Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

On National Backwards Day with Bond, Proof, The Refinery and Rhubarb

My company name is Greenlight. It conveys forward movement. Not like an everyday traffic signal, but more like a "congrats, your project just got a greenlight." From day one I've been all about moving forward, even if it first means moving backwards.

My progress and process have never followed a linear path. I went to college in New York for fashion design, only to return to California for entertainment design. I started a design agency because I loved to create with paper—Greenlight just wrapped up a campaign with over 500 digital assets, including motion graphics around Times Square (not a scrap of paper in site). One medium, one direction… inspires another.

I've learned that as long as I'm moving forward, I always get to where I'm supposed to be.

To celebrate #nationalbackwardsday today, I asked fellow agency owners to reflect on their careers and the start of their marketing companies.

Andrew Irving, chief creative officer of Rhubarb

The times that I've made the biggest strides in my career are the times when I did things backwards.

Five years ago, I made a leap of faith and left the relative comfort and security of my previous job. Without any clients lined up, without hiring any employees, and not really knowing what I was doing, I started my own agency, Rhubarb. With a blank portfolio, I was able to consciously choose what clients we wanted to work with, and what kind of art we wanted to create to represent the new agency. We were able to strategically build a dream team from the ground up.

Going backwards—starting from scratch—allowed me to reflect and reimagine what an agency could be. And that has made all the difference. 

Brian Setzer, co-owner of BOND

Retirement done backwards.

After graduate school, I was living in Sweden and fell into opening a bakery that sold American baked goods to the local cafes. My gloriously simple and fulfilling daily routine went something like—frosting, baking, Volvo-ing, nature-walking, fika-ing with friends, bicycling, sleeping, repeat. I'm constantly told that I was living other people's dream life as a retiree. However, discontent in my contentment, I decided I needed to "do something with my education." Fast forward to moving to Los Angeles and getting a temp job as a coordinator at Creative Domain. That temp job turned into a full time job in which I learned a lot, met many great people, and set me on a path to starting BOND 10 years ago with my awesome partners. I'm grateful for the unconventional order of my life as it's given me a valuable perspective on where the grass is greenest. 

Adam Waldman, owner and creative director of The Refinery

I found this career path late in my schooling, as so many of us did. I didn't have a design education to speak of, but had a passion for film, key art and visual communication. So I had to find my way in without an education, and figure out what good design looked like once I found my place.

When first beginning to interview for an entry-level role in the industry, I took a reactive approach to positioning myself and my portfolio. I went around town with a book of low-budget (1- and 2-color printed) design work that I had been commissioned to do by friends, or done as school assignments. And every agency I met with (rightly) rejected me, based on what I was showing.

Finally, at the end of another failed interview, I asked if it would make a difference if I was showing key art instead (seems fairly obvious in hindsight).

With the door to a re-interview left open, I spent a holiday weekend completely re-inventing my portfolio, and my career. In three days, I generated a completely new portfolio of key art for movies I made up, using my own photography.  

That shift to being proactive in the face of rejection made the difference in my career and my life. At the time, skill in Photoshop was more rare than it is today; my base-level understanding of the software was enough to catch the eyes of several agencies. Within a week of my portfolio reinvention, I had three offers of work to pick from. 

From there, my education and understanding of how to design really began. I consider those first steps on this journey the true beginning of my education. And they would never have happened if I hadn't been willing to throw away years of work that I was proud of, to move backwards and reinvent myself for my audience.

Derek Shields, CEO of Proof Creative Group

The only thing I can think of that might be seen as a backwards move that pushed my career forward was that I took an interview and said I had qualifications I did not actually have.

It was 1991 and I had met with then vice president of marketing at The Walt Disney Studios. The VP was originally from New York like myself and he gave me an interview. Sure... at the time I could come up with concepts, design logos and develop flyers and even sketch a little bit but this was The Walt Disney Studios... I was a bit intimidated to say the least.

I had spent a considerable amount of time putting together my portfolio (mind you, this was the early '90s so this was an actual giant leather bound portfolio, the kind filled with plastic clear sheet protectors to present your work in. I was very nervous after missing my first interview but he gave me yet another opportunity to meet with him at his office on a Saturday and bring my portfolio. During the interview, he asked me if I was familiar with this new thing called "desktop publishing" and if I had any experience? He said the company was investing in a few Apple computers dedicated to design and starting a new department. Although I was familiar with the first Apple computer ("Lisa") and had been to Kinko's pecking at the keyboards, I really had no experience with not only the computers but any of the software we would come to use today like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign... but there I was... faced with his question.

Well, I said, actually, I am very well versed with designing on a Mac computer and would welcome the opportunity to help build this new division. Shortly thereafter I was hired and met the likes of Tony Sella, Michael Curtis, Gregg Higgins, Daniel Clark, Fred Tio and many others that would influence my early career. I found myself not only learning on cutting-edge technology but getting to design newspaper and academy ads as well as one-sheets and creating color separations from digital files. I worked 80 hours a week for a while just to continue learning. After a few months I truly became proficient on the computer and we even had a NeXT computer that we played around with. Macs would soon take over the Quantel Paintbox, which had started to become the standard for hi-res digital files. Ultimately our little department was saving the company a lot of money and I soon found myself signing a contract to stay on. I ended up working for the studio for 10 years developing a ton of movie campaigns for live action and animated feature films.

My backwards fashion approach to landing a job, or maybe you can say I stretched the truth a little, has given me the belief in myself to make it in this crazy town. It's the willingness to "fake it till you make it" backing up the talk, "putting your money where your mouth is" and never stopping 'til you achieve what you know you're capable of.

Happy #nationalbackwardsday

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Tami Shelly
Tami Shelly is partner and creative director of Greenlight Creative Inc.

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