How to Be a Better Motion Designer: The Story of Mr. Black

be better Feb 19, 2020

I started at the bottom. Climbed to the top. Stayed there for some time, fell back down and now, I am on top again.

In my career of 17 years, and counting, this industry has taught me so much about what it takes to be a successful motion designer. I’ve had soaring highs with recognition and accolades—and I’ve made and learned from some big mistakes too. 

Whether you’re just getting started or wondering how to hone your skills and increase your bottom line, chances are I’ve been where you are. I share my story with no censor—the good and the bad—in the hope that my experiences help you become a better motion designer.

Continually Stay in Education—and Never Stop Learning

When I first discovered motion design in 1998, it grabbed my full attention. I couldn’t get enough of it! I wanted and needed to learn everything I could and I spent all of my free time soaking it in. 

During the day, I was able to land a job at a small, local TV station as a producer/director. It wasn’t glamorous and the salary was pretty terrible, but it gave me the opportunity to begin learning. 

I started building simple animations for car dealerships, pawn shops and mom-and-pop storefronts. Every night after work, I would sit down in front of my Mac to play and experiment. My increasing skills were gained through A LOT of trial and error. 

I felt like it took decades to master simple solutions, but in the process I learned invaluable motion design skills. I slowly started building my portfolio. I created spec work for spec clients and I put together a demo reel that got me hired at an actual post house.

All of the sudden, I was no longer making pawn shop commercials— I was now creating end tags and supers, infographics (before they were called infographics) and logo animations. My clients were state lotteries, regional banks, medical centers and independent films. They expected better motion design than the local pawn shop, and that stretched me to become a more creative designer. 

I continued to teach myself and grow my skills. I never stopped learning. I never stopped pushing myself to be better. And I never stopped building a better reel.

Believe That You’re Already the Best

They say that in order to be the best at something, you have to surround yourself with the best. I had to learn to push my own limits and believe that I was capable of being the best before I actually was. Its basic self-fulfilling prophecy and I know it was a key component to my success.

Two years into my post house job, I created a new reel. A better reel, which now included some regional work as well as my constant stream of new spec work. I knew there wasn't a ton of opportunity for growth at my day job, so I worked there 9-5 but decided to start freelance work for other studios after hours. 

To take my motion design to new heights, I set my sights on the best studios out there. Studios in other cities. I decided to charge a higher rate than what was typical for other freelancers. Inside I was scared but I knew I was worth it. I put my brand new reel on a freelance website and within 1 week I was working for a shop in LA. 

I was a freelancer living in Kansas City, working for an LA shop. Mind you, this was before remote work was considered acceptable and every studio wanted in-house designers. But not me. I was now animating the MTV Video Music Awards from 1,000 miles away! Within a month I was creating content for Sony, HBO, Dolby and a slew of major films.

Don’t Stop at Success—There’s Always Room to Grow

Eventually I couldn’t keep up with the day job while freelancing at night, so I made the bold decision to go freelance full-time. My business skyrocketed very quickly, and for seven years I stayed committed to becoming a bad-ass motion designer. 

My workload, collection of clients and income were skyrocketing. I teamed up with another freelancer and formed a small boutique to take on bigger projects. Business was going fantastic and then one day, I stopped growing. 

A lot of times when we experience our first real spurt of success, we get caught in this false sense of having “arrived” or feeling like all the hard work is done. It isn’t.

After a time, I got lazy. I found myself deciding not to push myself anymore. I had gotten complacent and too comfortable. I took on more and more “corporate” clients who offered safe, easy work. I quit taking risks. I quit looking for inspiration. I quit visiting motionographer. I quit watching tutorials. I quit learning.

My fear of becoming a mediocre motion designer had come to fruition. The amount of new, cutting edge work I could showcase on my reel had been whittled down to almost nothing. Sure, I was making decent money, but my skills weren’t top notch anymore and I was too lazy to go after the big fish. 

Let Your Passion Push You

Even if you took all of this advice to heart and aced it—if you never stopped learning, if you believed in and presented yourself as the best, if you never let a little success slack you off—you’ll always hit a wall if your intentions aren’t in the right place.

What’s driving you? What makes you want to be a better motion designer? For me, in the beginning, it was all about the money and the recognition. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with desiring those things! But they’re not enough to keep you going.

That’s why once I achieved those things, I lost a huge portion of my motivation. My head wasn’t in the right place. You have to want to be a better motion designer because you’re passionate about bettering yourself and your skills. That’s when success finds you.

After three years of creating mediocre work, it was my passion for visually arresting and boundary-pushing design, not more money or fame, that drove me challenge myself again. My passion for being on the cutting-edge motivated me to push myself. To start learning again. To actively seek inspiration. To be better. To be the best.

Today I push myself on every single project. I’m not afraid to fail. I’m willing to make mistakes. And then to learn from them. That’s what makes me a constantly evolving and ever-better motion designer.

To your ever-betterment, 

Mr. Black

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