By Brantley Payne (BA, Graphic Design, ’97)
I went to Chico State with absolutely no idea what I wanted to be. You may say you don’t know, but my guess is that you at least have a short list of ideas that change with your mood. Am I right?
Not me. I seriously had no idea. I did have a list, though, with two things on it:
- If I work construction my whole life, I will die.
- If I work at Kmart my whole life, I will kill someone.
No offense to anyone who works at either place. But, I had worked part-time at both and knew, without a doubt, neither was an option.
I started my college career in 1993 living at Craig Hall. There, I met the roommates I would have for the next five years (we’re still friends to this day). Our first party after leaving Craig Hall was in Paradise Apartments. We invited everyone we knew from the dorms, including a Resident Advisor named (I think) Aaron.
We started talking about classes and schedules over a cup of Pale Ale. His schedule sounded awesome: art history, photography, typography. I learned about a major called graphic design. The next day, I was in Tehama Hall, knocking on the door of Gregg Berryman, a graphic design professor. What Aaron failed to tell me was that Chico had one of the best graphic design programs around, but for a good reason: Students had to pass a rigorous portfolio review to get admitted. Luckily, since working at Kmart or in construction were not options, neither was failure.
Note: I believe there are two types of graphic designers: Those that possess “born with” talent and those that work, study, and learn everything there is to know, regardless of talent.
Another note: At this point, I was neither.
So, I learned. I studied. I worked, really hard. I’d visit Mr. Berryman often so he knew I wanted this. Either my tenacity or the will of God allowed me to pass the portfolio review. Regardless, it wasn’t “born with” talent that got me in.
As I worked my way through the program, I never was a star. I didn’t make the other students jealous over my typography or color theory. But I worked hard for those B-level works of art. After a year in the program, I got my first internship, designing the Entertainment section at The Orion.
Man, that job was hard work. And it’s no joke. Not only was it the best experience I got as a student, it prepared me in every which way for the real world. To this day, I will interview anyone with an internship from The Orion. That place taught me about deadlines. It taught me about management. It taught me Adobe. I became a master at what I call the “task” behind talent.
Another note (why not?): I think every career can be broken down into “task” and “talent.” In graphic design, if you know how to get things done, you are an instant resource to your team. Your talent will carry you in the long run, but knowing how to execute a task gets you working right away.
Anyway, everyone I know that had a successful internship at The Orion has a successful career today. And a huge thank you to Dave Waddell, who was the head of the journalism department at the time, for putting up with me and my rowdy friends while we worked there. Sorry about the thing we broke on that trip.
By the time I graduated in 1997, I’d moved up the ladder at The Orion, to art director, and was in charge of the entire design of the paper. But my learning had just begun.
After graduation, I eventually landed a job as a junior art director at an advertising agency called Glass McClure in Sacramento. Still a B-level designer, mind you, but I worked hard. Failure was not an option. And I knew how to get work done.
But I was also a student of my industry. I took time to learn the business behind why I was doing what I was doing. The more I knew, the better my work got. Eventually, I was promoted to art director, which meant that I was now managing people. I used some of the skills I had learned at The Orion. But I was a student again—learning the tasks of management this time—but still designing, and still creating.
After a few years my boss, Greg Glass, hired a mentor for me, Bob Matsumoto. Bob worked with the advertising greats back in the 1960s, the crew that Mad Men was modeled after, on Madison Avenue in New York City. Bob taught me a lot. He told me to focus my efforts on copywriting instead of graphic design. Wow! What?! Let go of my field of expertise? It was frightening, but letting go of my B-level design skills allowed me to become an A-level copywriter. Finally, my talent could really shine and I had all this experience of task under my belt, too. Soon after, Greg made me creative director of the entire agency.
In early 2010, Greg passed away at an early age. He left me and three other partners in charge of his company. In March 2016, almost exactly 16 years after I was hired as a junior art director, I had the amazing opportunity to purchase the agency. I had grown up learning in the agency, and now I owned it.
Last December, my partners and I changed the name to Uncommon, based on the advertising we’d produced during the past six years, and also the unusual path that brought us together.
Today, I’m not a graphic designer, an art director, a copywriter, or even a creative director. Twenty-five years after that pint of Pale Ale in Chico with an RA named (I think) Aaron, I’m a business owner.
Once again, I’m learning a new task—and praying that I never have to work at Kmart or a construction site anytime soon.