How do I Become a Graphic Designer and Co-Founder?

How do I Become a Graphic Designer and Co-Founder?

How do I Become a Graphic Designer and Co-Founder?

Hi! My name is Ozan Karakoc. I’m a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, founder of Ozan Karakoc Design Studio, Bak Magazine, and co-founder of a new online branding inspiration platform, Go. In this episode of ‘How I Got My Job,’ I’d like to share with you a few secrets to becoming a good designer, some actionable insights, and a couple of lessons I learned on the way that I believe can help you on your own journey. Let’s get started!

Design Is A Way of Thinking

What makes a good designer? You can answer this question in many different ways. My take is this; ‘A good designer is the one who is capable of picking what is good and what is bad. I’m not an automotive designer. I haven’t studied it, I haven’t worked with an engineer, and my knowledge of ergonomics is limited to my common sense. But you know what? I can design a beautiful vehicle if I’d like because my eyes and mind are educated enough to know when a car looks good and when it doesn’t. I can feel what works well and what won’t. Yes, if I actually attempt to design a car, there will be tons of knowledge I’ll need to learn, tons of people I’ll need to listen to and work with, but aesthetically, I already know what to do and how to solve design problems even in a vehicle.

Even before deciding to become a professional designer, you should ask yourself if you’re truly obsessed with design. Does bad design make you sad or angry? Does good design make you happy and excited? If your response is ‘what is this guy talking about, you may want to choose a different job. If you say ‘hell yes, then you’re already in the club. It is quite unlikely that you are an excellent designer at age 18 because experience has a huge impact on how good you are. However, if you can distinguish good design from bad design, and you’re obsessed with beauty, there is no reason you won’t become one soon.

Don’t Plan. Act.

We always want to see the future. We want to know what kind of life we will have when we grow up. “Which college will I attend to,” “which city will I be living in,” “which company will accept me as an intern,” “will I ever have my own company,” “will people remember me when I die”? I remember getting lost in those kinds of questions. I had to plan everything. I had to know exactly how my career would be shaped. When I was about to graduate from high school, my plan was clear. I would attend a design school, apply for an internship at the best advertising agency in the country, get accepted, work there for some time, and be asked to come back when I get my degree. Then I would step up and up and become one of the partners of that agency. And finally, one day, I would start my own design business.

A few years after that, I graduated and attended a major design school. In the last year of college, I applied for an internship at the country’s best advertising agency and got accepted. I worked there for some time, and just before my internship ended, the executive creative director asked me to come back when I graduate. She said, “I’m holding your desk here. Come and get it whenever you’re done with school”. I said, “thank you,” but I haven’t even driven by that street again. Why? Because my experience there was extremely different than what I expected. Yes, it was the best agency with the biggest clients and millions of awards, but it was incredibly chaotic, so much that most of the people had psychological issues! ‘Saving the day’ was the motivation. There was no excitement, no motivation, no smiles.

Jeff Bezos Career Advice x
Jeff Bezos Career Advice

My plan collapsed. Then I attempted to find a partner to start a design business. One of them wasn’t brave enough to embark on that kind of journey at such a young age. (I don’t know, maybe he was right, or maybe not.) The other one was skeptical about everything, and I got tired of that attitude. The third one was very excited, said ‘let’s do it but then joined another agency in less than a week after our discussion.

So, my plan changed again. Then I contacted the owner of a motion picture advertising agency in Los Angeles, showed my portfolio to him, and luckily, I got a job offer. (By the way, Los Angeles is 12,000 miles away from my home country). Then I left my beloved city, Istanbul, and my wonderful family, and moved to the U.S. I thought that designing movie posters would be an amazing experience! And it was. I have designed more than 1,000 posters for movies and TV shows in five years, including Avatar, Game of Thrones, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and many more, and I had a lot of fun! But, over time, the industry changed dramatically and became so inefficient and discouraging that sticking with it didn’t make sense to me anymore.

And my plan changed again. Then I transferred to that agency’s sister company, which was a creative studio specializing in branding, and I became a partner. I was so excited for the future, but it didn’t take too long to figure out that we didn’t share the same vision with the owner. It was perfectly understandable and nobody’s fault, but it caused the same negative ending for me.

My plan changed again! Finally, I started my own design business, and I have been working in my studio for the last 5 years with great joy. What I learned in that period is that it doesn’t make sense to spend too much energy to make future career plans, especially when you’re that young, and even if you’re the most rational person in the world. Instead, try to focus on experiencing different things, knowing many good people, creating side projects all the time, and striving to become better and better.

Be Brave. Good Things Are Out of Your Comfort Zone

Even though my plans changed several times between my school years and today, I never regret any of my choices. If I didn’t apply for an internship at the best advertising agency in Istanbul, I would never know how it feels to work in that environment. Maybe I would envy people who worked there! If I didn’t contact that agency owner in LA, I wouldn’t experience working in the U.S. If I didn’t quit my job and leave my partner title behind, I would have lost the advantage to build my customer base earlier.

Good things come to us when we leave our comfort zones. I know it is not easy at all. It was so difficult for me to leave my parents and my sister behind at age 25. It was so scary to move to a city that is 12,000 miles away from home and to have the responsibility to take care of my wife, whom I married just three days before our plane departed from Istanbul. It was terrifying for me to leave the people I work with for the last seven years, get rid of my paycheck, title, and start my own design business with zero clients. But it all went great.

Most of the big success stories start with struggles and fails. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, had outstanding hardships in her life that made her almost homeless. Steve Jobs got fired from every company he started. Bill Gates dropped out of school, and his first business was a complete failure. Walt Disney’s first studio went bankrupt, and he was fired from his job at a local newspaper. Then they became so successful that they achieved to change the world forever. It is not easy, but try hard and do your best to get out of your comfort zones. Even if it causes you to fail, you will soon realize that it was the starting point for your future success.

Leave A Mark

Being a designer is a gift. You have the power to tell the same story in a much more impactful and memorable way. I have used that power many times is irrelevant situations. After graduating from design school, I decided to learn more about Cinematography to make professional-looking short films. As my main profession is graphic design, and I used to do design work for clients in those years, I didn’t want to spend four more years studying film, so I decided to apply for a two-year Master’s program. Actually, it was a crazy idea. How would I convince the jurors to have me? Why would they accept the submission of a candidate who has a Bachelor’s Degree in graphic design? More importantly, how would I even beat hundreds of other students and become one of the top seven?

Well, I had a pretty strong tool. Design Thinking! I decided to create an epic portfolio that the jury couldn’t ignore. I headed to a carpenter and asked him to make a huge, wooden clapperboard (movie slate) for me. Then I painted it black, with white stripes on the clap. It was a 20-inch-wide slate with a moving clap and a sliding door. When you slide it out, it opens, and you see four compartments, ‘My film,’ ‘My script,’ ‘My photographs,’ and ‘My jimmy-jib.’ Then the interview day came. I dressed up, took my beautiful slate, and entered the room. I sat on a chair in front of the jury with five highly experienced filmmakers and theorists. They immediately stared at the huge, black slate in my hands. I put it on the table and said, ‘here is my portfolio.’

On the slate, there was my name (as if it’s the director’s name on an actual film slate), the school’s name, the interview date, and some other little details. They were amazed. One of them stood up, figured out the sliding door, opened it immediately, and they started enjoying the content while asking me about the things they see. At the end of the session, they started discussing to find an excuse to get me in without a Bachelor’s Degree in filmmaking. ‘This is by far the best portfolio I have ever seen in my entire life,’ one of them said. All nodded. Another juror added, ‘if he doesn’t deserve to be accepted, I don’t know who does.’

Then I got accepted, and now I have a Master’s Degree in Cinematography. 14 years after that, one of the lecturers, who was also in the interview that day, sent me an e-mail and attached a photograph of my slate portfolio on the shelf behind his desk. He said, ‘I have it with me all the time, and I show it to my new students every year with pride and joy. You are still an inspiration for us after all those years.’ I didn’t achieve to get that degree or become so unforgettable because of a mediocre 5-minute film, a not so special little script, a bunch of nice but completely irrelevant photographs I took, and images from the early stages of an amateur jimmy-jib we attempted to build with my high school friend. The only reason is my ‘out of the box’ film slate idea which could only become possible with design thinking. Use your design superpowers in every aspect of your life and always try to leave a mark on whatever you do. Even if it’s a one-page resume, you’re asked for.

Your Resume Is More Than A Resume

In my agency career, I reviewed hundreds of designer resumes. I got the responsibility to evaluate those and narrow them all down to 3-4 candidates. Then we invited the finalists over and had in-depth interviews. When you have 250 resumes on your desk, there is no way you can read every one of them. You have to find an easy way to eliminate the majority of the applications. Luckily, those are ‘designer resumes,’ and the design reveals a lot of things by itself. Poorly designed, carelessly put together, illegible resumes are out right away. Then you have 40-50 properly prepared, easy-to-read resumes in front of you. Now, it is time to go deeper. 

At that very moment, the reviewer, who has the authority to accept your submission or put it into a trash can, actually looks at a document you actually designed. When you apply for a design job, and the company asks you for your resume, do not just ‘put together a document to fulfill the requirement. Consider it as an opportunity to ‘leave your mark.’ Use your designer mind to differentiate yourself. Imagine that moment when the reviewer looks at your resume and tries to find ways to impress him. Please do something to force him to put your application aside. And…Don’t think that the ‘Software Skills’ part is essential. If you achieve to explain yourself well, and if your portfolio has good work that clearly shows your capabilities, nobody cares if you give your Photoshop skills 7, 8, or 9 out of 10, or you’re 5 in After Effects and 3 in Cinema4D.

Work With People You Share The Same Vision With

If you’d like to do the best work, try to be with good people. No matter if it’s your boss, your colleague, or your client, do your absolute best to make sure that you share the same vision with them. It’s easy to say but difficult to remember, so try to implement it in your mindset. The best work can only be done with (not ‘for’) good clients. If they are good enough to listen to you and open to being educated in design-related issues, there is no reason that the work won’t end up being great. The best boss is the one with who you share a common vision. If you’re obsessed with details and he doesn’t, or if he is highly sensitive to the employees’ needs and you don’t care at all, ‘divorce’ is inevitable. In the long run, and for the sake of your entire career, this is much more important than the amount on your paycheck or the title you are offered.

Being a good designer is much more than capable of properly placing images and text on a surface. Keep sharpening your skills, but also remember that it’s a process to be managed. Know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and always seek ways to leave a mark. Good luck!

Also read How I Became a Freelance Graphic Designer

How do I Become a Graphic Designer and Co-Founder?

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