RED DOG DAYS
Mary Doherty’s plan was to become a painter, but in college, she realised she was no good. Happily, her change of direction led to a successful business and an enduring romance. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Paul McCarthy
Mary Doherty’s home is full of interesting artefacts, but two in particular stand out. These are big, bold artworks in the style of Roy Lichtenstein, the American Pop artist who, in his work, employed bright graphics and words and lots of exclamation marks. It transpires that one of the artworks was secretly commissioned by Mary, and the other, from the same artist, by her husband Sean. Both presented them as Christmas gifts the same year.
Fortunately, both Mary and Sean were thrilled, but then they would be; both are involved in the world of visual communication and enjoy not just pure art, but visual jokes and unusual ways of communicating. Sean is a partner in Power Design, while Mary’s company, Red Dog, specialises in helping companies to develop a brand identity.
A bubbly blonde from Inishowen, Co Donegal, Mary says she has no artistic heritage to speak of, but she feels she got her business acumen from her mother, a grounded individual who has always kept the family show on the road; and her creative flair from her father, whose career was that of golf professional, and yet who has always been interested in the arts. “He became a golf pro at 16 and that was his job, but he’s very cultured, and always encouraged us to do something a little bit different,” Mary recalls. “He was delighted that I wanted to go to art college.”
Mary thought at first she wanted to be a painter, and did a foundation course in Belfast. “I realised I was no good at the painting; who was I kidding? So I switched to design and I fell in love with graphic design. I love the fact you can take these different elements and put them together and make something beautiful, but also something that has a job,” Mary enthuses, adding that to complete her education, she moved to Dublin and NCAD, where she did a degree in visual communication.
The move south was good for Mary in another way; it was where she met Sean, who hails from Ferbane, Co Offaly. “He was in the same class — both of us went into NCAD in third year,” Mary says, adding with a laugh, “It was chemistry; love over the drawing boards.”
Mary graduated in 1993 and started her design company, Red Dog. The name is great and it sounds as if there’s a story behind it. “There’s no story. I don’t even have a dog,” Mary says with a laugh, adding that she and her then business partner wanted something arresting. “We wanted something without the word design in the title; red is positive and energetic, and ‘red dog’ sounded good. We started it the day after graduation — mad, isn’t it? I’ve never had ‘a job’ in my life,” she notes.
Instead, she’s always been an employer and currently has a staff of 15. “We’re one of the biggest design companies. It’s mainly branding and design; we work with companies on their brand strategy, and help them build their brand through visual and verbal communication. I’m at the front end, I work with companies on what needs fixing, and then the studio takes over. We have very talented designers, and they design an identity,” Mary explains.
Clients include elite businesses like the Davy Group, KBC Bank, and DCU. “One of the interesting things for me is getting under the bonnet of these places and seeing some of the amazing work they do,” Mary marvels, adding that the role of the designer is becoming more and more important to big companies. “Design is integral to everything we do now. A lot of companies in the States have a head of design on their staff. They’re not design companies — it’s because they want designers to be part of the thinking,” she muses.
Another big project this year is her participation in the IDI Awards, which take place in the Marker on November 26; she’s chairperson, and her role includes putting a top-class jury together. “Designers from all disciplines have entered, and it was important to get a good jury. Designers like to be judged by their peers, who are actually practicing designers,” Mary explains, adding that a lifetime-achievement award will be posthumously bestowed on Eileen Gray, so it promises to be a very prestigious occasion. “There are not that many Irish women designers we can look up to, and it’s good to acknowledge people who are brilliant,” Mary says.
Life is pretty hectic for Mary. As well as the awards and the company, she and Sean have two sons, Sam (12) and six-year-old Oisin. “Sam was born at 26 weeks; he was in Holles Street for five months. It was tough, but I kept going by continuing to work, which is near Holles Street. Yeah, it was hard,” she says,
‘We went into NCAD in third year, he was in the same class; it was chemistry, love over the drawing boards’