01 May 2012
A bright eyed college grad who aspired to be in the Graphic Arts industry recently asked how I got started in the business and what advice I had for him. He also asked me what my first job was.
Talk about loaded questions.
One thing you never do, unless you want to listen to an endless tirade, is ask an old geezer like me how I got started or what my first job was.
But I'll hand it to the kid, this line of questioning did add some grease to the rusty wheels of my brain and prompted the following:
My first job? Son, I have been working since I was 14 years old. Doing yard work, farm work, dishwashing, house painting, etc. You name it, I did it to earn money to pay for school and my own way.
When I hear from friends who say their twenty-something kid has never held a job, it blows my mind. That tells me either the parent was too damn busy carting the kid from soccer camp to gymnastics class to think maybe the child needs some other life skills, or the kid himself is a lazy sack of poo. Ok moving forward...
How did I get started in the biz?
The short answer: like the blast from a scattershot gun. Going in many directions.
When I graduated, it was in Buffalo, NY. A college town not that dissimilar from Portland. I graduated with a split degree in Illustration and Communication Design. The first real job I had fresh out of college was in a small newspaper as the advertising designer. This was way before the Mac, back in the days when cut and paste was the name of the game and the possibility of slicing off fingers was a daily risk.
At the same time, I also worked on anything and everything for free as a way to build my portfolio: Band posters, T shirts, Editorial Illustrations, comics, etc.
I lucked out once and even managed to land a gig creating the packaging for a dinosaur themed ice-cream. I lost a ton of money on the job but I did learn all about spot color reproduction.
Then I wised up and moved to New York City.
But all this storytelling was from centuries ago and may not be that applicable to today. To any grad starting out in the Graphic Arts industry today, here's my advice:
1) What's your specialty? Will you become a retoucher, graphic designer, a production artist a web designer, etc. Find it and focus like a laser on it. Learn the software and make lots of personal work that targets that specialty.
2) Get a portfolio (printed or electronic) together of work that, while may not be samples that've have been made for money, should be work you're proud of and sweated blood and tears over. Creative directors look for that more than anything else.
HR people on the other hand are obtuse dolts who couldn't spot a buffalo in a field of rabbits, so its always better to get acquainted with the creatives in an organization first. Then get them to put in the good word for you with HR.
3) Network, network, network. Get that portfolio shown. Hit up AIGA, Graphic Artist Guild, local Ad Org events and get your face out there.
4) Get to know older printers/designers/artists. You can learn things that are invaluable which aren't taught in school, plus these people know more folks than you so it could lead to something.
5) Be prepared to be struggling for several years. When I graduated from school, it was at the height of the Reagan recession. Jobs were hard to come by in Buffalo and pay was low. That's universal for beginners unfortunately. It took me almost six years to start earning some real cash. Also, don't be afraid to also take a second job that is unrelated to your calling.
6) Hardest of all: Be prepared to move to a better market and be really broke. I didn't make any head way in this business until I took the chance and headed to NYC. It sucked those first few years, but you have to believe in your skills, constantly work on those skills, and also be on the look out for opportunities. Don't ever be afraid to jump to a new job.
7) Super hardest of all: Keep the faith. It takes several years to find a grounding in the graphic arts industry. It is one of the toughest fields to do well in. But if you are persistent, it pays off in big ways.
now..Carpe Diem, kid and let me go back to reminiscing about the old days!