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Interview with Jonathan Patterson

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Fans of Vectortuts+ are certainly familiar with the vector tutorials of Jonathan Patterson. He's obviously a talented vector illustrator, there is however a wide variety of work he produces in addition to his vector artwork. Jonathan is a Michigan native working as a Senior Art Director at an advertising agency. Jonathan has over five years of experience as an art director. He shares with us his experience in the creative industry and how you too can succeed.

Learn tips on presenting your portfolio, landing a job, networking, working at a large versus small ad agency, and more. In this interview, you'll also learn about his range of creative projects, skills needed to be successful in the creative industry, his approach to design, and his inspiration. Let's get to know Jonathan better.

1. Hello Jonathan, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what formal training do you have, and how did you get started in the field?

First, thank you for the opportunity to share some insight about myself!

I've been in Michigan all my life. I grew up in the Metro Detroit area, moved to Grand Rapids for college and back to the Metro Detroit area once I finished school.

I went to Kendall College of Art and Design where I received a BFA in Visual Communications. Previous to college I did receive a certificate of completion from a vocational technical program. I've also taken an ancillary workshop more recently.

I've always been a creative person but it wasn't until my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to make this my career. After that, the hunt was on with respect to how to go about making that happen.

Detroit Electronic Music Festival Campaign

2. What is your current position? How did you land your current job? What advice do you have for young designers looking to get a job at an agency?

Currently, I'm the Senior Art Director at an advertising agency where we do a variety of work including web, print, broadcast, radio, marketing and public relations. I've been there for almost five years.

The first step young designers looking to get a job in the field need to make is ensuring the work they produce is their very best. When I was in school I always got A's and great accolades, but I felt I could still do better. You can't rely solely on your teachers to mold you as a creative person. You need to realize your potential and make every effort to achieve it.

Work on projects that inspire you and only include your best work in your portfolio. If you have a range of projects to pick from, then narrow it down even further to include only the types of projects that you like working on. If you don't like doing logos, don't put those in your portfolio. Employers assume you like working on what you show in your portfolio.

BMW Invitation

3. How does working at a big agency differ from working at a small one?

The agency I work at employs ten people, which is on the smaller side. Previously, I worked at a world-wide agency called JWT with some of its biggest clients being Ford, Domino's and White Castle. I worked on regional print campaigns for Ford.

In a large agency everything is micro-managed. To create a billboard, for example, the creative process is heavily directed. There are account executives (who talk with the client about what they would like to accomplish), proofreaders, photo retouchers and copywriters (who craft all the text including the headline) and of course the creative director, your immediate boss, and person that needs to be satisfied with whatever creative work leaves the agency.

No piece of creative work ever gets in front of the client without a handful of people looking it over and physically signing their name on a print-out of the artwork. Delivering the artwork around the entire office to be signed is handled by yet another person commonly referred to as Traffic.

In a smaller agency many of the above duties would fall on one person's lap. At the agency I work for, I have written my share of tag lines, headlines and body copy. Wearing multiple hats is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives you a greater insight into what it takes to fully create a good final product.

Assorted Vector Illustrations

4. What are the greatest skills one needs to be successful in a design agency? What are some under looked skills that you feel are important? What do you feel makes an effective art director?

Without question, I think the most important skills I possess are creativity, resourcefulness and determination. No matter the project, having this set of skills has always allowed me to get a tough job done. This combination of skills is flexible in that certain times I'll need more creativity and less determination if things are going smoothly, and other times I'll need to work hard to come up with a different way to accomplish a task.

The biggest under looked skill that I think is important is being relevant in the industry, which is really not so much of a skill, rather, a way of being. Since my degree is in visual communications I've had to do a lot of learning on my own about web design and development. In the rapidly changing and competitive world of advertising and design, there is always the need to be current. I think many professionals become stale, rigid and never rise to meet current demands. Learning web design is an omnipresent task that helps keep me in demand and current.

What does it take to be an effective art director? That depends on how the term is defined. In a larger agency an art director primarily comes up with the overall idea and some loose visuals to get their point across. In a smaller agency an art director can create a piece from start to finish, pulling on a wider variety of skills to complete the task. I think what makes an effective art director at a small agency is being able to take direction when needed, but other times conceptualize, articulate and implement an idea by one's self.

Vector Exercise Illustration Series

5. What key connections have you made that have had an influence on your career? What forms of networking or marketing have been effective for you?

While I was in college one of my professors brought in a speaker, Matt Dimmer, to talk to the class about working and getting a job in the real world. I took all the information Matt gave to heart and kept in touch with him. Right after I graduated I sent Matt a sample of my portfolio. Matt worked at JWT and he passed my portfolio over to human resources and what do you know, they called me in for an interview! Although, connections alone don't land you a job, you need to have solid work and present your work in a way that makes it stand out from the mound of other people looking to get the same job as you.

There are two things that have proven very effective for me in getting jobs and freelance projects; disposable portfolios and word of mouth. A disposable portfolio is a piece that you send out, previous to an interview or after an interview, that has samples of your work and your resume. It's disposable because you never receive it back. The trick is making something that's cost-effective enough to produce in mass (20, for example), but unique enough to get you noticed.

Word of mouth is and will always be one of the most effective ways of landing a job or getting a project. This is true at the agency I work for as well. When someone can personally speak for your credibility or skills, it is much more authentic than you saying the same thing about yourself.

Assorted Posters and Ads

6. What pulled you toward vector graphics as an artistic medium for your illustrations? What are your favorite aspects of working with vectors? How do vector graphics fit into the majority of work you do?

When I first started in design I was enamored with Photoshop, as I think most people are. However, after getting my hands on Illustrator, I felt it was easier to create and manipulate a design. I have traditional drawing skills that I pull from and Illustrator is great at extending those skills.

In Illustrator, it's so easy to take simple shapes and turn them into something more. Honestly, one of the main reasons I'm as good as I am now with vector art is that I've created so many tutorials for Vectortuts+! While I did know a lot about vectors before, I essentially force myself to learn even more every time I create a new tutorial.

I use Illustrator for a variety of purposes, mainly website design and logo design, aside from one-off items and tutorials. I find that I create even basic shapes in Illustrator and drop them into other programs like InDesign and Photoshop.

Assorted Logo Designs

7. Do you prefer working on client projects or personal projects? How do you keep your work fresh and effective?

I make a distinction between work that I create for myself and my professional work. The work that I create for my clients can vary from, favorable to boring. When I'm working on a project for someone else I keep in mind the objective that the client wants to accomplish and remind myself that what I'm creating is not a matter of personal creative expression.

Many times a client wants something that I really dislike, but if they insist on it after I give them my professional recommendation and in the end I always give them what they want. That's why it's important for me to create designs and projects where the only person to please is myself. I find it easier to refrain from infusing client projects with other techniques that may not be relevant to their project.

I stay fresh and creative by actively looking at other people's work for inspiration. I'm inspired by not only things in the design industry but by everything around me. Music, movies, nature... it's all inspiration. It's hard to say where exactly inspiration comes from. I find that if I watch a particularly compelling movie, I'm inspired to create a really cool design that usually has nothing to do with what I just watched.

When I think about it more, inspiration also comes from the hard work that I see going into any project, from any industry. I think about how much work goes into creating a cool song, for example, and put equally as much effort into my design projects. It's rather strange when I think about it.

Assorted Logo Designs

8. Is there any project that you're working on that you're excited about?

Thanks for asking! I created what I think is a handy little addition to both Illustrator and Photoshop. I created a simple function that adds greek text to your document. For Illustrator I created an action, for Photoshop it's an actual script.

Greek text is a function of Adobe InDesign that I use regularly and since I do a lot of designing in Illustrator I thought it was something that was definitely needed. Check them out at www.illipsum.com and www.phoipsum.com.

illipsum.com and phoipsum.com Website Design

9. Are there any particular artists or designers that you derive inspiration from or that you consider role models? What consistently inspires you today? What are your favorite websites and books?

I try to surround myself with people that are like-minded and are always looking to progress to the next level. I really think you're only as good as the people around you, not just as it relates to design but also your friends. If your friends aren't so much into bettering themselves or their design skills, you're not likely to either.

There are so many immediate friends and peers that I look up to, that it's difficult to name only a few. To speak specifically about vector artists that I get inspiration from, I've been fascinated with the work that Chihhang produces. His understanding of the human form is translated in what appears to be an effortless execution. I like how he's able to change his style and create different series of illustrations.

I have a range of websites that I visit on pretty much a daily basis. I also do all of my reading online. Aside from the Envato suite of websites, a select few of the sites I visit or have RSS feeds to are:

Assorted Website Designs

10. Could you tell us about a campaign that required you to pull together numerous skills to complete, such as branding, web design, illustration, art direction, or other skills?

Almost all the work I do, especially at my agency, requires a range of skills to complete. One of my favorite campaigns that illustrates this is the one that I did for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (project 1.) That piece was actually created for a contest. Ultimately I didn't win, but I got to flex my creative muscle and create something that was completely my own.

To create the DEMF campaign I first designed the logo, which I dropped the top counter from and enhanced the lower counter to look like a turn table. After that I brainstormed on how I could visually execute a concept that was suited toward an electronic music festival. Ideally I would have had a creative brief from the client to give me more background into what the objectives of the project were, but since this was a competition I had to use my best judgment to fill in the blanks.

The poster was the primary identifying piece that all the other design elements would be based off of. I decided I'd use a photo of an urban guy jumping. I added other objects into the piece like the headphones, light waves and records. After that I layered in the text. Finally, once I had the poster done I transferred that concept over to a t-shirt and dvd cover. When all was said and done, the entire project involved: art direction, design, illustration and production.

Vector Reaper Illustration

11. What's your ideal project mix? Would you rather be creating a brand identity, drawing an illustration, art directing a project, or do you enjoy moving between numerous roles on different projects?

I'd have to say that I enjoy a mix of projects to hold my interest in this field. If I were only working on one thing I would go insane! In addition, my creativity seeps into all areas of my life, from the furniture in my place all the way down to unique Christmas gifts to give to family and friends.

One of my problems is that I want to work on everything! It's a challenge to refrain from starting something new before I finished a previous piece I'm working on. While my focus shifts from one type of project to another, currently I'm more involved with illustrations (both vector and raster) and websites.

I do like logo design very much. I think distilling a concept down to the essential elements and presenting it in a unique way is rewarding. I also like the fact that logo design requires a level of technical prowess as well as illustration skill.

Assorted Vectortuts+ Tutorials

12. Thanks for the interview Jonathan! Is there any advice that you'd like to give aspiring designers who are working hard to grow professionally?

Never give up. You'll hear "no" more than you hear "yes," but don't let that stop you. When you're completely dejected, frustrated and ready to quit, inhale and go at the project even harder!

A mistake is not lost time. Think of it as a way not to do something. Learn from it and improve the next time.

Be able to take constructive criticism. When people give you feedback on your work really listen to what they're saying. Remember that they're not trying to make you feel bad, rather, they are trying to help you. But it's also critical to determine if the person you're seeking feedback from is knowledgeable enough to give good feedback.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a little about myself! Make sure to follow me on Twitter!

Jonathan Patterson.com Website Design

Jonathan Patterson on the Web

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