From time to time I get questions from design students about my experience within the design industry and to see if they could get some insight that they can’t always get in school. In this case, after answering Jim’s email, it occurred to me, that others could find some of this answers valuable as well. So I posted his Q&A online in case anyone is interested.
I answered your questions as best as I could. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any other questions or I didn’t answer this as well as you had hoped.
P.S. My answers are in red.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions for me! I am Photoshop CS5 certified and have run the Twitter account, @GridironGraphix, for two years now. I edit photos of NFL, college, and high school football players and want to turn this into a career. I would love to combine my love for sports and my skill of graphic design/Photoshop work into a marketing job with an NFL team.
- I saw on your Twitter profile that you do sports product and logo design for ESPN. How did you prepare for this career?
I was always into drawing as a kid; however, I only really drew sports stuff. Looking back, it was the logos and uniforms and face masks, etc. that I really loved to draw. I took a 5-year art program in high school and it was the only thing I really cared about in high school other than sports.
When the time came to look at colleges, I wanted to play football but the only way I could get into college with my grades was through art. However, there weren’t a lot of options for a serious artist who wanted to play football (I could only afford a state school in NY). I went to FIT, which has an incredible art program for Illustration. I later changed to an Art Design major since it was the 90’s and computers were more of an ad design thing at the time. I graduated and looked for work as a graphic designer in any position I could. I always played sports as a hobby or volunteered free work whenever I could to build up a good portfolio. When the opportunity came up for an athlete (Albert Pujols) who needed work, I was ready.
For a fuller picture, I did a podcast about my career here: (http://makersofsport.com/episodes/17/matt-walker)
- What kinds of tasks do you perform on a typical day or week?
I was the designer for ESPN Fantasy for 8.5 years. Currently I am the VP of Creative at a startup tech company, which isn’t about sports. In both cases my workload is very similar. I solve problems. Whether they are branding problems, UX/UI problems, conversion problems… you name it and I try to solve them. Design is design no matter what the medium or the platform. I would like to think at this point in my career, my focus is much less aesthetic than functional. I enjoy jumping in and worrying about the look and feel, but that is the final piece of the puzzle. I pick an aesthetic solution that helps me solve the business problem.
- What kind of software do you work with? What is the difference between the Photoshop work that I do now and “graphic design?”
I use your typical software suite: Photoshop for most things, but Illustrator is my personal favorite of the two. Being a logo guy, every logo has to be made in Illustrator. Also, I feel like I can create more things organically in Illustrator, but that’s probably because back in 1994, that is the software I learned first on (yes, I am really old) ☺.
- What do you like best about this job? And what excites you the most?
I like to solve problems. I spent the majority of my early career trying to figure out cool new ways of designing things, and I have spent the latter part of my career trying to figure out how to use those tools to solve business problems. I feel like my strength is making complex tasks or messages easy to understand for the most casual user. I like digging in to a particular subject whether it be sports, retail finance, etc. and ask questions to solve their business issues and find out different things about the subject matter at hand. Right now my biggest love is creating mobile solutions, but many times the answer doesn’t require a mobile solution. If I go too long working on certain things I enjoy, I will take on side projects or even volunteer to help local folks that could use my expertise for their organization. Helping people around me selfishly makes me feel good, so I try to do it as much as I can. However, that also makes me an awful businessman for my personal interests. ☺
- What are some of the more difficult or frustrating parts of this job?
In my experience, there are a number of challenges that make this business hard. In the case of working at ESPN we ended up having so many cooks in the kitchen it was hard to solve problems when all of the people giving input aren’t on the same page. Rather than focus on all of the challenges, I can tell you some solutions that will fix a lot of the problems. Try to always identify the key decision makers. Make sure you communicate with them early and often to understand all of the challenges of the task and what the end result needs to be. One of the biggest places where designers fail is they are too worried about making something that they like, but that is not their job. Their job is to use their expertise and skills to help others (who are paying money) make their visions become a reality while integrating their own sensibilities where needed.
The biggest problems designers face is typically we are not great communicators and we also do not understand how to create value. Being a good communicator is key because when you present your work to the key decision makers, it should be a smooth process of just one or two revisions, but you were explaining the direction throughout the process. When you see designers that have to redo work 4 or 5 times, typically its because the client voice was not being listened to and your ideas for execution weren’t vetted before you jumped into executing them.
- What types of decisions do you make?
All kinds, that’s what designing is. Remember, design is how something works, not how it looks. You are constantly finding new hurdles every time you start a project and new ones appear with every direction you decide to take. I liken it to fixing something in your house. You may think you are fixing a window, but when you open up the wall and look inside you almost always find bigger issues that need to be fixed. When you start asking people questions about a project, you almost always have bigger root issues about their business or processes that need to be addressed to solve the problem.
- What type of characteristics does a person in this job need to have?
First and foremost, you need to love what you do, ESPECIALLY in the first few years. I think the youngest designers need to probably do a lot of either free work or work for next to nothing so they can get opportunities they probably haven’t earned yet. It’s a labor of love. Experience is your pay, don’t worry about making money at first because the key thing is learning how to work with someone else’s product and their vision for it. Anyone can make something they like, a true designer makes things they like within the confines of the clients vision, that is where the rubber meets the road.
Secondly, you need to have a thick skin when it comes to your work. You need to be curious, you need to have an overwhelming desire to figure out how people created the amazing things they created. You can always get a brainless job doing production work if you want to, but in my opinion, to do this job right, you need to want to be great, just like in sports. You have to be self critical at all times so you can keep improving and so you won’t be too shocked when someone rips your heart out and spits on it because they don’t understand what we really do.
- What kind of hours do you work in a typical day and week?
It all depends. I know folks who work 9-5 and play on the company softball team, intramural golf, you name it. Typically they don’t go very far. I also know of people who have full time work and go home and have thriving side businesses and work until 2 or 3 every night after work. It’s like anything: you get out of it what you put into it. If you love it and you need to be great at it, you will do whatever work needs to be done and never go home until the work is done. I have had jobs where I would stay 8-9 hours a day and we did great. I have had jobs where it’s crunch time and I have worked 12 hours days for a few weeks. One of my first jobs I literally slept at work 4 nights in a row and never went home. You have to love it, because their always-tight deadlines and sacrifices will have to be made to accomplish your goals.
- How does your career affect your lifestyle? Is there a good work/life balance? Can you work from home/outside of work?
Much like the answer above, it’s up to you. If you are smart, you can manage to have a great career and still have many outside interests. Many companies let you work remotely; however, in the case of working for a team, in my experience you have to be onsite. However, every job, every team does things their own way. I work a ton of hours, but I also coach my kids’ teams when I can. Personally I always think to work like hell when you’re young and building your career foundation so when you get older and have a family or just get a bit burned out, you can slow down a bit. But everyone is different.
- What type of entry‐level job/internship do you think would offer the most learning opportunities for I’m trying to accomplish with an NFL team?
I have never worked in the NFL, so I do not know. I would say to keep your eyes open on job boards, particularly sports centric ones that you may need to pay for, and just be vigilant. Either way, I would say focus on design in general, not just sports. You want to be well rounded. Also sports in general can be a tight knit community, so keep your eyes open on all sports, not just the NFL. Once you get into sports and have a reputation, it’s easier to move around.
- I hope to one day do graphic design or Photoshop work for an NFL team. To your knowledge, what types of advancement opportunities are available for an entry‐level worker in this career?
I am not really sure about the NFL per se. I would say that starting there is good, because typically teams do not pay as much as other industries. So if you are starting out, the salary might not be as important as if you had a family or more bills. I wish I could help out more my your NFL focus, but hopefully some of my other points can be of some help.