HOW PLAYING IN A PUNK BAND PREPARED ME FOR A CAREER IN DESIGN
The word 'rockstar' is often thrown around to describe badass creatives. "Oh, he's a rockstar animator.... She's a rockstar letterer." But WNW Member #4540 Chad Miller is a literal rockstar designer. He never attended a "real design school" because he was busy playing in bands, touring the country. In the post below, straight from Chad's mouth to your ears, it quickly becomes apparent that Chad knows himself: "I was a kid with authority issues that didn’t want to be a cog in some machine selling stuff I didn’t care about. Screen printing all night with my friends, skateboarding trips and playing music is what I knew. Unfortunately none of those things put cash in the bank."
Chad lets us ride shotgun on his journey to making a living, on his terms. We follow him from Cincinnati to Philadelphia to San Francisco where he realizes that achieving the "California Dream" might not actually be what he wants. Read on to find out the road he took, and if you're in search of a new environment, maybe Chad's experience can set you on the right course for you.
I didn’t go to a "real design school" because playing in bands and touring around the country in a van with my friends was more appealing to me. Unconventional paths never seemed that unconventional to me and I learned to trust my gut early on. The first couple of years out of high school were a bit of a blur and during this blur I managed to acquire my big Associates Degree. Suddenly, I was a designer and had to face real life decisions. The first of which was passing up the opportunity to continue my BFA at the hip design school in town. School gave me the foundation I needed, but I’ve always grown the most when I’m thrown into a situation and forced to figure it out. I was anxious to start working yet surprisingly, after my first agency interview, I felt nothing but apathy towards the whole thing. I was a kid with authority issues that didn’t want to be a cog in some machine selling stuff I didn’t care about. Screen printing all night with my friends, skateboarding trips and playing music is what I knew. Unfortunately none of those things put cash in the bank.
After deciding to forgo the full-time gig I was lucky to even be offered, I spent two years working contracts and freelancing before landing at a small studio full-time. This let me ease into being an actual adult… It was important for me to find a place that had values I could align with. I wasn’t interested in being the graphic design equivalent of the guy on an assembly line attaching heads on dolls. I wanted to author the things I was working on and learn in an environment that actually cared about design. I spent an invaluable two years there and it was a crash course in navigating agency politics, selling through my work, handling clients and all the other things they should be teaching in design school. All good things come to an end though. The more I was around my friends, who are mostly designers, the more I realized how stagnant I had become. I had stopped growing, stopped learning, stopped getting excited about what I was working on. It was a shitty feeling but it taught me the lesson of knowing when to move on. You can only stay in the same class for so long before you stop learning.
I started interviewing at other places in town, big branding agencies I had always admired, and the like. This was the goal I had been working towards but quickly discovered it was not what I had built it up to be in my head. Slow paced projects that lasted forever and hardly came to fruition. I was in a rut and this wasn’t going to help. I had absolutely no other marketable skills and there were only so many design gigs in Cincinnati, none of which I felt compelled to chase down anymore. I started looking at agencies in other cities to see what they were about. A branding shop in Philadelphia emailed me and I flew out for an interview. I ended the day with one of the Creative Directors talking about Peter Saville and new wave music. Like the same cliché you always hear, I got into music through record covers and being involved in weird subcultures. As a kid growing up in Ohio, seeing covers from Saville and Factory Records was my introduction to European designers and Modernism and my gateway to a movement that would later influence everything I do.
I didn’t want to leave the Midwest, but this guy worked for Vaughan Oliver, I mean, how rad is that? I moved to Philadelphia a couple weeks later and spent the next two years working there. I grew a ton, met a lot of great people, and was introduced to the world of design outside of the Midwest bubble. I was working with people that were killing it and pushing me to get better; it was on a whole new level. Lots of people from the agency had gone on to do other awesome things which made me realize design could take me to places I wanted to go, much like music had.
After a while my girlfriend and I started talking about moving to a different city. Around the same time, I had recruiters reach out to me from two infamous Silicon Valley behemoths. Total dream job type deals and San Francisco was on our list anyways, so why not? That summer we visited New York, Portland and Seattle. New York is the design mecca of America; it had all the studios I read about and all the designers I admired. If they lived in America, they were in New York. However, I was just a kid from Ohio who liked rain and grunge music. I thought I was bound for the Pacific Northwest, for sure.
At this point I was deep into the recruiting rabbit hole those tech conglomerates take you down. These were the pinnacles of design gigs in my head, so I had to see where it led. We put plans on hold while I flew to the Bay Area a couple times for interviews. Fancy hotels, rental convertibles and amazing burritos, San Francisco was most excellent. But then you drive down to the Valley for the actual interviews and it looks like a retirement community full of office complexes like you would see out by an airport. I had worked towards a goal again only to be lost and confused when I finally got close. These might still be dream gigs but I just don’t think I was ready for the dream yet. Everything seemed surreal and I suddenly realized I was wearing fancy shoes and driving a convertible past some orchard in California and had no idea how the hell I ended up there.
On the flight back to Philly from one of those trips I read an interview with Jessica Walsh where she talks about how she ended up in New York. On Twitter I saw all these designers leaving shops I worshipped in Europe and flocking to New York. Michael Bierut and Joe Marianek were from Ohio and New York seemed to work out alright for them. A lot of their stories resonated with me and everything started to click. After getting asked to jump through another hoop to pursue the California dream, I packed up and moved to Brooklyn to have no job and triple my rent. I’m getting ready to enter month six of the hustle and so far, so good.