In the Fall of 2011, Nebraska-based designer Jake Welchert left his stable agency job to work as a designer on the Obama for America reelection campaign in Chicago. I spoke with Jake over the past few weeks about his decision to leave, his time in Chicago, and what he has planned next.
When did you arrive in Chicago, and what convinced you to leave your stable job at an agency?
I moved to Chicago in December of 2011. When I got out there, I didn’t have a place to stay, so that was priority number one. I actually got incredibly lucky and found someone on Craigslist that needed a roommate. I called when we pulled into town and within two hours I had an apartment.
I made the move out to Chicago because I was offered a job that I really couldn’t pass up. Plus, it was a campaign, so I knew it had an end, at which I planned to return to Omaha.
As far as leaving a steady job, it was part of the process. I enjoyed the agency where I was working, but leaving for a bigger opportunity was something they supported. They taught me a lot of the basics that you need coming out of school; production, proper file structure, proper communication. Fun stuff like that. In the end though, I have a goal to do design work that makes a difference. Whether it’s making people aware of a certain issue, promoting a business that’s doing something positive and helpful or solving a legitimate problem. So, I felt that working for someone that I wanted to see get re-elected fell into the category of doing design work for something that mattered.
What did your first few days consist of? Were you thrown directly into the fray?
I’ve got to be honest here and say that the first few days were very nerve-racking. Not only was I trying to adjust to a new city, but I wasn’t sure what to expect at work. My first day we had an orientation session that was a nice wake-up call. The campaign manager came in to a room of about 30 new hires and roughly the fifth sentence out of his mouth was, “Do whatever the f*** it takes.” So, at this point, I wasn’t sure what to think about the decision I had made.
Finally though, we were taken on an office tour and I got to meet the rest of the design and development team. They were tucked away, down this long hallway from the rest of the office, which at the time was about 300 other people. Upon meeting the team, any feeling of regret went out the window. They were so welcoming and were willing to help. Plus, they had made some really sweet collage posters of photos they had found of us online. It turned out to be a really great day, probably one that I won’t forget.
As far as the work went, yes, we were thrown into the fray. I was surprised about the amount of freedom we had, too. We were given a nice run-down of the brand, and once we got our equipment setup, we were given projects. I worked a little on the interactive side at first, and then a few months in I helped lead a team that finished out the campaign producing print materials (brochures, signage, merchandise, podium signs, etc.). It was a lot of work, but in the end, I couldn’t be happier with some of the projects I was able to be a part of.
They found images of you online and made collages?
Ha! Sorry, that sounded a little creepy. I should’ve said tiled posters.
What was the range of experience in terms of designers and developers you worked with? Were you one of the youngest on the team?
There was definitely a wide range of experience, especially on the design team. In all, we consisted of 18 designers, two project managers and two directors. Among the 18 designers, eight were considered ‘senior-level’ and had a lot of experience in interactive, as well as print. They all came from different backgrounds, too. Some worked in-house, a few for agencies and a couple were full-time independent designers.
The others, like myself, were a bit younger and were willing to do a lot of the legwork on random projects that came up. I wasn’t the youngest, but was close by a few months. Two other designers that I worked closely with were around the same age. Again, not a lot of experience, but we were willing to stay late, work hard and were open-minded when it came to learning and taking direction from the other designers. Honestly, I think that was the best part of the whole experience. We were given projects and were a little reckless with them. We tried tons of options and got way better in the time that we were there. It was this, along with the experienced designers being honest and having the guts to tell us when things looked like shit, that ultimately produced decent work. In terms of ability, I look back and know that I was horrible when I started there, and still have a long way to go. I got better by working with really talented people who were willing to be honest and put me in my place.
This might be where my advice comes in… you’re not the top dog, so leave your ego at the door. If you are the top dog, there’s always someone in another department that’s willing to walk all over your design work, because the type is too small and they hate the colors. If you don’t feel like including this, I understand!
As far as the developers go, they were very experienced. Some young, some old, but all were very intelligent. Not only were they great at what they did, but everybody was so genuine. I only worked on a few interactive projects, but learned a ton including the UX process, testing and best practices.
Did you find that it was easier to work and create something that you personally supported?
Mostly. We worked a ton, but it seemed easy due to the cause. I was, and am still, an Obama supporter, even though some things have frustrated me lately. I won’t get into that here though.
On the other hand though, the pressure was always on. So much of the campaign was about raising money, and design decisions either helped or hurt that. There was always this thought of, “Oh shit, if this doesn’t resonate well, we could screw this up.” Also, I was fairly tuned in to the ’08 election and was a huge supporter of the design work they were doing. So, working with a few of those guys was another motivation to make sure the work was inline, and we were sending the correct message to voters. I’d also mention the media microscope here too, and how they could pick apart anything we designed, but I think that’s a whole different article.
I think that happens with all designers though. You feel this incredible pressure to make things perfect when it’s totally a trial and error process. After a certain point, that type of pressure went away and it boiled down to doing design work for something we believed in.
If this campaign did not have the great visuals of the ’08 campaign as a base, would you have been less interested in working on the campaign? So, if the design as a whole was just not good, would that have deterred you?
This is a really good question, and it came up in conversation a few times while I was in Chicago. I definitely still would’ve been drawn to working for the campaign, but I’m not sure I would’ve been looked at as a potential candidate for the team. Design was a huge focus with the ’08 campaign, and there were a lot of younger designers that were a part of that team. They were willing to try new things and the digital staff at that time knew that it was good to let creative people do their own thing, which worked in the end. So, they went for the same model this time around, which was hiring younger people that had a diverse background and could handle the workload.
I’m not really sure if bad design would’ve deterred me or not. If something is bad, it can always be improved I guess. Even if it was complete garbage, it’s still a cause that I believe in, so I know I would’ve been motivated to take the job.
You were recently back in Omaha for a brief time, but you’ve set out again on another project. Can you give a quick description of what your new endeavor is?
Yes, was back in Omaha for a few months, and I plan to settle there as soon as my current project is through.
Currently, I’m designing for a startup accelerator in Harbor Springs, Michigan called Coolhouse Labs. It’s a strange place for an accelerator, but there’s a great local network up here of people who are mentoring the five businesses that have come in for the summer. For some reason, people in the tech industry vacation up here, so it works out for our little shop. The whole concept is to develop tech companies out of a small town. A few of the products are really interesting and focus on growing small town economies, so it’s been a blast to have a hand in the design work.
Can’t wait to get back home though.