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  • Writer's pictureWoman Up Cleveland

Coloring Outside the Lines with Maddie & Grace

Maddie Harbert - Co-Founder of Yikes Design, Design Lead

Grace Blackley - Co-Founder of Yikes Design, Illustration Lead

At Cleveland Pearls, Brittney provides fun and engaging opportunities for girls in our community.
Founded in 2020, Yikes Design provides services such as Branding & Logo Design, Print Design, Illustration, and more!

Visuals and the art of design play such a major role in our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not. As organization directors and event planners, the Woman Up team has first-hand experience with how important eye-catching, informative, and functional design can be when trying to communicate with an audience. Naturally, when it came to designing our first event merchandise line to sell at this year's Summer Social, we set out to find a female creative that could help us achieve the appearance and most importantly, the energy, we wanted these items to give to our guests. Luckily, we didn’t just find a perfect woman for the job, we found two!

Maddie Harbert and Grace Blackley are two classmates, turned designers, turned best friends who have created the wonderfully colorful and quirky agency, Yikes Design. Both Cleveland locals and graduates of the Visual Communication Design program at Kent State University, Maddie and Grace have set out to create visual magic for all your design needs. A perfect match of creativity and challenging expectations led them to find their interests in working with clients and creating brand work. 

Starting out as simply classmates and acquaintances throughout high school, the ladies went on to grow closer throughout college and eventually moved in together post-graduation and began their adventure of starting a business. At the time, Grace was interning at a print studio, and Maddie was a graphic designer. This led the duo to combine their strengths and ultimately create merchandise that would become their brand’s beginning.

As a designer, Maddie found herself ready to push the boundaries of her work and aim to create beyond the mold of what she often was given. She said, “We were a little burnt out from school and just getting straight into a career. We loved that we were doing research-based design and things like that, but we were sick of things being so serious. Can’t we just make some art and design at the same time?”

Being able to explore their creativity and challenge themselves to make art was a huge aspect of Yikes’ founding principles. Aiming to go beyond the scope of what is expected and deliver design work they could be proud of remains at the forefront of each project the team takes on. Grace said, “We are creating a space that is more creative and fun and human versus super serious business because we are more personal and want to have that connection with others.”

After founding the business in 2019, Maddie and Grace began working at pop-up shops and markets with the goal of promoting and selling their merch around Cleveland. Making merchandise that felt authentic and fun was at the forefront of their work, and it wasn’t long until they translated their passions for making art into other business adventures.

Yikes Design is driven by a desire to connect with others, challenge design norms, and enjoy the creative process.
Yikes Design is driven by a desire to connect with others, challenge design norms, and enjoy the creative process.

The creativity of Yikes knows no bounds. Maddie and Grace enjoy interacting with fellow Clevelanders and encouraging them to be creative. Yikes has dipped their toes in hosting workshops at their studio space and aims to experiment with further ways to connect with the Cleveland community. This not only benefits creativity and promotes art and design, but also allows Maddie and Grace the opportunity to express their passion for design outside of their day-to-day work. Starting with a screen-printing experience, they offered guests a chance to create art with the guidance of the Yikes team. Yikes is excited to continue hosting workshops and fostering a safe space for those in our community to experiment with their own creativity. 

However, like many of us, the ladies of Yikes Design were forced to pivot when the pandemic changed the possibility and overall nature of in-person events. Initially seeing this as a step back to re-evaluate their options, Maddie and Grace soon found the perfect path forward through their friends at the local art gallery, KINK Contemporary. In their first branding project in 2020 with KINK Contemporary, the ladies realized how much designing for brands and companies whose missions they resonated with could give them both the creative freedom and fulfilling work they had sought. “We took the ideals that we started with in the merch, to create more artistic, creative, authentic design and started applying it to our branding and logos. People started seeing that we did that work for KINK and then started reaching out and it snowballed from there,” Maddie told us.

Individually, both ladies had different journeys to their design destinations. Grace shared with us her lifelong love for fine arts and how this love for realism has evolved over the years. She told us that her choice to pursue graphic design was a logical one. Seeing how it could combine with business and marketing, Grace knew it was a perfect chance to create what she wanted and have greater opportunities for a steady income. She said, “Combining the fine arts side of my brain with the graphic design side of my brain was kind of difficult in college. I ended up printmaking and getting a minor in fine art, so I still focused more on the creative and self-expression side of things.” 

Even now with her work at Yikes, Grace’s appreciation for the meaningful forms of art paired with functionality shines through. She told us how starting in this space with a business she could call her own was the answer to her uncertainty about how logical design and expressive art could go hand in hand with each other. “That’s what I wanted to do. Express who I am and what I’m feeling but also express the feelings of our clients in my work. Yikes sort of created a space for all of those things to happen which I never thought could happen,” she shared.

For Maddie, Yikes was a natural transition from creating under the direction of others, to creating for herself. She has childhood memories of connecting with art, blending colors, and creating with her hands. Her passions for art (i.e. music and photography) transformed into graphic design as she envisioned this to be her collegiate career path. “After getting a taste for things in college, my desire to pursue a career in the music industry faded because I became aware of all the grand opportunities available to me,” she said. 

Grace Blackley, Yikes Design's illustration expert, specializes in creative design and client relationships, and she holds a BA in Visual Communication Design with a minor in fine arts from Kent State University.Grace Blackley, Yikes Design's illustration expert, specializes in creative design and client relationships, and she holds a BA in Visual Communication Design with a minor in fine arts from Kent State University.
Grace Blackley, Yikes Design's illustration expert, specializes in creative design and client relationships, and she holds a BA in Visual Communication Design with a minor in fine arts from Kent State University.

After college, Maddie began working for a small design team and was working primarily on branding and design projects. Within a few years, she became the lead designer and felt as though she was already practically freelancing. After a while of gathering client experience and seeing the business side of things, the possibility of a dream-like Yikes seemed more and more attainable.

Speaking about her journey and finding her style, Maddie told us a bit about how she views design as both a passion and a career. She said, “Design for me is just a good balance of art plus problem-solving and communicating ideas. I struggle with my words so being able to design things and getting it out that way is great.” Her words make it even more clear that the partnership between Maddie and Grace was inevitable one that is built on balance and teamwork when it comes to each having their own incredible strengths.

We dove into the fun parts of a creative career and asked Maddie and Grace about their favorite experiences and dream projects for the future. They revisited their work for KINK Contemporary and how this monumental first client paved the way for not only their confidence but also for word of mouth to begin bringing in business. Proving that Yikes could do this work and be successful was a turning point for the team and is a major part of how they have gotten to where they are today. 

Grace also shared about a recent branding project for Femissance where they realized they are consistently receiving clients that have similar minds like founder Danielle. Working with other women gave the project an empowering and inclusive energy that carried through to the final work the ladies delivered. She said, “She was so open to our ideas and excited for what we were making. It was so fun to work on something for someone who is also so open and creative and fun.”

Maddie mentioned a partnership with a company called Big Boss Tire Sauce, a chemical company that initially did not seem like the ideal fit for Yikes’ quirky and feminine style. Seeking an eye-catching design, the company aimed to stand out in the industry and Yikes’ style is sure to accomplish just that. Surprisingly, they opted for a vintage and retro design style which was a perfect fit. The project has quickly become a favorite for both ladies and has encouraged them to keep an open mind when it comes to what the ‘ideal client’ could look like.

Maddie Harbert, Yikes Design's lead designer has a BFA in Visual Communication Design from Kent State University and specializes in branding and typography.
Maddie Harbert, Yikes Design's lead designer has a BFA in Visual Communication Design from Kent State University and specializes in branding and typography.

We also talked a little about the best part of the job as a whole and how the right clients can take the meaningfulness and impact of a project that much further. The extra step to connect on a deeper level with the work which makes all the difference. Maddie said, “The best clients are the ones that love our work, trust what we are doing, and give us the freedom to do what we think works best for them. We obviously take into account all client insight, but the best projects have been the ones where they really trust our vision.” Grace added, “We are fortunate that the majority, if not all of our clients, are like-minded. We have a clear brand image that is reaching our target audience. Our style is so obviously funky and out there...if you were hiring us and didn't align with that type of style, it would be kind of weird.”

We moved on to discuss dream projects and what work the ladies at Yikes would love to take on someday. Both Maddie and Grace agreed that the bumper stickers they are currently offering in their merch store are a favorite of theirs that they always hoped to create and now plan to continue expanding on for the future. With fuel from their shared notes app list of quotes, they plan to continue churning out clever and comedic bumper stickers for as long as they continue to be a hit. 

The ladies shared about industries and concepts they would love to work with, mentioning the marijuana industry as one they would love to support and design for in the future as well as bringing in larger clients who have more complex design needs. Working with bigger clients and bigger budgets is of course a goal but the forefront of their current missions remains the effort to stabilize Yikes’ revenue and set both Maddie and Grace up for long-term success.

Wholesale is also a goal for them as they continue to grow. Being able to have a consistent and somewhat self-sufficient source of income could help fuel all of the other projects and partnerships that Yikes can take on and continue to build on their success. After receiving their first wholesale order from a Midwest shop called RAYGUN, the ladies are motivated to continue fostering that relationship as well as continue to build up their accounts and expand their wholesale reach overall.

Of course, we can never talk about local small businesses without touching on how Cleveland sets up entrepreneurs for success. In a city that is so supportive of its start-ups and of shopping small, every founder seems to have a story to tell about how they have seen support for their products, services, or causes. Both Yikes Design and its lead designers are no exception to this phenomenon. 

Along with designing for clients, Yikes also has their own line of products!
Along with designing for clients, Yikes also has their own line of products!

Grace shared about her previous job working for Fount and her internship with Zygote. Working with various artists who later would help to make all of their design dreams a reality. Over her years of being surrounded by so many people with the potential to create beauty in the world, it is clear to her that our city is full of endless drive and talent. Connecting with these individuals later for support in founding Yikes and making its offerings possible is what reminds Grace of the beauty of networking and how Cleveland does it so well. She said, “The whole reason we have a business is because of the Cleveland community. Specifically, the art community. What’s great about Cleveland is that the networking is pretty easy and small, it’s just like making friends. We are so personable, and we enjoy just being ourselves so when we meet other people it's not always so business, it's also friends and we like to keep it that way.”

The uniqueness of being an equal two-person team is one that we at Woman Up Cleveland are very familiar with and talking with other female founder duos has reminded us just how special that partnership can be. Maddie and Grace told us about their shared experiences as not only equal counterparts but as women making a name for themselves in business. 

Being women (and best friends), the ladies shared that they often think the same way and don’t usually come upon conflict that they can’t compromise on. They cited their support for each other, similar ideas, and constant communication as ways they stay connected and on the same page as each other. Although Yikes is working with individuals of all backgrounds, they frequently connect with other women when it comes to projects. Their feminine and spunky brand tends to attract women to the business (like it did for us!) and this often leads to partnerships and friendships with clients who are well-suited for their style. 

Speaking for themselves, they shared a bit about working with each other on a women-led team. They touched on their differences in style and strength sharing that while Maddie describes herself as type A and organized, Grace finds herself to be the opposite. Maddie leans toward being a more typography-based designer who focuses on the nitty-gritty details while Grace often explores ideas and pushes the limits of what they can create. 

Maddie couldn’t have said it better, “Women just get shit done. Being on teams with male leaders for so long can get exhausting. The caring nature of women is super important to lead, compromise, and make decisions. So many times, I have been in a lot of meetings with guys who just steamroll over everyone's ideas and it’s like no, there is room for everyone's opinions and ideas, and we can make this work. Women are super-efficient and are able to compromise and work together.”

Grace also touched on the benefits of being in the same industry and having a mutual understanding of each other’s work. The ladies have a mutual understanding of their feedback and know that it is essential to work together to create something they are proud of. She said, “We can critique each other pretty well. It’s easy to understand one another. We don't have to over-explain ourselves. She doesn't have to end a sentence and I know what she's talking about. We are helping each other and therefore helping our business.”

Yikes Design hosted a Valentine's Card workshop in 2020 and is starting to host events for the community again.
Yikes Design hosted a Valentine's Card workshop in 2020 and is starting to host events for the community again.

Dividing and conquering is a driving force behind the success of their two-woman show as well. Having an understanding of not only what needs to be done, but who needs to do it is the key to success when running a service-based and equally shared business. Being able to split up the business management, client service, and design work aspects of their jobs based on each individual's strengths has been a huge benefit to Maddie, Grace, and Yikes as a whole.

Creative careers almost always come with their unique challenges, some of the largest being the unregulated nature of the industry and its diverse clientele and styles. Grace spoke about the differing needs from business to business and how it can be difficult to execute work quickly when there is so much feedback involved. Being unaligned with a client's needs and your abilities and style can be the death of a project and can not only cause it to take longer but could lead to a lack of satisfaction for both the client and designer.

Maddie mentioned scheduling as an obstacle as well. When the job itself is to create something from scratch, it can be hard to promise precise turnaround times and predict when creativity might be at its peak. She went on to say, “Being able to tell clients that this is the general schedule but there will be flex and things that change either due to your feedback or the way we are creating things. It’s hard to predict when a project is going to end because you really never know what’s going to happen when you start getting into it.” She explained how this flexibility in being your own boss can help relieve the pressure of deadlines and expectations and foster more collaborative communication with clients.

Freedom can also be limiting. Working in your way and making up the rules can sometimes create the difficulty of having to call all of the shots and prove the value of your work. Often those who do not work in creative fields have a misunderstanding of the time and effort it takes to create a final product, and this can lead to undervaluing of the work being done. Being able to properly value your efforts and advocate for what you deserve is a struggle that many creative professionals encounter throughout their careers.

Whether it be imposter syndrome due to lack of experience or lack of confidence, overcoming this obstacle of properly placing value on creative work is quite common in the industry. The ladies at Yikes have had their own experiences with these feelings of doubt and recognize that being self-employed has both its benefits and learning experiences. Grace said, “The value of creative work in general is pretty low. People just think it's magic. We went to school for so long and it is our passion. Even beyond the project, we do this all the time. Wouldn’t you want to hire someone who does this all the time?”

The ladies mentioned their graciousness that most, if not all, of their clients have aligned with them perfectly and have helped to ease that fear of miscommunication and under-valuing of their services. Like most things, a creative career has a double edge to it and can both be liberating and create constraint with what the artist is trying to create.

Yikes Design is loved by all, especially our furry, feline friends.
Yikes Design is loved by all, especially our furry, feline friends.

Maddie told us about a conversation with her photography teacher regarding the fun and feminine nature of the Yikes business branding. After he voiced concern for their ability to appeal to big corporate clients having such a unique and colorful brand, the girls overcame their discouragement with time and came to the perfect conclusion. She said, “We don’t need those clients. There are going to be perfect clients that align with these values. Our audience is out there. People who align with our work are paying for design.” Grace added, “If they did want to work with us, then they would understand that they are working with someone who creates things like we do. We don’t want to appeal to just everyone. We have our own look and feel.”

Finally, Grace brought up the challenges of social media and how it can impact small businesses trying to succeed in an online world. She said, “That’s how you get more people to work with you and it can be hard putting yourself out there if that's not your thing. It forces you out of your comfort zone but it’s for the best.” Maddie added, “Being able to also use that to get over your self-image stuff. No one is criticizing anyone as much as I'm criticizing myself.”

Beyond their return to community events in a post-pandemic world, Yikes has goals of giving back to the community that has shown them so much support over the years. Activism and supporting various communities is so important to them and they have already begun these efforts in small ways with various causes and communities in Cleveland and beyond. Offering products with the donation of proceeds has been and will be a rewarding accomplishment and future goal of theirs. Maddie shared, “Sometimes it feels like you can’t do anything, and being able to give funds to try and help things is one of our biggest pillars and we want to keep doing that as we grow.”

Additionally, we spoke about how hard the jump from a side gig to a full-time entrepreneur can be. Although Maddie transitioned to Yikes full-time after a layoff in August 2023, Grace is currently working full-time for PNC in addition to running Yikes. The goal of making the leap from her corporate role to a full-time designer at Yikes is one of Grace's biggest dreams for the future. 

Overall, Maddie and Grace are more motivated than ever to continue their growth and expand their work to include more products, more clients, and more wholesale. Dreams of upgrading their space, hosting more events, and getting even more involved with the community are at the forefront of their minds. They are constantly admiring brands and dreaming up ways to work with them. Some dream collaborations include Juicy Chews, Rust Belt Riders, and Cleveland Bagel. The possibilities are endless with creativity like theirs and we truly can not wait to see where the ladies of Yikes end us next!

We have never interviewed two individuals together but after meeting with Maddie and Grace for the first time, there was no question that they would be our first double feature. They are both so clearly passionate about the act of designing meaningful things and it is obvious after speaking with them even briefly, that they are the perfect pair. A dynamic duo and force to be reckoned with, Maddie and Grace are intensely thoughtful, overwhelmingly creative, and incredibly talented, both individually and as a team. On their own, the ladies have so many things that make them special and make them such a perfect fit for business partners and besties. Their energy is infectious, and we are so lucky to have connected with them on our merchandise project this year. Look out for them selling their own merch at the Summer Social this year as a special bonus vendor and stay tuned to see what is to come from the creative genius that is Yikes Design!


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