Max Riffner embraces the creative side of life.
By day, he oversees the Creative team at Hurrdat Marketing, including all creative aspects of client and brand work. By night, he sits at his drawing board, working on a page of his latest cartooning project, listening to Cubs baseball on the radio. He’s the type of person you picture when you think “Creative Director.” He wears cool sneakers, has excellent taste in off-the-wall movies, and knows design tricks that are only acquired from years in the marketing industry.
His 25+ years of creative experience is a badge of pride, but Riffner admits that reaching this point in his career wasn’t smooth sailing. Actually, he didn’t have a plan for his career. He wanted to draw comics in New York City, or join the Navy, or do anything other than continue going to school. Nevertheless, he attended Dana College in Blair, NE, where he majored in Graphic Design & Art with a minor in English.
“I ended up going to college because my father threatened to make me work with him in his warehouse, which was grueling work,” he says. “THAT’s what made me go to college.”
Despite his initial hesitancy to attend college, Riffner was able to start working while in school and landed his first web design job in 1996, which would end up dictating his career.
“I believed in the potential of the web, and I met a few other designers who did, too. But it was an uphill climb. Even though I had the same training and skill set, I was looked down upon or viewed as ‘less than’ in the eyes of a lot of established designers in the community. Worse yet was the Dot Com Bust in 2000 and having to look for work in an industry where a lot of the people running their agencies didn’t use email.”
After working in web design for a while, Riffner decided to take a break. That’s when he decided to head back to school in his 30s—though, this time, he would earn his master’s degree in cartooning from The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT.
“Cartooning is what led me to graphic design in the first place. I was one of the cartoonists for my high school paper, and they needed help one day on a layout. The rest was history,” he explains. “Cartooning is just graphic design and poetry. I love that.”
Riffner is a published cartoonist and graphic novelist. Working on comics is both a creative passion and side gig for him. When he’s not busy with his latest project, he’s usually walking outside, reading books, watching movies, or playing video games. Even though he stopped playing video games in the late ‘90s due to their distracting tendencies, the distraction is something he now welcomes.
“An added benefit is that modern video games are astounding in terms of storytelling and graphics,” he explains. “I played Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild every day and never got bored. It made me think about interactive stories in a deeper sense than I thought possible.”
Thankfully, Riffner has the opportunity to bring storytelling—and even cartooning—into his creative role at Hurrdat Marketing, where he works with nearly every department on a daily basis to complete projects for the agency’s clients and internal brands.
Because of his experience in the industry and leadership role within the agency, Riffner is often a mentor for his team and coworkers. He says he strives to be more of the “Guide on the Side” vs. the “Sage on the Stage”—something he took away from his brief time as a professor.
“I’m there to tap the brakes to make sure a project doesn’t go off a cliff, but I also know when to let others drive the car. That’s how the next generation gets themselves into position to take over from us,” he adds.
Riffner even uses feedback from clients as learning opportunities for the team. “I let them know that it isn’t their fault, that we just need to make some adjustments, and here’s how we do that. A lot of that is because some clients can’t articulate why they want something the way they want it. But that allows us experiment with a bunch of ideas and narrow it down together through a collaborative process.”
A lot of Riffner’s approach to leadership stems from his own mentors and the lessons he’s learned throughout his career. In his early days, he was a sponge who tried to sit with everyone who had more experience just so that he could learn all that he could. He also took on work that others didn’t want to do just so he could get the experience. Beyond that, Riffner says he became a methodical problem-solver simply through the occasional web design mess-up.
“I’ve accidentally taken down giant e-commerce sites and had to narrow down the issue with the clock ticking. You can’t panic. You have to take a breath and work through the problem,” he explains. “The same thing has happened with younger designers I’ve worked with. They’d take down a site and panic, and I’d step in and tell them it’s fine. We can always fix it.”
Looking ahead to the future, Riffner says he’s keeping his eye on some movement in the industry, particularly with web design and graphic design trends. With augmented reality, virtual reality, and the switch from page builder websites all potentially on the horizon for digital marketing, he wants to be prepared for the next phase.
“When you work at an agency, things move pretty fast,” he says. “Hurrdat moves faster.”