grab bag blog

This is where I talk about my work, my discoveries, my creative process, and the ins and outs of marketing in the arts.

There Is No “Right” Way

April 10, 2015

Filed under:

freelance life, wisdom

Almost every year, I volunteer for Junior Achievement’s Career Day. I go to a local high school and talk about what it’s like to be a graphic designer and what education is needed if the kids are interested. This year, though, I didn’t volunteer at a high school– I ended up giving six talks at a middle school. I had rotating classes of about 20 kids, most of which had only a vague idea about what “graphic design” is. Which is totally fair because graphic design is a huge industry with a lot of different jobs in it.

At the high schools, I was used to just showing off some work and having a Q-and-A session, but these kids were only 13 or 14 years old, and just talking about what I do would have been so incredible boring. I get it. Luckily, my fiance has taught middle school and helped me come up with an activity plan.

This part year, I had the unique opportunity to design two very different marketing images for the exact same show: Goldilocks and the Three Bears by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. I first designed the show for Chicago’s Emerald City Theatre, then I was contacted by the authors themselves who asked me to design artwork that was similar to previous art I’d done for Emerald City for their show The Three Little Pigs. The style of these two projects were very different, and this inspired me to have the kids design their own posters to see how different they would all end up being.

Variation Within Constraints

Every project has boundaries and requirements, and after giving them the story synopsis, I laid these boundaries out for the kids:

  • The poster must include the title “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”
  • It must include the tagline “A musical that’s just right.” (not the actual tagline for the show; I just made it up)
  • It must include the website for the theatre: “”
  • It has to incorporate the color green.
Godlilocks middle school poster 1
Godlilocks middle school poster 2

Many of the kids complained that they couldn’t draw, which I quickly dismissed. I showed them my own sketchbooks and told them that this wasn’t about making a polished piece, it was about sketching ideas and being comfortable communicating visually. And if they really didn’t like drawing, then they needed to make the best title arrangement they could.

On the whole, the assignment was pretty successful and the kids enjoyed it, even though each class only had about 15 minutes to work. In the over 100 posters I saw that day, there were only a few common elements that popped up again and again. For example, a lot of kids drew at least part of the title in yellow. More interesting was the variety of ideas: some kids worked with their paper turned landscape, while other worked in portrait; some illustrated full scenes, others showed only one or two characters; some spelled out “three” while other used the number 3.

Take Away

At the end of the lesson, after showing them my own takes on the idea, I emphasized that there was no right or wrong way to do this assignment. For every idea and every artistic style, there is a client looking for exactly that. Why spend your life trying to chase what you think other people want you to be? Just be yourself!

In my case, I know I’ll never be a mainstream comic artist; I don’t possess the aptitude to draw like Greg Capullo or Jim Lee. But I can draw in a more exaggerated and cartoony style, and I know there are clients out there looking for exactly that. I’ve learned this lesson: don’t compete with the people who naturally do something better than you. Find the thing that you naturally excel at and dominate that niche. It will make you happier and make your life much easier.

I grumble and complain sometimes about doing these Career Days, but that’s mainly because they make me nervous and I hate getting up early in the morning. But at the end of the day, when I’ve been able to inspire those artists and designers who are coming up behind me, it’s always worth it. What do you do to give back to your community and your industry?


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    I am so privileged to have you as an illustrator for my ideas who is so committed to his own authentic creativity..which he instils in others. Thanks for such a great lesson…we don’t have to be teenagers to learn from this advice.

    Comment by Marguerite Callaway on May 1, 2015 at 3:40 pm