Michael Bell is a talented branding graphic designer who is the founder and owner of Signature Inked. Mr. Bell’s goal of being a positive influence on those who he and his business come in contact with is what separates him from those who seek power and fame. Mike set down with 4-U-Nique Publishing to discuss what inspires him, why he prefers the tortoise over the hare, and how he finds his creativity. After reading this interview you will see why he is designing his way to the top.
4UNP: When did you realize you wanted to become a graphic designer?
MB: As a young kid (as early as four years old), I would sketch logos with letters and shapes. Growing up, I had not clue that it was an actual profession in which people got paid for. My plan B focus came into play somewhere around my junior year in high when I finally realized my dreams of playing professional basketball were just that; a dream. Plan B was a career in architecture which eventually landed me at the University of Maryland, College Park. Unfortunately getting into the architecture program came down to me and physics class getting along; which did not happen. That left me sitting in my advisor’s office looking for another major with no clue what else to focus on as architecture had been my mindset for so many years prior. After he took a look at my prerequisite drawings for the architecture courses, he recommended I apply to the graphic design school. I had no clue what graphic design even was, but applied, got accepted, and gave it a shot the following semester. Now, over 17 years later, (unlike many of my classmates) I’m still working in the field, loving it and couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
4UNP: Who and what inspired you to travel the path to becoming a graphic designer?
MB: I would have to first give credit to my mother; she was the one who unintentionally harvested my artistic mind as a kid. She was big on arts and crafts, and painting ceramics, which I loved back then. That artistic love transferred into drawing as I grew older and thus where the seed for interest in architecture was planted. Had I known that graphic design was a viable career path, I doubt I would have ever considered architecture.
The field of graphics is a tough field to make it in. It’s a very competitive field and unless you’re the artistic, “Michael Jordan” of graphic design, it’s going to be hard work for most. Doubt did creep up a couple of times in school and early on in my career in terms of wondering if it was for me. However, I was really inspired to stick with it by a couple of professors and instructors both in undergrad and grad school. As they say, “anything worth having, takes hard work” and that’s most certainly the case for having a viable career in graphic design.
4UNP: Tell us about Signature Inked. How did you come up with the concept/business?
MB: In addition to hoop dreams, architecture and graphic design, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset. Many people with that mindset look to dive in as quick as possible and build a business. The “hare type” as I like to call it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that method, but I’m more of a “tortoise type”. Over the years I have been methodically and slowly building, rethinking and rebuilding my company. That has given me a lot of time to think of everything from company names to colors and everything in between. I eventually decided that out of all the things under the design umbrella, branding was my passion, my talent, my niche that I wanted to zone in on. So, that’s the direction I went in. In terms of concept, every brand should be unique; as original as a fingerprint or one’s signature. That idea is what started the foundation of the name. Originally the name was Signature Avenue, but the Ave, didn’t last long as it didn’t really have any deep meaning, but sounded good at the time. The word “ink” or “inked” is more connected to a signature for obvious reasons, so I decided to switch not long after. “Inked” also has a tone of permanence which is also a good characteristic to have in a brand. Therefore, the merge of the two words was a no-brainer once it hit me. It took time to develop both the name and the logo icon, but once they were done I was extremely happy and very settled with it. It’s also a known thing that the hardest brand to create is your own. I agree with that 100%.
Not expensive, but not cheap.
When I started freelancing many years ago, I found myself doing a lot of work for next to nothing. It took many years and several clients to realize that I’m not doing myself any favors by always looking to do things for next to nothing. It took a while to learn my worth and charge people appropriately. It took some time to realize that doing things for cheap was not only hurting my pockets but the design industry as well. If designers continue to sell themselves for a buck and a beer, that will become the expected norm in terms of what potential clients feel they should pay for a graphic designer. Despite that, I look to provide a valuable service to people who still beats what one might pay at a design agency, while still giving them the same (or better) quality. There are many young designers or people who are just as good with design software who treat design more like a hobby and will do work for cheap. Think of the teenage kid down the street from you. He may throw something together for you, but will it be the professional look that you need? Probably not. Hiring a real professional from the beginning is the key, as it will save you money (and headaches) in the long run. Trust, I know because I’ve been the “pick up guy” for many clients who tried to go the cheap route in the beginning. Pricing may be challenging for some but if one truly believes in their business and understands the importance of great design/branding, then they’ll ultimately invest in themselves.
4UNP: Do you have any funny or interesting stories to tell us about a project you’ve worked?
MB: Yes. It’s a project that’s both somewhat funny and a little sad. In all the clients who I’ve ever worked with, I’ve only had one where we’ve had to agree to just stop the project and take our individual losses. For the sake of protecting the innocent, I will call this person Bobbi. I was and am still baffled at how Bobbi wanted to hire me but also wanted to contribute so much of their own ideas to the project. Don’t get me wrong, I love and welcome ideas from all my clients as I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from many who have helped turn a project from good to great. However, when one (like Bobbi) has so many ideas that are simply against anything that I (or any other reasonable designer) would advise, it just becomes a project of frustration. A project of frustration ultimately does not end up being a part of your portfolio. It’s just a Frankenstein of ideas that don’t make sense and ultimately don’t work. So, I tried to explain this to Bobbi as best I could but she was determined to do things the way she wanted which made me ask myself, “Why did you hire me?” (Chuckles) After cutting ties and going our separate ways, I would check out the progress of Bobbi’s work through the website and would see things were not looking up to par at all. After a couple of years, I checked back again and it was pretty obvious that the company had not done as well as Bobbi had dreamed; which wasn’t a surprise to me. Although, sad in a way, it’s also funny. Sometimes people can be hard-headed and become the reason for their own lack of success.
4UNP: What are your other goals and aspirations?
MB: I’ve had a long time interest in photography. Grad school and an internship I once had really opened my eyes to it in terms of how it goes hand in hand with graphic design. There were many nuances and details about the artistic craft. I had the opportunity to learn about that I had never thought about prior. With that, it’s a strong interest of mine and something I’d love to be able to offer as a service under Signature Inked someday. I love doing still live (product shots specifically) and I would also like to get into wedding photography at some point as well. Being able to develop your own product shot style and incorporate it into your design work would be an extremely valuable skill. Also, being able to offer photography services to those who may come to me to design their wedding packages (invitations, etc.) would also be a great value to the company. I’m currently in “learning mode” when it comes to the technical side of photography, and hope to be able to definitely provide the service at some point within the next couple of years. I also aspire to build a small team of talented employees at Signature Inked in order to handle the demand and be able to provide even better services than I could alone.
4UNP: Can you tell us about your creating process?
MB: My process is very simple but complicated. Simple in what’s done but complicated in execution. When it comes to branding, it starts with picking my clients brain to get to know their company just as well as they do. Then it’s a matter of generating words (narrowed down to just three) that represent the overall company and direction. I call these “keywords”. Then the keywords transition to a mood board, a collage of visuals put together to represent the desired feel of the brand. Those two things then become the road map to developing everything within the brand from colors to fonts to the types of chairs in a waiting room (should the company have one). Easy template, but not always easy in execution when you factor in the dozens of factors that come along with the process; however, it’s this process of seeing something come out of nothing which is so gratifying.
4UNP: Do you have any upcoming events or promotions?
MB: Not currently. I’m actually about to update my website portfolio with new work that I’ve done over the past year as well as update the site itself a bit. I’m also currently working with one of the largest clients I’ve had to date, so that will be taking up a lot of time over the next several months. However, I’m still and probably always open to taking on more clients.
4UNP: Where are people most likely to see your works?
MB: I’ve had the opportunity to work with several known companies such as the Hilton, DECA, Booz Allen, Ketchum, The YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Safeway and Prison Fellowship, to name a few.
4UNP: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become graphic designer?
MB: Find a super honest and highly skilled person in the field to connect with! Hopefully that person will give you the truth and nothing but the truth which is essential in being successful. Being a designer isn’t something everyone can do just like not everyone has the ability to be rocket scientist. Some things you can learn in books or school but a lot of it is something you’re just born with. Either you have it or you don’t. I’ve seen many people try the profession unsuccessfully because they either like “art” and or know a thing or two about Photoshop. Knowing computer software well doesn’t make one any more of a designer than knowing how to use a hammer well makes one a great Contractor. I recommend finding someone or multiple people who can tell you the truth in terms of where your actual skill set is, so you don’t end up wasting your time and spinning wheels trying to make it in a career that’s not for you.
4UNP: If you could be anything in the world, what would you be?
MB: I’m still pushing (tortoise pace) towards my goal of being an independent business owner. In the meantime, I’m just learning as much as I can through my freelance experiences as well as my experiences in management with my current employer. Many people love power. I love influence, which I see as a subcategory of power. No matter what I do, I want to make an impact on other people’s lives by being a positive influence. Ideally, that would be in terms of my faith and showing others the love of Christ. I understand not everyone is on that page or open to that. Regardless, I still look to make a positive influence on whoever I come in contact with, whether it is in paying someone a compliment or connecting two people who don’t know each other who may benefit from the other in some type of way. I believe the vehicle of how I influence others can come from my lasting legacy and therefore it’s something I’m intentional about whenever the opportunity presents itself. The short answer to the question is an influential business owner.
4UNP: What are your best tips for dealing with creator’s block and staying creative?
MB: I usually like to lie down and rest if the opportunity presents itself. When I’ve got a project on my mind, it seems like my best ideas hit me as I’m sleeping or right when I wake up. This isn’t always the case; I sometimes just take a break from whatever it is that’s not flowing in the ideas department. I also seek advice or feedback from others. Having a sounding board usually helps in getting the creative mind going even if you don’t use the idea exactly as someone gave it to you.
4UNP: What keeps you busy these days?
MB: It’s a toss between my wife and two kids, my current 9 to 5 (which I love), my Signature Inked business and another entrepreneur endeavor I’ve recently undertaken (under construction). Oh, and an occasional attempt to keep my body looking like I’m in my 20’s. I don’t believe in the motto of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, so I try to work that in when I can especially since many of my best ideas come during or just after some good sleep.
4UNP: Where can people reach you at? What social media channels? Websites?
@siginked on twitter
4UNP: Before we let you go, is there anything that you want to share?
MB: I’m just your somewhat average, mostly unique guy who genuinely loves people. I will make friends with just about anyone (or try to) and find it to be an extra cherry on top when that new friend does not look like me. I love all things design from shoes to jet planes and everything in between. Graphic design is just where my talent lies and chosen career path. Although I look forward to a life where work is optional, I don’t ever plan to retire. As long as I have my good mental and physical health, then I’ll always be designing something and trying my best to stay up on the ever evolving technology that’s related to it.
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