August 12, 2007

Danger and design

an interview with...

creative director
The Creative Underground

Before he turned 21, Joe Paul was a U.S. Army sergeant and interrogator. After he was honorably discharged, he trained as a commercial diver.

“My first dive job was at a nuclear power plant, cleaning and repairing the cooling tanks,” he recalls. “When the dossimeter in my helmet beeped, it meant I had enough radiation for the day.”

A few years later, he changed jobs again, this time to “a career far more dangerous” – graphic design.

After graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and paying his dues (including “dangerous” work at a place called Déjà vu Adult Entertainment), Paul is now creative director at a small but growing design and PR firm in Boca Raton. The Creative Underground has had clients who sell everything from beer to biotech. But so far, those clients haven’t included the Army or a nuclear power plant. Yet.

How did you get from interrogator to diver to designer?

I’ve always been an artist, but as a kid I didn’t know I could do it for a living. So I joined the Army to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And while being an interrogator was an interesting experience, it was time to move on. I was convinced that commercial diving would be perfect, so I moved to Seattle and did that for a while. But my problem is that reality rarely lives up to how it is in my imagination.

On a visit home to Florida, I checked out art school, pretty sure I’d hate it. But after I took a tour, I knew this is what I was born to do.
The strange thing is, several interrogator friends of mine have ended up in a creative field – either as artists or writers.

When you were a graphic design student, what was one misconception you had about working in the field?

I thought it would be easier to break into the industry. I had a great portfolio, but nobody was hiring people fresh out of school. Even Mac Temps said, “Come back in a couple of years.”

I had to pay my dues by doing layouts part-time at a small print shop. But I learned a lot about the printing process, and that helped shape my design. My advice to recent graphic design graduates: Consider the first two years of your career as grad school, and don’t expect to get paid what you’re worth until your third year.

Any weird/awful dues-paying stories?

At the print shop I worked at, the owner drank on the job and was pretty unpleasant to deal with. His jobs were always late, and he’d make me lie to the customers. One day he went for a bike ride and got hit by a truck.

Near the end, he couldn’t pay me, saying he’d get me next week. But after a couple more weeks without pay, I said I couldn’t come in until he paid me. He didn’t call me back for a couple of weeks, then when he did, it wasn’t to say he had my money, but to accuse me of stealing his computer equipment! Luckily, a few days later, fate rescued me with an awesome full-time design job.

What's one big misconception that non-designers have about what you do?

I told a cousin that I was a graphic designer and he said, “Cool, can you design some flames for my car?” If you look in the want ads, that’s what they mean by “Graphics.”

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students or young professionals, what would it be?

It’s not about the school you went to, your level of design education, or a fancy portfolio case. Quality of work, experience, and personality win the job. Bonus advice: Keep your classmates and co-worker’s contact info. After a few years in the industry, they make great contacts. Sometimes it is about who you know.

Best part of an average work week? Worst?

Best: It could be 10 p.m. when I get home, but if I stayed late because of a creative brainstorming session, I feel excited and mentally charged.

Worst: Compared to other jobs I’ve had, this is a cake walk. But when the creativity runs out, it’s mentally draining – even depressing. I have to keep finding new ways to stimulate creativity and keep things fun.

What was your favorite professional design project to date?

My favorite is one I’m just finishing up with my fiancee’s help. It’s our wedding invitation that looks like a pirate map: with cool distressed edges, rolled up, then sent in a Corona bottle filled with sand and shells. That required a lot of beer drinking, but hey, it was for a good cause...

If you had to do it all over again, anything you'd do differently?

I’d try to be nicer to people. And I’d never charge family for design work.