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Did you always want to work in advertising and design? When I was in the ninth grade, I remember riding my bike past an outdoor billboard. It showed track and field athlete Carl Lewis leaping across a blue sky with just a Nike logo in the corner. I got off my bike, stared at it and knew right then that I wanted to do that, even though I didn’t know what that was. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have two amazing high school art teachers—Mr. Citrin and Mrs. Nichols—who told me that an art director and copywriter had created that billboard, opening up my world to advertising and design. They granted me the Saturday High scholarship to attend courses in art and design at the ArtCenter College of Design, and that changed my life. I ended up going to ArtCenter for college and never had so much fun while working so hard in my life.

What first inspired you to open your advertising and design portfolio school, the Austin Creative Department? I’ve always loved teaching. I taught at the Academy of Art University when I worked in San Francisco. I also taught a six-week workshop at a college in Austin, Texas. At the end of that workshop, I was asked if I was interested in teaching a full-time course while keeping my day job as a creative director at Austin-based ad agency GSD&M. I jumped at the opportunity but was ultimately rejected because I didn’t have a master’s degree. That stung. Here I was, an art director with twenty years of experience, yet I wasn’t qualified to teach because I wasn’t book smart. To me, it was just one more thing that I saw was wrong with parts of higher education.

I decided then to create a school where I could do things on my own terms. I wanted to create something nimble and free of bureaucracy where students’ success was the ultimate priority.
Access to quality education should not be limited to just the financial elite, which is what’s happening.”

The logo for the Austin Creative Department has a backwards R, an upside down A... how did you arrive here? I wanted our logo to literally demonstrate what problem solving is like, which is figuratively and sometimes literally turning things upside down and inside out and changing your point of view in order to see things differently.

Your school is called the Austin Creative Department, yet it’s not necessary for students to have a creative background to attend. What’s most important to you when you’re selecting which students to admit? A big segment of people out there are looking to change careers and further their educations, but going to an expensive art school and other four-year programs isn’t feasible for them. I look for applicants with creative potential, as well as those who have overcome personal and professional obstacles. Underdogs with an intense drive and passion—not just people with polished portfolios looking for an extra edge.

A few semesters ago, we had a student who drove from Monterrey, Mexico, to take classes. Andrés Alonso had never taken any design or advertising classes before, and what he had in his thin portfolio was self-taught. I sensed a tremendous soft-spoken determination in him and enrolled him in my 1+1=3 course. The first class assignment was to promote racial harmony in America. Andrés came up with a simple and smart idea of creating a pin made out of various “skin tones” of Legos. That idea ended up winning Student Best of Show Advertising at the Austin Addys this year. It felt great to see a guy come from Mexico with no creative background and outshine every student here in an assignment about racial harmony. Given the political environment now, nothing says America better than that.

How did the idea for 1+1=3, which provides a framework of thinking to combine two unrelated things into an entirely new idea, come about? We often have been told to “think outside of the box” when being creative, but what if you were never taught how to do that? I wanted to create a simple method of generating ideas that people could quickly pick up, regardless of their educational and professional backgrounds. I consult with companies and teach their employees—from all departments—how the 1+1=3 method can be applied to problem solving. Within a couple of hours, they’re coming up with big ideas, and it blows them away that they can actually think like this. Anybody can be a creative problem solver—not just creative types.

What needs to shift in the world of advertising/design education? It’s too damn expensive. Access to quality education should not be limited to just the financial elite, which is what’s happening. It’s making our workforce less diverse.

Many four-year institutions are also handing out general advertising degrees without giving any practical training to students. You can’t possibly expect to interview for an art director position when you have a fancy degree but nothing else to show for it, except maybe a group project in a three-ring binder. I don’t blame students for this; they or their parents spent an incredible amount of money on what they thought was a valuable degree, but all they’re getting is a rude awakening when interview time comes. I blame some institutions for being out of touch and prioritizing profits over quality education.

Large institutions are set in concrete, and I hope the future of education gets more nimble. There’s no way students could have achieved the things they’ve done at the Austin Creative Department if I had to answer to a group of administrators and review boards. If I want to do something that might benefit students, I just do it.

How about in the world of advertising? It’s getting harder and harder to recruit talent since there are so many other options for people entering the field now. With tech firms, in-house agencies and startups building up their own creative output, ad agencies don’t really have a foothold on recruiting anymore. This is immensely exciting for people entering the creative field, but it should be worrisome for ad agencies.

People are talking about diversity in the advertising industry, but what more needs to be done? Frankly, I hear a lot of talk, but I don’t see a lot of action. It’s a complicated issue, though, so there aren’t any simple solutions.

Our responsibility to our clients is to make sure that the most talented people are working on their businesses. The best portfolios are coming from the elite and most expensive schools, so these students are the ones who are being hired. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t talent at other schools with more diverse populations—we just need to give students from these other schools a chance. The problem is that internship programs and entry-level positions have changed over the years. We used to have the luxury of finding a diamond in the rough and bringing that person along. Nowadays, agencies are stretched so thin that people don’t have time to mentor, and entry-level hires are expected to jump in and perform on a high level.

At a personal level, we each have to do our part if we truly want to make a difference. Mentor somebody. Give a talk at a high school or junior college. Just do something.

Since starting the Austin Creative Department, I have awarded one tuition-free scholarship every year. Elizabeth Perez, my first recipient, built her portfolio within a year and has been working as a junior art director at Leo Burnett Chicago for four years now. Most recently, we had a student from Nigeria Skype in for classes. I was shocked when I found out that the $750 tuition for one of our classes would equal a few months’ salary in Nigeria. That student, Oluwatosin Egbeola, took two classes tuition free and is now a graphic designer at digital marketing agency Isobar Nigeria.

What advice would you give to a designer who wants to work in advertising but doesn’t know where to start? Find a mentor. Be tenacious and humble, and find someone whose work you admire. Ask for advice and learn from her or him, even if it’s a short e-mail or a five-minute conversation. People in this business are incredibly busy but are generous and giving, too. Seek them out and pick their brains. You never know where it can lead.
Will Chau surprised his parents when he told them that he wasn’t interested in taking over the family’s Swedish and Chinese smorgasbord. Instead, he went into advertising as an art director. A California native, Chau worked at agencies along the West Coast before joining Austin, Texas–based ad agency GSD&M as a creative director in 2005. He has helped manage and create award-winning work for BMW, Kohler, Southwest Airlines and Zales. His work has been featured at Cannes and the One Show and in Communication Arts and Graphis magazines. Passionate about teaching and believing that there needed to be an alternative to expensive art and design schools, Chau founded the Austin Creative Department in 2011, where he has solely taught the majority of the classes and mentored hundreds of students from various backgrounds; he continues to pay it forward by offering full-tuition scholarships. In 2014, Chau bested college professors in central Texas when he was named Educator of the Year by the Austin Advertising Federation. In 2015, the ADCOLOR Conference and Awards nominated Chau as a Change Agent, and in 2016, the 3% Conference featured him as a speaker. A proponent of diversity in advertising, Chau uses his “1+1=3” method of thinking to motivate groups with the idea that anyone can be a creative problem solver.

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