The Great Discontent

Phil Coffman

Phil Coffman

Creative Director / Husband / Father
Photo by Mike Bullock

About Phil

Phil Coffman is the Creative Director at Element, a digital studio in Austin, TX, and the founder of Method & Craft. He is the husband of one amazing wife, and father of two incredible boys.

Introduction

When TGD was still in the works, Phil and the gang (Noah and Trent) launched Method & Craft which became a big inspiration to us. We finally got the chance to speak with Phil and we’re inspired once again. Phil shared with us about engaging in the design community after spending years designing in anonymity, how his latest venture, Element, was born, and why he wants to leave a legacy that goes beyond his work. Phil, our virtual chat was a pleasure and when we do make the trek to Austin, we’ll get in some face-to-face time over a piece of pie—promise!

Interview date: November 7, 2011

Interview

Describe your path to becoming a designer/creative director.

I’ve always had a creative bent, even as a kid. Growing up, I knew I wanted to create and do something art related. I didn’t fall into the realm of graphic design or really understand what it was until I was in college. I went to Baylor University in Waco, TX. I didn’t go there for their design department, which which was pretty average; I went there because some of my family members had also attended Baylor. I was doing a business degree my first year, but because I had that creative passion from day one, I knew I wanted to take some art classes. I started learning about design and thought it was pretty cool. I noticed that when I doodled in class I would draw “logos” rather than pictures. I wasn’t aware that that was just something I naturally leaned toward until I discovered graphic design and found out it was a career. I remember telling my parents that I was interested in graphic design. It took them a little while to come around and realize I could actually make a living doing it.

I started taking more design classes, thinking, “I’m going to do this!” I was really green and learning the basics. In hindsight, I realize I barely scratched the surface there. I literally graduated with a pretty poor portfolio; it was mostly print and nothing special. I remember going around trying to find a job and everyone at that time was looking for someone to do web design, which I didn’t have any experience in. I walked out of interviews feeling very defeated, like I wasn’t set up for what the world was looking for at the time.

I ended up landing a job through one of my dad’s contacts. It was a small design agency called Awkward Productions. The owner of the company was pregnant and about to have a baby. When I first met her, she asked if I would step in and be the general manager. I was fresh out of college with no experience. I was terrified, but thought it was a good opportunity to learn. I decided to take the offer and for three months I cold-called people trying to learn their work, went on client meetings, had people be polite and listen to me and then literally ask for the owner. I was really beat up and ill-prepared, but I learned a lot. I learned that this is a business and you can’t just walk in with your talent and expect to get work. You have to know how to sell and how to talk to clients.

After three months, the design agency shut down and I was unemployed after being out of college for a few months. I got another job through a family friend at a company called Schlumberger, an oilfield services company, where I ended up doing internal design. I designed print work, posters, t-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, ties, you name it. It was around the year 2000 and they were interested in Flash and wanted to send me to take some courses to learn it. Long story short, I spent almost seven years at this company and did practically everything from print to motion graphics to 3-D to Flash. They flew me around the world and it was cool because I got to see and do a lot of different things.

It was pretty boring work. I was managing one brand and I had two colors I could work with. Everything had to fit within this brand so I learned a lot about how to be flexible within a brand. Again, I was in a position where I was being dumped on, sometimes ill-treated as a creative professional, which is the nature of the beast when you’re working as a service for a larger company and you’re not their bread and butter; you’re not the engineer, you are providing a service. However, that experience stripped me of any chance to develop an ego or entitlement issues, which has proved to be a great benefit to me. I also worked with some great people in the marketing department who always encouraged me and saw my potential.

That set me up a lot for where I’m at now. I have a wide range of skills. Through the Flash work I did, I learned about telling a story, animation, pacing, tempo, and experience rather than straight web design. During that seven year period, I had my hands in everything. It wasn’t until 2007 that I realized I wanted to do web design full-time and I was only going so far with Schlumberger—I was done with that experience and needed out.

I looked for jobs in Austin and found Springbox. I applied for a Senior Designer position and joined in 2007. I had no agency experience outside of my three month trial run at Awkward Productions. I had confidence in my technical abilities, but as far as understanding how agency life works, that was new. My first project was for Disney. I sat down to work with a copywriter to brainstorm and come up with ideas and I didn’t speak the language. But, things went well there. Within a year, I was promoted to Art Director. Then, two years later, I was promoted to Associate Creative Director. I soaked up as much as I could about the agency model.

Do you want to talk about where you’re at now with your personal transition?

Sure. In September 2011, one of the original founders of Springbox contacted me. He had left the company about a year prior to take some time off, but was ready to get back in the game and start up something new. He had an idea for a small studio model doing similar interactive and client work, but also wanted to branch out into mobile app development and product development. He wanted to know if I was interested.

I had already been considering going out on my own after the New Year, so when this opportunity came along, it was a perfect fit. It satisfied the desire I had to start something where I had complete creative control, a much smaller team, could work more directly with clients, and have more involvement with the business.

My partner brings a lot to the table. He has started a business before and his background is in business and marketing. I bring the creative side; he brings the business side. We’re looking for developers and other creatives. We want to grow it out, but also stay small. It’s a month into the job and we’re working out of this old house in downtown Austin. We’re having a blast and it’s an exciting time, but we’re itching to get into real work and start interacting with clients.

Was creativity a part of your childhood?

I would say yes. My parents are not artists or designers. My dad has an engineering and sales background and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Growing up overseas, we were exposed to art galleries. My parents loved music and always had it playing. We watched television and movies together and media was something I was exposed to from an early age.

My parents always supported anything I did as a kid. I liked to draw and I entered all the elementary school drawing contests. Anytime I had the opportunity to choose between a report or making something, I would choose the project. I read Calvin and Hobbes books when I was young and would draw the characters from the books. I always wanted to create. My parents saw that in me and supported it.

Who has been the most supportive over the years?

I’d have to say my wife. She’s not a designer, but she’s always learning what makes me tick as one. She’s been supportive and also, at times, my hardest critic in an effort to push me forward. She’ll watch me work and get frustrated because I’ll change things left and right while she’s saying in the background, “Wait, that was good.” She’s always believed in me and believed that I had the ability to do well creatively. She’s very smart and organized and has helped me be better structured and more well-rounded as a creative person.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

No. I never had someone that I worked with directly, but I did look up to other designers in the field and aspired to reach their level.

Did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to do design?

Yes, it was later in life. In college, I did well in my design courses. I felt confident that I could make a living doing design, but I didn’t know what kind of living that meant. It wasn’t until I came to Austin four years ago that I really got a sense that I could do this well. I knew before I moved here—this is going to sound cocky—that I was being wasted at Schlumberger. I had coworkers look at my work and ask me what I was still doing there. I knew I could do better, but part of it was that we had deep roots in the city where we lived and it took me a while to get out.

When I was working at Schlumberger, I was in an office all by myself in complete anonymity. When I finally engaged in the design community as a whole—started to get feedback from peers, began working with clients, had some success—it finally clicked that, “I can do this and I can do it well.” It became real that I could have more success than I had thought at first.

This might go along with where you’re at now, but was there a point in your life where you had to take a big risk to move forward?

Moving to Austin was a risk. We actually found out that we were pregnant with our first boy the day after I accepted the job at Springbox. We were moving to a city where we didn’t know anyone and for a job I would hopefully have longevity with. We took a risk that we would get acclimated well and like Austin and that we’d be okay being away from our family while having a baby.

The other thing is what I’m doing now [Element]. It’s unproven. We don’t have anything to show other than our past experiences. This thing is a start-up; it could succeed or fail. I’m a part owner in the company and sacrificed to do that. On a financial basis, it’s a risk because we’ve got two kids now and my wife stays at home. It’s something we felt confident that we could step out and do, but it is risky. We’ve never felt it was the wrong decision and so far, so good.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

I do and that’s something that’s become more and more apparent. In some degree, Method & Craft1 is that. I wanted something where people could share insight into how they work and think, beyond a generic tutorial and in their own words. I love being able to show people how to do something. I love educating people. Method & Craft is very rewarding. It’s been great to get feedback from people who’ve learned something through the site.

I went to Brooklyn Beta this year and pretty much everyone who’s been writing about Brooklyn Beta has taken away the same thing: We are incredibly blessed to have the ability to create for a living and we were challenged by speaker after speaker to use those abilities to really make a significant impact. We heard people from the health and education sectors stand in the room and say, “We’re sitting in a room of incredibly talented people and if just some of you got on board, it would be amazing what you could do.” And I think that maybe we knew that, but it almost took someone from another sector saying that it’s true.

I’m realizing that we spend a lot of time building things for each other. It’s funny, I thought of Method & Craft, which I built for other designers. That’s what we do. Obviously it serves a purpose, but I am beginning to think about what I can do that helps someone with a need different from my own. How can I contribute my abilities? I don’t know what will come of that, but it lit a fire to want to work on something. We all left Brooklyn Beta extremely touched, inspired, and empowered. They key is to use our time for something that makes a difference rather than something that is frivolous or cool but doesn’t really serve a greater good.

“I went to Brooklyn Beta this year and pretty much everyone who’s been writing about Brooklyn Beta has taken away the same thing: We are incredibly blessed to have the ability to create for a living and we were challenged by speaker after speaker to use those abilities to really make a significant impact.”

Help Haiti t-shirt design
Help Haiti t-shirt design

Are you satisfied creatively?

No. I don’t think I ever will be. I like very little of the work I produce. I’m really hard on myself and am always striving to grow and get better. I’m pushing more away from being technically capable and trying to be more strategic, smart, and thoughtful about what I’m working on. I’m currently seeking to become a better thinker and then translate those thoughts well. Method & Craft was a good exercise for me in seeing a project through on my own rather than working with a whole team to bring an idea to fruition.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

I see myself staying with this new company I’ve helped start. The things that excite me the most are running a team, laying out a creative vision, and growing a business. In five years, I’d like to have developed a creative culture for the people who work at Element. I’d like to look back and see how I’ve contributed to growing a business. I hope this thing succeeds and I’d like to see the fruit of our efforts in five years.

If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?

If it’s possible, I would like to go back and engage in the web design community a lot sooner. I also would have liked to try my hand at doing everything from design to development. I was always in a position where someone else did all the development for me. I was able to figure out enough to do my job well, but I felt held back by not knowing how to code. In some ways, I’m really playing catch-up. If I had had the opportunity to get into development at an earlier point, I think I’d be further along as a designer as a whole.

What piece of advice would you give to another designer starting out?

I would say something that my previous Springbox co-worker, Austin Kleon, said to me. As a creative person, you need to view yourself, no matter who you work for, as self-employed at all times. If you work somewhere, that company just owns 40 hours of your time. You have to build a brand, be invested in yourself, and be maturing as an individual. You need to be learning how to talk to clients on your own; don’t let a business handle that for you. If you’re working somewhere, you need to be freelancing on the side, writing contracts, going to client meetings.

You need to view yourself as a solo creative for a couple of reasons. You may not have a job and you need to know how to market yourself and have a portfolio put together. This business is volatile and things can happen.

You also need to have your identify solidified. Get on Twitter, get on Dribbble. Develop an awareness of who you are within the design community. You can’t rely on the things around you to pull through for you. You need to build your personal brand.

Putting yourself out to your peers causes you to do the best work you can. You’re out there, you’re known, and you’re on the hook.

How does where you live impact your creativity?

Austin has a great community for creatives. You can feel it in the air. When you’re walking around, you hear music, there is great environmental design. Design permeates the city. It’s also a really beautiful place with a lot of outdoor activities and a focus on living a healthy lifestyle. I can get out of the house and free up my mind by taking my kids for a bike ride. It’s different from where I lived in Houston. I don’t want to hate on Houston, but from my perspective it lacks creativity. There are inspiring pockets, but it’s such a sprawling city and there’s not a lot of direct history or personality like in Austin.

We have a slogan: “Keep Austin Weird.” People want to create and support those who create. They don’t want the city to lose its identity so they support local businesses and shops. As a creative, you get the sense that the city is rooting for you. I’ve learned so much; my desire and ability has skyrocketed since being here. I don’t ever want to leave.

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?

Yes. Living in anonymity was really bad for me. I finally made a blog and signed up for Twitter and my eyes were opened. I started meeting people and it fuels me to do the best work I can. I constantly see people out there doing amazing stuff. When I want to post something to my portfolio, I won’t do it unless it’s worthy and I’m proud of it.

I’m a people person. I thrive off of conversation and love being around people. We’ve been doing Dribbble meet-ups and have had people drive in from Dallas and San Antonio. We’ve had some really good times hanging out and drinking beer at The Ginger Man. I’m a big fan of online community, but I’m an even bigger fan of getting in face-to-face time. For me, conferences are more about inspiration than the content. The opportunities that come out of being around others and talking to them are amazing.

[Ryan] Before we get into the last few questions, I wanted to ask about your Twitter and blogging hiatus. What led you to do that and how did you benefit from it?

I set a goal this year to learn how to code out my own work. I felt stifled that I didn’t know how to do that. I wanted to learn HTML and CSS. Halfway through the year, I hadn’t done anything and so it was literally a punishment for myself. I decided to fast from Twitter until I redesigned and coded my personal site. I really did learn how to code a lot better, which was beneficial.

Also, a lot of what I was tweeting and how I was tweeting was a bunch of crap. I would have a thought and say, “Oh, I should tweet that.” Then the thought would pass because I wouldn’t tweet and I would say to myself, “That was so stupid. Why would I send that out there?” It made me be more thoughtful and not shoot from the hip too quickly.

It was a good cleansing thing to take a break, reflect on my habits, break those habits, and rebuild and get back into it.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up at about 6am and have breakfast with my family. I get into work around 8am and I’m the first one there—we work in an old house and it’s nice to get in there when it’s quiet. I start by checking email and opening all my apps: Twitter, Rdio, iChat, the whole deal. I turn on some music and might answer a few emails or jump straight into work. I work right until lunch and then, since I usually bring a lunch with me, I eat at my desk and keep going. I do try to take breaks as much as I can. I leave work around 5pm and head home where I switch into “daddy mode”. I help with dinner and put our littlest one and then our oldest one to sleep. Recently, my wife and I have also been getting in a couple episodes of Friday Night Lights.

Dell ProManage Icons
Dell ProManage Icons

Current album on repeat?

I’ve been listening to the new Coldplay album a lot, some old Beastie Boys, and I’ve been getting into The Civil Wars.

Favorite movie or television show?

My favorite T.V. show would have to be Band of Brothers. I like World War II history and I just absolutely love that series. I own the set and could watch it over and over again. I also love American Chopper and Top Gear (the BBC version). Favorite movie? I love The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. I’ve watched the DVD extras a stupid amount of times. Outside of that, there are certain movies I’ll always watch if they come on T.V. The Natural is one of those.

I don’t know if we’re getting into books at all?

Yes, books are next.

Okay, this goes hand-in-hand because they’re books and DVDs. There were two series called Long Way Round and Long Way Down. The series features Ewan McGregor and a friend, Charlie Boorman. They met on a movie set, discovered their mutual love for motorbikes, and became best friends. One day Ewan was in a map store in London and noticed you could literally ride your motorcycle around the world going East to West with a few plane trips here and there. He pitched it to Charlie that they make the trip. In 2004, they filmed Long Way Round. In 2007, they made Long Way Down, which followed them from Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa. The books are also great and include narrative entries from Ewan and Charlie. To get the full experience, you need to both read the books and watch the DVDs, but start with the books first.

I love motorcycles. There’s something about people leaving and going on this big journey and not having an agenda. My wife and I love to travel, so the spirit of exploration is big within us. Owning a motorcycle is out for me, but we definitely have plans to take our kids on backpacking trips when they’re older so we can explore the world and other cultures together.

So, are those your favorite books?

Well, I also really liked The Bourne Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings, I guess (chuckling).

Favorite food? Or, since we’re hearing so much good stuff about food in Austin, what’s your favorite place to eat?

I have to answer by cuisines. I love Mexican food. You can’t live in this state and not enjoy Tex-Mex. There’s a place called Maudie’s that I really like. They have good queso, margaritas, and fajitas. For burgers, there’s a place called Phil’s Icehouse, coincidentally. I love a good steak, though I haven’t ventured out into the steak-scene in Austin yet. And I love home-cooking; set me up with a chicken-fried steak, green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, and a slice of pie. There’s a little place out by where my friend, Trent Walton, lives called Blue Bonnet Cafe. It’s family owned and they have amazing pies. There’s always a line out the door.

Actual favorite food? I’d have to go with pizza—New York style pizza.

[Ryan] If you go to Brooklyn Beta next year, you have to go to this place called Paulie Gee’s. They have this pizza with gouda, Canadian ham, and a maple syrup drizzle—so good!

(Needless to say, we are all super hungry at this point.)

We’ve got one last serious question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Oh yeah, I forgot about that question. Well, to be honest, it’s not so much a creative legacy at all. My family and friends are all super important to me and, as a Christian, I am called to love and serve others—I want to be known as someone who loved and served others genuinely.

Getting married and becoming a father—the more I’ve grown in that, the more I realize that that’s the most important thing in life. I can be very selfish and I continue to work to put others before me and give of myself. If I can pass things on to my kids, it would be for them to know that I loved them, loved my wife, loved God; I want them to know that I served them and sacrificed for them and didn’t put my own personal gains ahead of family.

It’s fun to talk about design and to work on my career, but that’s not going to last. While I am doing creative work, I want to do as much as I can that will make a difference in people’s lives, but the relationships in my life are where I really want to make the biggest impact. interview close

“It’s fun to talk about design and to work on my career, but that’s not going to last… the relationships in my life are where I really want to make the biggest impact.”

Mandy Brown Eric Ryan Anderson