By Nila Do Simon
Photography by Edward Linsmier
The insides of helium creative are filled with ideas. It’s brimming with concepts for branding, websites, apps, print materials and logos. Inside the two-room office with charcoal-gray walls and a winding staircase that leads to nowhere are ideas that have inspired the likes of American Airlines, Levinson Jewelers, W South Beach, Blue Martini and more. Also inside this office is Christopher Heller.
Soft-spoken, contemplative and with a smile warm enough to melt a frozen river, Heller is the embodiment of the decade-old helium creative he founded. Sitting behind his weathered wooden desk, Heller has helped companies define their brands through stunning marketing campaigns and innovative digital applications. In short, he personifies the company’s slogan of finding “a higher creative standard.”
Heller is a dreamer. He’s been dreaming since he was a kid in Lancaster, Pa., doodling replica Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on his sketch pad. If a blank sheet was lying around, chances are the paper would be covered with sketches for Heller’s next great idea within 10 minutes. He did just that on his recent Caribbean cruise and a flight across the country to Los Angeles, in fact.
Born in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish Country to a Mennonite father and a maternal side full of government employees, Heller remembers immersing himself in art and culture during his weekend excursions to nearby Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. He graduated with a graphic design degree in Philadelphia and started working at an ad agency in the city. At 22, he was asked to move to Fort Lauderdale during the dot-com boom to become creative director of a communications portal firm. Later when the dot-com business began its fall, Heller then found himself working in the creative department at a new agency. “This company was the closest thing to a cubicle setting that I was ever in,” Heller admits. “It just wasn’t me.”
Heller began the shift to work for himself soon after, founding helium creative 10 years ago from his Fort Lauderdale home. So named as a play off of Heller’s surname as well as the noble gas’s buoyant nature, helium creative was born out of love. As Heller is quick to note, helium is the anti-agency agency, perhaps best demonstrated by its rebellious lowercase name. “I want to formulate a relationship with our clients,” he says. “We don’t just want to do one project and that’s it. We’re investing ourselves in the client to make you successful. We’re in it for the long haul.”
He was helium’s sole employee for the next six years, working nonstop and dedicating himself to his projects, which included the creative campaigns and branding visions for luxury villas Cotton Bay in the Bahamas and the high-end condominium Icon Brickell. As Heller progressed into the digital frontier, mastering website design, app creation and more, so did his company. Four years ago, he hired his first art director, Ryan Sirois, and the company took off with double the manpower. Since then, he and helium have guided eye-catching branding campaigns for landscaping firm EDSA, FATVillage, Trump Hollywood and Latitude on the River, among dozens of other recognizable South Florida names.
Heller’s office at FATVillage has no signs of those cubicles that he felt confined him. A smorgasbord of found objects lovingly has been put to use by Heller and his team. Next to Heller’s desk is an antique buffet from his late grandmother, Margaret Cleveland, a distance relative of President Grover Cleveland. The winding metal staircase that houses helium’s various awards was found in an alley in FATVillage. Leafy green plants and succulents fill the space. An office wall is canvassed with 50 reasons to love helium creative, such as “They believed in me” and “We have fun.”
Cerulean green stickers and buttons with the words “inspire, create, design, motivate” pepper the helium office. They are simple reminders that the team of eight staff members and a handful of interns aren’t just here for a job. No, they are here for something much greater.
Being a creative vehicle for clients is only part of Heller’s equation. “We’re artists, so we want to inspire and open up an environment for people to have a creative destination and have an outlet,” he says. Since moving to FATVillage in 2012, helium creative has invited the public to join its monthly Inspirational Fridays talks, where local artists and business owners discuss what inspires them. In addition, helium started Project Fine Art, which allows new artists a platform to display their works during monthly Art Walks.
As Heller puts it, “I hate networking.” So opportunities like Inspirational Fridays and Project Fine Art have given Heller and others a chance to draw creative minds together from South Florida to sit, watch and get inspired.
The company is growing and earning some well-deserved praise. Earlier this year, helium won big time at the Fort Lauderdale ADDY Awards, which recognizes creative excellence in the advertising industry, taking home seven golds (including three Best of Show) and two silvers.
Also in the works is helium inspires, its nonprofit arm that will raise money for art organizations. The helium team also is planning a visit to rural schools in Guatemala to deliver art supplies to students and give art lessons.
Today at 37 years old, Heller looks back on his ups and downs, and compares them to a game of Tetris. “It’s about fitting the right pieces at the right time,” he says. And one of those right pieces will fall into place later this year when Heller will marry his life partner, Ryan. And, yes, that’s the same Ryan he works with.
For Heller, it’s fair to say he’s winning so far in his lifelong game of Tetris.
Originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.