How I Got a Tech Startup Job- With an Art Degree
Grace Lee is Polarr’s Artist & Creative Director.
P: What would you say to someone who says “you won’t get a job with an art degree”?
G: Contrary to popular belief, artists can find jobs, and in the tech industry at that. And any experience is good experience as long as you look at it in the right perspective. Even though this isn’t exactly where I pictured myself, I can’t say I’m disappointed with where I ended up.
P: So how did you find your way to Polarr?
G: I freelanced for a while after college, and was otherwise unemployed for almost year. The job search process was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. My friends were all employed almost immediately after graduating, many moving to different parts of the country and having the time of their lives (from what I would gather from their social media highlight reels).
At Berkeley I had majored in psychology, later adding Art Practice under my belt as well. The former I chose out of interest and practicality, thinking it would be a great foundation for various careers even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life (the first mistake — thinking I had to stick to one thing forever). The latter I chose because art has been such a huge part of my life growing up, and it was really something I couldn’t imagine my life without. The classic head versus heart, so I did both. But post graduation, I had grand dreams of snagging a digital art job at a major film company. Though that is still a great dream and a goal I want to move toward, the reality, in my experience, turned out pretty differently.
It was an endless cycle of not having enough experience for the jobs I wanted, and no one to hire me to get the experience I needed. It was a pretty horrible time. In a funny turn of events, it was actually Polarr who reached out to me on AngelList.
P: What do you think turned things around?
The best advice I got was to figure out what I really loved to do, and do it. If you pour your heart into something, people will see it. So I started an Instagram account called @dailyswoodles. It started as a way for me to draw more often, improve my basic skills as an artist, tie in my love for photography, and give myself the experience I was lacking. Turns out people really loved it, and it ended up giving my portfolio the extra boost it needed while expanding my network of artist connections. Fast forward to almost a year after my graduation, I finally get a job, and it’s pretty dreamy.
P: What do you mean by dreamy?
I don’t mean it’s a cushy job or lifestyle, but it turned out to be perfect as my first full-time job, lucky for me. At Polarr, art and photography intersect, and as the first person on the team to focus on the creative and artistic side of things, I have a lot of freedom deciding what direction the company goes. As a relatively new startup, this opportunity has also given me insights into being an entrepreneur, the other side of the hiring process, and really being scrappy and making things happen. Being a tech company, my time so far at Polarr has opened my eyes to a whole other realm of design (UI/UX) that I had not really delved into before, and it has challenged me to think of ways art can interact in technology.
In college, most of my art background had been in the traditional sense, drawing, painting, screenprinting, etc. Most of my graphic design had been self-taught, and though I had picked up a few freelance gigs here and there, it never gave me a sense of what it’s like working at a tech-centered company.
P: What do you do for Polarr, on a day-to-day basis?
I put on a bunch of different hats in terms of tasks and roles where I can inject artistic inputs or designs. I’m no expert in graphic design, but I’ve found my background in both traditional art and psychology have been immensely helpful in discussing what looks good, or what people will respond to best. I’m always learning and being challenged, and teaching myself new design or editing skills through my projects. Mostly, I’m grateful for a job where I can draw and design all day, dabble in social media, and connect with cool new artists and makers.
P: What is it like, being an artist at a very tech-focused company?
G: Even now, the majority of our team consists of software engineers and it can be tough finding a way to navigate through pages of conversations revolving around code to see where an artistic opportunity might present itself. Oftentimes I find it easier to reverse the process and come up with projects first, then present it to the team to find out ways something can be achieved, and if not, how it can be tweaked to the strengths of all of our skills. If I find a project I really want to do, or even something crafty I want to try, there is always a way to make it relevant to the company’s needs.
My most recent project was pitched, refined, and ready to be implemented in less than a week. That’s pretty amazing for a small team like ours that’s already busy working on a million other things everyday, and it’s awesome to be able to create at such a fast pace. The project in question brought together ideas from different disciplines, from social psychology and art, to computer science and engineering for the website and logistics. The idea is to send various polar bear plushes around the world, have them hitchhike their way through different countries while having their adventures photographed with the hashtag #wanderbear. Hopefully they do find their way home through the kindness and interaction of strangers.
P: You said art is something you can’t imagine your life without. When did that begin?
G: Well, when I was younger my parents enrolled me in piano lessons, like many parents do. But when they discovered that I had a knack for drawing and crafts, they enrolled me in art lessons as well (and they also realized music was perhaps not my forte). That was maybe when I was in the second grade. Art has definitely played a huge role in my life since then. Of all the extracurriculars I did in school, art is the only thing that has stuck with me until now. I’m really thankful my parents didn’t let me quit, and even more thankful that they supported me majoring in art and going after art jobs even though it’s not always the most practical or financially stable. I honestly cannot imagine what I would be doing now without art and creativity being part of my life and job.
P: So, when you were a kid, did you imagine yourself having a career in art?
G: I don’t really remember what I wanted to be when I was a kid. But I loved to read, and still do! Storytelling is a major theme in the art I make, and want to make, and the things that really inspire me. When I was a kid, I’d imagine an “art career” as someone painting or having their work displayed in a gallery or museum. I still struggle to call my work “art”, because they’re really just fun doodles, designs, or projects I love to do, and I still have this crazy idea in my head sometimes of what art is or should be. I’m still discovering there’s much more to art than paintings hanging on museum walls. It’s everywhere! Back to your question, in junior high I wanted to go into the magazine industry, then in high school I thought more about photography and videography, which then led me to the movie industry and creating concept art for animated films.
I love the idea of creating a whole new world and bringing a story to life. It’s an amazing feeling when something you create echoes the human experience in a way that people of all ages can understand and feel. So I guess my idea of an art career has really evolved over the years and has never been quite concrete, but I knew I wanted to do something creative that would be fun for me and also bring out emotions in people.
P: Do you find yourself influenced by contemporary trends, or do you prefer to “do your own thing” artistically?
G: I’m definitely influenced by trends. When you make something with your own hands, it’ll always reflect your own style, even if it’s only in the nuances. So even if I am referencing contemporary styles of illustration or design, there’s always a difference in the final product. I’ve found that trying different art styles has only added to my own experience and self-discovery through my work. One of the biggest things I learned was to stay open-minded and never be afraid of erasing something completely and starting over. If we’re talking about contemporary trends, I’m most influenced by that in my photography and editing style.
But even in everyday things, when I see something cool I still think, “What if I did something like that?” Then I’ll go back and try it out, and work off of what I come up with. If it works it works, if it doesn’t then it’s totally fine. I never feel like trying something new in my work is a waste of time, because you never know what you might come up with in the process.
P: Who are some of your favorite artists?
G: I actually never studied art history until college, and I loved it. There were so many aspects of art and why something was made a certain way (if there is a reason) that I never really thought about before. I don’t really have a particular artist that is my absolute favorite, but I do love impressionist and plein air styles of painting. There’s something really special about capturing a moment and emotion with just a few strokes of color, or just a few simple movements.
People can underestimate the power of simplicity. I also love some artists I’ve found on Instagram in the past year who draw quirky illustrations and make amazing artwork, some of which have been creative inspirations behind my @dailyswoodles project. There are too many to name, but here’s a few: @catplusmouse, @liekevandervorst, @kylehughesodgers, @samlarson, and the amazing @lorraineloots. They are all seriously amazing and talented, and constantly inspire me to keep creating and push my own style. I also love photography and seeing different corners of the world, also mainly through photographers I’ve discovered on Instagram.
P: After the success of @dailyswoodles, do you have any tips on how to create a visually appealing Instagram?
G: I think @dailyswoodles was really successful because of its consistency (before I started working at Polarr). I had a theme going with the paint swatches and ink illustrations, and took pictures of them in the same way, and captioned them with a related quote or excerpt. People like consistency and familiarity. And good lighting never hurts. I actually spoke to a bunch of artists on Instagram back when @dailyswoodles was still going strong, and they also told me that posting great content consistently is key. Not just for the sake of gaining followers, but keeping people (and yourself) interested in the work. For my personal Instagram, @helloglee, I stick to good lighting and colors in the photos.
P: Do you have any other advice for artists trying to get a job in a tech company, or anywhere else?
G: A lot of people have asked me how to land a design job, but honestly, I was pretty lucky. In general I would say to work on your portfolio and really show that you have a passion for whatever you want to do. It’s great to have a wide range of skills in various art/design projects, and to show your process in why something is designed or made a certain way. It’s also useful to have a somewhat relevant background in tech, like learning how to code and building a simple website, or at least an interest in learning that side of things.
“People like consistency and familiarity. And good lighting never hurts.”
Most importantly, show your enthusiasm and passion in your work. You can really tell how much thought someone has put into a project, and it’s also cool when someone is able to inject a little bit of themselves into their work. Your portfolio should not only show the things you’ve made, but also reflect a little bit of yourself and why you would be an asset to the company. Be consistent, continue building up a body of work, and keep your head up! There are always opportunities if you’ll take them.
P: What goes into creating a good portfolio?
G: I wouldn’t say my portfolio is great or perfect in any way, but I’ve seen many good ones. A good portfolio should show your range of skills and breadth of interests and expertise. Keep the layout straightforward and easy to navigate (if it’s a website). Besides an artist statement, describe concisely what you’ve done for each project next to the pictures. Speaking of pictures, if you’re photographing your work, make sure you have good lighting and a clear picture. Have consistent sizing, you don’t want to upload a super high resolution image and have people spend more than a few seconds waiting for it to load, because most likely a recruiter will just scroll past it in the time it takes to load.
I like finding a personal touch, such as a blog, if I’m looking at someone’s portfolio, but make sure if you include a blog or social media account that it’s something you would want your future employer to see. An excellent portfolio I’ve seen was coded by the person herself, and had a diverse range of projects in multiple disciplines, but all stayed relevant and limited to ones that really highlighted her skills. It’s about quality, not always quantity. It’s cool when you can discover things about the artist that they didn’t explicitly say, but you can find through their work as a whole. In the end, you’re trying to find the best way to display the work you’ve worked so hard on. The presentation is just as important as the work, so likewise, put the time into it and show you care.