Kim Alpert, Michael Cardwell and Nathaniel Howe Speak Out On Concerns of Up-and-Coming Designers
By Abby Stassen
Full Sail University’s Hall of Fame celebration honors graduates who have made significant contributions to their chosen industries. Six new grads are inducted into the Hall of Fame every year, and many inductees have won industry awards, started their own businesses, and worked with national and international companies. Three inductees from Full Sail’s art and design programs – Kim Alpert, Michael Cardwell, and Nathaniel Howe – recently shared some advice for up-and-coming designers entering the industry.
Kim, a 2003 graduate of Full Sail’s Digital Arts & Design program, is the Creative Director and Strategist at Make Amazing; she merges art with communications to create bespoke projects for clients like Adobe, Red Bull, and Oculus.
Michael was a dual-degree grad from Full Sail (Film, Entertainment Business), and owns video production, animation, and design agency Digital Brew; he’s won 11 Emmys, nine Tellys, and three ADDY Awards and worked with brands like Amazon, Cisco, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
2002 Computer Animation grad Nathaniel Howe is the Founder of Nathaniel Howe Studios; he’s an Emmy and Clio Award-winning branding specialist who has worked with clients like Disney, HBO, and the NFL.
Do you have any tips for designers on looking for their first job?
Kim: One of the best things that I think I did early on was credentialize myself and work in-house [instead of freelancing]. I knew how to use the tools, but I didn’t understand how to do the work because the work isn’t just you in front of your computer. The work is a ton of process and pitching and things that go around the work… I think a lot of young people, they fail at getting the administrative support that they need and then they’re isolated and they’re not learning. The best thing that you can do as a young person is not work alone. Getting experience working for good people and with good people is huge.
Nathaniel: You have to deliver what people want to buy. People who want to get a job as an animator or a designer, they have to have beautiful animations and beautiful designs. That sounds obvious, but people get so fixated on networking and, “How do I get people to look at my site and how do I get leads to get my foot in the door at an interview?” It really comes down to putting in the work, and then looking at your work with a critical eye and knowing that it’s okay to not be good at the start… Learning more nuances of design, learning more nuances of timing and rhythm and animation, and refining your understanding of the principles of design, the principles of animation… that takes time. And so, in the beginning of the career, you have to have an amazing portfolio and you have to put in work to get it.
What do you look for when you are hiring new designers?
Michael: The first thing that I look at is their work. If I look at their portfolio and [school projects] are all they have on there, then what that tells me is that maybe they’re not really super passionate about design and animation. The people that did extra stuff beyond schoolwork, that tells me that they are internally motivated…. Then, even if they have a lot of work, it has to be at the quality level that we’re looking for here at the company. [Next,] I look at their resume to see if they did any extra things that [their school] offered. That also tells me that they’re passionate about being in this industry. Sometimes, I’ll look at their social media; if they’re out partying every night, then to me that says the chances of them not showing up to work could be high. Your social media as an artist should have your work that you’re producing as opposed to your doing stuff that might be considered bad choices by some people.
Nate: First things first is the portfolio. I have to sell people’s designs and animations to other clients. So I’m looking for somebody that does striking, beautiful work that gets me to pay attention. The second thing I look for is their communication skills, their respect, their professionalism, their appearances in terms of, are they a professional? Do they seem like we can be in the trenches with them and they’re going to be alert? Are they going to be a critical listener, a critical thinker? Do they seem like they’re on top of things? Those are the things I look for in [new hires].
Do you have any advice for designers planning to build their own company?
Kim: I think the most important thing is to have a good network of other creatives to talk to, even if they’re not coworkers… finding individuals that get it, whatever your thing is, and really cultivating those relationships and listening. Trust yourself, talk to experts. Most people in our industry are super down to talk about whatever. They love what they do and they’re passionate about it, and if you have questions, reach out.
Michael: [When I started Digital Brew], I just grew at the pace I could afford. I didn’t buy a bunch of t-shirts or an office space or things like that until I knew I could afford them or needed them. And I hired people slowly as needed. There are five parts of running a business. There’s marketing, sales, finance, management, and fulfillment. When I first started the company, I did everything by myself. As I started to get more and more business, when video editing got to be too much, I hired a video editor. When I couldn’t do the marketing anymore on my own, I got a marketing person. When I couldn’t do the sales by myself anymore, I got a salesperson. You want to make sure all those things are considered when starting a company. It’s not just, “Oh, I’m going to make videos.”
Nate: My recommendation is not to rush into starting your own company because when you get right out of school, you still have to continue to sharpen your ability to answer a creative brief and do that in a way that is better than the competition. [Adding the business responsibilities of a company] to that before you’re ready, you can damage your reputation, you can damage your personal brand. Pour your love and focus into [answering a brief well] and worry about starting a company when you’re getting to the point where you’re [answering briefs] very successfully, not when you’re still trying to figure it out.
How do you find clients and collaborators that are a good fit?
Kim: I think the most important thing when you’re finding a good collaborator and you’re finding a good client is that you both understand that it’s work and you both are communicating your expectations and your boundaries really well. It’s a relationship like every other relationship. [I also think that] getting clarity about your purpose and your value as an individual is more important than getting clear about how to find the right client. Because if you’re not right, the project’s not going to be right. Doesn’t matter who they are. You’re looking to find outside what you need to develop inside at that point.