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The Promise of Good Design: YP Interview with Phil Mollenkof

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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According to demographic labeling, Phil Mollenkof fits the young professional bill. His college degree—Communications and Media—ranks in the top ten most common Bachelor degrees among young professionals today, nearly twice as popular as all other academic concentrations. With his fair share of plaid shirts, Phil works and lives in the city, a preferred situation for commute- and community-conscious young professionals.

But Phil is 33. The majority of his Generation Y peers—birthdates ranging from 1982 to 1990 (with wiggle room in either direction)—are still in their twenties. At 33, this places Phil at the head of his class. And one of the youngest YP coaches here at The High Calling.

I wondered how Phil might describe his experience this side of the young professional employee group. Four jobs since college have given him plenty to talk about.

"When did you finally see yourself as a young professional?"

"Probably when I landed my first paid design job."

"I’ve seen your work. It’s good. Does something drive you toward making stuff in a way that Jesus might say, 'Well done, good and faithful servant'?"

"I'm definitely motivated by many things: furthering our organization's cause, pleasing my boss, honing my craft, etc. But I think the deepest reason is that God puts in us the inherent desire to do work, and to do it well. I simply have a strong internal desire to say something that speaks to the world, and to say it as beautifully and profoundly as I can. I sense that it's just the way I was created, and is what keeps me working late at night and gets me up in the morning."

Phil is Communications Coordinator for The Pittsburgh Promise, a nonprofit that gives college scholarships to Pittsburgh Public School kids. He loves his job.

"I handle all the design and branding work for the organization, as well as some communication strategy. I also do a fair amount of freelance work with a variety of clients."

"Are you home yet regarding your career?"

"Never. I think I'll spend the rest of my life trying to communicate and tell stories about the world, whether it's through design, photography, writing…. I'm constantly looking for ways to visually interpret ideas in my head."

"So you’re not home yet. But you’ve dropped ‘young’ from ‘young professional’?"

"This is definitely a work in progress. Not that I don't feel professional now, but it's been much more of a journey for me. Milestones like a piece of work I was really proud of and building up my client base are all stops along the way."

I resonate with Phil on this point. I recently turned 40 and still consider my own development a "work in progress." The journey metaphor allows me to keep my options open, to keep thinking of myself in entrepreneurial ways. God isn’t finished with me, for sure. But journeying typically implies direction and guidance, so I asked Phil about his work influences. I had only people in mind. He didn’t.

"My influences were all over the place. In the 90s I was completely captivated by rock and punk music, and the amazing cultural force that they played in society. In college, my media communication professors taught me the basics about popular culture, and visual literacy made a huge impact on me. And I’ve always been drawn to visual storytelling, so films have been a big part of my inspiration, whether an indie documentary on climbing Mt. Everest or a Hollywood classic like Raiders of The Lost Ark."

"Media, digital technology, the visual landscape—these sound like the staple diet for your generation. Are they still?"

"Young professionals are fluent in the nuances of today's digital culture, and they stay up on current trends. Part of being a designer, or whatever, is being able to adapt and learn new things for an entire career. Back to the question of work influences, I also think it's been important to keep feeding myself non-design related things such as world events, NPR programing, and novels. They teach me that my work is about so much more than typography or kerning; it's about communicating something within a context towards a solution. Without this approach, design just becomes a series of pretty pictures."

The layered approach here inspires me. Phil is essentially asking what purpose our specific kinds of work serve in the world. I was curious if he made any rookie mistakes along the way to this line of thinking.

"Yes. Thinking, I'll have arrived as a designer when I ________. At one point in my career I wanted desperately to work for a large agency with a long list of impressive and glamorous clients. I networked my way into an interview and got the job. After a short amount of time, I was miserable and realized that it was a bad match for my gifts. It's helpful for me to have goals, but I often find that in the process of working towards them, new directions for my work emerge...and sometimes I realize that the original goal was completely off base."

According to PayScale.com, those in Generation Y spend two years with an employer before moving on, five times shorter than the median stay for those born in the 1930s. Phil is no exception, sensing the freedom to continue seeking the perfect fit. Yet he’s taking the accumulating lessons with him. When I asked what Jesus-shoes were the toughest to wear in his 20s, he said:

"Probably being gracious to tough clients. They've been few and far between, but in those situations I've had to learn (and am still learning) how to disconnect my own self-worth as a designer from a specific project or person. This has helped me to swallow my pride a bit and serve the client better."

"Phil, one last question. If you happened to be commuting while thinking about those tough clients, how long would you have and how would you get there?"

"Twenty minutes in a Toyota Rav4."

Image by Joel Bedford. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Phil Mollenkof is a YP coach with The High Calling. Connect with Phil through his profile or view some of his work here. Interview by Sam Van Eman, narrator of A Beautiful Trench It Was.

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