April 2nd, 2009

It’s Not Going To Happen The Way You Think It Will (But It’s Better That Way)

By Wyeth Hansen

Halfway into the first eight-hour drawing class of my freshman year at art school, I realized something very important: my life as an artist was not going to unfold the way I had visualized. Chances were I wasn’t going to be the youngest and most successful painter in New York, the Talking Heads were no longer a band and could therefore not be my flatmates, and the Beat poets were either dead or west coast. Perhaps more realistically, I realized that my abilities with paint were inadequate at best, and I sensed that this pursuit had largely become an outdated social convention in which I didn’t care to participate. Basically, it wasn’t looking like I’d ever see one of my paintings hanging in a New York gallery.

While it’s always a disappointment to see your daydreams dispelled, I was beginning to feel excited about living without a set plan. I decided to enroll in graphic design because I considered myself a man of letters (I had no idea how literally that term would soon apply) and because I had an affinity for album covers and music posters. I found that studying design was supported by three of my chief personal attributes: being and acting smart; an ability to create dense and overambitious projects; and a need to control them at the most minute, obsessive level.

Fast forward to post-graduation, June of 2003. I am driving a U-Haul truck containing the sum total worldly possessions of myself and two roommates to our new home in Brooklyn, with enough money in my pocket for three months of living. My sole goal in that time is to find work in order to survive. I had never done an internship, had no professional connections or any way to display my work other than the one hand-bound portfolio that represented the fruits of my print design education and, secretly, a five-minute animated film I made during my senior year in order to teach myself After Effects and Pro Tools. I didn’t really consider this a true ‘design’ project, however. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my sideline pursuits — making short animations and recording music — which would get me work.

In three months time I was broke and broken, reduced to eating crackers for dinner, doing my laundry in the bathtub, and being turned down even from Craigslist jobs. Sitting on the roof after an unsuccessful interview, at the end of a sweltering summer, with an empty Old English in my hand, my old dreams felt far, far away. In fact, far from being a famous artist, I couldn’t get work as a hack designer.

But, out of the blue, I heard from a friend who knew someone who knew someone who was looking for someone who could animate in After Effects and had good design skills. I overdrew the hell out of my already dry bank account to buy a website to post my movie, and to get some half decent jeans for the interview. The person that needed to see my movie saw it, I had the interview, and in a week I had my first freelance job. And though my animation skills were found severely lacking, their combination with my rigorous print design background made me stand out. I started to sense the potential of this new world. It was extremely nerve-racking at first. I was all thumbs at the keyboard when I needed to be an octopus. But after a few challenging jobs, the learning curve flattened out enough for me to feel comfortable.

Motion design is a field ripe for exploration by young designers with an aptitude for technology and rhythm and a desire to do things differently. Good motion designers are, in a sense, trilingual. They are able to speak to sophisticated, refined design sensibilities as well as to boundary pushing animation fanatics while occupying their own unique visual space. Motion designers with strong conceptual skills will go far, as there is a general tendency amongst hard-core animators to focus safely on the technical aspects of a project without addressing the larger problems or exploring possible solutions. A strong idea done simply is a good approach in any field.

Personally I have had the pleasure of working with both more traditional design clients branching into motion for the first time as well as more established animation companies seeking a refined design style. People working in motion design tend to be multitalented and branch out into other areas. Through my motion work, I’ve been afforded many opportunities, from recording music and doing sound design to directing music videos, doing print work, illustrating for magazines, contributing to books, designing apparel, working on documentary films, and creating personal work for gallery exhibitions. It was at one of these gallery shows that I first realized I had somehow stumbled into my old daydream: there is a painting on the wall with my name on it; I’m in New York City (well, Brooklyn, but close enough). But the reality has turned out to be so much more interesting for its unpredictability and variety than the old straight-line vision of success. By accepting the challenge of working in a new field, I was afforded chances I would never have otherwise received and I expanded the potential reach of my creative work.

Wyeth Hansen was born and raised in Fresno, California until moving to attend college at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated in 2003. While in school, Wyeth began experimenting with combining animation, music, literature, and installation, out of which his current work as a freelance designer has grown. He currently works in a collective design/silkscreen studio in Brooklyn that he helped establish with several friends.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.