Making a Business out of Graffiti

In a fast-paced world where new products and services are vying for our attention at every turn, both on and offline, the window of opportunity to make a lasting impression is fleeting to say the least. From a brand perspective it’s a challenging space to be at work in, no longer just a case of who can shout the loudest but of who can come up with the most creative ways to get their audience’s attention, especially when what that audience responds best to is a more experiential approach from brands, like a pop-up shop or a street art battle.

Creative Limerick backed him from the beginning


Steve O’ Donnell seems to have found that sweet-spot between modern brands keen to stay current and consumers who are jaded by traditional advertising and looking for something more in exchange for their custom. His company All Out Design, based in a quirky warehouse space in North Strand, has crafted campaigns for clients like Adidas and Ryanair, encompassing street art, stunts and guerilla marketing. The All Out Design ethos is to bring those big ‘it can’t be done’ ideas to life and maximising value for the client. Ironically Steve set off to Galway to become a Scientist after school, but soon realised he wanted to do something more creative and returned to his native Limerick to study art;

“It all started back in art college. I met two guys who were in the years above me. Although we’d known of each other back in school, it was at college that we really clicked and became good friends. They had already been doing artwork under the All Out Design name, and I got involved. We started up a Graffiti Society in college and ran workshops teaching the different techniques. There was a real joy in passing along whatever limited knowledge we had at the time. It was a really rewarding, fun experience. Eventually people started to get wind of us. We got requests to paint backdrops and work on other projects around the city. It was that word of mouth that really got us going in the beginning. We got great jobs with the likes of RTÉ and Paddy Power that way.”

Eventually we were given a space to work in by Creative Limerick. They allocate disused commercial spaces to different creatives rent-free for a year. Usually its reserved for people who have already graduated and are trying to establish themselves as artists, so we were very lucky to be given the opportunity. It was a shared-space but we managed to make the case for getting our own place because we were using spray paint. We ended up getting the equivalent of a mansion right in the middle of the city centre! It was this incredible, iconic building that used to be an old shoe shop. It was too big for us really and we couldn’t afford to put anything in there, so we ended up turning it into a gallery, studio and a space for workshops. We had very limited resources but we used them as creatively as possible. We called in friends to help us paint the walls and make signage using stencils and tarp. By the time we were done it looked a million dollars, even though it was done for 10.
That’s always been the way we work. We try to do a huge amount with very little. It’s not hard to do something impressive when money is no object, so its a challenge for us to work to a specific budget and try to give the client back a huge amount of value.

Double jobbing wasn’t working out


When he finished up in college Steve made the move to Dublin and landed a job as a Brand Manager at an events company, but was struggling to find the time to keep All Out Design going on the side;

“It was a cool place to work and I loved it there. I was given a lot of freedom and responsibility creatively and the experience really stands to me. Every event has a similar makeup whether its a festival or an art exhibition so I learnt an awful lot there, but because I was working all the time I was missing out on the creative opportunities that I really wanted to be doing. Clients sometimes need you to drop everything if something needs to be done by tomorrow, but I couldn’t do that while I was working. It got to the point where I was getting lots of meetings and was trying to give off the impression that I was this big company, but I’m sure they found it suspicious that I could only meet them after 5pm during the week or at weekends!”

Eventually he decided to take the plunge and throw himself into the business full-time. While the street art commissions are still in high demand, Steve is working on expanding the company’s experiential offering, with services like guerrilla marketing and stunts now on the table for brands eager to stand out from the crowd;

“I feel that guerrilla marketing ties in well to our original ideals of graffiti culture. What I’m trying to get across now when I’m presenting to clients is that although spray-painting is very much at the core of what we do and always has been, we’re branching out into other areas with the same ethos. I think spray-painting is the coolest thing in the world, but I understand that from a brand perspective it might not be for everyone. We’re lucky in that what we’re doing is very current, but trends come and go. I don’t want to be in a position in a few years time where spray-painting is all I’m able to offer. That’s why we’re pushing these other ideas that have the same feeling and vibe. It’s a natural progression for the business.”

Marriage Equality stunt that got over a million views


He also enjoys making time for causes and issues close to his heart. In the run-up to the Marriage Equality Referendum, he raked out an enormous ‘Yes’ in the sand at Sandymount Strand. The stunt went viral, hitting headlines around the world, and as well as highlighting a cause that was important to him, it’s another example of the All Out Design ability to make something jaw-dropping and newsworthy happen with very little;

“I’ve always believed that the best way to get others to trust in what you’re doing is to get out there and do it yourself. Marriage Equality was a pinnacle moment in Irish history and it is something close to my own heart. I wanted to help spread awareness. We thought about doing a mural, but it had been done. Mine would have had to be on the side of a 10 storey building to help raise as much awareness as the other amazing ones that had popped up around town in support of the campaign. So I tried to think back to how we did things in the college days. I grabbed a rake and headed down to Sandymount Strand. Lots of planning went in to it of course, and we had to allow for the changing tides and weather, but it worked. The video has been viewed over a million and a half times. It was on the news everywhere from Asia to Australia. So it got that visibility I was after, but it’s also a good example of what we can do with so little. It literally cost the price of a rake to do it. Although it did take me 7 hours! I’m planning something big for Repeal too.”

A work-space that has a pizza oven, a half-pipe and hosts gigs

All Out Design now has a pretty impressive home in North Strand, which Steve has approached like an art-project all of its own, and is lucky enough to have a ‘very sound landlord’ who allows it all to happen. Certain childhood dreams have been realised in the installation of a half-pipe (‘we had it before we had desks in here’) a pizza oven, and shelves upon shelves of retro toys which he salvages from charity shops and car boot sales. The space also plays host to everything from gigs to video shoots to band rehearsals;

“I’m pretty selective with what goes on in here. It’s a residential area and I don’t want to annoy anyone. We very rarely use the space at weekends and only until a respectful hour. People often use the space for photo-shoots too. Sofar Sounds was here recently which was incredible. We did a cool spoken word gig with the Ana Liffey Drug Project last month which is such a great organisation, so it was good to lend support to that. There’s always some bit of activity around here. It’s never boring.”

Although officially only in business 3 years, its been a roller-coaster time for Steve, who has actually been trying to make this happen for 10;

“Luckily we’ve gone strength to strength over the last few years, but I never take it for granted. Being humble and enjoying what you have in the moment is so important but at the same time you have to be hungry for more, keep thinking up new ideas and working on your relationships. Of course the actual work is fundamentally fun so it’s easy to put my passion and energy into developing it. Honestly this is the happiest we’ve all been. We often sit here, look around us and be like ‘Man, its unreal what we’re getting to do here. We’re so lucky’”.


You can find out more about All Out Design here…




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