About two years ago, I was on my fifth year working as a graphic designer for a six-person agency in Carrboro, North Carolina, called The Splinter Group. This was my first full-time job after graduating college and a great fit for both of us. Over the course of those years (and a couple minor lineup changes), we learned how to get the most from our team and create a major impact with each client and project that came through our door. 2013 was looking to be our strongest year to date… until my apartment (and everything inside it) got totaled by a flash flood on June 30th. My renter’s insurance covered nothing, and the flood totaled my car as well. After a couple months of couch-hopping with friends and hanging in with Splinter for as long as I could manage, I said my teary-eyed goodbyes, moved to Kernersville to live with my parents, and tried to figure out what the next major step would be in hitting “restart” on life at 27 years old. I hadn’t updated my portfolio in five years, so that was a good starting point. It just so happened right as I was finishing my new portfolio website, I saw a job posting for a Graphic Designer position at Red Hat appear on my Facebook newsfeed. I became a Red Hatter in February 2014, and am pleased to share a glimpse at some of the similarities and differences I’ve observed while working for a small agency and working as an in-house designer at Red Hat. I should note that no two agencies of any scale are the same, so I am merely reflecting on my specific experiences with Splinter and Red Hat.
Splinter was given my name and contact information by a designer who reviewed my senior portfolio at an AIGA student portfolio event in 2008. She had been offered the position, but decided to stay at her current job. She recommended they contact me instead, since we had stayed in touch as my portfolio evolved and knew I was seeking employment. The first step in the interview process was a phone interview with the Creative Director that lasted about 30 minutes and covered the origin and current state of the agency, what they were looking for in a designer, along with my history and what I was hoping to find in a job. The conversation was casual and a second in-person interview was scheduled. The second interview involved touring the office, reviewing both their work and mine, and meeting the rest of the group. I was given a “test project” afterward to create an illustration for Earth Fare coffee packaging. I passed the test, they offered me the job, and I started within two weeks.
I had no prior knowledge of what Red Hat was at the time I saw the job posting on Facebook. The post was created by Colleen Simon, who I met during lunch at the 2009 AIGA Student Portfolio review. I was invited back that year to speak as one of 4 panelists and also participate on the other side of the review process. *Sidenote* There is an obvious lesson here which you have most likely already picked up on, but it really can’t be said enough – BE A NICE PERSON. Indeed, it is a small world. It is filled with a vast network of passionate people in all walks of life, so especially whenever you encounter passionate individuals in your line of work – BE KIND AND MAKE A CONNECTION… okay, back to business. I was eager to find a job, but hesitant toward the idea of working for some (in my mind) GIANT global corporation, so I needed to do some homework to see if there was any chance I would fit into what I thought might be the polar opposite business environment compared to the one I was comfortable and familiar with. The more I looked into the company, the more I became equally interested and overwhelmed. There was a tremendous difference between scanning through the Splinter portfolio and instantly gaining a strong understanding of exactly who they were and what they did vs. trying to understand what Red Hat is and does, and the role that a graphic designer might take on. The one thing I instantly latched onto with excitement was this idea of “open.” Phrases like “community-powered innovation” and the brand’s philosophy resonated strongly with me and I wanted to know much more. I filled out the application form online and submitted a link to my portfolio. After several weeks passed, I received a phone call notifying me that I was under consideration for the position and would receive a follow-up phone call in the coming weeks. I studied the website as if I was cramming for a college exam, trying to prepare myself for any IT-related questions that might get thrown my way. However, the next call I received was to schedule an in-person interview at Red Hat Tower. I was unaware at the time, but the Manager of our Creative Team, Mike Esser, was already familiar with some of the work I did for Splinter, and we had briefly met a couple years before in the Splinter office. So we skipped that introductory phone call and moved on to in-person interviews with Mike and the rest of the Red Hat Creative Team. This process was very different from any previous experience, as it included multiple back-to-back interviews with 1-3 different team members at a time. I introduced myself, presented my portfolio, answered, and asked questions. I was asked to come back for one more interview with a designer who was out of office on the day of my other interviews, and then had lunch with the team after that. About a month later, I received a call asking if I could start in 7 days and I accepted.
The Splinter office featured one large open-concept room with four desks, a meeting table with retractable sliding doors to section it off from the work area when needed, one sitting area for more casual meetings, a water cooler, a stereo system and huge library of CDs. The decor was a mixture of Splinter’s work alongside other photographs, art prints, show posters, and a small library of resource materials. The most apparent attribute was a light-hearted atmosphere of constant joking. We pulled elaborate pranks on each other whenever someone would be absent from the office for a few days. Skateboards and extra pairs of Vans skate shoes became a staple in the closet, just in case we spontaneously wanted to have a 10-minute skate break in the parking lot. We were serious about our work, as well as about having fun when able. Frequent group lunches and occasional celebratory dinners and concerts extended and blurred the lines between work and play.
The Red Hat Tower is one of the largest skyscrapers in downtown Raleigh, and completely redefined everything I thought a “corporate” environment ever could look or feel like. While I’m not aware of any skateboards lying around, there is an air hockey table, a billiards table, table tennis, foosball, and various video game consoles on the main level, as well as two gyms that are accessible 24/7 on the level above. It was certainly an unexpected surprise upon first sight since I had no idea that a workplace like this even existed, and considered myself beyond fortunate to be standing in the midst of all its glory. The LEED gold certified building echoes the Red Hat brand everywhere the eye wanders. A very modern aesthetic featuring our corporate colors red, black, white, and grey can be seen on furniture, brilliantly designed lighting fixtures, as well as floors and walls. Each level features unique accents that utilize wall art, informative TV screens, and inspirational quotes. These are not only impressive visual works of art, but also communicate the very essence of Red Hat and its mission statement. While the physical environment was very different than that of Splinter, I found common ground in the approach to one’s work. Likewise, everyone works passionately at Red Hat both as individuals and as a team. The Creative Team occupies several back-to-back rows of desk areas on the ninth floor. Even though the majority of the building feels extremely different from that of a small agency, the close proximity of the team members offers a similar close-knit feeling one might find in a small agency. Furthermore, a similar atmosphere of light-hearted joking and positivity was quickly observed and noted. At this point in my career, I’ve realized how valuable those two traits are in helping create and sustain a productive and engaging workspace. Another pleasant surprise (and similarity) has been crafting pranks on team members and our manager while they’re on vacation. All of them have been done in good fun and received with a smile. Regularly scheduled meetings and check-ins within our team enable us to share, inspire, and grow as a team.
Branding is most likely what Splinter is best known for. Most of the clients were not large enough to require a full brand standards kit to be built out, so more often than not, I created core branding materials and then proceeded with anything else the client might need. We did not have any brand standards of our own, only a logo.
Aside from the Creative Team, we have a stellar Brand Team that literally and figuratively works closely with us. It is our job as in-house designers to follow and enforce the brand standards to help ensure that the Red Hat brand is strong, bold, consistent, and uniquely our own. Typography, photography, specific color palettes, iconography, and illustration styles are just a few examples of brand standard categories that help guide any project through the creative process. It is also our responsibility to push the boundaries within that system and stretch the brand standards when necessary to not only have a strong foundation to build from, but to help contribute back and evolve them into something even greater. Brand standard examples can be found online at brand.redhat.com.
PROJECTS AND CLIENTS
Projects, clients, and the duration of relationships with them varied greatly on a case-by-case basis. Retainer clients such as Carolina Brewery and Carrboro Coffee Roasters, led to longterm ongoing close business and personal relationships. There were annual projects in which some type of existing relationship would resurface, and there were also short-term projects which might vary from a single deliverable such as a logo, to larger single projects such as working with a food truck to create a logo, business cards, website, vehicle wrap, and client-friendly updatable menus. Clients included a variety of small and large business and organizations including Pizzeria Toro, Cat’s Cradle, The Crunkleton, Videri Chocolate Factory, Cruizers, Rise Biscuits & Donuts, Firsthand Foods, Center for Documentary Studies, City Grocery Restaurant Group, Harris Beverages LLC, Fifth Season Gardening, Ackland Art Museum, Geer Street Garden, The Raleigh Wine Shop, Emerson Waldorf School, Bull City Burger & Brewery, Panciuto, Town of Carrboro, and many more.
Since Red Hat Inc. is our only client, we are on an “indefinite retainer” so to speak. There is not nearly as wide of an array of different projects from completely different clients, because we are working for and within our own corporation. However, every project is treated as a new opportunity to explore the boundaries of what we can do, experiment with what truly excites us, and deliver what feels most appropriate for each project. Some examples of projects include keynote presentations, theme design and signage for annual Red Hat events, corporate awareness advertising, infographics, and other types of various creative for Red Hat’s business units and campaigns.
The first step for any new client and project was having a conversation about what they were looking to accomplish and if they had any timeline expectations. Because we could only take on so many projects at once, we were able to be somewhat selective with the types of projects we wanted and were able to take on at any given time. There’s a lot you can gather about someone concerning communication, outlook, attitude, etc. in that initial conversation. We looked for people who shared a similar passion for what they did and an enthusiasm to work with and trust us, so that we could do our best to help them achieve their success. When a new project was put on the table, it would begin with a meeting, then a discussion of deliverables, timelines and budget, and then acting on the game plan. In most cases the project would be handed over to a designer with input from the Creative Director and go from there. There were typically 2-3 rounds of creative presented to the client before the final deliverables were sent out.
Depending on the project, the process can drastically vary at Red Hat. Quick turnaround projects are channeled through members of the Creative Team that we call the Prod Squad. The designers on the Prod Squad quickly handle the majority of urgent requests, as well we those that may have a shorter timeline and need a quick turnaround than some other projects. Larger projects are often assigned to a designer or small team, and the process for some major events can span months of planning, rounds of creative, and production. The dual attack nature of our Creative Team allows us to be ready for anything at anytime. There is also a large amount of collaboration on larger projects such as Summit that involves every member of the team working together- either collaborating on the same work, or working on different pieces of the same project at the same time. We have a system now in place for submitting project requests from each business unit. We use tools such as Smartsheet to help determine each Creative Team member’s current and future project timelines and estimated time allocation through weekly meetings and check-ins. This allows us to strategically plan the present and future workload of each team member. Members such as Creative Strategists and our Project Manager help monitor and interact with the entire Creative Team to help prevent overallocation and come up with solutions to those situations when they arise. Due to the large size of the company, and being a leader in the rapid paced world of IT, we must always move quickly while not sacrificing the quality of our work. Working within a larger network translates to more meetings to ensure everyone is heading in the same direction throughout the course of a project. After a major project is completed, a post-mortem is scheduled to examine what worked well, what we learned, and what we could try differently the next time. The goal of this process is to continue finding new ways in each we can work smarter and even better.