Ben Williams is a graphic designer (and former 3-D animator for projects like Jimmy Neutron) living in Jackson who now primarily does freelance work through his company BWCreative. The Jackson Sun recently published a part of a conversation we had with Ben about his career path and time at theCO. Below is the interview in-full, where Ben discusses more about life as a designer in West Tennessee along with what's providing the most inspiration as of late.
Describe your path to what you’re doing right now. I went to The Art Insittute of Dallas for computer innovation, and graduated from there years and years ago (laughs), I graduated in 1999 and began working at a studio in Dallas. After my contract ended there I sort of relocated to Jackson, and was looking for something to do in my field. There was not a lot of 3-D animation happening in Jackson then, or even now, so I just made a transition and started working at VIP Magazine. I began there as a designer and when the art director left in 2004 I took on that role. I worked there through 2007 before doing freelance work, where I started taking clients in Memphis and in Jackson. I’ve been a part of magazine production that entire time. VIP had started VIP Memphis, and I started working for the owners of that Magazine. They eventually broke off from that company and changed the name to 4 Memphis – I stuck with them and have been doing that for several years now. And starting just last month, I began working on the production of another magazine called Southern Soul. Although I work a lot with logo design, marketing materials, and branding, there is this whole other segment of magazine production that I’ve seemed to find a niche in.
Was that difficult to move from doing 3-D animation in Dallas to Jackson where there wasn’t really an outlet for that? I think emotionally it was, because it was such a cool field to work in. I was working on the Jimmy Neutron project in Dallas, so it was like cartoon heaven there. Everyone at the studio was surrounded by toys and was riding razor scooters around the office, so it made for a very cool environment, and back in 2001, nobody knew about companies like Google that aimed to create those kinds of unique office environments. So coming to Jackson out of that, and not having cool places like theCO around yet, was kind of hard.
But technically it wasn’t a difficult move; I had learned design, worked with Photoshop, and had experience with other editing softwares from my time in school, so a lot of the skills that I needed to make the transition made it seamless. I was only working with a different set of tools. For me it was more of a stretch to go from 2-D to 3-D, so reversing that and going back to 2-D again wasn’t that big of a deal (laughs).
You mentioned your involvement in magazine production and being an integral part of that whole process. Was there ever an “Aha!” moment where you realized that kind of work fit your specific skill-set and personality? Nope! (laughing) No, not at all. I never set out to work in magazines, and I never set out to even be a graphic designer, but I think when looking back there were signs in my life that showed I was destined to be a graphic designer in some senses. Ministry is where my passion is, so design has always been one of those situations where I’m grateful for the set of skills–that are pretty versatile and applicable to any other interests–whether it’s design for a non-profit you’re interested in or a church you’re a part of or businesses that you like to utilize. But there was never really an “Aha!” moment. Magazine production is half creativity and half project management, so I think having those two components has kept it interesting over the years.
What does your typical work day look like? I try to get to work around 9:00, and because I am a free-lancer/independent contractor, which means some days I’m setting up in my home-office after getting the kids to school, and other days that means I’m here at theCO first thing. I’m kind of in a transition now with Courtney (Searcy) working for me – she frees me up to be more communicative with clients through email, so most of my mornings are occupied by tending to what came in or what was submitted over night, and getting things ready to hand off to Courtney. So usually the afternoon is just a matter of putting our nose to the grindstone until 5:00 or 6:00. I’m also in Memphis every so often for meetings with a client or one of the magazines, so that allows for a good change of pace when I need it.
I know you to be a big family man. Have those closest to you been supportive amongst the different directional changes throughout your career? Yeah…yeah! Absolutely. My wife and I had our first child in 2007, which is incidentally when I first started freelancing (totally not planned). Basically I was at VIP making ‘x’ amount of dollars and she was teaching making ‘x’ amount of dollars, and we wanted her to be able to stay at home once we started a family. I realized that meant that I needed to make up for both of our salaries. Around that time an opporuntity came up with a friend who was about to begin working on a new film. He came to me with an offer that turned out to be exactly what I needed financially, so I left VIP.
Two weeks into the project all of the funding fell through and finding new funds for the project became a long, drawn-out process, so by the holiday season of 2007 I knew it was time to look for something else. At the time there weren’t many opportunities in Jackson, so I started freelancing. My wife was very supportive; she’s always been someone who has believed in me. Now that we have four kids we realize both the flexibility as well as the burdens that come with being self-employed, but the former tends to out-weigh the latter because I can work at home and I can be flexible (I don’t have to schedule days off two weeks in advance and that sort of thing). I think those freedoms have proven to be beneficial for our whole family.
Has being a member at theCO stimulated your creative process? Yeah, being in an environment outside of my home has been stimulating in itself. From 2007-2014, I worked at home for the most part up, and at the beginning of this year I joined theCO. So there’s been a big adjustment to being in an environment with other people working around you, but it’s been a welcomed adjustment. When working within a creative/design focus, input is always around you though social media or anything else online, and it’s easy to gain exposure to other people’s ideas that way. That’s never been the issue. On the personal side, though, having people to bounce ideas off of or to meet at the coffee pot with to talk about the ups and downs of dealing with clients or whatever else is going on that day has provided a sense of camaraderie, which has been one of the biggest benefits of my having a membership here. Seeing how other people interact with each other on a creative level or hearing about how different experiences with clients creates a sort of collaborative business environment for members.
I think interestingly enough, amidst this digital revolution where freelance work is so pervasive and people are able to work on a more autonomous level, that more are actually beginning to find themselves gravitating back towards the more communal atmospheres. Well last summer I actually finished up my bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership and Continuting Education at Union University, and while there I was researching a lot about different work habits and how people’s responses differ according to their surroundings. For example, telecommunication is something that has become more popular, where people phone in from home to another office for a certain amount of hours per month or week. Now we’re seeing companies like Google and Yahoo! who used similar systems bring their employees back into the office because they’re finding that you’re really not as productive with that much autonomy. I think some personalities can be geared towards that kinds of rhythm, but thet lack of accountability –whether that’s present through having a boss a couple of rooms over or having a co-worker’s desk next to yours– makes it harder to self-regulate and stay self-disciplined. And that’s where places like theCO seem to have found a happy medium. There’s not a boss breathing down your neck but there are other people around you working and pushing you to stay productive.
Is there anything of late that you’ve found to be particularly inspiring? Being at the place I am in raising a family, I’m around my kids a lot. There’s a strong sense of imagination amongst them, and simply being able to watch uninhibited play without self-consciousness about what they say or do can be very inspiring. I’ve also been reading to them a lot lately, which has created opportunities to imagine that can’t really be found any other way (especially when reading fiction). Watching my kids’ enthusiasm to hear story has been a neat experience.
Interview and transcription by Joseph Smith.
Portrait by Aaron Hardin.