Google the phrase “graphic designer,” and Jessica Greenwalt’s name appears in the top 10 search results of more than 60 million.
In a job market full of uncertainty — in which college graduates regularly take jobs far below their aspirations — a vice president getting on his knees to ask Greenwalt, a Cal Poly graphic communication alumna, to work for his company seems like a big deal. But from the time she accepted the position with a publishing company in 2007, she said she worried about her creativity as a freelancer.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really what people do when they graduate?'” Greenwalt said. “They stay in the same place for eight hours a day and do the same thing?”
Greenwalt faced a dilemma many college graduates would love to entertain, but that didn’t make her tenure at the company any easier. After three months of working for the company, she intended to quit but was instead offered more vacation time, a 25 percent pay increase and a window office.
This scenario repeated itself several times over the next two years, until Greenwalt finally left for good in 2010 to carve out her own identity as a freelance graphic designer. By then, she had built an impressive clientele — ranging as far as Beirut, Lebanon — as well as working with recognizable names such as LinkedIn, Yale University and Marvel Comics.
Today, Greenwalt owns and operates her own limited liability corporation (LLC) called Pixelkeet, managing a team of more than eight graphic designers and programmers. She credits her experience at Cal Poly — particularly, graphic communication assistant professor Lorraine Donegan — for giving her the confidence to pursue her dream career.
“(Donegan) would keep pushing me to enter contests, and she’d always be so encouraging,” Greenwalt said. “She made me feel like I could do design.”
Greenwalt was a student in several of Donegan’s graphic communication classes, including typography, book design technology and web design and production. In fact, it was Donegan who first taught Greenwalt the basics of SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which she said she has since mastered.
“She went the extra mile,” Donegan said. “One design was never enough. She always wanted to do three or four.”
Donegan always knew Greenwalt would be successful on her own terms. However, she said the value of a first job should not be discounted, likening it to graduate school.
“Working for a corporation, you can call it a ‘desk job,’ but I think it’s a really good learning experience,” she said. “If you have only ever worked on your own, you have this lack of professional experience.”
Greenwalt also said she learned a great deal from her classes with graphic communication associate professor Brian Lawler, who offered a different kind of career advice.
“Before you commit to marriage and family and homes and children and mortgages, start a business,” Lawler said. “Because what the hell? If you fail, what are you out?”
Lawler, a Cal Poly graphic communication alumnus himself, started his own business, Tintype Graphic Arts, as a student with $500 and one other employee. In 19 years, he grew it into a successful company employing nearly 40 people at its peak.
Lawler’s lectures are ripe with anecdotes from more than 30 years of experience working in the industry, but he said the department and university as a whole should make a greater effort to teach students about entrepreneurship.
“Creative people have a habit of thinking that the money will take care of itself,” Lawler said. “Ironically, a lot of the time it does, but there are also times when you should really be thinking about money.”
Greenwalt said she remembers Lawler for his business emphasis and draws from his stories in her own flourishing entrepreneurial career. Lawler said he remembers Greenwalt as a vivacious student with an obvious drive to accomplish great things, adding that he is flattered to have influenced her.
“I am accused, occasionally, in student reviews of taking too many tangents in my classes,” he said. “I accept those criticisms with a smile.”