Mikey Burton – On Creating the Your Own Opportunities

In January CSCA brought in Mikey Burton to speak, his presentation was fantastic. One thing that struck us was how, rather than waiting for someone to give him an opportunity, he really made a point to create the kind of work he wanted to do and find a way to get paid for it. Intrigued, we asked Mikey a few questions to dig a little deeper into this idea. Read on!

Portfolio: From the very beginning of your career it seems that you’ve created your own opportunities, rather than waiting for “dream projects” to come to you. What was the catalyst that got you started?

Mikey: I’m not sure there was a specific plan where I was like, “I’m going to make money doing X”, It was a little more organic. While I was in grad school two of my friends and I were very interested in the resurgence of handmade gig-poster art. We were fascinated by this, and were eager to try our hand at it. Also, there was a lack of poster art happening in Northeast Ohio, so we took it upon ourselves to fill this void. We taught ourselves how to (poorly) screen-print and gave ourself the moniker, Little Jacket (taken from an LCD Soundsystem song “…little jackets and borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered eighties”). Our goal was never to make money off it, it was just something we were passionate about. You just have to figure out what you like, and start making it.

Portfolio:  How do you decide what to work on? Do you give yourself assignments, or does it come from a point of inspiration?

Mikey:  In the case of Little Jacket, we would just pick concerts that we liked, contact the venue and/or band, and ask if we could do free promotion for them (people hardly say no to this proposal). Or it would just come out of us sitting around drinking a few beers and coming up with weird ideas.

Portfolio: Doing your own work has brought you clients with great projects. How did that transition happen? How did your personal work get exposure to the point that clients started contacting you?

Mikey:  While with Little Jacket, we had done about 3 posters for local venues around Cleveland. After that, one of the same venues asked us to do a poster for the upcoming Modest Mouse show. From there we started getting calls from people about doing ‘real work’. It wasn’t a floodgate or anything, but we started getting little jobs from that point on… whether it be another poster, or a logo. We would do these and it would result in getting more work after that.

Portfolio:  Does doing work you care about also mean not doing work you don’t care about? Do you ever turn down clients?

Mikey: I usually try to take on everything. If I turn something down, it usually just has to do with availability. When I was preparing for my lecture [at CSCA], I had to turn down a large shoe company for some t-shirt designs… it was hard, but I knew I couldn’t do everything. It’s especially hard when you have a 9 to 5 and want  to do fun stuff on top of it. It’s hard to juggle everything. On the other hand, it allows me to really pick and choose what I’m taking on.

Portfolio:  You work for a creative firm and seem to really like it, but you still do your own projects as well. Why is that? What keeps you motivated to continue doing your own work?

Mikey:  I really like the work I do at 160over90, but I still like doing my own stuff. Mostly the kind of stuff we don’t do at 160over90. I like doing things that are more illustrative; I want to get more work doing editorial illustration. So I try to take on things that will perpetuate more of this work. — Most of all, I have a letterpress, and I want to get it set up so I can start making stuff all the time.
Portfolio:  Any advice for fellow creatives about creating or finding work they care about too?


1) Figure out what kind of work you would love doing.
2) Do self-initiated work catered toward that goal
3) Take on any opportunity
4) Stay Frustrated – Don’t be happy with the work you made, and always strive to make something better
5) Love what you do.

(Thanks Mikey!)