I got started in design after graduating from Art Center in 1995 with a BFA in graphics and packaging. I managed to work full time at Epitaph records for about 2 months. It wasn’t a good fit for me, so I decided to try my hand at freelancing.
I managed to work at a couple of prominent motion design studios in Los Angeles (Novocom and R/GA, later reformed as Imaginary Forces). But it wasn’t until late in December that I decided to form my own company and try to get clients on my own. What I thought would have been a “nice” experiment that would run 9 months or until my student loans were due, turned into 22+ years running my own company.
The biggest challenge was inexperience. I had no real portfolio, few clients, no business, marketing or sales experience. I struggled through how to find clients, how to bid jobs and how to even run a new business call.
No one wanted to represent us. So you can imagine, the early days were difficult. I literally slept on the floor next to my computers, managing the rendering pipeline for a job that paid us $500. The first 2 years of business were the hardest, especially when our 2 biggest clients decided to no longer work with us (for different reasons). One left because they were in-housing and our other clients retired, so a whole new marketing team took over and wanted to work with new people.
We have several full time, independent sales reps (east, mid-west and west coast). They’ve been responsible for getting us the majority of the commercial work we bid on. Today, our biggest lead generation tool is our website and the work I’m producing on our YouTube channel “The Futur Is Here”.
After being coached for over 10 years by my business coach, I’ve learned the essentials to being a great listener, negotiator and therefore able to close jobs at a very high percentage.
You are ultimately just pricing the client. It’s often difficult to tell how much they can afford, so I recommend using “price bracketing”. How much would you like to charge? Let’s say, you want to charge $3k. I would say to the client, “Typically, something like this would be $3-$6k. Does that fit within your budget?” If they say yes, you have some parameters to work in. If they say it quickly, you could probably push a little higher towards $6k. If they grimmace, you might then say, “What can you afford?” Then you can decide to pass or work with them.
If you act as a fiduciary for your clients, learn how to prioritize their goals ahead of your artistic wants, then you tend to keep clients for a long time. This goals of course with under promising and over delivering on jobs. Of course the work we produce needs to be really solid. But it’s a mistake to think that doing good design work builds long term relationships. This doesn’t take into account great customer service.
Most clients we have pay in a timely fashion. They’re large corporations for the most part and don’t avoid payment because they’re having cash flow problems. In fact, some clients pay us 100 percent up front or for future work yet to be determined.
On accounts past due, our book keeper and executive producer call up their respective contacts and help to encourage them to pay since we’ve delivered the job. However, because we partial paying, our liability is limited. We employ a 50/25/25 billing method. 50 percent up front. 25 percent progress payment and 25 percent net 30 with a late penalty clause.
In 22 years only 2 clients have refused payment. One was angry, the other was a crook. Both of which I had a bad gut feeling about, but ignored it. Lessoned learned.
We ask open-ended questions. Then we listen. In the short time in which we work on a project, regardless of our research and preparation, we could never hope to know as much as our clients and their business. It is arrogant or misguided that designers think they have the answer to a problem without even fully understanding what the problem is. That’s why we named the company Blind. It means that we begin without any preconceived ideas or solutions.
Even so, at times, clients get the brief wrong. So we ask lots of questions like, “What inspired this idea?” or “What barriers are in the way of you achieving your goals?”. By doing this, we make sure we have a deep understanding of the problems and potential solutions. We make sure the thinking is logical and consistent with their objective, brand and our collective experiences.
At first, clients are uncomfortable with this type of approach. Frankly, I think they’re shocked because few people have ever taken that kind of time to understand the objective. In fact, we’ve even co-developed a process with The Skool called CORE to help our clients define their brand attributes, customer needs, brand positioning and identify and prioritize goals.
Once I understand the problem, I like to general a few key words that are very visual. My design team will then research for images, illustrations and videos of things they feel are related. At this stage, the idea is not to rule anything out. I encourage them to think in abstractly and look for things that are tangentially related. It’s a very open and collaborative process where the team plays an integral role in generating ideas. We use our collective intelligence, instinct and experience to come up with the most meaningful and unexpected ideas.
Often times, they’ll come back with something that I would’ve never found, a kind of delightful surprise. It could be a single image or how I interpret it that generates many new ideas.
I will then start to write a concept around what I see. It’s kind of like staring at clouds and making up a story. You let your imagination run wild and you sometimes see things that aren’t even there. This is where my best ideas come from. I involve others, and cast a wide net. But it’s my job to find that one thing that will make the idea memorable.
Graphic design is a service business so it’s how we differentiate ourselves. When it comes to making commercials, our clients can choose any vendor from around the world to work on their project. At the level in which we are competing, everyone is technically capable of producing the work. So we try to put ourselves in the client’s shoes. They want a vendor who is collaborative, listens well and wants to do what is best for the project and not for themselves.
Clients give us a great deal of trust by choosing to work with us. We take that responsibility seriously and are want to deliver a project that is exceptional and the working experience to be unforgettable.
Outside of work, I like to read graphic novels, exercise, hike and backpack, go salmon fishing, draw, play video games and my beverage of choice is an iced, jasmine, green tea (unsweetened and not bitter). I also really enjoy teaching. For over 10 years now, I’ve been teaching at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
My day consists mostly of responding to fans (on social media), answering questions, writing and producing content for the Futur, meeting with the management team, interviewing guests, and providing art direction to a handful of projects. I rarely have the time to do client work except for the strategic portions.
A few years ago, I began to feel uncomfortable coming to work. I would sometimes pull into the parking lot and feel a little hesitation. The culture wasn’t reflective of my own beliefs and values and hence, I was dealing with a lot of internal personnel conflict. This started to consume me, so I wanted to change things.
I came across the book “Delivering Happiness” and it taught me the importance of company culture. One of the lessons that I learned was that, in this modern era of information, a company can no longer promote a message about themselves that was untrue. Anyone could perform a Google search and find out the truth. So your Brand= your Culture. Get the culture right, and the brand will follow.
We define ourselves by a set of 10 core values. These values guide us on everything we do, how we communicate and ultimately who we hire/fire. It took a few years, but we started to see the changes that were created. Now, we are surrounded by people that are fun, innovative, open minded and work well as a team.
When hiring new people, we first perform a “qualification” round where we determine if you meet the job criteria. Then the candidates go through a “culture fit” round. This is usually conducted by our culture team. They literally play games with the interviewees and do very unconventional things. We want to determine if the person will fit in with our weird culture.
We’ve been really lucky with our staff. We can’t offer the highest pay, but based on our reputation (our Brand), people choose to work with us. I believe it’s because we treat employees like family (value their time and happiness, ban weekend work, have mandatory breaks at 5pm), create fun and a little weirdness (strange birthday rituals, dress up in funny costumes, play harmless pranks on one another), have open and honest communication (share budget information, profit and loss statements, etc…) that people feel that we have their best interest at heart and that they have control over their own destiny. Happy people tend not to look for jobs. Loyal and dedicated employees think about what they can do for the company and not what the company can do for them.
In short, no. We create designs that are appropriate for the client and the nature of the problem. Often times, however, a client will respond to something that they’ve seen on our reel and will direct us towards doing something similar. It’s easy to get trapped into doing one style. This would be boring. We have to be vigilant to prevent this from happening and continue to evolve our aesthetic.
We have a diverse and eclectic group of creatives with very unique points of view. I think this melding of different cultural and creative influences is what gives us a competitive advantage. Plus, I’m our toughest critic. We can always do better. By not being complacent, we keep ourselves relevant.
Over the years, I’ve found a process that is best suited for my style of working. I like to envelop myself in research and saturate my brain. This might take a few days. Then, I walk away from the project and don’t think about it at all. Usually, by the next day or so, a solution will come to me when I’m bored. I also find the pressure of a client deadline to be pretty motivating.
Take an honest look at your abilities. Identify what you think you do better than most people and focus on that. Designers spread themselves a little thin by trying to appeal to too many markets. If you’re good at combining illustration with design, find an industry that supports this and concentrate on developing this skill. You’ll be much more successful. Also, pursue a job that will help you to grow. Work with people that know more than you. Don’t look at the short term benefit of a high paying job. You’ll find that after a few years, your portfolio will be uninteresting and it’ll be very hard to find a new job. Things change quickly within the design world. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards.
Graduation only marks the end of one phase of learning. Your graduation portfolio is the admission exam to the next, and more critical learning phase.
Learn to shoot, edit and tell stories. Don’t try to make a masterpiece. Be content with making something good and keep at it. Learn from your mistakes and improve. Try to do one thing better each time you shoot. Just don’t stop. Before you know it, you’ll create something great.
Software can be very empowering and limiting at the same time if you rely on the tools to dictate how you create. It’s become very easy to add sexy lens flares, but you have to ask yourself, is this adding anything to the story? If not, it’s probably a gimmick.