To Top

Meet Melissa Balkon of Strong Design Studios in South Tempe

Today we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Balkon.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Melissa. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I’m originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I graduated from Grand Valley State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 2004, I moved out to Arizona with a couple friends. At that time, I only had a couple years of experience, so I didn’t really have much in the way of job leads when I arrived. However, I quickly found a couple freelance clients and landed a design job at a local printer.

Within a few months, I moved on to a better opportunity at a direct mail print and fulfillment house. Even though it doesn’t sound glamorous, the people at that job were amazing. I learned a lot and ended up staying there for over 5 years. Throughout this time, I continued to freelance in the evenings and on weekends and began to fantasize about taking my freelance studio full-time.

In 2008, through an exchange of Tweets with strangers, I discovered that there was an event called Phoenix Design Week (PHXDW) that was being planned and they were in need of volunteers to make it happen. I joined the planning committee, where I ended up working alongside the team from a small agency called Forty (acquired by Crowd Favorite in 2014). Landing a job at this agency was basically my dream, and about a year after the first Phoenix Design Week event, my dream came true and they offered me a design strategist position at the agency.

Working at Forty was amazing. We worked out of a coworking space called Gangplank Chandler, and our team was small, close-knit, and incredibly strategically creative. I learned so much working with that team, made many brilliant contacts, and still use many of the processes we established together in my work today. In fact, my teammates from Forty are still some of my most trusted collaborators and closest friends.

In late 2012, I began to be restless in my work at Forty. The agency was still amazing, but it was growing, and I was longing for more simplicity and even greater autonomy. After much soul-searching, I finally decided it was time to strike out on my own. So in December of 2012, I gave my notice at Forty and took the plunge into full-time self-employment with my studio, Strong Design Studios.

It has been 5 years since taking Strong Design full-time. Running my studio has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (if not THE hardest thing), but I love the freedom and autonomy it gives me, and the impact I’m able to make for my clients. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
No matter how much you prepare, running a business is never a smooth road. My work and I have evolved a lot over the past 5 years, and I think evolution has to be one of the toughest things for a business owner.

Evolution is hard in two major ways: First, evolution takes strategic planning, and developing strategy takes time—and time is always in short supply when you’re running a business. It often seems easier to remain where you are than to take the steps to grow and evolve the business. But I’ll tell you that looking back, the extra effort to grow my business has paid off over time.

Second, evolving a business involves changing people’s perspective of you, and that is a very tough task to achieve. During times of evolution and growth, you have to take the time to teach your clients and colleagues about your growth in an effort to get them to grow with you. Some of them will choose not to do so, and you need to make peace with that—sometimes when you choose to grow the business (or yourself) people just aren’t ready to grow in that same way.

Currently, I believe I may be on the verge of another phase of evolution of my business and myself—it is simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating!

Strong Design Studios – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Strong Design exists to champion small organizations and encourages them in building bold businesses. We specialize in helping our clients design meaningful and functional brands, through both their online and offline channels.

One of the things that I am most proud of, and that also makes Strong Design unique, is that I am committed to keeping the studio strategically small. So small, in fact, that Strong Design is essentially a one-woman operation. On every project, my clients will work directly with me and I will do the majority of the creative work. In the event I need additional expertise or horsepower, I simply bring in a trusted expert from a small circle of colleagues.

Additionally, I work incredibly hard to not only give my clients a beautiful and effective final product but also to give them an amazing experience throughout the process. The bottom line is that I work with people… and people don’t want to endure a frustrating process (even if it does yield good results). So I work really hard to provide an experience that my clients feel positive about.

I’m proud of the choice to remain small because it is true to my vision and passion. I love working one-on-one with the owners of smaller organizations. If I were to grow the company larger, there would be a lot more needs to be met (salaries, office space, etc.) and we may need to compromise in who we work with, or how we work. I’m just not willing to do that. In a world that defines growth as an increase in size, I’ve decided to define growth as an increase in quality and client happiness, because those are the things that I value.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Let’s see… there are a few things that I’m really proud of:

First, it makes me really proud whenever a client tells me how happy they are with the results of their project—how we were able to get inside their heads and draw out the vision they couldn’t verbalize, or how we managed to make them feel comfortable and cared for throughout their project. Often my clients feel overwhelmed when it comes to branding, design, or website projects, and I love that I’m able to guide them through these projects.

Second, I am really proud to have had the honor to be part of both the 2015 and 2016 Phoenix Design Week and Method & Madness planning team. I got to design most of the collateral for both events, and not only was it just an incredibly fun project, but the event collateral won a Bronze Addy award in 2015 and a Silver Addy in 2016, which I guess makes Strong Design an “award-winning” studio now!

Finally, I’m really proud to have managed to keep Strong Design running (and growing, even) for these past 5 years. As a single, 30-something woman, I don’t immediately personify the term “business owner” to most people. Prior to taking Strong Design full-time, I felt a lot of doubt about whether I could realistically support myself in a self-employed role—it seemed like everyone else I knew who was self-employed also had a spouse who had “predictable” income through another employer. I battled those demons a lot early on, but I have realized over time that there is no such thing as a sure thing—we are all essentially self-employed.

What do you like best about our city? What do you like least about our city?
Phoenix is a great place to run a business. Several years ago I moved away from the valley, and within a very short time I realized what a gem of a community I had left, and because of it, I moved back quite quickly. The community here is so accepting of other business owners. People seem to really want to see others succeed and most are willing to help in any way they can. I think this might be in part because such a large portion of our population moved here from another location, so many of us know it feels to be the outsider. Phoenix is large enough to offer a lot of traction in terms of customers, yet is small enough that emerging businesses can be found. I’m really proud that I get to live and work here in the valley. (Shameless plug: I’m so passionate about Phoenix, that as a side project I’ve created a line of art prints that are all about taking pride in Arizona. Check them out at

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Chad Banning, Amy Lamp

Getting in touch: VoyagePhoenix is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Stephanie

    February 23, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    What a great interview! Love learning more about Phx creatives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in