January 2017 is when I decided to take my creative career to the next level. I had just spent two years at an in-house graphic design and communications position, but I wanted to expand on my skills and continue growing. I spent countless of hours roaming the internet in search of marketing education, design tutorials, business development articles. What was my next step? Should I start freelancing? Could I get a job at an agency? My search for educational content led me to join an online community: The Futur. This community is designed to help freelancers and agency owners grow their creative business. That’s where I met Aaron Pierson, one of my first creative mentors.
Aaron was one of the personalities that stuck out to me most in the group. He was active in the community, constantly providing value to those of us who were new to the game. He was also the only Phoenician in the group. I checked out his bio and saw that he was one of the founders of Vitals Agency, best-selling author, and influencer in the design community.
Dang…this guys knows his stuff.
That’s what I thought to myself when I clicked on the DM button. I hesitated as I typed up a brief message, asking if he would be down to meet up and “talk design.” (I still don’t know what I meant by “talk design…” do people really do that?) I wasn’t sure if I was being too forward, but I had recently learned that the most rewarding things often come from stepping out of my box. So I hit send, and waited.
That night, Aaron responded casually and asked me to come down to the office that week. It wasn’t until I was already on my way to his office that I decided I would ask him to mentor me. I didn’t know what that would look like, but I was certain that if I was going to shadow anyone in this field, this was my opportunity.
So I went to his office, he showed me around, we had P.F. Chang’s, and…HE SAID YES. We agreed that he would share his knowledge, experience, and mentorship in exchange for my design and video editing skills. This exchange went for a short while before Vitals Agency officially offered me a job. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’ve gathered an enormous amount of knowledge and skills since working here. Here are three big lessons I’ve learned…
1. Creative Mentors Change the Game
Don’t get me wrong–I understood the value of mentorship before arriving at Vitals. I’ve had several spiritual mentors who have influenced my life abundantly and I am eternally grateful for them. But this was my first experience with a career mentor–and it’s been incredible. When I first reached out to Aaron, first of all, I wasn’t even sure if he would agree to coach me. But when he did, the entire course of my life shifted. Fast.
Let’s start with the tangible benefits. Aaron has a wide-audience that he connects with on a daily basis. There’s rarely a time when we’re driving through Phoenix that he doesn’t say “Yeah, I know the “blah blah” who works in that building” or “Hey, I had an office there once.” or “I had a beer with so-and-so right over there.” He has referred me to his colleagues and is the one who helped me land my first freelance gigs. And of course, the more obvious one, he’s the one that hooked me up with this awesome job at Vitals Agency.
From Technical Skills to Life Lessons
But let’s go a little bit deeper. Opportunities and networking are great benefits to mentorship, but there are far deeper, fulfilling values to shadowing a leader. Time is our most valuable asset, and anyone running a successful business knows that. Still, Aaron chooses to spend time and effort bringing me along and teaching me the ins-and-outs of running a creative agency. Not only have I improved my technical skills, but I have a number of experiences that my mentor has shared with me that include his mistakes and successes. I witness the way that he handles clients, his team, and himself. I have a front-row seat to the life of a successful creative who is 100% as transparent about his wins, as he is about his losses.
Mentorship is the college education we all were hoping to receive. It’s a real-life, no B.S., clear-cut, opportunity to become a sponge and learn everything you can from someone who dominates in your industry. And through this relationship, not only did I gain a role model, but a pretty dope friend.
2. Don’t Be Good at Everything
I loved my in-house job. I was the director of communications, which meant I had creative control over the department. The thing is, however, I was the department. This meant that if I believed a video was the most effective tool to grow a campaign, before we were able to hire a full-time video team, I would conceptualize, direct, produce, edit, etc. If I felt like a certain publication was outdated or didn’t meet our brand standards, I would propose a new direction and see it through completion. I was the creative director, project manager, executioner, developer, designer, and so on. So when I left that job, I left with a plethora of skills and zero mastery over any of them.
Vitals Agency was founded by three talented entrepreneurs that each brings a unique set of skills. Aaron is the Digital Strategy Director who also dominates at networking and closing deals, and has an energy and way of speaking that will make you feel absolutely invincible (also my mento/life cheerleader). Aiden is the Art Director aka the system’s master, project management guru, admin all-star, who makes you feel like the best designer in the world. And finally, Mo is the Technology Director, developer-mastermind who creates seamless and gorgeous UX designs. He also runs the backend of the business AND marathons–so he makes you feel inspired to step up your hustle and also give up your deadly Chick-Fil-A addiction.
Three Personalities Create One Dynamic Team
All three of these guys compliment each other in a way that I haven’t seen in a lot of creative agencies. They live on opposite sides of the country (Phoenix, Portland, and Manhattan) but communicate so clearly and often, that I sometimes wonder if our clients even know they all work remotely. Aaron goes out, hustles, closes a deal, Aiden oversees the project and marries his creative direction with Aaron’s creative strategy, and Mo develops a User Experience that ties the entire project up into a deliverable that is fulfilling and meaningful for our clients.
So as I continue designing with this team of creatives, I find myself observing the skills that I am passionate about and exceed at, and hope to eventually narrow down what my niche is in the creative world.
3. Strategy, strategy, strategy.
This one is more process-focused, but it’s perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about working with Vitals. Our agency doesn’t just design. We don’t get on a phone call with you and decide what we think your logo should look like. We don’t say “hey this font is dope, let’s use this.” without having an in-depth conversation about your business, your goals, and most importantly, your audience.
Regardless of what end-product our client is looking for, Vitals is committed to diagnosing the pains of our client’s business and developing a tactical plan to execute on. We narrow down who our client is targeting–and I mean narrow down. We don’t target an audience, we target a human. A real-life individual with a name, face, family, career, hobbies, etc. Well–not just one…several. Next, we take these user personas, and design with each user in mind. We create content that we know each individual will engage in. And we do this all according to the brand’s look, feel, and tone, which we discover through the strategy session. Our designs are in-depth, specific, and strategic.
Before working at Vitals, I had a process to designing, but it was shallow and emphasized more on my taste in aesthetics than on the client’s end goal. Now I don’t just design. I strategize, I consult, and I execute, all with a purpose.
The Learning Doesn’t Stop
A new job will oftentimes bring many challenges as you adapt to a new culture, new expectations, and new workflow. I can’t say that working at Vitals hasn’t brought its own set of challenges. But what I can say, is that I never expected to be where I am today. It’s only been five months since I began my journey to grow as a designer and four months since I began my mentorship. I understand this industry like never before, but I still find I lack so much experience. I look forward to learning more, growing as a designer, and applying these lessons to my career and my personal life.
If you are questioning whether you should dive into mentorship or take a creative job with an agency, I say do it–don’t miss out on the value and wisdom that experienced creatives can bring to you.