Yesterday I got to reprise my guest speaker gig in Jennie Jacobs’ Intro to Design class at Santa Barbara City College. This time I actually prepared, so it went much better than last year. I talked about my career, creative philosophy, and work—presenting some of my best stuff from over the past 12 years. I’m still not great at speaking without cues, though, so I typed the whole thing out and read it almost verbatim, with a little extemporization here and there. The 6 students in attendance didn’t seem to mind; Jennie said I was a hit. Here’s how it went:

My name is Keir DuBois and I’m a professional creative. I’ve had lots of titles: Graphic Designer, Website Developer, Copywriter, Content Strategist, but they all end up being the same thing. I get paid to think and make creatively.

I assume you all want to do this professionally, or something similar. If you really want to, there’s a lot to think about and it’s never too early. Depending on the path you take, you may need to know all of this or only some of it. I had no idea about any of it and it surprised the shit out of me so that’s why I’m telling you all: so it won’t be overwhelming later. Not to scare anyone, but, here goes:

Where do you want to work? You have essentially 3 options as a professional creative: creative firm/agency, in-house, or freelance. I’ve only worked at agencies, and only two for my whole career (which is rare): BBM&D (Ventura) for over 9 years, Oniracom (SB) for over 2 years. I’ve made stuff for print, web, video, audio, and social. I’ve made business cards, stationery, books, magazines, brochures, websites, ads, slides, apps, signage—the works.

I got into this a bit late: I was a 27-year-old design intern. I had good grades and an English BA from UCSB but once I finished school nobody cared how smart I was. Most of you are way ahead of me. When I was your age I was failing at music, failing at journalism, failing at music journalism…I failed a lot, until I took some night classes for design 12 years ago and then sneaked into this industry though a side door that someone irresponsibly left open (the teacher of my final design class was my first boss; she offered me an internship).

What do you want to work on? Design is design, no matter the medium, but even these days it’s still broken into two types: Print jobs—which are stressful but worth it when the result is good and maybe even award winning—but more likely, you’ll be doing digital/web jobs—easy to change mistakes but the learning curve never stops. I’ve done web work from tables to standards to responsive to “this shit is too hard now and the kids are better.” I’m now in Strategy, and while I’m finding it tough to get all the pieces of the big picture in sync, so far I’m hanging in there.

Your portfolio has to tell a story. Assemble your best 8-10 projects in a compelling order. Here’s mine:

  1. Print: Gifted Education Communicator (my first print/project management job)
  2. Print: VSI (my first account management job and favorite client ever)
  3. Print (Reagan Library, Garage Equipment catalog): sometimes you’ll have to work on stuff you don’t like or don’t agree with. Pick your battles.
  4. Websites (table-based) – Sites for BBM&D 2004-2008
  5. Websites (standards-based) – Sites for BBM&D 2009-2011
  6. Websites (responsive) – Sites for BBM&D/Oniracom/AIGA 2012-2015
  7. Strategy: My current role is in between sales and production: big-picture, copywriting, campaign management, workflow—certainly a critical part of a full-service firm.
  8. Passion projects: Working with music or maps is my favorite thing to do: what does that sound look like? What does that map communicate? (I showed the NOLA map and other AIGA maps. I also showed work for music, like my Honey White CD, and books, like my WOYG novel)

 Random Wisdom

  • Design is not art. Design solves problems for money and art expresses life & the universe. One pays, one mostly doesn’t.
  • Every project has to have a goal. Why are you doing it? Don’t create in a vacuum.
  • Every project has to have an audience. Who will see or use what you make? It’s not just the client, it’s their customers too. You’re not designing for your own amusement.
  • Tools are only tools. Mastering Adobe won’t make you a designer. Learn the skills: typography, perspective, color theory, layout, user experience, HTML, CSS.
  • Learn to bait inspiration: Keep track of what inspires you and try to recreate circumstances.
  • Seek inspiration outside design. I get it from music, books, history, baseball, whatever.
  • Read more than you want to. Reading makes you a better writer. Good writing is essential to good communication, and that’s what design is: communication to solve a problem.
  • Taking criticism: some is constructive, some is useless, some is BS. Don’t take it personally.
  • Get to know the business side: what to charge, how to present, how to pitch, how to write creative briefs, proposals, award submissions, thank you notes. All you can charge for is your time, so decide if you’ll do it by the hour or by the project. Pay attention to how long it takes you to finish a project.
  • Get to know your peers. Finally, I’m the current president of SB chapter of AIGA. AIGA is the professional organization for design. The best decision I ever made in my career was becoming an AIGA member 4 years ago. It got me my current job. It’s a great way to meet other creative professionals and be inspired by them, supported by them, supportive to them, to learn things, to teach things, to figure it out and make each other better. Sure, be competitive with them and differentiate yourself, but these are your peers & colleagues.

That’s all, folks! Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.