Smile Politely

An interview with Al Fleener: Local creative pro

I first met Al Fleener over a decade ago when he and the late Dana Buerkett were working together at a local ad agency. Over the years, our paths kept crossing (this is a small town after all). There was that time Al taught a graphic design class at Parkland College where I’m currently a professor. That was just before he decided to open his own design office, which he decided to call SURFACE 51. Over the years, I’ve watched him grow from a one-man shop in a shared office space in One Main to a many-person, multi-dimensional shop with an ultra-talented staff. Today, SURFACE 51 is now a formidable creative force in Champaign-Urbana’s local marketing communications industry.

As a professor at Parkland College, I enjoy arranging for field trips so that my students can visit various creative studios around town. SURFACE 51 has always been one of those “must-see” studios. In retrospect, those field trips seem more like opportunities to sneak into Al’s shop to see what he’s been up to. We visited him when he grew out of his one-room office and moved to Chester Street. We dropped in to see him when he outgrew that space and moved into the old Film Processing Unlimited building on Neil Street. And now we get to check out his newest diggs in the Blue Line Station building on Neil Street, just north of downtown Champaign.

Over the years, several of my students have worked for Al and I’ve even had the privilege to have his son in one of my graphic design classes at Parkland. We both volunteered on the old Ad Club of Champaign-Urbana board and put together one of the very last awards shows before the club went bust. I guess in a sense, Al’s family. So it’s only natural that I insist that he make a rare public appearance and show the world what SURFACE 51 is today. In preparation for Al’s upcoming presentation at Parkland’s “Meet the Pros” lecture series, I asked him to answer a few questions over email.

Smile Politely: What is SURFACE 51?

Al Fleener: SURFACE 51 is an idea agency — a design-focused marketing firm. Basically, we do whatever it takes to get our clients’ message out—to help them find their voice, be heard, and get people to notice them. We work closely with our clients to develop a plan and then we develop all of the components to make it happen.

SP: What gave you the balls to start your own agency?

Fleener: It wasn’t so much balls as necessity. I had worked for many years at a firm where I learned much of the foundational practices that I used to start SURFACE 51. I left that biz to work at another firm for a short couple of years … at which point, I almost went insane. Out of the ‘almost insanity’ came the drive to finally do things the way I thought they should be done. I wanted to start something brand new that focused on really listening to clients.

SP: What makes S51 different than other agencies?

Fleener: Well, we definitely drink more coffee per person than any agency — but the real difference is that we listen better than any agency I know. We’re not just a bunch of creatives that want to design cool stuff. We develop pieces for our clients that work. (And that look and sound great too.)

SP: Does S51 have a studio style?

Fleener: Smart. Functional. Simple. Impeccable. I’m not sure you can equate that to a studio style, but that’s the core of it.

SP: What does it take to work at S51?

Fleener: Our expectation is that you’re crazy-super-talented and creative. That’s a given. But you also need to be tenacious, curious, and have a natural ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. No doubt that we expect a lot out of someone. There’s that old saying, ‘Done is better than perfect.’ At S51, we expect you to meet a deadline and for it to be pretty damn perfect too.

SP: So you’ve recently moved into a new building. What’s your new space like?

Fleener: SURFACE 51 has been so very blessed by this community — the relationships we’ve built; [we’ve had] some amazing opportunities. One of the best things to happen this past year has been getting to know Jeff Mellander and moving S51 to his Blue Line Station. The like-mindedness of Jeff’s and my own creative vision plus work ethic is definitely evident in our new space. The studio is an absolute reflection of the S51 style — perfectly functional and impeccably designed.

SP: Does SURFACE 51 have anything to do with Area 51?

Fleener: Um. No. The way we describe the name is that while we believe form and function should be 50/50, as a design-focused marketing firm we’d give a one percent edge to the surface. Hence SURFACE 51. Truth is, the name was determined at 3:00 a.m., so that I could take advantage of some free business card printing (way too long a story). I didn’t really think how someone might wonder if there was a connection — or how hard SURFACE 51 would be to pronounce on the phone. (‘Did you say Service 51?’ ‘Surplus 51?’ or, my personal fave, ‘Circus 51?’) We’ve actually kicked around changing the name to that last one — it might be a bit more accurate. [Smirk]

SP: What kind of education did you have?

Fleener: I did have an Associate’s in Visual Art from Parkland. And I believe I still do.

SP: How come you never pursued a bachelor’s degree?

Fleener: I thought about continuing my education, but I wanted to get started working after I received my Associate’s. After I’d been working several years and getting my groove down as to what I thought worked versus what didn’t, I honed one of my traits — that I tend to think I’m right most of the time (no surprise to anyone who knows me). I may not say it. But I think it. So after doing things a certain way for a few years, I wouldn’t have been able to go back to school and be a very good student.

SP: What about your work background?

Fleener: I started my career laying out IGA weekly ads, moved on to packaging design for private-label products for WalMart, Target, etc. And then I landed a gig at a cool firm in Bloomington where I really honed my craft. I’ve now been working in design/marketing/advertising for … gulp … let’s just say over twenty years. [Smile]

SP: Do you have any kids?

Fleener: Yep. Two. Boston and Emmy (Emmaline).

SP: Did they inherit any creative genius genes from you?

Fleener: Ha! I’m not sure I would claim to have creative genius genes — but they’ve definitely been raised in an environment that encourages and values creativity. I believe creativity is one of the most valuable qualities anyone (or any business) can have. My kids innately understand that.

SP: Is your son going to follow in your footsteps?

Fleener: I wouldn’t call it ‘in my footsteps,’ as he definitely marches to his own drum. But he’s currently at ISU studying design. He’s got a lot of natural design talent, but he’s an even more talented musician and songwriter.

SP: Your daughter?

Fleener: She’ll likely be in the creative industry. Fashion or architecture I believe. Her current obsession is getting friends together for fashion photo shoots and then blogging about them or posting to Instagram. Wait — maybe that’s every fifteen-year-old girl’s current obsession.

SP: What inspires you?

Fleener: Music. Almost every type sans Celtic (UGH!). Music much more so than anything visual. Visuals give me ideas. Music inspires me. Anyone that knows me knows that I can’t function without music.

SP: What’s the last book you read?

Fleener: What I should say for this article: The Steve Jobs autobiography. Actual last book: Book 3 in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series: The Wastelands.

SP: Last movie you watched?

Fleener: What I should say for this article: Insert any hipsterific indie documentary title here. Actual last movie: The Devil Rides Out — an awesome Hammer movie from 1968. (I might be slightly fanatical about horror movies, but I’m definitely obsessed with Hammer films. If Christopher Lee + Peter Cushing are on the bill, I’m watching it.)

SP: Last YouTube video?

Fleener: A 1970s CAT safety video called ‘Shake Hands with Danger.’ If you haven’t seen these — you should. They could save you a lost finger or two.

SP: What exciting projects are you working on now?

Fleener: Again, I’m so very thankful for the opportunities S51 gets. We truly get to work with great clients. Some of our current work includes an identity project for Vera Bradley, ongoing marketing pieces for Busey, an all-new website for the UIUC College of Business, and developing the overall environmental for Common Ground Food Co-operative.

SP: What bit of advice has stuck with you over time?

Fleener: Never quit. Nothing is impossible. (To which, over time, I’ve modified by adding … almost.) Try Try Try Try Try. But know when to call it done.


Al Fleener will be speaking at the Champaign Public Library on Wednesday, November 14, at 12 noon. Al’s presentation is the ninth event of “Meet the Pros,” a new lecture series presented by Graphic Design at Parkland College and co-sponsored by Champaign Public Library, CUDO and 40 North 88 West. This free lecture series is open to the public and features designers, photographers, illustrators, and other commercial artists in our local creative community.

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