How One College Student Scored a Design Commission From the Director of "Hamilton"
There is a fine line between perseverance and stalking in chasing what you hope to achieve in your career. Those who keep going after they’ve been turned down run the risk of continued rejection, but something compels them to carry on until they reach their prize. Often, the stories that end in success involve someone going nearly overboard in their pursuit: These ambitious souls just don’t pitch an idea to a client – they physically make the product and then send it to everyone at that company for consideration.
And that is where Dominic Grijalva’s story begins. The 24-year-old Fresno State graphic design student and self-professed theater geek has been enamored with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, so much so that he has followed Miranda’s every move on social media and decided to do a personal project that paid homage to Miranda’s shows. While most people would stop at completing the project, Grijalva went one step further by simultaneously connecting with Miranda on social media and sending Miranda and 50 members of his cast the final work.
The perseverance has paid off for Grijalva. He can now add freelance designer for Miranda’s official artist merchandise site, Tee-Rico, to his resume.
We recently asked Grijalva about how he got Miranda’s attention, the process behind this major commission, and how he balances being a full-time student with an exciting freelance design career.
How did you develop a banter with Miranda?
When I watched the 2008 Tony performance of his earlier show In the Heights, I became a Lin-Manuel Miranda fan. As a fellow Latino actor, I was inspired by his work and excited to see what he’d do next. I really liked that Miranda engaged with his social media followers, and would reply or comment to posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Occasionally, he would respond to me, and I always wondered if he knew who I was.
At the end of summer 2014, Miranda reached 96,000 followers — an inside reference from In the Heights — and asked fans what he should do to mark this milestone. I Tweeted that he should do a one-man show of In the Heights and post it to YouTube. Miranda responded that he was going to follow some of his favorite fans, and the next morning I received an alert that he was following me.
A few months later, I was going to produce In the Heights in my hometown of Selma, California, and I jumped at the opportunity to tweet Miranda this question: “What’s a piece of advice for someone who wants to produce In the Heights?” Miranda responded: “Cast team players. The play is about community and themes of the show need to translate into the cast.”
I took this advice to heart, and it worked. Coincidentally, my summer 2015 opening of In the Heights overlapped with the opening previews of Hamilton, and it felt very special. I had never seen Miranda perform live and hadn’t been to New York in 10 years, so a friend and I bought $100 tickets to see Hamilton in the summer 2016. As Hamilton started attracting buzz, I continued to interact sporadically with Miranda on Twitter.
What inspired you to create a Dueler Eye Chart holiday card, a play on an eye chart found at an optometrist’s office with references to the Hamilton song "Ten Duel Commandments" for their cast and crew?
In November 2015, I was taking a printmaking course and our assignment was to create a design to etch in metal. I was struggling for ideas, and, while listening to Hamilton’s soundtrack, a lightbulb went off. An eye chart popped into my head, and I immediately went on InDesign to work on my idea for four straight hours until I was done because I didn’t want to lose momentum. I ended up being terrible at working on metal, so embarrassingly enough, I failed the course — sometimes the execution doesn’t work, but the idea does.
I still thought the image could be something bigger, so I decided to turn the Dueler Eye Chart into a holiday card for friends and family. A close friend advised me to send the card to Hamilton’s cast and crew as a thank you, and I figured I’d get a Twitter mention at most. I sent 50 copies to friends and family and 50 copies to Hamilton’s cast and crew. I included a personal 4x5 placard stating my appreciation for Hamilton and what it meant to me as an artist.
College student Dominic Grijalva meets his creative hero Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Did you receive any feedback from Hamilton’s cast and crew?
Mid-December, I received a Tweet from an ensemble member encouraging me on my journey to make a living as a designer. They noted that it can be difficult to have a sustainable career in the arts, so all artists must work hard to remain relevant — especially if you depend on your body as your instrument. A few days later, I watched Star Wars on opening day and took a picture of Miranda’s name in the closing credits for writing the Cantina Band music. I Tweeted Miranda the picture, congratulating him, and he replied, “Hey, we love your eye chart — thanks so much!”
At this moment, I realized he actually knew who I was. In January, I started seeing pictures on social media of my eye chart popping up in dressing rooms. It was surreal.
How did the commission come to be?
In March, I randomly noticed that Miranda had fiddled with his Twitter page, and it was doing something funky to his Facebook page. I took screenshots of how to correct the issue and sent Miranda a direct message with this information. A few hours later, he Tweeted, “Thanks to Dominic who helped fix this issue!” Two days later, I woke up to a barrage of Facebook and text messages, and didn’t know what happened. Miranda had accidentally publicly Tweeted me when he meant to send this direct message, “Hey, I have this idea and I would like to get your brain involved. Please send me your email.”
In the middle of a two-show-day, Miranda had been brainstorming how to give back to fans and artists who were creating amazing Hamilton-inspired artwork, while expanding his brand into merchandising.
After a few email exchanges and calls with Miranda’s brother-in-law, who represents him and handles merchandising, I received a proposal to create some sketches for In the Heights-inspired T-shirts.
You followed Miranda closely. At any point did it ever feel like borderline stalking?
(Laughs) I never felt like a stalker. In the past, if a celebrity favorited one of my Tweets, I would reply in all caps, “OMG!” But, that doesn’t add any substance, and it’s the equivalent of screaming at someone. With Miranda, I just tried to be intentional and tactful with my interactions. I was such a fan and reminded myself that I’m doing this because I respect him, and would love the opportunity to work with him someday.
What were the specific objectives of the commission?
Based upon the number of characters in the play, songs, and inside jokes and references, I was tasked to create a few sketches, which would work on apparel and could be expandable. In all, I submitted a handful of sketches and over 100 ideas. This exceeded his team’s expectations, and Miranda and his team narrowed the field to seven sketches. All seven designs made the cut, and are available for purchase online.
How did you negotiate with Miranda, and what was this like?
I negotiated terms of the commission with Miranda’s brother-in-law, Luis, and the process felt very natural. I receive royalties per item sold. Tee-Rico is big on promoting their artists’ work, and they always include our Twitter handles and websites on their site, and tag us when customers send pictures wearing our designs. Family is very important to Miranda, and his family members work with him and help run Tee-Rico. Now, I am part of the Tee-Rico family, and it reminds me of my family. I feel safe and cared for, and it has been great connecting with other Tee-Rico artists. I know that my creative ideas are heard and valued, and I feel fortunate to work with someone I respect and admire.
How does this work as a business?
I am still a full-time college student and will be graduating in December 2017. Tee-Rico is understanding of my responsibilities, and I’m able to manage my course load, theater schedule, and juggle freelance projects. I am currently using revenue earned from Tee-Rico to pay off my student loans.
Walk us through a typical school week. How much time do you devote to school work and how much to your freelance design work?
Typically, I try to schedule all day classes or evening classes to block my time. All of my clients know that I’m a student, so my schoolwork comes first. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I have afternoon classes, so I’ll crank out my freelance work in the evenings. On Tuesdays, and Thursdays, I take night classes, so I’ll work on my freelance projects earlier in the day. At times, everything overlaps, so making lists allows me to prioritize my deliverables. I always have my laptop on me, so that I can work from anywhere! On weekends, I might catch up on some freelance work, but I spend a lot of time at the theater.
Have you ever had to juggle the deadline of a Tee-Rico project with a school project? If so, how did you deliver both on time?
I’m actually doing this right now! I just opened a show and it’s consuming a lot of my time, in addition to my classes. However, on my first call with Tee-Rico, Luis said, “I know you’re a student, so your schooling comes first. Work on Tee-Rico projects when you have the time.” I owe him some concepts, so I’m keeping in touch via email and phone to provide frequent updates. Open communication is key.
What’s your advice to young designers looking to get their foot in the door somewhere?
If you’re approachable and voice your opinion, it’s easier to get noticed. Relationships and connections help as well. It’s random, but I have a good friend in New York who was babysitting for the director of marketing at licensing agency, Musical Theater International. I told her I was coming to New York in June, and asked if she’d put in a good word for me, and share my website. She did, and the director of marketing agreed to meet with me while I was in town. He literally pulled up my portfolio on the spot, and I walked him through projects in my portfolio.
When he asked what my dream job would be, I named the advertising firm SpotCo, which handles marketing and branding for Broadway’s hottest shows. I don’t have any contacts there, so he offered to connect me with a guy who works there. We scheduled an informational call when I returned to California, and he too requested an overview of projects in my portfolio.
After graduation, I’m planning to move to New York, and the Musical Theater International director of marketing asked me to call him when I arrive. I’ve at least planted a seed at SpotCo., and when I do move to New York, I want to be absolutely ready.
More about Jacqueline Lara
Jacqueline Lara is president of Mpact PR, LLC. She specializes in helping entrepreneurs and artists share their stories and art with the media and new audiences. She is also creative architect of The ArtFullness Project, which explores the intersection of art and business through creative projects and visual content. Connect with her @MpactJacq.