Pretend Friends: An UMSL love story blossoms into a successful design studio
She’s a hands-on, crafty type of person. He’s a pencil-and-paper guy.
Together, they’re Pretend Friends, a successful St. Louis-area design studio with clients such as the Disney Parks and Resorts, Universal Studios Hollywood and Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York.
They’re also Anna and Daniel Clark, parents to Edie and Peter, and University of Missouri–St. Louis alumni who fell in love 10 years ago while earning their Bachelors of Fine Arts in graphic design.
“She’s just my best friend,” Daniel says.
“We’re very weird but the same sort of weird,” Anna says. “It’s the kind of situation where you’re completely yourself around somebody.”
They started out as friends, connecting over Mary Blair, a ’50s Disney illustrator known for her ethereal work on films such as “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella,” while creating inspiration boards during a computer design course.
“I thought, ‘No Midwestern boy knows who Mary Blair was,’” Anna says. “So that was very exciting. Disney brought us together, which is cheesy but true.”
They hung out, talked about collaborating and then parted ways at the end of the school year.
Things changed when Daniel switched his major to graphic design the following year. Pretty soon they were dating. Four months later, they were engaged.
After graduating, both began working at different design firms, freelancing and adjunct teaching a few design classes at UMSL at the behest of Associate Professor Jennifer McKnight, a friend and advocate for her former students.
Friends kept asking the Clarks if they’d start their own studio, but Anna and Daniel shrugged that off.
“We always had separate paths,” Anna says. “Coming out of school, you’re figuring out your style still and what you enjoy doing because there’s so many different parts to graphic design.”
Then, in 2014, eight months after giving birth to their daughter, Anna left her job and started freelancing full time. Five years later, Daniel turned to her and asked why they were splitting their efforts when it might be easier to land large clients together.
The next day they got an email from an agent who’d found Daniel’s Instagram page. She was looking for illustrators to design large graphics to be installed at a brand-new children’s hospital.
They rushed to imagine Pretend Friends, listing words to land on “make believe,” which became “pretend.” Picking “Friends” as a reflection of their relationship came naturally.
They created branding and a bid, and soon Pretend Friends had the job.
“We had our dream project thrown into our laps on day one,” Anna says, describing how they’d created themed graphics for every floor. “We wanted to play with the space, so some things are really large-scale – maybe things are resting on water fountains or on top of doorframes, kind of working in this space. That way it doesn’t just look like an illustration made on paper stuck onto a wall.”
That project not only launched Pretend Friends but ended up steering their practice toward illustration-based projects. Since then, Anna and Daniel have built up a portfolio of client work, including illustrations for two children’s books.
They also have moved toward making products and selling them through their website and social media pages. They attend an annual convention, Designer Con, in California where they set up a booth and sell directly.
Though it’s the clients – and Daniel’s day job at New Honor Society – that pay the bills, some of the most fun comes from creating those products.
The fun also comes from working together. Though Anna and Daniel divide jobs based on their strengths, there’s almost no piece that isn’t at least a little bit a joint effort. The key, they say, is checking their egos and not forcing the collaboration.
Plus, designing together is their passion.
“We love creating stuff, and we want to keep it fun,” Daniel says. “We both have the same optimistic sense when it comes to our art. We want to make stuff that makes the world a happier place.”
Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=89210