When Jennifer Taback graduated from Cambrian College's graphic design program in 2009, the timing for new job prospects could not have been worse.
"The economy was pretty bad when we graduated," she said, referring to the recession that still dominated business headlines at the time. "We were told by our mentors and teachers to go to Toronto or Montreal, and definitely not stay in Sudbury."
But Taback decided not to take that advice, and with two of her classmates, started a Sudbury-based design firm they called Design de Plume.
The recent graduates did not have a business background, but that did not deter them from connecting with clients to put their new skills to use.
"College teaches us design, but it doesn't necessarily teach us the fundamentals of running a business," said Taback, the 2014 Northern Ontario Business Awards young entrepreneur of the year.
It was those business skills – bookkeeping, writing grant proposals, and most importantly, maintaining relationships with clients – that proved to be the greatest learning curve for the young entrepreneurs.
The company's first coup was a contract with the Toronto Zoo to create the marketing campaign for its Turtle Island conservation program.
The program works with First Nation partners to preserve biodiversity, community knowledge and significant natural and cultural landscapes.
The partnership with the Toronto Zoo was a perfect fit for Taback, who is Aboriginal.
"It was really exciting to do work for the Toronto Zoo," she said.
Her heritage has made Design de Plume one of the go-to design firms for Aboriginal organizations that want to update their image and connect with the public.
Taback said they've combined the minimalist Western graphic design style they were taught in school with traditional First Nations imagery.
"We can bend it and mix it, and come up with what's hopefully a new take on both (styles)," Taback said.
Design de Plume's work, she said, maintains the traditional character of the organizations it represents, but also makes it accessible to a wider, and younger audience.
Since that first big contract, Design de Plume has also done work for Laurentian University, the City of Greater Sudbury, Rainbow Health Ontario, and the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services.
The firm's slate of services includes branding, website development, copywriting, photography, editorial services, printing, stationary design, signage systems, and package design.
When she first helped launch the company in 2009, Taback said she thought staying in Sudbury might turn out to be a disadvantage. But the opposite turned out to be true.
"Lately I think it's been a significant advantage," she said.
Technology allows her to keep in touch with clients in other cities and send large files with ease.
For most prospective clients, Taback said, it doesn't matter where the firm is based. Their space in Sudbury, she added, is also much more affordable than a similar space would be in Toronto or Vancouver.
Those decisions have paid off, since Design de Plume has increased its sales by 350 per cent since it opened in 2009.
The firm recently merged with another Sudbury graphic design company called Spectrum Designs, and Taback said the time has come for them to start hiring more staff.
The firm has received a number of awards for its work including a people's choice award for a recent project with Sudbury Pride.
"I don't think we necessarily do it for the recognition," Taback said. "We really love what we do."
But the recognition helps reinforce the firm is on the right path.
"It's a nice feeling to have people say what you're doing is really good work," Taback said.