WHEN MATT LEHMAN WAS ONLY NINE YEARS OLD—long before he received freelance assignments from the Oakland A’s, ESPN The Magazine, and Grantland—he would spend hours in his bedroom wielding scissors, a glue stick, magazines, and posterboard, creating collages of his favorite baseball players and football players to put on his wall.
“I was such a nerd,” he says. “I’d even make my own brand guidelines—‘Let’s put a pro football team in San Antonio because they don’t have one’—then I’d make the logo and give them purple and black as team colors and plot out all the executions for the helmet and the uniform. I had no idea graphic design was an actual career; I just thought I’d have fun with it for a while then go to college, get a business degree, and get a regular job like everyone else.”
It didn’t work out that way. Shortly after Lehman arrived at the University of Tennessee, a friend of his signed up for a graphic design class, and Lehman tagged along. “The first day of class, we got the syllabus, and as I was listening to the teacher talk about about the course, I thought, ‘This is it.’”
Four years later Lehman had several internships under his belt, including stints with HGTV, Robin Easter Design Group, and Anderson Design Group, which turned into a full-time gig.
“Beyond the obvious experience learning about design, the number-one thing I took away from my time at Anderson was the networking aspect,” says Lehman. “Two of my colleagues went on to work at Syfy Network and that led them to hire me for freelance projects. I learned that whenever you take a full-time job, you should make sure it’s not just a paycheck, but a real opportunity to grow with people who can take your work to the next level.”
Lehman left Anderson to freelance, and soon had the opportunity to work with Country Music Television and MTV, which turned into another full-time position.
“Doing work on a national scale was a great opportunity: learning how to negotiate the red tape of a big corporation, figuring out which aspects to [fight for] and when to let go of things to make the client happy. Navigating those waters, learning how to stay creative in an industry like country music, which has a lot of parameters, that helped with all of my future work.”
He’s now 100% freelance, with a focus on identity and illustration. And with that experience, one challenge has grown a little easier over time: Selling work to clients.
“Years ago, I would show clients twelve to fifteen options for a logo, which is crazy—how can they all be good?” he asks. “It was probably my insecurity early on, wanting clients to think they’re getting a good value, but they’re not hiring me for a good value; they’re hiring me for one logo. Now I narrow it down to three to four options and build out applications like business cards, letterhead and T-shirts, so clients can see the logo where it will eventually live. I want the client to be pleased, but I’m also trying to push them outside of their comfort zone, because that’s how you make sure the work stands out on the shelf.”
Lehman recently created a new identity for Crema Coffee in Nashville, and told the client up front: “No coffee cups, no coffee beans, no steaming grounds, and no earth tones, because that’s all been done before.” They agreed. And although the owners initially selected Lehman’s second-favorite option, he ultimately persuaded them to select a simple iconic infinite loop, which reflects the company’s dedication to sustainability and its penchant for pour-overs.
A few years ago, Lehman got the opportunity to create a brand from scratch when a friend of his left corporate America to launch FashionAble, a nonprofit selling handbags and other goods created by women in Africa. Lehman crafted a polished hand-drawn logo with bright colors and simple iconography to portray the serious challenge in a warm, welcoming way. In exchange for his work, the founder flew him and his wife to Africa to see the operation for themselves. Last year, Lehman reworked the brand to give it a more high-fashion feel. The effort has made an impact: Now in its sixth year, FashionAble just doubled its revenue over the previous year, and continues to impact the life of African women, now as a social-impact for-profit.
In recent weeks, Lehman crafted designs for a line of “healthy” beverages from Pepsi and produced vector illustrations for Delta’s customer feedback card, which you might find in the seat-back pocket of your next flight. Right now, he’s working on that perpetual challenge for any freelancer—updating his website. Two projects sure to end up on those pages? A logo for the Mitchell Bat Company and lettering and illustration for a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, which just might inspire another nine-year-old sports lover who has no idea that graphic design is a career.