Jason Feldman discovered his talent for graphic design as a remedy to college business courses he describes as difficult and boring. During a six-month educational hiatus, he examined his career options and interests, and decided to tap into his artistic interests. He enrolled in art foundation courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and six months turned into a year as he explored six different art mediums: graphic design, industrial design, photography, sculpture, drawing and electronic arts.
Graphic design had the most appeal, he says. "I was good at it. The detailed quality of graphic design suited my personality." He received his bachelor of arts in graphic design from UIC in 1995 and worked for two different design companies over the course of five years. He launched his home office-based firm on little more than faith and expertise (along with a mortgage, wife and young child) in the fall of 2000. Mr. Feldman built his client list and referral base from the ground up. His networking and outreach efforts include joining the local chamber of commerce and later serving on its board and joining Business Network International (BNI).
Mr. Feldman continues to operate his graphic design business out of his home office. Self-employment satisfies on many levels, allowing the dual opportunity to be an involved father as well as performing work he enjoys. "I like creating design that works for my clients," he said.
How has your career unfolded?
I worked for two different small boutique design firms for five years before venturing out on my own. During the time I worked for those firms, I gained enough experience to be my own boss, my own art director. What I wasn't ready for was the business part of having my own business.
I didn't have an office, but I did have a mortgage, an unemployed wife, and a one-year-old child. Would I do it again under those circumstances? No. Why? Too risky. However, it worked for me. I have been able to build my client list and referral base.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
I am the only designer, account representative and my own best friend in my home office. I have the flexibility to design my own schedule, even though that sometimes means late nights. My salary is limited to how much time I have to work. But more to the point, what I earn is keyed to how many new people I can meet and how many long-term relationships I can develop. Designers don't usually get work when they first meet someone. They have to build trust and people have to like your design style. Otherwise, you might as well forget it.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
Some of my professors were inspirational from a design aspect. In terms of my career, my family is my greatest inspiration. As a business owner, I want to support my family financially to the best of my abilities. That's not always easy because my income can vary greatly from year to year. Also, I want to have an active role in my son's life. Being self-employed allows me to be the involved father I want to be.
What has been your personal key to success?
I'm motivated to work when I have to work. And, of course, I work to create good and successful designs for my clients.
What awards and/or successes have you had? How important have they been to you, personally and to your career?
Awards have never been important to me. I only care that my designs are successful for my clients and meets their needs. I recently submitted a design for a graphic art competition but the judging panel didn't think it was avant-garde enough. Yet clients have submitted designs of mine to their industry competitions and won awards for them.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
Professionally speaking, I'd like to continue as I am, but I'd like to make more money with higher paying clients with long-term projects. I would also like to continue my education, once I figure out what it is I want to learn. Personally, I am happy exactly as I am. I have a good life.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about your profession to be successful?
Sure. But passion can only take you so far and last so long. You need to have design talent and, if you want to have your own business, you have to be motivated to build it. Passion is good, but it can run out or get you to a level where you just coast. For some people, coasting is fine; but not for me. I always want to learn more, be challenged, do something different. After all, we only live once.
If you used to do something else and now you do this, what made you change careers?
I started my college education in business. I had taken all the prerequisite courses and I really did not like them. I found them, frankly, difficult and boring. I took some time off, took some art courses and discovered graphic design. What's ironic, of course, is that now I own my own business and use some of the tools that bored me in business school.
What was the worst professional experience you've ever had?
The worst experience I ever had was working for a really bad boss. One day, she was singing my praises as the cream of the crop; the next day, she was maligning me in public. The positive part was that it propelled me to start my own business. She made my life so miserable that I became desperate to get out. And I learned that having a boss who's stable and fair can make or break a job or career.
What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?
I am my own boss and my only employee. I design, market, network, do production, make phone calls, develop proposals for design work, bill, photograph, do back flips for some clients and walk on water for others, buy office supplies, meet clients, have lunch meetings, troubleshoot computer problems, and the list goes on. It's just me. I do everything for the business. Well, OK, that's a little fib. My wife is a business woman and she handles the actual accounting, billing and taxes. (I still have nightmares about those business courses.)
Describe a typical day of work for you.
I commute to work (upstairs to my home office). Sometimes it takes me a long time to get there (20 seconds). I check my e-mail and look at my work schedule to make sure I know what I need to accomplish. Then, I begin designing, making calls, and moving projects forward. I eat lunch, usually at home, and then continue to work until I have to pick up my son from school. Most of my communications are done via phone or e-mail. However, about once a week, I meet face-to-face with at least one of my clients. Sometimes I work in the late afternoon or evening if there is a pressing deadline.
What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? What's your favorite gadget?
Apple computer. Apple computer. Apple computer. Oh, and did I say "Apple computer"?
How do you use computers? Are there specialty software programs for your profession? If so, what are they and what do they do?
Did I mention Apple Computer? The specialty software I use is QuarkXPress and the Adobe suite of products (Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign). They are the standard tools of the trade and all you need. However, they are very expensive. QuarkXpress is about $750, while the Adobe Creative Suite is about $900 for the three programs. QuarkXPress competes with Adobe InDesign.
What professional organizations are you a member of? What are the other professional organizations?
I'm a member of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce (LPCC) in Chicago. I also served on the board for three years. When I started my business, I also joined Business Network International (BNI). Both LPCC and BNI were fundamental to helping me build my business.
What is the average salary for your field?
There's a huge range. It depends on whether or not you're self employed, working for a small or large company or in advertising. When I first started, I made $20,000 a year as an employee. Now, as a self-employed graphic designer, my year-to-year income can vary by $20,000. It's good to have a working spouse.
What are the best ways to get a job?
Through art school portfolio shows where potential employers come to see your work or, as in most professions, through connections; who you know helps you get in the door.
Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?
Yes. It tells your potential employer what design philosophy you come from and whether you received a technical or creative education.
What kinds of jobs are available for graduating students who specialize in your profession?
You have to start low in the pecking order as either a production artist or a junior level graphic designer.
How does working for a prestigious organization make a difference?
It can both open and close doors. You can pigeon hole yourself into one industry and have trouble switching. For example, if you just focus on advertising for bars and nightclubs, it may be difficult for you to land a job at a company that does annual reports or corporate identities. That's more true in a large market like Chicago than it is in smaller markets.
If someone has the talent already, should they go to school (or get professional training)?
Maybe if you learn how to use the software, have talent and a lot of motivation, you can open some doors on your own. But a formal design education degree is the best route.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?
Design style. Period. Some schools focus on the clean and traditional Swiss style, for example, while others are more cutting-edge and focus on the look and feel as opposed to how well the message is expressed.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for your profession?
The University of Illinois at Chicago is the best in Chicago and perhaps the Midwest.
If you need a graduate degree, when's the best time to go after a graduate degree?
You don't need one unless you already have a bachelor's degree in the arts and you want to change to graphic design. For example, a friend of mine has an undergraduate degree in photography from one school and a master's degree in graphic design from UIC.
Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?
I would have wanted more practical, real project training. Sometimes school projects are not real-life projects. For example, how often will a person design a series of three books with very little text? Not often. In fact, almost never. A more practical project would be a newsletter that has much too much text. Also, since many graphic designers do go out on their own, basic courses about how to run a graphic design business would also be very useful.
How did you find your school?
I did a lot of research online, visited schools and met professors.
How is the job market now in the profession? How do you think it will be in five years?
There are too many of us. To succeed, you'd better be a good designer AND a smart business person.
How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
I sure get a lot of spam to encourage me to purchase graphic design services. That's one of the not such a good thing about the Internet. However, e-mail has made communication easier and faster.
What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?
Perhaps that people are realizing that print is not dead. Web sites are great tools, but you often have to use print to direct people there.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others who are thinking about entering your profession?
That's a good question. If you really want to make a direct difference in many people's lives, choose a different profession. I envy doctors, social service providers, and, yes, even some lawyers. Why? Because they really help people better their lives. Yes, I do help my clients succeed in their fund-raising efforts and money generation, but there is a disconnect for me with really having a profound impact on someone's life. However, the self-employed part of my profession allows me to have a positive impact on my family - the impact I believe other professions can have on a larger scale. As much as I care about my neighborhood, city, state, country and the world, the truth is that I really care most about my family.