Feb 4, 2013 By Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield

The Strategic Career: How an Art Director Keeps Ahead of the Curve

[Originally published September 4, 2012] 

Many in the illustration and graphic design community know Robert Newman through his ubiquitous online social media persona Newmanology. If you’re a fan or follower of his, you’ll see the rapid-fire, eclectic mix of images he posts—his own work, the work of others, iconic images and designs from the past as well as a good dose of pulp on his Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest pages. We wondered where he found the time (he says he doesn’t watch any TV), and more importantly why he was doing it? And so he told us:

Stay engaged. “Back in the day, illustrators, photographers and designers used to stop by whichever office I was working in and we’d all sit around and talk about images and art direction. That doesn’t happen much anymore. But thankfully with Facebook and Tumblr I see all kinds of work from all over the world—recent and vintage—and read illustrators’ blogs that explain, for instance, how they created a magazine cover. My friends will hip me to new stuff. It’s the equivalent of going to galleries or haunting newsstands to go through racks and racks of magazines, something I used to do all the time.”

Stay current. “Increasingly, art directors at magazines are being put in charge of all formats of their brands. But to be the master of your medium, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or any other platform, you have to use it. Otherwise you’re just a cynical person putting out stuff that you have no feel for. You’re like the old guys in the old days putting out derivative rock records who’d say, ‘I don’t understand why the kids don’t buy it?’”

Stay in the public eye. From a self-serving point of view, social media is about hyping yourself. Part of an art director’s cache is his or her aesthetic. Posting great work shows you off as a tastemaker. It’s a great way to get your work and your name out. It’s a great way to make social connections and work connections. I love the way people in the community race to post their latest cover or illustration or photograph. Then again, I met an art director recently who does amazing work but no one had seen it because he wasn’t posting them online or to his own social media.”

The way Newman speaks about his work reminded us of an article by Psychology Today writer Susan Krauss Whitbourne on “career mindsets.” Whitbourne discusses the traditional career mindset in which people believe that they’ll train for and then follow a single career path, perhaps even with the same company for their entire lives. (Think the hapless folks that toil away at The Office‘s Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.) People with this mindset have been taught that their reward will be, “steady progress of advancement in linear fashion.” But Whitbourne points out that with this attitude, “It can be very difficult to accept our worth when our careers seem to be stalled at a level below our expectations….Holding onto this mindset leads us to judge ourselves as abnormal, failed and flawed.”

Whitbourne writes, “When you start to break out of the standard career mindset, you can start to see paths for yourself that you never would have imagined.’ This leads to what she calls the boundaryless or protean career in which one does not feel lost or out of control when a career hits a speed bump. When you change your attitude you can envision your career as ‘self-directed rather than being determined by external forces.”

She could be describing Newman’s mindset. Not only has he embraced social media to further his career, but he has been strategic, taking many jobs with the goal of learning new technology and advancing his skills. Early on he worked in a print shop to learn to how to do prepress, when he worked for an alternative weekly he went on circulation runs to learn everything about where and how the papers were distributed and displayed, and at Entertainment Weekly, he took a supporting role to learn desktop publishing. Newman’s most recent full time gig was at Reader’s Digest from which he was recently let go. But he encouraged us to write about it, because he believes the experience in its entirety is instructive about the way he directs his career:

“I jumped at the chance to get the job at Reader’s Digest because they needed someone to launch their apps and I wanted to learn about them.  I had no illusions that the job would last five or 10 years. It was a strategic decision. I learned about a lot of digital platforms that I’d never worked on before. We did an iPad app, a Kindle Fire app, and a spinoff app; we launched a Tumblr page. It’s always a challenge when you’re fired. But now, I’m taking all that I learned there and applying it to new clients.”

Summing up, he told us:

“It’s important to think of your jobs and your career strategically, to always think one or two steps ahead, and to have a sense of where the current job is going to take you.”