Live from New York, it’s Riley Donahue
Riley Andrew Donahue ’14 creates motion and graphic design for “Saturday Night Live” and projects including a short film featuring Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry
When he was in fourth grade, Riley Andrew Donahue ’14 spent so much time drawing in class that his teacher told him to pay attention, or he would end up working a dead-end job. But the shy young artist proved her wrong. He leaned into his art with focus, determination and a willingness to kick down metaphorical doors.
Today Donahue is a motion and graphic designer for NBCUniversal Media at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. He produces digital content for “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” He also acts as the digital design lead for “Saturday Night Live” and intern manager on the “Late Night” digital marketing team.
When Donahue was a Clark College art student, “SNL” was his favorite TV show, and he hoped to someday sit in the audience. Although he never achieved that goal, he said, “I’ve worked over 100 shows now, so I’d say that’s much better.”
At “SNL” Donahue focuses on design for all content on digital and social media.
“My job is to maintain the show’s branding across all the digital platforms, whether it be Instagram, TikTok, all the streaming apps, YouTube, basically everywhere the show goes that isn’t on air,” he said. “I primarily focus on motion graphics, but the job covers a lot of ground, so I am also editing videos, shooting video, making logos, editing photos, creating brand style guides.”
Doodling pay off
Donahue started drawing at such a young age that he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a pencil.
His mother, Traci Donahue, an artist and art teacher, said, “Art was a big part of his life. We were always doing art here. We put chalkboard paint on his bedroom walls so he could draw on his walls.”
Riley Donahue filled sketchbooks with his drawings—from insects and snakes he found in the backyard to skeletons, after he watched Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.” One morning in church, he drew the priest as a skeleton. Some parishioners were not amused.
“It definitely put my parents on the receiving end of some nasty looks,” Donahue said, “but they let me do it.”
Art as a career path
He spent his formative years at Sixth Street Gallery in downtown Vancouver where his mother was president of the artists’ cooperative. At the gallery he created art, talked with artists, attended First Friday art shows and eventually showed his own art.
“Growing up in that setting really solidified art as a way of life early on,” he said. “I’m not on the SNL set very often, but when I am and see celebrities, it reminds me of the First Friday show openings at the gallery. When I was a kid, the artists that were part of the show were celebrities to me, so being around people that the whole world recognizes brings me back to those days.”
Donahue enrolled at Clark College as a Running Start student and earned his associate degree and high school diploma concurrently.
Donahue found a mentor in Grant Hottle, professor of painting and foundations and chair of Clark’s art department. Donahue’s first art class was color theory taught by Hottle. He was so inspired that he took all Hottle’s classes.
“I came to Clark feeling fairly comfortable with drawing, but he helped me see art as a potential career and lifestyle versus an interest,” Donahue said. “I was on the fence about pursuing a career in art because I knew it was competitive. But he told me, ‘If you work hard, you’ll find your way.’”
Donahue credits the work ethic he learned at Clark for molding him into who he is today.
“If you slack off on an assignment, it’s going to show up. Slacking off isn’t part of my vocabulary, because of my time at Clark,” he said.
Hottle said Donahue’s success is “astounding, but not surprising. Riley’s talent was apparent, but what stands out is his incredible work ethic. He made an assignment his personal enterprise. He had big ideas and was never afraid to work hard to achieve them.”
Hottle recently showed his students Donahue’s animation work.
“I told them, ‘Here’s an example of a successful animator who started at Clark, moved to New York and now has what you’d consider a dream job.’ I saw their eyes get big,” Hottle said.
Word gets around
After Donahue graduated from Clark, he transferred to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., which Hottle said is “one of the best design programs in the world.”
During the summer when he was studying at Pratt, Donahue worked as a design intern at The Columbian, his hometown newspaper.
“Riley did fantastic work for us,” said News Editor Merridee Hanson, who supervised him at the Vancouver, Wash., newspaper. “Hand- drawn illustrations were his forte at the time. Everything he did was so different from what we had done before.”
Along the way, Donahue’s art garnered accolades. At 17, he won an honorable mention from the National Young Arts Foundation. While at Clark, Donahue’s piece in “The Phoenix” literary magazine won “best digital illustration” from the American Scholastic Press Association. Graphic Design USA featured Donahue as a “student to watch” while he was at Pratt.
Kicking doors open
Donahue believes that being curious and seeking opportunities has opened doors for him.
“I’ve never had anything bad come from asking. The worse they can say is no.”
During his senior year at Pratt, Donahue secured a coveted internship at NBC. As a new intern, he heard that “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” wanted someone to take jokes from a thank-you note segment and create an illustrated version.
“They wanted a comic-looking thing they could post on social (media). I said I would take a shot at it. It’s the first thing I did and that got me in the door. Getting the internship was the door opening just a sliver, but kicking the door open was that Fallon piece,” Donahue said.
See samples of Riley Donahue’s work including an intense animated music video for the heavy metal band Crossbone Skully, helmed by Tommy Henriksen, the lead guitarist for Alice Cooper.
That first art he created for Fallon has led to many more opportunities for Donahue to create works seen by millions around the world.
After Donahue completed his internship and earned his bachelor’s degree from Pratt, NBCUniversal hired him full time for his dream job. Part of his job is managing interns.
“That’s been a full circle experience,” he said. “I tell interns, ‘If the door opens for you just a little bit, kick the door off the frame.’”
As a side gig, Donahue does freelance design and animation. Recently Donahue directed and animated a short film featuring musician Alice Cooper, Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, actor Johnny Depp and others, set to music by Tommy Henriksen, the lead guitarist for Alice Cooper. It was a big job and an even bigger opportunity. He was up for the challenge.
“The door opened a sliver, and I kicked the door down.”
Written by Susan Parrish, who has been writing about education for a decade. While reporting stories, she has hiked on Mount St. Helens with students and scientists, observed live brain surgery and snowshoed alongside Special Olympics athletes. Visit her online to read more of her work.