Zachariah Mattheus is the senior visual designer for ITHAKA, a nonprofit that helps the academic community use digital technology to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. He found this opportunity on Idealist and as the senior visual designer, he works on a wide range of projects — from branding to print, web and environmental design— all with the goal of ensuring a seamless experience for the ITHAKA community.
Here, he chats with us about making the switch from freelancer to full-time employee, his passion for arts and education, and what he recommends designers do to break into the nonprofit sector.
What got you interested in this organization?
I got my M.A. in Italy two years ago and it reinvigorated my love of arts and culture. So when I came back to the United States, I decided to stop freelancing, which I had been doing for four years prior. Instead, I wanted to contribute to something larger, work with people, and sink my teeth into something long-term instead of working piecemeal.
I also knew wanted to stay within arts and culture and expanded my search to include higher education, as the sensibilities are the same. Both are very mission driven. So though we are a business, in the sense of needing to manage projects, money, and staff, the mission is the backbone and that really appealed to me.
What do you think helped you land this job?
As a designer, the number one rule is to build your portfolio. I had the opportunity to work with fantastic people in the past who supported me and let me do some incredible projects. It’s also important to be able to talk about your work and present your work in a clear and precise manner. Because I had a freelancing business, I was able to pursue a job that I really wanted and not rush through the process. During the interview with ITHAKA, we talked for over an hour, instead of just interviewing.
How can designers bring their talents to nonprofits?
You should read a recent article in New York Times Magazine called Data You Can Believe In. While it talks about how some of the digital geniuses who worked on the Obama campaign are now looking for corporate clients, there is one line in there that goes, “I don’t want to spend my time optimizing for Coke.” There is power in believing in your talent but also optimizing your talent for something bigger.
In my career, I’ve worked on barter for freedom and flexibility when working with nonprofits because they often don’t have the budget to pay like other companies would. But when you’re working with someone who trusts you, it’s worth lowering your fee and creating something for the greater good.
Start by reaching out in a non-design capacity working with an organization you believe in. Once you start work with them, just by volunteering where needed, people will begin to see your talent and commitment and want more from you. Then you can start figuring out how to use your design skills in the best capacity.
What advice do you have for job seekers?
Talk to anyone! People fear who people are, their titles, their roles. But people are people. Let people know what you’re looking for and what excites you. Not their jobs, dress, or anything like that. Especially in big cities; you never know where it could lead.
Be sure to be persistent and consistent. And be happy. If you’re not doing something you enjoy it might not be the right place for you.