Interview with Visual Designer, Carey Smith

Jan 09, 2020 at 11:30 am by nickcharles

So, it was about five or six years ago, whilst on a search for motion design-related video tutorials, that I stumbled across the Division05 YouTube channel. With just a handful of videos at the time (Building a Reel, Storyboarding, Composition), I stumbled on gold - these were the best learning resources I had ever come across.

The man behind Divison05 is Carey Smith, a veteran of visual design for over fifteen years. With clients like ABC and FX Network, Carey's work in the industry is essentially to get the creative ball rolling and designs concepts and storyboards for show packages, commercial spots and branding. And as far as an instructor, Carey Smith has a unique and engaging teaching style, and really focuses on essential skills in his videos - the stuff you would expect to get in an art school, and from the voice of real experience...not to mention a good dose of humor along the way!

In the last few years, Carey has put a lot of time and focus on creating exceptional master classes, where you are really challenged to learn the material. His original, and highly recommended video tutorials are still up on YouTube, but the master classes are the real deal to hands-on learning. On the recent release of his third master class: Visual Design Lab, I reached out to Carey to talk a bit about his work, his classes, and what it is like to work in the industry.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got interested in visual design.

It starts nerdy. As a gangly teenager I drew a lot. Comic book illustration was my jam and I thought that was the goal for me, but I wasn’t getting good enough fast enough to get me on that career path, so it wasn’t instant rockstar sexcapades. I went to a regular 4-year university, studied neuroscience and genetics, of all things, and started preparing for what looked to be a really mundane existence.

But while there, I finally realized that all of this stuff around us: billboards, magazine covers, store signage, logos, etc. was there by virtue of something other than magic. Like, real people make that stuff?! I could make that stuff!!! I’m real smart. Design became a real obsession, but I didn’t know anything about that world or how to get into it.

I grew up in Portland, OR., so I had my wide eyes on places like Weiden & Kennedy, home of every epic Nike spot in the 90s. Super unrealistic. Y’know, if you’re gonna have dreams, have big dreams. But super luckily, my godfather ran a small local ad agency and he let me sit in for a few months and version-out franchise oil change coupons and make wine tasting fliers while I took some software classes. Then I found some proper graphic design night classes, took a paid internship at a tiny web design spot, and submitted a long-shot application to CalArts. (spoiler: nailed it)

As you were trained at CalArts, how was your experience there, and do you feel a formal education is the best way to start?

Already having a degree, I was accepted as a 2nd-year student, so I missed the hardcore visual art foundation everyone sweats through their first year. And having to play so much catch-up, I described it as the hardest thing I’d ever gone through. But I’d never have gotten on the path that I did without the relentless intensity of that education. It worked for me, and I try to impart some of the outcome of that to people just starting now, but it’s still like building muscle mass. You have to be the one to do the training if you want the gaining. Sometimes I rhyme. It’s awesome, I know.

That said, there’s no objectively best way to start. A “formal” education is just a different beast than something like online classes. And the motion graphics industry is a collection of so many different kinds of careers, each employing such strange sets of disciplines that you really have to narrow the question down to one of those career paths to say anything meaningful about the value of traditional schools vs online schools, or what have you.

THAT said, it’s pretty easy to see that formal education is better at laying a solid creative groundwork for you to really branch out from. And online schools are good at providing specific, accelerated learning for more practical and applied skills. You could kind of say that formal ed. will set the foundation for a creative career (creator, author, director roles) at the cost of time and money, and the current state of online schools will get you up and running for positions in production, faster and cheaper. So it depends on both your resources and your goals.

I’m trying to give people the best of both.

What was the first job you landed?

My first job was a week of freelancing at this now defunct video game cable channel, G4. Sounds kind of great, but it was a shitshow. I went back there a bunch over the years out of some sense of loyalty as it wheezed out a slow death. No one misses it except people who are wrong. :D

A couple of months after that first job, I got this awesome job at a boutique design and editorial studio. By boutique, I mean an editor and art director with a great pedigree pulling in BMW and Cadillac commercials while I sat in a corner animating attempts at endtags. I made an instantly embarassing endtag for a Kaiser Permanente campaign that was used for a decade. My shame is legend. But it was good times.

With an incredible client list, what’s the most memorable project that you’ve had the opportunity to work on?

As exciting as certain brands seem, it really comes down to the people involved in the projects and their goals and their energy for it. Like, I’ve done my fair share of work for Apple: commercials and annual keynotes, which has a certain glamour to it, but they’ve been some of the least interesting and most suffocatingly micromanaged projects I’ve been on. Not fun! But then, I’ve done a bunch of work with FX Network, and it’s excited and creatively adventurous and ultimately satisfying because the people there are energetic, interested, and creatively adventurous.

I imagine it would be especially easier and more inspiring to work with the more creatively adventurous. Did that also mean you had more free reign in working with FX Network?

Well, most of the jobs that I do are on the concepting and design end, and mostly in the pitch stage, so the field is generally pretty wide open. In fact, the amount of freedom can actually be an impediment because a lot of times the projects have very little foundation, so you really don’t have much to go on. The client goes, “make me a thing”, and you start thinking “I’d love to make a thing. What the fuck kind of thing am I gonna make that you’ll also like?"

I really love the excitement and intensity in the Season Four promo for How the Universe Works, and how it fits so well with the narrative. What can you tell us about working on this promo?

A classmate and friend from CalArts has his own studio ( and will sometimes ask me to pitch on a project when he needs help. The Science Channel came to him with an audio recording of famous physicist Richard Feynman set to music, which was pretty great by itself, but that was really it.

So, I made a storyboard describing an editorial journey through the history of scientific discovery, and then because my friend had been recently feeling like he was in a slump of repetition with his work, I made another storyboard recounting the Big Bang and galaxies forming and whatnot, but visualized through organic fluids. I thought that if the client chose that, it might be a fresh challenge for him to execute.

The client kind of chose a little of both, in a way. He worked with them over the course of 6 weeks or so and crafted this really beautiful thing that’s both editorial and contains imagery of the universe visualized through photographed fluids. It’s a really good example of an idea being seeded in the design stage, and then evolved and improved many times over in the process of making it.

How The Universe Works | Season 4 Promo - :60 from Raffi Simonian on Vimeo.

Speaking on your work with FX Network, I so love the creepy imagery for American Horror Story. How much of that did you work on?

The FX design team works almost like an independent design studio, but they commission pitches from other studios on things like show packages, and include their own pitches alongside those. The coincidence of my work for American Horror Story is that a studio commissioned by FX called me in before season 1 and was like “FX called, and there’s this new show…”

I was asked to concept and design for the original look and feel of things like the logo, show open, promo imagery, and all of the things associated with it. I was only there for like a week, but the day after I finished that job, I got an email from an art director I used to work with who was like “hey, I work at FX now and we have this new show…” I told her I’d kind of just blown my wad for that show elsewhere, but she still wanted me to take another crack at it for them directly.

In both cases, it was mostly an R&D effort. They were really just trying to find the voice of the show. They had some photography from the set and a synopsis of the show, which is more than you’d get on average, but that’s still pretty vague, so it was very much an exploratory process. I ended up making a bunch of logotypes in varying degrees of destruction-by-hand, and some fairly random imagery that I turned into small storyboarded vignettes, just to give them an idea of what they could do.

It was a big effort by FX with a lot of studios working on it, and they ended up with a filmed and edited show open from Prologue that informed the package for that season. Prologue is the studio started by Kyle Cooper who’s famous for the epic title sequence for David Fincher’s “Se7en” that everyone and their mom wanted to copy, and you can see the clear connection to AHS. And to keep the connections going, Prologue was started the summer after I graduated, when Kyle Cooper met my former classmate friend at a mutual workplace and made him his first hire.

What else have you worked on for FX Network?

I’ve worked for them through multiple studios, and I worked in-house at their offices at the Fox Studios lot for a few months. Last year, that same classmate and I pitched on a promo for them for the 2nd season of Snowfall, and I tried to nail some really specific references to the early 80s, which was fun. But I’ve also done some stuff for some of their sitcoms, interstitials, exclusives and basic tv network materials. They have so many good shows, it’s kind of amazing.

Do you have a best story to share on working in the industry?

There are plenty, I’m sure. I’ve mostly been putting together the Visual Design Lab for the last year and a half and not doing much paid work, but the last job I took, I was called into a trailer house I’d worked at a few times and after settling in, I sat down in the art director’s office with one other designer, and he closed the door and the blinds and said, “So Christopher Nolan is about to shoot his next film…” and that was kind of exciting. Coincidentally, I just saw the trailer for that movie like 30 minutes ago. I like the logo I made better than what they went with hahaha.

Is there anything specifically that you know now that you wished you knew sooner? Any hard lessons learned?

I wish I’d learned that first ideas usually aren’t best ideas. It’s hard to fully understand the goals of a project when it starts, and the best ideas take shape as you get to know the project.

What is one of the more challenging aspects of your work?

The typically very short deadlines on freelance pitch projects. A studio calls you with a client’s brief they may not have even fully digested yet, and you’re asked to conceive and execute a full storyboard that’s both beautiful and addresses the client’s concerns well enough for them to fall in love with and buy off on a full production of it over the next few weeks or months. And they expect you to accomplish that in a few days. It’s hard, and it’s fun, but it’s hard. Also, it’s hard.

Where did the Divison05 moniker come from?

At the time, I had this whole narrative of fronting as some sort of highly organized cell of vaguely mischevious children. A rogue subdivision of some more official department running a psy-ops program. The kind of thing you dream up with the neighbor kids in your treehouse headquarters. I made propoganda posters. This was all like 15 years ago, so they’ve grown up as I’ve grown up. We still stir shit up though.

What inspires/motivates you?

Inspiration comes at random. Motivation, from within. Does that sound smart? It better, I used all my best words on that one.

Is there anyone's work out there that you currently admire?

Totally! I put a ton of other peoples’ work in my videos as inspiration and examples of important concepts. I’m constantly looking for ways to push cool work forward. There’s a short discussion of Louise Mertens and Augustine Kofie in one of the Visual Design Lab chapters because they’re relevant to the topic at that moment, and also because they’re both amazing.

What would be a dream project for you?

One where I come up with a hilarious idea that I laugh at the whole time I’m making it. And I get paid ONE MILLION dollars.

What is in your digital toolset? What is something you couldn't do without?

It’s pretty barebones. Photoshop, Illustrator, AfterEffects, and a very small sprinkling of Cinema4d. I’ve also had a lot of fun with hard surface modeling in Fusion360.

Do you feel it's still a good time to get into this field?

It’s an amazing time. The volume of work is growing and there are a ridiculous number of resources available to artists. You just have to be smart about how you invest your time and effort because that quantity of resources means that a lot of them aren’t great quality.

What do you feel is the single most important thing you need to grasp to excel in the industry?

You want to build a house, and learning to wield a fancy hammer can make the construction easier, but it doesn’t make the house any more amazing. In the end, no one gives a fuck how you built it. They care about how it makes them feel. (Learning the software might make the creation easier, but it doesn’t make the creation better.)

Why did you decide on sharing your experience and teach others?

I know what it is to want to make cool or beautiful things SO bad, and yet be frustrated with how your creations fall short. We all start with a lack of ability to match our own tastes, so that frustration is super common, and I get it. I also enjoy breaking down concepts to help someone else understand them better. And while a lot of people understand technical concepts and how to explain them, not nearly as many understand design and art-making concepts, which are arguably more useful. So there’s a real un-met need.

I've been pointing folks to your YouTube channel for a long time now. I love your teaching style, and I've learned so much from your Composition video alone. And honestly, I might've referred to you as the Morgan Freeman of digital art tutorials, lol, as I could imagine you narrating documentaries.

Are you asking me to read you a bedtime story? I will. Get your PJs on.

You recently released a brand new course, Visual Design Lab, and it looks intense. How long have you been at work on this course?

Altogether, it took about a year and a half. I write these things word for word, and edit version after version, because there are better and worse ways to help someone understand any given topic. And I don’t want to be confusing or waste their time getting them to that point.

With three paid courses now, which would you recommend to someone just getting started? Are these incrementally designed?

Visual Design Lab is a full design course that starts foundational and builds into higher and higher complexity design strategies. We do a lot of deep dives, I run through lots of example workflows, we look at a lot of cool shit, and over the course of 7 chapters, you take on 7 challenges of increasing difficulty, with community feedback if you want it. It’s a beast.

Style & Strategy is a master class where you follow the creation of professional styleframes and storyboards for multiple real-world clients. Blank page to fully developed imagery with lots of topics discussed along the way.

Snapdragon is a master class where we make a branded short film from scratch. Same format as Style & Strategy, but we get into animation and editing and storytelling through filmmaking.

If you want to get a hell of a start, go with the Visual Design Lab.

What advice would you give someone wanting to pursue graphic/motion design?

Motion graphics isn’t one thing. It’s a huge collection of disciplines. Fundamentally, it’s filmmaking with design principles and animation techniques (as if any of them alone weren’t complicated enough endeavors). So your studies are necessarily going to be both wide and deep. And there will be lots of moments where you lament your lack in one area or twenty. That’s fine. The bottomless well of stuff to explore and discover is part of what makes it great.

What do you do outside of design to decompress?


Is there anything exciting you are working on now that you can tell us about?

I just finished up the Visual Design Lab a few weeks ago, and that was a really long haul, so I’m chilling out. Doing some hard-surface modelling, going to the dog park, casual murder… normal stuff.


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