Alumnus Juggles Successful Graphic Design and Cake Decorating Careers

man who is wearing a black chef's shirt in front of a wooden wall

Alumnus Mark Lie, BFA Graphic Design 1992 with a minor in Sculpture, is the Senior Art Director – 3D Specialist for FCB Chicago, an advertising agency, and owns and operates Piece of Cake – Custom Cakes by Mark. He even has appeared on Food Network TV shows, where he has demonstrated his talent as a cake decorator. You can find out more about Lie and his two careers in the following Q&A. 

What are your responsibilities as Senior Art Director for FCB Chicago? 
My main responsibility for FCB is to concept and create 3-Dimensional software renderings of retail point-of-purchase displays for our alcohol beverage client and its brand subsidiaries. My other responsibility is to help ideate and provide support for new client sales pitches.

What do you most enjoy about your current position? 
What I enjoy most about my current position is the open atmosphere and creative collaboration with other team members in creating innovative design solutions on a daily basis.

What are some projects you have been involved in that you are most proud of?
One project that I worked on and am most proud of is the Bud Light Retail business pitch. Winning this pitch was really a team effort, including many late nights, long weekends, and plenty of pizza to go around. In working together with the creative and account teams, we combine our forces so we can present our best creative work and hopefully win the business. In working these past three years at an advertising agency, I have spent more overtime hours here than I have spent anywhere else in my 20-plus-year corporate design career.

bud light boxes in the shape of the super bowl stadium
Alumnus Mark Lie created the graphic design work for this Bud Light Super Bowl LII store display. 

Tell us about the other design-related positions you have held prior to joining FCB Chicago. 
The other design-related positions I have held were Production Artist, Corporate Communications Designer, Creative Services Manager/VP, Art Director, and Senior Art Director. These titles ranged from the food packaging industry, a direct marketing corporation, and a financial service to my current position in advertising.

How did you get your start in the graphic design industry?
I got my start in the graphic design industry during my senior year of high school. A few months before I was to graduate, I had to figure out what I wanted to major in college. I initially thought of advertising, industrial design, or architecture. But with those, I felt I was getting away from the fine-art aspect, and I wanted something that would afford me a steady job and income. My teacher suggested commercial or graphic design and that seemed like a nice balance of turning art into business.

picture of all box sets and covers of big hero 6
Alumnus Mark Lie created the graphic design elements for Disney’s “Big Hero 6” Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD packaging.

In addition to being a Senior Art Director, you also own and operate Piece of Cake – Custom Cakes by Mark. How is it that you got into the cake decorating business?
I first got into the cake decorating business as a matter of happenstance. In 2006, my wife and I were with some friends and the question was asked if we were not doing our day jobs, what would we like to be doing? I mentioned I liked watching Duff and Ace of Cakes and other cake TV shows and said I would like to try that. The following year for my birthday, my wife got me a cake decorating class at the local hobby store. At first, I thought, “Really?” I was there with a room full of women and grandmothers. I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” But, it was a creative outlet for me, creating temporary sculptures that you can eat versus designing by just pushing a mouse around. I loved it. At least I thought I could make cakes for my kids and not have to pay anyone for one. I only took a few other classes, but mostly learned from watching cake decorating shows on TV and from how-to videos online. I started making cakes for friends and family as I learned the craft and posted pictures of my cakes on social media, which led to more clients and eventually a professional cake decorator contacting me and asking if it was okay if she forwarded my name to the TV show producers of the Food Network!

cake that looks like a plate of turkey with vegetables around it
One of Mark Lie’s cake creations made to look like a turkey dinner.  

The cakes you have created are really elaborate, life-like creations. Where do your inspiration from for these cakes and what is involved in making them?
The ideas and inspiration that I get for making cakes really stems from research and asking the right questions. I can attribute that to my graphic design education. Many of the same rules apply, like talking to the client to find out what they are looking for and how I can help them provide a solution. For instance, I usually try to find out more about the recipient, like favorite color, hobbies, or something they have always wanted. I try to customize it specifically for them to make it unique and memorable. I then research online to see what has already been made on that topic and how I think I can improve upon that design or make something better. I like to challenge myself, and I love making detailed, realistic cake sculptures that do not look like a regular tiered cake. I try not to duplicate any cakes that I have already done before. My timeframe is a minimum two-week process since I do not make cakes full-time, only on nights and weekends. The first week I use for research, gathering reference materials, and ordering supplies. The second week, I sculpt the smaller design elements, structure, bake, freeze, sculpt the cake, crumb coat (a thin layer of buttercream – to seal the cake) final layers of buttercream, base fondant, finishing fondant, add details, and finally paint and airbrush. That is all done Monday through Friday night, with a Saturday delivery. 

The ideas and inspiration that I get for making cakes really stems from research and asking the right questions. I can attribute that to my graphic design education.

Do you have a favorite cake you have worked on? 
A favorite cake that I have worked on would have to be the Twisted Nursery Rhymes I created while on Food Network’s Halloween Wars Season III. The show eliminates a team each week and this was the second challenge after our team was almost eliminated. Five teams of three were composed of a cake decorator, sugar/chocolate artist, and pumpkin sculptor. We came together and our work blended seamlessly. Working with artists that you have never worked with before, you deal with egos, different styles, and different viewpoints. The point of working in a team is to use your creative knowledge to compromise and do what is right for the team so you can come up with the best outcome to the best of your ability. Being under pressure and under a timeframe creates on-the-spot decision-making and adjustments, just as there is in the design/advertising world. You have to be flexible and take those other suggestions and use the best possible option. Our team ended up winning that round, giving us more adrenaline into the next round.

cake that looks like a dissected frog
Another one of Mark Lie’s cakes, which is a dissected frog that he made for a 7-year-old’s birthday.  

What is the most challenging cake you have worked on and why?
One of the most challenging cakes I have worked on would be a cake that was an interpretation of an Anne Geddes photograph. It was a baby wearing a flowered cap sitting in a terracotta pot. I say that this was the most challenging as it was for one of my first “real-paying” clients. I did not know what I was doing at the time because I was not really familiar with cake structure and cake weights. This cake toppled over in my car less than a mile from its delivery location. Luckily, it was not too damaged and I was able to repair most of it on site. 

How long do you typically spend working on a cake and what is the longest you have ever worked on a cake?
Typically, I spend 10- to 20-plus hours, depending on how detailed or challenging the cake is. The longest time I have spent on showpiece or competition cakes can be up to a month in pre-preparation, especially if you are making sugar flowers petal by petal.

Tell us about the appearances you have made on the Food Network. How did that come about and what was it like being on the Food Network?
With my appearances on the Food Network, I would have to credit Lauren Kitchens, who is a professional cake decorator out of Dallas, Texas, and one of my inspirations. She had already been on Food Network shows, and she noticed my social media posts and contacted me. I was shocked and delighted. I had only been doing cakes for about three years, and she forwarded my name and work to the producers at Food Network. For my first show on Food Network’s Cake Challenge, I really was in over my head, no matter how prepared I thought I was. Here I was, a hobby decorator going against competitors who were professional decorators and owned bakeries. Since that first show in 2011, I have been on a total of five different cake shows. To me, I love the competition and ability to create edible art that is larger than life. I thrive under the pressure, and you are decorating cake on TV! 

three people who are all wearing green shirts and white aprons who are standing in front of a large life-like Dr. Seuss cake
Alumnus Mark Lie (left) with the Dr. Seuss cake he created on a Food Network TV show.

How has your graphic design background contributed to the success of your cake design business?
I use the fundamental graphic design process in how I work with cake clients. It all starts with a design brief and all the design specifications. Like in design, you find out necessary print measurements, and with cakes, you need to know how many people the cake should serve and how much you will have to make. The background translates well because for both you are working backwards to a timeframe and deadline. You have to plan accordingly, have a backup plan, and adjust for mistakes or corrections because it will happen.

How has your MSU education contributed to the success of your career, both as a graphic designer and as a cake decorator?
My MSU education and experience has contributed immensely to my success, confidence, and how I turned out as a human in general, not just in business, but in design and as a decorator. I would have to credit my father for me going to MSU because I wanted to go to art portfolio-focused school, whereas he wanted me to go to a liberal arts school so I could get a well-rounded education. At MSU, I had the opportunity to take different base-level courses in various fields and it opened my eyes to the different cultures, businesses, sciences, and social studies that I would have not had if I went to a portfolio school. MSU gave me the opportunity to meet and befriend people from different cultures and nationalities, and learn all aspects of various art techniques from fine art to sculpture, creative presenting, printmaking, lithography, photography, and art history. Also, contributing and volunteering for organizations by doing pro-bono design has transformed into volunteering with Icing Smiles, a nonprofit organization that provides custom celebration cakes and other treats to families impacted by the critical illness of a child.

MSU gave me the opportunity to meet and befriend people from different cultures and nationalities, and learn all aspects of various art techniques from fine art to sculpture, creative presenting, printmaking, lithography, photography, and art history.

What are some of your favorite memories of your days as an MSU student?
One of my favorite memories of being an MSU student was the opportunity to make new friends from many different backgrounds. I moved into the international dorm north of campus my sophomore year and it definitely opened my eyes since I came from a very conservative part of Michigan. MSU had great clubs and organizations that you could get involved with. The MSU Ski Club bus trips to Colorado were a great highlight. I miss my old haunts like Pinball Pete’s, El Azteco, and The Peanut Barrel. I had many great experiences with friends during my time at MSU that I will always remember.

What do you see as the importance of a liberal arts education?
To me, the importance of a liberal arts education is the ability to look at different areas of study that you may have an interest in if you are undecided about your major or concentration of study. You may find that the field you were hoping to get into is something that you really never considered. I learned about different religions, cultures, sciences, and economics that help me today within my graphic design and cake projects.

What advice do you have for current college students? 
The best advice I can give for current college students after being out of college 25-plus years is do what makes you happy. It is just four years of your life. Make the most of it. Find a concentration of study or interest that you love, and whatever you end up doing, it will not be a job. Not everybody’s career path will be the same and you cannot judge your life on that. Focus on yourself, be honest, responsible, strive to do your best work, and be nice to people. Any industry that you want to get into is all about networking. You will find past friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in industries that you may have interest in later in life. Of course, there will be hard, late nights studying for exams and difficult assignments, but that is nothing compared to what life will throw at you. Let MSU prepare you for it so you can face it head on when your real life starts. I wish you all the best and do the best you can, because it is only you who is responsible for your success.

Written by Annie Dubois