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Things We Wish We Knew Before Becoming Designers : An Interview

I interviewed our creative directors, Rebecca and Alejandro, about why they became designers and the ups and downs of the industry. Here’s what they said:

Q – Why did you choose design?

Alejandro – I like colours *laughs*.  I’ve always been interested in arts since I was child. I always carried a colouring book with me. I guess I’d say I’ve always been artistically inclined. I always knew I wanted to do it. I wanted something that allowed me to be creative. When I went to school, I had to decide between Design and Animation, but I decided to go for design because I felt I would have more opportunities that way. I’m very happy with that decision.

Rebecca – I kind of fell into it. I chose to switch from animation to design. I gravitated towards animation first because I liked the commercial aspect of it, I liked the idea of working in teams, and I feel like one of my skills is that I work well with other creative types and get results. I guess you’d call that creative-problem solving – someone giving you an idea and creative problem-solving around that. You’re inventing ideas and finding a team that can help you get the best results possible. I feel like I was doing that in animation and I really liked that. I felt like that kind of skillset was transferrable into design. You’re creating for a client or for a problem, or something –  you’re creating a finished product that’s not just your own self-expression. It can be, and I love doing that, but that’s something else on its own, and I wanted my career to be something where I got to work on a team to create something bigger or better than I could on my own. I’d say Emily Carr is split between the commercial and artistic side of things. Design, animation and maybe even illustration are sort of on the commercial side of things, which is what I tended to gravitate towards.

Alejandro – I think you’re right and I also think you have more of a comedic way of storytelling.

Rebecca – People have always said to me that my ideas are strong and they’ve always liked that I finished things or I’m good at coming up with a cohesive product of some kind. I felt like that was something I could bring with me into design. The reason I really went into this was because I really admired what Alejandro was doing and I thought that I could definitely contribute to that. I don’t know…I really didn’t know anything about design. I didn’t. I knew more about getting a finished product and communicating with people.

Alejandro – Now that you’ve answered, I’m rethinking my answer. Because when I went into design I honestly didn’t know much about the whole problem-solving aspect of it and how much search and strategy goes into it, so I was a bit oblivious. I didn’t know much about what design entailed, but after the first year of design school I could definitely see how design should be using strategy all the time, which is what we focus on here.

Rebecca – I like that part of it.

Alejandro – I love that part.

Rebecca – That’s probably the part I enjoy most. I feel like we’re good at adhering to a client’s needs and guidelines, but adding our own ideas to it as well. I feel less comfortable in a zone where, let’s say I was a painter, and I had to go crazy with only my own ideas without anybody’s input. It would be really difficult for me.

Q – When and where did you study graphic design? How many years did it take to complete the program?

Alejandro – I went to Emily Carr University of Art and Design and it took me 4.5 years rather than 4 because I didn’t take enough credits through school. My last semester was really chill cause I left all my electives until the end, so I used that time to work and gain experience that way.

Rebecca – I went to Emily Carr for animation, but I basically learned everything I know about design from Alejandro. So, I guess I have a background in “artistic thinking” or storytelling and I learned all the design stuff from Alejandro. I read a lot of books and have taken some courses while I’ve been here too.

Q – Rate Emily Carr's program on a scale of 1-10.

Rebecca – For animation, I would say it was a 7. It was super do-it-yourself, and it was very old fashioned. It was hard to get 3-D classes and it was hard to get ahead in terms of a technical skillset, but the thing is, you can learn technical stuff on your own and it always changes anyway. It was really important to me that we had a balance of academics, and in class we focused on a lot of concepts, and that helped me thrive. I know that a lot of other people were looking for that technical side and they didn’t get it. I’m sure I could’ve done a lot more with my grad project if I had more of a technical skillset but I would say I really liked how it was very concept-heavy and it was about original thinking – as original as you can be, really – I mean, everything’s been done, in a way. I liked that training; I prioritize developing a strong concept myself so it aligned with my values well, but I know a lot of other people were disappointed.

Alejandro – I’d say the design program was about a 9. I really enjoyed it and I think that my personal experience was much like Rebecca’s. It was very concept driven, which at the end of the day if you have a stronger concept, the execution might not be pristine, but if you have a strong concept, it will be a successful product. Again, half the people loved it, half hated it because some people are more technical. I taught myself a lot.

Rebecca – There’s a huge divide of what people get out of it. You have to be very much okay with self-learning and you have to be okay with the idea that you’re not going to come out of it super job-ready.

Q – What inspires you, and why?

Rebecca – I don’t know?! So much…

Erika – Okay, so when you’re stumped for a design, for example, what’s the first thing that you start doing?

Rebecca – Oh! I guess just browsing through designers we admire and going through designs and seeing other people’s work and looking at reference photos, and thinking of synonyms. It’s kind of weird, you go on a “synonym journey”. For example, for Health In Alignment, we were thinking of the spine, and how to represent it, and then we thought of anatomy, and we started to think of how the body and nature are both intertwined and we sort of brought back those elements. If we’re stumped for an idea I’d say what we always do is look at other images.

Alejandro – Or go back to the basics. Every time we do a project, we talk to our clients about what their goals are, where they see themselves in the market, what gaps they’re trying to fill, what their competitors are doing. Anything out of that research.

Rebecca – We take keywords that they say and we’ll think, “How can we represent that word visually?”

Alejandro – Making connections – connecting ideas to the words

Rebecca – Like making an idea map

Alejandro – Word mapping

Rebecca – We actually draw physical word maps a lot of the time, too. It’s nice that we have each other because we can be efficient. If one of us is stumped, the other usually isn’t.

It’s nice that we have each other because we can be efficient. If one of us is stumped, the other usually isn’t.

– Rebecca
Q – What are some pieces of advice you would offer your younger selves?

Alejandro – I guess I’d say don’t be afraid. I feel like there were a lot of things I was afraid of. Don’t be afraid of exploring. When I was a kid I was afraid of ideas or things I could’ve done that I didn’t do because I wasn’t ready. Right now, I feel like if it weren’t for Rebecca, I wouldn’t be doing this at all. She was the one who had the guts to say, “We’re doing this,” and I was afraid at the very beginning.

Rebecca – He was crying and crying *laughs*

Alejandro – I couldn’t stop crying

Rebecca – And I was like, “Suck it up! We’re doing this.”

Alejandro – I’m really glad that we made the decision that we made and I think you should just go for it.

Alejandro – Maybe the second one would be…

Rebecca – Relax. I think it was at the end of my education that, for example, I was in this zone where I didn’t care about my grades as much. I don’t think it was the grades that I necessarily cared about, but I tried to make sure everything I did was really good, and I think if an idea isn’t working, you can let it go and start over instead of trying to fix it. I feel like I did that a lot. I did that a lot at Emily Carr where I thought, “Well it’s almost done, I better commit to it,” whereas at the end, I kind of started to let go of an idea or even let it be a bad project and focused on one that I liked more. Prioritize things that are going better rather than trying to make sure everything is perfect. It works out way better to just drop it and go in a whole different direction. It usually ended up being more efficient and effective that way. At the beginning, I wasted a lot of time trying to fix really bad projects and bad ideas and I was stressed out about that. That’s an open-ended question, I don’t know what other things I could say. What’s an example, do you think?

Erika – For me, I would tell myself don’t be afraid to ask questions. As I get older, I feel like there are no dumb questions, or you feel more confident asking dumb questions because sometimes those are things that other people are afraid to ask.

Rebecca – That was something I could always do was ask questions. I guess that would be a good thing then, to let go. That was actually a big thing in my last year of school. I would let some things be total flops and I would be able to put more time into things that were good and that I liked. It made my life easier. In our field, grades weren’t too important so it’s a bit different. I would tell other people that grades aren’t important.

Alejandro – Yeah. I would say you should also read more. That’s advice I would give myself right now. I don’t read that much and I think that reading is so important for so many different things. Not only for learning, but also to keep your mind flowing; exercising your mind.

Rebecca – Yeah, I would say to waste less time on screens, and I would give that advice to myself now too. I really focused a lot on watching other people and watching other things and it really drains you. It’s still something I get caught in now, and I think we all do, but that’s something that when I was younger, I definitely spent a lot more time than I needed to looking at a screen and wasting time on stupid meaningless things that would worry me. It makes you feel worried about yourself and your progress, and it’s silly. You can focus on hanging out with your actual friends instead of looking online at what other big artists are doing, and thinking you’re not fit for it, and not as good as them. It’s still good to look up to people, but I feel like I wasted an insane amount of time on that. Don’t compare yourself so much to others. When I was younger, I did a lot of thatI

Q – What advice do you have to offer graduates currently looking for jobs in this industry?

Rebecca – I think it’s good to approach a job asking what you can do to help. Go into it almost as if they’re your client and saying, “What can I do?” and, “Here’s everything I can bring to the table,” so it’s not just, “Hey look how good my work is,” you know? That’s what I would say brings an applicant over the top…in my eyes, anyway. They have to have strong work, obviously, but a lot of people have strong work. If they’re immediately starting to ask, “What kind of roles would I take on here? What is this like compared to another place?” and seeming like they’re willing to take on a job and can handle critique. Go into it like you’re trying to impress someone, not just saying, “Hey I’m so good, want to hire me?” I feel like that happens a lot now, but maybe that’s just me. Think about certain skillsets you might have, and try adding another if you’re finding that you’re not getting a job with just that. Show that you’re at least interested in learning another, too, and having more than one thing to offer, but that’s also cause we’re small and that’s why I’d value that.

Alejandro – If you’re looking for a job and trying to apply to an agency that you like and admire, then take the time to really understand what their brand is about. If you’re going to be doing design for them, and for other companies, then you have to understand what their brand is and what their message is. When you go to the meeting, mention the things you like about their brand. Be specific about things like the language they use or reasons you like their product. That shows that you’re paying attention to details. That’s important because at the end of the day, that’s what you’ll be doing for other clients.

If you’re looking for a job and trying to apply to an agency that you like and admire, then take the time to really understand what their brand is about.

– Alejandro

Rebecca – You want to be a fan.

Alejandro – Overall, obviously, portfolios are important, and you have to have a website or somewhere you can showcase your work (preferably a website). You don’t have to code it, you can just have a nice template, but if you can code it yourself or have someone code it for you, that’s great. Make sure you have strong pieces up there; you don’t have to put every single project up online, you could have 5 that are strong, and explain why you made certain aesthetic choices.

Rebecca – What would be really strong, too, is if you were applying for a design position, is if you had work that you did for someone. It could be a client, it could be a friend, something that was done not for yourself, but for someone else.

Alejandro – Yeah, at the end of the day, you are designing for other people, and that is a challenge in itself because other people have so many expectations or ideas about how they want things to look and it’s your job to provide them with something that they’ll like, but also something that will get them results. It is a fine balance between giving the client what they want, but also guiding them through the right decisions so that the design is effective.

Rebecca – I feel like a big challenge of our job is to navigate and organize many subjective opinions: our own, each other’s, our client’s, their team’s, their wives, you know? You have to have empathy and understanding what they’re needing and all while navigating those subjective opinions, you have to also think about what their audience needs and how to target that audience. You have to think about what their opinions are and what their tastes are as well. It’s a lot of being really good with people and guiding them through and helping it be a collaborative process, even though you’re the overall expert, it’s a very collaborative thing because their brand can be their personality sometimes, and they put a lot of love into their brand. We work with a lot of small companies, so they put a lot of love into their business and they put a lot of trust into you, and into making sure that you can reflect all the work that they’ve put in and that their identity is strong. If you were applying for a position, it would be extra great to see someone navigate that complex relationship with client and still produce a great result and guide them through making the right decisions. That’s half the battle for sure.

Rebecca – Another piece of advice for people looking for jobs is that it’s going to be a bad year after you graduate…

Alejandro – Don’t be discouraged, though.

Rebecca – It’s just hard right now.

Alejandro – Keep on trying.

Rebecca – Your parents are going to say, “Why haven’t you gotten a job? I got a job when I was your age,” and then you have to explain that it’s different now… so you have that nagging at you, and as soon as a couple of your friends get a job, you feel like you must be so dumb, and you’re not! It’s a waiting game. Someone will like you…it’s sort of like dating.

Alejandro – Someone other than your mom will like you…

Rebecca – Your parents will always wonder why you don’t have a job when it was so easy for them, but it’s a different kind of field and it’s a different industry. Another thing would be to be to invite people out for coffee and connect with people cause they’re more likely to hire you if you’re someone that people know. If you’re just an applicant on paper, it’s a lot harder. It’s a really big risk for employers to hire someone, so if you are someone that is a friend of a friend or employee, or know someone in that field that can say with confidence that you’re a good person, you’re chill, and you’re easy to work with, and your talented, then I would prioritize that person over other applicants. It’s a nice ‘in’ to have coffee with someone because it’s always better to meet in person. Some agencies don’t have time for that, but it’s good to find some kind of ‘in’ or someone that’s in that company to talk to – and be nice to them. Just be nice to people. Usually you’ll find a way in. It’ll be really hard if you just apply on paper. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten any of my jobs without knowing someone. It’s too risky! You could be crazy!

Q – What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Rebecca – Well, what I just said, but also…

Alejandro – One hard part is that we work with so many small businesses that oftentimes, they don’t have a big budget. The hardest part I’d say, is getting them to understand that design can definitely determine whether you’re going to stand out from other people or if you’re going to be growing faster. At the end of the day, people will trust you if you look legit. First appearances matter. First off, the way you look – the way you present yourself – is really important, and the second part of it is whether your service or product is actually reflective of how you look. It is really difficult because sometimes we have people who have a really amazing product or amazing services but their design is not good, and at the end of the day, if you’re comparing two websites and one of them looks really well put together with beautiful imagery, then you want to experience that service because you want to experience that brand. Compared to someone else who might have a better service and a better price, but you don’t trust that website and you don’t trust that person, then you will never contact that person. It goes the same with branding, it’s the same with anything tactile, like print material. And I say that budget-wise it is our biggest challenge, to get them to see our value and invest in it. Often, I don’t think people see it as an investment they see us more as a cost and that’s the wrong mindset. You want to think of design as an investment that will get you results.

You want to think of design as an investment that will get you results.

– Alejandro

Rebecca – I think maybe rather than it being the challenges that people’s budgets are tight, it’s more like the challenge of getting people educated to understand that what we do isn’t just selecting a colour. It’s also the strategy behind it, so if your website isn’t easily found on Google, or if the language doesn’t make sense, or it doesn’t load fast enough, or it’s clunky, or you can’t find what you’re looking for in half a second, then people lose interest and then they move on. It has to be this beautiful thing that functions well and it has to make you look professional, and it just sort of takes a while for people to understand. For example, people who go through this process with us, after they finish even just one step, they go, “Oh, okay! I understand you’re taking into account all of these things, and that makes total sense. I’m very glad I went in this direction,” but to get them over that hump, they’re maybe still comparing us to the $500 logo creator that they found online or they’re comparing us to online website builders or just another corporate video company. People only really realize it’s not quite comparable when they sit down and have a conversation with us, or when they start to go through the process. People who use us obviously get it, but they really get it after we go through a project together. I think a lot of creative people and creative agencies have this problem where it’s hard to get people to trust in the process or understand the process right away because it is something totally new. For us it’s just second nature – it’s obvious – but with a lot of other people, it isn’t. It’s not that a small budget isn’t workable, but it’s just that you have to think strategically about what’s realistic if you’re going to do it in a quality way.

Q – How do you see the world of design changing in the future with so many logos in the market and companies like Fiverr and Upwork?

Alejandro – I think there’s always going to be a need for that one-on-one relationship. The best strategies come out of conversations, and you can have a conversation with someone through Skype but it’s not the same experience as being hands on – on a table with paper, drawing, sketching, talking to people, coming up with ideas together. That’s where you get the essence of a good idea, is by having those conversations. I mean, I don’t think you could achieve something like that through Fiverr…it would be crazy to think that you can. I think that if you take your business very seriously, I don’t think that’s something they should be looking into. At the end of the day, cheap solutions end up being more expensive.

There’s a big difference between saying “i need to have a website just because” and  “what is the purpose of this website?”

Rebecca – Yeah, I think that these kind of companies arise from the need for new businesses to be branded – and quickly, too. A lot of businesses in the past didn’t need it as much. If you were the person who owned the corner store, you didn’t have too much competition. Now, there’s so much competition flooding the market, especially online. It’s opened up this huge endless possibility for people, even hobbyists, to put up a website or create a brand. So many people are turning to freelancing, consulting, or small businesses. The whole market is shifting. People are able to work from home, from abroad, and more and more businesses are being created that are doing the same thing. That’s why there are things like Fiverr now. It’s because there are so many people looking for a solution like that and they need something quick and they have a small budget, but if you really want to stand out from the crowd, then you’ll never be able to get there from a template. It’s really something that you need to dedicate time and energy into thinking of something totally unique to get people’s attention. If you think, “I need a website, and I need my business card because that’s what I’ve been told I need in order to have a business,” then that’s not really the way you should think because you could definitely have a website for really cheap. If you’re thinking, “I’m running workshops and I need people to sign up faster and more efficiently and I’d like them to have a sleek experience of getting registered,” then you create a beautiful website that does that job. Then, you’re creating a marketing funnel there and you’re helping your business strategy. There’s a big difference between saying “i need to have a website just because” and  “what is the purpose of this website?”.  A more simplified way of thinking about it is that your website is sort of your online office – your online shop – so you need to make it feel like walking into your office would. It’s not just a sign with your address on it, or a crappy template with your name and contact info on it. It has to represent you, and it has to do something for your business.


Written by Erika Ting, Social Media Coordinator

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