Creative Couples Who Get S#IT Done: Masato Nakada & Karen To Nakada

Love in Work? It's Possible.

They say don’t mix business with pleasure, but for these creative couples, that’s just the perfect working formula between themselves and their clients in producing some of the best work in the industry today. For this series, we’re speaking to creative couples at the top of their game, running small design studios near and far, who prove that there really is such thing as a better half. As for ‘who’, well, that depends on what day of the week it is.


Masato Nakada and Karen To Nakada have been a creative couple since day one (about 6 years). They went to CalArts at the same time to study graphic design where Masato was an MFA candidate and Karen was in the BFA program. Sort of like the old I dropped by books in the hallway and need help picking them up, Karen recalls; “Masato was acting helpless with After Effects so he tricked me into helping him out.” Masato remembers it a little differently: “Karen thought I was just too charming, so she had to talk to me.” The truth of the matter remains to be seen. Their coupled skills of business acumen and design talent, plus shaking hands with industry insiders, helped them to win projects to which their combined skills were suited perfectly.  “It just made for us to finally join forces and create our own studio” says the couple. That studio is The Happening, based in Los Angeles, CA and here is how it all… happens.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Names: Masato Nakada & Karen To Nakada
Ages: 31 & 27
Location: Los Angeles, California
Company: The Happening Studio
Working Titles: Co-partners


ADC: Everyone here is refreshingly breaking that cardinal rule: Don’t date in the workplace. Do you think it’s time we changed this traditional sensibility?

Masato & Karen: As long as you are not dampening the work environment for others. It doesn’t really apply to us since we met in school and our work environment is just us two in our home office. Our “office romance” is not so exciting. You know what, “Office Romance” would sound less naughty, if people didn’t make it into a social taboo. So let’s keep it a taboo. Look at all the amazing erotic novel covers. We hope one day to do a cover for an erotic novel. (sexy typography cover anyone?)

ADC: Sometimes you end up liking the people you work with and I think that’s okay. Thoughts?

M&K: Yes. It’s better to like someone than to hate someone at work.

ADC: Did you think this would work from the get go?  Any doubts?

M&K: We definitely had doubts, but we also had very little to lose.  If anything, we were curious and eager to get our studio up and running. We still have doubts…

ADC: Has a client ever been skeptical to approach or have you ever been turned down work given the work dynamic? Some people feel like work may not get done, or there are too many emotions involved.

M&K: If we make out passionately in front of our clients, then they might turn us down. When we stay professional and clients still can’t trust us, they are not the right client for us. Sometimes it’s just not a good match and that’s ok. Perhaps, there is a confusion between “personal” and “emotional.” We are very personal when it comes to our business, we genuinely want to do good work for clients, not only for their sake but also for ours, our personal integrity and reputation. We feel attached to our practice and our design community. Everything we do is personal but we certainly don’t get emotional about it.

ADC: How do your employees feel (if you have any) about the fact that their bosses are together?

M&K: No employees here but all of our collaborators know we are married and they seem just fine.

ADC: Is this something that “is not for everyone”?

M&K: It’s not for everyone. The couple needs to be on the same page in order to make this work. It can be intense sometimes so you also need some space to do solo work. Aside from our studio, we have very separate solo practices that we turn to sometimes. (His Hers).

ADC: Have you ever had a moment where you guys were like “that’s it, I quit!”

M&K: We hope to say that one day when we are old and we gave it our all. Until then, we will try our best to make this work.

ADC: What are some differences between working in this dynamic (together as a couple), versus working in a larger agency setting?

M&K: Shorter chains of command, less formality (e.g. meetings about a meeting and unnecessary cc’d emails.), less small-talk, quicker project turnarounds. (See our studio stickers!) The trade off is that we have no protection or a safety net.  No consistency in payments. We wear different hats for various situations. Anything goes so we need to stay flexible and quick on our feet.

ADC: Any tips, tricks or advice?

M&K: In the beginning, we learnt that ownership of a project should never be 50-50. We usually brainstorm together but the actual making part is quite separate. Depending on each project and skills needed, we assign one to lead and the other to assist. We understand our design approaches are different, so we’ve altered our working process slightly to help us work better as a team.

ADC: How do you balance the work/life thing? Do couples have a rule that when you aren’t at work you aren’t talking about work or does it blur into personal hours?

K&M: We talk about work, project ideas and strategies all the time and these topics carry over to personal hours. It’s not a bad thing at all. Interesting ideas pop up when we are doing dishes. We appreciate critical conversations that happen in everyday, banal settings. In that sense, this is how we keep ourselves sharp and that’s when we assess what’s still exciting about work.

ADC: Do you give yourselves or each other days off?

K&M: We try to take a couple weeks off to recharge ourselves creatively each year, as long as it’s reasonable and appropriate.

ADC: Do you agree on most decisions or is there lots of debate and discussion?

K&M: Decision making is pretty smooth since we are trained to look at a problem objectively. It is never a me-vs-you situation. Our mutual goal is to find the best possible solution for each project.

ADC: Do you have more freedom?

K&M: I wouldn’t say more freedom but we get to carry our own agency. That doesn’t mean we have the freedom to do whatever we want. We are more grounded than people assume. We have the power to say no to a project/a client, we can quickly steer our practice into a different direction. We get to decide deadlines, estimates and budgets. All of these decision-making phases make us autonomous, not so much about gaining freedom.

ADC: What is one thing you wish people would understand about working as a creative couple?

K&M: There is no grey zone. it’s either you can or you can’t work with each other. If you want distance and space from your significant others, then it’s not for you. If you choose to do this, you get to invite another person into your world completely. How romantic!

ADC: Please fill in the blanks: I _____________ working with my significant other because ______________.

K&M: I choose to work with my significant other because we make better work together.