Casey Martin didn’t go to design school, he's education came from saying “yes” to any project. Casey tells us how he started working as an executive assistant by day, and moonlighted as a production designer for the in-house design team at the ad agency he worked at, before becoming a full-time designer. He also explains how being a graphic designer isn't about being a self-indulgent creative.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?
I was pretty serious about golf, and played competitively throughout college. At that point in my life I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do yet, but marketing seemed fascinating to me. So I studied marketing and business administration. After graduation, I moved to Chicago for an internship at a big ad agency. And once I’d been exposed to creativity in business, I was hooked.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
I was offered a full time position at the ad agency as an executive assistant, basically traveling with the C-suite for new business pitches. Staying up all night to lay out pitch presentations gave me a taste of design. After that, I wanted more. So when I learned that the in-house design team was shorthanded for a big project and needed help, I saw it as an opportunity to work with real designers and immediately volunteered. For the next 18 months, I worked as an executive assistant by day, and moonlighted as a production designer for the in-house design team, taking on any work I could. In a sense it was like an apprenticeship, giving me a hands-on education from incredibly talented people. And little by little, I built a portfolio. Eventually I made my way onto the design team, full-time. It was definitely a long and challenging path. But it led me to where I am today, doing work I absolutely love.
Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?)
You know, I don’t have a design degree myself. And if I’d known I’d fall in love with design, I think I might’ve pursued one when I was younger. But apart from the formal classroom education, I think the most important way to grow and develop as a designer is through on-the-job work. Society used to value apprenticeships so much more – especially for any profession concerned with craft. I think internships are a fairly close analog. And certainly my life and career were hugely impacted by this sort of training. So, I think internships are invaluable to aspiring designers. When I take on an intern, technical skills are definitely important…but those can be taught. I more look for people with good attitudes, who want to learn, and who possess a killer work ethic.
What career advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Time is absolutely invaluable, so I think I’d try to turn 16-year-old Casey onto design earlier. Starting at 22 or 23 meant that precious time had passed, and when I look back I can’t help but think I could’ve been learning so much, starting to build my skills, finding my artistic voice and building confidence. I’d tell my younger self that every experience might be your chance. I didn’t go to design school, so my education came from saying “yes” to any project, any person, and any opportunity that came my way. Every opportunity can be learned from. I’d encourage myself to jump in.
What do you think the design community could do more of to give back?
I think the greatest thing we can do as designers is educate. I’m not saying we teach all the people in our lives how to pick up a pen and draw, or how to use Illustrator or anything – I’m talking about educating the people around you on how design affects just about everything in our lives. Product design shapes how things work, and even how they wind up being used. Graphic design directs the aesthetics we see in art and film and business. I think that if everybody was more conscious of the role design plays in humanity and that it’s not just self-indulgent creativity, we would collectively move toward better communication, objects and commerce, ideas. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about everything in our lives could improve.
Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if and how it shapes your practice?
I am. There’s a VC group called Designer Fund that focuses specifically on designer-founded businesses. Two years ago, on a whim, I applied for a program they run called Bridge, which connects designers with top startups in SF. And every week, members attend workshops, dinners, and lectures that help propel their design careers. That’s what brought me out to California. I worked for a bit as an in-house designer, and it was fascinating. It exposed me to how things actually run on the client side. Ultimately I realized in-house wasn’t a fit for me. But it shaped my conviction in a collaborative approach, where clients benefit enormously from an outside, brand-centric perspective. It’s a way of building a brand organically, but in a way that avoids an echo chamber and allows us to continue evolving the brand together. As for Bridge: I can’t say enough about how important it’s been to have a tight-knit creative family. The support, the lessons I’ve learned from some of Silicon Valley’s best minds, and the focus on reinvesting in the design community are incredible. I wouldn’t be doing what I am now without that experience.
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