I wasn't surprised when a student I had never seen before wandered into my classroom. Not really. That's because my "classroom" was an open hallway shared with two other teachers, divided only by a few decrepit bulletin board partitions. What did surprise me was when he tried to fight one of my female students.
After being asked to leave several times, the unwanted visitor turned his attention towards me; and once his anger reached a boiling point, he punched me in the left side of the head, directly behind the ear. Only then did he leave down the hallway, yelling how he was going to shoot and murder me.
Four years ago, I was a middle school English teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools. Not only did I not like my job, but I felt it slowly turning me into someone who I didn't want to become. Shouting. Angry. Hiding under the sheets when the alarm clock went off in the morning, and coming home exhausted and depressed.
It didn't take too long to realize that I wasn't meant to be an inner-city teacher, and my students deserved someone better. When the school year ended, I left.
As difficult as that experience was, it was also a necessary step. I don't regret that year. It forced me to think more critically about my long-term career, and helped me realize that I needed to love my job.
What made me happiest? What would I actually enjoy doing on a daily basis? What could I see myself still excited about in 20 years?
Personally, that answer was drawing, writing, making movies, playing music - anything creative. That led me to enroll in Portfolio Center, a creative arts graduate school in Atlanta.
After sitting in on a couple of classes and admiring the display cases of student work, it was immediately clear that this was where I needed to be. For two years, the goal was to work as hard as possible, because I looked at those two years as a long-term investment in my life.
So I asked to take the most challenging classes, learned new programs like Flash inside and outside of the classroom, and took part in several internships.
I was lucky to be surrounded by remarkably smart and talented people, who always pushed me to go further than I thought I was capable of. And it was great. I mean, even at the most stressful and sleep-deprived times, at least I wasn't being punched in the head.
When I graduated exactly one year ago, part of the requirement was to create a personal portfolio. Most career fields confine their job candidates to a resume, but here was a blank slate of an opportunity to introduce myself to potential companies.
I brainstormed around the idea of what my imagination would look like online, and the result was a site called Okaydave.
The investment was worth it; Okaydave has literally changed my life. It opened doors, created opportunities, and somehow even won the FWA Site of the Month award for February 2006. (Of course, that's only because February is a short month. Less competition. Hello loophole.)
One year later, I'm fortunate enough to be in the process of starting my own company, Minor Studios, in San Francisco.
That being said, I don't feel that my situation is a unique case. I'm convinced that everyone is imaginative and creative in some way. What's difficult is bringing those ideas inside your head out into reality.
What's even harder is bringing several ideas into reality and having them work together with certain rules and systems to produce memorable and iconic messages. Okaydave is just one example of that.
The following are a few ideas I've thought about over this past year. At 26, I still have plenty to learn, and am excited about the possibilities of a creative career that I hope is just beginning.
The work in a portfolio should speak for itself, but "work" doesn't have to be constrained to a perfect screenshot or product photo. We communicate and remember best through stories. Adding a narrative layer helps messages become engaging and personal, rather than another thumbnail click-through or lifeless PowerPoint presentation.
Everything happens for a reason
Experiences tend to build on each other. Although I disliked my job as a teacher, it actually helped me develop and refine my public speaking and presentation skills. Explaining a design concept to a client now seems nowhere near as difficult as trying to get 40 teenagers excited about adverbs.
Self-promotion is not just a portfolio and business cards
While in school, I often drew illustrations for a monthly feature of the design community Speak Up. They were just fun creative exercises and an excuse to gain practice with a Wacom tablet.
Well, not only did many of the pieces end up going in my final portfolio, but some were also eventually published in a magazine, book, and museum exhibit. Each of these audiences brought new contacts and opportunities. It never hurts to try something different; you never know where it might lead.
The design and tone of Okaydave reflected my personality and interests, positioning me to connect with like-minded companies. I really wasn't sure what specific type of job I wanted out of the gate. By presenting myself uniquely and honestly, the jobs I didn't even know I wanted found me instead.
Enjoy the struggle
Winston Churchill once said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." It's easy to procrastinate and avoid roadblocks in the creative process, but working through those rough spots is often where great ideas emerge. "Enjoy the struggle," as one of my favorite instructors so eloquently put it.
I've always loved the warp pipes and hidden levels of video games, so including many secret projects in the portfolio added a little something extra. Finding the secret stuff wasn't necessary to enjoy the experience, but visitors were able to dig deeper if they wanted to (and were usually rewarded by me embarrassing myself one way or another).
It's a small world after all
The single most surprising result from Okaydave was the international response it received. Even though we may not all speak the same language, some stories and ideas are universal. Putting something online means we might entertain, inform, or inspire people from backgrounds quite different than our own.
Diversity adds value
Including a wide variety of projects helped showcase very different solutions to very different problems. I didn't want to be solely labeled (and hired) as just a web guy, flash guy, movie guy, or whatever.
Logos and websites were expected additions to a portfolio website, but an 150-pound metal chair and a wall of mirrors addressing female self-image issues weren't (and those were the projects that people seem to remember the most).
Before entering the professional world, I sometimes believed the old saying that nice guys finish last. Now that I've been fortunate enough to work with so many nice people, I'm happy to say it isn't true.
About the Author, Dave Werner
Dave Werner is a creative director at the newly-formed Minor Studios in San Francisco. He continues to update his personal site at okaysamurai.com, and will be speaking at the HOW Design Conference in Atlanta this June.