Brendan Ciecko: Would You Let This Kid Save Your Town?
Ciecko’s particular talents revealed themselves at a young age. When he was four, his grandmother, Alice Shafran, remembers him picking a piece of wood off the ground and fashioning it into a boat, using little sticks to make smokestacks and rigging. "This wasn’t just a kid thing; it looked like a real boat," she says. "He just saw it."
Ciecko got into music early, starting a garage band in junior high and spending his time after school on Mp3.com discovering punk bands: Bouncing Souls, Rancid, Bad Religion. He earned enough money mowing lawns and working for a local hockey store that he was able to buy his own computer, a Compaq Presario. While his peers were noodling around with Yahoo! Kids, he was downloading Adobe Flash and creating simple animations.
His interest in music and computers coalesced when his favorite band, Slick Shoes, a pseudo-Christian punk outfit from California, sponsored a competition to make a piece of Flash animation to promote their new album. Ciecko entered and won, receiving a T-shirt, a CD, and backstage tickets. But he wanted more. Though he was just 13 at the time, he talked Slick Shoes’ manager into letting him design the band’s entire website.
As the group began getting attention, so did Ciecko. His big break came when Rich Egan, co-owner of one of the largest independent record labels, Vagrant, saw one of Ciecko’s designs and asked him to make some for the company. "I flipped out," says Egan. "His design was better, faster, cheaper, and smarter than everyone else’s." Egan was the one who started calling Ciecko "Wonderboy." He also started throwing him work, projects for bands that included Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, and the Get Up Kids.
Dubbing his new business Ten Minute Media, Ciecko would come home from school to send off designs to California before hockey practice; by the time he returned, the websites had gone live. Every afternoon he’d board the school bus and ask the driver—his mother—if he had received a package from California, usually a CD or a check. And he got a lot of checks. When he bought a BMW at age 16, one of his friends’ parents assumed he was dealing drugs.
Soon the major labels began calling. He wasn’t intimidated. "For their acts, I’m part of the demographic they are aggressively working with," he says. "So it was like, ‘Brendan, what are you listening to?’ ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘And what’s this Twitter tweet thing?’"
Though his own tastes lean toward indie rock and something called "post-hardcore," Ciecko has shown an uncanny ability to design for a wide range of artists, to visually translate the subtleties of their music. For pop star Katy Perry, he created a pink and topaz backdrop behind Perry in a miniskirt, her bubblegum vocals bombarding the viewer. For silky R&B singer Monica, Ciecko borrowed the look of high-fashion magazines, bathing the screen in sensuous shades of brown. "Brendan is the kind of designer I actually don’t like giving a lot of direction to, because I like seeing what he will come up," says Walter Gross, senior director of digital strategy at EMI Music North America.
For all Ciecko’s design skill, the part of the website that visitors don’t see—its infrastructure—may be more impressive to clients. For instance, when the original Web designer for New Kids on the Block’s comeback tour didn’t work out, Ciecko was hired and put together a streamlined site with blogs, downloads, streaming videos, and a link to its own social networking platform for fans to share photos, videos, and private jokes. Within a week, the site was getting 100,000 unique hits; when tour dates were announced, there was so much traffic it crashed.
"To be able to get back with all of our fans with a touch of a button was a big part of us coming back together," says New Kid Joey McIntyre, who credits the website with a lot of the comeback’s success. "We wanted all our fans to be able to get in touch with each other and have a place to have their own parties and groups and catch phrases. But you have to do it with the right vibe. He’s been awesome."