33: Insights from an Intern[ship]
Posted on: April 28, 2009 /
For the past semester, biplane productions has hosted a Liberty University internship for Garret Giesler, a talented college senior about to head into the job market. Every weekday, from two to five, I’ve had a paid accomplice in my random acts of auction marketing.
While internships by nature provide practical education for aspiring undergrads, the process was not without lessons for me. In addition to the adjustments of having a second work station in my office, a second paycheck to write, and an embargo on afternoon naps, I managed to grab some self-awareness and with that more than a cost/benefit analysis. Here are the main insights I gained from the experience.
Teaching what you do codifies your motives and methods.
I love teaching and enjoy giving seminars. If it weren’t for the bureaucracy of the education system, I wouldn’t mind making professorship my career parachute (especially in a great town with at least 7 college campuses). Even more, I love taking people on my adventures and seeing their sense of accomplishment grow. Garret’s internship proved both a senior-level class and a bit of an adventure (read his take on the experience below).
For Garret to be useful to biplane, I needed to explain:
the design principles that guide my art,
the strategies I employ with my working relationships and business planning,
the methods I use to organize the 300 projects annually on my plate,
the reasons that specific tasks are (or are not) important,
and the brand heritage my clients and/or I’ve built.
Find an overflow valve.
In 2008, about 89% of biplane‘s revenue originated from auction campaigns (up from 85% in 2007 and 79% in 2006). I like it that way. For auction projects, I charge flat fees. So, the faster I work, the more I make an hour. Auction projects are easier to estimate time and costs, and they get off my desk and into invoices faster. But to be a fuller-service vendor for my clients, I need to be able to create proposals, promotional media, and non-auction collateral.
Normally, during my spring and autumn busy seasons, these ancillary projects get pushed beyond the back burner, almost as far as biplane‘s in-house projects. Garret’s talent and availability allowed me to delegate, focusing my time on my core efficiencies. I was better able to serve my clients by bringing an extra servant to the table. I don’t have (or want) enough of this work to hire an employee or subcontractor, but Garret’s work shortened my overall task list and lessened the “regret stress” I carry when I can’t get to a project that’s important but less urgent than my auction deadlines.
Reflect on your journey.
One of Garret’s tasks was organizing my archives of print pieces. I have to admit, I was embarrassed by some of the pieces he found—even more so when I opened the portfolio binders of my pre-biplane work. I remember when I thought that stuff was top notch, when I worked for those now-gone clients, when I learned the lessons that shaped my career. Humbling, it gave perspective on the journey to April, 2009. I came into the auction industry having never sent a single project to press or an ad to a publication. I do one of those tasks almost every day—and over 1,200 times a year. I’ve learned a lot at the expense of others, as well as my wallet. This process required me to take myself less seriously.
I can never take more than partial credit for biplane‘s altitude. The list of meaningful, irrefutable contributors to my success and accomplished dreams grows proportional to my gratitude. I think about the risk people like Gene Klingman have taken on me, the patience entrepreneurs like Rex Schrader have extended to me, the advice my elders have passed to me, the referrals and forgiveness my clients have doled to me, the God who dreams bigger than I do, and the parents who invested the intangible in me.
I found a sense of contribution to the circle of life in helping Garret obtain his needful academic credits and desired real-world experience. (Surprisingly, biplane was the only ad agency in Lynchburg to even return Garret’s internship inquiry.) I was also able to use Garret’s much lower hourly costs to save my clients’ money on their projects. biplane also was able to donate some of his inexpensive time for free projects—illustrating my gratitude to clients and adding value to their relationship with biplane.
Results may vary with your internship (or similar) experiment. But you’d be hard pressed to get more from a $1,500 professional consultation than I got from 180 hours with a college student.
You’ve probably heard it, too: “If you want to learn something, teach it.” As the oldest sibling in a home school family, I learned that lesson early but never as much as in the last two years. My church—sans any “revival” services or contest-like attendance drives—has recently seen about 300 people begin personal relationships with Jesus. That’s about 15-20% of the adult population in our assembly who are new believers from the ranks of atheists, addicts, and religious refugees.
The challenge for our leadership has been, “How do we disciple—nurture, guide, and grow—this influx?” The adopted solution for this “good problem to have” has been to match them with Christians who’ve been on the journey longer, even if only by a few months. We “big brothers” are to walk along side them, text/call/Facebook them, meet over meals, introduce them to new church environments—to invite them into our lives and just share our journey. I’ve got several big brothers reaching hands down on one side and several little brothers reaching up on the other.
This conduit style of ministry has drastically redirected my personal walk with Christ, as I’ve had to codify my operating principles and disclose my own spiritual junk. I’ve felt encouragement at the highest levels from newbies and accountability from both ends of the deal. My prayer life has changed, as I have to ask God to give me a plan to bless rather than to bless my plans. It’s been a sacrifice of time, money, and energy; but the intangible reward has proven priceless.
VCAR 499 : Internship Paper
Not Exaclty Biplanes
Biplane Productions does not produce biplanes. Instead, Biplane owner and proprietor Ryan George spends his day making junk mail. You know, the advertising you pull out of your mailbox that says “to our neighbors at (insert your address here).” The garbage that sits on your counter until you open it, peruse it, then toss it in the trash. That junk mail. So what does a young, mostly inexperienced college student learn from a guy that makes trash all day?
I spent my semester working with Ryan George, a graduate of Pensacola Christian College, in his basement office. Ryan, creator of Biplane Productions, does full service design for auctioneers in forty states. His services range from simple newspaper “camera-ready” ads to complex 12 page brochures, presentation folders and more. More importantly, however, is his commitment to providing complete service to his clients.
Ryan markets himself as the premiere auction designer, and his work evidences this. As such, he offers everything an auctioneer would need to market his auction: he acquires mailing lists for direct mail pieces, he communicates with newspapers or magazines for advertisement placement, including ad sizes. He will even provide printing, without markup, through his friends at Shearer Printing.
Perhaps what makes Ryan so valuable to his clients is his speed and his knowledge of the industry. Ryan understands auctions and how they operate; he knows that his clients need a fast turnaround. He also is able to help auctioneers produce attractive marketing pieces without sacrificing vital information.
While working with Ryan, I was able to work on a number of projects, ranging from magazine advertisements to “live” auction brochures. “Live,” in this sense, means the piece is for an auction that is coming up. With these pieces, the designer only gets a few days to have it completed and make any requested changes. The piece must be sent to the printer by a certain date, because the material needs to be available to the targeted audience several days before the auction. All of these things mean you only have one shot to get it right: there is not time to provide the client with 3 concepts before fully developing one.
A lot of weight is put on web design these days. The average graphics position requires fairly extensive knowledge of web development and design, in addition to a thorough knowledge of print design, down to the details of how the piece will be formatted and sent to the printer. The average designer, then, needs to know print and web formats. I was fortunate that during my work with Ryan I got to work with a number of media. Obviously I did print, but I also created some web banner ads, and even some t-shirt and package design. Since the typical designer needs to know how to work with multiple formats, it was rewarding to get those experiences.
A surprising amount of organizing is required for the average designer, especially one like Ryan. One of my daily duties, when my projects were completed, was to work on organizing and databasing media information. This mostly meant taking current information about various newspapers, such as contact information and best day to advertise in them, and consolidating it into an easy to understand spreadsheet. In doing this somewhat menial task on a regular basis, I learned two things: first, there is a lot of thought that goes into ad placement in your local newspaper. As a designer, you need to know the column sizes, price per column inch (pci), which days are best for targeting your intended audience, and more. The second thing I learned is that sometimes, being a “designer” include doing some less than exciting work – from research to data entry to make future work easier.
Another duty that came later in the semester was the organization of sample artwork. Ryan mostly makes direct mail pieces, so when Ryan looks to gain new clients, he sends them samples of his direct mail pieces. He receives his pieces – those that have not been stamped and mailed – in bulk, and much of his “portfolio” of current work was jumbled in file cabinets. Part of my task was to organize it by type, such as 2 page brochure, 4 page, 4 page cover stock, 8+ page; I then grouped them by auction, so if one piece was effective he could quickly retrieve it and send it to a client. If a piece was not to his liking, or simply not his best work, he was able to throw it away without sifting through his good work.
I also organized his pieces that will be submitted to the National Auctioneers Association advertising contest. Ryan is an award-winning designer, with 40 national and over 50 state awards, plus an international award. Every year, offers his clients free entry to the competition. This service generally costs Ryan a significant amount of unpaid work, but it helps him and clients win awards. This year, I was able to help him by obtaining, grouping, preparing and mailing the entries.
Working with Ryan, I learned a plethora about how a design studio works, especially a smaller, freelance-like studio. The first thing I learned about being a professional designer is that you must be organized. Ryan is incredibly well organized, which is a significant part of how he juggles his dozens of different projects each week. While the average agency may have a month to complete the advertising and marketing for a client, Ryan has about two days. He also usually has multiple clients’ work on his desk at a time, and has to complete projects, sometimes based on date of the upcoming auction, rather than when the project came in. I learned that to keep up with multiple accounts, you have to be careful, organized, clear, and quick.
Another crucial element to having a career in design, especially one of freelancing or starting your own studio, is the importance of finding a niche. Initially, I approached design with a need to be diverse, to be able to do whatever is sent my way. While that can be good, it can be better to limit yourself. Ryan almost exclusively works for auctioneers. He does this because by finding his niche, he has been able to become one of very few agencies with a target market of auctioneers, few of which are able to provide high quality full service. By finding a niche, such as the auction market, you can learn the industry and familiarize yourself with its jargon. Simply put, if you get what your clients are talking about, you can be more efficient for both yourself and them. Also, the pieces that you create will be more relevant to your clients’ audience. Indeed, efficiency equals paycheck when you freelance or own your own studio.
Perhaps the most significant lesson I learned from Ryan is that there is a lot more to being a graphic designer than just doing design work. Graphic design is not about being exceptionally creative or expressive like traditional art forms. Rather, it is about exceptional communication. Design is by and large a commercial art form. What that means is that for your work to be effective, it needs to be more than just pretty. It needs to say clearly what is intended. Design and advertising are really inseparable here; every piece needs to be attractive, but more importantly it needs to serve its purpose. Ryan, who’s degree is actually in writing, compared the two. If someone writes a book, or a blog, or an article, the goal is for the piece to be read. If the piece is not read, it fails. Similarly, if a design piece looks good but does not elicit a reaction – such as purchasing an item, or whatever the goal was – the piece has not succeeded. Ultimately, commercial art must be created with the user in mind.
The design world is also evolving. If the designer just wants to design, he will have to compete with other designers and there is no guarantee that clients will return. While working with Ryan, we researched an article from Forbes.com; the article talks about CrowdSpring.com, a website that allows freelance designers to compete for work. The site, in brief, has clients put up rough specs for any design work they need. Designers then upload as many complete versions as they want – they do all the design work with no promise of payment. The client then chooses which piece they like the most, and pays the winning designer. The lesson from this is that if the designer wants to keep clients, the designer needs to be able to offer more than just good design. Otherwise, they will spend a lot of time doing unrewarded work.
The effective designer has a number of jobs beyond designing. Ryan showed me this through how he runs his business. On top of the obvious, graphic artists also have to be effective communicators. They have to speak with clients, with vendors such as printers, webmasters, or newspapers. They have to budget. This can mean time, as every designer needs to carefully manage their time, so as to stay on task and maintain efficiency and quality. Many designers, especially freelancers and owners like Ryan, have to budget finances too. Ryan has to calculate his clients’ marketing budget, and often has to figure in printing or publishing costs, and sometimes has to pay his vendors before he gets his paychecks. Since Ryan runs a business by himself, he has to calculate expenditures on a project to project basis for multiple accounts. He has to balance his accounts receivable and accounts payable; much of this kind of accounting work is not taught in art school. He also has to communicate with an accountant to make sure his numbers are accurate and legal. Ryan has to make sure his clients pay him, too, because he often has expenditures to pay off that were incurred by the clients, such as printing costs. He does this by sending out invoices and keeping track of who owes him for his services.
It is important to offer quality service to clients and customers, especially as the design world becomes more and more competitive. Mark Henricks, in the April 2009 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine, wrote that the number one growing sector in the US market is the service sector. There are many types of services, but being able to offer clients all the extras, such as coordinating newspaper advertising placement, brokering printing, and researching target audiences in addition to providing stellar design will make your value as a designer increase.
Ryan is a designer. But as you can see, there is a lot more than what meets the eye to a career in graphic design. A lot of the work that is required to be effective and efficient is not taught in school; indeed I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work so closely with Ryan and to learn some of the less exciting but equally necessary aspects.
[footer]http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0216/062_print.html. “The Creativity of Crowds,” Christopher Steiner, 02/16/09
“10 Sectors Poised for Growth” by Mark Henricks, Entrepreneur Magazine, April 2009[/footer]