Featured Studios

Black Belt Agency

December 2015

We get the pleasure of talking shop Aaron Rayburn of Black Belt Agency. Aaron tells us how his creativity saved his Mom's life, gives some great advice for all you students out there and informs us on the internship program that they run :) Some seriously hot work. 

What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design?

My first influential design project was convincing my mother not to go sky-diving when I was eight. I made an illustration of her sky-diving, and me VERY sad, on the ground, exclaiming “Mom, no!” She saw it, changed her mind, and didn’t sky-dive. I realized the power of design, and obviously saved my mothers life! My earliest creative work though, started as deviant behavior, in the school classroom - drawing on desks, not listening to lectures, while doodling in the margins. I was often scolded “Aaron, this is not an art class!” - in such a way as to belittle art class. I kept on doodling though! I still am. I made the decision long ago that everything is an art class. So next time a teacher/boss/sassy mom says to you “this is not an art class” you can respond with “my life is a work of art, let me live my life!” It’ll work out just fine. I promise. It may take a couple decades, but they will understand in time.

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I studied at Portland State University, and feel very fortunate to have found such a fantastically connected program with such attentive faculty. I had such a fabulous time in the design program there that I often fantasize about registering as a freshman again. My first jobs were the typical family-friend-favor gigs. Which were not rewarding or empowering. So I made my own luck and started looking for an ACTUAL design gig with the word “designer” in the job title. Finding the perfect mix of empowering/challenging in a design studio can take a few years. Many places are actually disempowering to designers, and I feel blessed to have been able to work at these sort of places to discover what I DON’T want in a workplace. I started out on-campus as a student designer, then moved into a real-deal design + communication studio, with a focus on advertising. I cut my teeth, got put under pressure, was asked to do more than I knew how to do, and grew! Over 18 months I was exposed to a fabulous level of professionalism and craft. Then I decided to make some more luck for myself and focused on a larger firm, and worked for a year in an advertising design studio. After that, I decided it was time to be independent, and have been for the past 4.5 years! Now I can make my own rainbows, and invoice people for them!

What does a typical working day include for you right now?

Arise from bed like a jolt of lightning has just struck my face.

Start a Snapchat story about what is happening that day. Hydrate. Wiggle/dance in the mirror. Walk 7 blocks to my design studio, through leafy NW Portland. Try to pick up my red dog’s fresh poop, while she chases a squirrel. Arrive at my coffee shop with a fist full of high fives and giggles. Spend 5-10 minutes sipping a fresh Cortado outside, surveying NW 13th Avenue with my beady eyes. Descend into my basement studio, make a list, and start clicking my mouse. Look at internet. Get moved. Click my mouse. Make some art. Put fresh batteries in my mouse. Work till 8pm. Dance my way home. Watch a nature documentary. Cuddle with my red dog.  Get unconscious.

Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?)

Interns are very special people. I feel at my best when I am empowering creativity in others, and a good intern allows that to happen. Internships can be fabulously rewarding for both parties. I feel fortunate to currently have a sassy, no B.S. intern from Portland State University, on her 2nd 90-day session with my studio. If an intern leaves my studio empowered, confident, and ready to shake up the local industry, I feel like I have done my job.  And yes, my studio takes interns currently. And we even pay! In actual US currency! You, too, can come make rainbows and crystals in a studio filled with rainbows and crystals. 

What career advice would you give your 16yr old self?

1. Make more work, ya dummy!
2. Be different, even if it’s scary.
3. Get out of that sleepy suburb immediately.
4. Look at art everyday as a habit.
5. Surround yourself with people who live in the foreground.

What advice would you give students starting out?

1. I see many students still sticking to traditional roles assigned to them as designers or creatives. I say shake all that up. The way you can shake that up is by increasing the quantity of skills you have.
2. Spend time in new software, foreign programs, odd crafts. Get lost in cross-disciplinary ways of thinking.
3. Just graduating with the Adobe Suite is no longer going to give you advantages in life. There are 12 year olds that can out-Adobe you. Get the skills that actually give you advantage over what the industry expects, and you’ll be amazed at what happens to your career.
4. In specific terms, I’m talking about teaching yourself 3D programs, film editing programs, music editing programs, and hand crafts from weaving to curating gemstones. Get specific, get weird, get working.
5. Also really start to understand photography. Spend time in a photo studio if possible, to see how light is handled. This will greatly empower your ability to show your own work.
6. And, as always, stay curious. 

Website  blackbelt.agency
Instagram  @ac_rayburn
Twitter  @B_B_D_A


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