We had the good fortune of connecting with Nel Santiago and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nel, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
Born en La Isla Del Encanto, Puerto Rico. My parents moved us to the mainland in the early 80’s. “More opportunity” as the story goes. I was raised in the small town of Elkridge Maryland. But always retained that connection to the island. My parents spoke to us in Spanish growing up, still do. I had a very traditional upbringing. Something I am super grateful for. In school I always gravitated towards the arts. I was a doodler in class. My parents always encouraged it, so I never questioned what I wanted to do for a living. One thing my dad always said was “Don’t worry about chasing money, chase what you enjoy doing. The money will come in time” I took that to heart. In high school, I took Vo-tech. Studied graphic design. It came natural to me. My teacher Mr. Lee took me under his wing. He taught me a lot of the skills I still use today, helped me focus through some tough times and gave me direction. I worked the system in high school and managed to get out a year early. With that head start I moved to South Florida and started at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale the week I turned 17. I enrolled in graphic design, shortly after changing over to a new major in Computer Animation. This was the mid 90’s and computer animation was just in its fledgling years. It was mostly uncharted territory as a career path. I butt heads with a lot of my teachers because I wanted to do “Motion Design” whereas everyone wanted to do the next Toy Story. They came around eventually and let me explore and tailor my skills to that. I graduated with an associates and started working at a small production company while continuing my studies towards a bachelor’s degree. I graduated in ’99 with honors. By the recommendation of the Design Director at WSVN I took a job as a Broadcast Designer at CBS 4 in Miami. That kick-started my career in television. I worked in TV during the Elian Gonzalez story and eventually through 9/11. I did a lot of growing up in that time. In 2001 I moved to Dallas to be closer to family, eventually starting my own. Even though I had left Miami, Miami never left me. Maintaining steady freelance through my connections in South Florida, my end goal was always to make that my steady gig. Over the years I spent time at NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates. Adding writing, editing and producing to my arsenal along the way. Eventually landing me a Creative Director position at Broadcast Design giants, Hothaus Creative. Where I worked on projects for The Weather Channel, HDNet, The Miami Dolphins and a bunch of top 10 network affiliates throughout the country. That helped step up my game. Over the last decade my freelance became my main source of income. There were some challenging years in-between. I dipped in and out of full-time gigs in advertising and postproduction. I learned what worked for me and what didn’t… corporate life was not for me. But now it’s balanced out and I’m able to work from the comfort of my own home. The internet really changed things, making remote work a viable option and making that end goal possible. The bulk of my work still originates from South Florida. I work a lot with Miami based Director David Rousseau. (We met at CBS in Miami 21 years ago). He’s been a great friend, partner, client, all of the above. I’ve provided compositing and editing on his projects (for artists like Pitbull, Birdman and Juvenile, Magic!, Michael Des Barres, to name a few). Looking back, I’d say being encouraged to develop my artistic skills early on had the biggest impact in where I am today. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors early in my career. The head start in studying, the amazing creatives I was exposed to. They all helped mold me and continue to drive me today. Be it in my continued development as an artist or in my home life, I have to hustle. Challenge myself, challenge others around me. Keep the momentum going. It’s easy to get jaded, but surrounding myself with motivated people, with similar goals and drive. That makes all the difference and it’s made me who I am today.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I have two very distinct styles. It’s very much Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. My personal art is darker, emotionally driven and motivated by whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I’m very much a fan of designers Dave Mckean and Kyle Cooper. That’s evident in my personal style. I mean we’re an amalgamation of the artists we like right? Then there’s the other side to that. The polished broadcast look. Shiny and clean. We all know the decades old broadcast design tricks… take that lens flare, put it on add mode and you’re a regular J.J Abrams. One trick pony stuff. But that’s what pays the bills. All joking aside, I do enjoy playing with both styles. I still dabble in print to scratch that itch for the darker stuff. But its a lot less frequent than I’d like. If there is one lesson I’ve learned along the way that I’d have to pass on, its don’t fall in love with your work. Especially client work. Too many artists get stuck on “their vision” of things. Most of the time, it’s not your vision that counts. Listen to the client, adapt to their needs and pick your battles. At the end of the day you hope you find a happy balance between what looks good to you and what looks good to the client. More often than not its both. But when its not you can always express yourself fully by creating art on your own. Carve that time out to do that for yourself. Volunteer on projects that mean something to you. Scratch that itch.
Any great local spots you’d like to shoutout?
When you’re talking South Florida you gotta cover the basics but not get hung up on them. Obviously South Beach. Kind of like the walk of fame on the other coast, just gotta tick that box. Cafe Cubano in little Havana? Take them for a cruise through Coral Gables, the inter-coastal, basically a nice cruise to day dream about owning one of the many beautiful mansions Miami has to offer. If you’re going to be a tourist. Be a tourist. If you get lucky enough to hit the right time of the year. Go all out, a little Calle Ocho, get some ceviche and enjoy the life. What esle? Seriously the food alone is worth the trip. I’m about as traditional as it gets. Cuban sandwich? Yes please. I’m Puerto Rican… so a medianoche would be more like it, its all about the bread. Some where down the line I need some bistec encebollado and tostones. Mofongo? Carne frita? Now I’m hungry. You get the idea, food would be the motivating factor.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Gosh that’s pretty easy but I’m going to split it in two. First I’d have to mention my high school graphic design teacher Mr. Lee. Without that man taking me under his wing. I would have never succeeded so early on in my creative life. He was my first mentor. He helped me focus and develop my skills and really saw my potential. Second person I have to mention was my Art Director at NBC, Jim Doyle. He really changed my perspective as an artist. He treated every artist he mentored as a designers who’s end goal was to be an Art Director one day. He was always so open about how he ran his department. Encouraging, motivational I could go on. I learned to never say “No” upon difficult creative requests. Always answer “I’ll see what I can do” Even if you knew it was “No” it helped defuse stressful situations and allowed you to better access the “ask”. I swear that’s the best bit of creative advice I have ever gotten and till this day I pass it along religiously to every artist I train.