Luke Sullivan: One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

Most of you probably already subscribe to Luke’s blog. But for those who haven’t discovered it yet, here’s a great piece:

One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

And yes, Anne Lamontt’s Bird by Bird is a fantastic creative help. Almost as much as Luke’s book.


On Being Dependable

We had a new business pitch last week. If you’ve ever been through a new business pitch, you know that it’s a strange kind of animal. When I’m asked which creatives do I want on my pitch team, the characteristic that’s usually at the top of my list is dependability.

Creatives are cut a lot of slack. We’re allowed to be disorganized. Late for meetings. A little flighty. I think this is a disservice to us. We shouldn’t be allowed to be those things. And when it comes to a new business pitch, those things can be deadly.

With this pitch, I was fortunate to have a very dependable team. It also happened to be a team with a lot of young people, several who had never been through a new business pitch before. But here’s what I saw from them:

1) They followed direction.
2) They kept pushing ideas.
3) They came to meetings. They were on time.
4) They didn’t waste time bitching about how f’ed up things were. Maybe this was because they aren’t the kind to bitch, or maybe because they didn’t have enough experience to know that it was f’ed–new business pitches are always f’ed to some degree.
5) They didn’t draw lines as to whose idea was whose. We were all in it together.
6) They often asked, “What can I do?”
7) They didn’t draw lines as to whose job was whose. If it needed doing, they’d do it.
8) They kept a good attitude. Even the art director who worked all day Sunday until 7:30 Monday morning, then went home for a shower and came back two hours later to work some more had a smile on her face.
9) They spoke their mind, but realized that once a decision was made, we were all moving in that direction. They didn’t take criticism or killed work personally.

Being able to depend on someone to come up with a great idea is important. I’d obviously want that as well. But in a pitch, when half the battle is about process, about being efficient and getting through it all without killing each other, these other nine kinds of dependable are just as important.

Young Ones Portfolio Review

One of the very best things I did as a portfolio student was attend the One Club’s student portfolio review sessions. As a first year student, I had Mike Shine, Bob Barrie, Sally Hogshead and a bunch of other marquee names look at my work. I wasn’t looking for a job (at least not that year). I just wanted to hone my book. And in a single afternoon, I had feedback from about 30 different top tier professionals.

You hear one thing, you can dismiss it. You hear it twice, still better to trust your gut. But to get specific feedback about the work in your book, and have it repeated over and over by the people who drive this industry does wonders for the bubble you might be creating your book in. It definitely worked for me.

So put Monday, May 9 on your calendars. Even if you’re not in New York (I was eight hours away in Richmond), it’s worth the road trip. It won’t be cheap. But it should be worth it. Keep an eye out for admission prices and registration here.

Advice from Hal

This article originally appeared in September/October 2002 issue of Communication Arts. Hal Curtis is a brilliant creative, and this is one of the best articles ever written to students of advertising. We’ve linked to this article a couple of times, but since it’s become harder to track down online, we’re including it here so you can refer to it in the future. Enjoy.
A Note To Student Art Directors
by Hal Curtis

Dear Student Art Director,

In the last decade, advertising schools that teach you how to put together a portfolio have prospered. If you are currently enrolled in one of these fine institutions, well, good for you. But there’s something I’d like you to think about.

First, let me just say this. Advertising schools are a blessing to our industry. They provide a constant stream of talent that, more often than not, is able to acclimate to the agency environment and contribute.

Which is good.

But the focus of these institutions on advertising, advertising, advertising, has a price. There is a good chance you are not being exposed in depth to the things that constitute an art director’s fundamental foundation, that you are not collecting the tools that will enable you to exhibit a high level of executional craftsmanship.

Here’s the thing. While you’re getting a terrific education in the advertising aspect of art direction, you are studying less and less the fine-art aspect.

You are getting the ad part.

But not the art part.

Which is not so good.

I write this letter because I want you to become an art director. I don’t want you to become an ad director. I’m very sure we have enough of those already.

I should mention that one of the nice things about Wieden+Kennedy is that a whole bunch of people send their work to us. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of student art director portfolios over the last several years.

Your competition.

Here’s what I see:
1) I see competent conceptual thinking.
2) I see underdeveloped typographic skills.
3) I see underdeveloped layout skills.
4) I see the computer more than I see the art director.
5) I see work derivative of other advertising.

Hey, I’m really happy that today’s art director is more conceptual than ever. Because it’s a fact and that’s great. We all know that concept is king. But never, never, never—Young Student Art Director—underestimate the importance of execution.

Here’s a little creative director mathematics for you to think about.

Assume you are a creative director and you need to assign a project.

You have a good writer available. You need to team that person with a partner. Here’s the math part:

A) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual and executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

B) Good Writer + Art Director with strong conceptual, but poor executional skills = A good idea not fully-realized.

C) Good Writer + Graphic Designer with strong executional skills = A good idea fully-realized.

It’s complicated I know. But to the creative director, A and C are happy scenarios. But B? Decidedly not happy. It produces weak advertising.

What should you learn from this?

That unless you develop the ability to execute, the creative director might as well hire a graphic designer. And why not? They put it down better than you do. And a good writer is providing the conceptual part. So while your conceptual ability is a good thing, the fact that you can’t execute has hurt the final product.


Agencies are not in the business of training art directors. Agencies are in the business of selling a quality product to clients who are willing to pay for it. Agencies require personnel who contribute to the creation of that quality product.


As an aspiring art director, you may exit a technical school with a portfolio that can get you a job, but if you find yourself standing at a lightbox beside a print production manager unable to give competent direction because you don’t understand basic concepts like value and chroma, it’s a problem. And if I’m the creative director who hired the portfolio, it’s my problem.

The point of all these paragraphs and silly math equations is simply this: Make sure you know the fundamentals of art direction. If you are not getting enough of this currently, go get it on your own. It’s all out there if you’re willing to look for it.

I’m not an educator, but my guess is that the drop in the executional proficiency of today’s entry-level art director is due to some horrible collision of the computer and the curriculum.

The computer because it teaches art directors how to be lazy.

The curriculum because it focuses on making ads, not art.

Here are a few ideas. You’ve probably heard most of them before. That’s probably because they are important.

1) Learn how to draw. I never trust an art director who can’t draw. I know there are those rare examples of great art directors who can’t draw, but it still drives me crazy. Drawing is simply an understanding of how lines and shapes fit together to communicate an object. If you can draw, you can probably lay out a page. Or compose a television frame. Or do all sorts of other art director things.

2) Develop a passion for typography. Good type is rapidly becoming a lost art and that’s sad. If you don’t know what a ligature is or you’ve never heard of Jan Tschichold—go ask one of your instructors. I hope they know. And hand letter a couple of alphabets while you’re at it.

3) Understand value and how it behaves.

4) Become a closet editor. Other than music, it’s the single most effective way to impact a piece of film.

5) Make photography a hobby.

6) Use your hands. It’s the quickest way to make your work distinct because no one uses them anymore. I will quit the business the day “hands on” becomes an item on a pull-down menu. The computer is a wonderful tool, but your brain and your hands are much, much better. And they’re yours. Not everyone else’s.

7) Look to anything but other advertising for inspiration. There’s culture all around us. Pay attention.

And may I also add that Communication Arts is a wonderful publication.

Influence it. Don’t copy it.

Best regards,


Advice: From Leslie Buker

Answering the question “If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your job-seeking student self?” is Leslie Buker, an art director at Publicis in the West and is the author of Bukes.

Love it, because there will always be a reason to hate it.

That’s what I’d tell myself of yesteryear. Back in ad school, the industry looked like a far-off golden land. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. All I had to do was get there. But once arriving, I quickly realized the gold did not shine so brightly. Some days, clients are impossible. Other days, CDs are impossible. And most days, producing good work is impossible. This can leave the new arrival feeling slightly disillusioned.

But even in a slightly tarnished golden land, everything is still golden. Sometimes, you just have to look for the shiny parts. At an agency, you’re surrounded by decades of knowledge and people waiting to share it with you. Chances are, you also have a few new tricks up your sleeves to share in return. And even in doomed projects, there are small triumphs to be collected on the way – maybe they don’t like your headline, but the subhead sticks. Or they hate your layout, but couldn’t be more delighted with your choice of colors. These moments are the gems that make it worth it. Remember to focus on these each day as you make your move into the industry, and it will start to look like the golden land you thought it’d be.

Advice: From Brian Thibodeau

Answering the question “If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your job-seeking student self?” is Brian Thibodeau, an art director at the Martin Agency and author of stackingchairs.

First thing I will say is, take the time to teach your self. We expect institutions to give us far too much. The more you learn now while in school, the further ahead you will be.

Working in the interactive space seems to be one of those things that a lot of the old school guys talk about, but still struggle to lead you on. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing better than learning from the “old-school guys” just so long as you also stay up to date on what is happening in the industry. The better you understand the “old-school” the better your work will be in all instances.

The Brandcenter was great about encouraging work in the digital space. They have taken it so far as to include a new digital track. Even so, students should be proactive. It will be up to you in most instances to seek out good interactive work as well as good interactive advice. There is no substitute for hard work. My belief is the better you are at integrating your concept across all channels the better. A banner ad should never be an after thought. All brands should be participating in deep interactive experiences.

Even some agencies struggle with how to incorporate the digital space. This is good and bad. Good, because it allows you to differentiate yourself, and bad because when you graduate you still want to keep learning and feel mentored to a certain degree. So, choose an agency where you can grow.

The beautiful thing about the digital space is that it incorporates all. You can create video, or animation, or engage in great design. There is an endless array of how to engage the consumer. My first year at the brand center, Brian Collins said to me, “If you don’t understand interactive, learn it.” And I’ve been continually learning ever since.

The other thing I would say is to find the art. Michael Angelo, when referring to sculpting, would speak of releasing the image from the stone, rather than creating it. Try to approach your work the same way. What can you release from the brand that will inform your work? I often think of brands as wonderful patrons with deep pockets. Brands can offer great opportunities to create art for mass consumption.

Advice: From Daniel Case

I’ve asked three junior creatives I respect to answer the question “If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your job-seeking student self?” Each one is at a great agency. Each one is very talented. And each one was putting their book together and looking for a job just a few months ago.

This first piece comes from Daniel Case, an art director at Y&R Chicago, and author of Monkeyama.

Making the transition from student to professional is tough. I’m still trying to figure it out. But there are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Stay humble.
There are so many beautiful, gracious people out there to meet and learn from. When you’re humble and your approach is open, it’s easier to find these people. When you’re egocentric, people will probably avoid you at all costs.

Be curious.
Once you get that job, it’s easy to act like you know everything. The difficult thing is to ask questions and admit that you’re new to this. It will be extremely awkward at first, but I find that most people are more than happy to show you how things work and give you tips on how you can be the best at what you do.

When my first print was about to go out the door, a rep from the studio came by with a proof (think of it as a $500 printout with a clear plastic sheet protecting it.) The producer, the head of studio, and the rep were all there at the table when the rep handed me a black sharpie to mark anything that needed to be cleaned up. I quickly grabbed the marker, flipped over the plastic protector and went all Madden on the original proof. The rep kindly took the marker back and made a few “proper” marks of his own – on the clear protector sheet, not the original…like you’re suppose to.
If I’d only asked a few questions first, I might have avoided looking like a turd.

Don’t forget to feed your soul.
This is one I’ve always tried to live by, but once I started working I got so busy that I almost forgot about it. As a result, negativity and unhappiness started to creep in – and negativity is the kryptonite of creativity.

So figure out what kind of things make you tick as a human being and do those things as often as possible. Find out what makes your soul come alive.
For me, it means getting a dose of nature maybe through a hike or a weekend away with my wife. Maybe for you it’s cooking, or drawing, or writing. If all you do is work, you’ll never tap into those things that keep you in tune.

Be yourself.
It sounds like an easy one, but might actually be the most difficult. You want to find an agency that appreciates you for who you are. It will make your job much more enjoyable.