Informational Interview: Justin Brady

My connections between last month’s interview and this one were a little difficult to follow at first. After my interview with Laura Kaupang, I emailed her to see if there was anyone she suggested I talk with next. I didn’t get specific names, but a general pointer to keep talking with NWC alumni and to explore different firms, calling to see about opportunities for interviews. In addition to beginning the process of contacting different firms, I contacted another NWC grad, Justin Brady. Justin is a designer in Des Moines, Iowa, and we set up an interview via Skype. The connection with Laura is Northwestern-based, yes, but also indirectly because of her suggestion.

This is the first time I have done a Skype interview. The interview went fairly smoothly, considering it was on Skype, but there were a few issues on my end with losing my sound or my video freezing and not hearing what Justin was saying. We were able to work around it, however. We were able to quickly share hyperlinks and Justin was able to share files to give me a visual on what he was talking about. We talked for a little over an hour until my computer battery had just about run out. *Note to self: when doing a Skype interview, make sure to have the charge cord just in case!

About Justin

Justin graduated from Northwestern in 2006 and, rather than finding a job within a design firm, started his own business with the encouragement of his mentor. Where many students seek internships and jobs within firms to gain experience, Justin gained experience as a designer by starting Test of Time Design. For a while after he started, the business lagged and he worked part-time at other businesses. In 2008 he moved to Des Moines, IA and restarted Test of Time Design. He works now as a full-time designer and project manager, outsourcing certain tasks but still doing some design work.

Highlights from the Interview

Know your strengths and weaknesses as a designer. We talked about specialized vs. generalized knowledge. Justin is a specialized designer; he doesn’t necessarily turn clients away, but rather outsources his projects when he can’t do them himself. If he knows he can’t do something well, he finds someone who can do it well, so as to not compromise the quality of the project. When clients know you for the one thing that you do well, you are easier to think of when they need a similar project done. Outsourcing is not bad; if you can’t do something well, find someone who can. Trying to do everything will cause you to burn out and will create a poor project. Project quality is more important than knowing how to do every small detail. Knowing what you can do and what you can’t (and then sticking to it) helps you as a designer to do good work. It’s about quality vs. quantity. Clients who look for quality work don’t care if you are a “well-rounded” designer. They want to know if you can do something well.

Test of Time Design and Freelance: Test of Time is a traditional design agency. Test of Time outsources a lot of projects, but Justin is not a freelance designer. He hires freelancers to do certain parts of a project, but at the end of the day he leaves his work behind and goes home.

Good companies hire people, not positions. The companies that are good to work for will hire you as a person, not just to fill a position. They look for personalities that fit with their company and hire, even if the position for which they are hiring does not exactly match the prospective employee.

Think for yourself. By starting his own business, Justin gained experience in a different way than if he had worked for a design firm first. Most design firms teach you to think like them; a good designer will think for himself. Do your own work and do it your way. Not many people think for themselves, so stand out and do something different.

My Portfolio Site

Justin also briefly reviewed my portfolio website and gave me some good feedback. Initially, he looked through my site and then asked me what I thought about a certain project. My initial reaction was that I should take the project down, and he agreed. I should include projects in my portfolio that are good and that advertises my area of interest. Don’t put things in it that I don’t want to do (or that I’m not good at yet). He commented on the overall theme of simplicity in my portfolio, and based on my work, suggested that I might enjoy product design. I hadn’t thought about that before.

Advice

“Fail quickly and learn faster.” This was something he learned from his mentor and wished he had learned earlier in school. It’s okay to fail (and it is normal), but it is not a reason to quit. Keep going; failure helps you grow.

Respect yourself. Charge what you are worth. Good clients are looking for quality work and if they like what you do, they will hire you. Clients who shop around for the lowest price are not interested in quality and are not worth having as clients.

“That’ll never work” idea: People who say this are just discouraging you from trying something that no one has yet succeeded in, which means that no one is doing it. Therefore, keep going and do it anyway. No one else is. Those who succeed are either stubborn or stupid; stubborn because they just keep going no matter what others say, or stupid because they don’t know what they are doing and just happen to succeed. Stubbornness often results in lasting success, stupidity results in temporary success.

Assignment (of sorts): Get advice from marketing executives and learn from them. Most people love to share what they know. Call the marketing/communication directors at Target, Best Buy, and 3M to arrange a brief meeting about what they do and why their brands are so influential. Let them know that you are a student, wanting to learn from them. Sending a letter prior to the call would be good; no one sends letters anymore. Be persistent in calling, even agressive (they’re very busy), but don’t be rude. Say you’ll call back on a certain day and follow through. Buy them coffee at a local shop (letting them know that you are familiar with their neighborhood). Keep it short (20 minutes) and ask good questions and be precise; it makes a statement about you as a designer. Remember, even though you are interviewing them, they are (in a way) interviewing you as well.

What I should be doing now before I graduate: Basically, portfolio development is the most important thing that I can be doing right now. Who you have worked for doesn’t really matter; what matters is what you have done. Yes, networking can be helpful and good, but portfolio development is key.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: A good book to read as a designer. (I have yet to read it.)

Summary

Justin is full of energy and passion about design in general and has a lot to say about being a designer. He gave great feedback on my portfolio and lots of other advice. He challenged me to think about what I am doing, to think for myself, and to challenge (in a good way) the stereotypes of what designers should do and how they should think. It was encouraging to hear (again) that failure is okay, and is good. I hate failing. To hear someone say that he wished he knew in school that it was okay to fail helped me to see (again) that failure is normal and okay. Also, work hard and don’t be afraid to go against the flow and do something new.

I still am not sure about focusing on what I like vs. having a broader skill set. I can see it from both angles. On the one hand, it’s good to focus because it develops your skill and helps you stand out in that area, but on the other, a broader range of skills means you can do more things. Yet, doing more things means that I can do less of them well. I have some thinking and processing to do.