Change or die.” Business writer Alan Deutschman’s words may sound dramatic, but ever-changing tools and media are transforming traditional approaches to visual communication. We cannot sit still and expect to thrive. Meet three designers who took Deutschman’s advice to heart and changed course, whether by adding a new skill, embracing digital interaction or switching to a related field.
“I never thought I would make a film,” says book and publication designer Briar Levit, who is an assistant professor at Portland (Oregon) State University. Yet here she is, wrapping up her feature-length documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production.
Why make a film?
I decided to make the movie after showing my collection of obsolete design manuals to some younger designers I know. It was clear that they really had no idea about the processes of design production before the desktop computer. If I hadn’t already seen Linotype: The Film, directed by designer Doug Wilson, I don’t think making a film on this topic would have even occurred to me.
How did you learn filmmaking?
I read a lot on documentary direction, I went to workshops, I went to multiday Oregon Doc Camps (oregondoccamp.com), and, most important, I enlisted the help and expertise of friends and colleagues, like Dawn Jones Redstone, my director of photography. Wilson was incredibly helpful and encouraging, but also very realistic. There was no sugarcoating.
What was the hardest part?
The hardest part of trying something new is the fear that you shouldn’t be doing it, that you should really stay in your lane and focus on your own expertise. But if we all did that, design and art would never push forward. So many of the greats crossed disciplines, like Charles and Ray Eames and the members of the Bauhaus and constructivism movements.
What surprised you most along the way?
How quickly I was able to adapt to my new medium. I also found collaboration superexciting. I’ve worked in a solitary way for much of my graphic design career, and it was great to see people in other disciplines coming together to make something collaboratively.
How does your past work inform your current work?
My experience with narrative in relation to graphic design offered a good foundation. As you’d expect, the titles and other typography for the film are very important to me.
Your previous work was in print. Will you incorporate motion into your work now?
The feeling of seeing my designs animated was intoxicating, no doubt. So I’m definitely interested in exploring it more and exploring film in general. I’ve also fully, unabashedly embraced design history, and I’ve met all these people along the way who are equally as obsessive and dorky about design artifacts as I am.
What advice do you have for others who want to make a similar change?
Do it! So much of it is just getting “invisible permission” to do this stuff. It’s really all a matter of the amount of time and effort you want to invest. Doing your research is critical—almost as important as choosing your collaborators and teachers.
Well known for her book jacket designs at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and her design direction of Martha Stewart Living, Barbara deWilde left print behind in 2012 to earn her MFA in interaction design at the School of Visual Arts. She is now lead user experience strategist in the Digital Design department at the New York Times.
Which turning point led you to switch from print design to user experience strategy?
In 2012, I received an Alumni Achievement Award from my alma mater, Pennsylvania State University. I loved talking with all the students, and I thought that maybe, maybe, I should consider teaching. The first hurdle was that I had only an undergraduate degree; the second was that nearly every job posting asked for experience or degree work in interaction design. I had no idea what interaction design even was. I started by taking night classes in basic coding languages and animation. I finally decided that I needed to quit my job and commit to learning.
What was it like to go back to school full time?
Terrifying. I basically gave up my expertise and started at zero. How did it feel to be nearly twice the age of the other students and to be a nonnative digital designer? Horrible. But I found inspiration in my fellow classmates. Nearly 75 percent of them had relocated to the United States to study. They were in a new city, with nascent language skills and few friends or family. We all had different backgrounds. Everyone was challenged. My age and inexperience were just another challenge in the mix.
What surprised you most?
I thought that I would need to write code in order to work in this new field. But coding is an area of expertise that should remain in the hands of engineers. I’m code literate, but I don’t write it.
Money is obviously a concern when going back to school. How did you manage?
I took on just enough client work to cover the tuition. I’m married, and we were at a point where none of our kids were in college. I also started teaching and got a small scholarship.
Did you have a favorite class?
Cybernetics, taught by Professor Paul Pangaro. It helps you think in loops of feedback instead of communication and narrative. That’s the key difference between the way I had been taught previously and the way I work now. It really was at the heart of going to this new world.
Are there other people who encouraged you?
Richard Wilde has run the design and advertising department at the School of Visual Arts for more than 40 years, and he’s forever current. I asked if he thought it would be a good idea for someone my age to apply to this program. He said, “Do it! Do it!” It was so immediate—there was no hesitation. I needed that person whom I truly admired to push me over the edge.
How does your past work inform your current work?
I use my graphic design skills, especially typography. It’s nice to understand how to design content for an audience and not struggle with that portion of my job. It frees me to focus on the experience and interaction design.
Do you see this as the next step in the natural progression of a design career?
That’s a tough call. I would encourage young people to get a degree in graphic design with interaction design as a component of their study. Most design now happens within a digital environment. But I don’t think of one as leading to the other. They relate to each other.
Any advice for those considering a similar change?
It takes a leap of faith to leave behind your career and to embark on a new path where you are not the expert. There were no guarantees. Still, I knew that my old skills were becoming devalued, and the only way to keep designing was to retool. I’m incredibly glad I did. I would encourage anyone to do the same.
“There’s not a lot of routine to what I do, and that’s what keeps it exciting,” says San Francisco–based photographer Michael O’Neal. He studied graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for some big agencies in New York before becoming a creative director at Apple. Now he shoots fashion and lifestyle photography for clients such as Marie Claire, Mercedes-Benz, Refinery29, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and Vogue.
Why did you pursue photography when you were in the middle of a successful design career?
I realized I was having so much more fun working and collaborating with creative people on shoots. I enjoyed being out in the elements creating content rather than sitting in meetings. I just wanted to make the stuff.
You didn’t study photography in school. How did you learn?
My advertising and graphic design training, as well as my experience being on set as an art director and collaborating with photographers, prepared me. A lot of that type of hands-on experience just can’t be taught in school. Having been an art director, I learned the business side and how to deliver what the client wants and where the type is going to go. All the stuff I’ve ever learned is from on the job, watching other people work or making mistakes on my own, which is the best way to learn. When I started on my first commercial photography jobs in 2011, I made sure that I was surrounded by great assistants so we would work as a team to make a great photo.
How did you manage financially?
Before I left, I made sure I had a good nest egg to survive for a year or two. It definitely helped me take the leap. I don’t have a wife and kids. If I did, I would have never made the jump because it’s very risky.
Were there people who helped you along?
I worked for Chris Shipman, who used to be a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy. He really got me into the idea of the art director who’s a photographer as well. He not only art directed everything—came up with the concepts, did the layouts—but also shot everything. Ben Watts let me shoot on his set while I was an art director. That is very rare for a photographer! Ben also taught me how to get energy and reactions out of my subjects and how to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera. I remember Los Angeles–based photographer Frank W. Ockenfels III buying me a Polaroid camera during a shoot. He had noticed that I was passionate about making images and wanted to give me a nudge. It’s those small gestures that go a really long way!
How does your past work inform your current work?
With both, you have to be flexible and a team player and super-collaborative. I don’t care where the idea comes from, as long as we’re all talking. I love that—it’s my favorite thing about design and photography. It’s the process and figuring out how to get a great shot.
What advice do you have for others who want to change careers?
It’s a nice story: “You can do it. Take the leap. Follow your dreams.” But the more I do it, I’m like, “Be fucking sure you want to do this—because it’s hard as hell!” You just don’t know what’s around the corner, which is scary—and also part of the excitement. The freedom to choose what to work on is the payoff. ca