An Interview with Bill Antkowiak, Graphic Designer

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Bill Antkowiak, Graphic Designer

A lifelong love of drawing and the arts led to a Fine Arts degree from a private college and a graphic design career in business to business publishing

Drawn to art as a child, rendering cartoons and drawings became a calling for Arizona graphic designer Bill Antkowiak. Interest in art led to electives in high school, and later, his parents encouraged him to consider a college arts program.

Bill freely admits he didn't "have the best grades" in high school, but he wanted to pursue a college education. Bill earned his Bachelor's of Arts degree, with a major in communications design from Ray College of Design, a private college with locations in the metro Chicago area.

A decade in graphic design, spanning part-time classified designer to department management with the same publishing company, has allowed Bill to explore his creativity and ability to work with others toward a common goal – meeting the deadline. Accolades are nice, too, such as the cover graphic he designed for a magazine covering the meat and poultry industry, which received honors from the American Society for Business Press Editors.

When Bill's wife's job called for a transfer of their family, including two young boys, from chilly Chicago to sunny Arizona, Bill became one of the growing ranks of telecommuters in the graphic design field. It came as a bonus that Bill's parents were on hand in Arizona to ease the move.

Bill is so committed to meeting deadlines, early on during the at-home transition, he went above and beyond. Recently transplanted across the country, the family kept one car, which his wife used for work. But Bill had to make a deadline of getting the magazine disk to the printer. So he bundled his son onto the back of a bicycle, and peddled a little over a mile through the 110-degree heat to get to the UPS drop-off point. "We were hot, but it wasn't that bad. The whole design department was laughing over it, sending me e-mails every day with creative use of the UPS logo and bicycles," he laughs.

He continues to work full-time for the magazine company from his home office, communicating via phone, e-mail, specialized internet access, fax and overnight shipping. He additionally takes on a freelance design projects.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your graphic design education. How did you decide to study graphic design? And how did you find a school?

Location, reputation; it was a little of both. We were deciding, looking at different schools; for instance, Northern Illinois University had a good reputation for arts, in high school we took a trip out, to look at the arts department. As we narrowed down the programs, it seemed that program Ray College had to offer seemed to be the best choice, it was all centered around the illustration, the fine arts that I was interested in.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

I thought Ray College had a good program, it taught you how to be creative. Only one comment - I wish they would have had you take a couple of business courses. Many people who want to go directly from college out into the freelance market; courses that gave you information about how to set rates, basic accounting, and keeping your books, would be helpful.

What do you know now, that you wish you had known before pursing your graphic design education?

Back then, we were doing things very much old school. We foresaw the fact that computers were going to overtake the industry. When I was in college, I took an ‘intro to computer class,' but they didn't have the exact program to do layouts in at a professional level, they had a program, but it wasn't the mainstream program, it wasn't that different. Once I was on the job, I picked up the training as I went, because it was developing.

Today's younger designers come in talking about how they did 3D animation as coursework in school. I can't imagine what I might be doing now if courses in animation had been offered. I might be doing a totally animation route.

The fine arts background plays well in the old school, illustrative technique. I'm able to quickly render something if I need to. Often, a new designer's first inclination is to take everything learned in design school and to create the ultimate masterpiece. But that may not be what the project calls for. Teachers inspired us to be creative, but sometimes you had to wonder what the real-life applications could be in advertising.

How can prospective graphic design students assess their skill and aptitude?

If at all possible try to find an internship program with a company, that's a great starting point. You can see how things happen, how crazy the whole process can be. There are so many facets beyond publishing, like promotion work, marketing agencies.

When we are hiring designers, we bring them in on a temporary basis for three months; it takes a while to judge how they handle the pressure, how they interact with the editors and publishers. We've hired a few with great portfolios, but who were very rigid to work with. If you graduated college, it wouldn't be crazy to go to a temp agency and sign up. They'll send you out to graphic houses; you're getting an exposure you don't get hunting through the ads. You'll be exposed to many different jobs, you'll build your portfolio, and you might land somewhere permanently.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

Take some classic art classes. When I started in college, I thought I was an awesome artist. I took a figure drawing/illustrator course, sketches of nudes, and found my skills were way below what I thought. Even people I saw with fashion design majors, sketching out clothing, weren't the best illustrators. At the end of this class, we were 100% better.

What can students applying to graphic design schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

If you have an art background, it helps. Some schools, like where I went, had me bring in artwork from high school as part of the interview process. It's really your first portfolio, if you can walk into an art college, and have a nice portfolio of work that you've done, it will look good during the application process.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in graphic design?

I have good things to say about graphic design. It's turning out to be a really awesome field to be in right now. I've read many articles about jobs being sent overseas, but it seems that graphic design will remain in the country. There are so many products out there, saturating one or many marketplaces, and every company wants to have a point of difference from the other. That's where we designers come in. You kind of have to be face to face, though like with my job, location is becoming more and more flexible. Many small businesses start out working in the owner's house, and then expand.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your graphic design career. How did you break into graphic design, and how did you advance to where you are today?

I've always enjoyed art. Every facet of my education has been linked to art in some way. I took art all through school, including as high school electives. When it came down to ‘doing the college thing,' with a little guidance from my parents, I decided to get into art.

I've always been more of an illustrator; I was strong in drawing cartoons as a kid. My major in college started out in illustration, but as I progressed through college, I got into the idea of using the fine arts background in advertising design and that creative process.

My career started when I heard of an opening for a graphics position at a local publishing business; it was a part-time job, designing classified ads for the magazines. It's now going on 11 years, and I've been there ever since. It was right at the point where computers were just starting to take over the industry. When I went to college, I was taught everything ‘old school,' but our teachers warned technology and computer design work was going to revolutionize everything. The computers we had in college were the early Apple computers, the ones that are like the Fisher Price model. We would use it to do the typography, make up our comps for presentations. Old method of gluing, paste-up, all that good stuff from the history books.

As the company grew – it started off with one magazine, with 12 people – it acquired magazines, and my position grew to graphic designer. I eventually became the senior graphic designer, and was promoted to design department manager. A recent promotion for my wife meant a family decision to re-locate from Chicagoland to Arizona. Instead of allowing me to resign, my company offered to let me telecommute. I remain responsible for maintaining the corporate look of the company's magazines and publications, but have shifted my position. I gave up some of the day-to-day managing of the department and the people, which would be hard to do from a remote office. As a senior graphic designer, one of the benefits is that I get my creative time back.

I kind of dug the managing thing, the prestige was neat, but, it also meant everybody else's problems became my problems. I was shocked at how much time I spent managing as opposed to designing magazines and being creative. In moving out here, one of the benefits is getting back to creative work. I'm doing a redesign for one of our magazines, in addition to my regular magazines.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Being able to be creative, helping develop an image -- whether it is for an identity like a business card or a company logo or a magazine redesign -- helping find a look that symbolizes the way they want to present themselves to the marketplace.

What has been your personal key to success?

Trying to build up good relationships, whether it's with the people I deal with every day or my clients on a freelance basis, building what they are trying to portray. If you build a good relationship and understanding of people and the market they serve, that's how you deliver the images and the design that they want. You don't design for yourself or to make it look pretty; you're on a mission, the client's mission.

What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My mom and dad. My dad because I worked with him through high school; he was a carpenter; and he showed me how to have good ethics and how to be a good worker. My mom, because she's always been my voice of reason. She nudged me when I needed nudging. The last inspiration is an illustrator I really like, James Yang; I caught his work in an article in 1995, I had seen his pieces before, and I have a great respect for the man, he's a very good illustrator. It's part of the fine arts aspect of my college coming through. I respect his technique, it's unusual, but it delivers the point clearly

What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?

They were one and the same. In opting to become the design department manager, I was the ‘go- to' guy there. Money was a factor in accepting the manager role - who doesn't like to have a giant leap in salary? I looked to provide for my family, and opted to go the manager route, it had pros and cons. When I say setback, it wasn't really negative. I took a lot more good out of it than bad, but it took me away from being able to hammer out 50 ideas for someone. Everyone's problems were becoming mine, and I wasn't concentrating on what I liked, which was being creative. You don't really know the effect of something until you work through it. It was positive.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've completed and why?

One of my favorite projects was the redesign of the logo for my company. The old logo was a seriph type with a line through one of the letters; we wanted something that went beyond publishing. We wanted to present the company as one that went beyond publishing and into communications including conferences and custom prints. That was a fun project, because they wanted to have something that would say the transfer of information. We came up with arrows. To symbolize the pieces of communications moving, we used a modified arrow graphic along with the company name.

Another is the business cards I did for a guy opening a house inspection company. He had this whole picture in his mind of how he wanted it to look, but it didn't marry up with what he did. That's where I offered suggestions to counter the script-type writing he wanted, which looked more like a wedding invitation than a logo for a creative company. It's part of the whole creative process. Involving yourself with the client, getting to understand him, the market he serves, help him have a better point of difference.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I would like to eventually own my own little company, break away and do freelance on a full-time basis. I've worked at the publishing company for a long time, and it's been very beneficial. I've learned a lot from it. Being a manager taught me how to manage multiple people, and how to manage my time a little better, and a little bit of discipline in certain things. Taking that experience and being able to come through on a re-design of a magazine is a nice feeling, getting the publisher excited.

Freelance has always been in the back of mind. The timing hasn't been right yet, you want to make a calculated risk so it will work. With the recent move to Arizona, I'm getting out and meeting people. If I had stayed in Chicago, I would probably have jumped into the freelance chance a lot quicker. Now in Arizona, it's going to take a while to get into the market, find out what the needs are, see if I can benefit. Meantime I do freelance on the side…its good experience to say I did this for Sears, this for a small business.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

For skills, you would definitely want a degree; attention to detail and patience. Patience is good. I work with the magazine editors; we determine the size and arrangement of the materials and the copy in the magazine. Create layouts for magazine departments, for feature stories and design the cover of the magazine.

After working at corporate headquarters, you are now among the increasing ranks of telecommuters. How has the change in location impacted your job in terms of challenges and rewards?

Being in the office and face to face is a lot different than talking on the phone and e-mailing. When I was in the home office, it was easier to gauge responses on layouts from people when they were seeing a design for the first time. It's a little different when you're talking on the phone. You have to work to keep good relations with people, and understand where they want to go with a project. Luckily, in working with my editor for so long, I can usually anticipate what her needs and responses will be. The transition has gone pretty well. It's a kind of a challenge; I'm redesigning another magazine as well. The communications, you just have to try to understand where they are trying to go, and get them there as fast as you can.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

It's pretty scheduled; you go through the e-mails for the daily schedule. Any given day I could be really, really busy, or I might have time to back up files. I check for layout corrections, work to make quick responses, then proceed on to work to create and finalize the magazine layout; designing, adding in photos, art elements, sometimes creating charts, working with the copy.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

My favorite is the Mac G5 computer. It's a very fast machine, allows me to multitask, I can have multiple program open, jumping from Photoshop to QuarkXPress back to Photoshop and back. If I'm opening and correcting photos, color correcting, I can jump right back. It's great.

Another is the digital camera, which came in out of nowhere and has taken over the industry, at least as far as what I do on a daily basis. When a new product comes out, companies send out press releases, photos, sometimes samples of products. If a company doesn't supply photos of their products, we can whip out the digital camera, and convert a corner into a photo studio. It's a matter of some lighting adjustments, take the picture, run it into the magazine. It's changed the way we do magazine production, fewer meetings to hand over photos, it's e-mailed along with copy and directions for the section approach. Everything now is so electronic, digital images are the norm. Not too much scanning of photos these days.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Always trying to hit that deadline, and I'll stress "trying." The deadline is very important. The magazines need to get into the readers hands by the end of the month.

Best graphic design tip for a novice?

It all comes back to working well with your clients and co-workers, building a good relationship with them, in which case you'll get a grasp on their needs. Build a great relationship, and you'll do great work.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

The three days before disk out, the editor is still working on the cover story, with sources that need to approve the story, playing the waiting game… it's very stressful.

Job Information & Advice

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about graphic design in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

It requires a little bit of passion. Sometimes I don't know what keeps me going. With me, the process, understanding what the project needs, but the client can't see, then developing and executing, is what makes it exciting.

What specialized computer programs do graphic design professionals typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

QuarkXPress is still an industry favorite. Try to get Adobe InDesign, that program is sneaking up into the mainstream. They bundled it with Photoshop and Illustrator, sold it as a package for $1,000; meantime Quark was $800. Companies looked at the price and went with the 3-for-1. Students should least have an introductory course in both.

What impact has the popularity of the Internet had on graphic design?

Pretty huge, because of it giving one the ability to work anywhere you want to. It's helped the process become quicker, more productive. If an editor needs a photo, and needs it yesterday, it can be found on the Internet, in five minutes, instead of overnight through a photo agency.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating graphic design students? Specialty areas?

There are a lot of magazines out there. There is a magazine for everything. You can start out with publishing companies, including through temp agencies. In a lot of cases, a publisher will have multiple deadlines to meet, and for various reasons, the workflow starts to get jammed up. Publishers often bring in temps to relieve some of the work.

Also, when you are in school or even after you graduate, check to see if your college or graphic arts department has job postings available to students; my college did and lots of students landed positions that way.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

It's pretty good. Seems there are plenty of potential employers; some of freelance business I've gotten is from word of mouth. It's all about getting a foot in the door. I did a project with Sears that I landed through a childhood pal who owns a point-of-purchase display company. He created displays for Sears, which wanted him to expand to working on specific product catalogs, which drew me in. Wherever you can get a contact, make it.

What other career advice can you offer graphic design school graduates?

Attend design conferences, which offer portfolio showings and professional critiques and a chance to make contacts. Try to explore the creative aspect of the business, but also understand that it is a biz, and treat it as such. There are clients and opinions you have to deal with. It's all about relationships...

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Bill Antkowiak about the opportunities available to graphic designers in the magazine publishing industry, click here.

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