June 11, 2018

Alumni Update: Interview with Gene Powell

Posted in Alumni, Interview.

Gene Powell | Graphic Design BA 1991

President & Chief Creative Officer, SPOKE | Website


What advice would you give for students currently in the program?

BGSUGD faculty won’t like me saying this, but don’t fixate on grades. They’re rather subjective, and meaningless in the marketplace. Instead, focus on solving real problems for real people to the best of your ability.

Constantly push yourself to do better and better work. Look at LOTS of good design in the world. The more good design you look at, the more good design you’ll do. This isn’t a license to plagiarize (don’t do that!). Just understand that your good ideas get better when mixed with the good ideas of others.

Learn an allied field or practice, like HTML, or User Experience (UX), or Marketing, or Semiotics or Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or Library Science. These will make you more marketable, and will help future-proof your career.

Lastly, always surround yourself with good people who fill you up. If anyone in your life is depleting you, part ways (nicely, of course). Life is too short, and you’ll spend much of your life working.

Why did you choose BGSU to study design?

I grew up in Findlay, so BGSU was an easy pick. Originally, I wanted to go into medical illustration (hello, EMU!) until I learned I’d be working with cadavers. An advisor told me about graphic design — I’d never heard of it. She told me to try it, and if I didn’t like it I could switch to something else. I was hooked from day-one and never looked back.

What was the most surprising thing you learned after you graduated? 

How hard it was to get a job. I entered the market during a recession. Unemployment was over 6% nationally, even worse in NW Ohio, and there weren’t many jobs in the field. I struggled for several months before landing an internship.

Once I was working, I was surprised by two things: 1) how hard the work really was, and 2) how little time there was to do it. I was asked to produce projects that normally we’d devote an entire semester to in just a few days. You have to focus on getting better and faster in everything you do. The pace is relentless. Work hard, be patient with yourself, and you’ll be rewarded for it.

What was it like to launch your company, SPOKE and how many months/years did it take you to prepare for your company’s launch?

Starting a business is the easy part. Anyone can do it. Landing clients, doing the work, meeting deadlines, keeping up on billing, making hiring (and sometimes firing) decisions is the hard part.

I spent years toying with the idea of starting my own firm, but the timing never seemed right. The market crash of 2008 forced my hand, thankfully. It took a couple months to really prepare, hire a lawyer and a CPA, and come up with the brand. I was already in talks with a company to land their business, so we had our first client within the first week of opening the doors.

Bottom line: there’s no perfect time to start a business. Just start, and be willing to fall flat on your face. Be fearless, but guard against risk.

How old were you when you decided to work for yourself and what/who inspired you to do so?

I was a late bloomer. I started SPOKE when I was 40. I should have started when I was 30.

I had several inspirations: great mentors who developed my talent and prepared me for entrepreneurship; a dying economy (when the market is tanking, start a business!), plus a desire to service customers the way I wanted to.

What is some advice you can give to students who want to work for themselves?

Automate and/or sub-contract all the things you don’t want to do or aren’t good at. I’m a terrible accountant, and an even worse attorney. I farm those things out.

Build your own economy. Find ways to make money even when you’re not working, and insulate yourself from recessions or losing a major account. The more diversified you are, and the less reliant you are on others, the better.

Where do you see yourself (and SPOKE) in 10 years?

With luck and a lot of hard work, we’ll have grown to do more of the kind of work we love doing. We love solving lots of problems for large clients. Anything from user experience, user interface design, application development, content strategy, communications, marketing and branding. We love that mix as it’s all related.

Technology is constantly changing, and we love exploring the latest thing to see how we can put it to use to bring value to our clients (blockchain!). I imagine that what we’re doing in 10 years will be very different from what we’re doing today, but with a hint of familiarity.


Interview by Kelly Schroeder