CREAM Design & Print: Expanding the Brand and Supporting Local

If you're in Tucson, AZ - perhaps you've seen some dope designs for R Bar, The Loft (Cinema), MAST, or The Tucson Hip Hop Festival. Maybe you're into gritty, sharp, pop art influenced work and have been looking for a brand that embodies that taste. Well, that's CREAM Design and Print for you. 

Co-founders Patrick Foley and Marissa Johnson are business besties, partners in crime, and are the masterminds behind a lot of the dopest design and print in Tucson, AZ. They're passionate about funk infused art and collaborating with the community. 

They sat down with JRECOGNIZE to share some insight on the making of the business, the expanding of the business, and more! 

Can you briefly (if possible) tell me how CREAM got started?

Pat: I had a passion or an interest in screen printing and design since high school. I had been doing art before high school. I started doing screen printing in high school and it kind of evolved overtime to something I did more and more. I had a clothing brand called Carne and Queso, so I did a lot of screen printing involved in that and at the same time I worked doing freelance design and worked at Brink Media as a designer for a few years. CREAM was the way to create something that served as a vehicle for my interests and skills.

I feel like I have heard of Carne and Queso before… that was your first business?

Pat: Yeah, yeah. It was mainly a clothing brand but that was also a vehicle for my interests and endeavors because I also made music videos under that name. I had a video game under that name, too.

What’s the significance behind the name CREAM?

Pat: It’s directly in reference to the Wu Tang Clan. Trying to think of a name that encapsulated the thing I want to create. I was just looking around for different words and CREAM ended up sticking out. I got a tattoo of it and it says CREAM and it has dollar bill imagery. I got the CREAM tattoo twelve years ago. I have a bunch of art that says CREAM in it and I’ve always really liked the Wu Tang Clan. And I thought it was ironic that it was the Wu Tang euphemism for capitalism. It’s trying to create something that can sustain itself financially and be as a creative outlet and something that’s business for us.

It’s a little bit gritty, a little bit drippy.
— Marissa Johnson

How would you describe the look and feel of your brand?

Pat: I try to make it clean, yet…

Marissa: Tongue in cheek! Tucson. It’s a little bit gritty, a little bit drippy.

Pat: It’s also a bit like pop art style. A lot of my aesthetics come from the graffiti world - bold colors, outlines, drop shadows on text.

Where would you say you draw inspiration for your designs? You say graffiti, pop art…

Pat: Yeah and more esoteric things like politics and philosophy and stuff like that. A lot of underground culture trying to take some kind of lowbrow references, mix it with some contemporary internet thing that’s happening. I’ve been taking a lot of opposites and trying to fuse them into something interesting.

Have you felt like your design or imagery has evolved over time?

Pat: Yeah I think mine has definitely. It used to be mainly graffiti and other illustration stuff that is similar but as I went into the computer world, the medium changes how you do stuff. I think I like a lot of bold shapes and lines. That’s kind of easy to do in Adobe Illustrator. I try to respond to what’s happening in the designing world, as well. Not saying I’m directly plugged in that, though.

What would you say makes CREAM distinct from any other design and printing business?

Marissa: I feel like it’s more of a brand. It has the vision of an artist - Pat’s creative ideas and a translation into what a client would want - for graphic design or for screen printing. Clients are looking to CREAM to have an eye for what looks good but also touches on Tucson’s style.

Pat: I feel like we have a collaborative approach to a lot of people we are working with. We get tied up in wanting to creating cool stuff. Not just taking it and producing it but figuring out interesting things to print on and methods of printing.

That was something I wanted to bring up, I feel like you guys do a lot of local collaborations. Which is so awesome! What has been your favorite collab so far?

Marissa: I would say the seventh anniversary of MAST. The women of MAST came to us and another designer, Claire Seizovic, who’d come up with their anniversary design (The lucky number 7) to plan an event that would incorporate another new design as well as live printing shirts, totes, and bandanas. The atmosphere of the night was great- our friend and designer/artist Yu Yu Shiratori was our ‘guest printer’ and being surrounded by so many creative business women was inspiring!

Another favorite collaboration would be the shirt designs we have printed for The Loft (Cinema).

Pat: The Loft has a really good graphic artist Matt McCoy. He’s amazing to work with! He comes from the screen printing world and it’s really nice to work with someone who knows the technical aspects.

Marissa and I are both Loft members, so it’s nice to work with this kind of nonprofit that’s dedicated to a cause we support-good cinema.

Clients are looking to CREAM to have an eye for what looks good but also touches on Tucson’s style.
— Marissa Johnson

If CREAM could collab with any brand or organization (local or not), who would it be?

Pat: I’d like to collaborate with Creative Tucson in some ways because they’re multifaceted. It’s like KXCI, Brink and Wavelab. They just do a lot of stuff. The local access channel they put video out on. They have different classes and stuff. I think it’d be cool to work with them in some way. Some kind of creative project that encompasses what they do and what we do. I used to work at Brink so maybe I have a soft spot.

Marissa: We do Second Saturdays at R Bar - we have a pop-up shop and live printing. Most months we have a guest artist that we feature. They’ll design a piece or two and then we’ll live print it on shirts. People can bring in their own shirt or jacket (we call it BYO) and we’ll screen print the design on it in front of them there so they can be a part of the process. That’s something that Pat and I have been talking about is bringing artists and people in the community that we don’t know personally but we’d like to get their work out there more and start featuring them. We’re excited about doing that more in the future.

In turning this into a business, what stumbling blocks have you encountered down the road that you weren’t expecting?

Pat: For me there’s a lot of moving parts that go into turning something from being a hobby into a business. At least in my perspective, all the different avenues we’re trying to incorporate. Going from hobby to business, there’s a lot of unknowns that come into knowing when it happens.

Marissa: My background is Biology education and drawing/painting. I didn’t have any specific business experience but I was used to organizing information and communicating it to people and trying to build an efficient system with inputs and outputs. I think that’s been very helpful translating that into our business. But I agree with Pat, there’s so many moving parts because we have screen printing and graphic design for clients, we create our own art, do live event printing and then we have an online store. So just learning the ins and outs of the legal ramifications of all that stuff, like starting an LLC and tax liability. Just teaching ourselves how to navigate sales tax, quickbooks, accounting… I think just tightening up the system has been difficult but also really exciting for us.

Pat: It’s kind of like making a fish tank (ecosystem) that functions well. It’s a bunch of moving parts but they each connect to each other. It’s nice that we’re making it bigger and make it work better. We’re not going the opposite direction which is exciting but stressful.

Marissa: And that it’ll be open to adding more people and more avenues for collaboration into it, once we have the basic pieces in place, is really exciting.

I recommend getting more confident about the things that scare you about business in general.
— Marissa Johnson

What would you say are three of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in the CREAM business?

Marissa: My first one is community support. Like I said, I started out not knowing so much about business and I had a lot of support from the community in terms of programs that are available, like SCORE (Southern Arizona Free Business Consulting). It’s like a small business mentorship program and its free. I enjoyed all the resources I got from them. Shout out to our business mentor Anne Baxter. We meet with her and she gives us some tough love about business and finances and it’s great! We’re also part of the group ‘Internet Cafe’- we meet with other local business owners just starting up and discuss our ups and downs and give each other advice and support. The enthusiasm, accountability and creative problem solving from the group are my favorite parts!

Then I would say another big lesson is working together. I feel like it’s a constant dialogue, everything we do , we get input from the other person. From social media postings and photographs I’ll take or designs Pat’s working on or price points.

Pat: Yeah price points, client relations…

Marissa: Pat and I been learning how to work off of each other’s strengths and how to communicate out of that.

Pat: I think before anyone gets married they should start a business together to learn more about them! (laughs)

I would also say take the leap to quit your job and do what you want! So many times people don’t have every single piece in place before they jump into their business. I’m sure having a really thorough business plan and capital invested is a good way to start too. Maybe coming from our background with not a lot of resources but just taking the risk and quitting your job, doing what you want the pieces tend to fall into place. I think we both left our jobs and I had gotten a part time job that I quit within a week because I thought I’d have a lot of free time and CREAM would be slow starting but within a week we had more clients and I had to quit. So just take the leap!

What advice or words of wisdom would you give somebody that’s in that situation?

Marissa: Create a support group!

Pat: Yeah, support groups are key.

Marissa: I recommend getting more confident about the things that scare you about business in general. Whether that’s accounting or taxes or talking money with clients. I feel like a lot of us creative people we’re good at that [creative] side and the part that makes you not able to stay in business or be as successful as you could be is shying away from those other parts and it’s nice to have other people around you to help push you in those things. That’s what makes you able to stay around in the long run and support yourself.

Yeah. community and getting organized with finances.

Pat: Yeah also create your ecosystem that works. If you’re not interested in that or it bores you then…

Marissa: Don’t go into business!

Pat: Or find someone who is going to be interested in better creating your organization structure!

...it’s a lot of unpaid hours in the beginning and you have to believe in what you’re doing.
— Marissa Johnson

Yeah I feel like for creatives they want to turn their creative outlet into a business, into their lifestyle but I feel like actually turning creativity into a business is a whole other game.

Marissa: Yeah I think you need to talk to people about what it takes. Either you have those characteristics that make you a good business person or you find someone who does because you can’t just put things off, they will come back! (laughs)

So what characteristics do you think a business owner should have?

Marissa: Problem solving, organized, good at communicating (with the people they work with and with their clients) and hard working. I know that’s kind of like a duh but it’s a lot of unpaid hours in the beginning and you have to believe in what you’re doing.

Pat: Try not to get blinded by your ego or story.

Marissa: Always be open for input.

Pat: Your business’ narrative and direction will probably change over time. If you are refusing to acknowledge other people or not even take [changes] into consideration you might be headed in directions that are much harder.

Marissa: Also, a vision for why you wanted to leave whatever job you were at. Thinking about how I want to structure my day. What’s my dream of working for myself? Is that so I have more free time or is it so I can have more direction on what I do during the day? Or is it so I have more financial freedom? I think deciding about what’s most important about being your own boss.

Conflicts will come up and you’ll need to prove to yourself, and your system and your clients you work with, why you’re fighting for that!

Would you feel comfortable sharing a hiccup that you’ve experienced in your business?

Marissa: I feel like there’s no way to anticipate the problems until they come, unfortunately. You can think you know what something’s going to be like until it’s there and you see very plainly that you should’ve been more organized.

In our first live events, there were things we didn’t think about like having an assembly line of customers that were coming and telling us what size they wanted and what design they wanted printed. We didn’t really have a way in place for me to take orders and payments and then take inventory. Even certain things like having lighting or change. Things that we now know help us run things more smoothly.

Also maybe defining our market, not trying to be everything for everybody. I think when we haven’t communicated enough to someone what we were about and what our product was about so then there was maybe confusion, when in reality there was a communication error. I think we’re getting better and better at managing client expectations.

Pat: Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Want some exclusive content from this interview? Sign up for the JRECOGNIZE newsletter!