I’ve been confused about who I am and what exactly I do for a long time. This has been most obvious when someone asks me the basic, “small-talky” question:
What do you do?
My answer would typically start with an extended, “Ummm” and then I would begin listing off random things I do to make money, instead of giving a concise answer that made any sense. I wanted to figure out the answer. What did I do? What did I really want to do? I started by looking at the path I took to get here.
I set myself up for confusion pretty early on. I didn’t really want to go to school, but I felt like I should. As a senior in high school I started a little record label to help out my musician friends and I just assumed I’d turn that into a real job and do it for the rest of my life. Pretty solid plan right?
So, I got an associates degree in Business Administration and then my wife and I left our hometown. We were young and bored with West-Michigan, and we knew some people that lived in Baltimore who were musicians. The record label fame and fortune plan was really coming together.
When we got to Baltimore I planned on continuing my business education, but then a new friend asked me what I was going to do with a Business degree… and I didn’t have an answer.
Then he asked, “What do you really want to do?”
I went to Film School. I finished that as the “Great Recession” started and the film industry was leaving Baltimore.
Job prospects were understandably bleak, so I thought I’d spend some more money on school. On to design school for an MFA! I had always dabbled in design and considered myself to be somewhere slightly above amateur. Design school ended up being just what I needed to pull my past experience together.
We lived in Baltimore for about six years. It was a great experience living somewhere a lot different from where we grew up. We made a lot of great friends, learned a lot, and had kid one and kid two. There were more to come.
One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes sums up my college years pretty concisely.
“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
In 2011 we moved back to West-Michigan.
I responded to a craigslist ad and got a job at Sun Bum, a sun care company. It’s a very design-centric company because the people that run it are also the people who branded it and developed it’s brand strategy. I felt like my skill set was valued there. It was a small office. Without even realizing it, I was in on conversations about brand strategy. I got to help manage the brand across print materials, social media, videos, and whatever else came up.
I also became the unofficial office “expert” on sun screen ingredients, because I’m a bit of a hippy and I wanted to know more about them. That meant I spent time writing out info about ingredients for the website and answering questions directly from customers. Not typical “designer” job duties, but I liked it. I couldn’t help myself, I always want to do more.
During this time my family also got a bit bigger. We had kid three and four — AT THE SAME TIME. (They were twins.)
While at Sun Bum I started a side-project designing, printing and selling t-shirts under the name “Grow Up Awesome” I did that because I needed a creative outlet outside of work. Sunscreen is cool and all, but I had other ideas in my head that I wanted to get out.
There were still other things I wanted to do though. I started teaching as an Adjunct at Kendall College of Art & Design in the Graphic Design department. I had attended a couple of portfolio reviews at Kendall, looking over and providing feedback on the work of graduating seniors. I realized I just wanted to talk to more people about design.
Everything I was doing all felt connected, and like it made sense, but I was missing a focus.
When we have a full time job that we like our identity is often connected to that. When someone asked:
What do you do?
I could easily respond with, “I’m a graphic designer for a sun care company.”
Then Sun Bum moved to California and I chose to stay here. So I felt like I lost some of that identity I had pieced together through my work there. My focus got even less clear.
We had considered making the move, but we had already done the very West-Michigan thing of moving away and then coming back.
I kept teaching, I kept printing and selling shirts, I grew a sweet man bun and then cut it off, and I rented a warehouse space to do freelance design work out of. I called the studio OPEN co. I did want a cool studio space to host events in and make art in, but mostly my garage was full of screen printing equipment and I needed more storage. That’s a less sexy story though.
Finding freelance work was slow. The t-shirt business had momentum, and at Kendall I had gotten into a steady pattern of teaching Branding II.
I could talk about branding effectively through stories about my work at Sun Bum. Teaching that class over and over again and helping students write brand positioning statements got me reflecting on myself.
There is a popular branding book called, “The Brand Gap” by Marty Neumier, he’s good at summing up the concept of branding, with lines like:
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE. IT’S WHAT THEY SAY YOU ARE.
Branding is the perception people have of you, their gut feeling about you, and when I applied that idea to me as a professional that was terrifying to me.
What do people say I am?
Ask yourself that question. Thinking about the people I do business with the answer could be: Designer, Web Designer, Teacher, T-shirt guy, etc. I didn’t really want to be the “t-shirt guy.”
I asked my students at the time if they were comfortable with their personal “brand” or logos they had designed for themselves. No one was.
I can work on brand strategies all day for clients, and I love it. But figuring out myself was a challenge.
It honestly took me a year to really think it through. All of this time I was missing focus, and I had to find it in order to make a living off of my design work.
I’m not really a resolution type of person, but over the past two months, I think I’ve made more progress on figuring out who I am and how to communicate my brand more than I had in the two years before that.
I had spent years piling on things that I do, becoming some kind of “jack of all trades” and my focus disappeared. I was thinking I could be appealing to a wide range of clients and by taking that approach I wasn’t appealing to anyone.
So, who am I?
I’m curious. I like to learn, I like to study things and solve problems, but how does that translate into who I am as a professional?
I started to figure that out by using tools I use in my classes. By first defining my “Brand Archetype” and then going through a “Brand Positioning Statement.” This is the same tool I have my students use to define the strategy of the brands they choose to work on in class. It is a statement that concisely defines a brand’s focus and strategy.
The useful thing about archetypes is that each archetype represents a “characters” that people already know the basic traits of. For example: Artist, Explorer, Villain we all know what those are we can all make a pretty good guess about what their goals and motivations are.
I’m an Everyman. The goal or method of an Everyman is to bond with others by being humble, hard-working, and friendly.
During this past year my wife was into personality tests. She was most interested in the Enneagram. My personality type is Peacemaker, which is described this way: “You see yourself as accepting, unassuming and laid-back. You would like others to see you as humble, easygoing and approachable.”
It was interesting to see how the archetype and the personality type backed each other up. Everyman & Peacemaker make sense together.
FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS
What’s my damn focus! It’s the most important part. This whole time, my main issue was that I was missing my focus. When I teach branding one of the main goals is to NARROW THE FOCUS. I’ve taught Branding now for 2.5 years now, I read about it all the time, my conversations with people and clients about design start with branding. My focus is BRAND STRATEGY.
In the case of personal branding attributes might be personality traits you have, or if you are offering a product or service they could be attributes of those. For me:
- Not a pain in the ass
- Brainstormer / Conceptualizer
- Straight forward — in a nice way.
I am a designer with a focus on building and managing brands.
Concise, easy to understand and not just a list of my skills, it’s easy to share with someone that I meet casually, and if they ask, “what does that mean?” I can follow it up with an answer without stumbling over my words, because I talk about branding all the time. It really was my focus even before I knew it.
In January 2017 I held a personal branding workshop at my studio, and people showed up! I was focusing on artists, and small business people looking to figure out their personal brand. I plan to hold more workshops and talk to individuals about their personal brands throughout this year and likely far into the future.
I really started figuring myself out by helping others figure themselves out. So, that’s what I’m going to keep doing.