Graduating Portfolio Wall

How did I get here?

I’ve been asked, “How did you become a graphic designer?”  This question pops up from time to time, so I thought I’d tell you my story. 

As a kid, I always loved to color and draw.  My parents noticed a budding talent and my mother had always want to go to art school (but didn’t have the money for college), so they encouraged me in my development.  I did see my mom tole paint a lot as a kid and she made crafts to sell at craft shows and craft fairs. She painted on things like saw blades as well as wood and other objects making things for home decor.

I drew a LOT in church; great way to keep occupied while I listened.  At Christmas and birthdays I was given drawing pencils, step-by-step drawing books, and large pads of paper. Kindergarten through sixth grade was my elementary school years and art was a regular rotation within the week along with library, P.E., and music.  I started “free-hand” drawing still life objects during my fifth and sixth grade and showed them to my art teacher.  She said there was no way I could have produced those drawings and said I was lying to her by saying I did.  She didn’t know I could draw because that wasn’t the kind of art projects she had us doing in class.

From seventh grade up till twelfth, art was an elective… and I took it every year.  In earlier years it was more arts and crafts type of projects but once I got into high school, the level of teaching was much deeper.  I cannot express my gratitude to Janice Harden for the amount of knowledge and technique she taught me in fine art.  As before, I always got art supplies as gifts and in high school those became more professional level tools. Thanks to Mrs. Harden, I experienced so many different mediums from graphite pencils, to an Ebony pencil, colored pencils, watercolor, acrylic painting, oil painting, pen & ink, and even clay sculpture and spinning wheel. All of my art experience and training was geared toward fine art; until my senior year.

In my senior year, in addition to taking AP Art in high school, I also took a class at Tulsa Vo-Tech in advertising.  I knew I wanted to be an artist, but until I took the Vo-Tech class, I didn’t understand how I could make a career out of it.  I was exposed to ads, billboards, typesetting, camera-ready art, mechanical paste-ups, and so much more… I was hooked.  I entered several art competitions and won first place state in Red Ribbon Week, third state for VICA, and for Sister Cities I won people’s choice, first place locals, first place state, and was one of twelve international winning pieces. The city of Tulsa asked me to paint that piece down on Riverside; it was down there for a long time but eventually they tore down the structure that it was on. My instructor at Vo-Tech used some kind of class currency as an incentive and we could spend that play-money in his art store. I remember being very proud to have bought two things: a Paasche double-action airbrush and a set of 7 Rapidograph pens.

Eighteen years old was the minimum age for employment at Triangle Art Supply – my senior year job; I learned even more about art tools there. I wish that place was still open, I was so sad to see it close down. The downtown store still survives today but it is nothing like the 41st street store used to be. There were so many art classes taught in that store and the work was inspiring to see, especially because many of the students were completely inexperienced before taking the class. Not only was I around all the finest art supplies you could buy, but I was also exposed to even more forms of art (like silk painting). Because I planned to make a career out of art, working at Triangle felt like my first official stepping stone. Triangle didn’t pay me to produce art but it was a related business and I was part of that world.

My parents did the best they could but a 4-year college was out of the question.  Not giving up on my development, they sent me to Oklahoma State University – Okmulgee (a technical school).  I earned an Associate’s degree in Graphic Design and had my first job a couple weeks before I graduated.  The education I got at OSU-Okmulgee was more on how computer programs and printing methods worked that are used in the advertising/graphics industry. Initially, we use a Macintosh Classic learning Quark X-Press and in later classes moved up to a Macintosh Quadra learning Adobe Photoshop (didn’t have layers then), and Adobe Illustrator.  My training carried me for many years of professional work; I still use the fundamentals, cherish the friendships, and hold special fondness for this time and place of my life. It was here that I set a goal in my career to become an Art Director at an advertising agency; if I could reach that level, I would call myself successful.

My first job out of college was a small ad agency in which I was hired as a production artist (entry level position). I was to make sure that the work of the two art directors was technically sound to go to print. Since the agency was so small, the only artists were the two art directors, me, and one of the two owners. One of the art directors got pregnant and decided to quit, so I got more of the design work. I kept late hours in college working on projects but I didn’t expect that to carry over into my professional career. I remember getting a job to illustrate some boats for a client and I was told that I couldn’t go home until they were done. I was there so late and I was so tired and wanted to go home. I called my mom and started to cry out of exhaustion and she advised me to stop, go eat something, and then come back until it was done. I don’t remember if I followed her advice, but it was my first real slap in the face about how deadlines rule your life if you work at an agency. I’d worked there for two years, when on a Friday after working past 5:00 pm, just two days after my 23rd birthday, I was called into the artist owners office. He explained that because his partner had embezzled so much of the company’s money, the agency was going to be closed down within the next few months and he could no longer afford to keep me on staff. From my training at OSU-Okmulgee, I knew that most production artists spent about two years (or three) before they were promoted to art director. I felt like this couldn’t have come at a worse time in my career and knew I’d be starting over again at my next place of employment.

I landed at a dream job agency. I interviewed thinking they wouldn’t take me but they did… as a production artist. I was told that after a couple years, if there was room for it, I could advance. Since I expected that and because it was a chance to get my foot in the door of a place I idolized, I took the job. This was a pretty good-sized agency. There were three sets of paired art directors and copy writers and I was one of two production artists there to finalize their work. It was a fun group, the atmosphere was electric, and the clients seemed more interesting. Late nights were pretty common but I expected them now and I wasn’t the only person left in the building after 5pm. I did notice that the advertising sales executives always left at 5 (or earlier) but the designers stayed late. It almost seemed like the sales people waited until 4:30 to give us changes and direction as if it was a way to rub it in our faces that, not only did they tell us what to do, but also they were able to go home when the day was done. As two years came, the other production artist advanced to art director. The agency upgraded their building to a downtown space they owned (instead of renting space) and the change upset a lot of the employees. Almost everyone left. In hopes to advance, I built two “blue sky” portfolios during this time. Blue sky are fake ads for real companies… kinda like the ad campaign you’d do if this were your client. With each portfolio, I showed the creative director (two different guys), who were only mildly interested in my development. I didn’t advance and it drove me crazy, it crushed me, and I started turning to escapism. My supervisor told me, days before she left, that I’d proven myself irreplaceable as production artist; she said they would never advance me because they’d have to hire three people just to do the work I was doing and the chance of their work being to my standard was unlikely. A couple of my co-workers had left and went to a different place and I asked if there was room over there for me and they said yes.

I moved out of state to take my next agency job. Because the creative director there was my co-worker, she knew my plight of trying to advance. She told me that they just hired two girls straight out of OSU-Okmulgee to be junior art directors so they didn’t have room for a third; if I’d just work as a production artist there to start, as soon as there was an opening, it would be mine. The place before was heart-breaking and stressful; half of the work I got there was due before I got it. At this new place, ALL of the work I got was due before I got it; to say that it was stressful is an understatement. I was excited though because the brand names that I worked on were national and sometimes international. Single project budgets tipped over 3 million bucks! My marriage was suffering through all this and to make matters worse, because I moved us out of state, my wife was no longer working to complete her college degree AND she was pregnant with our first child. I only lasted at this job for a year; one of the girls left and instead of promoting me, they hired another kid straight out of college. I could not understand why I was being passed over time and time again. My dream was quickly fading and taking all the good inside of me with it.

I left the agency side of the business and worked as a production art supervisor for a decal maker. This job was not doing anything for the street cred. of my career; it was not building my portfolio. I did learn management skills there however and I found it very rewarding to be a supervisor who worked WITH his employees. Another plus side is it moved us back to Oklahoma and my wife was able to complete her degree and became a teacher… and second time mother. 9/11 happened and the advertising budget of any company is always the first to go and last to come back during a recession; needless to say, we began a recession and my position was eliminated.

I was out of work for something like nine months. Nobody was hiring graphic designers and I contemplated leaving the industry and becoming a carpenter. Angela stayed home with the baby for as long as she could but since I wasn’t finding work, she had to go back and I stayed home taking care of two little girls. I loved being with them but felt like a complete failure as a husband, father, and graphic designer. I had been dealing with depression since the second job and by now the stress and it brought me to a very dark place. It wouldn’t be until seven years later that I’d really understand the tole. Who was I if I couldn’t be what I’d dreamed of?  I made some very regrettable and embarrassing mistakes all while not understanding why I was even doing it.

I took a job at another ad agency, I guess to give it that ol’ college try. From the week I started working there to nine months later, I worked no less than 70 hours per week. It was a seven-day work week but the artists there were pretty cool and the clients more outdoors related so it had some bright spots too. Every ad agency has a busy season and a slow season (or that was my experience) and as soon as the slow season started they started eliminating employees. They went trough every other area and save designers for last; since I was the last hired, I was the one they let go. Back to looking for work.

I interviewed a few places but work was still pretty hard to find; not even OSU-Okmulgee professors had many leads to give me, and that was one of the selling points of that school. I found a job at a mom-and-pop shop mail house. I didn’t know why this company need a graphic designer but that what the ad was for, so I interviewed and got the job. This turned out to be another portfolio-killing job that was more sales and customer service representative work than graphic design. On the plus side, I taught myself a lot of new machines and grew my only client to be our biggest account. I did great there until a couple fellas got jealous and made trouble for me. I was still very depressed, pretty much gave up on my career, and the trouble from those two was more than I could deal with. Although I’d been there for over five years, I started looking for another job.

One day I talked to a receptionist about a job which I had applied and was never called for an interview.  I asked why I wasn’t able to show my portfolio to the hiring committee and she explained that there were over 100 applicants for the position.  She empathized at my overlooked talented and I agreed that I was over-qualified for the job as described.  She told me the committee looked for any reason to eliminate people from the pile and she asked if I had a bachelor’s degree.  When I admitted that I didn’t, she said that was one of the first groups of people they eliminated.  It was right then my eyes were opened to what was keeping me from advancing in all the previous jobs.  I had to figure out how to go back to school all while working full-time to support my family.

A job opening at Oklahoma State University’s Fire Protection Publications was the answer to many prayers.  I interviewed and got the job as a Senior Graphic Designer and as soon as I was eligible, I started taking classes at the university.  It took me six years (2008-2014) to go through the bachelor’s program.  Initially I didn’t think the degree was anything more than a piece of paper.  I had set a goal of two things: I wanted to learn how to concept and I wanted to get proficient at drawing the human figure.  More than learning those two things I learned so much more.  First, I learned that I am not as stupid as I thought I was.  Events in fifth grade led me to believe I’d never be good at academics.  I’ve always felt behind in comparison to my peers and still believe I might have a slight learning disability… but now I believe there is nothing I can’t do if I apply myself.  I never thought I’d be able to pass foreign language or college algebra but I did great in both! Second, I learned by what standards I was being judged in my career which I was not measuring up to.  In looking backward to my struggling 20’s and 30’s (the dark time), I see clearly what I didn’t have and I can give myself grace for having much bigger dreams than I had training and the mistakes I made because of it. 

Just before graduation, I started freelancing.  My first freelance client was Green Machine Taxi and it was a contest/job given to the art students.  I sent in my submission and the owner loved my design; we wrapped his car and made business cards.  The second freelance client was a church friend, Dan Purdy, of PurdyQ.  I designed business cards, did his caricature, and designed his vehicle wrap (for both PurdyQ and Sweet Treats).  After working those two jobs and graduating, clients just keep finding me through referral.  I’m still a Sr. Graphic Designer at OSU-FPP (and I love that job) but my freelance allows me to explore areas work does not. 

Often people glamorize design because they think it’s playtime or worry about their children going into the field as a profession.  Just so that you know, nothing you see in the movies or t.v., that represents the creative process, is ever right.  It’s not just a few clicks of a button or a 10-minute brainstorming session that brings the magic.  Design is a process of problem solving.  As far as kids go, don’t discourage them.  The design industry is huge; there are so many different directions they can go and find both happiness and success.  Most avenues do not lead to six-figure incomes, but just like many other professions, the payoff comes after hard work and dedication.

And that’s my story.