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Joel Balbuena

So Joel, how did you get started?


My creative work began at an early age. Much of it was play, mostly inspired by my older brother, the greatest street artist in the world in my eyes. The more he was involved, the more I wanted to get involved. That continued all the way through middle school. My experience with art throughout those years harvested a deep love for it, which would then influence my decision in going to a vocational high school and committing to a career in creative work.


My first real job took place at Artists for Humanity (AFH) where I worked as a painter. Soon after, I was introduced to graphic design, and THAT was it. Right there, I discovered the most reliable way to continue creating and sustaining that love for making things. I transferred over to the design department as soon as I could. I learned how to use Adobe software and some of the basic principles of graphic design. AFH prepared me for the Graphic Design program at Full Sail University by applying with me, and walking me through the financial aid process.


Full Sail is where I started to pick up my understanding of design principles, and where I started dropping sleep. It was a tough grind, but it helped me build great habits and a hustle attitude. We got to pitch to clients for some assignments; it was invaluable experience. While studying, I also freelanced to gain experience in pitching and managing projects, while building a resume at the same time. Real world assignments and a tough schedule prepared me for an opportunity, if found.

When Blake Goodwin, co-founder of Boston-based brand solutions and design agency, Proportion introduced me to Joel, he described him as an interesting, emerging voice in the Boston design scene and noted his humble attitude towards the impressive graphic design work he’s doing. During this Q+A with margins, I found that this rang true in every sense. Joel has an infectious and positive approach to learning, whether it’s in self-generated projects, from his mentors, or his process coming up with design solutions at Proportion. There’s no pretentious proclamations when he talks about his work, just a strong will to make awesome things and learn, learn, learn.


In this must-read interview for young designers, we get Joel’s no-bullshit take on bending design rules, turning connections into mentorships, learning how to hustle, and why being a nice guy can push you forward and even, occasionally, get you free lunch.

Can you tell us about the journey you took to your current position at Proportion?


AFH presented me with an opportunity to work at Artaic, a commercial mosaic company. Although the position was in Production, my mind was set on infiltrating this company and wiggling my way into a position that aligned with my passion. By the magic of the universe, the company's creative director happened to be managing production. The perfect opportunity! I spent a lot of time asking him questions, always trying to learn about business and design. Eventually he offered to mentor me. That was confirmation that just maybe I could step up into a position in the field there.


Paul, my new mentor, took an interest in my work…or my attitude. Aside from being creative director at Artaic, Paul had also founded Proportion Design. As our relationship grew, he offered to give me some work as a freelance designer and illustrator at Proportion. There, I met yet another mentor and founder of Proportion, Blake Goodwin. After a few months of awesome projects, lunch, and nurturing our relationship, the guys asked me to officially join the team. I am proud to be the first employee at Proportion. Now we work together every day to bring solutions and growth to our clients.

Who are some designers/artists that you feel have impacted your own practice?


The greats Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, have all impacted me in some ways. Stefan Sagmeister, Jean Michel Basquiat, and recently, James Victore have inspired and impacted me in a different way though. Their attitudes really capture me. The way they speak, the work they create, it's almost rebellious and definitely filled with personality.


There are two designers that have impacted me most directly, and have really guided my career in recent times. I'm not really sure if they're genius, or just bullshitting me though. They've taught me to curate, to carefully craft experiences, to persuade, and to bring meaning to my work, all while building good habits and enhancing my workflow. I've learned lessons and skills outside of design from them, like shining shoes for example (I promise I don’t work at a sweatshop). My latest and greatest inspirations are my two mentors, Paul Reiss and Blake Goodwin.


I’m really interested in how you talk about mentorship – it feels like something of a running theme with first, your brother, later AFH and now the founders of Proportion. From that perspective, how do you think young designers can use their connections and experiences to enhance their craft?


Yeah mentorship is definitely a running theme in my experiences. They’re the best way to learn. You get your knowledge straight out of the faucet with them. Designers should definitely be using their connections to enhance their craft. I think I can safely say that our industry consists of great people who care for our craft. What that means is that we’re a community that’s willing to help each other and nurture our field. Young designers need to network, network, network. They’ll never know when they’ll run into their next mentor. They should be open to meeting people, connecting with them, and asking questions. Most of the time they’ll get the answer they’re looking for. As long as you’re kind and respectful, your peers will open up to you. Having a great attitude is key.

Do you think there are key questions or a type of attitude you bring to learning that’s helped you along?

There aren’t “key” questions really, just a bunch of questions. All kinds of questions. That yearning, eagerness, the will to move forward, is what has propelled me forward. Staying away from doubt, taking risks, and persevering. Not being afraid to ask for help, but also helping others. You just have to want it that much more.

What have been some of the biggest strengths and struggles of your career so far?


One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is finding my weaknesses in order to continuously improve. It took some help but I ended up learning a lot about myself. Some of the things I’m currently improving are time management skills, the ability to retain information, and designing playfully first, then critically. Weaknesses have many ways they can be improved, but staying on top of them, all of the time, is quite the challenge. Time management in particular is the most challenging. There are projects where I focus on the details too early on, and when the project returns, major changes have to be made that could have been avoided if I’d focused on the big picture.


Another struggle is being proactive. I had always looked at design like other jobs, where you have managers and directors, and you do as they say. I waited for my directors to tell me what to do, and how they wanted it done, when in reality they want you to take your best shot and try to find the best solution to the problem at hand. They want to hear your ideas. This may not be the case at every firm or agency, but that’s how it is at Proportion. It took me a while to understand this. Once I began thinking this way, several things happened. Workflow improved, work was done faster, communication improved, problem solving skills improved, and my confidence improved.


My biggest strength has to be the determination and hunger I have to learn and improve my skills all-around. I love to learn. I want to be great at what I do and I’m willing to hustle for it. According to my teammates, I’m a nice guy and that’s one of my biggest strengths, I guess. But seriously, attitude is very important. I like to treat everyone with respect and generally care for them. This allows me to sustain relationships and get free lunch here and there.

What are some trends in your field that you wish you could bring back, and which ones would you rather forget?


One trend I wish would come back is constructing and crafting by hand, like collaging for example. You can now collage conveniently in Photoshop, without a mess – much quicker. I mean I’m all for that, but there is value in the authenticity of creating by hand, and in the mistakes that you can’t undo. Another trend I miss is the exploration and bending of “design rules”. There was this playfulness to a lot of the work in the past. Many works in the present are so well done under the principles of design, that they can be boring, because everyone is abiding by the rules. What ends up happening is that the industry becomes oversaturated with work that looks the same. Sometimes it’s good to bend the principles. 


As for trends I’d rather forget, there aren’t any. I do wish some were used a little less and were a bit more controlled. Dynamic overlay between type, images, and graphics, is one trend I love. It’s one that’s not necessarily overused, but I’ve come across many examples where it was either done without purpose, or done without refining. Many times graphics are overlayed on body copy thoughtlessly, rendering the body copy illegible.



I tend to agree that the Graphic Design industry is oversaturated with work that looks the same – there’s a lot of personality missing in some work out there. Can you talk a little about how you try to ‘bend the rules’ in your work to create something fresh? 


I think the lack of personality comes from the standard we hold designers and their work to. Many times I’ve caught myself creating a certain way for approval from peers. The standard we hold each other to is what really restricts designers from being able to bend these rules, because we often see them as absolute. I think the best way to bring your personality into work is to have fun and play. You can always come back and refine later. Bending the rules can mean many things depending on the project. Whatever they are, they have to be bent correctly, and not broken.


Overall, I’m feeling the current state of graphic design. As long as thoughtfully and purposefully used, the current trends can continue to work. Muted colors, line art, hand drawn elements, flat design; they're all dope. Balance, and creating with intention are key.


june 2017
graphic design
Edited for length and clarity by Padmini Chandrasekaran

“My mind was set on infiltrating this company and wiggling my way into a position that aligned with my passion.”

Tell us about your thought process working through your favorite project – how did you develop this practice?


It’s always hard choosing a favorite project. Fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to work on many great and fun projects at Proportion. My favorites usually involve illustrating, so we’ll put the latest Moonlight Meadery Core Label Series on the pedestal.


Our thought process for beverage packaging always begins in discussion. Because we branded Moonlight, we didn’t have to do any research on the brand, what their aesthetic was like, and all the good stuff. Our discussion revolved around how we could create a consistent set of 6 high end label designs, that would also be consistent with other designs outside of the Core Series, but different enough to tell that they’re separate collections. Yeah, definitely tough. After much discussion, we decided on using illustration and pops of color to separate the products in the series from each other, and slightly adjusting the layout while using pattern design for the Limited Series in the same exact style as the illustrations from the Core.


From there, it’s going label by label. We plug away at layout before illustration, because it’s usually the backbone of the design and the illustration should complement that. Then we work together in creating concepts that represent the beverage. We take things like flavor, aroma, ingredients, brewing process, and name in to consideration when ideating. Once figured out, we do quick sketching (paper or digital) to get a quick overall idea of composition. After striking good balance between type, layout, and art, we plug in the fine details. It usually always comes back with feedback from the client, so reiterating, pushing, pulling, or scrapping can happen. For that reason we wait until the first label is approved before applying the design to the others. Once approved, we use the same exact layout and replace the copy for the next label. The conceptualizing begins again for the illustration, then it’s diving in again.


This is a process that was developed the more we worked on beverage packaging. As an observant group, we try to stay aware throughout the process, looking for how we may simplify tasks, manage time better, and minimize errors. We like to discuss what could be done better during and after projects, and what we may do to improve next time around. Because of our diverse body of work, the process differs with the kind of project. The one thing the process for different projects have in common though, is research. Research is key.

“It usually always comes back with feedback from the client, so reiterating, pushing, pulling, or scrapping can happen.”

What do you wish the world/general public knew about people in your field?


I think the world/general public should know that graphic communication is very important and a gigantic part of our daily lives. Thanks to design, many things in life have been simplified and have become easy to understand, and use. Think about all of the icons and signage we come across every day. You never have to ask anyone for the bathroom at the airport, because of graphic communication. Think about all of the awareness we can help bring to issues through campaign branding and media. Graphic designers have a bigger role in society than perceived. We don’t just make posters, even though posters are awesome (and can save the world). We work hard, and there is value in what we do.

What's in your margins?

This is currently one of my favorite projects. It’s an on-going series made to expand my margins by exploring different concepts using the same illustration. I spent over 12 fun hours hand drawing this bee with a pen. Every two weeks I challenge myself to create something new with it. I knew I could take it further, so I decided to use it to create different concepts, art, packaging, etc., in order to practice and push the boundaries of the illustration itself, and my skills.

“I love to learn. I want to be great at what I do and I'm willing to hustle for it”

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