St. Catharines Comes to Oakville
When you move to a different city – especially one so close to a major city like Toronto – you get used to people talking about places and things you’ve never seen before. Like a donut shop on the corner of College and Bloor, or directions through city streets that you don’t really comprehend (thank God for Google Maps!). Having someone from MY home region in the classroom was so refreshing – because I have eaten Beachwood Doughnuts, and gone to the Merchant Ale House for a pint of blueberry beer, and actually stood on the stoop of Form & Affect while my friends had a smoke in the colder weather. I knew about the Meridian Center and the new Centre for the Performing Arts, and I’ve admired the paintings of sports stars inside Kully’s on multiple occasions. And, strangely enough, my extended family is involved in the same charity boxing event that Brent spoke about (my uncle’s have been members of the St. Catharines Boxing Club for years & years now). Having Brent in the office was exciting in two ways – the first being the wave of nostalgia that hit every time he mentioned a landmark or business I myself had frequented. The second, slightly more important way, is that he shone a light on a designer’s ability to move home. That Toronto is not the only place in the world where good design takes place.
Say hi to brent
Brent Porter comes off like the guy you want to be your boss and your best friend. He’s passionate, a self-starter and quite dedicated the craft and the community that surrounds design. He moved to St. Catharines about 8 years ago from Hamilton (good choice, Brent) and began to make connections in the Niagara Design Industry. Which falls into category B of exciting because, well, I didn’t even really realize Niagara had a design industry. He spoke about the symbiotic meeting with his future partner Paul, who, coincidentally, is also a Sheridan graduate! When Paul decided that the commute in and out of the big smoke was too much, the pair summoned their entrepreneurial spirit and won their first RFP for a site called CNiagara.
This is where the story gets interesting – they used the money from that first job to incorporate, and picked out the space on St. Paul Street that was their dream office space. When Brent spoke about how good the location is, he forgot to mention a few key things – like the fact the Merchant Ale House is actually a staple in the Niagara craft brewing community and has the best Black Bean burger I’ve ever had in my entire life. Or that St. Paul Street is notoriously bad for street parking, but their office is a stone’s throw from a paid lot and a parking garage. Or that they are walking distance from other St. Catharines staples like the Red Hot Chili Pepper, the Mansion House, Mahtay Cafe, Wind Sushi, Sahla Thai, L3, the Works Burger joint and, of course, new neighbors Beachwood Doughnuts.
Anyways, they chose the space and it wasn’t available for rent – yet. So they kept working, and getting bigger and bigger projects. When they landed their first REALLY big project, the lease was up. So they took the space that houses that beautiful, slightly off kilter ampersand. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Brent also spoke to how he’s utilized government programs like Career Focus to help expand their team. As someone who’s been hired through a similar program (I got my first web design job through a government program that classified me as an at-risk youth because I reside in Welland with my parents. go figure), I valued the honesty Brent had about the realities of working a smaller market. That programs like Career Focus are often used, or that salaries in general are lower in a market that competes on factors like the general cost of living. Most importantly, however, was his attitude towards his employees; he’s genuinely concerned with their happiness. And their fit into his existing corporate culture. The story he shared about a women basically walking in off the street and saying “I want to work here” was very interesting to me – not only did Brent recognize the type of personality he was seeking in her, but it matched his own self-driven spirit. If you want something, go out and get it.
Words of Wisdom
Brent had some great insights to share with the class – and he classified them into the following three sections.
Failing to learn
Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right – Henry Ford
Brent seemed like a man of many stories, so I wasn’t that taken aback when he started speaking about his life as a Club owner in Hamilton in the 1990’s. Having thrown Hamilton’s first rave in 1991 isn’t a bad bullet point for a resume – but then again, owning two night clubs while in your 20’s isn’t a bad point either. Even when in a completely different field, Brent still loved the design aspect of the job – saying that making the posters for his events was always the best part of his day. The least stressful. When he decided that it was time to trade in late night for (regular) mornings, he headed to Mohawk’s Graphic Design program as a mature student. Even though he wasn’t initially impressed with the program, he stuck it out until he got the opportunity to get on a computer… and then realized they were using Corel Draw. So he dropped out and did what any respecting go-getter would do: spent three weeks putting together a kick ass portfolio & then sending it off to as many design agencies as possible.
The moral of this story – while not about the importance of post-secondary education – is that the first design job taught him more about working with others then it did about design. Brent cites his boss’s inability to motivate her employees and make them feel appreciated for their contributions to the company as a big part of why he treats employees the way he does today. And it’s an interesting point – I’ve always thought that I’m able to learn something, if not more, from a person I don’t like compared to one I do. Critically analyzing what you don’t vibe with in another person helps you to set a course of action for how you’ll be in similar situations.
Being In your element
When your passion overlaps with your God-given talent, that’s when you’re happiest
I won’t lie Sheila – this year has been tougher than most for me. While I really enjoy designing & coding, this program has been hard because I’m not in my element. My element normally includes guitars and microphones, or work that centers around music. That’s my passion, and my talent. I think sitting & listening to Brent speak on this topic was cathartic in a way, because it made me realize that this year was tough because of what he was saying – that this isn’t necessarily the place where I’m going to shine my brightest. And that’s ok. I have to find the space where my passions meet my budding talents as a designer.
Brent spoke about the way the ball gets rolling for him – that he had a friend who suffered from mental illness and took his life. And that it sparked an interest in how the brain works, and opened up conversations about the psychology of life and, ultimately, design. That a tragedy ended up inspiring him to learn more about one aspect about his passion, which contributed to his talents. I can recognize the importance of this process, because I have the same one every time I write a song. If something feels off, or I’m sad, or I’m pissed off at a boy – I step back and try to analyze the pieces of it. Which normally inspires a song that comes rushing out of me in less then 10 minutes (if it’s a good one, that is).
I do not like that man – I must get to know him better! – Abraham Lincoln
Having empathy and compassion for others is important no matter who you are or what you do. Brent’s life lesson on this topic came from his friendship with an Australian chef who owns a food truck called El Gastronomo Vagabundo. Editors Note: I’ve never eaten here, BUT I’m pretty sure they do the food at Oast House and I’ve heard they make the best tacos known to mankind. He spoke about how, at the beginning of their friendship, Brent was utterly uneducated in the culinary arts. So when he was invited to a dinner party that made him feel slightly out of his element, he was appreciative of Adam’s empathetic approach to making sure Brent felt comfortable. He explained what he was doing when making the food & offered up suggestions for what Brent might like.
Form & Affect is a world class institution that’s literally in my backyard. Brent’s presentation made me feel confident that, if I should choose to follow in my parents footsteps and make the Niagara region my home, I’ll be able to work on exciting and challenging projects as a web designer. I also learned that stopping by with a box of Beachwood Doughnuts may be the best way to get a job interview.
When I went to chat with Brent following the presentation, my first question (for the first time, ever) was not about the kind of music he listened to. You see, I’ve sat on an orange couch very similar to the one’s we saw in Brent’s office space. Actually, I’ve sang on one. On multiple occasions. There’s a great YouTube series based out of St. Catharines called Band on a Couch, and they feature musicians singing their original work on (you guessed it) a big orange couch. While Brent assured me that the couch was not actually from his office, he did say that he’s spoken with Arih and that there’ll probably be a BOAC concert in the Form & Affect offices at some point.
So, to celebrate all of my worlds colliding, here are some friends of mine who did a set on the Big Orange Couch. If there was ever a YouTube video to watch in my blogs, this is the one Sheila – Eli & the Strawman are incredible. If you go clicking through their YouTube channel you might find a video featuring yours truly too 😉