Jolinda Smithson runs Creative Mornings RVA, is the Business Development Director at Red Orange, and is our Woman Crush for September!
What do you do? How did you get involved in the industry?
I trained as an illustrator at VCU but I began my design career as a production artist at an electronics retailer part-time while I was a student and a track athlete (I threw shot put, discus and javelin). While I worked that job and during my classes, I did not have the best experience with other designers. I was a sweaty artist athlete, always in a hurry to or from a practice, and completely not stylish. There always seemed to be an air of superiority that many designers I met held over me in class, making fun of my work because I chose a bad typeface. At my production artist job, they gave the designers Macs while the production artists got paper printouts and had to manually recreate the layouts on a PC.
I worked that job until the company decided to phase out all part-timers and I was left without any prospects right before graduating VCU. I had presented a Photoshop workshop to my old high school earlier in the year and it went really well. The technology coordinator and art teacher pitched to get me hired to teach computer graphics and art and I had a teaching job at the high school that fall.
After 3 years, I had burned out on teaching and turned in my notice of not renewing my contract in June without finding a new job. That summer I did thrift store and yard sale picking and used eBay to pay my bills. I learned a ton about photography and designing consistent layouts by eBaying. I dreamed about making things for a living and had done freelance design and website development the whole time I’d been teaching. But I had no idea how to do that as a full-time job. Once I quit teaching, I started contacting creative staffing agencies in Richmond and looking for production art or graphic design jobs.
TecHead brought me in and eventually placed me on a temporary design assignment for Bank of America. After that short assignment, I became a contract junior designer at Wachovia Securities, working on (truthfully, really boring) newsletters for about 3 months. I came to work every day super eager, even though it wasn’t the most creative work right away. I did all the work the other designers didn’t want and was so excited to be working with adults and doing creative work for a really decent pay check. The financial industry paid very well and when the market was up, our team of creatives received bonuses at the end of the year.
One user experience issue I found when working within corporate environments and when talking to some graphic designers early in my career was the “cool factor” – it was as though the designer enjoyed holding it over your head that they knew more or had more inside knowledge about trends and style.
Fortunately, the design family I met at Wachovia Securities was the total opposite of that. As the least experienced designer on the team – with terrible layout skills and no ability to choose a good font – my teammates and supervisors took it upon themselves to help me, teach me and show me how to be a better designer and to understand what makes great design. They did that for our clients as well, using each opportunity to bring understanding and meaning to their projects vs. ridiculing a client when they didn’t “get it” immediately.
Around this time I started teaching at VCU in the Mass Communications department, mainly helping Creative Advertising students learn how to use Adobe Creative Suite to bring their ideas to life. Over the last 10 or so years of teaching, I have helped mentor many students and have been a CreateAthon at VCU professional mentor, helping student teams create free marketing materials for deserving non-profits.
When Wachovia Securities left town, I began my freelance graphic design business and started doing project work for my future employer, Susie Fife who had her own business, Red Orange Studio.
Over the next few years I did more contract work for VCU Creative Services and later Allianz Global Assistance as a graphic designer and web designer. I kept in touch with Susie throughout that time and in 2012 she recruited me out of the corporate world to help work in her growing business full time.
Despite the vast difference in pay, my soul felt much more at ease to be doing creative work in a place where our clients valued our thoughts, opinions, ideas and experience. Working as an in-house corporate designer, my clients (fellow coworkers from other departments) tended to talk to me and my creative teammates as though we were children playing with crayons. They did not see us as creative partners. However, as an employee within an independent agency, where clients come to you for your help, it has been a total breath of fresh air to be sought out and respected for the expertise we bring to the table.
Part of what I love in working for Red Orange is that we create client-centered work. We never want to make someone feel bad or uncool. We always want to help and explain so we bring our clients into our process and remain accessible and friendly throughout the project. One of the biggest lessons I have tried to impart to my students is that we have a job because other people are not good at what we do. That means clients come to us not knowing what to do or asking for our help. If we don’t think what they want is the best decision, it’s up to us to help guide and educate them versus making them feel bad for not knowing the answer.
About 2.5 years ago, when I was doing web design and graphic design for Red Orange, we started SLICE, our small business focused division. The whole point of creating this division was to remain affordable to small businesses and startups. Partly because of the success of that division, my boss asked if I’d be interested in doing business development for the whole company. I have been Business Development Director for the last year and helped the company grow by 37% in 2017 and by a projected 60% in 2018. It was especially exciting to see how the SLICE division reached its total 2017 yearly revenue by June of 2018.
My role now is to be a great liaison between our creative team and our clients so that clients get what they need to reach their business goals on a budget that makes sense for them. And on behalf of our design team, I am always trying to educate clients and advocate for the appropriate amount of time in a project to do the job properly.
What’s your favorite part or your job? Least favorite part?
My favorite part of my job is to meet with a prospect and see their eyes light up when they talk about their work. It’s a really great position to be in to learn about all the cool people and businesses in the Richmond area. My least favorite part of my job is when people want to try and get free consulting and it starts to feel like they are trying to use our expertise to get free advice versus engaging with us on a project. Oh and time tracking. That’s a vital part of measuring productivity and understanding how you spend a week, but time tracking is a bummer.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for other women in your industry?
My advice to other women in the industry is to always stay open to learning and connection. I would also say to try and not take every situation personally or to look for slight in things where you feel like you don’t get what you want exactly in the timeframe you want it. When I have tried to remain positive and use different situations as learning experiences versus carrying around the idea that someone was not allowing me to do something, that’s made a huge difference in my ability to evolve, grow and stay motivated. My other advice is to ask for help! At home or at work, lean on others who can lighten your load so you don’t implode with the burden of doing it all.
What brought you to Richmond? What do you love about RVA?
I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia called Victoria, in Lunenburg County. What brought me to Richmond the first time was studying at VCU, the second time was leaving teaching high school and going toward having a creative career, and the third time was living in Church Hill – it’s my absolute favorite part of the city. So neighborly, like the small farming community where I grew up.
What do you do for fun?
For fun I host CreativeMornings, make jewelry, garden, cuddle with my cats or play volleyball.
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