What I wish I knew: a follow-up to the AIGA/ASU Portfolio Night
I recently sat on a Q&A panel for an AIGA portfolio night at ASU. During the session, a student asked us what one thing we wish we knew when we started our careers. The other guys threw out some pretty good responses but I really struggled with the question. I answered it with a joke and forced a connection to some lesson I thought the students should know about but wasn’t happy with my response. I finally realized that I was struggling with the question because I simply couldn’t narrow it down to one thing. In fact, I’ve been obsessing about it since. So I thought I’d follow up with three things I wish I knew, all related to building a ‘great’ body of work:
Money shouldn’t matter in the first 10 years of your career.
In the first few years of my career, I turned down a Junior Art Director role at a renown Minneapolis agency because the offer was about 7k less than I was making. I could’ve survived on the offer; it would’ve been uncomfortable but I would probably have produced some ‘great’ work. As a result, I spent the next 3 years looking for a comparable job. When I expressed my regret to my Dad, he gave me some great advice. He said, “view the next few years as a post graduate education with a salary. Get great at something and the money will come.” So, I began freelancing, often for free, for the best creative directors I had access to. Finally I built a book that got me an Art Director interview with an agency I wanted to work for. I could tell the CD was hesitant so I offered to work for free for a month. They hired me three days later. During the next five years I produced the best work of my career, and sure enough, the money came.
Context is the most important factor in producing ‘great’ work.
I used to think a ‘great’ idea (or design) was unstoppable. But the truth is, very few ‘great’ ideas get produced. Context is often to blame. An idea, no matter how ‘great,’ has to overcome a ton of contextual obstacles. First, the idea must be approved by a Creative Director who knows how to pitch it, then blessed by an Account Director who knows how confirm the pitch. In turn, it must by bought by a client with the courage, budget, influence, and infrastructure to implement it. In the event that an idea makes it through testing, approvals and execution without being butchered, the idea must be embraced by consumers, a group of people that go out of their way to avoid most of what we do. Just for shits and giggles, let’s say that consumers embrace the idea; it must then be celebrated by award show judges before our creative peers shower us with praise and deem the work ‘great.’ Sadly, award show judges, clients, and consumers have almost nothing in common (a subject for another time). That’s why it’s so important to work for a talented boss at a capable agenciy that attracts wise clients with budgets. Work hard to optimize your personal context. If I’d understood the importance of these contextual elements, I would’ve taken that job in Minneapolis.
A ‘great’ portfolio is less about original ideas, it’s more about combining and applying existing ideas.
In order to produce a ‘great’ idea, you need to come up with a bunch of ideas. That’s really hard to do if you limit your own exploration to ideas that have never been done before (hint: you would die trying). If I had accepted this guiding principle I would’ve been more productive. I would’ve seen the ideas I was surrounded by as starting points instead of dead-ends. Once I realized this truth, I began producing more ideas, selling more ideas, and winning more awards. As a Creative Director, I now require Art Directors and Designers to do the same. When designing, I ask them to produce inspiration boards (see below): collages that blatantly combine design from other agencies to inspire their efforts. We even share these boards with clients. These boards do a few things: 1. They allow for a lot of expoloration because creating collages requires relatively little effort. 2. They align all parties visual expectations before design even begins. 3. They set the proverbial bar high because they contain a bunch of great work. You can see how our final design for red strike combined elements from its inspiration board.
If you’re interested in reading more about the process of creating ‘great’ work, from a designer’s perspective, click on the link below.
Initiation: Redesign the Pemmican Beef Jerky Brand
Hope you can learn from my lessons.