Advice from the Real World: End Communications

posted by Manda 4 Comments

End Communications is a small graphic design company in Chicago. They are currently composed of 3 designers, and work on print, web and identity design as well as web development. They have been in business since 2001, and have made a deliberate effort to stay small, build their skill sets and look for work that interests them and allows for professional development. (click here to check out the End Communications website)

The owner of End Communications was generous enough to answer these questions for the Creative Opera readers:

1. You built End Communications from the ground up yourself. Can you tell us a little about the process of starting a successful company such as yours?

I started the company with 1 year of professional experience. It took a couple years to make more than a poverty-level income, a couple more years to do semi-respectable work, and 7 or 8 years to be where we are now, which is relatively comfortable as a business, and focused on improving our work and client relationships. Starting a business from scratch, you progress in plateaus. You start by trying to pay your bills, move on to building something like a portfolio, then try to learn how to be a good business partner for your clients and so forth. At each stage, you can coast a little on what you learned, and try to use a new set of challenges to figure out what you’re going to do next. Forget about the money and focus on learning something and doing high-quality work, and everything falls into place eventually.

2. What are the advantages and or disadvantages for a designer working in a small company such as yours?

Our company works as an informal partnership, which is a double-edged sword. It requires a lot of personal initiative and commitment, very open communication, and relatively equal contributions from each of the members. When the company makes money, we all make money – and the inverse is also true. This provides both freedom and responsibility which are only possible with a lot of trust. It also makes hiring – especially young designers – very difficult.

3. What types of design positions do you have in your company?

We all do a little of everything, but each of us has areas of focus – print design, production management, web development, copywriting. At the core, we are all designers.

4. What are the minimal requirements for a position like this in your company?

At the moment, equal contribution. If we were to hire someone, it would be based on whether we could “sell” their work based on a particular client relationship or project type they would be used for. We’re very conservative about our growth, and wouldn’t hire someone without a particular need.

5. Because you are a smaller company (and each position has so many responsibilities), it is understandable that you don’t usually hire entry-level designers. If you were to add a designer to your team, what qualities would you be most likely looking for in that person?

Design fundamentals – typographic skills are much more important than “creativity” at this stage. With an entry level designer, I don’t care very much about your ideas, because you don’t know what you’re doing (I’ve been there). I want to know if you’re a good artist with good craftsmanship. 

Intelligence – one of the most important things you can do is learn to understand why design (and your job) exists. What is the business challenge, and why is the project necessary? How are you connecting the message to the audience? You can’t be overly defensive, and you can’t BS your way through (most) projects. Your interests, language and communication skills are a good sign of your potential.

Personality – will you fit in well with the office culture? This is very important at a small company.

Humility – do you understand your limitations and are you eager to learn something? Most people are, but we’ve interviewed a number of young (1-2 yrs experience) designers who are ready for a “Senior Designer” title and a big paycheck without the work, capabilities or attitude required.

6. When interviewing, what do you look for in a design (animation, illustration, etc.) portfolio?

Show your best looking stuff. As I said, good craftsmanship is better than bad-looking creativity. If you’re applying for a design job, don’t show illustration or photography unless you’re really good. It can be inferred from your design work that you have a basic interest in art. If your artwork is not professional quality, you won’t use it in your job.

7. If a new designer was looking at your company as their dream job, what types of career decisions should they make to increase their chances of someday working with your team?

Do it yourself! Pick your early jobs (if you have options) based on the opportunities to learn, not prestige or money. You will learn a lot more in a flexible environment that gives you responsibility, or under the tutelage of a good designer. I would not attempt to start a company straight out of school – there’s a lot to learn before you have skills you can sell without help.

8. What other advice do you have for those new to the design industry or those thinking of entering the design industry?

I get a lot of portfolios from people that are too cute, creative or self-indulgent without showing good craftsmanship. You need good fundamentals to get in the door and to be useful to your employer. This is not abstract art or rock music – you’re not selling your personality, you’re making propaganda – which can be good or bad. If you want your career to mean something, you’ve got to commit to spending a lot of time improving your skills, your mind and your vision.

I would like to thank End Communications for taking the time to answer these questions. I hope that those of you out there preparing for an interview will find this information useful, and I hope that any of you looking to start your own company find encouragement in Kyle’s experiences.

A note from Creative Opera
: Please do not contact the featured companies in Advice from the Real World posts unless they are actively hiring (open positions have been posted on their website or on a job site). Those who participate are being extremely generous with their time, and have agreed to be interviewed in order to help better the careers of our readers. Please do not bombard them with calls or emails. Thank you!

Do you have design- or career-related questions or topics that you would like to see covered in future Advice from the Real World posts? Please post them in the comments area below. I’ll include the best questions in my next round of interviews!

Are you a design professional with advice that you would like to share with the Creative Opera readers? Please email Creative Opera with some information about your company or profession and an overview of the type of information that you would like to share. I will do my best to respond to everyone in a timely manner, and will work with the chosen companies to create a custom Advice from the Real World post to feature your company and your advice to the design community.

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Carl Owens March 25, 2009 at 6:48 pm

As an aspiring designer it’s good to be able to hear what the professionals have to say, especially about the way to approach the business. There is so much competition in this market, and with a failing economy it’s more than difficult to start from scratch. Many people, including those with Degrees, are finding it hard to find a way into the business. I firmly believe though, that if you believe in yourself and you have the aptitude to continue when others are failing, that if you work, and work hard, one day your efforts will be rewarded. There are no over-night successes anymore. Success comes with hard work and determination, as with everything in life, you get back what you put in.
Thankyou Manda for another informative article, I, personally, would like to read more of these interviews, if you can get them.
And a final message to all, keep on going regardless……….

Manda March 25, 2009 at 8:27 pm

I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the Advice from the Real World articles, Carl. I’m hoping to get one interview each week, and I’m trying to spread the love through all fields of design: print, web, animation, etc. There are so many different directions you can go when you’re a designer, I think it’s fascinating to hear how others got started.

I also think it’s EXTREMELY important for new graduates (and those who are more experienced) to know what firms are looking for when they go in for an interview. That’s just not stuff you learn in school, and it could be the difference between a 2nd interview and a “We’re sorry” letter.

Chris April 2, 2009 at 3:17 pm

My brother is going through this same thing (getting a design job). He’s too concerned with getting tons of pieces in his portfolio. He’s a recent grad, firms expect student work. Have a few pieces, but make them good.

I like the portion on typography over creativity. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. I still deal with this all the time when I work, but eventually you find balance.

Also, Manda is right: know what you are applying for. Don’t go in right after school applying for a senior designer position. It takes time (about 7-10 years as I’ve found).

Manda April 8, 2009 at 9:59 am

Thanks for the comment, Chris! I was really surprised as I was interviewing all of these very different design firms how similar their answers have been. Until I asked, I didn’t realize that most design firms are looking for exactly the same thing, and are turned off by the same things. It’s valuable information for anyone in the process of interviewing!


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