Five Questions for Eric Rickabaugh

Eric Rickabaugh is the owner of Rickabaugh Graphics, located in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Gahanna. For over twenty years Rickabaugh Graphics has been creating award-winning logo designs for numerous Fortune 500 companies including Hasbro Toys, Coca-Cola, Toyota, MGM and Clorox. The firm has also worked on pro sports brands for the NFL, the NHL, the NBA and Minor League Baseball. Over the last decade and a half the firm has been applying their extensive logo expertise to the collegiate market.  In this time they have become the leading collegiate branding firm and their clients have included the Big East Conference, the Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, Seton Hall University, Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State, Baylor, Texas A&M University and many, many others.  Their tremendous success in revitalizing collegiate brands has resulted in the studio becoming the primary firm assisting schools with native American nicknames build new traditons around less controversial icons.  The studio’s collegiate designs have been the subject of feature articles in five major design publications and the firm’s owner, Eric Rickabaugh, has lectured on graphic design and branding issues at conventions for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the International Collegiate Licensing Association, Major and Minor League Baseball and at the The Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

White Boxer (WB):
You’ve been going graphic design professionally for 24 years, but during the last 10-15 years, you’ve really made a name for yourself in rebranding colleges and universities. How did that come about?

Examples of Eric Rickenbaugh's work
Logo designs by Eric Rickenbaugh (Clockwise from upper left): The Ohio State University, Vanderbuilt University, Old Dominion University, Philadelphia 76ers.

Our company has always been known as a leading logo/identity firm but early on we primarily did corporate logos. Based on our accomplishments in corporate identity we were selected in 1991 by The Ohio State University to redesign their athletic identity. We applied all that we had learned in doing award-winning corporate identities to that project and it was a real success. In the first couple of years after the new identity was introduced the university saw a 225% increase in licensed income (that represents about one and a half million dollars). Of course with that kind of success other universities took notice and we were soon hired to design athletic identities for the University of Dayton and Xavier University. In 1995 the NBA noticed our work on these three projects and hired us to redesign the identity for the Philadelphia 76ers. It was at this point that I realized we were developing a very positive reputation in the specific field of athletic identity design. I began to actively promote Rickabaugh Graphics as an athletic identity design firm and also started to aggressively seek out clients who might be interested in our expertise. It is now nearly fifteen years later and we have worked for the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, Minor League Baseball and over one hundred universities across the country. Our expertise has also grown quite significantly from just doing athletic branding to also providing academic branding, youth mark and kid’s club programs, identity research and testing, mascot costume design and many other full-range collegiate branding services. Our many years of experience have provided us with the necessary insights to really assist our collegiate clients in dealing with many very challenging branding issues.
How is working with colleges and universities, and pro sports leagues for that matter, than working with your typical corporation when doing a rebranding project?
Working with pro sports leagues is very much like working with any corporate client when creating a retail mark. The pace is fast, the goal is profit and the process is straight forward. Collegiate clients on the other hand are a very unique animal. The attachment to their logos is very emotional. Even a small change must be considered carefully as the response to an improperly handled change can be very negative. In addition, the stakeholders at a university are not only personally connected but they are also very diverse. A university’s audiences include students, faculty, administration, alumni, the community and fans just to name a few. The extreme range of their values, attitudes and age make the collegiate environment very complex and highly political. For this reason it is tremendously important to have a very deliberate branding process that includes involving many members of these audiences in focus groups to get a sense for their reaction to any proposed design. It is a very challenging and demanding branding specialty.
I would also think another challenge with the collegiate clients is the obscure or historical mascots some schools have that aren’t associated with sports very well (North Carolina Tarheels for example). One client of yours that seems to fit that is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. How did you go about finding an identity that the university’s audience got behind?

Examples of sports logos
Clockwise from upper left: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans, New York Yankees, University of Texas Longhorns.

Certainly many colleges have some very interesting nicknames. In addition to the Hilltoppers we have also done Catamounts, Nor’easters, Wonder Boys and of course the Buckeyes. The challenge in coming up with an image for a unique name is part of the fun of what we do. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers is an interesting case. When I arrived on campus they had a poorly drawn image of a “severed” hand holding a red towel as a logo. I was absolutely certain that we would come up with something other than that for the new athletic image. But upon doing the necessary research and talking to the university’s stakeholders it was clear just how “near and dear” that red towel image was to the WKU fans. It is steeped in a tradition which surrounds a famous WKU basketball coach who always waved a red towel at the games. It soon became apparent that we would be re-drawing the red towel logo rather than discarding it. We added a new set of wordmarks to the new red towel logo and the brand was complete. As you can see we let the university audiences help us find the correct image for their school.
What college or pro team identity do you see out there, besides your work,  that you really admire?
There is a lot of wonderful work that exists in the sports identity market. Of course the Yankees logo is a classic that has stood the test of time and is a very identifiable symbol. The Texas longhorn silhouette is another classic that stands out. More recent brands that appeal to me include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans among many, many others.

Comparing the NFL logos
The old NFL logo (left) and new (right).

Two recent professional logos have been revealed this fall. What’s you opinion of both the updated look of the NFL logo, and the logo for the NBa’s Oklahoma City Thunder?
The new NFL logo is an excellent refinement of a very successful brand. The typography has been cleaned up and given a much more contemporary feel. The football illustration looks like a dimensional football rather than the “hamburger” that the NFL players fondly called it. And the eight stars in the blue field now represent the eight divisions in the NFL and should be much easier to embroider. Overall an great job by the designers.I hate criticizing other designer’s work because none of us know the issues that were involved in the design process. Did the client dictate the design or in some other way hinder the design process? We don’t know the inside story. Still the new NBA Thunder logo is somewhat disappointing. Rather than portraying an image of a sport that is fast and exciting the logo looks dated and stagnant. There is very little personality in the design and if you take away the basketball it has very little meaning. There could have been a lot of visual excitement with the use of some lightning or clouds. Seems like a missed opportunity.

Five Questions for Kristen Harris, Portfolio Creative Staffing

This is the kick-off of what hopes to be a regular series of short interviews with other professionals regarding a variety of topics. For the first one, I start with a person I’ve know for a number of years, Kristen Harris of Portfolio Staffing.

photo of Kristen HarrisKristen Harris is the co-founder and Director of Associate Services for Portfolio Creative Staffing, based in Columbus, Ohio. Portfolio fulfills client needs on a freelance, contract or full-time basis from their specialized network of top creative talent. Her previous experience includes 12+ years of art direction and design experience in the Columbus area.

Five Questions Kristen Harris

White Boxer (WB):
One of the big stories this past year has been the state of the economy. As co-owner of Portfolio Creative Staffing, and working as a designer before that in the Columbus area, what is the market like for creative professionals in Central Ohio?
Kristen Harris:
It’s no secret that the national economy is “sluggish”, in a “downturn”, a “recession”…whatever term you like, it’s not as strong as it was. And the Central Ohio area has been especially hard-hit, particularly with housing issues. The effect that we’re seeing at Portfolio is mainly a sense of caution. While there are a few local companies that have had lay-offs or other staff reductions, generally it seems that employers are maintaining current staff and proceeding with hiring plans. However, we are seeing three trends in how staff and workloads are being managed.

  • Longer time frames: Companies may take longer to fill a position, may not always fill open positions, or may not fill them as quickly as they would have a year ago.
  • Seeking more flexibility: We also are seeing more companies use freelancers, contractors and other types of temporary staff as an alternative to hiring fulltime staff, at least initially. If it’s a great fit and the need continues, then it may convert it into a fulltime position. This really is a continuation of the “freelance nation” trend that has been happening for quite some time, especially in creative industries.
  • Tight budgets: Businesses are very budget-conscious. While they are still hiring or bringing in the help needed to get the work done, they are keeping a very close eye on rates, salaries and expenses. Hiring managers are often presented the challenge of getting everything they need, while staying within the smallest possible budget.

The current climate feels a lot like the 2001 market when there were a lot of converging factors. The dot com bust hurt some businesses, there were several large mergers and buy-outs among local agencies, and of course 9/11 affected the national economy as a whole. However, at this point I’m not seeing the drastic number of people looking for work that we saw at that time. There is definitely opportunity out there, but it is indeed competitive. People looking for new opportunities need to make sure their skills are up-to-date, their presentation is top-notch, they’re networking and committing as much effort as possible to their search, and they are seeking work through a variety of resources.

So what are seeing as the “hot” skills or jobs companies are looking for, whether as freelancers or full-time staff?
Interactive design is very much in demand, it’s definitely an area that still is seeing a lot of growth and potential. Clients are always interested in Flash (Action Script is a bonus), Dreamweaver, basic HTML coupled with strong design skills is a great combination. We also are seeing more interest in other interactive work, such as high-end Powerpoint presentations  and incorporating video or audio into sites. Print designers who want to expand their options may want to consider learning more of the interactive side. On the development side clients are looking for knowledge of all the main languages and platforms, and expect these people to constantly be on the cutting edge of what’s next. They’re looking for database work, e-commerce, blogging, social networks, incorporating video, and other features that push a site beyond the typical. They don’t necessarily expect this to be the same person who does the creative design.
Print design isn’t going away, there is a steady amount of demand for that work as well. Of course Adobe CS is the standard now, anyone who isn’t using InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop needs to update their skills. It’s easy enough for an experienced Quark user to pick up InDesign, but our clients generally aren’t interested in on-the-job training. If it’s not on your resume, you may get passed over for someone who does know it.
Really detailed production designers who understand print and pre-press processes, prepare impeccable final art, and genuinely like doing that kind of work are very valuable. Being able to hand off a concept to someone like this and knowing that it will be executed to perfection is great. But unless really enjoy this kind of work, don’t say that you do…you’ll be bored to tears in no time and your employer will know it. Our clients request a range of levels of experience and backgrounds. Strong conceptual creative people are necessary in some situations, and detailed efficient production designers are key in others. You can’t be everything for everyone, at least not all at once. Knowing your unique strengths, and being able to present and communicate them well is key. However, the more skills, experience and knowledge you gain, the more you have to offer your current and future employers or clients.
Where do you see the balance between being multi-skilled and having a particular area of strength? Is it better to be the proverbial “jack-of-all-trades” or to have one or two areas you really excel in?

You really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.

Great question. There is delicate balance between being multi-skilled and appearing to be unfocused. While you don’t necessarily want to do just one very specific thing, or have people think that’s all you do, I am not a fan of the “jack of all trades” approach either. The rest of that phrase is “master of none”, which is how it often comes across. I find that generally people really are best at or most interested in a few key categories of work, so it’s really a matter of how that information is presented. Creative people often have a variety of experiences and can do a lot of different types of things, but you really need to be able to define your key strengths and be able to share them with someone else.
The reality is that hiring managers, HR recruiters, potential clients and the other people you interact with about work need to clearly understand what you do and (more importantly) what you can do for them. Generally they are looking for an expert, the expectation is not for one person to be able to do everything and do it all equally well. Even when a position appears to be asking for everything under the sun, there are always some skills that are absolutely required and others that would be a plus. Focus on what you’re best at, everything else is ancillary or a bonus. For example, you may have done print design, web design, programming and development, illustration, multimedia presentations, project management, copy writing, marketing strategy, product styling for photography, and product development. If you throw all of that at someone at once, they’ll be overwhelmed and confused about what you’re really best at. It would be more effective to say that you’re a designer focused on print and web, with an illustration background and strong project management skills. If any of those other areas are important or relevant you can bring them up in conversation, or include them secondarily on your resume.
Consider creating your own personal “elevator pitch”, where you are able to give an clear and concise overview of what you do in the time span of an elevator ride (thirty seconds or 100-150 words). The idea is to get your point across quickly so it is easily understandable to your listener. This same definition of yourself can be used very effectively as a summary on a resume. It works as a snapshot of your background and strengths, with everything else on the resume is as support materials and further detail.
Outside the technical and design skills, what other areas do designers need to stand out to become more marketable?
Hard skills are the technical expertise needed to get the job done. Soft skills are everything else—personality traits, social graces, good command of the language, personal habits, overall attitude, and much much more. It’s the difference between being able to do the job, and doing it really well.With all other factors being equal, soft skills can be the difference between getting the job, being promoted, succeeding in your work, growing your business, or not. Most soft skills can and should be continuously developed, they are not inherent in your personality. These skills are consistently found in successful people in any industry, transferable to any position, and are often a key factor in promotion and leadership opportunities.Here are some traits that I often see in successful people, and look for in candidates:

  • Passionate and dedicated to their work or the job at hand
  • Positive attitude, optimistic, energetic
  • Makes decisions, willing to take appropriate risks
  • Integrity, strong work ethic, reliable
  • Strives to continuously learn, handles constructive criticism well
  • Good written and verbal communications skills, listens, asks questions
  • Attention to detail, organized, makes plans
  • Focused, committed, works well under pressure
  • Flexible, creative thinking
  • Motivational, respects and inspires others
  • Self-directed, manages own career
  • Poised, self confident, professional appearance (appropriate for the situation)

Given the choice between two candidates with equal technical and design skills, would you rather work with the upbeat, passionate, focused, organized person or the pessimistic, unorganized, disrespectful, unreliable person? Yeah, me too. Soft skills can be developed, sometimes it’s just a matter of projecting the right image or changing your own inner thinking.

With the boom of the internet over the last decade, how important is it for designers, whether freelancing or job hunting, to establish an online presence (personal website and/or blog, online portfolio, online networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)?
There are really two pieces to this puzzle, the personal website/online portfolio and online networking/blogging. Keep in mind that new graduates are coming out of school with their own website and a tremendous grasp of the social networking world, it’s practically second nature to them. Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy. So you need some online presence, but what? Really the best choice depends upon the work you do and your goals. If you’re a freelance web designer or are looking for a web design position, you need to have your own site. People look there for links or examples of your work, and they consider your own site an example of what you’d do given complete creative freedom. It’s your chance to blow them away! Freelance designers that want to keep building up that business should seriously consider having their own site too.
Potential clients might find you online, but more likely they’ll hear of you through a referral or meet you somewhere, and go online to find out more. A website can make you seem more like a business, truly committed to freelance work, and often larger than just a team of one. You can showcase samples of your work, highlight capabilities, show your client list, post recommendations, link to associations, and take advantages of other features that will make you appear very professional. Adding a blog to your site can increase your online presence, help you connect to other resources, and keep you top-of-mind for your contacts.

Without some sort of online presence you may run the risk of appearing less current or technically savvy.

Print designers who don’t do interactive work and are seeking a position rather than establishing a business have a few options. Having your work available online can be a convenient way to share samples. But you don’t necessarily need to build your own site from scratch, there are several existing sites where you can upload your work and resume. You’ll have a link to put on your resume and share with potential employers, without all of the time/expense/angst of designing your own site. Sites like,, and are a few options, these industry sites are also places recruiters look for candidates. If you want your own site, you might set up something simple through your email/internet host (mac, aol, etc) or a blog site (like WordPress).
Regardless of the type of work you do and your goal, social networking sites can do a lot of positive things for you. Whether you have your own business or are looking for a job, these sites can be a great way to connect with potential clients or employers, get inside information, ask for referrals, and be found by others. Recruiters use sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace to find connections and candidates, as well as niche sites (like creativehotlist and coroflot). Freelance designers can make connections with potential clients, get referrals, and establish more of a professional online presence through sites like LinkedIn, Sologig and FreelanceNation (honestly there are quite a few of those freelance sites, some are better than others). When deciding which sites to get involved with, it helps to figure out where the people you want to reach may be looking…that’s where you want to be! One caution, especially with social networking sites and blogs, is that companies and clients feel it’s entirely fair game to judge you by what they find online. There are horror stories of people not getting jobs because of something an HR person found online. While you may consider it personal and separate from your professional life, they don’t. And they probably won’t tell you what they found or why you didn’t get the job. So be totally comfortable with anyone anywhere seeing what’s out there, at least while you’re job hunting or trying to develop new client relationships.