Jose Caballer has transformed his creative career, going from print designer to award-winning web designer, from employee to business owner, from student to teacher. The latter role is his main gig now—in addition to teaching web design at the HOW Interactive Design Conference and via online design tutorials, he runs The Skool, which helps designers and companies learn web design processes and techniques. Jose will present at the HOW Design Conference‘s dedicated Interactive Design Track. We recently traded questions with him.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a graphic designer?
As a kid I was always drawing and building things. I built replica Star Wars ships out of chipboard, foam and other household materials. Being entrepreneurial, I would sell them to my 6th grade classmates ($7 was the right price point—two days of lunch).
But it wasn’t until the 11th grade when an Art Center College of Design student saw me drawing during a church potluck and told me about graphic design. The minute they explained, “The money is in graphic design,” I said, “Whatever that is, I’m doing it.”
What was your first job in the design field?
I designed the menus for the restaurant in Pasadena where I was a busboy while attending Art Center. After school, my first job was at an ad agency called Poppy Tyson in New York City. According to my creative director, I was “challenging” to manage but produced great work. We won an Art Directors’ Club Gold for interactive on the first project I led: the website for Dean Witter Discover.
What’s some of the most valuable advice that you think you could bestow on other designers aspiring for a similar career path?
- There is no right way of doing something.
- Success is not about having money, it’s about having time to be yourself.
- Get out of the studio. Connecting with others is the most important thing you can do.
- Define who you are, who your community is and what your goals are within that. Then never compromise. Compromise is the enemy of happiness.
- Don’t be passive-aggressive. State your interests and goals with everyone you collaborate with.
- Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you, go out there and get them. That’s why you have to set goals.
What type of self-promotion tactics have you found most successful?
When I had an agency I used three tactics:
- Education: My partners and I taught at Art Center College of Design. I taught in the undergrad department and Mary Gribbin taught in Art Center At Night. She got us clients from the VP’s and directors learning about web design in her night class, and I got the best of the litter from the designers taking my undergrad class in the undegrad dept.
- Community involvement: I joined the Alumni Council at Art Center as a volunteer and helped chair the communications committee. The council president asked me to help his wife’s company (which was a $120k project) and a year later we did the redesign of the Art Center website (a $250k project) was volunteering worth it? Yep. I can track over $2 million in revenue from just being a member of the Alumni Council. Was I expecting or hoping that I would get all that business? No—I was just doing my thing whole-heartedly with no expectations. If you come to the table thinking about the “quid” to their “quo” it doesn’t work. People can see that you are helping out of self interest not out of their interest.
- Doing great work: It seems like a given, but we had it in our business plan. That every project we did had to be aligned to our values and that we had to do our best to make it awesome. If you take on work just for “the money” and you do an “ok” job. It shows. the problem with that is that it makes getting work in the future harder, because you have to always be prospecting for new clients because your referrals are lower. So the “you are only as good as your last project” thing is totally true.
Do you have a pet project – a side business, passion project, or a charity to which you donate time or services?
My side project, The Skool, has become my full-time job. I now make a living from teaching online. I do consult for large agencies and corporations on how to streamline their process in addition to the online revenue.
When you get stuck in a creative rut, how do you break free?
Stop working. Take a road trip or mini vacation. We do “staycations” and visit and stay in other parts of our city. Los Angeles is like 10 cities in one. So a weekend in Manhattan Beach with our dogs is like going to another city. Taking time off and doing non creative things is the most creative thing you can do.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
A pastor for a “big box church”
What will you be sharing during your interactive design session at HOW Design Live?
My experience as a web designer who has never coded a project is that 80% of web design is done on paper. The thinking process that goes into a successful web project really defines the success. And the web design process works best when both technical team members and creative team members work together to define the product.
There is still too much fear and complete misunderstanding in many print designers transitioning to this new digital age. I want to let them know that they don’t have to be technical to work in web design.
Unlike in print where they do the production for a book, magazine or poster, in designing for digital platforms they work in teams with other people who are more technical than them helping execute the actual products.
My personal mission is to help educate designers on how to collaborate, execute and thrive in the 21st century! We are living in an AMAZING time in history, where we have a HUGE amount of power to make our ideas matter, to work on things that mean something to us and to help build a completely new world, and the secret as to how to do this has little to do with leading, kerning or what color you pick—and everything to do with knowing yourself, understanding the interests of others and focusing on what the user’s goals and needs are.
Are you a print designer looking to build your interactive design skills? The HOW Design Conference is a great place to do that, with expert web design instruction from top names in the field. Learn more and register.