Read Time: 3.5 minutes
By Jake McCoy
I graduated college a few months ago. And, in the process of looking for a job, I kept in the back of my head my love for art history. So, working in some capacity at a museum piqued my interest, leading me to the mysterious field of work that is experiential graphic design.
It looked interesting, so I joined SEGD, contacted SEGD chapter chairs and companies with experiential design practices, started watching videos from the SEGD website and applied for jobs in the industry. It seemed like a great fit for me—some right-brained creative work with some left-brained thinking to balance it out.
After some time, I joined the Experiential Design and Wayfinding team at Gresham Smith in Nashville. Every day has been a challenge here at Gresham Smith, a very good one too. I have learned so much about the world of experiential design through dipping my toes in parts of many stages of the design process: sign guides, programming, concepting huge wall graphics, editing sign face layouts, changing colors on a sign from white-on-blue to blue-on-white, developing icons, drawing elevations, trying to figure out a crazy program called Revit, spec-ing materials and searching through hundreds of pictures to find out if there is a soffit at a sign location or not. In each of these tasks—interesting or not so much—I have discovered another piece of the project workflow puzzle. I've also gained a greater understanding of the world of experiential design, while at the same time every day I realize how much more there is to learn.
In school, so often you see a project from start to finish within a week or two. You own everything about the project. You make all the design choices, with basically no oversight, other than some nosey peer-criticism and instructor feedback. In the industry, it’s just not that way. You’re put in the middle of a project, often with an existing branding system—and surprisingly enough stuff is actually made with real materials instead of cheap digital printing, foam core and adhesive spray!
What has shocked me about the professional world has been how there are still things we don’t know. Every day I am surrounded by about eighteen people with well over 100 years of experience between them, but it always seems like there are new challenges, new processes and new problems that arise with every project, which means that the 100 years of experience is not necessarily an indicator of having all the answers (or at least of having all the right answers).
The professional world is not about having all the answers. If you have all the answers, that’s when you write a computer program to do the work for you. To be the best in a field it’s all about being creative, it’s about being a creative problem solver. And, that is what those 100 years of experience if applied correctly, can do.
That is when my education became helpful—not the part where I learned dates on art history slides or did illustration and typography exercises, or even the knowledge about the difference between an igneous and metamorphic rock (thank you, Geology 101). What I learned and what became invaluable to me is the ability to think. The ability to communicate, to ask questions, and to solve problems creatively.
All of the times professors invited us students into their home, taught us how to communicate with adults and all those times when we were asked to peer-review work and collaborate on projects helped us learn the art of constructive criticism. Those times that classmates and friends got coffee, sat around bonfires making music together and generally all those times that may have felt like a waste of tuition dollars at the time, became worth it.
It’s going to be years before I have a firm grasp on some of the technical aspects of the industry or even the design process, not to mention knowing how to form relationships with clients and win work. I’ve only just begun to learn those skills and I will continue honing those skills throughout my entire career.
What I have learned is: challenge myself every day; be inspired every day; to make everything that I produce my best; continue pushing myself to think, really think, about what I’m making; and most importantly, to keep on learning.