Travis Torina '96, graphic designer, Insitu, Inc.
As a proud graduate of Shippensburg University, it's hard for me to believe it has been over fifteen years since I last attended classes at my Alma Mater. I still have funny dreams of not graduating because I missed a final or some obscure credits; even though I know I have my degrees hanging in my office. Though many years have passed since I pulled an all-nighter to draw a still life, the struggles that new graduates or seniors face coming out in the art field is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. In this day and age with the job market being the way it is there are many obstacles artists such as myself have to overcome. I want to share some of what I have learned in my many years since leaving Ship and hopefully point you in the right direction. One thing very few of us are aware of (and I find this to be true to this day) are the many options and career paths an art student has in front of them. Our field is truly a diverse one, with numerous trajectories that can be used to launch your career. Things have of course changed since I left. There were no UX design positions or social media when I was there, and being a web designer was more of a programmer's position. The print industry was huge then; and though positions in it still exist ,they are not as frequent or plentiful as they once were. So I'd like to concentrate on what I know, what I have done and what I know can most importantly make you live a comfortable life. Getting started in the right specialty (and do not let anyone tell you we are not trained professional specialists) is the key to a solid career with plenty of growth.
The first thing I would suggest is, due to the close proximity to the DC metro area start applying to the Federal Government. The work is steady, the work-life balance is outstanding and once in, the potential for growth is expediential. I contracted for years at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, won numerous awards for my work and found the environment to be ideal for someone starting out. I happened to get there at a later stage in my career but saw the potential for someone starting from the ground up. The government agencies need it all: Graphic Designers, Web Designers, UX Design. If you can achieve a DOD clearance (Department of Defense) your choices and pay are unlimited, especially for aspiring Technical Illustrators or Production Artists. I'd like to explore below each of the career paths I have done, and what it takes to be successful and qualify for these positions.
Graphic Designer or Production Artist: There is actually little difference in the skill set you need to do these positions. Both have Pros and Cons, so it depends on what you are looking for or want. Both need to know the Adobe Creative Suite, have a keen eye for aesthetic design and have print as well as web knowledge. Graphic Design is for the most part more creative, requires you to sometimes have illustration skills (especially if doing Flash or logo design) or at the very least helps set you apart if you are an illustrator. However it is very competitive and the pay is lower. Production Art takes knowing the Creative Suite inside and out, and understanding print very well. However you won't draw, you will rarely be asked to design or even be creative, but the positions are more numerous and the pay is outstanding. It's a compromise and you have to ask yourself what you are looking for. I would often freelance design for my creative outlet while being a Production Artist and was quite happy. Both can eventually lead to positions as an Art Director, which though is less art and more managing, is a great path to aspire to. Plus you get a lot more perks and pay as an Art Director!
Technical Illustrator or Creative Illustrator: Without even knowing it, my first permanent job in my field was a Technical Illustrator drawing maps, weather bands and patterns at Accu Weather in State College. I also graduated from Penn State, so I already had many connections up there. Technical Illustration can go from schematics to maps, part manuals and procedures to housing floor plans. The pros are the most lucrative paying positions as an artist are drawing technical manuals and parts. I have done this for years and it is also my current job. It's mostly military funded so it pays really well. The cons are the work is tedious, not creative and can be boring. But you only draw all day, that's it. As an Illustrator by heart it's a dream, especially because it is such a specialty your skill set is always in demand. You have to be an expert in Adobe Illustrator, Arbortext IsoDraw or AutoCAD. A class or two in any of these will help a ton. I taught myself the later software in two weeks. You also need to understand Isometric and Orthographic planes and perspective. If you know Illustrator, picking them up is easy as they operate on the same principals of vectors and Bezier points. Knowing how to convert and retrieve 3-D models in Solid Works is also a plus, but easy enough to learn in hours. I cannot stress enough how lacking the field is for this skill, thus making you truly in demand. As for being a creative illustrator, the work is out there but the competition is fierce, and so many people are really good at it. Once you get in and get a steady stream of clients you are golden, but it can be a struggle for years. There are many people that need this work: the comic book industry in NYC, freelancing and flash design offer opportunities for those starting out looking to build your portfolio. There is also the fashion industry, which asks for a combination of technical illustration knowledge and creative savvy. One can make a nice long career out of drawing, but you have to know how and where to look. Having a top notch online portfolio is crucial. You won't even get a phone interview without one (this goes for Graphic Design also). You can build an easy one at Weebly for free, or as a Shippensburg alum with College Central Network for free also. If you have the web design chops, it's a great opportunity to show off your skills by building your own site.
Teaching Drawing, Design or Art: This was one of my first positions, teaching drawing to kids at an after school program. It only required patience and the ability to keep your students captivated. I have taught since then here and there, and if you like to share your knowledge it is a great career path. Of course if you want a permanent teaching position that now requires a Master's Degree. I started mine but after a year decided teaching was not for me full time, just from time to time. The opportunities are out there, and these jobs are in demand. Many places will hire you while you are working on your Masters part-time, so when you graduate they have a position for you. The pay is lower but the growth and stability are the best in the art field. The hours are very conducive to work life balance, lots of great benefits and time off. And you get to make a difference in people's lives. So it's something to seriously consider if you are a die-hard traditional artist to the core.
I really hope this was helpful. When I was in school I felt as though many people wanted to help me out, but no one could really point me in the right direction or tell me what perspective employees were looking for out there. I also did not realize just how many different avenues my skill set could take me. I am always willing to help out, give advice and critique portfolios or resumes to give you maximum return in your search for jobs. The market is tough right now but you can get and stay employed with the right art career and be successful!