Former Fort Wayne Museum of Art Scholastic Art and Writing Award Winner and Angola High School Grad, Brett Golliff is a self-proclaimed sneaker addict. Having grown up in the Michael Jordan era, Brett’s fondness for shoes began at an early age and continued to solidify through high school. Before he could afford to buy Jordan sneakers, Brett used his artistic talents to design the shoes he wished he could have. Yet, even after he could afford to buy the shoes, he continued to utilize and cultivate his art skills. Brett recently made the leap from designing shoes to cars and as the Color & Trim Lead Designer for GM, he was a pivotal part of the team that created the 2014 Detroit Auto Show Car of the Year…the 2014 Corvette Stingray z06!
“I began taking design more serious because of the Internet. It gave me access to so much information and it made me realize that designing shoes was a real career. During my sophomore and junior year I worked with my art teacher, Jeanette Meridew (Angola High School), to figure out assignments where I could design shoes. So that was really my first introduction into designing.
“I was lucky enough to have a high school art teacher that embraced [my passion for shoe design]. While I can’t say for sure, I am pretty confident that I was the first one in the Angola school system to want to design shoes for a career. Instead of scoffing at something she didn’t know, she helped me figure out how to do it. She is by no means an expert on athletic footwear design but she always did her best to give honest critiques and thoughts to help make the project better.”
The local newspaper in Angola, the Herald Republican, even featured Brett a few times for his love of sneakers and design. He explains, “It’s always a fun experience to share my thoughts with the world and I am very grateful every time the opportunity presents itself.”
(We are definitely grateful that Brett made time to share his experiences with us!)
As a high school student, Brett entered artwork into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards Competition which afforded him the opportunity to share his talents and thoughts.
“It really showed me art was more than something I just created. It showed me that it was something that deserved to be seen and should be seen, not just locally but nationally. It also showed me that there were people that truly appreciated young artists and wanted to see them grow in the field and take it to the next level. It showed me that you didn’t have to be a starving artist, there was potential to make a career out of it.”
“It also made me realize how many more people were creative and how I compared to them. I am from a very small town, I have always been the “kid that draws” so I didn’t always realize how many other people had talent like I had. It really opened my eyes in that perspective, made me feel a little more normal but also drove me to be better. It genuinely made me want to improve my talents from year to year and make sure that I was always striving to do more. It also opened my eyes to colleges that I could attend.”
The Scholastic Art Awards helped him see beyond his small hometown, challenge himself to improve his talents, and pursue his dream job of designing sneakers. He prepared himself by seeking out a college with a strong design program. He elaborates on his college selection process and experience:
“I went to the College for Creative Studies, or CCS for short, in Detroit, MI. I had been chatting via email with a designer at Nike, Jason Petrie, during my senior year of high school. I had told him what schools I was thinking about. At that time it was between Cleveland Institute of Arts, CCS and Art Center in Pasadena. He told me all of those schools were great but my decision should come down to CCS or Art Center. So I chose CCS simply off of location. Being three hours away seemed better than three days away from home.”
“My favorite classes were the studio classes because that is where I learned how to design. Honestly, outside of a few writing classes, I didn’t have a class that I did not like. All of them were fun and beneficial. I loved, loved, loved my VisCom classes and also Anatomy. Those classes were heavily illustration influenced, which has always been something I have thrived in. CCS is a very, very competitive environment, so those classes brought the best out of me. I have always seen design as my sport, so I loved to push myself in all of my classes to be the best that I could possibly be. Even if it meant not sleeping and leaving my studio for days on end, I would push myself until I succeeded at what I was trying to accomplish.”
“There isn’t a class that I can say was specifically beneficial to my success because honestly they all were. The way the CCS’s program was set up was for it to build off of itself. So you grew from each class and on to the next year. Looking back now, I can see how much the system really helped me to grow. I quickly learned that your teacher wasn’t there to show you how to do something. They were there to show you one way of accomplishing something but it was up to you take what they showed you and make it yours. Once I figured out that I was in control of how successful I could or could not be, I really thrived.”
Brett’s path to a successful career included an invaluable internship at Converse, where he was fully immersed in their current projects.
“Design internships are nothing like what the typical American stereotype is for internships. There was no getting the coffee, no getting prints and no being at the office three hours before everyone else just because you had to be. My internships were heavily immersed in what the teams were actually working on. While I was at Converse, I worked on the Performance product, specifically basketball footwear. So if they were meeting with athletes like Dwyane Wade, I was too. It was amazing.”
“I would say the internships were vital. In college you worked on a semester time period. So I had 15 weeks to design my product at school. During my internships I quickly learned that that amount of time was a luxury and was rarely a reality in the working world. It really taught me to be quicker at my process and be more decisive. If I had questions, I never expected someone to just give me the answer. I always came with solutions that I thought would work and they would give input as to why one was better than the other. It really taught me more how to communicate my ideas to a group of people other than designers, which also made me realize that these designs I was creating weren’t mine. Which is a huge lesson that I don’t think everyone gets. Understanding that what you are creating for another company is theirs and not yours was the single most important thing I learned. My internships taught me that I was being hired to help inspire that company’s product and not create my own product.”
Throughout his internships and later in his work, Brett would design products that were fully realized in 3 dimensions, a thing that some only ever dream about. He goes into further detail about the transition from 2D design to 3D model when working on a project:
“Being able to think in 3D is great challenge and is something that I am constantly trying to master. One thing I try to do is draw my concepts in as many views as possible. I have become better at knowing what something is going to look like in three dimensions with the more designs I have created, but there is still always something to correct when I get that first sample…. Sometimes the answer [to creating a product] is sketching. Other times that answer is sculpting. But most times, the answer is experiencing. If I am creating a basketball shoe, I play basketball…. I try to solve the problems that are pivotal to making a successful design.”
All of his hard work paid off when he interviewed and got a job with New Balance. We asked him to give advice to students who might want to pursue a career like his and have to go through similar interviews.
“The best advice I can give about job interviews is to not just talk about your work but also ask questions about where you are interviewing. I asked New Balance a ton of questions about how my work fits in with them, what are their goals for their product line, where do they see themselves in five years. It showed them I was just as serious about the job as they already are…. I put together my eight best projects. The main characteristic that each project had was a story. I always tried to give very detailed reasons for why the product I was creating was needed. I would carry that story out from research to inspiration, to ideation, to refinement and finally into the final product. Making sure that the end result always tied back to the beginning idea. Taking the viewer full circle.”
Working for a sneaker company was surely a thrill for shoe fanatic Brett and he gave us some details on what his work days entailed.
“At some point I always read and replied to emails. I would also be trend hunting or looking for inspiration in different areas. I would draw a little. Or I would work on refining designs and working back and forth with Asia to make sure they understand the ideas and what we are trying to build. Other days I would be traveling, going on inspiration trips or researching with athletes. It was, and still is, a pretty fun career.”
Even though this was a great career for Brett, he took a leap recently from working in the shoe industry to working in the auto industry with General Motors. He describes why he made the switch and the similarities and differences between the two:
“I had reached a point at New Balance where it wasn’t keeping up with me as quickly as I wanted it to be. I wasn’t growing at the rate that I desired, so I decided that I wanted to make a move. I considered three places: Nike, Adidas and GM. For one reason or another my timing and Nike’s timing are never on point so that didn’t work out. Adidas has always been a place that has pursued me. I have been lucky and am grateful that they have always considered my talent on par with theirs. But something never clicked with me during my visits there that said “this is the place for me.”
“GM came up as a conversation with a friend who was going to be working there at the start of 2011. In a much longer and detailed conversation similar to what I wrote above, I had told him I was looking for something new. I wanted a new challenge so he gave me the GM idea. I didn’t think GM would ever respond. The automotive industry is way more corporate than footwear. Shoe design is very laid back compared to cars, so I didn’t think they would give me a shot. But they did and they give me an offer the exact same day as Adidas.”
“Though, the ultimate deciding factor for me going with GM wasn’t about Adidas product compared to GM or anything like that. It came down to the fact that I didn’t know if I would ever get the opportunity to work on cars again. I knew that I could do shoes again. While it may not be easy, I could work my way back into footwear again if I had to or ever wanted to. But I wasn’t sure that I would ever get another opportunity to work on cars, especially the Corvette.”
“My work day is quite similar to what it was at New Balance. There are more meetings, especially as my role grows; but the creative process isn’t that different. It’s just applying it a new way…. The main difference in automotive compared to footwear is that the cost is far higher. A shoe would cost a company around $250,000 investment and that would be for a very, very revolutionary shoe. While that is a lot of money, it is nowhere near the billion dollars it costs to create a new vehicle… That is mainly because the production life of a car is between five and seven years, while a shoe is about nine months…. Not many people see a shoe as an investment, whereas everyone knows a car as an expensive investment.”
Brett started working at GM when they were working on the new Corvette last year…quite an investment…and was given a very specific task:
“My role on the new Corvette was more about execution. When I joined the team they had just finalized the final design. So I was in charge of making sure I finished that design. I focused on working with suppliers, manufacturing and engineers to make sure the design vision was executed to what we signed off on as a team.”
“During that process there was some issues that came up that I had to revise, in particular coming up with a new red color for the interior. The red that had been designed was not good and didn’t look as emotionally appealing as it should be. So I had to create a red that really spoke to the consumer. And I had it to do it very quickly to make sure that it made it to production without any delays. It was a tough challenge but it made me learn a lot and really enjoyed it. I also think it came out awesome and currently it is selling through at about 30%. So it is successful so far with our consumers.”
Brett’s hard work last year paid off this year at the Detroit Auto Show where the Corvette Stingray, a project he was involved in, won Car of the Year honors for its superior interior, high performance engine, and lower price tag! Brett’s visible success in both the sneaker and auto industries are an inspiration, yet his accomplishments don’t mean that he’s slowing down any time soon…he still sets goals:
“I always strive to challenge myself. I think the worst word ever is complacency. I absolutely can’t stand it. If you are complacent within your career, especially art, then you have to find a way to reignite your passion. My goal is always the same, and that is to continue growing. Eventually I plan to be fully independent within design…. My short-term goal is to start making products with limited and shorter production runs. I think this will help prepare me for my long-term goal, which is to have a store that sells product that is created by me.”
We wish all the best for Brett and for him to continue to encourage excellence!
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Thanks! Brett is amazing. I met him when he was in High School and heard rumors of his success ever since. Mrs. Merridew his art teacher recently retired, and we connected last winter. Can’t wait to see what is next. It will be a bit between the next article and we finish up the busy season at the Museum. We should have few more in the next couple of months.
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