Changing Career Focus — Mentoring A Creative Professional

I frequently speak to students coming out of college regarding questions that they may have about their upcoming career. However, it's not often than I get the opportunity to mentor someone that I already believe to be a creative professional. Therefore, when a friend approached me about answering a set of questions, as he is returning to school, seeking a different creative direction I was more than happy to oblige.

What made you choose to become a designer?

Well there’s a funny story to that. I graduated from the Ringling School of Art and Design with a degree in illustration. What I rapidly discovered, as many design students do, is that I was ill prepared to make the proper inroads and connections to further my career. What I found, however, was that graphic design offered more job opportunities

Illustrators are an interesting breed in that we fall somewhere between graphic designer and fine artist. Our job is to digest content in whatever form it is given to us, and then create imagery to tell a story.

I met a woman who needed a little illustration but desperately needed graphic design help. I wasn’t familiar with the current software of the time, which was QuarkXPress. She offered to teach me the software in exchange for a cheap base rate. The faster I got, the more she paid me. I got my chops doing Yellow Pages designs. For a graphic designer, this is the equivalent to probably the worst jobs in the world. Nobody ever sees them, they’re not sexy, and they never win awards.

Nevertheless, what this taught me was a quick understanding of fonts, page layout, differentiating your design to yell the call to action (CTA), and speed. I became very fast and started making some decent money for the time. From there I started to challenge myself and rethink my career path, realizing that I wanted to enter the market as a designer first and artist second.

What advice would you give to a new designer?

Today’s designers are taught in reverse. Software is paramount and foundational understanding of design is secondary. Most schools right now can sell seats by showing a high student-to-career ratio. That doesn’t mean, however, that the students going out have a defined understanding of the foundation of design. Therefore, all students of this New World practice need to return on their own accord and embrace a defined understanding and slow mastery of pillars like color theory, topography, conceptual storytelling, and branding at a minimum.

But today’s designers are no different than I was 20 years ago. If you really intend to get better, you have to be on an ongoing quest to improve yourself. It is a journeyman’s position.

Any books or websites that changed your life as a creative?

As somewhat of a founding father of interactive design in Central Florida, I can say confidently most design shops worth their salt are producing great work and are always a source of inspiration. One of my biggest recommendations for any designer is to “stay humble.” There is always somebody bigger and better than you. And instead of seeing that as a threat, it should inspire you to pursue your own passion and find gratification in the niche you create for yourself.

Here are a few websites to get you started:

Which campaign that you worked on, are you most proud of? – Not simply because it was award-winning, but because it was fun.

I would say my favorite campaign was Audi’s “The Art of the Heist” —

I took a big chance on this particular project. I quit my job as the interactive creative director at YPB&R for the chance to act as the creative director for GMD Studios. GMD Studios’ claim to fame was their work with Haxan Films creating the immersive campaign for “The Blair Witch Project.” Since that time, their development of immersive advertising and alternate reality games has become second to none.  I have played a participant in many of these campaigns, acting as any number of characters as well as atmospheric discussion. But for Audi, I knew I needed to take the driver’s seat.

The campaign was a three-headed hydra of marketing houses:  McKinney Silver was the agency of record (AOR) on the Audi account. GMD Studios would handle all interactive and gameplay entertainment. Lastly, Chelsea Pictures and Haxan combined to become a company called Campfire and led much of the action that played out in film, video and live activation sequences.

Of the campaigns that you feel weren’t successful, what would you do differently, if you could?

Often, failed campaigns were not due to the creative execution, but my inability to get the client past their risk aversion. Every client has a pain threshold, whether that’s budget, edginess of creative concept, and more often an amalgam of both as well as external factors.  As a younger creative director, it was easy for me to point a finger and blame the client. There comes a point in your career where you need to also understand that you were involved in a symbiotic relationship during that campaign, and you need to ask yourself, "How did I fail it?”

Additionally, I’ve often been unwilling to delegate responsibility. If there’s no one to blame but yourself, the conflict is simply internal. When you have larger campaigns and larger clients, you have larger teams and larger problems. That’s when micromanaging comes into play, and insecure creatives have a tendency to defend and compartmentalize a project to death. The day you learn to let other people take the reins on a particular aspect of the project if they can do it better than you – the faster you will be a great creative leader.

Do you prefer to work on the corporate side or agency side? Why?

I have worked both corporate side and agency side. They both have their pros and cons.

Agency side: Working for an advertising agency is like being invited to a Broadway show with the understanding that you are in one of the leading roles. However, you’re unaware that everyone else in the show believes they too are in one of the leading roles. You often have an amazing array of talent that conflicts so much it damages the end product. Nevertheless, when you get the right synergistic group together, creative connecting can be a thing of beauty as well as a high that is better than any drug.

From my perspective, I think one of the biggest pluses for working in an agency environment is that you often work on a number of accounts in a number of ways. Now for some positions such as an account executive, this is not always the case. They may very well be on a single account indefinitely. Nevertheless, creatives often get to multitask between projects and thereby challenge themselves – sometimes to the risk of burnout.

Corporate side: Working for a marketing department is like being invited to a family. They are all dysfunctional, have varying degrees of family members that feel like this the best job in the world and conversely the other side that just wants to get out as fast as they can. The advantage to working corporate is that you get to focus the vast majority of your talents towards the development of the current creative and the knowledge you get to exercise and prototype against anything you think could benefit the business. Granted, a conservative business may not let you too far outside of their defined parameters, but many brands will give you ample freedom and the ability to try a lot of things you may not get to do in an agency environment due to budgetary restrictions.

Other than Photoshop and Illustrator, what other program do you feel are musts for a design student? Why?

I think outside of software applications, design students need to embrace the new world order of analytics and campaign optimization. All students are not prepared to construct multiple variations of a campaign, nor are they prepared to scrap everything when it is not effective. So beyond simple software, must have the fortitude and willingness of a battlefield tactician. If the client doesn’t like this direction, then where do you go? If the client approves the work and the customer doesn’t like the direction, then where do you go? If you go through the campaign completely and the postmortem shows that the return on investment (ROI) was only minimally effective, then how can you convince your client that future work will be better?

Now you read the paragraph above and you think, “Well, Justice, that’s only in the case of an agency speaking to a customer.” But I will challenge that by saying it’s no different than an agency looking at its internal creative and expecting the same results. If they fail, how do you intend to make them better on the next campaign?

Design students of all types also need to embrace the bleeding edge of social media, content marketing, mobile, mobile applications, gaming, their competitors, and the ever-changing technology landscape. There’s a new compression algorithm that decreases a file size far better than a PNG or JPG. Do you know what it is?

Constantly stay connected to your industry and its changes.

Would learning Web design be beneficial to a future designer?

When you say “learn Web design” you’re more than likely referring to, “Should I learn developmental coding?” My answer to this is no. And here’s my reason why. As I said earlier, I am not wired to be the master of all things. If I want to make great products, I need to delegate to those better than me. Therefore, I want to improve myself as a designer and creative lead. I think you should understand how to design for the Web, mobile, and tablet environments, but don’t bog down your thinking down by trying to understand the code under the hood.

How have you seen the industry change in the last 10 years?

You mean, “How have I seen the industry change in the last three months?

As a professional speaker on behalf of my industry, I create presentations in order to explain specific aspects and attributions of integrated marketing. The presentation changes every time, because of the rapid evolution.

 The changes are absolutely countless:

  • Social media
  • Content marketing
  • Mobile marketing
  • Integrated marketing
  • Programmatic media
  • Commoditization of media
  • Design changes
  • UI/UX integration
  • Live event activation
  • Effective cloud computing against all online data
  • Privacy and security
  • E-commerce solutions
  • Content management systems
  • Illumination of bandwidth concerns
  • A variety of different advertising models
  • Countless changes in online languages: HTML, PHP, CSS, MySQL, ColdFusion, Joomla!, Ruby on rails, github, etc., etc., etc.
  • Various models of agency type/solutions

What is the direction of the current creative environment?


We’ve come full circle to a certain extent. There was a time when content was king. Then there was a time when concept was king. Now we have a constant influx of startup models challenging modality on a constant basis. There is no long-standing network or channel that will ever survive the test of time.

What will stand is the need for content. The next decade will be a Renaissance for storytellers, creative developers, and all of the technologies that will deliver them. We will need videographers, photographers, designers, entertainers, and conceptualists like never before. What you have is thousands of empty buckets. All the buckets have great ideas, but if there’s nothing interesting inside of the bucket there’s no reason for me to look at. Let alone utilize the bucket or have any brand loyalty towards it.

What is the one piece of advice that will make me successful as a designer/creative?

Don’t be a Dick. In the end, you still need to sell yourself before you sell your services. If I don’t like you, I can guarantee that eventually you will be swallowed up by other designers and agencies that are better, easier, and more fun to work with. Don’t be a dick goes far beyond just not being cocky.

  • Be fun
  • Be spontaneous
  • Show energy
  • Be humble
  • Be fearless
  • Be understanding
  • Be eager
  • Be respectful
  • Be professional
  • Listen first and then lead
  • Don’t just bitch about problems, bring recommendations to correct them

This is not a question that I was planning to share for the report, but, do you think [REDACTED] has a quality program? I was planning on transferring in there to get my bachelors. Do you think copywriting and marketing is beneficial if I want to expand my creativity and learning?

One of the many reasons you will grow at any school is that you are an adult. You are here to fortify and enhance your career. Therefore, you are going to seek more from any program then a kid straight out of high school. I would ask yourself some questions as well. Are you getting a piece of paper for your bachelor’s degree to enhance your resume? Or are you getting your bachelor’s as an accomplishment for yourself personally or spiritually?

I believe [REDACTED] is more cutting edge when it comes to the progressive nature of the “real world” needs of modern-day marketing. But at least for now I think [REDACTED] has a bit more local clout.  In the end, I think our directors and creative directors are looking for a really hot online portfolio before they look for a piece of paper. If you send me your resume, the first thing I want to see is your work. I want to see if I can make you billable, and want to know how long it will take me to get you up to speed at the level that I feel is appropriate for my brand.

I know that’s not an answer, but it’s probably the best answer I can give.

My end goal is to create and work on projects/ads/campaigns that reach national levels. I want to collaborate with talented individuals.

I've worked for national agencies. I can tell you that there are pros and cons to those as well. Larger agencies are not as nimble and aggressive. Their clients are large and demanding, and because of that the shops are larger and therefore not as personalized when it comes to respecting creative talent. Smaller more niche-oriented design firms are often more progressive, but the tradeoff is that sometimes the work is not as well-known. 

Something to consider.

Addendum:  I think the last little piece of advice I could give you at this point is to take on everything. Just because you’ll seek a creative/marketing education, you need to involve yourself in as many secondary and tertiary levels as possible. Understanding all of the touch points that make up marketing will allow you to grow faster than anything. So while public relations may not seem very interesting, understanding what it is and how it interplays will be essential. Involve yourself in a video shoot and see how it’s done. Listen to a group of copywriters discuss a concept.  Sit behind a graphic designer as they lay out a design – watch the thought process. 

Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. I’m 44 years old and in the prime of my career, and I’m comfortable saying, “I don’t know if I know what that technology is, can you explain that?” Frankly, I don’t give a fuck if people think that I am not as good as they thought I was because I don’t know the answer to every question. I ask because I want to know. Knowledge is how I am self-serving, and knowledge is how I ultimately benefit my clients, family, and friends.