Alumni Interview: Mark Byrnes
"There's so much creativity at The Art Institute of Seattle and all of that creative energy really fosters a lot of expanded thoughts and new ways of doing things." — Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes started modeling and building as a hobby when he was quite young. He continued using those skills in his military career, using them to build large-scale visual aids to help with training.
While still in the military, Mark saw an ad for The Art Institutes. Between his career and raising seven children, he didn't have much time on his hands. However, he felt that the degree programs at The Art Institute of Seattle would enable him to quickly turn his hobby into a career.
Now working for Becker and Mayer as a Juvenile Product Developer, Mark creates the toys that are bundled with educational books for Scholastic and Silver Dolphin. Room alarms, multi-use motors, dinosaur bones, spacecraft, and more...Mark does it all, from initial concept to guiding overseas production of the final piece.
We had the chance to speak to Mark about his career, how The Art Institute helped him to get there, and what he's currently working on.
How did The Art Institute help you to grow as an artist?
The school made me focus on the basics and fundamentals of art. Before I started classes, all I could do were really, really basic drawings. As I progressed, I was forced to focus on the basics in order to build a better foundation. Then, I learned how to draw on the new skills I had learned to eventually create better quality artwork. It was really helpful for me, just because I've never done that. I had never focused on the basics...I had just been throwing out really crappy drawings and then going right to sculpting.
Did your classes prepare you for the real world?
Everything that I do now is really closely related to what I learned at the school. They gave me a lot of information. I didn't know about the most current methods, equipment, and technology. That was really helpful, because it got me up to speed on the Computer Aided Design systems and so many other tools that I hadn't been exposed to. I learned all about the current trends.
For example, thumbnails and concept sketches, then putting those into CAD, and that kind of stuff, I do it every day in my current job. So, it was really, really helpful.
I learned how to do what I do better, quicker, and more efficiently. And, expanding on the skills that you have, the teachers really take that and build on it. The whole combination is really valuable. I've used what I've learned every day since.
Did your instructors influence you?
Yes, absolutely. One of my teachers was on the design team for Ford for many years and helped design the original Mustang. And his talent was just unbelievable. He could make concept drawings that were just unbelievable in no time flat and it really inspired me to spend more time just putting pencil to paper and doing it over and over again and building those skills up. We would sit there in awe and just watch him do concept drawings. It would take him 30-40 minutes to do a presentation-quality drawing of a vehicle, then have it highlighted and colored and all the different details that make it absolutely incredible.
I really enjoyed the fact that the instructors had so much information. And if you had any questions, they could also point you in the right direction. They'd say, "Why don't you talk to so and so. This person has done that kind of stuff before they could probably help you out." So it really worked out well.
How would you describe the creative environment at the school?
It's outstanding. There's so much creativity at The Art Institute of Seattle and all of that creative energy really fosters a lot of expanded thoughts and new ways of doing things. I've been able do projects before, but when I got into The Art Institute, there was so much skill and talent that I was able to draw on. I was amazed how many different talents that people had. My work has become a lot better because of it.
Where do you work and what does the company do?
I'm working at Becker & Mayer. Very few companies do what we do. We're widely recognized as the premier creator of educational book/toy combination (or, as they are called in the industry, book plus) products for kids. For an example of what we do, we create books that come with kits where children can do a science project, like excavate dinosaur bones. We've also created books on stars and put a planetarium in the kit, a little tiny solar system model.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working on 10 separate projects, as well as anywhere from two to six concepts or proposals at a time. It's quite a juggling act, trying to keep it all organized.
Right now, I'm making a kids door alarm called The Secret Code door alarm. Kids can punch in a three-digit code, then press the accept button, and it has a voice that says, "Secret code accepted." And then they can open the door. If they don't do it right, the alarm goes off, and a big siren goes off for five seconds. We've had two or three different versions of the door alarm. One has sold over a million copies. When I first started here, our initial order was usually 50,000-75,000 units, but this door alarm that I've just designed, 450,000 is the opening number sold.
What's the process for coming up with all of these ideas?
Usually, we have a meeting every other week called "The New Ideas Meeting." The entire team just starts throwing ideas out. The partner and co-president, Jim Becker, will give us some thoughts: "The clients are looking for more mechanical stuff. The clients want something scientific."
We start throwing ideas out and people start adding or changing those ideas, and pretty soon we can get a pretty good idea of what we'd like to produce. Jim will hand that off to one of the product developers (I'm one of those), and we start to develop an idea.
My job is to decide how it's going to look, how many parts it will have. Then, we take it to the clients. If they like it, we develop, engineer, design, and manufacture it. We create the book and the product that goes with it, then ship it. We do everything from beginning to end.
What is the timetable for a project?
We don't usually do anything with the product until it's been sold. A lot of times it's sold before we really know how it works or what it does (laughs). At that point, we have to engineer and finish design pretty quickly. A lot of times our average is six to nine months to create a finished product between the time it's sold until the time it hits the warehouse.
Now that you're in the field, how do you view an Art Institute education?
Everything I've seen from The Art Institutes is every bit as good as any other school in the area, if not better. In fact, I've been to portfolio reviews for the major universities in the area, and I honesty have seen nothing that those schools offer that would make me think any higher of their graduates.
Many schools only concentrate on theoretical-type designing. In my field, it's the hands-on skills that really matter. Most students from those schools that I meet, they're very, very poor in the hands-on skills. An Art Institute education is far better at teaching the actual hands-on production type design.
What do you think it really takes to succeed in your field, if you could boil it down to a few essential things?
I think the biggest thing, and this is specific for what I do, because a lot of guys - their design is more important than the ability to put stuff down on paper and make really nice drawings. But for me, the big picture is the skills - you've got to be able to do the drawings, but also it's really important to be able to do the products - to design prototypes that look good, that work, that do what they are suppose to do. The real wide range of skills is important to be successful.
Why should someone choose The Art Institute of Seattle?
In my eyes, the school gets you into the marketplace with a broader base of skills than you would receive if you attended a school that focused more on theory. Theory is great to a point, but to succeed in my field, you need to focus on the practical application of your knowledge...and that's where The Art Institutes really shine. They give you a really good basic foundational knowledge of what you need to do in just about every area of industrial design as opposed to conceptualization or model making or whatever.
You can focus on things while you are there, but you get a really well rounded education about all aspects of industrial design or any of the areas that you go into. That's why I suggest it. Just because the educational background is so much better and you get it so much faster. You get out into the marketplace and start making money a lot faster.
Want to start your own potential success story? Read more about Industrial Design Technology programs at The Art Institute of Seattle here.