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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series by John Foster on “late bloomers,” long distance runners that found their way a little later in life. Whether through trial and error, or life changes, or simply via a slow and steady maturation as a designer, these folks have found themselves at the forefront of the industry well into their careers.
The design field, much like all creative industries, is obsessed with youth. Now, more than ever, we look to see who the next supernova talent will be, burning brightly right out of school and into our consciousness. Long gone are the days of toiling under a master of the form, slowly working your way up, changing agencies just to get a chance to helm your own projects. The internet means that we see everything in real time, and not only what we do, but what all of our peers are designing as well. It can become overwhelming for anyone that might still be finding their feet under them, or hasn’t yet discovered their niche in this industry. That is why my very favorite creatives are not those that are celebrated as their first printed piece rolls off the presses, but rather it is those who grind along for a decade or longer, a potent mix of raw talent and determination, that once refined, brilliant and breath-taking, with the accolades that follow all the more deserved for the hard work and sacrifices it took in earning them.
This month we celebrate those amazing designers. We celebrate the Late Bloomers.
Our first conversation will be with Carolyn Sewell, a delightful mix of southern charm and never ending creative energy nestled into the nation’s capital.
What education in design do you have?
Bachelor of Fine Arts with emphasis in Graphic Design, Mississippi State University, 2001
What were your early jobs right out of school?
Being the annoying go-getter that I am, I started my design “career” while in college. I interned at Creative Needle Magazine one summer, Digital Magazine Group the following summer, and worked as a production artist at Garan Industries my final year of school. Garan produced children’s clothing for large box retailers, and our division would have to take one design and make print-ready versions for every team in the NFL, NHL, NBA, NCAA, and MLB. I learned more about Adobe Illustrator as a production artist than all of my college years combined.
Despite graduating top of my class, winning numerous awards, interning at a magazine and a design shop, plus having a production artist job, I did not have any jobs waiting for me when I graduated. Maybe it was because I graduated 3 months after Sept 11. Maybe it was because my resume said “Mississippi”. Or maybe my book wasn’t as good as I thought it was. Whatever the reason, I moved back home with my parents and kept looking for work. I sent self-promos to companies all along the East Coast. Not a single call-back. However, one company, Planet Propoganda, wrote me back a lovely letter. I still have it to this day.
6 months after graduating I got my first job at a small studio in Fairfax, VA. I’d be lying if I said it was my dream job, but it was a good right-out-of-college job as we all had to wear a lot of hats. I did not apply for this job, but rather one of their employees was looking for her own replacement and found me on Creative Hotlist. Back then portfolios were gigantic, the size of a small kitchen table. Fill it with 25 boards and it is a beast to carry. I would wrap a washcloth around the handles with duct tape to avoid blisters. During my interview I recall my soon-to-be-boss having reservations about “uprooting me” from the South and my family. He was wavering and I needed this job (and needed to get out of my parents’ house). So I told him my only concern was having to fly back with that portfolio, and if he hired me I was going to slide it into the corner and pick it up in a month when I moved there. Thankfully he hired me and I did just that.
What things do you feel were holding you back early in your career, both of your making and other obstacles out of your control?
I found it very difficult to be taken seriously in interviews and jobs. I had a solid portfolio of work and accolades, but folks couldn’t seem to get past my accent, mistaking it for ignorance or naivety, neither of which I wanted. But those stereotypes made me a stronger, tougher, more-determined designer and eventually the work spoke louder than my extra syllables. And I’m happy to say my accent is still there.
I expected too much from my job. I wanted it to be everything. I wanted it to pay the bills, buy me clothes, afford me trips, fulfill me creatively, provide me with friends, high-five me and give me gifts, hug me and insure my health. Every job I would expect this and then be disappointed, never staying anywhere longer than 2 years. Kept thinking the next job would be the one.
Which times did you feel like you finally got a break, only to have it not work out? If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. This was the case with my 3rd job out of college. My vision was so clouded from the shiny new title and salary, that I failed to see the red flags. The work was all spec, the hours horrific, the timelines non-existent, AND they were still using Quark. I lost 20 pounds from the stress. I lasted 6 months.
I can speak to personally having interviewed you early on and seeing something special and then getting blocked from hiring you by the studio owner. It must have been a frustrating time having good interviews but not getting into the jobs you wanted. What helped you keep plugging away and what adjustments did you make when an interview didn’t result in a job offer?
I’ve been not-hired way more times than I can remember (sometimes twice from the same company). It’s always a bummer, especially when you feel like you nailed the interview. To be annoyingly silver-liney about it, I learned something from every interview. I was doing them so much that I started to see them as research and rehearsal—switching up my presentation styles, changing my outfits, rearranging my portfolio pieces. I don’t know which tactic worked best, if any, but fear was my motivator.
I know you found yourself at a big agency poised to take over DC, only to have it turn into a dark comedy of no local clients and a slowly dwindling office. Can you talk a little about that time?
Sort of an interesting story of how I got there. I had actually interviewed and been hired by a smaller design shop in Old Town, Alexandria. Sometime between my interview and my first day, that design shop got acquired by a big agency. So when I showed up to work nobody knew who I was or what to do with me. I basically had to interview all over again. It was very awkward, and since I had already given notice to my previous company, I was understandably freaking out. Luckily, they kept me and I dove head-first into the agency koolaid, ready to be a part of something big. The work ended up not being all that I had hoped it would be, but I had finally found a work/life balance. I had started a daily blog called Pedestrian Typography, and found it fulfilled me creatively while my work paid the bills. This was a major turning point in my career.
How did that end and what led to you starting to work on your own?
On a particularly feel-awesome kind of day, my boss (who I adored) asked me if I had a few minutes to chat. I said something dorky like, “for you Jack, I’ve got 5.” We sat down in a conference room where my Assoc. Creative Director was waiting for us. Jack turned to me and said, “Carolyn we’ve got some bad news, we’re gonna have to let somebody go.” To which I reacted, “Noo, oh man, this is awful, who is it?!” They both just stared and blinked. “Carolyn, that person is you,” said Jack. I was in shock. I think it took me a solid 10 seconds before I spoke. And by spoke I mean cried.
After I calmed down they asked if I’d be willing to freelance for the next month to finish up a big project I was working on. And then told me I could take my favorite client, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, with me as it didn’t bring enough revenue to the agency. It is a very weird experience to have something taken away from you, and given to you, all at the same time. So I packed my things, went home and got very drunk. And the next day, with one client, I decided to stay laid off forever.
What was the first client job you got on your own where it really felt like things might go to another level, and why?
I had started out just doing the season artwork for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but eventually I was designing everything for them, right down to the ticket stubs. It became clear we needed to revisit our contract and agreed a retainer was more appropriate. Being a freelancer, with an unpredictable flow of cash, it felt really good to have a guaranteed amount of work every month. They were a great client and my work for them was my first venture into illustration.
When did you start to feel like you were garnering some respect locally, and what changed with that attention?
I think my involvement with the Art Directors Club of Metropoliatn Washington and AIGA DC were how I knew people and people knew me. I was not only a very active member, but I eventually served on the boards of both. Combine that with working at several design shops around DC and you’ve got yourself a substantial network. When I got laid off, I reached out to all my club contacts and they are the ones that made my first year as a freelancer possible. I couldn’t have done it without them.
What was the first piece where you really saw national recognition? It was a direct mail poster for the Art Directors Club of Metro Washington, for a talk by Ellen Lupton. All the letters were found typography I had collected from my Pedestrian Typography blog. It got into the 2007 HOW Magazine Self-Promo Annual. (I swear I’m not writing this because this is on the HOW blog). I designed this while employed at the agency, but it was a freelance project so my name was listed in the magazine, not the company I was working for. I remember that feeling amazing, and looking back, that moment foreshadowed two things: me working for myself, and my continued obsession with side projects.
How did it feel to reach that stage of acceptance and recognition?
It was a high! I’d found my drug of choice and I wanted more.
What changed after that as far as opportunities, both in business and in promoting your business, and yourself as a creative?
The real turning point was in 2009 when I started Postcards to My Parents, where I hand-lettered and mailed my parents a postcard every day for a year. This was years before everybody had a “Daily Something” Tumblr so I posted them on Flickr so I could keep track of them all. I was shocked when I started reviewing my Flickr stats and realizing how many people were viewing them, commenting on them, sharing them. And then articles were written about the project, several t-shirt companies approached me to work with them, I had a gallery show, it was crazy. At this point my portfolio started to shift from design to hand-lettering. I did a follow-up project called Postcards to My Peeps, then Postcardboard, and also starting uploading my Sketchnotes to Flickr as well. Funny enough, I tried for 10 years to get into Communication Arts, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t my sketchbook that got me in. And when I give talks, I end up talking about my passion projects because that’s what I’m known for.
Do you think it was better to receive that kind of attention after you were more settled and mature, both professionally and personally?
Hmm, not sure. If I could go back in time, I would probably start my side projects years earlier, knowing it would give me a head-start. But I’m all out of time-machines, so I have to embrace the fact that I will never be a Young Gun, or in a 30 under 30 group. But with age comes focus, and I now know what I love doing, what I’m good at doing, and what I plan on doing.
What are some of the exciting things you have tackled recently and what is on the horizon?
I recently finished a huge campaign for Rite-Aid. They just launched their own skincare line called Receutics and I hand-lettered the entire campaign. Some of the work is online, and by the end of the year it’ll be in all their stores. It was the largest project/quickest deadline I’ve worked on to-date, but was a great experience.
You can view more of Carolyn’s amazing work at carolynsewell.com.
John Foster is principal and superintendent of Bad People Good Things. He is the author of New Master of Poster Design, Volumes One and Two; Paper and Ink Workshop; 1000 Indie Posters; and several other books on design and creativity, and is a frequent speaker on design issues.
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