Meet 2011 College Designer of the Year Jason Willis

Jason Willis, 2011 College Designer of the Year

Yes, Jason Willis sleeps.

This is the answer to one of the burning questions the design students in my class had after looking at the online portfolio of SND’s 2011 College Designer of the Year. Willis had it all: superb examples in video, photography, graphic design and motion graphics that covered a wide range of topics.

After the students in my class got a good look at Willis’ work, there was a stunned silence.

“What questions would you want to ask Jason right now, if he were here in class?” I asked them.

“Is he on drugs?” piped up one student. What I think she meant was, “Does this guy take anything to stay up all the time. How else could he possibly get all this work done?”

The short answer is, no, Willis is not on drugs. But he is clearly on a roll.

Willis, a fifth-year student at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., currently works for Grid4 Communications while he’s still in school. He’ll be graduating in May. He took some time out of his busy day to answer some of my students’ questions:

Q: How do you find time to do all the work that you do?

A: I do sleep, but probably not enough. I tend to think that six hours is OK. I do take classes, but I’ve been a part-time student for the last year to make time for working and trying new things.

Q: How much time do you have to create one of your inside (doubletruck) feature pages/infographics for the newspaper?

A:It’s really different every time. We publish our newspaper every Wednesday. Sometimes I’ll find out what the center spread is before the weekend so I’ll get to think about it a bit, but normally I either don’t know what the story will be or get to start working on it until Monday. Sometimes I don’t know until Tuesday. With the larger special sections like the Detroit and Rochester city guides I’ll usually have about a week to work on it.

Q: What program do you use to create your motion graphics?

A: I use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create the graphics for the motion graphics, and then After Effects to put it all together.

Q: What’s your favorite program? What’s your favorite shortcut?

A: My favorite program — that’s a tough one. If I can only pick one I’d have to say InDesign. It can’t do all the detailed things that Photoshop and Illustrator can, but it’s pretty powerful. A lot of my work requires text formatting and styling, and InDesign is definitely the most efficient choice for that. My favorite shortcut would have to be Option-Shift-Control-C in InDesign (Fill Frame Proportionally). It saves tons of time when placing images, especially if you have a lot of them. Definitely try that one!

Q: Describe your creative process—what do you turn to for inspiration? Do you sketch/brainstorm a lot?

A: I do sketch, but I don’t know if I would say a lot. I’m getting better at it, because I realize how important it is more and more. I’ll usually write down a list of words, images, colors, etc., that come to mind for a story or project, start sketching some ideas and then go onto the computer. Sometimes I’ll make things in black and white first, so I don’t spend too much time thinking about color in the beginning. There are some great people on the newspaper staff that help with brainstorming ideas for the covers, too. I like to get other people’s input. I also look at different designers on sites like for inspiration. There are so many great people on there in all different categories.

Q: No matter what you are creating (videos, infographics, wedding albums, etc.), what are some of the things you put on the front burner as a visual communicator?

A: One of the main things I always think about is balance. Balance can relate to anything whether its color, timing, size, audio, or typography. Something can be the simplest design, but as long as it’s balanced, it can be successful. Something else I’m always thinking about is theme and tone. Everything has both and it’s important to figure it out so you can design around it.

Q: What is your dream job?

A: My dream job would be to work at a fairly small design studio, either my own or someone else’s. I’m interested in many different things, and it would be great if I could utilize all of my interests. I also like the idea of working with small- to medium-sized businesses, because you can have a greater influence and more of a personal relationship with the people who work there.

Q: What inspired you to go into design in the first place?

A: I took a Desktop Publishing class in 10th grade with one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had: Ms. Faricy, now Mrs. Schueller, at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, Mich. We created brochures, fliers, business cards, posters, etc., and I really enjoyed it. She asked me to become an editor of the yearbook. I also joined the newspaper staff that same year, where I realized that’s what I really enjoyed doing.

Julie M. Elman is an associate professor at the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Excerpts from Willis’s portfolio
2010 midterm election guide (Jason Willis, The Oakland Post)
Outside at OU (Jason Willis, The Oakland Post)
In the Spotlight and The Cost of Free Food (Jason Willis, The Oakland Post)
Brewing Attention (Jason Willis, The Oakland Post)

About Julie Elman

is an associate professor at Ohio University.

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