Ed Cheetham is the department head of the Motion Design major at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. He joined Ringling College in 1991 for the start of Ringling College’s Computer Animation department.
Here is an unedited interview with him.
Q: Many artists and creative people have a different definition of what they do opposed to us, ordinary people :) Does motion design mean something else to you? Do you have your own definition of it?
A: I tell parents who come to look at the major, Motion Design is more than just a name given to describe an animation; Motion Design is a broad industry that produces creative, engaging, and informative screen-based imagery using a variety of media to strengthen their message, including computer and traditional animation, stop motion, film and video, graphic design, and photography. This description helps parents understand the ubiquitous nature of this creative field.
Q: As motion design is a creative work, it kind of makes it hard to teach, since taste and out of the box thinking usually develops at a younger age than of a college freshman. How do you design your curriculum in order to tackle that challenge?
A: We approach this challenge in two ways, starting with changing the way students view the new and the unknown and narrowing down to specific courses and methods used to solve creative problems.
2017 The Department of Motion Design - Ringling College. From left to right: Jared Greenleaf, Peter Alfano, Joe Donaldson, Nora Gaffney, Jill Taffet, Morgan Williams, Dante Rinaldi, Ed Cheetham, David Brodeur.
One is never too old to learn. New ways of thinking can be developed and strengthened at any age. As a college, it is critical to promote the concept of the lifelong learner. Motion Design changes so rapidly that if you’re not staying up on the latest developments and trends, you can easily be left behind. We acknowledge that in this industry, there is too much to know, and no one knows it all. When you can remove the weight and pressure of thinking that you have to know everything, we can embrace the 'not-knowing' and view the situation as an opportunity to learn something new. Challenges become energizing rather than anxiety-producing. With this mind shift, out-of-the-box thinking happens much more easily.
In the Department of Motion Design, we offer specific Concept Development courses in unison with Animation and Design courses. These courses help the student to develop diverse methods to look at creative challenges and to break from their traditional ways of thinking.
Q: In design, content and visuals are 2 of the most important elements. One tells the story, the other makes it interesting and mesmerizing to watch. In your opinion, is one more important than the other, and, if so, which one and why?
A: Both concept and design are critical for successful communication. Design forms and strengthens communication, but without content, design is little more than decoration. Stephen Price has said that "Emotions connect better than ideas." Only the creative use of design principles can touch emotions crucial for content delivery.
Q: You are the head of the motion design department in Ringling College and you also run Digital Artistry. Which one do you enjoy more and why?
A: Teaching has always been my passion. Although I have worked with some amazing clients, I find my work with students the most rewarding. As a motion designer, you know that your work is temporary; it will be used, appreciated, then replaced with something new. When working with students, you are helping them to develop a critical eye for design, a creative way of thinking, and a skill set to hone their craft—the basis for lifelong learning.
Q: In your opinion does working at a college help and influence your work in Digital Artistry and vice versa. And if so, how exactly does that influence manifest itself?
A: All of life's experiences are interconnected. What I try to communicate to my students is the result of years of experience. I am inspired and learn every day from my students. It is cyclic and symbiotic. Actively working in the industry is a great reminder of what it's like to face design challenges, and it helps me to be empathic and understanding to the students' challenges and experiences, which, I hope in turn, makes me a better teacher.
Q: Through the years of looking through the thousands of applications, I’m sure you have mastered the art of detecting the potential in candidates and their work. What qualities does an ideal applicant have?
A: I have hired many individuals both within the industry and in academia. It is never an easy process to identify ideal applicants. When I have found excellent hires, it is usually through the personal interviewing process. There has to be a combination of not only high-quality work and a successful professional career, but also a sense of passion and compassion for working with students. Ringling College is a 'teaching' rather than a 'research' institution. Crafting the best educational experience is our priority. When the applicant understands, appreciates, and embraces this priority, I am confident that they will be successful as a Ringling instructor.
In regards to student applicants for admission into the Motion Design major, I review every single portfolio. The portfolios reveal some good indications of success in the major. I look for portfolios that include a variety of media. I look for images that have a 'voice' or communicate an idea or concept. I look for good craft and attention to detail within the work. I look for some familiarity with various technologies.
When I see these qualities within a portfolio, I know that the student will be successful in Motion Design, because it indicates that the student is open to experimentation and trying new things, they see the power of images to effectively communicate a message, they have the attention to detail that will produce high- quality work, and they will be excited to embrace new technology. These are the basic qualities from which we can grow and develop an excellent motion designer.
Q: Let’s dive a bit into your work process as a motion designer. Creativity and inspiration walk hand in hand and different people get inspired from different things, people, ideas and so on. Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you have a routine when you start working on a new project to get inspired for innovative and creative solutions that will blow your client’s and your own mind?
A: Inspiration comes from experience and observation, seeing connections that might otherwise not have been initially apparent. At the start of the project, I ask as many questions as possible. I like to really understand the goals of the client. I collect as much information as possible about the topic, competitive landscape, and desired demographic. The next steps vary with the client and project. I like to select music that I feel captures the mood of a design solution, then listen to that as I start to work out visuals. The overall emotional tone is the highest priority because people will remember how the piece made them feel much longer than what the piece was specifically about.
I also like to use words to help find a solution. A well-worded problem is half solved, so I use the technique of rewording the problem in many different ways until the solutions are self-apparent. Other times, ideas start with simple sketches and visual explorations. When looking for inspiration, it's important to look outside of the field of motion design. This helps to keep ideas fresh, and less derivative.
Q: In your line of work you have to create animation that your client will approve. What is the most important thing for you, to please your client or create a project you will be proud of - technically, creatively, idea-wise and so on?
A: It is of the utmost importance that the client's goals are met and expectations are exceeded. Providing the client with a respectful and creative work relationship is critical to maintaining a long, successful career in this industry. Keeping an honest, open dialogue with the client is also very important. There are many times when the client may not know what is best for them, and if you have established a working relationship based on trust, you can help lead the client to the right design solution. This mutually-respectful relationship will result in work that both successfully addresses the client's needs, as well as being creatively fulfilling.
Q: Can you describe your pipeline as a motion designer? There are general stages everyone goes through, but do you have any special approach to your work?
A: - The first step is information gathering. Ask questions to learn as much as possible about the client and the specific project as possible.
- Incubation time lets the information and objectives start to subconsciously generate ideas.
- Look at varied sources for inspiration, and identify the creative connections and threads that can be used to develop multiple solutions to the design challenge.
- Multiple idea generations. Try out as many ideas as possible.
- Take a critical look at the numerous initial approaches, and identify those that have the most potential.
- Develop the selected ideas into more cohesive concepts that specifically address the client’s objectives.
- Present the developed concepts to the client for review and selection.
Throughout the production process, work hard, work fast, and include the client at critical creative stages for review and input. This is the same process that we incorporate within our motion design curriculum.
Q: What are your favorite tools, software to use, when creating your project?
A: My favorite tool is the one that helps me get my idea out of my head and onto the screen. Photoshop, Cinema 4D, Illustrator, etc. I really enjoy working with After Effects and have seen it grow and expand so far from its early beginnings. The new integration with C4D is helping to make AE even more powerful.
Q: Motion design is kind of a trend today. Do you think as any trend it will burn itself at some point, or do you see a bright future ahead for motion design?
A: Motion designers are visual communicators, and using visuals to effectively reach an audience is not going away. The software or the delivery method may change, but clear effective communication will remain the ultimate goal. The element that will transcend the change of technology is the implementation of traditional design and animation principles. Those principles are the foundation of all good communication. Designers will embrace whatever technology is available. Motion Design's future looks very bright.
Q: What advice can you give to newbie motion graphics designers? Any words of wisdom?
A: The thing I often say to new students is not to get so caught up in thinking that using the latest technology will be the source of good communication. Good motion design starts with a good, clear concept. Good motion design creatively utilizes design and animation principles. If you want to be a good motion designer, start there. Then hone your craft by learning as much as you can about the tools that will help you translate your ideas into reality. Produce work, and put yourself out there by sharing your work with others. Take part in the very supportive, creative community of motion designers.