Academic Disasters in Personal Branding

August 1, 2018

In the pages ahead, we have articles highlighting creative design, bold innovation and inspiring ideas.

This story, a trip back to my junior year at The Ohio State University, has none of those things.

A solid B

During the fall term, I took Journalism 311 (J311), a graphics and design class with an emphasis on newspaper layout. The instructor based a large part of our final grade on a quarter-long project: a three-panel pamphlet about ourselves to woo potential employers.

Given that we had 10 weeks to complete the project, I naturally waited until the night before it was due to start. To be honest, I was feeling good about J311, pulling a solid B, B+. This design stuff came pretty easily to me.

So, with a throwback to my days in third grade, I gathered markers, construction paper, scissors and glue. I decided on a basketball theme, playing up my skills as a valuable player on a team that struggled to win five games my senior year in high school.

As for my career plans, I wrote — by hand, in barely legible print — that I wanted to attend law school following graduation from J-School. This also marked the first time that I ever thought about law school.

Anyway, hours before my deadline, I hastily assembled a hodgepodge of photos from Sports Illustrated, not giving too much thought to copyright infringement. (See, I would have made a lousy lawyer!)

In handwritten letters, the opening panel stated “Don’t Settle for Less…” Then, as you opened the brochure, the interior panels featured the words “Streeeeetch for Success” above the long, outreached arm of a silhouetted basketball player. (I didn’t learn about mixed metaphors until later.)

A deserved D-

There were warning signs leading up to class that day, when each of us had a few minutes to present our creation. Upon seeing the finished product, my girlfriend assured me that I was going to get an A. Meanwhile, at Kinko’s, where I stopped to have copies made for my classmates, the clerk glanced down at the brochure and snorted. Just give me my 31 copies, pal.

I arrived at the classroom, ready to impress. As I sat through the other presentations, I realized that I had produced the worst one in the room — the worst one in pamphlet history.

My classmates obviously worked on the assignment for weeks, using those ultra-modern computers to design fancy graphics and hip fonts to sell themselves. Perhaps mine would have looked pretty cool for a third grader.

It was my turn. I didn’t feel so confident anymore. I distributed one to each classmate and my instructor. As I recall, my fellow students looked bemused while inspecting my work and hearing my spiel.

During the Q-and-A period, I fielded a lone question: Why did I list “skateboarding” as a skill, as opposed to, say, something that might actually help me land a job in my major? 

Thankfully, my teacher later showed some mercy — he gave me a “D-” on the project. I feared expulsion. He also said “what were you thinking?” Good question.

This J311 debacle was a big lesson for me. Among other things, it marked the last time that I waited until the latest possible moment to complete such an important project.

I’m happy that I could put this personal-branding disaster behind me — just as long as none of my 30 classmates still have their copies of my pamphlet.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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