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Meet Santa Monica Associate Director, Art Instructor, & Multidisciplinary Designer: Nikki Oettinger

Today we’d like to introduce you to Nikki Oettinger.

Nikki, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in the Bay Area. During high school I wasn’t a great student, I was unmotivated by “standard education”, I had no idea what I wanted to do once I graduated or where I wanted to go to college. My senior year I had the option to take a yearbook class, this is where I found my love for graphic design. That, along with the realization that the only classes I excelled in were art based, like ceramics or art history.

From there I ended up in San Francisco enrolled in the Computer Arts & New Media Department at the Academy of Art University. I still wasn’t quite ready to take education seriously and was more excited to engage in the college lifestyle. I didn’t consider myself an artist or creative type, it never came easily to me. As much as the software and programs made sense I always needed an assignment or project brief to get me going. I’d look around, see my fellow student coming up with amazing concepts and ideas and become discouraged about whether or not I was where I was supposed to be. Great instructors is what got me through. Encouragement and acknowledgment of my skills and abilities. I started to open my mind and see that expressing myself through art is what made me happy.

After graduation, I was armed with a degree from a prestigious university and I had a solid portfolio that showed I was highly educated and proficient in graphic design. In turn, I carried a large student dept and skills in an area that was on a decline. I had dreams of print design and product packaging, but few people needing those skills…and they certainly weren’t paying much for them. In the last year or so of my education, the industry went from print to web and I missed the boat.

The year following graduation I searched and searched. I was a new graduate with little experience in the field, looking for a break. In between bartending shifts, I examined my skills and started to think about how I could apply them to something more relevant. Although my focus was print I did learn other skills like web design and motion graphics. I had to dig deep and reinvent my skills.

That’s when my break came. A fellow classmate of mine was working for a startup that had an opening. They were a company creating websites and motion graphics (concept videos) for clients. I by no means felt qualified, but I somehow convinced them I was. Not long after I was hired. I spent the next few years teaching myself everything I could about motion graphics, web design, project management, working with a team and how to sit at a desk for 9 hours a day (something I did not excel at).

There came a point where I was looking for a change. I turned to my alma mater when I heard through the grapevine they were looking for a motion instructor. Education ran in my family and it felt like the right choice. Not more than a week later I was teaching my first class. As I taught part time I continued to do freelance work. I enjoyed teaching and told myself, “Whatever the school asks of me, I’m just going to say yes and make it work.” I started getting more classes, I was hired on full time as the Online Coordinator which put me in charge of our online department’s curriculum and more recently promoted to Online Associate Director. Now I spend my days educating masters and undergrad students in Web Design & New Media. I help run our online department, support our instructors, students and focus on online education and how we can better educate our students who live all over the world.

In the little amount of free time I have, I still like to create and am often working on side projects and sharing my work on social media.

Has it been a smooth road?
Yes, many struggles.

– Not feeling like I fit the artist mold.
– Skills not matching the current needs and finding a job that was willing to hire a recent grad with little experience in the industry.
– There’s always the issue of being undervalued. People thinking they can benefit from your skills for free or little compensation.
– The constant changes of the industry and the struggle to keep up.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
This industry is constantly evolving, that is just one of its many challenges. If you can’t keep up with the industries evolution your skills become less and less relevant.

User experience designers today are part of one of the most exciting moments of the past decade. The rise of a new medium: virtual reality (VR). With this comes a new set of challenges. I see this being the biggest trend and main shift in the industry over the next few years.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you over the course of your career?
My biggest challenge has always been staying relevant. Just like I mentioned in the previous question, this industry is ever evolving and as a designer, you have to evolve with it. Staying set in your ways or refusing to expand your ideas and knowledge is the ultimate death of a career in this industry. Not to mention, as an educator it’s my job to stay on top of current trends, adjust curriculum and make sure my students are learning the most current techniques.

Let’s change gears – is there any advice you’d like to give?
Whether your goal is to freelance your skills or to work for a company full time, I think it’s important to consistently work on personal, side projects that will keep you inspired and able to express yourself. In professional situations, it’s possible for that self-expression can become stifled, try not to forget why you do what you do. Personal projects can help with this.

It’s also good to create a social media presence where you can interact with other people who are successful in the industry and inspire you to do what you do. Along these lines, find a mentor, it’s always nice to have someone who’s been successful there to bounce questions and ideas off of.

Don’t ever stop educating yourself.

Contact Info:

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