation’s 2012 Interactive Annual Report. Another accolade they’re proud of was the company softball team, The Top Shelf Design Tigers, was undefeated in 2011, added Brendan Kiel.

TSD is going on its sixth year with office in Arlington; the first five were spent in Clarendon, but now it’s located in Rosslyn’s River Place complex. The company was started and founded in the District, but Kathryn Kiel says what brought the company across the Potomac was the ease of traveling around Arlington, more abundant parking and less expensive office space.

“And food trucks,” she laughed.

Top Shelf Design started around a table — a wooden kitchen table, at the home of Brendan and Kathryn Kiel. It was there, in 2004, they started Top Shelf Design. Kathryn would nag Brendan, she says, chuckling, to put down a placemat so he wouldn’t make marks on the wood.

He didn’t, but now the table shows a history of the company, the earliest designs and doodles etched in the wood. When they moved the table to the Rosslyn office, the signatures of all of the employees joined those markings.

There’s not many signatures for 11 years of design, but that’s another thing the Kiels are proud of: finding staff members who are passionate and committed to the work the firm does, who stick with the company and build their careers there.

“I think we are the smallest big agency you can find. I think what we do here is high-quality, big-agency work, for big clients and for small clients, but we do it with a small team that’s approachable,” Brendan Kiel said. “We really sought to create a process and a product that was really agency-quality, while staying small.”

The preceding was a sponsored feature written by 

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