Could You Teach Me Real Quick?

I started my career as a production artist in 2001 at the family business – an ecommerce-based golf equipment retailer. What did I do as a production artist? Great question. I worked adjacent to the company photographer. He would shoot products, and I would Photoshop them, cleaning up any dirt or smudges, and correcting the color to more closely match the actual product. Excitement was creating a color of shirt we didn’t have available to shoot by shifting the hues of a shirt of another color.

After a time, the company decided to also produce a print catalog, because in 2003, a lot of golfers still didn’t know what the internet was. I remained a production artist, but had to step up my game preparing images for the much-less-forgiving print medium. I created hundreds of thousands of vector path outline around images. I created photo renders from illustrations. I created complex composites of things nobody really gives a shit about. The point here is, I spent thousands of hours honing in on just a few facets of digital artistry.

When the opportunity presented itself for me to take part in the creation of the catalog layout – that is to say, become a full-fledged graphic designer – I jumped at the opportunity. I wasn’t able to relinquish my former responsibilities, of course, because that is how family business works. But now I wasn’t just dealing with the images I was preparing, but placing them on the page. With words. And backgrounds. And other graphics. I had to balance the imagery with the text, and balance the left and right sides of the spread. This was something new – and I loved the challenge.

Of course, I learned to hate working for family. Which isn’t at all a judgement upon the family itself, but rather the dynamics that almost always arise when you mix family with business. My mid-twenty-something self felt I was underpaid and under appreciated for the work that I was doing. Looking back, that guy was lazy and hadn’t ever really felt the pressure of end-over-end 14 and 16 hour days, or multiple overnighters to fix a problem or meet a deadline.

After I escaped  left the family business in 2007, I moved to Idaho and worked in Jackson, Wyoming for a sheepskin and leather company. Unlike my previous employer, who had over 150 employees by the time I left, I was one of four, and wore many hats. My principal responsibilities, however, were the ecommerce website, photography of new styles – and arrangement for models and locations supporting that effort, pay-per-click marketing, and design of the annual catalog. I hadn’t done some of these things before. I definitely hadn’t been the sole person responsible for the execution of any of these endeavors. There was a lot of leaning on the go and fake-it-until-you-make-it.

And I did. I was always learning on the go, gathering new skills, pushing past my levels of discomfort, and working long, long hours to make sure it got done. My next job was even more demanding. I ran advertising and direct mail campaigns with monthly spends in the millions. It was nerve-racking, and I made expensive mistakes. I ate the humble pie. And I learned. I was always learning. My experience and confidence grew week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year.

To cut the rest of the resume short, and because it’s not the point of this post, I proceeded to take positions as Director of Web Development, Director of Marketing, and Director of Strategy over the following many years. In 2019 I started my own firm and started doing this work for myself. At each step along the way, I was faced with hurdles I did not anticipate, new levels of failure, and greater sense of accomplishment when I finally got it right.

And yet. And yet many times over the years I’ve had people ask me if I can just train them real quick on graphic design. Or to just show them around Word press so they can design a quality website. I had one gentleman that was a salesperson in a company that I worked for apply for a marketing position under me as an internal candidate. In the interview I asked him how familiar he was with the Adobe Suite of products. He assured me that he had downloaded them and played around some, and was confident that he could be up to speed in a few weeks.

Not to be a spoiler, but he didn’t get the job. No, I won’t hire you if you belittle the years of effort I have put into learning my craft. And at 39, having done this for nearly twenty years, I always, always feel behind the curve. This industry, its practices, and its tools move forward at light speed. I feel that the products I produce for my clients are like day old pastries the minute I set them upon the shelf. I cannot imagine approaching a CPA and asking them to teach me accounting in a couple of hours. I would not ask an architect for some quick pointers before I design a high-rise.

I don’t know what it is about the art and design segment, whether it be graphic design, visual arts, photography, or writing – but this mentality is pervasive. It would be disingenuous to say that I don’t mean to complain, because that is exactly what I’m doing. I think my indignation is righteous though. It’s true that it is innocent arrogance (is that an oxymoron?) that drives this behavior. Folks tend to appraise themselves as having a natural artistic talent, and believe that it translates directly to a professional execution. Having muscle memory for 134 Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator keyboard shortcuts be damned -they know good art when they see it, and so are suited to the task.

Which comes to my final point. I don’t make art for any of my clients. What I produce isn’t art – it’s a commodity. The number of job applicants I’ve had pass before me over the years has been filled with starry-eyed dreamers that believe their personal expression will become the face of the company with whom they find employment. They won’t do one day of work, because they are doing what they love.

The reality is the inverse. I have to keep my true creative self isolated from my work, especially where pride of ownership is concerned. I make things that I hate and clients love. I have learned to assess my clients such that I know that going in. My pride isn’t on the line. Here – the things I create, the photos I take, the words I write – they aren’t for you. They are for me. I certainly hope you like them. Your accolades make me feel good. As a professional, I have learned to appreciate honest critique almost as much.

And that’s it. I don’t have a solid wrap-up. This was on my mind because of a recent incident. Having reached an adequate state of catharsis, I am much relieved, and surrender the remainder of my time to the creation of a sarcastic header image. And I need to pee.


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