This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.
Editor's Note: This is a continuation of "Good Ol' Boy's" story of chasing his dream I.D. job. If you missed the first part, read it here!
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Chasing the Dream
After quitting my crappy job designing supermarket interiors, I hatched a plan to get my dream job at [Hot Design Consultancy]. They were located in [Cool City], where I really wanted to live, and they had awesome clients.
I spent a few days holed up at Mama's house flipping through I.D. Magazine and clicking through the then-very-primitive Core77—swear to God—thinking about my situation, and eventually realized I needed three things to get this job: Skills, a Book, and Opportunity.
Skills: I could already draw a damn sight better than most of the folks I'd graduated with, but this was the mid-'90s, and all the top design firms at the time used Alias. I knew Hot Design Consultancy used Alias, because during my failed interview, they'd asked me some Alias questions. I'd taken basic Alias classes during undergrad, but not enough to get a good handle on it. So during the interview when the Alias questions got tough, I'd flopped on the answers. I knew I needed to learn Alias, but how? Back then there were no 3D programs you could run on a home PC. A Silicon Graphics workstation, which you needed to run Alias, ran about 70 grand.
A Book: Coming out of undergrad, my portfolio sucked. It was filled with weird conceptual stuff and didn't show any real-world critical thinking and any intelligent, realizable solutions to current-day problems. And Hot Design Consultancy had made their name developing realizable solutions to current-day problems. I had to show them I could be a valuable member of their team.
Opportunity: I'd blown my first interview with Hot Design, and my chances of getting a second interview two years later, after all I'd done was design vacuum formed fish and bacon displays, weren't good. So how would I get the opportunity to interview with them again?
That's when I realized: The key to getting a job with Hot Design was not to have to go through an interview at all.Let me explain. My undergrad Alma Mater design school was located in [Rough City], where I had no desire to live; four years up there was plenty. But a lot of my buddies at Alma Mater had stayed in Rough City after we graduated, because they got good ID jobs up there. Some of them had internships that turned into full-time gigs. Others had been hired by our professors, who all worked at various ID firms in Rough City. Now it makes sense that a design school located in a big city hires professors who work in that big city, and also helps get its students internships at design firms located in that big city.
So I looked at Cool City, where Hot Design was located. And yep, there was a university there that had a Masters of Industrial Design program. It wasn't one of the bigger or more prestigious ID programs, but that university had money and the school had good facilities.
I had no desire to go back to school, because I was already in crazy debt from my undergrad, but I realized this would solve all of my problems: I could learn Alias at school, work on my Book, and chances were that that university would have some contact with Hot Design, being that they were the only ID program in that entire region, and I'd get in the same way my buddies at Alma Mater got their jobs.
So I applied.
I did a little work on my crazy-ass Book to make it more presentable, but as it turned out it wasn't necessary. I found out that getting into a Masters of Industrial Design program is kind of a joke—you've got people coming in with degrees in like, Geology, French Literature or the worst profession of all, Marketing. In other words there was absolutely no prerequisite that you could draw or make models. My interview was a breeze.
I'd also happily learned that the government puts your student loans in deferment if you go back to school. I wasn't happy about taking out yet more loans to pay for more school, but at least it was a state school.
So before I knew it, I was loading my few possessions from Mama's house and driving several states over to Grad School. And once again I moved into a dorm. But it was all going to be worth it if my plan worked out.
Gaming the System
One lesson I did learn in undergrad: Having talent is no indicator of future success. There were two guys I'd known since freshman year who had like zero talent, but they busted their ass, developed the right skills and got good jobs by senior year. And I saw at least one guy with tons of talent who wasted it all smoking weed and playing Sega in the dorms.
I thought about that a lot. Those no-talent guys really busted their ass to get where they ended up. In contrast I was kind of a coaster. Like in high school art class, I'd do the assignments at the last minute and still get an A, simply because I'd been born with drawing talent. But it dawned on me that being born with talent is nothing to brag about, it was like being born tall—you either were or you weren't, independent of your input. So I decided I was going to have to stop being a coaster and take more of a direct role in determining my fate. I was going to start gaming the system.
My first semester at Grad School I was in a class called [something like Design Collaboration]. Since I already had an undergrad degree, I didn't have to take all of that entry-level crap like those French Geological Literature freaks. The point of Design Collaboration was that the class had landed two big corporate sponsors. Normally it was just one per semester, but I found out later that the professors get more money depending on how many sponsors they get, so they shoehorned two sponsors into one class. Maybe not a coincidence that this professor drove a Porsche.
Anyways, one of the corporate sponsors made [Sophisticated Electronic Devices]. The other corporate sponsor made [Food]! I definitely wanted to work on the Electronics, not the Food, because the Electronics was along the lines of what Hot Design did.
But we didn't get to choose! Every student had to work on both projects for the first half of the semester, and then we'd be divided up after our work was evaluated. So I made sure my ideas for the Food stuff were the worst ideas possible. The Food client wanted us to design clever ways to package their existing products so they could be ingested on-the-go. I can't say too much without giving away who the company was, but let's just say that there's something we eat around a dinner table that they wanted to make it so that a truck driver could eat it on-the-go with our package design.
Well, I wasn't having it. Instead of cooperating I drew up elaborate presentations for how bacon, steak and other kinds of meats should be integrated into breakfast cereals and how vegetables and soda could be mixed together for a tasty and nutritious snack. I put enough effort into the drawings that my intentions looked sincere, and when it was my turn to get up in front of the class, I gave each presentation in earnest. No one thought I was an asshole, but they did think I was an idiot.
Needless to say, when it came time to divvy us up at the half-semester point, nobody on the Food project wanted me on their team. I got assigned to the Electronics project, where I actually had some ideas with merit. By the end of that semester, I had some good work I could put in my Book.
Burning the M.I.D.night Oil
I was also getting to learn Alias. You younger designers might not understand why this was so exciting, so I'll try to explain: Everything I'd learned in undergrad, which was the early '90s, was analog. We drafted using a god-damned T-square. We walked around with pencil-lead smears on our sweaty faces. Nobody we knew had this thing called "e-mail." Senior year, when one of our forward-thinking professors announced our final project would have to be done on a computer, all of us groaned, because none of us owned computers. It meant we were gonna have to duke it out over the handful of Mac Quadras in the computer lab.
Now here I was, just a couple of years later, sitting at a top-of-the-line Silicon Graphics workstation. And unlike some of the other grad students who were still working on basic drawing skills, I used the hell out of Alias every chance I got. Every chair in that computer lab knew the shape of my ass, every keyboard was covered in the crumbs of my vending-machine dinners. If the Alias professor taught us up to Chapter Four, I took the book home and read up to Chapter Five. When he showed us how to do something one way, I stayed late to see if I could do it another way. If he told us something wouldn't work, I came back at night to figure out how I could make it work. I had dreams about nurbs, and when I saw a hard corner in real life, I wanted to fillet it.
My Alias skills helped me land a great internship my second semester. It was for [Major Multinational Substance Provider], who happened to be headquartered in Cool City. I got to work on awesome projects for them, mostly for the overseas markets in Europe, Asia and South America, and that overseas stuff was way cooler than anything you'd see in the 'States. I was in hog heaven: I was getting paid $20 an hour to fill up my Book with sweet Alias work. Some of the stuff I wasn't allowed to show, but other stuff I was as long as I blurred out the company's name and changed one or two things.
There Ain't Nothing Super About These Markets
That first year wasn't all smooth sailing. Grad school was really where I formed my enduring hatred for marketers. We had to partner up with marketing students on some of our corporate-sponsored projects. For one project, a company on its way down the drain came to our school, asking for ideas for new products that would reverse their fortunes. Instead of working together with us on this, these idiot marketing students came back with a plan that the company should fire 80% of their staff and close all the satellite offices. But I admit it was kinda funny to see the look on the clients' face when they presented that.
Even worse was that I had to take a Marketing class. (I didn't know much about markets, but I knew a hell of a lot about supermarkets.) We had all these crazy assignments and tests and books we had to read and we had to write business plans—it was real work, man! ID never felt like work to me, but this crap did. I knew then, more than ever, that it was ID or bust for me. And specifically, it was going to be ID at Hot Design.
I scanned the job board in the hallway every week, seeing if Hot Design's name came up for an internship. It never did. Every time we had a guest speaker scheduled, I checked to see if it was anyone from Hot Design. It never was. But I didn't give up hope, and since the Opportunity I'd been hoping for hadn't come up yet, it made me realize something: I'd better be prepared at all times, because it could come up at any second. So I started doing something I'd later pat myself on the back for.
The Portfolio Shelf
Up until then, every time I finished a worthwhile project at my internship, I'd print it out at their offices, since they had an awesome color printer. Back in my dorm these things were sitting in a pile, and I told myself I'd organize them and get them into my portfolio whenever I had time. My studio desk at school had some other stuff for my portfolio that needed to be organized. But now I decided I had to finish my portfolio today. I wanted it ready to go at a moment's notice. I even skipped a class to get it organized by the end of that night, with everything in the perfect order, every last sketch, photograph, wireframe and rendering that showed my skills.
It wasn't perfect. There were some drawings that needed to be reprinted and resized, but I didn't take them out; I left them in and made Post-Its for every single thing that needed to be fixed and stuck those to the outside of the portfolio. I'd reprint at the internship, and when I got the good prints I'd replace the bad.
The last thing I did that night was cut some boards up. It was too late for me to get into the shop so I had to use a Dremel, which was noisy as hell and took forever. But by the end of the night I had a crude shelf-thingy with a railing and some brackets I'd made and I screwed it into the wall. I perched my portfolio onto that.
From that day forth, when I walked into the room my portfolio was the first thing I saw. If it was covered in Post-Its, I knew I had work to do. If it was just that shiny black fake leather with no yellow squares on it, I could relax. But the bottom line is it was always sitting on that shelf, ready to go. I would only take it down to add new projects, and then it went right back up there.
That was towards the end of my first year of grad school. I'd be sticking around for the summer; I'd already lined up another internship at [Manufacturer of Soon-to-be-Obsolete Electronic Products] that paid pretty well.
Far as I was concerned, my plan was going great. My Skills were up, my Book was great, and I knew sooner or later I'd get my Opportunity with Hot Design.
But I had no way of knowing that shortly I would set off a weird chain of events by willingly stabbing somebody in the back.
All specific names, companies, clients, designers, and details will be kept anonymous to protect the innocent. You needn't write the story out; a Core77 Editor will interview you to produce a write-up (and to be sure you ain't pulling the wool over our eyes to win that sweet gift certificate!).