Ralph McCoy is the founder of PHF Design, an air traffic controller and an Army and Air Force veteran.
How did you get into design, photography, and videography?
Design came first. My day job is aviation. I was overseas and someone asked me to design a logo for his business as an entrepreneur. He wanted to open up a pool hall. So I started buying books on design and logos and I watched videos and I ended up designing something — I still have the logo design to this day — I look back and I’m like, “Man, what was I thinking?” Overall, it was a good experience for me to start off designing logos. And from then until now, I’ve improved one hundred percent.
Why did that friend ask you to take the job if you hadn’t had any design experience — and how did you learn?
During my downtime when I was deployed, most people work out, most people go to the gym. I was designing. I remember I had bought a Mac computer and it was more intuitive for designing so I just fell into this whole Mac realm. I bought a stylus, I bought a little tablet to start designing — I would do sketches all the time. He saw me one day just doing some stuff and said, “Hey, you need to design me a logo.” I didn’t get paid for it. But it helped me create some skills and learn the craft. I’m a self-taught designer. [I learned by] doing a lot of reading. I got a Barnes & Noble account that I use often, and of course YouTube. Playing with apps like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. If you know the apps, it’s pretty easy. Once you have a concept and put it into that, you just start creating stuff.
Where did the photography aspect come in?
I was at work in the United Arab Emirates at the time. I was in the control tower and I was reading a newspaper. In the paper it said, “Become a pitch photographer.” So, not knowing what that was, I googled it. And apparently the FIFA World Cup was coming to Abu Dhabi. So it said, “Answer these questions correctly to win a camera, a lens, and tickets to the FIFA World Cup.” I just submitted my answers and thought nothing of it. Three weeks later someone called to say, “Hey, you won first place. For the pitch.” I was just jumping for joy. It was like, “Oh, I won something finally in my life!” I won a Sony Alpha and a Carl Zeiss lens. I’d never done photography, other than my smartphone. So I got a chance to pick up the camera and start working with it and then I got my tickets to the World Cup. I was actually escorted in, I went into the pitch area and didn’t know what I was doing. I was just taking photos for my personal use. It was a perfect experience to start off my photography career.
What was it like starting PHF Design, and where did the name come from?
I think I established the name in 2016. Everyone would misspell my name, like “Ralf.” Like “No, it’s ‘ph.’” So that’s why it’s PHF. I’ve been established for about two years now officially, but before I decided to go official I was doing it through word of mouth. It was easy for me because I knew what I was doing; I watched other entrepreneurs get their business licenses. Once again, it was more a self-taught process. I had to figure out how to get my business account, how to invoice people, how to send proposals, contracts, all that stuff. Luckily, with technology, there are apps that can help you do that and will teach you how to do that. I advertise myself as a freelancer mostly through social media and word of mouth, and I’m part of the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce and the Fountain Valley Chamber of Commerce. When I first got here in 2017, I partnered with a guy named Brandon Bornes. He started a magazine called My Black Colorado. I found him on Facebook and I was like, “Hey man, I heard you’re creating a magazine. Do you need any help?” And he was like, “Yeah, I need you!” So from there, we created a partnership and started working together.
You’re balancing a job in aviation and a freelance business, and you taught yourself these skills while working another job. How did you manage that?
I can balance it pretty well. I’m fortunate enough to have a flexible schedule. This week I work Monday through Thursday, and then I have Friday, Saturday, Sunday [off]. So I have three days that I can actually use for photography work or design work if I need to.
I’ve been doing aviation for almost 20 years. In my job I get paid to wait. So I’m sort of like a firefighter that way — you go to your job and you sit until something happens. There is downtime where no one does anything. During that time you pick up a book, you open your phone, you read a couple articles, you bring your laptop. Some people can’t do that; they have to be engaged in their day job all the time. I’m afforded the ability to read a book during my downtime, or pull up a website or YouTube if I’m struggling in a certain design area.