Next Portland speaker
Part of an ongoing series highlighting the amazing people in the Portland creative community.When Isaac Watson left his day job last April, he looked to friends and strangers to keep his passion project in check. Each week on Twitter, he compared the number of hours he worked with those billed, ending with a brief summary of how he felt. While simple in practice, lifting the veil in the public domain forced Isaac to both confront the timeliness of his project’s goals and his need to bill more time so he could survive at home. He was, in effect, tapping into his ambidextrous brain. By intertwining creativity and analysis, Isaac has found his sweet spot between project management and community organizing. And today, he’s burning the same midnight oil and has almost completed that same passion project, Maker’s Nation.
We picked Isaac for his tweet from our Liz Forkin Bohannon talk. See the photos in all their glory on Flickr: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjTRYFQZYou attended Portland State University’s renowned Graphic Design program from 2004 to 2008. How do you reflect upon your experience?
I didn’t actually graduate! In fact, I ran screaming from graphic design. The moment came when I was preparing for my portfolio review. I had been going to school off-and-on and wasn’t following a typical track. Forcing myself to be creative day-in and day-out was not something I wanted to do. And yet, I still had this great appreciation for design and marketing.
And so, it got to a point where I said to myself, “Portfolio review or bust!” And I said, “Bust.”
Six months later in 2008, you started Focal Length Designs. Did you have any sense the project was on your horizon?
No, not at all. It was my outlet for creativity as a hobby business. I could do it on the side when I had the time and motivation outside of my full-time retail job. I was making the work and doing a bit of graphic design for the marketing materials. To be fair, I didn’t see Focal Length as design work so much as making, and that’s where it appealed to me.
As your first jump as a professional in the creative world, what are some lessons you learned?
To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing from a business standpoint. That particular “Oh crap!” moment is what fueled the rest of my career development. A lot of my dilemmas included not knowing how to price my work, how to market to people who were not my friends, and how to get my business into the community and be known. And then balancing my ability to produce creative work versus it being 30 degrees in my parents’ shop, hammering away at aluminum bracelets, not having very much fun, but knowing I had a show the next day.
I also learned to not do it all myself. My best decisions were hiring an assistant for three or four months to help prepare for a show, and then hiring a professional photographer to take images of my work. Those were huge burdens I was able to pass off, and it was well worth it. Also, I dove into my community, embracing advice trading and mentorship. As I started selling my work on Etsy, I realized there were other small business owners like myself who were trying to do something creative for a living and make a go of it.
You mentioned being involved with Etsy. It would seem, then, that was a direct connection to “I Heart Art Portland,” the community project you founded?
Absolutely! In 2009, Etsy was interested in jumpstarting community programs to help local Etsy sellers, and Portland was the prime place to do it. They partnered with PNCA and the Craft Museum and decided they wanted to start a professional development program. I was involved with a group of nine other people who volunteered to put “I Heart Art Portland” together. And it was great! For almost three years, we hosted workshops and networking events.
Also during this time, you returned to an academic community by starting work at PNCA. How did that come about?
I began working at PNCA because of the “I Heart Art” project. As collaborative partners in the program, I worked with PNCA pretty closely. One month, they had an opening in their Communications Department and I was anxious to stop working at Kinko’s. It was a perfect segue into marketing work.
Sounds like you were turning connections into professional opportunities. Let’s talk about Maker’s Nation, then. When did you decide you wanted to start a new venture?
We knew that our third year of the “I Heart Art” project was going to be our last because of a lack of funding. I thought to myself, “How can we return this program to something that is sustainable?” Because when it came down to it, the program was very successful for what we were doing. We had a lot of people attending our workshops, and we even experimented with speed-dating networking events that were very popular.
Maker’s Nation incorporated in March 2012 and we formed our board. It was very slow going at first, partially because I was working full-time (in PNCA’s Communication Department) and as a board we were still wrapping our heads around what we wanted to focus on. We knew we wanted to be broader in scope and not just focus on Portland but to help makers across the country. We also knew that education was a primary component of what we were doing. I didn’t actually intend to start Maker’s Nation as a non-profit, but the more I looked at keeping prices affordable for up-and-coming makers and being able to rely on community support — like philanthropy — the more I realized a non-profit was the way to go. So over the next year and a half, with a lot of planning and rethinking and planning and thinking some more, we’re finally kicking off in 2014.
But you still had your day job. When did you know it was right to walk away?
There were number of factors that aligned magically — well, not magically — but aligned at the same time that allowed me to make a decision. One, I bought my house and completely changed my monthly financial situation for the better. Two, I was at a turning point where I knew I needed to spend more time with Maker’s Nation but I did not have the capacity to do so outside of my job. So I gave myself an ultimatum — I needed to dive into it or I needed to walk away and let it go. And I couldn’t bring myself to let it go.
Why give yourself the ultimatum?
I knew if I didn’t, I would continue to waffle. My passion wouldn’t be my primary focus and I would just drag the project out further. If I didn’t do anything different, Maker’s Nation would blow up in my face.
I imagine you could have left and started Maker’s Nation in a different city, such as San Francisco or Seattle. Why did you choose to stay in Portland?
I’m a native, for one. And I kept coming back to the idea that if I were to go somewhere else, I would have to start from scratch. Portland has what I call the “Portland bubble.” It’s why everyone is drawn to Portland, including Portlandia — that creative, collaborative atmosphere that makes it pretty easy to start something like Maker’s Nation. And yet, while we’ll be based here in town, we are hoping very quickly to expand into other cities and start training. So while I try not to focus too much on Portland, it does have that magic, pixy dust of creative awesomeness.
Is it important for other Portlanders to burst from that Portland “bubble”?
Yes! One thing that I’ve been really conscious of is to realize that what makers are doing here can be replicated elsewhere. That Portlanders are not relying on the bubble to make us successful and that maybe the petri dish of all the components that go into making the bubble can be found in other cities. I’m fascinated by other creative cities that have a maker history with a blue-collar style, like Pittsburg, Raleigh, or Asheville. These places have really interesting, creative backgrounds but maybe the communities themselves are a little more underserved. Those are the types of places that are most like Portland that would also be easy for us to go into and start hosting programs and to be a real benefit to the people that live there.
There’s a statement on the Maker’s Nation website that reads, “Find your people the old-fashioned way. Better your business the 21st-century way.” How does balancing the old and new resonate with you?
Makers are constantly self-isolating. If you’re trying to do it all yourself, you’re either in your studio, behind your computer or in your workshop. You could also be taking the photos, writing your copy or building your own website. Even though we are increasingly interconnected through the Internet, we have devalued the importance of coming face-to-face and spending time in a social manner with other people. And so “finding your people the old-fashioned way” means finding an event or a structured program where you can meet, learn and have a shared experience with others.
“Better your business the 21st century way” means taking a modern approach to what you’re doing. Whether it’s jumping on the crowdfunding train, focusing on an online-only business or using the latest technology or channels to sell and market your work, these are skills I often find makers lacking. By offering education, hopefully Maker’s Nation can attempt to bring makers as a whole up together and offer tools for being better business people in the 21st century.
On the heels of starting Maker’s Nation, is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Think bigger! I left school very frustrated while trying to find myself and I think I was limiting myself to what was immediately in front of me. I think taking the leap into starting the jewelry business was probably the first step into thinking bigger. I often find my ideas tend to be much more ambitious than I can actually execute, but I like it that way because it keeps my mind open to different things and it helps me scheme, plan and think broader than what’s right in front of my face.
That sounds similar to a line I’ve seen on your website and your Twitter biography, “Pay attention, give a shit.”
Those are Stefan Sagmeister’s words and they’ve always resonated with me. One of my biggest frustrations in observing culture is how more and more people are taking the time to notice their surroundings. It’s one thing to complain, or to whine, or to demand for change — whether it be in politics or economics. But ultimately, it’s important to put actions behind your words. “Giving a shit” for me is a mantra that suggests I have opinions, feelings, and goals, and that I can do something about them.
Does such a philosophy relate to being a maker?
Yes, I think it does. I think the most successful makers are the ones who are not just paying attention to what they’re doing, but to how the outside world influences [their creativity] and to care enough about what they’re doing to make it amazing.
Do you consider yourself a maker?
On Friday, March 14, we’re hosting Portland photographer Holly Andres, a photographer who through her camera examines the complexities of childhood, the fleeting nature of memory, and female introspection.Hosted at The Hollywood Theatre, several tickets are still available for the talk related to CreativeMornings’s global theme, “Hidden.” Grab yours now! http://creativemornings.com/talks/holly-andresThe above photo, “Sam Johnson, Executive Director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, Oregon,” was included in a commissioned photography series by Oregon Cultural Trust. Holly was tasked with creating a collection of portraits of Oregon icons, each of whom represent a facet of Oregon cultural life. See more from her series: http://www.hollyandres.com/The-Oregon-Cultural-Trust
Wanderlust might best explain designer Tess Donohoe’s journey to the Rose City. After meeting her husband, Ryan Donohoe, in Copenhagen during his exchange program in architecture, Tess crossed the pond to San Francisco to study illustration. A Bachelor of Fine Arts would bring Tess to Southern California and the Art Center College of Design, studying Motion Graphics and working with clients like Tom’s Shoes and the United Nations. She’s now a full-time freelance graphic designer and illustrator living in her new Northwest abode with her husband, their dog, and a turntable apt for study breaks.We picked Tess for her tweet from the Matt Wagner talk.
We heard you recently moved to Portland’s Alberta St. neighborhood from Los Angeles. Welcome!
Thanks! I moved here on my birthday on November 2nd. In fact, my family just flew in from Copenhagen to visit my husband and I. They’re in our home around the corner pulling out carpet. It’s old, so they’re helping with the renovations. Behind the home is an accessory building that at one time housed a construction business. My husband, who builds furniture, has his woodshop on the first floor and I have my studio on the second floor.
It’s funny because CreativeMornings was my first attempt at getting out. Matt Wagner’s talk was only two weeks after I moved here.
With rising tuitions and more creative outlets to build a portfolio, many students are doubting the worth of an art or design degree. How do you reflect upon your BFA degree at Art Center College of Design?
It’s a hard question to answer because I understand art schools are incredibly expensive nowadays. But for me, it was a great experience because art school taught me the most important lesson I still carry with me today: it’s not about understanding specific skills, but learning how to learn. Our semesters were 14 weeks long, and you’d often start from the beginning not knowing anything about a course topic, whether it was motion graphics, typography, illustration, or something more specific. But by the end, you’d get your head around it. There’s a certain confidence earned from finishing a full project.
Given the decline of job market in 2009, were you at all optimistic about finding projects upon graduating?
I didn’t think of it like that. I stayed focused on learning what I needed to learn, and being present in what I was doing right then. In school, you have no way of knowing if you’ll have projects in three years or one year or two months. School is such a limited time that there’s no reason to get discouraged about the future and what’s going to happen. Instead, you just have to continue getting better everyday — collaborating, getting projects done and building your portfolio.
Your interest in collaboration brings to mind the BFA Programs hosted at the University of Oregon’s White Stag Building in Portland. There’s a course, “Design Discourse,” where students from the Digital Arts, Product Design and Architecture programs share ideas about design.
Exactly! It’s a similar philosophy to projects we completed at Art Center. Often, all the school’s majors would come together and collaborate. During one stretch where I was taking classes on motion graphics, we were lucky to work on a project for the United Nations. It was an animation later shown at a conference in Cairo concerning human rights and equality.
Did you have time for any passion projects outside of school?
Because school was all-consuming, I only had enough time to work hard and take a lot of classes. But a few years ago when Ryan and I were in San Francisco, we were able to collaborate on a project called Gorilly. It was started by two guys who held different day jobs but shared an idea for a mobile showroom. They didn’t know how to get the project off the ground, so they found us. Ryan was able to design the van’s interior space and build its furniture, while I created the showroom’s logo and all complimentary graphic design. They’ve now work on the project full-time and the business is still going strong today.
What is it like for you as an illustrator when collaborating with your husband, who’s a furniture designer?
My process, especially with illustration, can be loose. I’ll get going on an idea and not have a fine sketch that’s perfect. Sometimes, I’ll allow my process to produce the project, like a happy accident. Whereas with Ryan’s woodworking, he has to plan. Between the wood being used and the cuts, it’s more of a linear process.
We’re always brainstorming new projects. It’s jut a matter of starting them in the first place.
Speaking of your illustrations, there’s a light-hearted, colorful, fun quality to your work. How do you hope people feel when looking through your illustrations compared to your graphic design portfolio?
That’s a response I’ve heard from many people — that “fun” feeling. Not long ago, I realized the feelings I held while making something were as important as my project’s final outcome. I asked myself why I should sit and feel tortured when, instead, I could create an environment that felt supportive of creativity. Maybe that’s where the bright colors in my illustrations came from, because I shifted my process towards one surrounded by bright colors. I also came to realize, quite literally, when I have to sit somewhere for ten hours a day staring at an illustration, such a time commitment also puts me in a mood. Most people might look at something on Tumblr for two seconds, but I’ll ended up looking at an illustration for twenty-plus hours. So, I’ll tinker with my process. I’ll try new things — I’ll start painting, I’ll try the texture of skin a different way, I’ll change my line work. A new process offers a new challenge.
With graphic design, though, it’s different because you’re working with a client. With start-up’s and smaller companies, it’s always fun because it’s a matter of finding out what they’re trying to say and expressing those ideas. Whereas with illustration, I don’t much consider my audience. Most of my work finds its way onto my blog or floating somewhere in the virtual universe. I’m more interested in what I want to feel. I’m able to offer more of myself, a little more “Tess.”
Really, it’s been like 24-hour business — I’ve loved doing both and I’ve refused to choose one or the other.
How would you, then, personally go about defining your aesthetic?
I like to create work that tells a story. I try to create moments and never focus solely on drawing characters. It’s about those little times of space, almost like a snapshot. And what’s unique about illustration is that, similar to photography, you’re forming a landscape. But as an illustrator, there’s a freedom to add something odd or different you couldn’t find in reality, like a horizontal half-moon. And as two different mediums, you can’t copy one or other, but you can try to capture that same feeling.
I came across a passage on your website that suggested you enjoy sketching the scenes around you while in airports and client meetings. Where does that curiosity come from?
I’ve come to realize sketching is not so much a hobby for me but something that is fundamental to my practice. And so when I was a little older than 17 and had first met Ryan, I would often fly between Copenhagen and the United States’ West Coast, a 24-hour trip door-to-door. Drawing those around me was a different way for me to absorb information and be be present in the moment. You start noticing every little detail of your environment, like the crinkle in people’s clothes or their posture and what that says about how they’re feeling. And the thing about drawing is that it can make the otherwise mundane appear interesting. What you put onto paper won’t be perfect — there will always be a little quirkiness and personality. Even more, the drawing reflects my state-of-mind. I find it fascinating.
Similarly, I read you recently worked with the Louie Awards in Washington, D.C. and took on designing the invitation cards for their annual awards show celebrating the year’s top greeting cards. I’m curious what you see the role as being for greeting cards?
For me, whether it’s for an event or a person, greeting cards are about saying something you want to say without knowing how to say it. And similar to infographics, greeting cards can take something that’s complex, amplify that feeling, and communicate it effectively.
Around three years ago, one of the first greeting cards I designed said on the outside, “Did you feel that?” and on the inside, “I was sending you good vibes.” There was a little guy wearing a space hat with radar things sending out “vibes.” The card didn’t share a profound message per say, but it included both a surprise element and a heart-warming message. Affecting people with a smile allows the card designer to think, “Okay, I’ve done something.”
Speaking of feelings, how has your experience in Portland been so far?
When I moved to Portland, it felt like I was coming full-circle from Copenhagen and that I’d arrived home. The people have been wonderful, but more importantly I’ve felt as though I could start breathing again. There’s not this race to win something as opposed to San Francisco and Los Angeles — although the pressure might stem from it costing an arm and a leg to live in those respective cities. People in Portland offer space for others to do their work. In the past, I’ve always felt as if everything needed to be done yesterday, especially for personal projects. But now, knowing I can take little more time to finish something and have it be a better project in the end has helped a lot.
I noticed one portfolio piece, “Doris and the Bear,” that stood out from your other illustrations. Is that an example of a personal project?
Yeah! “Doris and the Bear” is an example of, again, what ties all my work together: storytelling. It was part of an online class where I was asked to create a visual narrative. As opposed to a graphic novel, I chose to look into children’s stories, deciding on a woman and a bear and their relationship out in the woods. The first step was creating the front cover.
And it’s true, I take a lot of Skillshare classes because there are just so many. I’m enrolled in something like seven online classes. Right now, I’m diving into calligraphy. Take yesterday, where I spent 12 hours drawing letters in my living room while watching a movie. The floor and tables are scattered with letters. And so from a learning perspective, I don’t think I can be creatively satisfied. In the creative industry, and especially with interactive design, you’re always a step behind. That’s why I love what I’m doing — it never feels like a static career.
And so, looking back, would you have told Tess to do anything differently?
I’m not sure I would say anything differently because I didn’t leave Copenhagen with a sense of fear for the future. I left for the States feeling open-minded, not knowing what was going to happen nor having a plan. Sure, looking back there have been hard times, but I would not have warned my younger self because if I had been scared or known something difficult was bound to happen, I might not have pursued the same opportunities.
If there was something I could have told myself while in school, it would’ve been to keep pushing my craft further and further. Even if it didn’t feel like progress was being made or designs didn’t look quite right, it takes so long as it is until one’s work gets to a point where it maybe looks slightly okay. You just have to push through. Even right now, my life as a freelance designer can be super hard because I never know where the work will be next. In two weeks, I won’t have anything planned. But honestly, it’s like moving to a different country — between the American green cards and other difficulties, you don’t know how the transition will work out. Instead, it’s about focusing on those little steps.Interview by Sean Danaher, Photos by Ashley Forrette
Our chapter writer Sean Danaher took this shot of Instrument’s Public Relations Coordinator Cheryl Fuller during their interview for our Community Spotlight series back in December.seandanaher:
Southeast Portland, Oregon
For March, CreativeMornings’ global theme is “Hidden”. The theme was chosen by Creative Mornings Seattle' organizer David Conrad and his team, while Jesse LeDoux (LeDouxville) created the illustration. The Creative Mornings Portland speaker will be Holly Andres, a photographer who through her camera examines the complexities of childhood, the fleeting nature of memory, and female introspection.Mark your calendars for March 14! http://creativemornings.com/talks/holly-andres
Gathered on Valentine’s Day for a CreativeMornings defined by the month’s global theme, “Rebel”, our chapter photographer Scott Larsen took these frames from Andi Zeisler’s February ‘14 talk.See the rest on our Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/1ol3cQ7
This coming month in February, CreativeMornings’ global theme is “Rebel,” sponsored by Shutterstock. The illustration was made by Portland’s own Adam R. Garcia, Art Director of The Pressure.
The CreativeMornings/Portland speaker is Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media, a national nonprofit organization: http://creativemornings.com/talks/andi-zeisler
A great capture at our Portland event, photographed by Scott Larsen.