Capitol Communicator is running “Up Close and Personal” profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this profile we feature Frank Gilliam. Photography for the series is by award-winning Cade Martin, wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire and Sybil Street for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson, Janice Kinigopoulos and Lori Pressman for THE Artist Agency.
Frank, please provide us a short bio.
I am a Principal and Creative Director at Elevation, an integrated marketing firm in Richmond, Virginia. Aaron Dotson and I founded the agency in 2001. I had no idea back then that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But we took a leap of faith to start our own company, and it has been a fun and humbling experience ever since. I mostly lead teams on brand creation projects, advertising campaign development and design programs for packaging, print and digital. I also spend a fair amount of time as chief cook and bottle washer, making sure agency operations are running smoothly.
After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, I got my start as a graphic designer at a small local magazine, Style Weekly, before moving on to work with designers at Ken Iseman & Associates and Zeigler & Associates. Then I became a senior designer and design director at Franklin Street before founding Elevation.
Are you involved in any other organization?
I have been involved in several professional organizations over the years including the local chapters of the AIGA and AMA. I believe in giving back to the community and in the last six months have done work for the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Richmond, the Boy Scouts of America — Heart of Virginia Council and most recently Soles 2 Share — a nonprofit that collects used running shoes and distributes them to those in need —rebranded as Shood.
What are the things you are most proud of?
My lovely wife Ellen and our three kids. And seeing and supporting their growth and accomplishments.
In my work life, I tend to be proud of whatever I am currently creating. Or else, what’s the point? And I am extremely proud to be part of Elevation’s growth from a two-person shop to thirty-people strong over the last 18 years. When we started out, the goal was simple: feed our families, pay the mortgage. We are fortunate to have done both.
Who are your personal role models?
When I was at VCU, professors Phil Meggs and Akira Ouchi both had a profound influence. At a time in my life when studying art and design was a new concept, I was able to learn from these great thinkers who shared the same passion for creativity. They taught me the importance of looking at the past as well as paying attention to the details of the moment.
My parents for sure. They gave me my even-keeled nature — which helps in times of stress. And, they taught me to have a sense of pride in everything I do. At the end of the day, if you are not happy with what you have done, then you should not expect someone else to be.
Did your role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?
My first boss, Ray Geary, loved typography and taught me some of the nuances that are involved with creating quality typesetting (kerning, leading, spacing, alignment). All of those little details that go into making the final product the best it can be.
Before retiring, Barbara Fultz was the Zen Master of Production in Richmond for years. She had a way of cutting to the chase, and focusing on what really mattered design-wise. “When you are handed a bunch of sh*t, all you can do is stack it neatly” is one of my favorite Barbara sayings.
And finally, Aaron Dotson. He is always pushing not to settle for ‘good’ when you can achieve ‘great’.
These are my heroes. They are not the creative celebrities who get mentioned often, but the people I have been in the trenches with. The people who have pushed me to do my best.
What professional advice do you have for others?
Go with your gut. If something doesn’t look right, read right, or make you want to pay attention, then it is probably not going to be an effective communication. Mediocracy loves it when you give up halfway through the process.
I am definitely a gut-reaction type of guy. As creatives are coming up in this industry, they think the Creative Director is always cutting down their work and making them change everything. If you can’t be objective with your own work, and tend to take everything as a personal stab, then you won’t be able to defend your work when a client questions your decisions.
If you push yourself to be better, you will never be worried about proving it to others.
If you make a mistake, you have no one to blame but yourself. It is how we recover from mistakes that shows what you are really made of.
And finally, always be a consumer of people and culture. The most fertile ground for concepts that resonate is being able to look at what people are into and trend toward. Listen. Watch. Create with all your senses.
When creatives get stuck, I say, “just throw the ball’. Which means put something down on the page. Then start to play with it. Push the visual. Try a different headline. Make it into something. If you just sit there and think about what to write or what the visual should be, then you never have anything to work with. Once you throw something out there you can begin figuring out where the problems are and how to solve them.
I have always used the term, “design with both hands”. This means you should be fully engaged in what they are working on, because Creative is a contact sport.
What’s on your Spotify and Pandora playlists?
Car Seat Headrest
Death Cab for Cutie
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Restaurants for me are usually about spending time with friends or family so it becomes less about the food, and more about the spirit of the place. But the best is when food and vibe go hand-in-hand. If I had to pick one of my current favorites, I would say ZZQ. It’s a great place to hang out, have a beer, and enjoy some awesome barbeque. Another is Billy-Pie. It’s the smallest of venues, but the pizza is great.