By Susan Halas
Growing up in Wailuku, Saedene Yee-Ota couldn’t wait to leave Maui.
After a stint at UH Manoa she was accepted at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. From there she went on to work in marketing and branding in major markets on the mainland.
A trip home for a friend’s wedding changed her course, when she and former high school sweetheart Ken Ota reconnected and eventually married and began life again on Maui.
Now Yee-Ota heads Sae Design, a prize-winning graphic design and marketing firm based in Wailuku. She is also the owner of Maui Thing, a sprightly Market Street retail store featuring her own clothing designs that serves as a real life laboratory for her creativity.
Since 1999, when she opened Sae Design, she’s built a seven-figure business with five employees at the art studio and two managers at the store. In addition she’s found the time to serve as the Maui representative to the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents and volunteers her time and energy to a variety of non-profit endeavors including work on creating a new image for Wailuku.
That’s a natural, as her company creates logos, print collateral, packaging, specialty graphics, print advertising and websites for a very long list of clients, many of whom are Oahu based.
Entering the offices of Sae Design, a visitor is immediately struck by the rows of awards and prizes the firm has earned. There are dozens of statuettes and plaques on display including 44 Pele recognitions and 18 top Pele awards, 2 Best of Shows, not to mention the certificate that honors her as Hawaii Advertising Federation’s Woman of the Year in 2004.
The Sae Design website lists a broad base of clients in hotel, resort, retail and agricultural products. It illustrates examples of local companies that have given their products and services a fresher and more eye catching look through redesign and attention to graphics.
She thinks that many of Maui’s small businesses could improve their visibility and appeal by paying attention to the brand and the market strategy “from the very beginning.” Her own fees are are on a sliding scale and there is no charge for the initial consultation.
“It all goes together,” she said, “the logo, the packaging and the website.” She pointed to Alii Kula Lavender, an upcountry company that hosts farm visits and sells lavender related products, “as one of the few who understood from the very beginning.”
Another client that “gets it” is Hawaiian Springs Water. “When we redesigned the bottle; sales, visibility and recognition increased.”
Maui Thing a Showcase for Small Business Creativity
Her participation in Maui Thing came about because she wanted an outlet for her own considerable talents and a showcase for an apparel product line. “We are giving advice to small businesses, so it seemed like a good idea to be in business ourselves so we could understand the problems our clients face.”
This venture began five years ago as a creative outlet and turned into a retail store with apparel for adults and children. At the moment the store “is at about break even,” but its main value is to focus on “small town creativeness, a balance of community and commerce.”
Maui Thing, managed by Ashley Takitani, offers free art lessons to youngster on an ongoing basis. It also has eye-catching window displays. Presently the innovative use of recycled bottles to grow small plants is on view with a nod to Earth Day. “These are things we couldn’t have done in a mall or shopping center environment,” she said.
Involved with Wailuku Town
Yee-Ota has also been involved with the revitalize Wailuku effort. Her interest started as one of the vendors for First Friday, then expanded to have a store on Market. She now sits on the board of the Wailuku Community Association and has volunteered her talents on a pro bono basis in various design and branding efforts to help give the old town a new look.
“We like the past,” she said. “We think it’s important to respect the traditions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow and evolve and have a place that also appeals to young people and the present generation.”
As for what the future may hold? Even though she has her hands full with two businesses, a family with two young children, and many volunteer projects, she still thinks that the day might come when she could teach on the college level. She also has her eye on attracting national clients with Hawaii themed products.