The 2020 Rising Stars of Wide-Format
When we talk about the future of wide-format, we tend to focus on the trends, what consumers and brands are demanding, the latest technologies, and new markets or applications. But while all of those things are certainly part of wide-format’s future, the reality is that it is people who will shape how those tools are used and how they will impact the direction the industry ultimately goes.
Here are three of those people. Wide-format Impressions put out a call to the industry for nominations for the Rising Stars of wide-format, and these three individuals rose to the top of the list. They represent the future, with big ideas, and a fresh excitement for everything this industry has to offer.
Tyler Birch, Press Operator, Atchley Graphics, Columbus, Ohio
Tyler Birch, 27, doesn’t come from a printing background. Rather, he found himself in need of a summer job, and had a friend who worked at a print shop, who let him know it was hiring to do the hot work of wrapping vehicles outside in the middle of summer.
“I was just making time, so I came in. I got blisters peeling off vinyl and doing horrible, dirty work, but I stuck around for the whole thing, and they took that as a sign I wanted a job,” Birch says.
That was six years ago, and Birch is still with that company, working his way through the ranks and finding success in an industry and career he didn’t even know existed before his chance opportunity. In fact, his team has become something of a family, being with him through getting engaged, buying his first house, and even the recovery from a car accident that put him first in an ICU, and later in physical therapy.
“All my co-workers were there to help me out,” Birch says. “They all chipped in their PTO and stopped by to see me, and the owners made enough soup to last three weeks when I got out of ICU. It’s been a wild ride, but I just had my last physical therapy session, and I’m just blessed to be here, and ready to return to work.”
Surviving major accidents aside, Birch notes that he was also lucky career-wise because when he first joined the company, it had recently switched to an HP latex printer from solvent. It was a new technology, and offered him the opportunity to learn alongside the operators. He joined at exactly the right time to take advantage of growth all around, noting that when he first started, the shop was just 1,200 sq. ft., and today it has grown to more than 4,000 sq. ft., with technologies such as a UV flatbed, and multiple latex printers.
“I’ve been able to learn new skills as the industry grows, and as the company grows to fit the industry,” he says. “I started in production, went through installation, and now I do a little of everything.”
Looking ahead, Birch notes that he would like to oversee an expansion in his shop, with him moving into a role where he can focus on training new operators, as well as work more closely on maintaining the equipment and learning the more technical side of the machines. Maintenance is something he does now, he says, but with the addition of new equipment, including more advanced finishing equipment such as cutters and routers, there are new skills to learn. He also notes that it would be nice to be part of a sales push, to help drive the company forward, and help educate customers about what the equipment is capable of producing.
“I feel like I’m ideally suited to talk to clients about what we can do for them,” Birch says, “about what we can do to help them build their brands.”
For the industry as a whole, however, he would like to see more of a focus on educating graphic design students, in particular, about what production is, and how it works. He notes that it can be difficult in some of the larger shops, where those students could start in production and then get discouraged because they never get a chance to use the skills they went to school for, but in smaller shops, or shops that make an effort to expose new hires to all aspects of the business, there is a great opportunity for growth.
“For anyone who studied design, it’s good to know how signs are made,” he says, “or what color management actually means. How what you’re making on the screen will turn into a product that can be sold and is useful.”
A Vision for the Future
Beyond making an effort to connect with design students, Birch says that he wishes more owners would make an effort to offer more comprehensive training programs, for everything from operating the equipment to installing wraps. While there are wrap “schools” he notes that they often require sponsorship by a shop.
“I would love to see more workshops, camps, or other programs directed at training people in these skills,” Birch says. “These are things I don’t see the industry being able to automate any time soon — a human will always be needed to do that skilled work.” So having people coming out of college with a basic knowledge of how to do some of these jobs, able to hit the ground running much faster, would not only benefit the industry, but would also provide clear career paths for many who don’t even know the option exists today.
“We lack hands-on training for students,” he says. “I think this market has opportunities for people even right out of high school, but a lot of kids think they need to go get a degree in graphic design to go into this industry. And that’s simply not true. You can make a good life with valuable skills, there just needs to be trade programs to help get people in and either set them up to be a contractor, or set them up with a company that will treat them right.”
Not only will this help the students find careers in print, he says, it will also help the shops find — and retain — more skilled employees that will be excited to invest their time and energy in that shop’s future.
“I think a big part of it is treating labor as if it’s skilled labor,” he continues, “and that comes with having pathways to training programs. Making an investment in skilled laborers, with, frankly, competitive wages and benefits programs, and a kid coming out of high school, wanting to have a family some day, will see the benefit. Don’t be afraid to invest in someone’s skills early in the game — the more you invest, the better benefits you offer, the better the retention will be. You won’t go through production people every year, instead you’ll have someone well-rounded and offering value to the company.”
Victor Hugo Santana, Production Manager, PHASE:3, Dallas, Texas
Victor Hugo Santana, 39, first joined the print industry when he was just 20 years old and a few years out of high school. His uncle was working for a shop and brought him in to work in the bindery department. He worked there for several years before being laid off, only to promptly be re-hired by the same company. He then moved into the wide-format division and was given the opportunity to run a press.
“That’s when I started the large-format part of my career, and that’s where I am today,” Santana says. “I’m now the production manager that oversees all the production areas, including small-format, large-format, fabrication, finishing, and routing.”
His path forward was one of hard work and a willingness to do whatever was needed, he notes, which in turn led to a slow, but steady, rise through the ranks, earning more responsibility as he went.
“I ran a press for a while, then they put me as a team leader in the print department,” he says. “From there, they moved me to manager of the print department. And a couple years after that, I made production manager, and was put over all the production areas.”
Santana notes that everything he has learned has all been on the job, picking it up as he went and growing alongside the company. When the wide-format division was split off from his original company and sold, he went with it, and that division became PHASE:3, which is where he still is today, with no plans to leave. In fact, he says, his goal is to “get all the way to the top,” continuing to rise through the ranks, showing what he can bring to the company, and one day, hopefully becoming part of the top management team. He doesn’t see himself branching off to own his own competing shop — rather, he wants to continue to help grow PHASE:3 and see where he can help take the company next.
For the future, one area where Santana would like to see changes is in how print shops recruit new talent. He notes that most students still think of “print” as what comes off their desktop printer at home, or perhaps the copy machine in their school or university.
“They don’t know what the extent of print is,” he says. “They don’t think about billboards, or car wraps, or point-of-sale. They just know what a home printer does, and we need to show them how wide it goes.”
But alongside that, he notes that the industry needs to do a better job of educating students not just about what print is, but what the job looks like.
“We need to honestly let them know it’s an unpredictable career,” he says. “From one day to the next you could be dead in the water, and then be bombarded with work the next and have to work through the weekend. They have to come in with an open mind.”
He also notes that teaching them that there’s also more than one way to produce each type of print is important, that technology is rapidly changing, and there are all kinds of print options and opportunities, from small shops that do basic color prints, to large shops that can do almost anything.
Today’s print industry, Santana says, is often more about problem solving than just putting ink on paper. For example, he notes that his company added an entire fabrication department five years ago, bringing in skills like woodworking to be able to build full, complex displays for customers, rather than just printing a few pieces to go with them. But with that, he says, there needs to be education that print is a true career, that requires putting in the hard work.
“With the younger generations, too often I’ve seen that they don’t have the mentality that hard work pays off — they expect things to be given to them without putting in the work,” he says. “Everyone has a different mindset, but mine has always been that the work talks, and hard work pays off in the long run. I tell people coming in that they have to have the mentality that a career here won’t happen automatically in a year or two, but change will come if you put in the work.”
Santana doesn’t exempt himself from that, either, continuing to jump in and help whenever and wherever he is needed, even as he has continued to rise through the ranks. He believes that just because someone has “manager” in their title doesn’t mean not hopping on the press to get a job done, or helping get a job laminated, or running a router.
“You have to be open to getting out of your comfort zone, and do what needs to be done,” he says.
Julia Kaufman, Color Production Supervisor, Cushing, Chicago, Ill.
For Julia Kaufman, 28, print was a career that she lucked into. She notes that as a freshman in college, she was hired by her school’s print shop. It was a small in-plant, creating things like booklets and mailers, but ultimately it introduced her to the world of print.
“In school I was going for a graphic design degree, and this felt like a natural step, going hand-in-hand learning about printing the things I was making,” she says. “I worked there all four years of college, and it was sad to leave when I graduated.”
Once she left school, she once again got lucky — she wasn’t specifically looking for a job in print. Rather, as she was gearing up to graduate, over Christmas break, she was asked by a family member if she had some free time and wanted to come do a bit of hand work in the shop he was working for at the time. That shop was Cushing.
“I said of course, and lo and behold, I get brought in and the first project they had me working on was long panels of privacy film, and I spent the first day working 10 hours weeding out these tiny dots. And I said, ‘this is so cool, I have to work here.’ I hear how geeky that sounds … but I interviewed and was brought on part-time while I finished out school, and then was brought on full-time when I graduated. It’s funny how things work out — I feel like I cheated the system, there were no crazy interviews or bulking up a resume, it all just fell into place.”
But while Kaufman fell into a career in print, it has been the industry and the challenge that has kept her here. She notes that it is incredibly fulfilling to learn new processes and technologies, help put them into place, and then teach others about them. And because the industry is constantly changing, she notes that she always has a chance to keep learning new things.
“When I started here, I was doing the grunt work — weeding, binding, small things here and there, the things people without a ton of experience do. But I worked my way up.”
Today, she has blended her discovered love of print and her original love of design, overseeing the entire design department at Cushing, where she continues to stretch her creative muscles, but also learn about the new technologies, trouble shoot problems, and look for new ways to improve the process.
Even her current role of production supervisor, she notes, is one she got lucky with.
“The trajectory I’ve been on, I definitely didn’t plan for,” she says. “I remember a few years ago when my previous boss left, and the company asked if I would take the position. My immediate answer was no. I was terrified, but after re-thinking, I did accept it, and it was the best decision. What I do now is not only day-to-day work, but I love that I have a team of people I can help mentor and challenge.”
Kaufman plans to continue the path she is on, hoping to continue to grow with Cushing, moving into higher management roles overseeing more of the print and design departments. “That’s what I feel I’m good at, and I like to do,” she says.
Perspectives on the Future
To recruit people like her, who have the potential to discover a deep and abiding passion for print that they just don’t know about yet, Kaufman notes that the industry needs to do a better job reaching those students.
“I realized coming to work for a printer, that there is just so much they don’t teach in school,” she notes. “Things they don’t get to learn without a good understanding of what the final output would be. There are so many things I would have no idea about if I wasn’t involved in the print aspect; it could be something as small as designing in RGB instead of CMYK, and how different they look.”
Beyond that, she notes that students really don’t have any idea of what’s possible with print today.
“Part of our job is to educate them on those possibilities, expose them to everything you can do with print.”
To do that, she urges shops to work with schools — universities if they have one in their market or high schools if they don’t — and consider hosting things like demo days or field trips, where students can come in and see the breadth and depth of print.
“Reach out to professors and offer to have a class held in the shop,” she says, “or offer a lunch and learn for students. Exposing these people in school to what print is would make a huge difference. People know things are printed, but they don’t realize that it can be a career, or that it is still creative. The more shops offer these kinds of things, the more they would expose the world to what the industry is all about.”
Kaufman notes that she was very fortunate, lucking into the print industry and falling in love with everything it had to offer. With more students of all ages exposed to it, she believes many more like her could be drawn to wide-format, finding a home in an industry they don’t even realize is an option for them.
Not Listed? If you — or someone you know — should have appeared in the 2020 Wide-Format Impressions Rising Stars, let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in next year’s nominations. — The Editors