Motion Graphics Designer – Mentor, David Johnson
David was a musician in high school whose dream was to one day have his own recording studio. After high school, he attended Baylor University where he majored in telecommunications and religion. His course work included audio and video recording as well as broadcast journalism and film production. David took full advantage of his college experience to build a strong network with other students, their parents and the faculty. It was because of one of these relationships that he was able to get his first job with the Dallas Mavericks production team. After two seasons in an entry-level position, he was offered the choice of advancing with the Mavericks organization or accepting a position as a video graphic designer with a large church in Tulsa. He decided to work at the church where he stayed for ten years. During that time he produced video graphics used with the weekly sermons and also to promote the activities and programs of the church. Because he was active in the church and in his community, David continued to make a number of good connections that led to freelance work with some of the largest local companies in Tulsa where he did promotion and training videos. But freelancing could be sporadic. With a second child on the way, David wanted to make more money to support his family and decided to take a position with a local company that is the largest manufacturer of marine electronics. This job has allowed him to travel to interesting locations to shoot promotional videos and sharpen his design skills. In his article, David points out that the number of opportunities in his field are expanding because of the steady reduction in production costs and the ability to broadcast videos over the Internet. He also talks about resources that are available on the Internet where you can begin to teach yourself how to do graphic design for free. David also gives his opinion about the value of a four-year college degree versus less expensive alternate ways to develop your video graphic skills through on line learning and by attending technical schools while in high school and after graduation.
I grew up in Broken Arrow, a city adjacent to Tulsa. I was a drummer and loved music. My dream was to have my own recording studio so I could pursue my interest in music. When it came time to choose a university, I was fortunate to have the support from my parents to allow me to attend Baylor University, a private Baptist College in Waco, Texas. There, I majored in telecommunications and religion. Baylor was a great place for me to chase my dream because I was able to take classes that taught not only the technical methods of video production and cinematography, but also the theory and history behind it. The telecommunications department also has many great relationships with people in these industries because of the number of alumni working in the broadcast and film. There are numerous options to excel at whichever element of production most interests you. For example, the university offers a semester long program in New York City where you learn about television and movie production while interning at major production companies. Attending a university like Baylor allows you the opportunity to meet a wide variety of successful people, through classes, lectures, and friendships made with like-minded people. This includes many extremely successful individuals from the Television and Film industry. The faculty is also generous with their time and helps mentor students. If you take advantage of these kinds of networking opportunities, you can make lifetime connections that will help you as you pursue your career. In fact, my first major production job came from a connection made at Baylor.
After I graduated, and a few months of unsuccessful freelance production, the father of one of my college roommates connected me with his friends at a production company in Dallas. This particular company was in charge of hiring the production crews for the American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks play. It was as entry-level of a position as you get. I pulled cables for cameramen, held up backgrounds behind the announcers, and bought lunch for the crew. These positions may not sound great, but they’re a fantastic way to start. I had the opportunity to meet all of the on air personalities, many of the players, and watch some of the best games with fantastic seating. But the job was seasonal and really didn’t pay great. I was splitting my time between Dallas for work, living in friends’ guest rooms, and my parents’ house back in Oklahoma. This lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. After two seasons of proving my ability, I was asked to work on the crew regularly. This meant more money, and faster path to advance. I found a place to live, and was literally driving back to Tulsa to pack my belongings when I received a phone call.
A few staff changes happened at my home church and they offered me a salaried position to create videos. Sports production was great, but it’s very hard to beat a steady paycheck. Video production is an important facet in modern churches. The use of video spans a broad spectrum from Image Magnification (camera feed shown on projectors) on Sunday mornings, to promotional and summary videos from events, branding videos and testimonial videos. Most medium to large churches have a tech department, and equipment installations from $100 to well over a million dollars. Expectations for high-end production have never been this high. Volunteering to work on a church tech team is a great opportunity for students and adults to master skills in video, audio, lighting, and general live production.
I feel very fortunate to have chosen the video production and motion graphics field when I did because affordable professional equipment and free distribution online had just truly become available. Now, affordable production has become so available that video is no longer an option for an organization. Much like having a website, it’s a requirement for success. Because of this rapid evolution and because of the newness of motion graphics, I was able to create the parameters of my position and mold it into what I wanted it to be. Because of almost infinite amounts of free or inexpensive training materials online, I could develop the skills that would create the most personal value for me as a designer.
My biggest mistake in my first ten years is that I never really understood my value. To supplement my income at the church I began to accept some freelance work. A friend of mine asked me to bid on a training video for the company she works for, and I completely underbid. Embarrassingly underbid, now that I’m more aware. As a friend, she let me know what larger production companies were charging for similar services, and advised me to increase my bid to be taken seriously. After all, I was still much less than the competition. This was more than I ever dreamed my services were worth. It turned out to be a win/win for both or us.
They liked the level of production I provided as well as my pricing, so they continued to select me for projects. I decided to purchase my own equipment and start my own production company. By finding a sweet spot in pricing and production quality, I was referred for additional projects. Before I knew it, I was hired for jobs at several large local companies and broadcast production houses. Business was becoming really good, but freelancing has its ups and downs. One of my largest clients relocated its marketing department to another city, and another growing client’s marketing budget was slashed due to a crashing oil & gas industry. With a second child on the way, I needed to make more money and provide stability for my family. A friend of mine referred me to a motion graphics position at Navico. They are the largest marine electronics company with four different brands that are leaders in the industry.
I have really enjoyed working for Navico. My boss is very supportive, encouraging me to push the envelope creatively and take big risks. The opportunity for collaboration, creative freedom, and growth make it a great work environment. With a new product release on average every 21 days, there’s always a steady flow of work to complete. Each product needs a promotional video and tutorials to support its release. And, since our products support water bodies in regions outside of Tulsa, I get to travel all over the country for video shoots. My first trip with the company was probably the most exotic, sending me to the Florida Keys to shoot on fishing boats and yachts worth much more than my house. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that people get paid to do what I do.
Here are a few of the projects that I’ve created for Navico:
As a 34 year old, I feel very fortunate to have had these amazing work experiences and to have worked with such great people. The future is really filled with endless possibilities. The most important thing in this field is to never think you’ve arrived, or you’ve “made it.” Technology, trends, and processes are always evolving and you have to keep up to keep your value. You must ALWAYS continue to hone your craft and keep learning.
How to Prepare
One of the best ways for a high school student to start learning about motion graphic design is to find a church with a tech department. Churches today have better equipment to use FOR FREE than I had available to me when I was paying for my education. Even better, most of them are looking to train volunteers to run their services. You don’t need any experience; you just need to be willing to learn and to give your time. At the church where I worked, there have been several students who left our tech program to lead departments of their own. It just takes a willingness to learn.
Another option is the work-study programs while you are in high school. In the local schools, during your Junior and Senior years you can spend half a day at a technical college. Once you graduate, you can then attend a two-year program to further sharpen your skills. In Tulsa, these programs are free to everyone who lives in Tulsa County. Living at home while attending these schools is a good way to get an education on a budget. If you decide your want to get a four-year degree after you get an associates degree, you can transfer your credits and will have cut the cost of a four-year degree in half.
I don’t recommend running up a lot of student debt to get a degree in any kind of graphic design. Between all the free courses on the Internet and other opportunities to learn graphic design through technical schools and internships, you can prepare yourself well without a four-year college degree. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my college experience for anything. I am doing everything in my power to make sure my daughters will be able to attend a 4-year university. Along with learning your trade, a university provides a broader liberal arts perspective to your education. You study many additional subjects along with your specialized classes. I just wouldn’t borrow $150k for that experience.
To me the greatest value of going to a college like Baylor is the network of contacts you can build from the college experience. But many times that just gets your foot in the door. The next step is completely up to you. YOU are responsible for proving your capability, experience and value. No matter who you are or where you were educated, you have to continue building personal relationships in the industry throughout your career. There are mentors everywhere if you get out there and are active in your church and in your community.
Video & Digital Media Production has a massive range of specialties. Just look at the end credits of any television show or movie. No matter how you are educated, there are a few topics you’ll want to explore while choosing your own path:
- Motion Graphics – Everything I learned in motion graphics I learned online or self-taught. Just choose a program and search YouTube for tutorials. I recommend starting with Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4D. The online community is very open to assist your learning. Here are a few websites that have been great assets for me:
- creativecow.net – this is a user forum where you can ask any question about any feature or technique and someone will be there to help you. This site has sections for all of the industry standard programs.
- greyscalegorilla.com – Nick and his crew have built up an amazing community of Cinema4D users, and they regularly publish tutorials, contests, and “ask anything” live chat sessions.
- c4dcafe.com – this is another user forum, specifically meant for Cinema4D users.
- lynda.com – this is a paid service, but really doesn’t cost very much for the wealth of information provided. This site has hours upon hours of in depth video tutorials, and many of the tracks include project files to keep you from getting lost.
- Cinematography – This is the art of combining cameras, lenses and light to tell your story. There are many great online resources to polish your skills. I recommend reading through this user forum: http://www.reduser.net/forum/forumdisplay.php?28-Cinematography
- Post Production – This includes editing, color correction, sound design, visual effects, graphics, and final publishing. As you can see, there are many specialties within post- production. And there are many sub-specialties within them. To get started, I recommend learning the Adobe Creative Suite of products. Creativecow.com is one of the best resources to learn about post production. Basic tutorials are also available on YouTube or Lynda.com.
- Broadcast and Live Event Videography – this is how I started, and continued for almost 12 years. Live event productions take all of the aspects of video creation, and make them happen on the fly. It’s exhilarating, extremely stressful, and just fun all at the same time. I learned the basics of this in school and the television truck, and put it all to practice when I worked for the church.
Expect entry-level jobs in the Tulsa area to pay in the low $30K range. You begin to earn more after you demonstrate the quality of your production skills and create personal value. If you are recognized as being good at what you do, you should be making in the range of $50k to $60K in five to ten years. You can make more money if you are in management and supervise a design department or run your own successful production company. Then you will be earning around six figures. People who become film producers in Hollywood or New York can make millions.
I love my job. It gives me the opportunity to do something new everyday. I have a supportive boss who has encouraged me to push the envelope and try to innovate new production techniques. The technology is constantly evolving and the cost of graphic design is steadily dropping. I believe that will provide an almost unlimited opportunity in this industry that will benefit designers and their customers. There are so many resources available for free that will allow you to explore professional motion graphics and see what it takes to succeed before committing financially to higher education. Regional tech/trade schools can teach you the methods of production with teacher interaction for not a lot of money. Four year universities provide a broader liberal arts experience, and allow you to make life-long connections, but aren’t critical to succeed in this field. For those who want to run their own business, there is the opportunity to start your own production studio once you have built a reputation and established your value as a designer.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Graphic Designers
The Bureau’s statistics are for all graphic designers as of the date of the last census in 2012. A salary survey by the job site Glassdoor in 2015 showed a higher average salary for a motion graphic designer of $64,500 with a range between $45,000 and $85,000. Here are the USBLS statistics for all graphic design categories:
The median annual wage for graphic designers was $44,150 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,250, and the top 10 percent earned more than $77,490.
Most graphic designers work full time, but schedules can vary depending on workload and deadlines.
In 2012, about 24 percent of graphic designers were self-employed. Graphic designers who are self-employed may need to adjust their workday to meet with clients in the evenings or on weekends. In addition, they may spend some of their time looking for new projects or competing with other designers for contracts.
The change in employment of graphic designers from 2012 to 2022 is projected to vary by industry. Employment of graphic designers in newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers is projected to decline 16 percent from 2012 to 2022. However, employment of graphic designers in computer systems design and related services is projected to grow 35 percent over the same period. With the increased use of the Internet, graphic designers will be needed to create designs and images for portable devices, websites, electronic publications, and video entertainment media.