In his current role as executive creative director at the Chicago-based agency 88 Brands Partners, Joe Popa knows one thing the instant he sees a resume from a graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design. He knows that candidate has one trait that gives them “permanent relevance.”

Photo courtesy of CCAD Alum Joe Popa

Photo courtesy of CCAD Alum Joe Popa

He knows that candidate is a problem-solver.

And he knows this because he’s also a graduate of CCAD.

“If someone asked me, what did [I] learn in college, I tell them I learned to solve problems,” said Popa (Class of 1990, Advertising & Graphic Design).

Two decades into Popa’s upward journey through the advertising industry, he still credits CCAD with helping to nurture the skills that have helped him navigate the professional world.

After growing up in Canton, Ohio, where he attended private Catholic schools for 12 years, Popa found the transition to college life at CCAD was easier that it might have been elsewhere. “I was quite comfortable working within the constructs of a 30-person classroom,” said Popa. “I had friends in high school who went to Ohio State. They were taking classes that had 500-600 people in them.”

When Popa first enrolled at CCAD, he wanted to be an illustrator, but the sampling of different disciplines found on the CCAD campus soon steered him to his true calling. “By the end of freshman year, I clearly thought more of Advertising & Graphic Design, because I saw that I could apply the same disciplines as illustration, but there was a different kind of problem-solving,” Popa recalled.

This program also proved to be a fit with another part of Popa’s mind. Before a visit to CCAD cemented his enrollment, he also considered studying psychology at Ohio University. He found the Advertising & Graphic Design program fit both interests. “Being able to affect human behavior with design and advertising was really appealing,” said Popa. “It was that great balance of creativity and science and psychology.”

A scheduling conflict during his sophomore year also led Popa to stumble upon another advantage of the creative mix of CCAD’s campus. He found himself in a class within his major alongside students who were taking it as prerequisite for other programs. “What I realized was I'm in this advertising class or this lettering class with fine artists, industrial artists, sculptors, glassblowers,” Popa said. “And their perspective on lettering is something that I'm more interested in than other graphic designers' perspective on lettering.”

So during his junior and senior years, Popa began intentionally enrolling in these “melting pot” classes. “What it was like to be in that environment with all those different types of creative minds ... it helps you decide things that are important as you go forward,” he said. “Even to this day.”

Upon graduation in 1990, Popa worked for a few smaller “mom-and-pop” advertising and graphic design agencies in Columbus for a few years before heading to Chicago without a job “because I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he said. After a few years at another smaller graphic design firm, Popa joined Draft Worldwide, now known as FBC, a giant agency network that spans the globe.

“I spent nearly 13 years there. That was the exact opposite of the small mom-and-pop shops, but it was perfect for me at the time,” Popa said.

Popa attributes his long stay with a single agency to the serendipity of a workplace that changed and grew as much as he did.

“Due to a lot of what was nurtured at CCAD, I was not content to just do one thing. I wanted to try all different types of things, and the opportunities kept coming into the building literally,” Popa recounted. “I would raise my hand, let people know that I would be willing to do things, put in the extra work. Certainly work ethic was something that got ingrained in me at CCAD.”

Another skill honed at CCAD that Popa notes was integral to his rise was the ability to present work, both internally and to clients as the face of the agency. “By the time I left [CCAD], I had the confidence to stand up in front of people and talk about my work and knew how to talk about the work in a way that wasn't defensive, in a way that was able to address the problem at hand.”

Popa eventually rose to the position of executive creative director, leading a team of 23 creatives on work for clients including Polaroid, Kellogg's, Jack Daniels, and M&M's. Recent years have brought Popa back to the roots at smaller agencies for what he calls the “we’re-in-this-together, David-vs.-Goliath” feel.

Popa’s career is a testament to the advice he would give students looking to follow in his footsteps. “As a creative person, try as many different things as you can when you're young,” he recommends. “The first half of your career should be spent trying anything that interests you, because there's plenty of time to specialize.”

“And I think CCAD is the perfect environment that offers you the ability to try as many different things as possible early on before you settle into any one thing for the home stretch.”