The Recipe for Creative Inspiration? Mix 1 Part Chemistry, 1 Part Inspiration, to 2 Parts Communication

A Chat With Ryan Summers:

We can safely assume that Ryan Summers is never bored. His work in motion graphics – whether he is hands-on in the thick of it, directing a team, or mentoring young upstarts through their projects – signifies an unparalleled passion for the industry. Summers pushes himself professionally and personally, putting himself into uncomfortable situations in order to stretch his wings. Unafraid of failure, Ryan Summers boldly plows forward into new territory from testing new software for projects, to trying new techniques or approaches to solving a problem, to public speaking. He put himself into an entirely new environment when he shared his thoughts on “An Artist’s Guide to the Scientific Method” with the Bend Design Conference last October.

Ryan carved out some time to share some of his background, mentoring projects, and the importance of communication skills with Shelley Anderson.

SA: You studied chemical engineering and later character animation in school – are there some cross-over skills that carry over from chemical engineering into motion graphics?

RS: This is part of what I wanted to convey at BDC – how the skills I learned in studying for a career in science sit right under the surface of my day-to-day life as a working artist. It was a surprise when I realized it (it happened during an interview for an industry podcast!) but it was really eye-opening to see how much of my time in science is still present as an artist. The way I approach problem-solving, the never-ending desire to research disparate sources and find (or manufacture) connections between things no one else sees, the ability to be able to see from 10,000 miles above as well as a very narrow microscopic view; they all stem from my training for chemical engineering.

SA: What prompted your move back to Chicago, was it the opportunity to be creative director for Digital Kitchen or the thought of “coming back” to Chicago from L.A. or a combination of both?

RS: Can I say it was the Cubs winning the World Series? Hah.

More seriously, I always wanted to come back to Chicago – but I needed to go to LA for the experiences I was craving but couldn’t find here. My creative goals have always been to get in the room with the most talented people possible, and they were all in LA. Film directors, animators at Disney, VFX artists at post-houses. The plan was always to soak it all up and bring as much back to CHI as I could.

SA: Do you find as a creative director for Digital Kitchen, that your access to time for organic creativity and hands-on drawing time is more limited? Are you getting more or less time to work on passion projects?

RS: I pride myself in being able to conjure up time where there is none. Sometimes that means being predictive in a client’s needs (research), being smarter with what we design and how we execute (study), and other times it means putting in the extra hours when others wouldn’t.

I consider all three of those byproducts of studying science; they aren’t things you commonly find amongst artists.

SA: Can you tell us a little about MoGraph Mentor? In what ways do you work with those seeking a mentor?

RS; MM is wish fulfillment for what I wish existed when I was in school! I’ve been teaching almost as soon as I graduated art school. One of my mentors, was the guy who taught portfolio review at our school, and I happened to stop by and see him the semester after I graduated and started working.  He was quite literally buried under student’s portfolios with no hope of finishing the review process any time soon, so I stuck around and kept coming back. I secretly was co-teaching the class with him for over a year. I fell in love with teaching, or more accurately, mentoring.

Teaching is a one time act and then you send someone along. Mentoring hopefully goes on for a lifetime – at MM, we’ve built bonds with students that have gone long beyond the length of the term. And with the wonderful reach that online schools provide, it’s expanding geographically as well! I have former students that I continue to mentor, and continue to run into – worldwide.

Besides MM, I am unnaturally active on Twitter and Slack – I do a lot of demo reel reviews over Twitter DMs and I’ll occasionally hop on a Google Hangout if someone wants to talk over a gig  or freelance life.

SA: Many of the Bend Design audience members go back and forth between freelance and working as part of a creative team at various companies. What are some of the pros and cons for you working within a company vs. freelancing?

RS: The freelancing schedule is fantastic and the freedom to shape your artistic growth any way you see fit is an incredible tool to level up professionally and personally. I enjoy so many different forms of animation that freelance allows me to work on LOTS of different projects with different people and different approaches. That was addictive to me.

Chasing the money is the bummer for freelance life – it’s a market ready for disruption if someone is willing to tackle it.

Studios allow for the obvious stuff: stability, steady work, and a predictable paystream. And, in the States – benefits. It’s ridiculous that this even enters into the professional equation.  But it also offers something more ephemeral but radically important to an artist at a certain point of development: a common core of peers to challenge yourself with, to find camaraderie with, and to develop a creative rhythm with.

I love being part of a team – too often it’s couched in a sports metaphor, but I think it’s more to treat it like we’re musicians.  Freelance life is like being a session player; being in a studio feels like you joined a band. Session players make good, dependable money – but magic can happen when you find the right people to make up your band.

You should ask Chris Kelly from Oddfellows about that one.

SA: The motion graphics industry is constantly changing, technology updates, and trends come and go, what are some key observations about the industry now that inspire you? Any industry developments that might be disappointing or do you see as a non-positive trend?

RS: On the positive? There’s so many. Technology is simultaneously giving us more screens, more eyeballs, more suitors, more patrons, and more hardware/software to allow us all to both express ourselves and make a good living to do it. The overall quality of the work is both skyrocketing upward and spreading further and further outward.  3 people spread all over the world armed with cheap monthly subscriptions, affordable technology, and visions swirling around their heads can compete with established 20 year old juggernaut companies.

I love that I can take the pulse of the industry instantly by dropping into Slack and Twitter – there’s great discussions, heated arguments, and more inspiration than anyone person can keep up with.

The negative?  Homogeny. Focus on technique over expression. Copycat-ism turning into outright theft. Chasing likes instead of chasing failures. Still fighting to get through an agency gatekeeper to look my client in the eye and hear their needs.

After Effects still isn’t fast enough. 😉

SA: You seem to enjoy networking and collaborating. Do you have a couple of networking tips for those of us who are a little shy, proudly nerdy, and tend to love being alone in our own little studio worlds? Why should we get out there? How should we get out there?

RS: If you’re shy, use it for inspiration first! Just send a note to someone mentioning you like their work. It’s a tiny step beyond hitting the Like or Fave button but it goes a long way.

Get on the Motion Design Slack and just lurk until you see something you want to comment on. Conversations go by so fast there that you can’t even worry about screwing something up. It will be gone before anyone notices.

Get out and start dealing out high-fives and handshakes! The best way to overcome the nerves is to just get out and meet people. There are mograph meetups in almost every major city. If you want to work on the good stuff, you have to get your name and work out there.

SA: What does it take to be an amazing and effective Creative Director? What kind of personal journey have you gone through in this job, and do you feel that you are able to be effective as now?

RS: It’s weird because you spend your whole career trying to be an amazing animator or designer and right when you feel like you know what you’re doing, you get thrown into a position where you spend very little of your day doing it. Having the experience and knowledge helps for certain – but they are the secondary or tertiary skills as a CD.

No one learns how to negotiate in art school. Or how to be a therapist. Or scoping, budgeting, or scheduling. No one showed me how to build a GANTT chart in college! Time management, especially when it’s not just your own but also a team of 10-12 people; many artists don’t want that responsibility.  Pitching is a big part of the job, and that’s all about figuring out how to balance humility and ego at the same time in pressure cooker situations.

Above all though? This job is singularly defined by your communication skills. Bar none.

I’ve always wanted this – and I was very honest with myself about my strengths but more importantly, my weaknesses. I was always a very self-conscious talker to the point of stuttering and not being able to project confidence. I worked with a speaking coach for two years and I constantly look for ways to put myself in uncomfortable situations to test myself.

A lot of this job is simply about talking.


Shelley Futch Anderson is an artist, graphic and instructional designer located in Bend, OR. Shelley currently teaches UX Design for the Academy of Art in San Francisco as well as supporting a variety of clients with their graphic design and instructional design programs.