Design For Life
From Doodles to the World Wide Web
What happens when a syndicated cartoonist outgrows the character in his popular comic strip? He could give it up and design toys instead. He might also design web sites and print work. He could even start a direct-mail magazine. Or, if you are Dave Miller, president of Back40 Design, you could do all of that and a little bit more.
It all started with a child who had a pen. “Ever since I was little, all I ever did was draw. I was the cartoonist,” said Miller, recalling the numerous childhood illustrations from which his craft spawned.
Years later, Miller attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. “At school, I majored in Industrial Design, but minored in doodling,” he joked. “My mom would say, ‘That doodling will never amount to anything.’ Well, I guess we were wrong about that.”
Cartoon doodles had always punctuated Miller’s artwork. After a stint in automotive design – which provided more sanding of fenders and trunks than Miller would have liked – he decided to turn his doodling into a means of support. He began working as a storyboard artist and eventually an assistant director of the TV shows Mr. Bogus and Widget. Then he started planning a comic strip, and his namesake character, DAVE, was born.
Following a series of submissions and rejections, Miller landed a development contract with Tribune Media Services. After fine-tuning the strip and some promotional preparation, DAVE hit the papers. The comic strip was syndicated and found its home in nearly 200 newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News, The Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I originally called the strip Bubba, but it was when Clinton was coming in the White House and that just wasn’t really working. They wanted me to change the name so it would be kind of more like the male version of the comic ‘Cathy.’”
Miller’s character was a 20-something office worker who offered his take on pop culture and relationships. DAVE became a comic hero, but he also represented his alter ego, Miller confessed.
“It was a 20-something character and I was 20-something at the time. I was single and I had no kids. I was mountain biking. I was going out to the coffee shops and I was doing all the stuff the character was doing,” he said.
Over time, however, Miller’s life began changing even though his character’s was not. Miller had married Sandy and become a father – not exactly where the comic strip was headed. The syndicate was reluctant to let the character move on or grow up, but Miller was already there. So, after nine years, when his contract came up for renewal, Miller made a difficult decision. It was a choice that would abandon the identity he’d come to know — but one that would reshape his future. He set the pen down and walked away.
“What’s really good is I got to do the comic strip. I got it out of my system. I accomplished what I set out to do – become a syndicated cartoonist. I feel God had blessed me with that. But it was time to move on,” Miller said.
Miller had stepped into the role of stepfather to a 14-year-old and then gained custody of two godchildren after the tragic death of Sandy’s sister. To combat the financial strain of being an instant dad, and so his wife could stay home with his new children, Miller began working for Hasbro Toys Playskool division during the day designing toys for Teletubbies and for Barney the dinosaur.
Three weeks after the comic strip ended, however, he lost his job at Hasbro due to downsizing. If not for his faith in God and support from family and friends, the situation would have been devastating, Miller said. But his resolution stood firm.
He decided to leave his New England home in the town of his alma mater, where everybody knew him as DAVE, and move his godchildren back to their hometown of Prague, Okla. With no job to go to, Miller said it was more an act of faith.
Having built the official DAVE fan web site from scratch in 1996, Miller had taught himself web design and HTML, which was burgeoning technology at the time. Armed with that knowledge, he combined forces with his wife in 1999 and founded Back40 Design in Shawnee, a company that specializes in web design.
Landing a contract to redesign the web site for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, business lunged forward for Miller. His efforts and performance won him other regional accounts and eventually the other top three Oklahoma City tourism sites: The Omniplex, The Oklahoma City Zoo, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Today, Back40 Design has produced more than 150 web projects, won numerous awards and had a site recognized as a Yahoo!® Site of the day, Miller said.
But the needs of Miller’s clients soon surpassed the original scope of his business. They needed print work created, advertisements and logos designed, marketing and other services for which Miller’s experience fit. The comic strip was about communicating an idea through words and pictures – skills that transferred well to Back40. Gone were the days where the world revolved around DAVE; now it was time for Dave to revolve around others.
“We’re designers in the business of solving problems. Our clients could see that and really appreciated that personal touch. …And we were good at it,” Miller said.
When Shawnee clients asked Miller for much-needed marketing help, Miller obliged. Enter the “Shawnee Shopper.” This oversized, glossy-covered, direct-mail magazine hit 25,000 mailboxes in the Shawnee area in December 2003 and has arrived every month since. It contains interesting local feature stories and news articles that caught the attention of the community.
“It was like a marketing sledgehammer,” Miller said of the “Shopper’s” success. “It did wonders. We’ve doubled the business of some of our clients.”
Several Back40 Design staff members live in Edmond, however, and were commuting to Shawnee each day, Miller said. Because 85 percent of his clients are in the Oklahoma City area, Miller opened a second office in Edmond. Soon, he launched the “Edmond Outlook,” Back40’s second direct-mail magazine. It is sent to 50,000 Edmond homes and businesses.
For a new magazine coming out, the response has been very good, Miller said. But for him, the real success has already occurred. He’s a 42-year-old father, raising another child, all the while working with his wife doing what he enjoys most. And he’s found an identity apart from fame, using his talents to help his clients.