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Fail Frequently. Fail Better: Q&A with advertising professor Bizhan Khodabandeh

Mar 15, 2017

Posted in: News

By William Lineberry

Bizhan Khodabandeh is an assistant professor of advertising in the VCU Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Outside of teaching, he is a highly acclaimed graphic designer, comic book artist and illustrator. He has won many industry awards for his client works, as well as his work as an independent artist and designer. Recently, Khodabandeh had one of his works in a national gallery in L.A. He is the founder of the Mended Arrow in Richmond. Khodabandeh, Bizhan

To start, I’d like to get some background information on you. How did you get started with design?

BK: Your profession changes as years go on. I’m relatively young. For example, when I was younger and was interested in studying graphic design, I wanted to design skateboards. That’s why I went to school for design. I eventually started getting more and more interested in the big-deal designers I was reading about in my classes. After this happened, kind of a crossroad was created for me. I became interested in doing design for some of my friends in punk bands, and modernist and Swiss design (what I was learning in school at the time) is not exactly relevant to a punk band’s flyer. This made me have to learn how to do other stuff. I realized that all the design theory that I was being taught—although it was directly relevant to what I was doing with some of those musicians— didn’t make logical sense, aesthetically speaking. After I realized that, I started doing more illustration and thinking more about different ways of designing. I realized I could use hand lettering and collage, but also still apply some of the Swiss and modernist theories I had been studying. As that happened, I got more interested in illustration and comics. As of now, I do comics, illustrations and graphic design all simultaneously. The point is that you never know where your profession is going to take you. A lot of students feel like they have to have a clear-cut idea about what it is they want to do, and while it’s good to have a focus,  I also think that it’s just as important to be willing to kind of go where the wind blows. I think the goal is to be adaptable and to always keep learning.

Above is a comic book that Khodabandeh collaborated with his colleague James Moffitt on. Khodabandeh illustrated the entire work.
Above is a comic book that Khodabandeh collaborated with his colleague James Moffitt on. Khodabandeh illustrated the entire work.

How does your work as a designer and illustrator inform, or run parallel, to your work as a teacher? Is there a crossover there?

BK: Definitely. I would say where my teaching and professional work overlap is when working in a professional setting, we don’t tend to think a lot about what we are doing. We don’t analyze, or scrutinize, our work that much. But when I work with students (i.e. when I have to teach the theory behind a design), I have to anticipate all their hypothetical questions and all the flaws in the theories I have, as well as having to understand the basic theory behind a design. By teaching this stuff, it provides me with more knowledge. It forces me to be thorough in the understanding of my field. When students challenge me and ask questions that—again--forces me to think about what I’m saying. They also just inspire me. For example, when they solve a problem, or when they approach a problem in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of—that, again— is another way that teaching informs my professional practice. I feed off of them as much as they feed off of me. It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship.

Have you noticed any change in your art that you think is due, at least in part, to your teaching?  

BK: I would say I’ve seen subtle change in my work. Students inspire me to work harder and to keep working. Sometimes when I see them get excited with their successes, it helps keep me engaged in my own work. As a professional, your work can become really mundane after you’ve gotten to a certain level in your field. It can be kind of monotonous, especially with client work if they are the type that are worried about taking risks and trying new things. When I get that inspiration from my students--that bump to keep working harder and trying new things and experimenting--it is really helpful for my psyche as a professional (laughs).    

In 2015, Khodabandeh designed the Richmond Folk Fest flyer.
In 2015, Khodabandeh designed the Richmond Folk Fest flyer.
What are you currently working on professionally? Have you been challenged to learn new ways of designing based on a given client’s needs?

BK: With so many different clients, I’ve had to kind of learn a lot of new things to make a good fit for their aesthetic. I always use this example in my class: The aesthetic of Adele isn’t necessarily the appropriate aesthetic for Chance the Rapper. With each client, you have to come up with that client’s individual voice. That means adopting whatever approach works for their visual problem to ensure that it’s appropriate to them. By  having to do this, I’ve gained all these skill sets that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. For example, I sculpted a heart out of vegetables for Vegan Action in Richmond. I’d never done that before (laughs). You know? That made me make all these considerations I had never made before. I actually sought out a red onion that looked the most like a human heart. It took a long time to find that heart-shaped onion, but I finally found it. It’s things like this that make you adapt and grow.

Above is a design Khodabandeh created for Vegan Action in Richmond.
Above is a design Khodabandeh created for Vegan Action in Richmond.

What’s one piece of advice you try and give your students, but also one that you remind yourself of?

BK: In short, people need the opportunity to be able to fail, which in our society is seen as a negative thing, but I feel like failure is the only way to grow. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not learning something new. No one is an expert when they first start something. I try and tell my students that. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be a struggle, but you’re going to come out of it with some new skills. In short: Fail frequently. Fail better.

To see more of Khodabandeh's work, you can visit his agency site, Mended Arrow.