September 16, 2007

Fun but not games

an interview with…

art director
Zimmerman and Partners

When you’ve designed projects for The Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers, and Carnival Cruise Lines, your career must be all fun and games, right?

“Advertising is a business, not an summer arts-and-crafts class,” Steve Saley says flatly. “A new designer should understand the importance of knowing not only how to provide professional advertising design solutions, but also know how to prepare a professional business contract that will assure he’ll ultimately get paid.”

If Saley sounds like a killjoy, it’s only because he’s been burned like so many other designers who, when they first get out in the world, figure the boss will hand them groovy projects with long deadlines.

Since graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 1977, Saley has overcome that new-grad naivete and won a whopping 68 local and regional ADDY Awards. He now works at the largest ad agency in the southeast United States.

When you were a student at the Art Institute, what was one misconception you had about working in the field?

It was an entirely different industry back then, but as I remember, I thought that once I graduated and got working in the field, most of the assignments would be glamorous and highly visible, with decent budgets.

It didn't take long for reality to set in, and I was forced to learn how to make a client's dollar go a long way. Even when there's not a lot of money to spend, you should find a way to make it look as if there was.

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

I'd definitely find time to take a business course somewhere along the way. If I had, I wouldn't have had to make the mistakes that I did. A psychology class also wouldn't have hurt, either.

What kind of mistakes did you make?

One example of a close call: My very first job out of school was designing and producing a new start-up saltwater fishing magazine for a rather shady individual who, I learned, had a reputation of not paying his help. As I neared completion of the assignment and began discussing my final invoice, he began to get a little evasive about things. So when I completed the job, I told him that he could stop by my studio to pick it up.

When he arrived, I had the job stashed at a friend’s apartment nearby. When I asked him for the payment, he told me he’d have a check ready “later in the week” – but that he had to leave with the job to bring to the printer, on deadline. I sensed that if I let him leave with the job, I’d never see my check, so I told him he’d get the job when I got the check. After a minute of protesting, he left and returned with the check.

Lesson learned. If I’d known to have prepared an agreement first, outlining the job specs and my terms of payment, I wouldn’t have had to held the job for ransom.

Favorite professional design project to date?

Several years ago, I was a freelance creative director. I was contracted by a local agency to develop a creative presentation to pitch the FedEx Orange Bowl account. The agency's creative director had suddenly left them and, like any agency, they wanted to acquire this new piece of business.

The presentation's objective was to develop a revitalized image for the event – which included a new logo, print ads, billboards, collateral, event signage, even the game-day ticket.

This agency was one of six competing for the business, and because their creative director had just left, they were seriously behind schedule. Within 10 days, though, I developed a selection of new logo treatments, as well as several different graphic solutions. When the presentation was over, the look on the client's faces said it all. We were officially notified the next day that we had beat out our competition and had won the account.

The owner of the agency offered me the creative director's position, which I happily accepted. And nine months later, I was standing in the west end zone of Dolphin Stadium, watching the grounds crew spray my logo design onto the field. I think that was the best part of the job.

Best part of an average workweek? Worst?

The best part of the week is Tuesdays. The worst part of the week is Mondays.

Mondays are for generally setting up the rest of the week – by giving you a battle plan of the workflow – and for cleaning up work from the previous week. Tuesdays are usually when I'm most productive. And you can't leave off Fridays when, hopefully, you're wrapping up a few jobs.

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

When you’re concepting – an ad, campaign, collateral, TV spot, whatever – you need to become intimately familiar with the audience that will see the message, instead of focusing on the latest photographic style, typeface, or Photoshop effect. If you get to know your audience and understand what you'd like them to do after reading your ad, then all the other creative considerations will easily follow.