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Burn Your Portfolio: A Conversation with Michael Janda

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Michael Janda, author of "Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff they don't teach you in design school, but should," sits down with Peachpit and discusses his writing process, his sense of humor and why his book isn't called "Polishing Turds."
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Peachpit: You come from a graphic design background, and run your own business. What made you want to write Burn Your Portfolio?

Michael Janda: Within a couple years of graduating from college, I had been promoted into creative director roles. At age 28, I was hired by Fox to be the creative director over a major internet division and manage the design, editorial, and development teams. At the time I thought, "Aren't I the lucky one!" After starting my own business and hiring my first few employees, I quickly realized that my success came, not only from being the lucky one, but from my instincts in business, client management, project management, process development, presentation, and art direction. These were skills that most of the designers I was interviewing and hiring were lacking. They would show up for an interview with an amazing design portfolio, but they lacked some of these "real world" skills they would need to learn to fully maximize their career's potential. I started writing my tips and processes in an internal blog for my team. That blog eventually became my book, Burn Your Portfolio.

Peachpit: If you could offer only one piece of advice to graduating designers, what would it be?

Michael Janda: I think I learned more in the first six months after I graduated than I did in my four years of school. Now that you graduated, it is time for your "real" education to begin. Devour design sites. Sign up for online education programs like and Creative Edge. Read design, business, and self help books. In college you learn how to learn; it is time to put that into practice.

Peachpit: Where do you look for inspiration?

Michael Janda: I don't really have special mountain top or wooded glen that I retreat to for inspiration. With a sketchbook open, I start plowing through design gallery sites in a furious frenzy of clicking. When a design sparks a creative thought in my head, I scribble an extremely rough thumbnail to remind me of the idea later and I get back to clicking.

Peachpit: You have been a designer for over seventeen years. How has the industry changed since you've started?

Michael Janda: When I started my graphic design education in the early nineties my classes were still teaching hand drawn design and paste up. By graduation in 1996 everything had transitioned to computer. My very last semester of my very last design class included a two week introduction to HTML. (Fortunately for me I pursued learning web design on my own after I graduated.) In summary, when I started my career a designer could still have a career knowing old school techniques and print design. Today, if a designer doesn't have digital skills they are probably trying to eke out a living as fine art painter.

Peachpit: What do you think are the most interesting things happening in graphic design right now?

Michael Janda: The blurring of the line between apps and websites is exciting to me. There are all kinds of new UI/UX problems to solve as a result of this.

Peachpit: Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?

Michael Janda: In the early years of my career I wish I had had a mentor. I didn't. The fact of the matter is that I think I was born with a drive to succeed and when I fed that drive with entrepreneurship it became an addiction. I wake up in the morning and I have a long list of ideas to work on. When one is complete I move onto the next one. For example, before my book, Burn Your Portfolio, hit shelves I was already pitching the idea for a second book to my publisher. It really is an exhausting way to live, but it fuels me.

Peachpit: Who is your book written for?

Michael Janda: In the hands of a freelance designer my book is a goldmine of information. However, there is an enormous amount of information that can apply to any business industry. I worked hard to make the book as broad reaching as possible.

Peachpit: Anyone who even glances through your book will see that it's written with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. How has your sense of humor affected your work?

Michael Janda: I grew up with four brothers in a small town in northern Indiana. We lived on a lake by a forest. I liken our upbringing to Lord of the Flies... we kind of had our own government that was comprised of a lot of "lion cub" style fighting and sarcastic verbal abuse. I'm pretty certain that this upbringing taught me to not take myself too seriously and is the foundation of my quirky sense of humor. I also am well aware that although I have achieved an admirable level of success, there is always a bigger fish. That thought keeps me grounded and probably leads to a little of my self-deprecation. At my agency, this culture we've created keeps things light and fun (in spite of stressful deadlines and demanding clients). There is never a shortage of "mom jokes" or sarcastic quips at RiSER. Humor is a universal language that helps us improve collaboration and creativity.

Peachpit: You talk a little in the book about the title being a bit extreme – and you also mention an alternate title that you ultimately abandoned. Care to discuss what goes into creating a good title, and what input you had on the process? Also, what is the story behind the title?

Michael Janda: The original title of the book was "Nuggets from the Trenches." But the wise marketing folks at my publisher thought it was too ambiguous. We needed something that applied more to the book's purpose. The search for a new title was extensive and took several weeks of exhaustive brainstorming. The alternate title you mentioned, that I was excited about on many levels, but couldn't bring myself to call the book, was "Polishing Turds" (one of the book's chapter titles). In the end, I didn't want to be known as "the turd guy" for the rest of my author life.

I wrote a pretty extensive blog post about the search for a new title here.

Peachpit: There are graphics throughout the book that illustrate some of the points you make. Which one is your favorite?

Michael Janda: I worked closely with one of my employees, Nick Jarvis, to do the illustrations. It was a ton of work and rework to land on the right style and ideas to enhance the reader's experience with the book. I have two favorites; the Introduction illustration and the "Don't Work in a Vacuum" chapter spread.

The Introduction is probably mostly fun for me personally because it is my career path leading up to the creation of my own agency.

The "Don't Work in a Vacuum" spread is the epitome of what we tried to create in the book (i.e. interesting and quirky artwork that spreads across the pages and adds some humor to the reading experience).

Peachpit: What was your writing process like?

Michael Janda: I fell in love with Evernote when I wrote this book. Every time I had an idea for a new chapter I would create a new note and a couple bullet point thoughts about what I would include in the book. (Evernote made this easy since I could do it from my iPhone, iPad, or computer.) When I scrounged up time to write, I would open up Evernote, pick one of the chapter idea notes, and get started. Much of the book I wrote in the early morning hours on a few vacations in Hawaii while my family was still sleeping.

Peachpit: You've been running your design company, RiSER, since 2002. Do you get much time to actually work on design projects, or are you focused on running the business? (and writing books!)

Michael Janda: In 2008 we had grown to a team of 15 people. I had successfully, after six years, delegated the day to day responsibilities for most things to my management team. Over the past several years I have had the enormous pleasure of picking and choosing what I want to work on. If we land a really cool project, I'll pitch in on comps and concepts. I create most of our own marketing materials. I have also designed my book and author website. It is quite gratifying to have arrived at a "pick and choose what I want to work on" phase in my career.

Peachpit: What are some of your favorite design books or other resources?

Michael Janda: Every human being should own a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. A subscription to Communication Arts is a MUST (How and Print magazines are also great to have). Every freelancer or business owner should read The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. Don't get me wrong, I love design books, but so much design research can (and should) be done online that the design gallery style books are less critical than in past years. (However, I still like to peruse my bookshelf full of them.)

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