Profiles in Design: Hybrid Design’s Dora Drimalas Talks Nike, Signature Looks, and the Studio’s No-Asshole Policy
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/03/2019 | 6 Minute Read
“There was never a time when I wasn’t doing something creative,” recalled Dora Drimalas. “From a young age, as far back as I can remember, I was always drawing and painting and doing things.”
Not much has changed for Dora, Co-Founder and Executive Creative Director at Hybrid Design. The studio, which she runs with her husband Brian Flynn, does a little bit of everything—packaging for Nike jerseys, event branding with companies like Pinterest, print publications like Mohawk Maker Quarterly, a sister company called Super 7, and much, much more.
Born in Athens, Greece and raised in Sugar Land, Texas (yes, it’s a real place), Dora credited her parents for sparking her curiosity and interest in all things creative.
“My parents were immigrants,” she explained, “and as immigrants do, they do many things. My mom was an architect working on big plans, and she painted and did sign painting. My dad was an electrical engineer, so he was constantly taking things apart and putting them back together. There was always a lot in process at the house, so I grew up surrounded by making things with your hands, which definitely rubbed off on me.”
Although she had a deep interest in graphic design, Dora got “the worst first impression of graphic design someone could ever get” when she visited a studio in high school. So when she went to the University of North Texas, she chose to major in Film with an Anthropology minor instead.
When she met Brian, a graphic design major, she got to see all the projects he was working on and felt instantly hooked on that career path. “I was eight hours from finishing my degree and graduating,” she said. “But I said, ‘Forget it, scrap that, I’m going back and doing graphic design!’”
It was the perfect fit for Dora, letting her take the storytelling and pacing from film while also incorporating the drawing and hands-on structure she had been doing her whole life. “It also allowed me to change,” she added. “I love that, depending on the client, I get to learn about something new. I could be loud and bold, or experimental, or buttoned-up tight and succinct. There’s so much variety.”
In 1995, before graduation, she landed an internship at a little company up in the Pacific Northwest—Nike. She went up there for the summer, finished her last semester remotely, and her internship turned into a job where she worked for five years.
“It was the best time to be at Nike,” she gushed. “When I was there, Nike was just becoming a global company. They were doing the swoosh only for the first time." In the world of design, that was a radical idea. Brands still operated under the assumption that a logo had to include a name and typography, so for Nike to rely solely on an image made them stand out.
It wasn’t just Nike’s innovative approach to design that made an impact on Dora—it was the ability to touch all aspects of the brand. From working on NikeTown in New York to a Tiger Woods golf event in Japan, she worked with a small team (usually consisting of an industrial designer and a writer) to bring Nike to life. “You get thrown into the deep end, and it's sink or swim. And I think that attitude of ‘how hard can it be?’ is the way you learn stuff.”
Eventually, though, Dora left Nike because she and Brian knew they wanted to end up in San Francisco. “After growing up in very conservative places, San Francisco represented freedom in all forms,” she mentioned. “San Francisco had it all—great design studios, great art, a good punk music scene, and a very progressive outlook.”
When they arrived in The City by the Bay, Brian started Hybrid Design as a freelance endeavor, and Dora enjoyed working at smaller studios to balance out her previous experience at a large in-house studio. Quickly, though, Brian had a large enough workload with Hybrid Design that they discussed working together, and three years after their move, Dora joined him.
“Our goals were to pay the bills,” she confessed. “They were practical goals. We wanted to do work we liked, felt proud of, and also make a living.”
It’s scary to go into business with your partner, she admitted, but Dora explained that she and Brian complement each other well. “I describe myself as the lover of systems, and Brian is the skateboarding mad scientist.”
And this variety bleeds into the work they do as a studio because no two projects look the same. There is no “Hybrid Design” aesthetic, and clients don’t approach Dora and Brian for a particular kind of look. “We call ourselves ‘design generalists,’” she said. “We’re not the heart surgeon you go to, we’re the general doctor.
“Being a generalist is important because, at the root of graphic design, you’re solving problems. The answer to that problem could be anything—a takeover of Times Square, a new identity, or a revamped sales strategy. So you need to work with all the different aspects and business leaders in a company to pull everyone together.”
Keeping their minds open also means they’ve had opportunities they might otherwise not have considered, like the quarterly publication they do for Mohawk Paper. Hybrid Design comes up with the themes, topics, and content for each issue, and everyone in the studio contributes to making it happen. The work is hard, Dora admitted, but also fulfilling for the entire team because they get to design each unique issue in its entirety.
Anything is fair game with Hybrid Design, except for one small detail—no assholes. And as a woman in the design industry, she’s encountered more than her fair share—business meetings where she gets dismissed because of her gender or deep-rooted misogyny. When asked about her experiences in this male-dominated field, she took a long pause and gently said, “We won’t have enough time on this call.”
“It requires persistence,” she added, and it has taught Dora how to quickly assess which clients will be suitable to work with and which ones won’t so Hybrid can work with the bigger vision in mind.
“We like to think of ourselves as long-term relationship material. We often joke about it, like, ‘We don't want to date. We just want to be in a relationship with our clients.’ And our goal as a studio is, honestly, just to work with nice people, because life is too short to work with assholes. It really is.”