Invaluable Isn't Impossible

What follows is my speech (and the accompanying slides) from my 2013 Melamed Riley Grad School webinar.

Grad School Speech — Slide 1


Hello! I'm Joseph Hughes, and I've been an art director at Melamed Riley since 2010. I want to thank Sarah and Rick and the rest of our team for the opportunity to create an event like Grad School. It's a testament to working in a supportive environment with a talented team. Sarah and Rick are a tough act to follow, but I'm really happy to get the chance to present my ideas to you today. 

Before we get started, let me say that much of what I am talking about in this webinar deals with the ways of thinking and acting that can separate someone who is simply average from someone who is truly indispensible. I've got no doubt that all of you are already passionate about what you do and enthusiastic about growing — and you’re showing that by being here today. The purpose of today’s webinar is to give you new ways to channel your enthusiasm and passion, ensuring that you will be a valued — and valuable — member of your company's team.

My Story

As Austin Kleon says, all advice is autobiographical. In his words: "It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past."

So where have I been and what have I done? I've worked in both the public sector and the private sector. I've worked for a college athletic department, a university communications and marketing office, a big city convention and visitor’s bureau and two ad agencies. I've been a writer. Designer. Editor. Webmaster. Planner. Researcher. Copywriter. Production artist. Media assistant. Art director. All the while, I've had my hands in everything from print to the web to radio to outdoor to television. I went to school to learn how to write. I left school working in design. 

So, in some ways, this webinar is me talking to a previous version of myself. I know what it’s like to leave school and not really know what will happen or who you'll be expected to be. To train for one thing and then be expected to grow and prosper in an environment that demands you be multi-faceted was the challenge I've had to overcome to get here today. 

Grad School Speech — Slide 2

My purpose today is to speak to the fact that I am where I am exactly because I've worked to to have my hands on so many important functions wherever I’ve worked. I want you to excel when given those opportunities, too. Here's the deal: The minute you sign on the dotted line and walk in the front door for your first full-time job, you're already costing your employer a lot of money. Beyond salary, there's insurance, retirement, equipment costs and on and on. If you can critically examine your own thoughts and actions and then work to improve yourself in the ways I outline in this webinar, you'll not only prove your worth, but you'll also be able to make your company money in more and more ways, also helping your career in the process. These days, knowing the costs inherent in hiring employees, agencies are trying hard to hire "mini-agencies" — talented people who are capable of delivering most (if not all) of an entire campaign themselves. With a little work and a lot of passion, you can become one of those people.

Grad School Speech — Slide 3

Focus on You

The world around us is changing by the second. There will probably be a new bit of technology invented during this talk that will drastically change how we do things. The apps, programs and processes you learn today have the tendency to become outmoded and obsolete by tomorrow, if not by later today. Because the state-of-the-art will always be in flux, it's important to take the time to focus on you. No matter what the advertising industry looks like, it's going to require smart, curious, passionate, adaptable people. You can always learn about the shiniest new tech, so therefore it's very important to focus on the piece of hardware you'll have with you your entire career: Your brain. The best part? Learning new things can be done without spending thousands of dollars. It's often as easy as an internet connection and a library card.

Grad School Speech — Slide 4

Become Your Own Client

Think about the work you do for others. A typical identity project comes with countless hours spent finding inspiration, assembling color possibilities, exploring type, studying industry trends and doing everything that puts you in your client’s head. When this pays off, it's a great feeling that breeds momentum. What kinds of questions would you ask yourself if you were your own client? For instance: Why are you so inspired by what inspires you? Why do you decide to pursue one layout versus another? Or, most importantly, why you are so frustrated with what's been frustrating you?

There's no magic formula to getting what you want out of your career. But trust me, if there were, it wouldn't look like the glossy how-tos you see in bookstores. It would look like the lessons you learn from working with clients. With them, you’re asking the right questions. Doing the proper research. Examining your decisions. Acting based on your hard work. Just turn it around. Become your client. Ask yourself the questions. Put your successes and struggles under the microscope. Learn about yourself and move based on what you find. Act in a concrete manner to respond to what you find out about yourself and use what you learn to inform your perspective and your career. You’ll discover that what you previously considered roadblocks eventually become opportunities. Each bump in the road becomes another chance to learn something new about yourself. Never let anything get in the way of curating the kind of creative life you want. When you reach that balance between hustle and reflection, great things happen.

Grad School Speech — Slide 5

Don't Wait to Create

At your age, there's still so much to figure out about yourself and what you want to do with your life. Hell, at my age, there's still so much to figure out. And as I said in my last tip, we always want to be improving. But if you wait until you know every square inch of yourself and your skill set before you start creating, you're going to end up sitting around trying to find answers when you could be making things. I've learned more about myself by doing the actual work than I ever have trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. It's almost as though you have to figure out every single thing about yourself — where you've been, where you are, where you want to be, how you want to get there — before you can do any of it. That's not true. S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders, one of my very favorite books growing up, when she was 17. She didn't need to do years of research and conduct countless interviews to write about the situation she saw unfolding at her high school. She just jumped in and wrote a book that was published her freshman year of college and is required reading in pretty much every high school English class.

Follow her lead. Keep working to improve, but you're ready now to do that actual work that will get you there. Start sketching. Start writing. The mere act of drawing or writing is a catalyst that will lead you to find out everything the experts are telling you you need to know before you begin. Don't be afraid to look bad or feel like you have no idea what you're doing. It's called Impostor Syndrome and we all suffer from it, no matter how long we've been working. So get out there, start making, and don't look back.

Grad School Speech — Slide 6

Take Matters into Your Own Hands

In some jobs, you'll be lucky and will have ample opportunities to pursue your path to creative growth. In others, however, you won't. No matter what, don't wait for great projects to happen to you. Pursue passion projects that will help you grow and will get your name out there. Some examples: Matt Stevens is a North Carolina-based designer/illustrator. As a side project separate from his agency job, he tried his hand at an unofficial rebrand of Dunkin' Donuts. When the design blog Brand New took note of his work, it brought Stevens a lot of positive attention. Then, a Kansas-based donut shop stole his look, but he was able to turn a negative into a positive by working with them on their own brand. This winding road that started on a whim led to Stevens being able to work with JJ's Red Hots, a new restaurant in his own backyard, on a complete, from-scratch branding effort. All because he had a few spare minutes to re-imagine Dunkin' Donuts.

It doesn't have to be so grand, either. Artist and educator Kate Bingaman Burt has created a niche (and plenty of new work opportunities) from illustrating one item she purchases in any given day. It taught her a lot about her patterns of consumption and allowed her to pay off her credit card debt by selling the original pieces and zines based on the drawings. Illustrator Lisa Congdon spent a year cataloging the many mini-collections she kept around her house and studio. No matter what the outcome, self-initiated projects are a wonderful way to grow creatively in ways that you may not be able to from 9 to 5. You'll learn new things and invite new opportunities. Your growth will have tangible effects at your day job as well.

Grad School Speech — Slide 7

Ignore Your Job Title

Congratulations, you've landed your first job and just got handed a fresh box of business cards. Even though you've already given out a bunch and put many more in "free lunch fishbowls" around town, here's some real talk for you: Ignore your job title. I'm not saying ignore what you're being paid to do, but ignore what they're calling you when you do it. Especially if your job title involves the words "ninja" or "rock star." Here's why: Job titles are artificial. They establish hierarchies and put people in nice, little boxes. Titles are tools of limitation. If you're a copywriter, you may feel restricted to writing. If you're a designer, you may feel restricted to design. If you're on the account side, you may feel restricted from creative work. 

Titles are artificial labels and you're doing yourself a disservice if you blindly adhere to them. If you spend your time trying to be the very best example of your job title, you miss out on so many other opportunities. And if you wait until your job title matches exactly what you want out of your career, you've waited too long. But when you ignore your job title, you ignore those restrictions and free yourself to grow your skill set. It's up to you to forge your own path and begin building the kind of well-rounded portfolio that will always keep you employed, even when times are tough. So if you take anything from this presentation, it's that you should not be afraid to step outside your job description and show passion for learning and enthusiasm for new experiences. It's good for you. And your boss will notice.

Grad School Speech — Slide 8

Write Now

No matter what you'll be doing for a living, there is one skill that you will — with 100 percent certainty — rely upon every day: Writing. Let me take this a step further: Even if the gig you're going after doesn't explicitly include writing in the job description, the people doing the hiring will, given a tough decision among several highly qualified candidates, hire the best writer. Why? Because the ability to write is synonymous with so many other skills, not the least of which is thinking clearly, making ideas and concepts easier to understand, taking another’s perspective, knowing what to include and what to leave out and so on. To this point, my college professor once told me, "If you can think clearly, you can write clearly." Now that design is how I pay the bills, I've come to realize employers believe the opposite to be true, too.

Bolstering your writing skills isn’t always easy and it takes work. But it is inexpensive. It requires is the desire and time to hone your abilities. Start not by writing but by reading. Surround yourself with good writing, both relevant to your field and in general. Keep bits and pieces of what you like and consider why you like it. Next stop: Practice. Start a blog. Better yet, start your company's blog (if they don't have one). If they do, volunteer to write for it. While you're at it, absolutely check out the following books from the library: The AP Stylebook and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Then read them and read them again. Both of these books will streamline your writing. And make sure to maintain a daily routine. Even the mere act of logging what you have done every day is an exercise in inclusion and omission and will better your writing. Most importantly, don't wait. Writing doesn't have to take place in Microsoft Word on your computer. It can be as simple as a notebook, a pen and your curiosity.

Grad School Speech — Slide 8

Learn From Everyone

When I worked in the production department at my previous job — think the engine room of the design ship — there was an actual physical divider between our side and the "creative" side. The dividing lines between disciplines at your job may not be so stark, but, quite often, the job titles take care of those divisions for you. (Remember what I said about ignoring your job title?) It's easy — especially at a larger agency — to get stuck in your particular silo. Soak up everything you can from those on the other side of those artificial dividers.

Staying put in your corner of the office will stifle your work and prevent you from seeing the bigger picture. Get out there and ask questions. See if you can shadow the researchers when they're not busy. Ask account people to teach you about their process. Ask for briefings from the social media guru about the latest trends. Get the scoop from the administrative assistants, who will likely have more institutional knowledge than the rest of the company combined. Just because you're out of school, it doesn't mean you're done learning. And the sooner you grasp everyone's roles and the larger picture, the sooner you'll not only see where you fit in, but you'll also find ways to improve things. And, as I'll discuss next, you'll become a problem finder.

Grad School Speech — Slide 9

Become a Problem Finder

Working in the creative world, there's no doubt that you'll be paid to provide solutions. But as designer/author/speaker Cameron Moll says, "A solution is only as strong as the problem you've defined. So you have this challenge of problems and solutions being interdependent. And if we spend most of our time on solutions and not enough on problems, then often we end up envisioning a solution that may have no real value for the problem or need that it is trying to solve." In other words, it's great to be able to produce stunning visuals or captivating copy, but if these visuals or copy aren’t solving the specific problems your clients came to you with, what was it worth?

Great advertising isn't just great because it looks or sounds good, it's great because it perfectly encapsulates the essence of what the advertiser is trying to say. Focus less on solutions and more on problems. Doing so aligns you with the interests and needs of your clients, which is exactly where you want to be. When you become a problem finder, you'll discover that not every solution looks the same. And in doing that, you'll grow to be able to provide a wider array of solutions (to say nothing of becoming better at strategic problem solving).

Grad School Speech — Slide 10

Race Your Strengths
Train Your Weaknesses

Though you're constantly working to expand and hone your skill set, it's important to remember that there is a core talent that landed you the job. It could be design. It could be writing. It could be something else. It may even be a style therein. The point being, when the money is on the line, try to "race your strengths," to borrow a phrase born from cyclists. When you race your strengths in our field, it means that, when money is on the line and the chips are down, you're doing what you do best and what comes most naturally to you. Now, when this isn't the case, and you've got the time to put in the work, that's when you "train your weaknesses." This is where you work at the skills that will lead to growth but will also likely cause growing pains at first. Perhaps you're a by-the-book, grid-based designer and you're taking the time to learn hand lettering. Or you're a technical writer looking to break out of manuals and into advertising copywriting. Or, best yet, you're looking to do something completely outside your skill set. Taking the time to learn new things in a no-pressure situation is wonderful because it gives you the freedom to make all of the mistakes you want while learning as you go without the fear that it'll cost you your job. The best part? The more you train your weaknesses, the less weaknesses you'll have and the more strengths you'll be able to race.

Grad School Speech — Slide 11

Immerse Yourself (But Don't Drown)

Your skills, charm and passion are what will get you a job, but what will keep you employed — and help you grow as a person and as a worker — is your ability/willingness to become expert in your industry. Read up on your clients' industries so that you can anticipate where their market is going as well as they can. Dig deep into what makes a great ad campaign, and consider the thinking moreso than the execution, remembering to be a problem finder. If you're a designer, follow trends in design, but beyond that, surround yourself with good design and consider what makes it good. If you're a writer, hone your craft, but beyond that, read great writing and deconstruct why it resonated. 

But, above all else, don't ignore our third tip. There’s so much inspiring work out there that it’s easy to spend more time looking than creating. As a designer, I've realized the more captivating design I encounter, the more I begin to question my own abilities in comparison, which is a paralyzing thing. You never want to pass the point of saturation that separates being inspired from being stuck in that inspirational quicksand. Just remember what you know and what you've learned, stay curious and get to creating.


So there you have it. Ten tips, each taking their own unique route to emphasize this point, made best by Thomas Edison: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." When you approach everything you'll encounter in your working life as an opportunity to learn and grow, you've already put yourself in a prime position to succeed. Add to that the willingness to ask questions and the desire to help your company in every way possible and you've got the recipe for a long and fulfilling career. I'll close by giving you a bonus eleventh tip, however. And that is this: Once you've worked for a few years and have learned the kinds of things the working world teaches you, be sure to find the new kid at work, take them to lunch, and begin showing them the ropes as you learned them. What good is knowing something if you're not willing to teach someone else? So pay it forward and use what you'll learn today, tomorrow, next week, next year and beyond to show the next generation how it's done. Thank you so much for your time and I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have!