5 tips to designing for top-tier brands

By Cowgirl Candace | Illustration by Kurt Guard | Photos by Suhyoon Cho |Originally published for the AJC

Brand blogging for the past two years with Durango Boots — one of Cowgirl Candace’s favorite childhood boot brands — has become a Down South dream come true. So when the company launched and asked yours truly to review its newest line of kaleidoscopic kicks, I was like, “Oh, yassssss.” Lol.

And because I’m editorially extra in producing storytelling content, I teamed with creative colleague and award-winning animator/illustrator Kurt Guard to help me illustrate the brand’s new Music City Western boat mocs. The campaign phrase to sum up this new footwear as part of my farm girl lifestyle: “from the barn to the beach.”

After a hard day’s work on the land this time of year, I usually hop inside Mustang Sally with the hubby and head to Coastal Georgia. The boat mocs companion the change of Southern scenery and outdoor adventure brilliantly.

Fellow creatives like Kurt are crucial team members to pull off new product launches and campaigns. Read exactly how he forms these collaborative connections and executes original design projects nationwide:

The animated films and commercials we watch on some of today’s popular networks, Kurt probably played a part in their production process. His knack for creating cutting-edge visual effects for short- and feature-length films, TV campaigns and personal projects is what lands him animation gigs with top-tier brands like BET Networks based in New York and Caribbean Broadcasting Network in Hollywood.

Kurt Guard is an award-winning, Atlanta-based animator who has collaborated with national networks like BET and with creative genius and director Jai Anthony Lewis Husband of Disney’s ‘The Lion King.’

“I grew up with a drawing pencil and sketchbook in my hand,” said the seasoned multimedia animator based in Atlanta. “My gift for seeing something interesting, drawing it with the right amount of detail then bringing it to digital life is what got me into creative media. My precision and consistency is what led to collaborations with big brands and industry names I would have never imagined — and I have a huge imagination.”

At the tail end of earning a fine arts degree at Georgia State University, he earned any art student’s dream opportunity: The chance to work with award-winning director Jai Anthony Lewis Husband, who is known for his work on Disney’s “The Lion King.”

Kurt’s decision to head start his animation career under the tutelage of Jai resulted in two NAACP Image Awards in animation for “Best Animated Film” and “Best Director of a Children’s Program.”

“I couldn’t say ‘no’ to an opportunity to create with Jai,” said Kurt. “I just couldn’t.”

Until that call comes for up-and-coming designers, Kurt recommends the following strategies to help fast track a creative career with top animation studios and teams across the nation:

Networking with successful alumni. “There’s something to attending the same university as famous or influential alumni that instantly creates a special bond with them,” said Kurt. “Sometimes it’s as simple as going to class reunions and alumni galas or becoming friends on social media with classmates that will help connect the professional dots of breaking into the industry.” Kurt knows colleagues who now work on Marvel, Nickelodeon, FX and Tyler Perry Studios productions, but notes, “It’s one thing to know these industry professionals, but you also need to know how to gain sincere access to them.”

Putting yourself out there. Right after artist Prince passed away during 2016, Kurt developed a personal piece as a tribute to the musical mastermind. That illustration caught a colleague’s attention, who reached out to Kurt and got him in touch with award-winning TV producer Marsha Parker with BET’s cable network Centric — now BET Her. “It happened that fast,” said Kurt. “She taught me about the importance of staying on top of tight deadlines and ready for roadblocks.” Kurt highly recommends students commit to “passion projects” in order to generate a buzz with colleagues and top creative producers. “Passion projects are your best artwork — that are right up your talent-level alley and showcases your artistic range,” he said. “Sharing high-quality chunks of these projects with your network helps you gain traction with game-changing job leads. For instance, if you’re passionate about pop culture, political cartoons or celebrity pencil portraits, do that often and use social media to push your artwork to colleagues and industry gatekeepers.”

Durango Boots launches its collection of Music City Western boat mocs during spring 2018.

Showing brands you’re a problem-solver. “If you want to work for Pixar, DreamWorks or Warner Bros., you have to do your research,” Kurt said. “Your work needs to reflect what that brand is producing. Then, you have to figure out what’s missing. What’s your ‘wow-factor’ that can amplify their mission and the direction they’re heading into.” When pitching projects to potential clients, Kurt develops original, animated demos that will pique interest but also identify with the brands he wants to collaborate with. “After studying my favorite creative studios, I propose how I can help improve what they’re currently producing as if I’m already a member of the team,” he said. “That shows hiring executives and producers I’m serious about contributing to something great.”

Sticking to your design guns. “Once you get that callback from high-profile production companies, you may start to think you have to go way beyond your design capabilities to continue to impress creative employers,” said Kurt. “You don’t. What got you into the door is what you need to bring to the design table, which is your natural, charismatic work ethic.” Even on high-budgeted, stressful assignments, Kurt advises remaining composed and innovative with ideas to keep the design process flowing. “Always listen to what they’re asking for, and also go in there using your instincts,” he said. “This mindset is what sets you up for repeat projects and referrals.”

Making them love you and your artistic abilities. “Research is so important, which is something students should never take for granted,” said Kurt. “Before stepping foot onto any production team, understand the organizational structure, office politics and the ones who are the true movers and shakers to get creative projects off the ground.” Once that’s established, Kurt says your design work can shine through much easier. “When you know who and what you’re dealing with for projects, it’s a breeze to get your part approved and done before deadline,” he said. “You have time to factor in design barriers and still turn out your best work. I’m telling you: When you’re producing tight work that inspires and makes your team members’ job as trouble-free as possible, the high-profile projects will keep heading your way.”




About Author /

An award-winning feature writer, internationally published brand blogger and digital content creator. The fourth-generation cowgirl and veteran journalist pioneered digital platform Southern Styles & Steeds to share sincere stories from her agricultural upbringing.

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