Enrichment Scholarship Judge Eric Heiman on the Best Way to Grow as a Young Designer

written by Allie Fisher.

The Enrichment Scholarship and Portfolio Day are highly anticipated events organized by the AIGA SF Education Initiative. The Enrichment Scholarship is judged by a panel of industry leaders nationwide, and winners are announced at Portfolio Day. In the lead-up to this year’s event, we asked Enrichment Scholarship Judge Eric Heiman to share his perspective on building a career in design.

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What inspired your move into graphic design after studying architecture in college?

I didn’t even know what graphic design as a profession was when I entered architecture school in the late 1980s. For a kid like myself who liked to draw, architecture was the only practical option I and my parents knew of. My cultural interests have always been very broad and I was often frustrated that I couldn’t directly incorporate other media like film, literature, or music into my architecture projects. It always had to be about ARCHITECTURE, nothing else. I just didn’t have that serious, single-minded focus (or arrogance) that doing this work well required.

My very last semester before graduating, I took an elective class about creating a journal for the architecture school. (Carnegie Mellon didn’t have one at the time.) I was tasked with figuring out how to design and produce it, and my instructor told me to go talk to some graphic design majors. I ended up more or less squatting in their studio space for two months. I just loved the palette, the tools, the thinking, the entire process. It was a real “A-ha! / D’oh!” moment. It took me ten semesters in architecture school to figure out this is what I should be doing? 

Post-graduation, after some circuitous soul-searching, I was lucky to land in San Francisco right when SFMOMA exhibited the work of the Michaels Cronan, Manwaring, Vanderbyl, and Gerald Reis. The graphic design I saw at Carnegie Mellon was very monochrome and all Univers 55. This west coast design work was colorful, expressive, witty, and multidisciplinary. I remember saying to myself in that gallery—or maybe even out loud—“Damn, this is exactly what I want to do.” I noticed in the exhibition literature that all three Michaels taught at CCA(C) and I enrolled in the graphic design program there the following year. I’ve been running on those fumes ever since.

But I’m amazingly grateful for my architecture education and the relationships I cultivated through it. Whether we were in studio critiques, or discussing theory or history, there was an intense rigor and ambition to those five years that has never left me. It’s an intensity that I sometimes have to temper in the Volume studio with co-workers or in the classroom with students. And architecture’s focus on spatial, multi-sensory experience very much informs the way we approach our work at Volume, too. It’s never just “graphic” or “2D” with us. We’re always trying to push past that in some way. 

When you are looking to add someone to your team, what do you look for in a portfolio?

Well, it’s not just about the portfolio. We’re not a huge studio, and we work very collaboratively, so personality and fit matter almost as much as the work.

But any candidate we take seriously must be able to make compelling form, have a nuanced typographic sense, and an eye for detail and craft. Amidst all the UX, brand strategy, design thinking, service design, and other new buzzy roles for designers these days, we’re still making design that people see and interact with. These basic skills will always be a baseline requirement, whatever the shifts in how we make and apply design form.

Some understanding of how to create and apply design across systems certainly sets a candidate apart. A distinctive voice / point of view is important for us, too. I always encourage my students to think expansively about the potential of their work—not just its form, but the content, the voice, the use, and the purpose. At Volume, we’ve designed books, digital media, brands—but also environments, Rube Goldberg ball machines, and kinetic tin cup sculptures. We want people who are comfortable with this expanse and variety of inquiry.

We also look for some evidence of grit. We work in so many scales, contexts and media that are often completely new to us. So we need people with the curiosity and persistence to figure out how to do these things we’ve never done before.

(Did I mention we’re pretty picky?)

What do you believe is the best way to keep pushing yourself to grow as a designer?

Keeping an open mind, first and foremost. I bristle a bit at designers (or anyone, really) who have these unyielding rules in relation to their work and life. Whether it’s around form, process, client type, or taste. If I look back at my career, the best projects are the ones where my initial take was challenged in some way. (The first YBCA campaign and the Boy Scouts Sustainability Treehouse are just two examples that come to mind.) Design doctrine can be just as overbearing as political or religious orthodoxy. I’m not saying don’t have an opinion or philosophy. Just don’t be so unequivocal about it.

What motivated you to launch your own studio?

A combination of circumstance and extreme naïveté.

I never had the ambition to start my own studio as a student. When Michael Vanderbyl asked in Thesis class who of us wanted to start their own firm, I didn’t raise my hand. After working as a staff designer for three years post-graduation, I freelanced for about two years. That gave me some confidence that I could at least be more autonomous. Elixir Design was one of the places that offered me a full-time job during that time, and even though I loved it there, I decided to turn it down. I liked the flexibility of freelancing too much. Elixir’s principal Jennifer Jerde, though, urged me to just start my own firm. She felt strongly that I had the energy and vision to do it. I didn’t have the same confidence in myself that she did then, but that conversation did plant the seed. (Thanks, Jen!)

But when the first dot-com crash happened year or so later, all that freelance work quickly dried up. I didn’t really want to go back on staff at a design firm, and the few in-house options (Gap, Wells Fargo, etc.) seemed even less appealing. There weren’t really any other choices at that point than striking out on my own.

I also happened to bump into my Volume co-founder, Adam Brodsley, at a bar the night my last freelance gig ended. We knew each other in passing from the local design community and I had substituted a few classes for him at CCA(C). He had just left his job after 7 years and was thinking about his next steps, too. After a few beers, we decided to meet up again and entertain the idea of working together. We worked out of each other’s homes at first and then signed a lease on a small studio space with a photographer friend a year later. That was 14 years ago, and now I can’t imagine working for anyone other than myself. Even with the amazing options designers of any experience level have these days.

About the AIGA SF Enrichment Scholarship

AIGA SF is committed to enhancing the quality and diversity of design education. The Enrichment Scholarship was created to invest in the future of our students and their education. The scholarship is awarded annually to graduating students with outstanding work. Schools with active AIGA student groups nominate the best work of their graduating class to be considered, and winners are announced during AIGA SF’s annual Portfolio Day event. Known as the best portfolio review on the West Coast, it is an opportunity for graduating seniors in design programs and graphic design professionals looking to make a change to get valuable one-on-one feedback on their portfolios and career goals from some of the Bay Area’s best designers. To attend this year’s event, register at http://bit.ly/1sclkVC. If you are a professional with at least 5 years experience and share AIGA SF’s commitment to education and professional growth, consider signing up to be a Portfolio Day Reviewer. Email education@aigasf.org to be included in this year’s event.

About 2016 Enrichment Scholarship Judge Eric Heiman

Eric Heiman is a designer, educator, intermittent writer, so-so drummer, and LP sleeve art enthusiast. He is a co-founder (with Adam Brodsley) and creative director of Volume Inc. Volume’s work has been featured, published, exhibited, and honored by publications, museums and professional organizations worldwide. Eric’s writing has been featured in the publications Eye, Emigré and SFMOMA’s Open Space. He is also an Associate Professor of Design at the California College of the Arts.



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