Just as he was ready to launch his career after graduation, Phillip Kauffman watched his custom auto painting income plunge more than 80 percent, and he moved back in with his parents, but don’t think for a moment that he fell into an abyss of self-doubt. In fact, life was just getting more interesting.
During his time at Cal Poly Pomona, he traveled to 110 cities in 20 countries. (“I’m not worried about spending money to have a cool experience.”) After graduating, he took a trip to Italy, where he proposed to his girlfriend. On the way back, waiting for an early morning flight in Madrid, he struck up a conversation “with a random guy in front of me.”
The random guy at the airport had a graphic design studio in Los Angeles and invited Kauffman to visit. Kauffman arrived with examples of his work in hand. “He said I had a great portfolio, but he gave me a test.” Could Kauffman design movie posters? If so, make three or four samples and come back in two weeks.
Kauffman returned with 20 and left the meeting with an internship. That morphed into full-time work as a junior designer and then art director, with print production and photography thrown in. “I was literally doing three or four people’s jobs, and I loved it.” In the meantime, he created a 52-page book of his designs and sent it to 10 places he thought he might want to work next, along with a handwritten note to each creative and marketing director.
A leading power tool manufacturer came calling, hoping he could elevate their design work. As associate creative director, he made the tools the hero, photographing them in black and white and adding teal highlights — the signature color. Along with the redesign of their new website, he managed a team and learned to navigate the culture of a large company.
A leading beverage company later reached out because of one of the portfolio books he had mailed out. They asked if he was interested in becoming their creative director. He said yes! … And that’s where he is today, leading creative design for 14 brands globally and managing a talented team of 21 individuals. (Note to job candidates: Networking works. And be patient with job prospects.)
Kauffman credits Cal Poly Pomona art faculty members Raymond Kampf and Sarah Meyer, as well as his involvement in his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, for inspiring and motivating him to excel.
“Sarah’s class taught me how to be creative when you have no more creativity left. Every week we would come in with a new set of posters and she would say, ‘These are OK. Do more.’ She kept pushing me, and she was right. This was exactly how the real-world environment of a design job was. I was working full time and staying up all night designing more posters.”
End of story.
Well, not quite.
“We didn’t cover what I do for fun.”
First, there’s The Screw Holder, which Kauffman designed after he kept dropping screws while working on a centrifugal fan. He created the designs for a Kickstarter campaign, got more than a thousand backers, and launched the product in 2014. (To skills, add “how to create, fulfill and ship a product,” as well as “speaking on camera.”)
Kauffman is designing and developing 15 more products: a watch winder, furniture and kid toys to name a few. Most are in the prototype phase, and he is looking to license his products to get them mass-produced.
End of story.
“One more thing: You don’t always know where your path will lead, so you kind of go with it. … You’re always learning along the way. Be able to recognize the difference between comfortable and complacent.”
Goal at 18: Paint custom cars. “I wanted to learn how to paint flames and graphics.”
Experience: Took ROP automotive refinishing class and started a small business. Worked 12 to 14 hours, Friday through Sunday.
Skills: Body work, welding, paint and airbrush.
Lesson learned: “When someone else pays the bill, you have to make sure they’re happy.”
Career interest at 19: Digital design. “What could I make a career out of working with computers and doing design?”
Experience: Took as many design classes as possible at Palomar Community College. Painted more cars. Continued to work for dad in custom cabinet shop while car business was getting started.
Skills: Photoshop, Illustrator
Lesson learned: “Having to do customer service when someone is yelling at you about something you messed up, and then making no money off the work.”
Career interest at 21: Digital design, with even more passion.
Experience: Transferred to Cal Poly Pomona with car painting business in full swing.
Skills: Perseverance and self-confidence. “Keep pushing yourself to charge forward.”
Lesson learned: Humility. “You arrive at the university and realize, ‘I get it. There’s some talent here. How do I make myself stand out?’”
Goal at 24: Survival.
Experience: BFA in graphic design, minor in marketing management, Class of 2008.
Lesson learned: “The Great Recession happened, and it was a really tough time to get into graphic design.”