Funny how things change.
Last year, they were four struggling art students, waiting outside the doors of ad agencies to show their portfolios.
Then they spent six frenetic months of their own time creating an electronic catalogue for their school, Pasadena's prestigious Art Center College of Design, where they applied all the design, graphics and computer skills they had learned in class.
Their work impressed so many people that the Pasadena foursome decided to form a company to specialize in interactive design, an enterprise they christened with the whimsical name of COW.
Today, with one of their team still in school, all but one under 30 and no professional contracts to their name, COW has already won a couple of awards and has several firms lined up that are interested in doing business.
To be sure, the company hasn't landed its first job yet, much less delivered on that job. But some of the people who award those contracts are expecting great things.
"I think they're really smart, really talented, and I would love to work with them," gushes Jonathan Wiedemann, executive producer of the new media division of Propaganda Films, the stylish Hollywood company whose top-notch directors and technicians have produced everything from Madonna music videos to David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."
Hundreds of small start-ups are vying for recognition in the field of interactive media, so-called because users navigate their way through a computer program that prompts them for information about what they want to see. Electronic directories at malls and computer games are familiar examples.
But critics complain that much of the interactive media on the market today is confusing, boring or both, filled with large blocks of text, unappealing graphics and maze-like paths that leave users frustrated.
By contrast, many of these same critics say that COW has brought to the technology a sophisticated new level of design, learned at one of the top schools in the country.
Industry mavens praise COW's style, which uses a lot of images and a minimum of text. Their program entices the user through a fast-moving blend of visuals, sound, type and graphics. The COW technique also uses film prominently, favoring herky-jerky off-center editing and hand-held cameras.
Consider the interactive catalogue that the foursome did for the Art Center, which funded the cost of their supplies. The user starts learning about the school by sitting down at a computer kiosk in the Art Center gallery and touching the screen to select from a menu of photo icons.
Depending on the icon chosen, the user is propelled through film, text, graphics and photos through the Art Center in Pasadena, the school's Switzerland campus, its colorful history or the creative vision of its president.
Unlike some interactive programs, the team's design makes it easy to switch from one path of inquiry to another. Another menu is overlaid in the background, where one touch brings it back into focus while the first one recedes. Users move through interviews with celebrated Art Center alumni, screen of student commercials or view prototypes of sports cars designed in classes.
COW's interactive program brings the Art Center to virtual life in a way that would require an all-day tour in real time. All that's missing is the smell of sage that grows amid the hillside campus' sleek, modernistic buildings.
"They knocked my socks off," declares Jeannine Parker, president of the International Interactive Communications Society. "I think they have an incredible future. They've already separated themselves from the pack. It's not just how you present information, but how you give the user a way to navigate through it. They've made it much easier to navigate."
Perhaps that is because of the blend of artistic background and computer literacy among the young entrepreneurs: Dina Temkin, 25 (film and editing); John Grotting, 28, (graphics), Bryan Dorsey, 25, (graphics and packaging) and Mateo Neri, 31 (graphics).
The last three are Art Center graduates. Grotting just received his degree this month. Temkin graduates this September.
Why the name COW?
"Because things are too complicated today, and we wanted something simple that everyone would understand, because that's what we're trying to do with this media, that's our design philosophy," Dorsey says.
In keeping with that, their logo is a toy wooden cow they assembled from children's building blocks. Their office is in a California Craftsman house in Northwest Pasadena, which they like because it is funky, a far cry from the sterility of a commercial office. It is also Grotting's home, and he tends to the group's meager cache of computer and video equipment.
For now they want to stay lean and mean. It's silly, they figure, to spend tons of money in a field where equipment and software becomes obsolete every six months. Ditto for hiring. COW anticipates assembling specialists in graphic design, film and editing as projects come their way.