Keynote from National Student Show and Conference, Dallas!

Hello again! Hi. Last weekend was amazing, wasn't it? For you? It was for me, and you're on my blog, so let's hear about ME. So selfish. Yes, so about me. I had the most unbelievably fun time talking to and with the students at the National Student Show and Conference in Dallas, TX. 

I was asked to give a keynote to 250 Design enthusiasts and students alike. I was nervous for a couple of reasons. First reason? I wanted to give them as much info as I could in the short time I had with them, and the open-endedness to the speech, the blue sky of it all made my mind race. Second reason? I don't get embarrassed, but I imagine I might be close if I was to show up and not do my best. Everyone wants to do their best. If you say you 'don't care', well then, my friend, you're a different breed. 

So, there ya go. Two reasons I grew anxious to deliver my keynote. So much to say and I wanted to say it my best.

I cared very much and took this as a massive responsibility, as I imagine most like-minded, socially-responsible adults would do. So, I wrote and wrote. Crafted and tweaked. Honed and chopped. And finally, I had my perfectly succinct, funny, informative and entertaining 5 pages of CLAUS KEYNOTE.

Wellp, a funny thing happens when the lights dim, the screens go up next to the stage that you're about to go stand on, and your name goes up in a very large font size on those screens next to that stage. 

I no longer felt that reading my speech was good enough. Yes, I had a coordinating PDF package that was timed out to the slides, some little see and say fun cues and whatever the hell else I planned. But I intended on reading my speech, there at the podium, making sure I hit all the marks, making sure to look up every other sentence to make all of the lovely eye contact. Here I am, I'm speaking with you all, let's make eye contact.

But with the lights lowered, the students sitting at attention/checking their phones, I decided to wing it.

And hot damn I only looked down at the pages once or twice! The same pages I meticulously labored over, tweaked, honed, perfected. Boom. Done. Out the window.

At any rate, it was a blast. The object was to connect, to share, to hopefully inspire, and not to do one of those nervous ticks that become so apparent and everyone's kinda like 'this guy's nervous as hell.' Apparently I still did one of those! But honestly, the nerves went away really quick-like and baby had fun in the crib/on the stage. 

Even worked in the story of how I rescued my cross-eyed cat from the animal shelter! Yes, did the cross-eyes and everything. Largest crowd ever to be told that ol' yarn.

Here's an excerpt from the written speech that I managed to work into the presentation still, mainly because I had slides with the words on them, nice and big.

Some NUGGETS of wisdom to college design majors:

College didn’t really prepare me for the pace. The damned pace.

For a recent project I designed, the opening to SNL’s Weekend Update, I was given one day to explore. At the end of that day, I emailed my work to the studio I was working for, they got back to me the next morning with the direction SNL chose, and I designed all the final frames. Two DAYS.

And It was on TV forever and ever the FOLLOWING WEEK. 

There are no EXCUSES.

Now, not all projects are as FAST as that SNL one.

But I usually get booked 2-3 days at a time. That’s not a ton of brainstorming time. You need to THINK QUICK, PICK A DIRECTION, and GO.

Now here’s the Weekend Update spot.

Nothing is precious. Chances are your golden goose is more like like a bronzeish mallard. That's not putting down your first idea. And it might be the ONE. But the rule of thirds seems to work here. 

One for them. One for you.

And one for the fences.

Here’s a recent pitch that I’m not allowed to show yet, but it’s for Skittles. These were done in two days. But there are quite a few styles, they’re all a little crazy, and they were all so much fun to make.

I tend to Over deliver to a few spots that freelance me, and Vitamin Pictures in Chicago is one of them. The Creative Director there, when I send him stuff, he always writes back ‘Man, EFF me. Holy effing eff.’ 

It’s hysterical.

But because of his positivity, I actually work harder to get that response every time.

IF he was a little less positive and cool, I doubt I’d turn in as much as I do. 

Flattery will get everyone everywhere. 


There used to be 5 majors in ART COLLEGE. Fine Art. Design. Illustration. Interior Design. Computer animation. At least at Ringling there were. But take a look at a college now. There's 20 freaking majors.

Which means there will be a lot of specialists coming out of school in the years to come.

WATCH OUT. I’d caution against becoming TOO specialized TOO early. Keep it varied.

To illustrate this point, Here are some various styles I like to bounce around between.



I used to love drawing comic book chicks and dudes. I copied all the artists that drew for Image Comics. I would get EXTREMELY detailed. I’d lose myself in cross-hatching and neck veins.

But, somewhere around high school maybe I kinda stopped and I studied the actual figure more closely. We had figure models in class and none of them looked like the versions that I drew from the comics.

And then I went to college, and drew more naked people. Old naked people, large naked people.

I became obsessed with capturing those forms with gestural lines. Capturing the essence of a figure with long, swooping lines and sharp angular ones. 

Keeping it minimal.

About 7 years ago I started drawing some characters that didn’t have any eyes, but rather just some squinty eye lines. They were not gestural, but rather cartoonish and crude.


I liked these guys. They were grumpy and mean but silly and harmless. I injected my sense of humor into them. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to do that. Yes, I made little comics and told little stories, but maybe I was afraid to show ALL of myself. Maybe drawing comic heroes was easier than putting my true self out there. 

But these new dudes, these SQUINTS, they allowed me to have something original. 

I began drawing them a lot.


And then one day I drew a basketball guy as a SQUINT. Yao Ming for the Houston Rockets. 


But something clicked. And I did a Superman in that style, too. 

I got looser with their bodies, their forms, I reverted back to figure drawing class, capturing the models’ essence, maintaining that kinetic linework. 

And I realized I finally found my voice. 

And nobody could tell me how to draw the eyes, or to make their heads bigger, their bodies more proportional.

Because this was MY VOICE. 

Wait for yours.

Hopefully yours will come sooner than mine did. Here are some of those now, and I’ve got a ton more on my site.


And that point will blend into my last and final point…FINISH.


I quit/got fired after 7 years at a studio down the street called Reel FX. I poured my heart into that place, and learned from so many talented artists there. It was both a sad day and a freeing day.

I tried freelancing in Dallas shortly thereafter, but It didn't go so well. 

I designed a catalog for a linen manufacturer.

I was miserable. Here I’d taken this whole ‘DRAWING FOR A LIVING’ thing for granted and now look at me!!  I was forced to lay out prices for queen size duvets and down muffin toppers. 

It sucked.

But I didn’t turn to art to pick myself up. I turned to writing.

See, I’d made an animated short film called ‘Lil’ Italy’ in 2007 and it got accepted into 7 festivals across the nation. I wrote, voiced, edited, directed and helped animate. IT took 5 months to complete 6 minutes of animation. I was very proud of Lil’ Italy, and still am. 

But it took some serious TIME. 

And what I loved, as I sat there in the theater watching with a crowd of festival goers, was the sound of the crowd’s laughter. Those people, they were laughing at what we created from nothing. 


So, after I got fired from Reel FX, I wanted to hear more laughter, or at least, I wanted to make more people laugh. I had so much to say besides DRAWINGS!

Animation took so long, it wasn’t a quick enough turn around. So I got a camera.

I started filming myself talking to myself and posting that on Youtube. A split screen action. One guy was an designer with a solid career and the other was an actor.

Yes, you've never heard of them or seen any of them and I'm not in movies, but that's besides the point.

You have to make. It won’t be perfect. But if you finish whatever it is you want to make, then that’ll be enough. 

Make it. Improve it.  Make the next one better.

Finish something.

Those videos are called ‘Hanging with Justins’ by the way and there’s over 50 of ‘em on Youtube. It’s kinda embarrassing at this point.

I won’t show you a Justins video but what I WILL show you is an UNCHOSEN Avengers 2 End Title concept!!!


So, there ya have it! Biggest thanks EVER to Ramsey Ruelas, a fine gentleman who extended me the offer and was nothing but the most hospitable person ever for the length of my stay.

Hopefully many more talks to come. 


Justin HarderComment