Storyboard: Mike Rios

A series of happy accidents

I did not have the rosiest upbringing. My mom left my dad, and took off for the San Fernando Valley. She wanted to keep my brother and me busy, and make sure we had hobbies.

One Christmas, she gifted me a bundle of Spider-Man comics. I started to draw him obsessively. That turned into drawing other things obsessively! Comic books became a necessary form of escape; art a passion and a refuge.

After high school, I became rudderless. My stepdad, who was a military man, sensed that. His philosophy: “shape up or ship out.” So, I shipped out.

Six months into my military service, I knew two things for certain: I was a good soldier who followed orders and understood a unit mentality, and I was sure that this was not the life for me. My last year in the Army, I began to consider my transition back into civilian life.

Shortly before my release, I saw Samurai Jack, Genndy Tartakovsky’s groundbreaking animation for Adult Swim. It rocked my world. I didn’t have the tools to understand what I was watching, but it was the same feeling and sense of escape I experienced when I used to draw Spider-Man as a kid.

Design school beckoned to me. I chose ArtCenter, after a former high school art teacher encouraged me to do so. Visiting the campus for the first time felt like home.

Post-ArtCenter, I started as a visual director and production designer for a collective called The Druid Beat (formed by a fellow alum and friend), which made short films and music videos. Later, I worked as a “fun-gineer” for a “micro-theme park” called Two Bit Circus. It’s an environment that transcends the traditional carnival atmosphere, and transports spectators to a world they haven’t quite seen before. That was the appeal for me.

My time at Two Bit Circus taught me (ironically) how to help others rein in their big ideas, to think about the brand they were building and how to empathize with the end user. As the group design pragmatist much of the time, this opportunity helped me become the design leader I am today. There was no linear arc to this journey. To be honest, none of my creative journeys have been linear. They’ve all been a series of happy accidents.

My wife, a graphic designer, is an ArtCenter alumna, although we didn’t know each other at school. Meeting her was another happy accident. We first locked eyes at my grad show, where I was really trying to show off, in spite of being mired in the stressful transition from student to working creative professional.

She approached me, we got to talking, I made her laugh. According to her, I “had a lot of chutzpah.” We were later married at the South Campus (on the rooftop), where we’d both taken classes, she later taught and I’d spent countless hours with her, friends, classmates and student government cohorts. Again, it felt like home. That’s probably why we now live in Pasadena: we want to be close to what we feel is our first shared home, the College!

My wife taught me that empathy is one of the fundamental tenets of design. We always have to think about whom we’re creating these things for. For us, it’s less about personal expression, and more about asking, “how can we be of service?”

Empathy is a tool for life first, and design second. Through my formal education, I learned mechanical craft. My informal postgraduate education came from my wife being an ArtCenter educator, who was kind enough to continue educating me.

When I first attended ArtCenter, I wasn’t fully cooked yet. I happened to be there at the right time, and with the best instructors I’ve ever had. My military service allowed me an opportunity to see the world. ArtCenter made me a thoughtful citizen. My wife taught me to look inward, and ask what I’m giving back to the world through design.

Like I said, a series of happy accidents.

Mike Rios
BFA 09 Ilustration
Chief Creative Strategist at MotherFather Design Studio
Former Design Manager (Fun-gineer) at Two Bit Circus

“Empathy is a tool for life first, and design second.”

Mike RiosChief Creative Strategist, MotherFather Design Studio
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