Overall I think my career hasn't been the most typical. Well, maybe I should define that first. What's typical? Well, I think graphic designers go through design school, although a lot don't... hmm, well, let's say they go to college, grab a job after graduating, and change jobs every few years climbing "up" designer ladder. More about that climbing in a future post. See, I've rebelled since I can remember (for better or worse). I've always felt that the system put in front of me had some type of flaw. There was some way that I could alter how life went to fit me better. Sometimes I was right but really, honestly, most times I was wrong. Anyway, when it came to becoming a designer, going to school didn't seem like the right way. In fact, I never really wanted to become a designer. It's a weird story but I think it helps tell why I've been labelled a lone wolf/hired gun/freelance/whatever designer. Here goes.
My dad was a type designer from the Netherlands. He lived and breathed type and was a professor at Stanford University in the late 70's/early 80's. My earliest memories were playing on campus statues and hanging out in his classroom. Since it was the late 70's design was all analog equipment and it was so fun to play with all the equipment. X-acto knives, halftone sheets, Letraset rub on lettering, wax rollers, Rubylith, non-photo blue pencils, Prismacolor markers and pencils, erasers of different types, cameras, letterpress printers... like I said, so fun. But I was a pretty physical kid growing up in Nor-Cal so I spent most of my time outside. The first memory I had about a career was to be an airplane pilot. Reason why was, my parents moved to the US in the 60's so all the rest of the family was back in the Netherlands and we visited them every now and then. Those long flights across the US and Atlantic and the thrill of travel caught my curiosity. But then I started surfing and soon enough, that was it! But surfing was really hard and I lived too far from the beach to ever really get that good. I started snowboarding and I really took to it. It came pretty easy to me and made a determination that's what I wanted to do. Well, I never made it and ended up living in Tokyo working for Universal Music as an A&R Director. Five years later when that career ended, it left me thinking about what I was. A few years of soul searching and I knew I was a graphic designer.
See, I've always drawn pictures. Loved it. Loved the freedom of creating anything I wanted. But when I tried to work with my dad on some of his projects and he gave me some feedback, I couldn't handle it. Having someone look over my work and say that it didn't do/tell the right things or how it seemed to have a different meaning from a different perspective just killed me. In my head it all made sense. It was perfect. People had to see it from my point of view to understand my "genius". Seriously, looking back, LOLs. I was way too immature to collaborate and listen to other POVs. But I'd grown a bit over the years and it would pain me to hear that kind of feedback again, but I knew it at that moment, I was a graphic designer.
So rocking at the edge of 30 I had to make a choice of how to make it happen. I had experience. My dad hadn't taught me much but I'd hung around enough and overheard all the long talks he had about projects to know pretty much how it all rolled. I'd been working on Photoshop and Illustrator since pretty much the first versions, so I knew the tools. I put my name out there and got my first few clients. I didn't do great but passion and determination can get you a long way. I moved back to the U.S. (SF Bay area) and teamed up with a good friend who was in L.A., David Salmassian and helped him out with design projects that had a lot of scope to cover. It was mostly in the action sports world which I loved. Flash animation, website pages and features were the meat of the projects. Since I never went to design school and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco had a flexible program, I figured I could work half day and study half day to try and get a more well rounded understanding of graphic design. I joined AIGA (a graphic designers association) and went to meet ups and talked to lots of people. The talks were pretty superficial and I got a few nuggets of knowledge here and there but the Bay Area had changed a lot since I left to Japan. It had become pretty competitive. I spent most of my time focusing on class and it wasn't long until I had my first talk with a professor. I was a little unsure of why they wanted to talk since I thought I was doing fine. They knew I was working already and school time was cutting into my work time. Overall they said the same thing. That I already had a great understanding of what I was supposed to do and that I'd learn what I'd have to while continuing working. I'm really thankful to them because I think they understood how expensive school was and really understood how crippling a degrees debt can be. So a few months later, after having that conversation a few more times with other professors, I abandoned school and went full-time.
I kept working with David for a few more years and then headed to Seattle. Freelancing was a freedom that I really loved. To a certain degree, I chose who I worked with and how the projects went. I was in direct contact with clients and got to hear every word of what they were looking for in a project and got to apply my creativity to solving their problems. But then the great recession came and my clients dried up. I had to get a job and it was looking grim. Luckily there was a Dev shop in Bellevue that was looking to become a creative shop that needed a designer, so I got my first "real job" as a designer. Design was a lot of fun there but it became a lot harder. I had to collaborate and cooperate with about ten others in the shop. It wasn't really as fun as before. I was still pretty green and didn't have the confidence and eloquence of how to get my creative ideas out there. I think I did some good work and grew a lot but freelancing was where I really belonged. But the economy had other plans for me. I next worked at the ad agency Wunderman and it was actually pretty exciting. It was much more free and progressive than the previous shop. Unfortunately, it was A LOT more work. Projects were coming at me left and right. I didn't have trouble handling them but it became pretty hard to put the care I wanted to in each project. After two pretty great years I decided to try and be true to what I was and went back on my own. And how great that was. I was working for clients, I was working with agencies and companies, it was all so free flowing. I met a Creative Director, Eric Rak, while working with an agency in Seattle called POP and we shared a lot of vision. Working on projects with him and his team was such a pleasure and just so hangup free. We worked together off and on for two years until I moved to Japan.
And here I am now. Still working as that lone wolf... er, uh, stray cat? Some people still ask me how I can do it. How I can work on my own in my own place. Reaching out and collaborating for only just bits at a time. But for me, it's the way I work best. I get the freedom I need to be creative and talk with clients directly. I have the freedom to walk away from projects (before they start) that I know won't work for me. It used to bother me when people said it. Like somehow they were insinuating that I was some kind of shut-in who had no idea of how to socialize like "real designers" did. But I learned that the work was most important to me. What we made. And that the environment that was most conducive to that was the x-factor. So now I take it as a badge of honor. Yep, I'm a lone wolf designer.