Creative Director/Founder of Bright Bright Great Jason Schwartz is a mad man – in the best way possible. We talked to him about pretty much EVERYTHING, including how a passion project got him his first job, how to think about your career wholly, and that time he held an estate sale for an elderly woman who didn’t end up dying……. – plus so much more, like so so sooo much more!
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?
There are two distinct reasons why I went into graphic design. The first was being introduced to Garbage Pail Kids on the school bus in 1985. I spent almost the whole trip trading my lunch money to kids on the bus for whatever cards I could get my hands on. The illustrations, layout, colors and feel hooked me. Even at age 5, I was basically like, I want to do this for a living. How can I do this for a living.
My first job (at age 13) was at my uncle’s comic shop, so my fascination with illustrated collectibles continued as pretty serious comic collector. I worked for comics since 13 year olds aren’t legally able to work.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? I actually have 2 degrees in Industrial Design, one from University of Illinois (which focused on the manual skill aspects of design IE model making, marker rendering) and a Masters from University of Kansas (which focused on interaction and really UX from a technical standpoint.)
More interesting was the years that I went through education. I started with no computers in schools in the early 80’s, had basic 2 color early Apple’s mid-80’s but by the time I got to high school, I was the first person in the entire state to touch Adobe Photoshop and use a digital camera in an educational setting. In college, there was only basic internet in certain buildings and cell phones didn’t exist, so my design training was very “traditional” and entirely not tech focused.
I think also being on the tech cusp, but still having had to do everything manually before being able to rely on computers and tech was incredibly valuable. Almost all of those skills are entirely missing now in higher ed since computers can automate a lot of that stuff.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I had an incredibly difficult time breaking into the industry. After my undergrad, I couldn’t find a design job for a year (this was also 2001, so the country essentially went into panic mode after September and no companies were hiring since the economy was shaken.)
During that year I started 3-4 passion projects which ended up being what got me into my Master’s program AND ended up getting me my first job.
After my Master’s finding a job was still pretty rough. I worked in education, sold oil changes door to door (which was pitched as “marketing”), was a nanny, worked at a movie studio, was a personal assistant and even held an estate sale for an elderly woman who didn’t end up dying (I was hired by her family). All while sending out resumes every day and just trying to make something happen.
My first job was at a tech start-up where I was essentially the designer, UX specialist, UI creator, marketer, front-end developer as well as all of the companies basic needs like shipping/receiving guy, operator, etc. It was like an explosion of business for good and for bad.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. When I first started out I did all of the design for BBG. Design, Illustration, Assets, etc. As we grew my role almost solely became focused on the creative around building our brand as well as handling the business operations, which although sounds boring, keeping your personal brand on point is probably one of the most important things in business as an agency.
Those who never engage the community, are social, present work and solutions and just flat out are a part of pushing design thinking and creative forward will just appear crusty.
We have 4 internal brands, keeping those on point is a full time job on it’s own.
Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?) This is hands down the most important thing any designer/creative can do.
I want to be clear that I come at this from the company standpoint at this point in my career and not as a designer. First off, ALL designers should be seeking incredible opportunities to grow no matter what that is. This part of your career will teach you how to be a designer in a business setting, and not a student designer where reviews are topical and no one wants to hurt each other’s feelings.
The real world is a hard place. Clients will tell you that you suck if they think so. (That may not mean you suck, but try as hard as you can to be educated how to handle those situations.) The design world is also an even tougher place because what we do is subjective. You need to learn how to educate clients on the value of design and what you bring to them as well as how to handle a situation where design can cycle ad infinitum because everyone on the project brings their own subjective opinions to the table.
I am in a VERY unpopular spot saying that personally, if the right learning opportunity arises, even if unpaid, I take it to grow. You literally just paid a college $100,000 to $200,000 and you are going to complain that someone will teach you incredible amounts of skills for free and share all of their expertise with you? Oh dear lord, the horror. Anyway, I’m aware that unpaid internships in the USA are illegal now, people still do them, but trust me when I tell you that the bulk of the value is for the Intern. Internships that cannot provide immense amount of education and value for the intern should be avoided.
Yes, we pay our interns (we run an Apprenticeship program.) Yes, you can find information about who we tend to look for here: brightbrightgreat.com
Any passion projects you would like to share? BBG is also Avondale Type Co., Mlmtr and 2 Night Stand.
Avondale Type Co. is a type foundry that we run. We currently have about 10 different typefaces we’ve designed over the last few years. We also have an EXCELLENT ATC Artist Series happening with incredibly talented illustrators from around the world.
Mlmtr is BBG’s photography house. We have been exploring cities all over the world and taking amazing photos to share with our community. We have been building a community with the hashtag #mlmtr for over a year.
2 Night Stand is our client-less design hackathon. We are slated to announce a Fall 2016 event in the next month.
Tell us about any collaborations you have been working on. My favorite collaboration of the past few years has been with my wife Amy Nicole Schwartz (Design Director at Cards Against Humanity) and Antonio García (formerly gravitytank and now leads strategy at Northern Trust) on a horror movie marathon event called Cinema of the Sick. It’s an underground horror movie marathon. The project is not for a client, makes no money, does not give any of the three of us internet fame, but it’s something that we all love.
Last year was the 10th year of the event and we all just horror movies. Projects like this are always the most fulfilling for me at this point in my career. I don’t need to be the featured speaker at events anymore. I don’t care about Dribbble likes. I just want to make things that excite me and keep me excited.
What have been some of your biggest disasters and how have you learnt from it? This isn’t a question that can be answered in a few paragraphs, but probably the most important to the design community to discuss openly. There are so many factors to what we do for a living and how we can control keeping them as positive experiences. Fixed projects vs. hourly work, creating a team, in-house vs. product vs. agency, the list can go on forever.
The main thing I can tell you after working in this space for 17 years is that almost everyone I talk to who has been doing this a while thinks that their way is the best over time. I can also tell you that everyone, even after 15 years STILL has disasters because even if YOU have learned from a past experience, each client you work with is fresh and new and you haven’t worked through this with THEM.
(Side note: some clients will always be disasters and there is nothing you, or any other designer could’ve done about it. It’s what they bring to the table.)
My biggest piece of advice here is learn from both your successes AND failures and always be updating your process to be the best for you personally. Never stop updating this process. Your process will mitigate the quantity of disasters over time.
What advice would you give students starting out? 1. Make sure that your understanding of the basic principles of design are hammered out within your education and first few years in the industry. Color, type, balance, art direction, etc. all of these are mission critical for any designer in our field. You should demonstrate EXPERT-level understanding within the first 5 years of your career.
2. Be a brand. Have a perspective as to who you are in the creative space and where you are going. This can absolutely change over time, but if your skill set is understanding the basic principles of design PLUS being able to lay out a hipster X logo, or Twitter bootstrap website, why are you different than the 50,000 other working designers. Your personal brand needs to be unique.
3. Know what you want to do for a living. I don’t mean this solely in terms of skills, I mean in life. That will be double fulfilling for you. I know what I like: horror movies, comics, Garbage Pail Kids, etc. so I seek out creative opportunities to bring those elements to my day job. Love sports, find a team or company that does that. Love pets, work in that space; you’ll probably get to pet some dogs during your work day.
Think about your career wholly, not just “I need a job.” If you can’t make that happen for your first job, plan for that for your second.