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Adrian Chesterman came to my attention several years ago through the creative resource agency, Carole Newman & Associates, when my firm was looking for someone who could retouch tires for one of our clients. It was only after we had been working with him for some time that we became aware of the tremendous scope and the creative inspiration available from this master illustrator.

I decided it was about time to share some of his work here after I had posted one of his projects on my Facebook business page, the princess and the unicorn (shown just below), and it was deluged with “likes” and comments from many of my FB friends, especially the ladies.

If you enjoy what you see here, you can check out more of Adrian’s work at, and please be sure to contact Carole Newman to work with Adrian or to explore other creative options.

Princess and the Unicorn

Adrian Chesterman studied fine art at Norwich School of Art and illustration at the Royal College of Art in Kensington, London. Since leaving the R.C.A. Chesterman has worked in nearly every sphere of the art world. “Someone who wants to spend his life working solely as an artist has to be a Jack-of-all-arts and spread himself very thinly across to world looking for commissions.”

The Wizard

Chesterman started with an illustration technique of his own invention which employs airbrush and painted gouache and acrylic inks on artboard or canvas. This technique won commissions from around the world not to mention a few prizes including the Gold mecanorma award in Paris in 1989, but around the turn of the millennia Chesterman switched to digital illustration. “I saw the pixelated light and there was no turning back. Of course I still paint and draw as much as possible as it is the only way to keep the artist’s eye sharp. Computers make mistakes, only the artist’s eye can really see the visual truth.”

Dinoscene S

As an illustrator he has worked for just about everyone, on just about everything, just about everywhere. From film Publicity art for Stephen Spielberg in Los Angeles, to stage-set art for Andrew Lloyd-Weber in Frankfurt. Advertising commissions for Coca Cola in Atlanta, Singapore Airlines in Singapore, Busch Beer in St. Louis, Pioneer in Paris, Seaworld in Orlando, Ralph magazine in Sidney and Southern Sun hotels in Capetown. “Not forgetting Rolls-Royce in Derby, and the Mars corporation in Slough… in case this was starting to sound too glamorous.”


Chesterman has illustrated book covers for Jackie Collins, Jack Higgins and Dick Francis, a science-fiction series for Penguin, many books on dinosaurs and a children’s encyclopedia amongst innumerable others. He has illustrated many music album covers including ‘Bomber’ for Motorhead and ‘The Road to Hell’ for Chris Rea, produced an animated music video for the Eurythmics and even built and painted a skull and crossbones shaped guitar for Adam and the Ants. “Although they never paid… me so after two years I took it back after one of their concerts and I still have it hanging on my wall.”


Portraiture is another of Chesterman’s artistic directions. Previous Commissioners include Prince Adan Czartoryski-Bourbon, the cousin of King Juan Carlos of Spain’, Mikael Baryshnikov the ballet dancer, A certain captain in the Welsh Guards, a few Hollywood actors, innumerable children, cats, dogs and a horse called George. “Oh… and a nude portrait of ‘Wolf’, the T.V. ‘gladiator’, that somehow ended up on page 5 of a national daily newspaper, but the less said about that, the better.”

Mermaid Island

Murals have made an enjoyable variant in Chesterman’s artistic odyssey. It is usually a huge operation involving at least two assistants and a lot of equipment. “We’ve created murals from Twickenham stadium to mansions in Marbella, from boardrooms in the city to swimming pools in Los Angeles, although I have to remember not to step back to admire my work when I’m up the ladder”.


Chesterman had his first exhibition of paintings at Liberty’s in London’s Regent Street while still at college, progressing to exhibitions in the Pompidou centre in Paris and Gallerie Schémes in Lille, France, the International Contemporary Art Fair, Spinks, Kensington Town Hall and the BBC centre also in London, the Batey gallery in Singapore, the Madison gallery in Los Angeles and numerous exhibitions in Spain. He has appeared on The Riverside Show, 01 for London, Artrage and other Arts programs in the U.K. as well as many T.V. appearances in Spain. “The occasional exhibition is great fun… but they usually turn out to be little more than a good party with a few pictures on the wall.”

Pirates S

Teaching is yet another artistic discipline to which Chesterman has turned his hand. He has lectured at Chelsea, Ealing and Wolverhampton Schools of Art in the UK and Marbella College of Design in Spain, but prefers the solitude of creativity. “Teaching is basically long periods of boredom waiting for the students to make it back from lunch… broken by short flurries of tuition so intensive they leave you completely exhausted.”

Dragon and Fairy

Chesterman lives in Andalucia in Spain and has also been designing gardens and parks for the rich and the famous. “I love designing gardens… When I’m painting a picture or a mural I am usually copying nature, but when I’m designing a garden I’m working with nature as my paint box.”

London 2050

Chesterman considers that his creative zenith has just been achieved with the recent completion of a highly controversial book called God And Bad. This is a tough, satirical and humerous look at what ‘God’ would have to say to the human race today. It is written and fully illustrated by Chesterman to appeal to the young adult market and is hopefully going to offend just about everyone on the planet. “Take a look at… but don’t say you haven’t been warned!”

Nintendo game S

Arctic Night S

Waterhole S

If you enjoy this post, you may also want to check out these others:

34 Excellent Print Ads for Your Creative Inspiration
40 VERY Cool Examples of Concept Art
So You Think Your Brochure is Unique?
30 Creative Examples of Poster Designs Using Typography

This article is presented here for your education, inspiration and enjoyment by:

Will Sherwood
CEO/Chief Creative Officer
The Sherwood Group: Graphic Design & Website Design
Santa Clarita and Los Angeles, California, USA

Professional links:
Graphic Design/Web Design | Color Printing | YouTube Introduction

Social media links:
LinkedIn | Facebook Design | Facebook Printing | Twitter

Comments: Please note that we reject all posts that are clearly leaving a comment simply to acquire a back link. Only comment if you have something of value to share with our other readers.

Success Secrets from Rick Valicenti:

  • If you do good work, challenging work, and work that is attentive to production values and craft, odds are you will continue to attract those kinds of projects.
  • You’re only given opportunities when you’re ready for them. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the learning.
  • Should you choose to hurry your life along or do it for the money, you’ll end up being pulled back, pulled aside or pulled into a place you don’t want to be.

Rick’s thoughts on patience when building and sustaining a career:

A lot of young people enter the profession with a great deal of promise, and exit shortly thereafter; wishing that the profession had fulfilled their promises. So, building and sustaining a career is an interesting question. I would say of the different qualities required, one of the most important is actually a simple one — as simple as patience. In other words, your portfolio won’t be complete after one year. It requires some patience. It also requires time, which is a bit different. Time allows you to discover who you are, how you see the world, and how you respond to opportunities. These qualities, combined with good people skills and interesting collaboration with other designers, clients and creative aptitudes that transcend the norm, can allow you to create a great life.

On getting good clients:

There are a couple of mantras that work and have proven themselves. One of them I learned from Michael Patrick Cronin, a designer in San Francisco. He said, “You get what you do.” If you do good work, challenging work, work that is attentive to production values and craft, work that is beautiful, poetic, sensual or compelling, odds are you will attract those kinds of projects when your work gets out to the world. People will ask, “Who did that?” The answer will lead back to you and other opportunities like those will follow. If the work you do is hurried, compromised, poorly crafted crap complete with messages of no value, odds are that’s what you get in return. And one day you will wake up and say, “How come am I getting such crap work?” It’s because that’s what you’re putting out there.

Rick’s thoughts on having faith in your creativity:

I think if you are patient and know that over time your work will be good, it will be. First, you must be true to yourself, true to the work you want to do, and to the level of care you want to devote to your work. Once you commit to that, I think that’s the biggest surrender you’ll have to make. It’s a big leap of faith because you are putting faith in your own ability. You’re putting faith in your own sensibilities and abilities to work with others to get the work done on time, and at the same time, make something of real value. It won’t be long before you’ll be rewarded with similar opportunities.

From what I have seen and experienced, every time I’ve chosen to hurry my life along or do it for the money, I’ve ended up being pulled back, pulled aside or pulled into a place I didn’t want to be. You can be proactive, but I think you have to be proactive in just making that leap of faith; that commitment to yourself; that commitment to the craft and to the continuum that we’re all in as we continue the trajectory and the tradition of the graphic design profession and art.

Thoughts on getting oriented to your location:

Before I became a graphic designer, I was a grad student of photography. I finished my graduate work at the University of Iowa. While there I took a letterpress class at the Writer’s Workshop. And, when I moved to Chicago, the photographic community seemed to be engaged in image making that I wasn’t either qualified for or interested in pursuing. It was very commercial work— hot dogs, corn flakes and beer. I’m sure there was better work going on in Chicago, but I really didn’t see it at first glance.

So, I decided maybe I needed to be on the other side. My other fascination was discovered in this letterpress class, and in some of my undergraduate work in design as a painting and drawing major. I went to various places only to discover I couldn’t get hired because I didn’t have a solid commercial background in design. However, I learned enough to generate a portfolio of magic marker renderings and key-line and paste up examples, which was enough to secure jobs that were production oriented and that fed me during my first two years in Chicago. And, with some good fortune, luck and a personal curiosity, I found myself at a design conference in 1978 and, finally, an opportunity to become an assistant to a very reputable designer here in Chicago who was in his late 50s, early 60s. His name was Bruce Beck. I stayed with Bruce for a little over three years, and when Bruce retired, I went out on my own.

Rick’s thoughts on getting started:

One of the first projects on my own was working as a freelancer of sorts. I wasn’t really working for other designers, but primarily as a textbook art director in a team of designers for a major Chicago textbook publisher. And, one thing lead to another. I started to secure lots of textbook work and work from smaller clients who needed identities, menus or what have you. Pretty soon I developed a reputation of being a good designer, easy to work with and reliable. And that’s what I’ve practiced ever since.

Working with Scitex:

The Scitex people actually wanted to start a school that taught people how to use Photoshop. They were looking at two designers in the final round. I remember one was April Greiman and the other was Thirst. As a fairly early adaptor to Photoshop, back in the days when there were no layers and only one undo, they gave us an opportunity to create magical images in a pretty straightforward piece. Now that was a fun project.

On the rewards of work:

Rewards for me come on a lot of levels. Looking back on all the work I’ve been involved with, whether it be individual or collaborative, I can’t say that this or that design has changed the complexion of contemporary society. There are very little examples of that kind of thing because the only one that comes to mind happened so long ago. I did that little ‘ear’ symbol in 1978. Maybe you’ve seen the little insignia at movie theatres or banks. It notifies/declares information access is available for the hearing impaired. Since then, the insignia has gone through all sorts of variations, as does any design over time. The original, however, was featured in I.D. Magazine and has become sort of a standard. That’s one little gem.

On icons and special projects:

Do I have an icon in my portfolio like Milton Glaser? Not yet. But, I do have work of mine in the Chicago community that is public and visible, and I think, it’s standing the test of time nicely, some better than others. We’re currently collaborating with an artist and group of architects on a 9/11 memorial for the victims from Hoboken, New Jersey. The memorial will be an island in the Hudson River. The island will be a kind of quiet destination, with very smart typographic narrative on the bridge. And, when you get there, each of the victims will be identified in a respectful way. This project continues to be a very good use of each of our gifts.

Rick’s thoughts on doing things differently:

Some have said that I should spell my name with an ‘s’ instead of a ‘c’ — Risk. But, I don’t feel that I take a lot of risks. It’s just been the natural way I’ve gone about doing things. And, I don’t know if I would do anything differently. Though, I would be curious to know, what would have happened if I would have landed in New York or London instead of Chicago?

On new business development:

Doing this interview is at the heart of my new business development program. I often tell my story to other people with the hope that they will pass it along. So far it’s worked. This year is the 20th anniversary of Thirst. At the end of 2007, we moved the studio back to the City proper which has brought us new energy and a reduced staff. The four of us in the studio now are planning to take a more aggressive and targeted stance toward business development which should be fun. All of us want to turn our direction to people, places, and things we’ve never explored.

Thoughts on the inspiration of attending workshops and seminars:

Absolutely I attend seminars and workshops. Having been a presenter or attendee at various conferences and workshops on four continents so far, has provided me with the opportunity to meet hundreds of designers, both in and outside of their environments.

Two years ago, I took Milton Glaser’s week-long course at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And, for the two summers prior, I attended the design inquiry at MCAD in Portland, Maine. The first year I enrolled as a participant; the second, I was invited to be a workshop leader. So, yes, I do try to stay fresh. By attending conferences one can become inspired. I also try to do as much creative work outside of the studio as I can; without the influence or permission of the client.

Giving back as a new business development strategy:

For the last 10 years, every five weeks or so I’ve traveled to a different university, college or AIGA chapter. That’s a lot of visitations, and for most, I don’t charge a fee. My reason for going is to share my work. I sit in on critiques and have assigned projects for the students to complete before I arrive. Then we review those projects while I’m there. It’s a good exchange of energy, I see the future generation of designers and get a lot of enjoyment out of doing it; hopefully the students do, too. Interestingly enough, over the years I’ve had the chance to continue to work with some of those people whom I’ve met. And occasionally designers I’ve met want to collaborate with me, or provide an opportunity, and it all works out.

Final thoughts for those just starting out:

I would just like to remind those who are just starting out that this is not an easy profession to stay completely excited with all the time. It is difficult, and it requires us to put ourselves out there. When we share an idea with someone, that idea comes under scrutiny. The scrutiny that it comes under often isn’t an endorsement of our idea. Sometimes it’s a harsh critique of our idea. And those ideas come from a special place within us. It hurts when your little baby of an idea gets kicked around. So the only message I can pass along is to enjoy the process; enjoy the learning. You are only given the opportunity when you are ready to take it. Find ways to conceal compromise. Reach out to other people. And, put some good things out into the world for us to see!

About Rick Valicenti of Thirst: A Design Collaborative

Rick forms relationships with his clients, and he earns their trust. What results is a personal conversation which draws on all of the clients’ experiences and fuses the boundaries between expression and promotion. While each individual piece may at times seem bizarre, slick, cold or inscrutable, the work as a whole has continuity, passion and depth. While Rick’s style has been emulated, the essence of his work is seldom recaptured.

Rick has juried countless design award competitions, including the Presidential Design Awards for the National Endowment for the Arts. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the 2006 Triennial, Design Life Now, and has been featured, critiqued and lauded in design publications worldwide, and has garnered awards from AR100, Graphis, CA, Print, Step, New York Art Directors Club, ACD100, Tokyo Art Directors and I.D. Magazine, among others. He has lectured extensively and exhibited his work around the world. Rick is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), has served as president of the Society of Typographic Arts and was awarded the AIGA Chicago Fellow Award in 2004 for his steadfast commitment to the education of design’s future generations and the AIGA Medal in 2006, for his sustained contribution to design excellence and development of the profession. The Medal is the highest honor in the graphic design profession.

Rick Valicenti designs in collaboration with John Pobojewski, Bud Rodecker, Matt Daly, Tom Vack, Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang, and Janet Echleman.

Interview by Will Sherwood, MA, MSP
CEO/Chief Creative Officer
The Sherwood Group, Graphic Design / Web Design

24402 Vista Ridge Drive
Santa Clarita, CA 91355

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Success Secrets from Milton Glaser:

  • You have to work your ass off. You have to think about [work] as being the primary issue in your life. You have to pursue whatever talent you have and develop it.
  • I think entering award shows can be questionable because very often you don’t understand the vested interest that’s involved in putting them together. And they become a kind of trick of magazines and institutions to support their own efforts.
  • I’ve never had a new business development plan of any kind in place.


What does it take to succeed?

That is one of those cosmic questions that have absolutely no answer. And I’m going to be very evasive about general questions because I don’t believe many of them are answerable. They end up in jargon. They say, yes, hard work, conscientiousness, early talent, good luck, support of the mother, and all the rest of it. But it’s so rarely informative that I have to admit that I truly don’t know. The only thing I can think of was an illness in early childhood that forced me to become introspective. I rheumatic fever when I was a kid, about 8 years old. That kept me bedridden for about a year. It seems to me that there are trials that occur early, that provoke introspection, and that may be responsible for the commitment to your own invention.


Of all your work, what are you most gratified to have done?

I can’t say I am most gratified by anything. I think the issue for old-time professionals is sustaining. Right? What you want to do is keep working until you die. My great hope, and I’ve said this before, comes from an essay that I think is by, T.S. Eliot on the subject, where he says: “ The greatest blessing in life would be to die in the midst of work.”



Would you do anything differently?

Glaser: Oh, Probably thousands of things.

Sherwood: (Laugher) Anything that stands out?

Glaser: Not really. It’s so hard. As the Buddha says: “ Good yields evil. Evil yields good.” So it’s impossible to understand the consequence of any single action. As Groucho Marks said, “If I’d known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” But, outside of that, I don’t know if I could have done anything else.


Views on business development:

Sherwood: Do you have a new business development program in place?

Glaser: I do not. I’ve never had a new business development plan of any kind in place.

Sherwood: Really? How do you get clients? By meeting people and networking?

Glaser: Stumbling into people. Doing work that people noticed.

Sherwood: I recall the coffee table book, “Milton Glaser: Graphic Design.” Do you think that helped you to become recognized? Perhaps award shows?

Glaser: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even know how to answer that. I think people seeing your work helps your business.



On entering award shows:

I think entering award shows can be questionable because very often you don’t understand the vested interest that’s involved in putting them together. And they become a kind of trick of magazines and institutions to support their own efforts. And you have to be wary about it, although it is the way that people get noticed. It indicates that somebody approves of your work, and therefore it must have some credibility. But I haven’t done very much of it in recent years because I became well known enough without it.



Ongoing training:

Sherwood: Do you attend workshops or seminars? I know you give those on occasion. However, have you ever taken those to improve your skills?

Glaser: The only one I can think of recently was about 10 yrs ago. I took a workshop on how to make monoprints. And, I used the information that I learned to produce a series of drawings to illustrate Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” That particular workshop was exceedingly useful to me.



On building and sustaining a career:

Sherwood: If someone new to our industry were to ask you how build and sustain a carrier, what would you say?

Glaser: (Laughter) Well, you have to work your ass off. You have to think about that as being the primary issue in your life. You have to pursue whatever talent you have and develop it. Oh, I don’t know. All of the banal things that people will tell you about your own energy and desire are true, but you simply have to work hard. I don’t think of work as my job. I think of it as my life. The engine of desire is what drives the accomplishment.


Additional thoughts:

Sherwood: Is there any additional advice you might give to someone just starting out?

Glaser: Not outside of working hard. I mean what else is there to do? And it’s probably very good from a business point of view to be nice to people to people that you meet because they may re-enter your life. And is suppose networking for business is an important part to sustaining a livelihood. I’ve never done it, but I suppose from a business point of view it’s an essential part of building your career.



About Milton Glaser:

Milton Glaser (b. 1929) is among the most celebrated graphic designers in the United States. He has had the distinction of one-man-shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Georges Pompidou Center. In 2004 he was selected for the lifetime achievement award of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. As a Fulbright scholar, Glaser studied with the painter, Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, and is an articulate spokesman for the ethical practice of design. He cofounded Push Pin Studios in 1954 and founded Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and continues to produce an astounding amount of work in many fields of design to this day.

Success Secrets from Michael Bierut:

  • Clients are most afraid that you’re going to go off and design something without really listening first.
  • Just keep asking questions: the more you ask, the more you’ll understand what the client is looking for in a designer.
  • Life’s too short to spend your time talking on the phone with people who make your knuckles white during the course of the conversation.

About Michael:

Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of the international consultancy Pentagram. His graphic design work has been collected by major museums around the world. He has served as the president of the AIGA’s New York chapter and of its national organization. He was elected to the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 2003, received the AIGA Medal in 2006, and received the Design Mind award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the world’s biggest design blog,, the author of 79 Short Essays on Design from Princeton Architectural Press, and on the faculty of Yale University’s School of Art and School of Management.

Early Beginnings:

I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to become a graphic designer without ever having met one or really knowing that much about what they did. I liked art, and I particularly liked commercial art.

I’m from Ohio, and in my state the University of Cincinnati had a program in graphic design at their school of design. I got my degree there. And right after I graduated, I moved to New York and got my first job working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli at Vignelli Associates.

I worked there for over ten years and then joined Pentagram. That was my second, and last job.

The business structure at Pentagram:

Pentagram currently has 17 partners and probably just as many retired partners or ex-partners. So there’s an enormous body of work that’s been done on Pentagram’s behalf by people working at Pentagram for the past 35 or so years.

And because of that, our name is fairly well known, and a great deal of business comes from referrals.

But also, because of the way we’re structured, we actually don’t need that much work to stay busy and to run a good business. Our overhead is really low. We don’t have account executives or new business people.

Every one of those 17 partners is a working designer with clients. Each of the partners hires his or her own design team to support the work that they do.

Each team runs its own profit and loss. So each team is financially accountable, and tends to be very careful about how it uses money and how many people it hires to be as efficient as possible. As a result, each of those 17 studios within Pentagram really doesn’t need that much work to keep busy. It’s not like a typical multi-national firm that has a pyramid structure, where they need constant new business activity just to feed a big monster that consists of a lot of non-billing overhead people.

People who’ve influenced Michael’s work:

I could name thousands and thousands and thousands. While I was in school I interned for a guy in Cincinnati named Dan Bittman. He’s a star in Cincinnati, but isn’t as well known anywhere else, but he had a real influence on me. I also worked as an intern in Boston with Chris Pullman at WGBH. That had some influence on me I’d say. And then, I’ve been working in these two jobs, my first job for ten years with Lella and Massimo, and my second job, here at Pentagram, for 18 years and counting.

When I was younger I had dozens of heroes who ranged from the obvious people, like Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, to less obvious ones like Corita Kent and Don Trousdell. From classic designers like Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockman, all the way to great MAD magazine illustrators like Don Martin or Mort Drucker.

You can see I’ve always had very eclectic tastes and have admired lots of different people. And now at Pentagram, I have six partners that I work with side-by-side. They’re just as influential on me today as anyone else.

Favorite Accomplishment:

About 15 years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my partners, Paula Scher, and we were talking about our clients and our work and I remember saying back then, “If I only had a half dozen clients that I really liked, that I really liked talking to and who I really respected for the way that they made their money, and I really felt I was making a contribution through my talents, and that I could give the best of what I do, if I could just have six of those people, that would be all I’d ask for.”

I sort of dreamt about that for a while, and a few years ago, around seven years or so, I just decided life’s to short to spend my time talking on the phone to people who make my knuckles white while I’m having a conversation. I decided that I was not going to do that anymore.

I think I’m a very polite guy. I don’t have it in me to actually fire clients outright. You can probably tell that from the fact that I’ve only had two jobs and I’ve been married to the same woman for 28 years, and she’s the first girl I ever kissed. So I’m not much for breaking up with careers or with women or with clients.

I can’t say I went out and fired all of them. But one by one, I managed to trail off from doing things that I didn’t like. So if I’m proud of anything now, it’s that I have clients that I work with where the client is someone who I first met as long ago as 1981 or 1982, and I’ve done every single thing that they’ve ever commissioned a graphic designer to do between then and now.

When one of them comes back and they have some new project they think might be interesting for me, it’s always really, really nice to feel that I have those kind of relationships over the long term. I end up learning a lot from people like that who are smart and do interesting things and who introduce me to worlds that I wouldn’t have access to having just gone to design school.

Michael’s thoughts on the keys to success:

Most of the stuff we work with in our profession has some kind of text that goes along with it. Graphic design is about putting together words and pictures, and I’ve always sensed, even in design school, that a lot of designers weren’t into the words. To them, the words were just areas of gray space to be manipulated, moved around, and dispensed with.

I’ve always been a very faithful reader, even a compulsive reader, and I’ve found that if I read and try to understand what I’m working on, that the words gave me a surprising edge in the situation. At first I thought it was just other designers who weren’t reading the text, but then it turns out, a lot of times, that the clients haven’t read the text either.

It’s amazing how many people don’t take the time to actually read the stuff that they’re saying, the stuff that is so important and has to be designed and mass-produced and distributed to the public.

And a lot of times, if you engage with the content, you find out ways to design more precisely for the assignment. You find out ways to improve it. And sometimes you can make the suggestion to throw it out all together and replace it with something better.

The designers that I’ve always liked, the ones that I’ve always hired, the ones that I’ve liked working with, the ones that I respect, always seem to be ones that are very attuned to the content of what they’re working with, and connected to whom the audience is for that content.

I think there are plenty of designers out there who are good at resolving a formal composition. I’m not even sure I’m really that good at that to tell you the truth. But I’ve found that if you sort out the substance of the message, you end up getting a result that’s not just more effective, but actually might have more resonance with the people it’s intended to reach.

On doing things differently:

I have three kids, and if any of them proposed to me that they want to go directly after an MFA in design, I probably would try to stop them from doing it, to tell you the truth.

Instead, I would recommend that they get some general knowledge first. For example, right now my daughter’s about to graduate from a four-year liberal arts college, and she’s spent four years reading books and learning about everything. When I was her age, I was spending hours and hours and hours doing the kind of things one did in design school: hand lettering type, cutting things up with Xacto knives, hand painting color swatches, and cutting them out and combining them, things that people don’t do at all today in the computer world.

I spent literally months on end doing that sort of stuff and my daughter meanwhile has been reading the great books and communing with really intelligent professors and engaging in stimulating discussions with fellow students.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been imagining that a time will come when I’ll be able to go back and do all that. And then you start to realize that point may never come. That would be my greatest regret I’d say.

The toughest thing Michael’s ever had to do:

The hardest thing to do is to own up to making a mistake. A few times in my life I’ve made big mistakes that, in some cases, have ended up costing me a lot of money. If I’ve gotten inspiration from where in these situations, I think it would be from the story of a structural engineer named William LeMessurier. He was the engineer for the Citicorp Tower in Manhattan. After it was finished and occupied, he realized that he had made a miscalculation that meant the building might topple over in a high wind. This is a career-ending mistake. But instead of covering his butt or calling in an army of lawyers to protect him, he simply went to the head of Citi and said he had made this mistake and he wanted to fix it. They were so disarmed by his forthrightness that they actually worked with him to fix the problem and he came out with his reputation intact. Being honest like that requires real bravery, but LeMessurier’s story proves that it’s worth it

Michael’s tips for getting new business:

I am really good at getting new business. And there are simple tricks for doing it. But sometimes I’m reluctant to tell many people these tricks because I feel like I’m able to go in and get a lot of work just because no one else seems to know them.

One is, if you spend a lot of time asking questions and are sincerely interested in the client and his or her business, a lot of times they’ll think that you’re really smart and you really “get them.” You may not be smart or get them at all, but because you’re open to the idea of learning about them, they’ll give you more credit than you perhaps deserve.

What to avoid in a new business pitch:

Most designers, when they’re going in to pitch a new client, have prepared very, very carefully. They’ve selected the portfolio they want to show, they get all their talking points worked out, and they’ve perhaps even researched the client in advance and actually are going to demonstrate their acumen by telling the client what kind of conclusions they’ve drawn about their business already.

All those things are worth doing, but a lot of times the result is they’re so eager to start rolling, that if they’ve got sixty minutes for the presentation, then they have sixty minutes worth of solid material to fill that, and then some.

I’ll go into meetings and I’ll put off the moment where I have to present my work as long as I possibly can. I’ll just keep asking questions and questions and questions and questions and of course, the more questions, the more they’re telling you what they’re looking for in a designer.

Thoughts on how to present your work to new prospects:

The more you talk with them, the more they tell you what they want to know about you. So, after you’ve asked a lot of questions, when you start showing them your work, you know what to focus on, things that you know now are relevant to their situation and that are answering questions that they have, that are in the spheres of interest to them.

I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t present this way, but every once in a while I’ll get a client who will tell me what the other presentations were like. And it’s funny to hear sometimes.

Dealing with prospect insecurities:

Clients just want to be sure they don’t make the wrong decision. And if they don’t have that much experience working with designers, they’ll go into a presentation ill at ease and feeling insecure. It’s just the way it is. For them it’s new and uncomfortable. It’s different from other situations in their life because they usually feel very capable and in command.

But when meeting with designers, they might not think they have any taste or know anything about design or something like that, right? They have a kind of fear and insecurity.

Most designers, when they’re pitching, when they’re selling themselves, think the way to allay the client’s insecurity is by demonstrating absolute confidence. They try to let the prospect know that they shouldn’t worry: “I really know what I’m doing. I’m a real expert. Look at all this stuff I’ve done. I really know your business. I spent time researching it. I’m on top of everything. You have nothing to fear. I’m really competent. You have no reason to worry.”

The prospects greatest fear:

And the problem is they miss the one over-arching fear that clients tend to have, that you’re not going to listen to them. That’s what they’re really afraid of. They’re afraid that you’re going to go off and design something, and not really listen to whatever it is they need. And, if you’ve managed to fill a sixty-minute presentation with sixty minutes worth of bragging about your skills, you’ve basically confirmed exactly what it is they’re most afraid of.

They’re not afraid that you’re a bad designer. They’re afraid you’re a good designer who is going to go off and do something that has nothing at all to do with what their problem is.

Thoughts on the importance of curiosity:

If you read a lot and you’re genuinely curious about the world, you’ll go far in this profession, because there simply aren’t that many people who are able to combine graphic design talent with genuine curiosity about the world.

The great thing about our profession is the nature of the designer/client relationship. You’re always put together with someone who is coming in with a new perspective. And I think designers complain about that sometimes. They say, “My biggest challenge is educating the client.” I never, ever talk about educating the client. I don’t believe in it.

Avoiding bad design:

In fact, when I see bad design, it’s not because the client hasn’t been educated. It’s because the designer hasn’t been educated by the client. I don’t mean taking orders from a hack client. I mean genuinely becoming sympathetic and interested with what the client is trying to communicate, what makes them interesting and special.

Success Secrets from Hillman Curtis:

  • There’s a lot to gain by approaching this field as craft that can be developed.
  • Do things you love to do. The Artist Series started out as a purely personal project and became a serious part of our business.
  • When you have the attitude of looking at the client as a collaborator and not as a hurdle, you’ll often find that every client is a good client.

Early beginnings:

Both my parents were high school teachers, my mother an art teacher and my step dad, history. My step dad also collected books and as a kid I was drawn to these huge poster books in his collection…mostly dealing with world war two propaganda. I would spend hours looking through the images. Big bold posters with strong imagery and often little or no text. I didn’t know it at the time but I was looking at graphic design. Later in my twenties, I was a Rock and Roll musician in San Francisco. I was on a couple of different labels, MCA was the last one, and my story is not uncommon; built up by A and R people, managers and agents and then unceremoniously dropped. I was 30 years old when MCA pulled the plug… I’d just gotten married, and after chasing the music thing for 10 years, working the odd jobs that go along with that – waiter, bartender, house painter, all that stuff – I decided that I was done. It was time to get a career of some sort.

The problem was I didn’t have a clue as to what that career would be. But during the time that I was in bands I was also the guy who made the posters and the flyers. I started with rub-on letters and so on and some of them were actually pretty good. I definitely drew on the bold and simple imagery of the propaganda posters I’d seen ten years earlier in my step-dads books. Other bands started asking me to design their posters and fliers and so when I got dropped I took what little money I had made in music and enrolled in a Photoshop class at a night school.

Because I was older than everyone there, even the teachers, I was desperate. When I started, I couldn’t move a mouse, but I picked it up really quickly. I got some internships and worked my way up. And after a year or two got hired as a contractor at Macromedia and eventually became the Art Director at there.

Hillman’s thoughts on going into business:

When I was at Macromedia, I learned a lot. It was really my first real job. And it was exciting. After six or seven months, I met Neville Brody, who came in to redesign the brand and identity of the company. Neville had this confidence and a sense of purpose. You immediately sensed that design was serious and that your work, the choices you made, had to be justified. He showed me that design was not to be taken lightly, and that if your were going to do you needed to do it without compromise.

What I experienced working briefly with Neville made me think about next steps. I’d been at Macromedia three years at this point…and I felt that I’d done what I could do there.

At the same time, my wife and I decided we wanted to live in a world city. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but small, slow with a provincial mind set. So we moved from san Francisco to New York city. I stayed at Macromedia, working long distance for a few months, but that clearly wasn’t going to work so I decided I’d give my own business a go. I sold what little stock I had in Macromedia and used it to fund the start of my company.

First clients:

In 1998, every one was interested in flash, and my business grew by word of mouth. Having come from Macromedia, and having been there when they acquired Flash, I knew a lot about the then new software. I had also designed and implemented the first Flash website for Macromedia, and I had a few other, high-profile Macromedia jobs under my belt that were Flash-based. It was a small portfolio, but it made it easier to get projects .

When I got to New York, I rented a desk at a design company called RazorFish. This turned out to be extremely beneficial to me both as a designer and as a person new to new york. The people at Razorfish welcomed me into their community and I remain grateful for that to this day.

It became very clear, very quickly that New York City was a big and intense place, but it had this incredibly tightknit and very supportive design community. As soon as I entered the community, I started to make contacts and get referrals and advice.

The first job I got was making small web ads for Intel through an ad agency called DSW out of Salt Lake City. I did those ads for a couple hundred bucks a pop.

This was around 1999-2000 and the dot com boom was just getting fired up. Pretty soon the projects got better and the rates got higher.

I’d worked hard to put myself in a good position and was able to take advantage of some of the opportunities. The dot com boom allowed me an opportunity to move from small flash ads to larger site design. And that’s where it continues today. I rarely do Flash anymore, just for prototyping and for components on larger website designs.

Business development today:

I’m in a fortunate position in that I’ve done some large jobs and they’ve turned out well. That has led to new design opportunities. My film work is growing quite well too. It’s followed a similar course starting small – with short personal films – and growing into commercials, and directing.

Influential figures in design:

I’ve been influenced by everyone who’s profiled in The Artist Series, a series of short films I did on designers. They were chosen specifically because of that.

I fund the series myself, and it’s a very personal work. One of the rules I made was that I would only interview people who had a direct influence on me as a designer, or somehow made it easier for me to become a designer.

I haven’t had time to interview a lot of the people whom I’d like to include in the series, though. One would be Neville Brody. Another would be Kyle Cooper. Another would be, if he were alive, Tibor Kalman.

Marketing to diverse audiences:

Quite often, people look to us or to me specifically for web design, or they come to the site simply for the films, and they have no idea we do both. But we just launched a redesign of our site…Hopefully it will be easier for people to understand that we do design and film (and occasionally write a book).

On my site, in the section on film, you can watch all of The Artist Series videos as well as short films and commercials. AIGA is also a good place to go to see The Artist Series, but it’s not the most current.

Turning personal work into serious business:

The Artist Series started with design, and now it’s expanded. I’ve produced shots on a film maker — Mark Romanek — and the one on the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. I am always looking to expand.

The Artist Series has led to commercial work as well. We probably did 10 or 12 web commercials for Adobe’s CS2 about a year and a half ago, plus one for BMW, a series for SVA, and four for Blackberry. This thing that started out as a purely personal project has become a serious part of our business.

Most outstanding accomplishments:

The Artist Series on Milton Glaser certainly is one of my favorites. It turned out particularly well. The new one on Sagmeister is very good. I particularly like the Mark Romanek piece. And the latest – Lawrence Weiner – is quite good. I am also excited by the dramatic films we’re doing.

So far we’ve done about 6 or 7 short films. We won “best dramatic film” from the last year’s Webby Awards. And this year we have three competing against each other.

I’m trying to focus on writing scripts and working with actors at this point. I’m still doing The Artist Series and the commercials, but my goal is to make a feature length film.

Hillman’s thoughts on the keys to success:

I’ve found something that I’m good at. I think that was part of it. Design and Film both utilize a lot of the skills and talents that I was fortunate enough to be born with. That’s not to say it always comes easy. It doesn’t. I’ve worked very hard over the last ten or twelve years. I often tell students or my interns that one reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done in this industry is simply because I worked harder than other people. That’s changing as I get older, but for the first five or six years of my running my business was often 6am to 8pm, 5 or 6 nights a week.

I like doing commercial work, but I often struggle with it. I think all commercial artist do. There’s always a time in any given project where you question your values…or your choices.

Commercial work encourages me, or maybe even forces me, to explore other purely personal and artistic endeavors, such as the documentary film work and now the dramatic film work, which then in turn… feeds the commercial work.

It’s been an effort to move in directions that are pro-active and not reactive. In this business it’s easy to be reactive and go where the work is. For example, we designed the Yahoo! Home page and we worked with Yahoo! for three years designing or helping them conceptualize many different things.

That brought in a lot of phone calls from other companies that wanted the same thing. They wanted that same sort of portal design. And it would have been really easy to aggressively pursue that business, and probably quite profitable, and possibly very beneficial to the company. But it didn’t seem like the right path for me.

I fear complacency. It’s important to question your work, stay involved and engaged in the work.

On working with consultants:

Sometimes I question my need to keep my company very, very small. I’ve certainly had opportunities to grow bigger. And I suppose, I probably could have managed the business better and not had as much worry or stress. But I like the way a small company works and I still love the hands on designing, directing and editing. I’ve never been a natural manager.

Hillman’s thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

All I know is how I built my career. I may have benefited by coming in as an outsider, someone who hadn’t had schooling. I was always, and still am open-minded about the craft. I’ve never gotten cynical, and I know I’ll always have a lot to learn…which is good. For example I still have trouble identifying a lot of fonts. (Laughter.)

I always try to remind myself that whatever situation you find yourself in, there’s something there for you. There’s some building brick there for you personally, or for your career… something to learn. And that’s how, that’s really how I’ve always approached it.

It’s really about maintaining humility. It’s coming in and being quiet and very careful and thoughtful with the work and your responsibility to whatever brand or person you decide to work for.

On getting good clients:

That’s harder. I would say that almost every client is a good client. Some people might argue with me about that, but it’s how you relate to the client. I’ve always advocated including the client in the early stage, the middle stage, and the late stage of the design process. That seemed to work for me. I know that it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an attitude of looking at the client as a collaborator and not as a hurdle. That has made most of my clients really good clients.

If you’re looking for marquee clients who have big brands behind them, and are going to look really nice in your portfolio, that’s something that I don’t know that I can answer. I am attracted to that as well, but usually I am influenced more by how open or just plain nice someone is. I want to know I can work with someone…that’s the most important thing.

I think that no matter who the client is, we need to include them as creative partners in the process. I believe that everyone is creative and sometimes their creativity is manifested in different ways than my own. And, I shouldn’t take them for granted, and I should approach them with respect and be open to their ideas…to a point. Part of my job is listening and considering ideas and feedback and part of it involves saying no from time to time.

Outside activities:

Family is most important.. So my life now is maybe 9 to 6:00 at work, and then it’s all family.

I don’t play golf, and I don’t hunt or ski or anything like that. The main thing I do as a hobby is make my short movies. Working with the actors and writing scripts has become my main outlet.

I still do accept some speaking engagements. They help keep me on track too, because I have to think about what I’m going to talk about, and thinking about my speech reminds me of what’s important to the design or film that I’m doing at the moment.

Meeting new people is also refreshing.

Additional thoughts:

It’s a wonderful craft. There’s a lot to gain by approaching this field as craft that can be developed. It’s something you can grow with. And I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do as your life’s work. You just need to find ways to fight the cynicism that can come from doing commercial work. It’s easy to get cynical.

You have to believe that even in the driest and most bland corporate work, you can reach someone. And that’s sometimes hard to imagine or remember, but it’s there. What we do is concerned with communication…reaching people…and if you’re lucky, moving them.

About Hillman Curtis:

Hillman Curtis is the Principal and Chief Creative Officer of, inc., a digital design firm in New York City. His expert and innovative design solutions have garnered him and his company the multiple Communication Arts Awards of Excellence, the One Show Gold, Silver and Bronze, the South by Southwest Conference “Best Use of Design” and “Best of Show”, the New Media Invision Bronze, a Web Award, How magazine’s Top 10, and multiple Webby Awards.

Hillman was named as one of the top ten designers by the IPPA, included in the “ten most wanted” by IDN magazine, and as one of the “Worlds best Flash designers” by Create Online.

He has appeared as the keynote and featured speaker at design conferences worldwide and his work has been featured in a variety of major design publications. Hillman’s first book, Flash Web Design (New Riders, USA) has sold over to 100 thousand copies and has been translated into 14 languages. His second book, MTIV, Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, has become required reading at design schools worldwide. It’s currently in its third printing, and has been translated into 5 languages.

Hillman’s recent work includes major projects for AOL, Yahoo!, the American Institute of Graphic Designers as well as a documentary series on designers and artists and a series of short narrative films. Additionally, his music videos have been added to MTV2 USA, MTV Nordic, MTV European, MTV France, MTV Italy, and Much Music Canada.

His latest book, Hillman Curtis on Creating Short Films for the Web was released in September. Hillman is currently busy leading multiple design initiatives for Yahoo!, including the recent homepage redesign and My Yahoo concept designs. He is also producing online commercial documentaries (documercials) for Adobe, BMW and others and continues to write, direct and produce personal films.


Success Secrets from Mirko Ilic:

  • If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, they can never pay you enough.
  • It’s much easier to think for 8 hours and work for 2, than the opposite.
  • Follow your dream. Do whatever it takes. If it happens, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, at least you’ll know you tried. That’s how I built my business.
  • Getting good clients is like dating. It’s about building a personal relationship, building trust.


Early beginnings:

Going into art was just easier. I was not good at sports. I’m okay in mathematics and in most other things, but somehow art was much easier for me than anything else.  It was a simple decision.

When I first started out, at that time I was living in Yugoslavia, I was leaving my illustrations at different newspapers.  The first illustration that was published, didn’t even have my credit line. I was so eager to publish, that I was leaving the illustrations around without my name on them.

They liked them, (Laughter) but they didn’t know who to give the credit to. I showed up a week later and said, “Oh, that was my illustration.”  They said, “Great, do more.”

That was basically how I started, going round and knocking on the doors.  When you’re young and arrogant, you don’t have anything to lose. So why not?

NYT opEd: Pafko at the Wall (1992). Art direction, design, illustration: Mirko Ilic.
Pafko at the Wall

Broadway Book War

Russia Comes Apart

Starting his career:

I was born in a Communist country and the only employment available at that time was working for a government controlled company. So instead, I chose to freelance. I was one of the few, maybe even one of the first freelancers in my country.

Since I didn’t want to work for the government, it turned out that my first full-time job was when I became art director at Time magazine for all the international editions. I was 31 at the time.

I was there only 6 months. I quit, disagreeing with the look of the redesign of Time magazine. I was supposed to use the new look in Time International, which I was in charge of.  A few months later, I got an offer from the New York Times op-ed pages.




Influential figures from design:

During different periods, I’ve been influenced by different people.  As I grew up things changed, and over the years, I enjoyed many styles and many professions.

I gained lots of influence from European designers and illustrators because I was born there, but also from Americans.  I didn’t know much about famous designers, but the American underground had quite a huge influence on me too.

In 1972, I saw the illustration work of Brad Holland published in a Graphis Annual. It was so powerful. I figured that illustration was serious business and I started to pay much more attention.

Then around 1974 a friend of mine showed me Milton Glaser’s book. When I saw his work I thought, “Wow, I could be an illustrator and a designer at the same time!”  After that, I found my passion.







The Anatomy of Design
Gate-fold book by Mirko Ilic & Steven Heller uncovering the influences of graphic design (Rockport).

Thoughts on planning:

When I was 19, I made a list of the 10 most important comics. I promised myself that I would publish my work there, and everybody was laughing.  But by the time I was 26, I had published in all of those magazines.

When I came to the United States, I had a list that included The New York Times, Time magazine and Playboy.  (chuckling)

Apple’s Growing Ecosystems

This is a funny story.  My first week in New York, I got to do cover sketches for Time magazine.  During my second week I got to do an illustration for The New York Times.  But Playboy was in Chicago. So I didn’t get to do Playboy at that time.

Then, maybe three or four years ago I mentioned this fact to someone in an interview and I got call from Playboy! Now I’m regularly drawing and doing illustrations for them.


Mirko’s thoughts on changing directions:

I get bored doing one kind of thing for too long.  For example, I was doing editorial illustrations for a long time, but I wanted to do book design. And somehow I muscled myself into designing books.  Most often you need to have designed a book to be able to show around because everybody wants to see something before they give you a job. Fortunately for me, I stumbled into that first assignment and it got me started.

Then because I was designing books, I started to write books.  Then one of the people for whom I was designing a book, architect Adam Tihany, asked me if I wanted to graphically design a hotel with him. Of course I said, “Yes.”  And now I’m designing hotels, buildings and restaurants, and that is something that, if you’d asked me at that time, I would have said, “Are you crazy?”

But I like it.  And now I’m pursuing that.  And I’m getting some awards, and publishing some work here and there.

Le Cirque (restaurant)

Favorite accomplishments:

There is no one thing that’s my most favorite accomplishment.  The most exciting things, for me, tend to happen at first: my first illustration, my first designed book, my first cover for Time magazine, my first illustration for The New York Times. It’s all quite amazing. Those sorts of thrills allow me to run empty for quite some time.  (Laughter.)

There are some things that I like more than others, of course.  But I’m quite happy with a few of the books that I wrote. The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics, which I co-authored with Milton Glaser, is a kind of achievement which is very dear and important to me. Not to mention the pleasure of working with Milton.

Also, I’m very pleased with my latest book, The Anatomy of Design: Uncovering the Influences and Inspirations in Modern Graphic Design.” I did that one with Steven Heller. We managed to squeeze almost 2,000 pieces of art into the book, which is quite an achievement.

Energy Roundtable

Energy Independence

Mirko’s thoughts on lifelong education:

Throughout my life, I’ve done what I call continuous education – educating myself whenever I can. I notice how lots of kids, especially here in the United States, don’t know much about design history. We all stand on somebody’s shoulders.

I decided to create books for kids so they can learn a little bit about the past. And it’s quite achievement for somebody who can barely speak English and is dyslexic. (Laughter.)



The Sexual Male

Mirko’s thoughts on the keys to success:

In my class in school, there were two extremely talented kids who became my friends.  They were able to draw blindfolded. I figured that only way to equal them was to work harder and try to be brighter. Then I discovered that working is not enough.  One needs to think about what one is doing. I discovered that it’s much easier to think for 8 hours and work for 2, than the opposite.

Thinking about what I do before I sit in front of a white table or computer screen is really, really important. Then once when I have the idea, I work like a dog.  (Laughter.)

The Scent of War

Not Much Has Changed in a System that Failed

The Havoc in Yugoslavia


On doing things differently:

I would love to build, be an engineer and build bridges.  I think bridges are amazing.  They’re like birds that fly on the ground.  They connect people. They’re such positive things. They’re like sculptures, floating in air.  It’s quite amazing.

Mirko’s Toughest Challenge:

Probably the toughest creatively challenging period was in 1991 when civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. I managed to see my primary school in my small home town in Bosnia on CNN, which was showing Serbian militiamen killing women who lay face down on the sidewalk in front of the school. As war was spreading, I was glued to the television set for days and nights, trying to reach my mother on the phone, who was still living there. It was very hard to find reasons to draw or create pretty images.



Liberty and Justice

Mirko’s hobbies:

I collect old books.  I visit all the book fairs, and collect magazines.  I do research.  I’m especially interested in the 20’s and 30’s.  I have lots of Russian Dada. I enjoy old papers.  I enjoy touching them and playing with them.  And I think that’s my biggest hobby.

Thoughts for someone just starting out:

It’s very tricky because our industry is in a big shift. It doesn’t seem to have a clear future at this point in time. We are now focused on the promise of new technology while we’re forgetting that there are still ideas that might be left behind.

There seems to be too many vice presidents making the design decisions instead of the designers.

But one thing’s for sure, if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, they can never pay you enough. You must feel pleasure.  You must feel like you want to wake somebody up and show them what you’ve done.  You must feel like you’d like to run out and say, “Look, look, look, look what I did.”  That kind of feeling is more important than any amount of money.

I think when one sees the design of another person and thinks, “Wow, why didn’t I come up with that one?”  That’s the kind of design you should strive to create.

SVA: To Help See Possibilities

Thoughts on getting good clients:

Getting good clients is like dating.  It’s about building a personal relationship, building trust.

It’s tough, especially today, when most of us communicate through the internet and we don’t even see the faces of the people we’re working with. And sometimes they’re just two blocks away.

If you like what your client is doing, if you like their product, and if they like what you’re doing, if they feel the same kind of honesty from you, I think you have a chance to build a relationship.  And look, I arrived in this country in 1986, and I still work with 5-10 of the people whom I met during the very first year.





Tihany Design (booklet)

Ideas for people just starting out:

Follow your dream. Do whatever it takes. If it happens, that’s great. And if it doesn’t happen, at least you’ll know you tried. That’s how I built my business. Now, of course, I’m old and tired, actually mostly lazy; I wait for the telephone to ring or the internet to beep.  Here and there I push a little bit, but mostly the telephone rings or the internet beeps.

Additional thoughts:

It’s very important to introduce new ideas into your design. When you’re listening to music, going out to the theater, visiting museums, socializing with friends, and so forth, you will accumulate additional ideas, and from some place other than looking at other designers’ work or at the design annuals. The best ideas come from cross-pollination. Not from just recycling the same crap again and again.

Sav Taj Crtez (All Those Drawings)

About Mirko Ilic:

Mirko Ilic published his first works in 1973, and has since been publishing comics and illustrations in magazines, such as Omladinski tjednik, Modra Lasta, Tina, Pitanja, and has become the art and comics editor of the students’ magazine Polet in 1976. That’s when he helped organize an informal organization of the comic book creators Novi kvadrat (The New Square), that has been widely connected to the Novi val musical movement in Zagreb. That connection also allowed Ilic to design album covers for some of the most prominent Yugoslav bands of the time, such as Bijelo dugme, U škripcu, Prljavo kazalište, Parni Valjak, Parlament, and many others. He also wrote the song Covjek za sutra on the first album of Prljavo kazalište, but he wasn’t given the credits for the authorship. Ilic appears in Sretno dijete, Igor Mirkovi?’s documentary about the Novi val movement in Zagreb, as one of the most prominent figures of the movement.

In 1977, Ilic started publishing his works in the established comics magazines outside Yugoslavia, such as Alter Alter, Métal Hurlant and Heavy Metal. In 1980, Novi kvadrat ceaseed to exist and Ilic entirely stopped working on comics, focusing upon illustration and graphic design. In 1982, he started working for the Italian magazine Panorama, as well as for the Croatian magazine Danas. in March 1986 he left Yugoslavia and went to New York “with $1,500 in the pocket and no idea what to do upon getting there.” He soon started publishing his illustrations in Time, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other prominent and influential newspapers and magazines. In 1991, he became art director of Time International, and the following year he became art director of the op-eds in The New York Times.

In 1993, Ilic became one of the co-founders of Oko & Mano Inc. graphic design studio, and in 1995 he founded Mirko Ilic Corp., a graphic design and 3-D computer graphics and motion picture title studio. In 1998, he created the title sequence for the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail.

He is a co-author of several books about graphic design: Genius Moves: 100 Icons of Graphic Design, Handwritten – expressive lettering in digital age, and Anatomy of design (all of them co-authored with Steven Heller) and Design of Dissent (with Milton Glaser).

Mirko Ilic Corp.
207 E 32nd Street
New York, NY 10016
Tel. 212.481.9737
Fax. 212.481.7088
Best Life Magazine
Published: 2005
Art director: Chris Dougherty
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Pafko at the Wall
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Broadway Book War
Art direction: Mirko Ilic
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic
New York Times Op-Ed
Year: 1992
Title: Russia Comes Apart
Art direction: Mirko Ilic
Design: Mirko Ilic
Illustration: Mirko Ilic

Time Magazine cover “Canada”
Art Director: Rudolph Hoglund
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic

Time Magazine cover “Germany”
Art director: Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic

The Anatomy of Design
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designers: Mirko Ilic, Kunal Bhat
Description: Gate-fold book by Mirko Ilic & Steven Heller uncovering the influences of graphic design (Rockport).
Client: Rockport

Apple’s Growing Ecosystems
Business Week
Published: 2007
Art Director: Steven Taylor
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Darfur poster
art director : Mirko Ilic
designers: Mirko Ilic, Daniel Young
description: Poster to help raise awareness of Darfur crisis
client: Paradoxy Products

Le Cirque (restaurant)
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Description: plates, stationary, and other graphics for the restaurant
Client: Le Cirque

Energy Roundtable
Client: Stanford University
Art director: Amy Shroads
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Energy Independence
Client: Mother Jones magazine
Art director: Tim Luddy
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Sexual Male
Playboy Magazine
Art director: Rob Wilson
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Scent of War
Village Voice
Year 2002
Art director: Minh Uong
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Not Much Has Changed in a System that Failed
The New York Times, 2002
Art director: Tom Bodkin
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

The Havoc in Yugoslavia
Published: 1996
The New York Times Book Review
Art director: Steven Heller
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic Corp.

Liberty and Justice
Village Voice
Art director: Min Uong
Illustrator : Mirko Ilic Corp.

SVA: To Help See Possibilities
Client: The School of Visual Arts
Creative director : Anthony P. Rhodes
Art director: Michael J. Walsh
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Illustrators: Youngmin Kim, Mirko Ilic

Tihany Design (booklet)
Client: Tihany Design
Art director : Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Description: Look-book & stationary set for interior-design firm

Sav Taj Crtez (All Those Drawings)
Client: Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka, Croatia
Published: 2009
Art director: Mirko Ilic
Designer: Mirko Ilic
Illustrator: Mirko Ilic, Lauren de Napoli

Success Secrets from Michael Schwab:

  • If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s a magic combination.
  • You cannot be shy.
  • You have to be aggressive.
  • It helps to be obsessed and driven.
  • When you’re starting out, strive to work for people who really inspire you, and who you admire not only creatively, but ethically.

About Michael:

One of America’s most recognized and beloved illustrators, Michael Schwab focuses on the interplay of positive and negative space to create iconic images that are strong and simple yet always contemporary. His resonant images codify his work as thoughtful, lasting, and sustainable; characteristics that are increasingly rare and highly appreciated by clients that include: Nike, Polo, Wells Fargo, Amtrak, Sundance, Pebble Beach, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

From his studio in Marin County, Michael is currently winning awards in virtually every major graphic design and illustration competition and is regularly featured in publications worldwide.

Early beginnings:

Growing up, I think we all had a class ‘artist’ in school -in whatever grade we were in. I was that kid. I was the kid that people would ask to do posters, or drawings for their reports, or posters for sports rallies, or whatever. I was always available. People would say, “Oh, get Mike Schwab to do that. He can draw.”

I can’t tell you why exactly, but I was always excited about lettering design and wild illustrations. It goes back to that whole 1950’s hot rod era – flames on cars and artists like Big Daddy Roth and the Mad Magazine guys. It was then that I was probably first inspired graphically. And, of course, when the 1960’s evolved into flower power, Fillmore posters and record album covers, I became very inspired as an illustrator / designer.

I grew up in Oklahoma. Someone mentioned this little school in Texas, East Texas State University. Apparently they had a graphic design department. It was one of the first times I’d heard the term “graphic design,” and it sounded intriguing. I studied under 2 very inspiring instructors there – Jack Unruh for illustration and Rob Lawton for design and advertising. Rob really opened my eyes to the art of typography.

During my 2 ½ years at East Texas State, I kept seeing work coming out of New York, most notably from Pushpin Studios, Charlie White and Paul Davis. I also started seeing the cool images promoting the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street.

Soon, I was actually attending school there—living in the Chelsea Hotel. But, it got to be summertime in New York. I couldn’t see the sky. It started getting hot and I realized I was ready to go back home. So I returned to Oklahoma for the summer. That year, in the fall, I ended up attending Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. That would have been in 1973.

I was entered as a 5th semester student. At Art Center, I was able to study under John Casado and Jamie Odgers. It was competitive and intense.

I still hadn’t decided if I was an illustrator or a graphic designer. I’m actually still in that quandry. I think illustrators consider me a designer and designers consider me an illustrator, but I’m happy to ride the fence. I have found my own voice.

After graduation, I worked a little bit in the Hollywood area and assisted a few different people. I considered myself privileged to be John Casado’s assistant for awhile. I also assisted Los Angeles illustrator, Dave Willardson, one of my early role models. In addition, I was working on jobs for the art directors who had been my heroes – art directors like Mike Salisbury of West magazine and Rolling Stone magazine. I worked occasionally for Roland Young, the art director at A&M Records. There was lots of new, exciting design happening in LA at the time.

Then, I visited San Francisco.

Now, please understand, I loved LA, but once I got to San Francisco, I realized that this is where I belong.

Once there, I approached Chris Blum, the creative director for Levi Strauss & Co. via their agency, Foote Cone and Belding. He was famous for the very artistic, award-winning Levi’s posters and animated commercials. Chris was a mentor that I had always wanted to work for, and I created several historic posters for Levi’s with him.

By 1976, I had my own studio. I was living and working in a loft setting on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. With a view of The City, I was very comfortable there.

On making the transition from assistant to freelance to studio owner:

I watched and listened to my mentors and saw how they talked on the phone with clients and art directors. Truthfully, being in art school, you don’t learn anything about business. I didn’t take any MBA courses. I had to make up my own rules and keep track of what I was getting paid. No one was really there to tell me how to do it. I treated my apprenticeships as learning opportunities — like graduate studies.

I was very careful to work for people who not only inspired me creatively, but who I admired, ethically. I wanted to just be near those people who were my heroes. I wanted to be around them and watch them. I was obsessed with my work and my craft and the people around me. I wanted to study under my heroes. It’s like an actor wanting to be working with someone that they respect so they can watch and learn from them.

I had nothing going on at that time except work and my passion for it. There’s a point where it becomes almost an obsession. To get somewhere, however, you really need to be obsessed and driven, at least for a while.

On developing business contacts and relationships:

I was meeting several photographers, art directors and designers – everyone was inspired. It was a very exciting time and people really communicated about their craft with each other. There weren’t that many people that were part of this community, so everybody knew and respected each other. There were healthy rivalries, but everyone respected each other’s work and enjoyed discussing it.

Thoughts on developing new business:

As far as getting work, you can’t be shy. I would go to art directors’ offices. I would sometimes just show up with my portfolio. I wanted them to know my work. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, they would call me back and have a job for me. You cannot be shy. You have to be aggressive. And if you’re truly inspired, nothing will hold you back.

Favorite accomplishments:

Most recently, my portrait of Lance Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. That felt good. I’m also very proud of the Environmental Leadership Award from the San Francisco AIGA that I received several years ago for the Golden Gate National Parks logo series. Truthfully, I feel privileged to have worked with so many creative talented art directors and clients through the years.

New business development today:

At this point in my career, I seldom call people to get work (luckily). There are even times when I have to stop myself from saying, “I wish the phone wouldn’t ring so much.” That’s a frightening thought. The alternative is not very pretty.

The phone does ring a lot, and the thing is, it’s hard to rein my enthusiasm in. Once someone describes a project — and usually they’re not calling me unless my work is appropriate — it’s very hard to say no because the creative wheels start turning and it’s hard to turn it off.

Thoughts on having assistants:

I have two incredible assistants that help me out, Lisa and Carolyn. They bring digital production skills to my studio, which I have none of. I can’t do it alone. Their presence makes my work more fun. They are my ‘studio wives’.

On the power of ink on paper:

I draw on my drawing table. I do not have a computer on my drawing table. I was inspired to draw, I think, partially because of the equipment. I love the drawing table equipment. I’m very comfortable working with T-squares, triangles, and compasses. I love the drawing tools, even the French curves. In grade school, I wasn’t really sure what a French curve was. I’d see these old things laying around and now I know every curve on every one of them. Personally. (Laughter)

I never wanted to be a typist. I like to draw. I enjoy paper and pencil and ink. There’s something about ink on paper and multiple images of it that is powerful. It’s like theater. It’s like performance art. There’s something powerful about it. It’s communication – the ability to affect and influence people

On the flow of work:

I feel privileged to be working for the people I work for now. I’m creating images for huge corporations, wine companies, athletes and movie stars. It’s very exciting. The National Park series really was a defining family of images for me.

On inspiration:

I think it’s great for people to be inspired by many different genres. I get inspiration from many urelated places, whether it’s theater, travel or nature — inspiration from lots of different resources.

On attending seminars and trainings:

I’ve been asked to speak at events like that, but I never really attend seminars. It is probably my loss, but I’ve just never really found time to go. Again, I learn more from other people who are doing other unrelated things than just talking to other designers—at this point in my career anyway. Classes or seminars, when you’re young, are probably terrific, but be careful to whom you listen.

Thoughts on outside activities:

I go mountain biking here in Marin County. I do yoga. I go rock climbing. I like snow skiing, water skiing. I really like to get outside. I’m not the type of person that can sit at a drawing table all day, every day.

I have to get out and be physically active. I really pull a lot inspiration and ideas from being outdoors.

Tips on building and sustaining a successful career:

Do those things that you are passionate about. Concentrate on one powerful and memorable thing you can offer to people and do it better than anyone—instead of spreading yourself thin doing many different things. Strive to be memorable and powerful. If you’re lucky enough to find something that you’re inspired by, enjoy and that you truly have a talent for, that’s the magic combination. If you love what you do and you’re good at what you do, that’s the key. That would be the ideal. I still crave working. I enjoy it.

However, occasionally, I need time off — going skiing and spending time with my family. Traveling together with my wife and my sons nourishes and fulfills me.

But, you know – there’s a part of me, a couple of days before we go home, when I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m anxious to get back to the studio.”

Ivan Chermayeff

Success Secrets from Ivan Chermayeff:

  • Being an independent design office is the only way to control the work done.
  • The key to success is having good ideas, not doing what you’re told, but instead fighting for and doing what you believe.
  • When we present a few alternative ideas to a client, for a symbol or other design problem, we believe that any one of the alternatives would be a valid solution.


Thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

First of all, to be a success, you have to be good at your craft, and you have to work very hard. Design is now a very competitive territory and the only way to make a career out of it is to keep working at it, developing your own style, improving, and building a portfolio that gets you new work. It’s not easy.

On going into business for himself:

I determined almost from the very beginning that I wanted to work for myself. But I chose to go into business with partners, Tom Geismar (for 50 years), both of us with Robert Brownjohn (for a short time at the very beginning), and staff so I wouldn’t have to work all alone. Being on your own is a way to control the work you do and take responsibility for it. It’s also a way to control what clients you have, and choose what you take on. We’re now a small enough firm to do that.


On uncreative hours:

One of the problems of design, especially if you’re successful at it, is that it’s very easy to get involved with time-consuming work that demands more plain slogging than creativity. It is profitable to do things which are 90% follow-through and 10% creative, but it is sure as hell not as much fun, and it can be very boring. That’s one reason to be on your own: control of your own destiny. It only demands attention to what you’re doing.

On working hard:

I don’t know if working hard and putting in the hours is exactly the key. The key is having good ideas, and not doing what you are told, but doing what you believe. I don’t do what I’m told. If my clients know what to do, then why don’t they do it and leave me alone?

You have to find ways of being creative. Having ideas is what It’s all about. Working hard at it because it’s not that easy. Ideas don’t come that automatically. It’s obviously a combination of things, and you have to be convincing about what you do. Not only do you have to have ideas, but they have to be good, and they have to be appropriate. Good ideas are not necessarily appropriate under all circumstances.


On looking backward:

Basically I always think about what’s going on, and what’s to come. I am not one to look too far back. About a month is my limit. Undoubtedly, there are things I would do differently, but I don’t know what there are. Because you learn not to make the same mistakes. Also, I’m much more efficient after all these years. Doing things in an efficient way is much more sensible if you can do it.

On creative solutions:

There is no one answer to any given problem, but that doesn’t mean that if you have three or four good ones that it’s enough. I see no reason to do more than that in order to make the client the one who decides. They can decide from a few good answers, and not dozens. People who plaster endless numbers of alternatives up on the wall, half of which are worthless, are crazy. Today, we don’t give people more alternatives than we believe are valid. When we present alternatives to a client for a symbol, for example, we believe that any one of them would be good. You don’t present one good one and three bad ones.


On new business development:

Everything is on the Internet these days. That’s where we get a lot of work from the rest of the world, from people we’ve never heard of who hire us because we are on the web. I think that’s the way it works now. Paper and print, and mailing things out, is a waste of time. So, we’ve given up on making mailers. I’ve noticed, for instance, that because of the web I’ve gotten fewer Christmas cards for the last five years. And now, I’ve hardly gotten any. Dozens, not hundreds. People have stopped mailing things. Postages is expensive. Printing is expensive. Paper is expensive. It’s not just the money, it’s that you just don’t think about doing it. It’s a waste.

Obviously, it’s not going to break anybody’s back to print Christmas cards and promotional mailers. People just don’t do it any more.


On computers:

Computers have changed the design world. I don’t love them. But we’ve got to use them because it’s the only way to be efficient. I don’t like computers. I don’t even use one, personally.

First of all, computers are very slow, no matter how fast they are, even if they’ve been updated with the latest software and memory. I know how to use them. Everybody else in the office has one. I know how to tell people what I want done, but I don’t personally do it, because I like drawing and cutting things out of paper, and sketching and all that. For me that’s a lot faster.

On consultants and representatives:

We tried to use them, and we had people representing us. We came to the conclusion very rapidly that it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because when you have a client, you need to talk with them face to face. Half the time, ideas come from talking with the people in a direct fashion. Every time we get a brief from somebody, a corporation for example, about doing a project, because it’s competitive they send it out to a half dozen people and sometimes more. They’re pretty inadequate. And the more complicated the brief and the more thorough the brief, usually the worse it is. It’s the opposite of what it should be. The people who are writing those briefs are writing them for the wrong reasons. Not to solve the problem, but to even out a competitive situation that they’ve established. People don’t just look around and find out who’s good, talk with them, see if they can get on with them, and then hire them or not hire them. They send those briefs to five or six firms to do the same thing. Sometimes everybody’s paid a little bit. But it’s usual that you’re responding and trying to get on a short list. It’s not very satisfactory.


On staying focused and in balance:

I make collages. Personal art. All the time, for as much of the time that I have. Evenings, weekends. I love making art, which I call experimenting with visual connections.

On learning about design:

Work hard. And, do a lot of looking. I think it is very important to see what others have done. Not just what is now, what’s going on, but what design has been. An awful lot of young designers don’t know a goddamn thing about the history of their own craft. And they should, because there’s a lot to learn, just to learn what you like and what you don’t like. You don’t have to have mentors, but you sure as hell need to know what you think communicates well within your own level of comfort. You know, it’s about approaching problems, and paying attention of what others have done in the past. It doesn’t mean the current thing of the AIGA and the Art Directors Club, and the annuals from CA and Graphis. I’m talking about the history of the profession. People need a much longer view than only what’s current.


About Ivan Chermayeff:

Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar initially formed their partnership in the late 1950s with the idea of working collaboratively and in a wide range of disciplines. Over the ensuing years, their work has remained consistent not in style but in its approach to design. Accepting the Modernist ideal that design is a problem-solving discipline, they have sought to humanize that ideal through humor, artistic invention, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Their firm has evolved over the past fifty years. Since the departure of Robert Brownjohn in 1960, they have operated under the Chermayeff & Geismar name. Many exceptionally talented partners and associates have contributed greatly to the projects undertaken.

Success Secrets From Steve Wedeen:

  • What is your measure of success? It’s important to be clear and articulate rather than just having vague ideas.
  • Putting together a plan and really thinking through a vision for what you want to accomplish is crucial.
  • Setting high standards for yourself, being honest with yourself, pushing yourself, learning from others, and listening to others so you can grow your abilities are important keys to success.
  • Passion goes a long way.

Steve’s thoughts on going into business:

I never thought that I would go into business for myself. It just sort of happened. When I came out to Albuquerque, I played for the first eight months. I was thinking that my life savings of $1,600.00 would allow me to never have to work again. (Laughter) I figured that $1,600.00 should last maybe 40 or 50 years. But when my funds got down to $800.00, I realized it was time to get a job. So, I got a job with a computer company, and it turned out to be an incredible gift. When that shut down I found a job at a little ad agency, which was really boring. At one point, I proposed that I do their work on a contractual basis. So, they paid me a monthly fee, and I transitioned my job into a retainer. I guaranteed that they would get their work done, and I gave them a little savings on my monthly salary. This way, I just kind of started on my own. It was a pretty easy transition.

On self-confidence:

I think the key to my success is that I believed in myself. I have a real drive to do work that inspires me. I have a great passion and that’s what drives me. My father and grand father were both printers. I had worked in print shops as a child, and my mother was incredibly encouraging. She always told me to do whatever I liked. She believed in me. I had great role models, and I never really doubted myself.

There were times that I stared at a blank sheet of paper, not sure what I was going to do, but I knew it I could figure out something. And after all these years, it’s getting harder to come up with something new, but my creativity never fails me. Thank God I’m determined and embrace the idea that design creativity is constantly growing and evolving.

On finding creative balance:

Design and creativity are a combination of new thought and classic thought. You don’t have to keep on top of everything that is new, but you shouldn’t be stuck in the past either. To me, to keep yourself fresh and vibrant, just embrace the classic principles of design creativity and originality. And then learn to rely on a creative community that provides a collective vision and inspiration. That’s really what we’re doing now. We’re working a creative community of young folks who have less experience. There’s freshness and vitality there.

Steve’s views on personal accomplishments:

My greatest satisfaction and my biggest frustration is this Firm. Our team of 17 great people is a wonderful group, with spirit and talent and synergy. Somehow we figured out how to walk the line of encouraging people to tap into their own deep creativity, and be really imaginative and original, while solving client problems at the same time. I am very proud of that.

On challenges, victories, and defeats:

We strive to give the client what they need and do work they’re proud of. We’ve been around for 25 years and have survived adversity, challenges, and victories, with both joyful moments and defeats. We’ve had a couple bruises here and there, but overall, we’ve had great accomplishments. I am very grateful. I know very few people can say that.

Thoughts on business:

After 25 years, I would say that having a partner with strong business sense is very important. That wasn’t the case for us in the beginning. Had it been the case, we would have used our capital differently, maybe invested differently. It might have allowed us to accomplish more, or we might have developed differently. This is not really a regret, but I certainly can see the benefit of it now.

I have learned a lot in the last 25 years. I now belong to a business peer group.
We meet once month and I learn a lot from them. I still think it would be nice to have an COO-type who would manage the business for us. Not that we’ve done such a bad job, it’s just not what fuels our passions or interests.

Steve’s thoughts on creating a team vision:

About six months ago, we started something new. We’re calling it “DreamWork.” We began with a brain-storming session with all of our creatives. I asked them “What do you really want to be doing? What kinds of projects and clients do you think we should be pursuing? ” The criteria were personal interest, passion, and financial potential, and we tied it in with building the strength of the business, what would be good for the company, good for the person, and good for the client.

It was a great project. Of course, at first the question was, “Why we are doing this?” But once the initial resistance broke down, the team understood the intent. It’s turned out to be a tremendous project. We had weekly sessions for about 6 weeks, each person had to come up with their own presentation in terms of what their vision was. We made a presentation to the account executive team. It really opened their eyes. They began to understand what the creatives were saying they wanted to do. They took the ideas, and about a month or two later, they responded with a marketing plan. We have been implementing it for about 6 months now.

It’s the first time we’ve really have a focused and directed, pro-active business development project that has the creative input. It is great. Everybody is into it. It’s really kind of unified us. Because during the last 25 years, it was just Richard (Kuhn) my business partner and rainmaker, going out, doing things, bringing business in, and we never asked him, “Why did you bring us this?” (Laughter) Now we’re more synergistic, and it is really cool.

Steve’s views on personal balance:

You need to balance work with an other-life. Although I’m always thinking about design and creativity, I make sure I have a personal life that has nothing to do with my life’s work. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 17. My wife, Linda and I both have Harleys and New Mexico is a great place to get out on the road. Riding bikes combines camaraderie and socializing with personal solitude and reflection. A bunch of us go out on the weekend, take a ride, have breakfast, and just hang out together. I’ve become obsessed with wine, which is a catalyst for friends and get-togethers and a good excuse to drink. I also read voraciously: predominantly non-fiction, personal and professional development. And my wife and I love to travel. My daughter, Lissa is the love of my life and she has been my beacon of balance since the day she was born.

On working with consultants and business trainers:

I’m part of an executives group. We meet once a month, so there are twelve sessions yearly, eight have a guest speaker and four don’t. It’s very effective because we are a small group of about 14 individuals. When we have a guest speaker, it is like a small seminar. I’ve experienced a lot of personal and professional growth through that. I’ve been doing this for about 4 years now, and it has been very helpful. It has taught me how to be a better businessperson, a better leader, and a better person in some ways. I have learned how to empower others, how to trust others, and let the business grow.

Thoughts on getting started:

I would suggest that putting together a plan and really thinking through a vision for what you want is crucial. What is your measure of success? It’s important to be clear and articulate rather than just having vague ideas that are not thought through. For years, the partners had a mission statement that we never ever questioned: “Do great work for great clients who will appreciate it and benefit from it.”

Then about 8 years ago we had a session where finally we articulated what a great client and what great work was. We realized we all had very different ideas, even though we had a unified vision. We had very different interpretations, and looking back, we realized that worked against us.

Advice for people just starting out:

Love what you do. And be aspirational. Be honest with yourself. Don’t fool yourself. I think some people set their “carrot” way too far out, and that is a good way to set yourself up for failure, because you can never grab it. However, if the carrot is set too close, you are fooling yourself into accomplishing less. Maybe that is the reason that so many people do mediocre work. Setting high standards for yourself, being honest with yourself, pushing yourself, learning from others, and listening to others so you can grow your abilities are important keys to success.

We have a communications business. It’s about acting on behalf of other people to connect with others. Listening, really listening is very, very important. It is not hard to do, but it requires a real conscious effort. I think most people listen to others through the filter of what they want to hear, as supposed to what the others are really saying.

I am a big believer in establishing a thorough strategy at the onset of a project. Once you get your strategy and purpose articulated, once you have a deep understanding of your audience, along with a variety of other factors, you will be really well-grounded and well on your way to achieving your objectives.

Have fun. Dammit.

About Steve Wedeen:

Steve Wedeen is a principal of Vaughn Wedeen. Born and raised in New York City (da Bronx), Steve grew up in a printing family surrounded by metal type, rivers of fresh ink and mountains of paper. His formal creative training began at the age of five by attending a summer art program at MOMA. He worked two years as a senior designer for the company that invented the first home computer, which was also the birthplace of Microsoft (which subsequently became one his first freelance clients when he went out on his own.) Four years in advertising agencies and freelancing followed as a designer and writer, and then he hooked up with Rick Vaughn, his Texan partner, in 1980. Richard Kuhn joined the firm in 1986 and has been a full partner for the last 18 years.

With a passion for excellence and originality and a compelling need to be recognized on the national design scene, Rick and Steve set out to put Albuquerque, New Mexico on the design map. Steve’s unparalleled strategic thinking, holistic approach to problem solving and his commitment to being authentic and ingenious with every client have propelled Vaughn Wedeen into the fast lane of design.


Success Secrets from Tim Girvin:

  • Work on what you can personally relate to, work with those that you can personally connect with, explore that which makes you happiest. Clients will appear.
  • Look at design as being holistic — not just where you live, creatively speaking, but nearly everywhere, in context. Explore it beyond your chosen medium.
  • It’s easy enough to hire a consultant — but from the beginning, are you really doing everything that you can to strategically — and tactically? Focus on outcomes and implementations.


The 15 questions:

1. How did you get your start?

My start? Raw curiosity for one. That’s where it all started, that drove, and drives everything that I am made of. I am one that is easily enchanted by content. I can be ignited in a moment, if the right spark is there. A love of the exploration of many things. Many, many things — so much so that my real beginning was as a biologist, a naturalist, with a leaning marine natural sciences . And from there, my professor suggested that I take the lab journals and drawings that I’d done, and explore art, history, writing, culture — and merge them somehow. So in the beginning, my work was about fine printing, papermaking, press work, book design and customized typography and type design. That was, literally, the design of typefaces — the art of conceiving the letter form as an object of potent scrutiny. But doing that meant that I could also do signwriting and truck lettering, painting on boats. Windows. Retail and shopfronts. And from there, that love combined to emerge in a grouping of ways for working with my clients (friends) to take all of those things, like printing, calligraphy and the fine arts, and make them into something that could be retooled and remade as a kind of specialist designing and consulting service. The beginning, alone, later, to small teams — and finally out to nearly 90 employees. Then back to a more manageable size. Something better, that would be my goal, in strategy and scale: 40 people — more capable of visioning and surveilling the work — as a creative leader.


2. What were the deciding factors about going into business for yourself?

Deciding factors? I like to work alone. That’s how I started. And while I can still work alone, there’s greater pleasure working in partnership with the minds of others. But I never had a job, interestingly enough. I never, ever, worked for anyone. I started alone, but the practice, the size of the team, then evolved. The real issue was, for one, proving to myself that I could do it, make the business from what one might deem an artful formalism. And two, that I could find the clients to do that with. What I learned was that in maintaining the discipline of focused marketing, I could find the right relationships by being clear in my offering. The work that I did, in the beginning, was really about what one might define as classical design — letterpress printing, custom packaging, bookbinding, broadsides, typographic and book design, silkscreened posters, limited edition folios, porcelain enamel signing, hand lettering and calligraphy, complexly printed stationery. That tradition, in a way, expanded to much more conventional design, partnering with architecture firms, advertising agencies, even other strategy or design firms (big ones), but the character of the handmade still is at the heart of the work. The listening, the observing, the mind, the hand, the craft, the made. That’s where I started; that’s where I still live.


3. Are there any influential figures from design that have had an effect on your work? And if so, how?

Spheres of Influence: Early on, I worked in college — the college that I went to, among others, was The Evergreen State College. There, it was possible for students to literally plan and create their own programs. So, in exploring that, I could find the options to work with the faculty leadership to study what I wanted. Asian, Medieval Western and Middle Eastern art history, architecture, type design, calligraphy — and the cultural elements that influenced them. That formed the basis of my education in design, creative development, writing and the notion of strategic illustration of intention. Cultural expressions are like the explication of branding. They’re both human orientations of character and fulfillment. My approach, therefore, is more about listening and learning from people, from the inside, to catalyze manifestations on the outside. So too, my connections with influencers and visitations, study, travel and learning. In the 70s, during the times in college, I met, worked with, studied or connected with these people. Hermann Zapf, Lloyd Reynolds, David Kindersley, Will and Sebastian Carter, Villu Toots, Maxim Zhukov, Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser, Ed Benguiat, Massimo Vignelli. Others. While learning from them, I was exposed to, connected with Steve Jobs, Paul Brainerd, Richard Meier, Ivan Chermayeff, Annemarie Schimmel, Pir Vilayat Khan, James Turrell, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Richard Sapper, Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi. Others. There are layers of study. And you get what you came for. And you are what you make. You make what you are.


4. How did you acquire new business when you first started out?

Business relationships. Getting business is never easy. For some, it might seem to be that way. But for me, getting business is always, seemingly, about curiosity. Being curious, explorations emerge, paths are uncovered, potentials unearthed. Sure, there are relationships that spool to other relationships. People connect with you, they connect you with others. But my world is seemingly more about finding people to partner with — from the hunger of curiosity in learning more about people, how they think, what they are doing, what they are working on. So linking with Steve Jobs, for example, was never about that just happening. It was more about getting to a point where I had a story to tell that he was interested in. And it’s all about story telling — new business is based on a layering of stories, the leveraging of experience and expertise that filters to new things that are, in a way, catapulting to others. It’s all about that. One story leads to another. But you have to have the capacity to examine the story in the context of relevance, resonance, connectedness. The story that is told has to have a connection to be reflectively cognizant — your story is meaningful. People relate, because they are facing similar challenges. They’ve been there. And there you are.


5. How do you currently acquire new business?

And now, business development? The same. I’m still out there looking for connections that link to my sense of the curiosity, as well as leveraging the relationships that come into play. Finding relationships, still, is about resonance. In all things.


6. What one thing are you most gratified that you’ve accomplished?

Living gratifications. While there might be awards, gifts from community, celebrations, life passages of significance, there’s real satisfaction in doing the work that I do — which is, fundamentally, about helping people emerge in their dreams and visions. And in a way, my vision is about that. So any string of potentials to accomplishment is about doing just that — helping people emerge and evolve in the visualizations of their dreams. And that’s a beautiful thing. And there are some dreams to the notion of human brands that is about more levels of potency than others, in their contributions to humanity. So working with Richard Gere on the Gere Foundation, working with the Kranzler’s on the creation of the Seeds of Compassion, Heifer International and finally, perhaps most personally powerful, working with my brother, Matthew Girvin, on the creation of the elimination of iodine deficiency disease (IDD) with Unicef and the Chinese Ministry of Health, Beijing. Matthew was killed in a helicopter crash, on a rescue mission, in Mongolia in 2001, one year after achieving that very goal. So that’s the most powerful legacy that contributed to the sense of powerful meaning in my life. That was, that is, a blessing to have experienced. A grand and memorable consortium of amazing people, clients, friends, employees, have emboldened the enrichment of my path. I hold those close to heart.


7. Is there anything that you can identify as a particular key to your success?

Curiosity. A willingness to risk. Listening. Learning. Observing. Savoring. Creative evolution. Enthusiasm. Passion. Commitment. Stamina. Drive. Attention.

And finally, a point of view. Any vision to leading, or partnering in, a relationship to a constructive advancement and outcome is about having a sense of principle to stand on. What do you stand for might be the query to a client — but to ask that question, first, you must have the vantage that suggests you know the vista from where you look


8. What would you do differently if you had it to do all over?

A change in life path. I think that I’d like to keep going to school. I’d like to keep on the path of exploring culture and expression — how art, literature and civilisation intertwine — and what is the meaning of that layered weaving.

I think that I’d like to live in more foreign cities. I’ve spent plenty of time in Paris, in Tokyo, some in Seoul, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Beijing. But I’ve not lived there, digging into the culture and the language to the degree that I would desire.

And I’d like to learn more languages. So far, my exposures have been to Latin, German, Japanese, French — with some explorations of Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian. Fluency in anything but English — but exploring language and words is deep in my psyche.


9. Have you ever worked with business coaches or consultants?

Consultants and counsel. My experience with consultants has been broad. And in a way, it’s a matter of learning what you might already know, but having someone help redefine or more deeply embed answers to the challenges that you face. So you can embrace them, and advance. So while I’ve not worked with coaches for performance, per se, I have consulted with talent in exploring Girvin positioning and marketing, examining strategic direction, exploring internal relationships and dynamics, revisiting textual and visual context of the Girvin brand, and studying operational or acquisition considerations. There’s some learning in virtually everything. But, to deepening the impact of the engagement, the point is that you need to consider how the learning — how that exposure — can be vitalized. It’s easy enough to hire a consultant — but from the beginning, are you really doing everything that you can to strategically — and tactically — focus on their outcomes and implementations.


10. Have you attended business seminars or workshops to sharpen your business skills?

Learning communities. I’ve been exposed to an extraordinary array of learning opportunities. And I keep searching for more. I would say, however, that there are many learning exposures that simply sit in front of us, that are underutilized. Like seeking inspiration from doing something that is, perhaps, unrelated to the immediate creative solutions at hand. I look for these. Museums. Musical explorations. Study of history. Film. There are threads there that underlie the basics of what we do, but seen in the context of the passage of time, you find just that — the threads and movements that conform creative expression. And sometimes, simply going to conferences doesn’t get you there. But there are surely events that, by the nature of their exposition, teach you. I’m a member of the TED community, for example. That’s an incessant learning proposition — and the lessons and exposures are far-reaching. To conventional outlets, the notion of the Design Management Institute, strategic and trend forums, connections with learning communities — like the University of Washington, for example, help me explore and expand my creative consciousness. And another component is the reflective character there — teaching is perhaps an even more intense form of learning. That’s what I seek. Expansion of context in the framing of creative action. And I find that examining these explorations is helpful — no, deeply meaningful.


11. Do you have any activities or hobbies that you use to help you stay balanced? (Exercise, meditation, etc.) If so, what are they?

Seeking balance. I look at practice as a mix of balancing components. And surely meditation and reflection are among them. As well, as a Buddhist, I’m exploring the dimensions of that world, the art, the spirituality, interleaved. The power of a spiritual sense drives everything that I do — for every thing that I am involved with inherently links an essential spirit with articulation; it is, in a way, the lustration of ideas. I’m also a squash and tennis player, I box, run, train, hike. Writing and photography, interlaced with drawing is another layering to meditation on creative action. By weaving them, it’s a way of exploring contentment. And I mean content and containment. In a manner, that gestures to fullness. But the sleeves of meaning resonate to other parts of that — something contained, forms of expression, significance and profundity, an object of perception, holding capacity, the sum of attributes, volume. As a designer, being content can obviously characterize tints of meaning. If you speak content, are you?


12. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to build and sustain a career, what would you say to them?

Direction. Look at design as being holistic — not just where you live, creatively speaking, but nearly everywhere, in context. Explore it beyond your chosen medium.

Be fluent. Be willing to flow from one range of direction to another; design will always be about your interpretation, your illustration, but be ready to tell a story in a manner that actually relates to who you are speaking to.

What patterning is there, to the range of design, culture, people and history? Rather than merely familiarize yourself with the hippest present, what consciousness of the past is there? Rather than conforming to trends of the last ten minutes, what of the last 4,000 years, or more? For me, it’s like building a vocabulary — your fluency becomes expansive, rather than merely focused on developments of the last 20 years. Or less.

13. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to get good clients, how would you respond?

Openings. I’d offer: go where you want to work. Work on what you can personally relate to, work with those that you can personally connect with, explore that which makes you happiest. Clients will appear.

14. Is there any additional advice you might give to someone just starting out?

Beginnings. My phrasing, to beginning is: be intense. There are linguistic connections to that this word that are largely forgotten, or misused. Think of it in this new light. It’s a word that began 2000 years ago. And it’s tied to the concept of intent and intention. Set a path, form a principle of intention and action. What path, mapmaker?Consider this, the movement of the word in the last 700 years. 1350–1400; Middle English < L inténsus, var. of intentus intent, ptp. of intendere to intend. Look back, several hundred years to the source phrasing — 1175–1225; Middle English < Late Latin intentus an aim, purpose, Latin: a stretching out (inten(dere) to intend + -tus suffix of v. action); r. Middle English entent(e) < Old French < Late Latin. And finally, tense, the later iteration of the branching of this word. 1660–70; < L ténsus ptp. of tendere to stretch. Why do I continuously reference this etymological sequence? Because to be intense, is about having intention in action; aim and purpose, and finally it’s about tension — the tensile character of stretching. All profoundly meaningful.

About Tim Girvin:

Tim Girvin is the Principal of GIRVIN | Creative Intelligence, a strategically focused design and communications group based in NYC and Seattle, with an alliance in Tokyo. GIRVIN is privately held and has been in practice, operating world wide, continuously for more than 30 years. Tim Girvin acts as the Chief Creative Officer for both offices, that are supervised by Creative Directors managing the design solutions and teams of each location. The firm works from the premise of storytelling as a vehicle to enhance the portals of connection with people. The forum for creative is based on collaborative workshops that it has been honing for nearly 20 years, formalizing tactics and robust business strategies in aligned visualizations that form naming, message, identity, packaging, print, interactive and built scenarios to embrace culture and image, coupled in community, to reach one to one, or one to one billion. Their clients include Microsoft and Paramount Studios, Wynn and MGM MIRAGE, Kerzner and Boyd, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson in brand innovations, product development, retail design and interactive communications.

Their corporate site is

Tim’s personal site is and their blogs are at and

Tim Girvin can be reached at


Success Secrets from Debbie Millman:

  • Be fearless when asking people for business.
  • Find lots of clients. Because it’s impossible to know which of them will be good.
  • Work harder than anybody else that you know.
  • Shoot for the stars. Seriously.



I really wanted to work in graphic design. I wanted to be involved with what I thought would be the editing of the school newspaper where I went to school at State University New York (SUNY) Albany, which is a school that is essentially known for its school newspaper.

I went to SUNY Albany because I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and I worked my way up through the ranks of the school newspaper and became the editor of the Arts and Leisure section. Then very quickly found out that, in the grand scheme of things, I was much more interested in what the paper looked like than the specifics of how it ran.

I wasn’t as interested in editing, once I was assigned a story idea, as I was into designing that story. So I very quickly realized that it was really design that I should pursue and not journalism, although writing has had, and continues to have, a very big impact on my life and my career.

However, I don’t have a design degree. Instead I have a degree in English Literature, with a Minor in Russian literature, which has served me very, very well, in that I now make a pretty good living doing what I do.


Debbie’s first job:

After I graduated and started looking for a job, I saw an ad in the New York Times for a magazine job at publication that’s called Cableview and the ad specifically stated “no visitors.” But I figured I would go in person anyway, because it was literally a block away from where I lived. And I thought, well, what’s the harm in just dropping it off.

Apparently I was the first person to come by that Monday morning. The receptionist didn’t even know there was a job opening. When I dropped my resume by, she immediately called the creative director and said, “Oh somebody just dropped a resume by.” He came out. I really thought he was going to come out and yell at me. But instead he came out to see my portfolio and a half hour later I was working.

I ended up being hired as a traffic girl between the design department and the editorial department. So I continued my path of doing both, so to speak. Because I had been doing so much editing while I was in school, I still was doing editing and also doing graphic design. That was my first job.


Starting her first design business:

I went from that magazine to another magazine, a rock magazine, Rockbill. And again, I was doing the editing, the writing, and the design. Shortly thereafter, the creative director and I made a decision to start our own design firm. This was back in 1987. I had only been working for about four years at the time.

Looking back on it now, I do not know where I got the courage to start my own company. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any clients. We didn’t have any contacts. But we did it anyway and all of a sudden we had this business. And soon we had twenty people working for us.


Thoughts on cold calling:

To get clients, we cold called. I’m a master cold-caller as a result of that experience. And we just were fearless about asking people for business. And our company really got big within the first couple of years. When I was cold calling, a lot of people weren’t interested, but I never took that as a personal rejection. I take everything else personally though.

Thoughts on rejection:

You just get immune to the rejection. You begin to realize it has nothing to do with you.

As someone who’s constantly seeking approval, what better way than to keep plugging away? (Laughter) I’m very fortunate now, though. I have somebody at Sterling that makes the calls for me.


Changing directions:

This was in the late 80’s, which was time that was very important in the New York school of design. That’s when all of the great New York designers were in the spotlight. People like, Tibor Kalman, Stephen Doyle, and Bill Drenttel. I was enamored with the work that they were doing and I felt that the work that I was doing paled in comparison. I felt that I needed to learn a hell of a lot more before I had the audacity to start my own company.

One of the best graphic design firms was a company called Frankfurt Gips Balkind and they had done the amazing Why? annual report for Time Warner and it had changed the game in annual reports.

I was so taken by that annual report, I decided that, by hook or by crook, I needed to get a job there. And so I sold my shares in my company to my partner and made some connections and ended up being hired by Aubrey Balkind who, upon seeing my portfolio, said that he would hire me but not as a graphic designer. He said I would be better off in account management, doing new business development.

This became a pivotal time in my life. It was a very big step in how I developed, and who I am today, because essentially I did not work full-time as a designer after that. I was more involved in the business development and account management side, and then over the years, in shaping and positioning and growing a business in the way I have.

What’s really interesting is that, although I learned a tremendous amount and made friends that have become lifelong friends, I didn’t actually enjoy my experience at Frankfurt Gips Balkind.


People who impacted Debbie’s life:

If you look back on your own life, you could probably say that there aren’t many people that really impact your future. But, Aubrey said two things to me that have impacted me throughout my career, and until now.

One statement was that he would hire me, but not as a designer. The other was when I was leaving. I told him that I was going to work in brand identity, he just nodded his head and said, “You’re gonna’ do well in package design.”

When I left, I started working full-time in package design and that really was my niche. I found what I was meant to do in graphic design from that point.


Who has influenced your work in design?

Oh my God! Probably every single person in my book, How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer has influenced my work. I mean, that’s part of what was so remarkable about being able to do that book. I think almost every single person in that book had a profound influence on me, and on the way I think.

If I had to pick specific people out, I’d say Carin Goldberg, Paula Scher, and Emily Oberman. Some other people that aren’t in the book that I might also add to the list would be Ellen Lupton and Marion Bantjes.


Greatest accomplishments:

Probably the thing I’m most proud to have accomplished is still being in this business 25 years later. It’s 25 years this year. And I feel like I’m the luckiest person on the planet to be able to do what I do.

The writer and designer, Michael Surtees used a term when describing me recently, and I thought that it was a great, great term. He called me a “finisher.” (Laughter) And I think that’s because when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. I’m almost obsessively compelled to finish it.

It’s very hard for me to stop in the middle of something and not get back to it.


What would you do differently, if you had to do it all over?

I would not have been so afraid to want a lot.

Over the years I have struggled with admitting to myself how badly I want things. And I wish that I’d had more confidence and courage to admit that to myself.

This isn’t about how I behaved in my business, but how I behaved in regards to what I could be in my life. Now things are great. But it took a long time.


Thoughts on attending workshops and conferences:

Speaking at conferences and participating in them is a pretty good part of what I do on a regular basis.

I go to a lot of conferences and I’ve been chairing the FUSE Conference of the International Institute of Research for the last 13 years. I helped found the conference in 1996.

This year I’m chairing the GAIN Conference. I speak frequently at local AIGA chapters.


Debbie’s tips on building and sustaining a career:

Work harder than anybody else that you know. Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t rest on any laurels. And constantly try to find out and learn about the things that you don’t know.

It’s really easy to learn about things that you know. And it’s pretty easy to learn about things that you know that you don’t know. I would suggest that people learn about all the things that they don’t know that they don’t know.

Debbie’s thoughts on working outside of her comfort zone:

I don’t’ think I feel comfortable when I’m only working within my comfort zone. I like to be striving. If I feel like if I’m in my comfort zone, then I know I’m not working hard enough.


Debbie’s suggestions on how to get good clients:

Get a lot of clients. Because it’s impossible to know which of them will be good.

Some of my best clients have come from jobs that I would have considered to be the worst. And some of my worst clients have been with jobs that I would have considered to be the best. So I think it’s very hard to determine who’s going to be a good client and who’s going to be a bad client. There’s going to be good clients and bad clients anyway, and there’s no way to project.


Additional advice:

Shoot for the stars. Seriously.

So many people start out by thinking about all the things that they can’t do and once you take that path, it’s very hard to get off of it.

The only person that can make every dream that you want to come true is you. And if you start out with limited dreams, you’ll only achieve limited dreams. And that’s really sad when that happens.

About Debbie Millman:

Debbie has been in the design business for 25 years. She is a Partner and President of the Design division at Sterling Brands, one of the leading brand identity firms in the country. Debbie is a board member of the National AIGA, and teaches at the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is also an author on the design blogSpeak Up, a regular contributor to Print Magazine and she hosts a weekly internet talk show on the Voice America Business network titled Design Matters. Her first book, How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer, was published by Allworth Press in 2007, and her second, Essential Principles of Graphic Design, will be published by Rotovision in Summer, 2008. 

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Success Secrets from Joan Libera of Libera Design:

  • Develop and create a vision of what you want to accomplish in your life and life’s work.
  • You have to have the passion and the love to pursue what you want to do.
  • Put the work of artists you really appreciate and respect on your walls.
  • Send for, and study, information about companies you’re interested in. Then call up the CEO or the CFO and try to create an opportunity to meet with them to talk about what their vision is.


Joan Libera has been blending visual art and marketing directives to create dynamic, effective communication tools for over 20 years through her firm, Libera Design. Ms. Libera has won numerous national financial and design awards, including honors from Financial World, NIRI, the Mead Annual Report Show, the New York Art Directors Club, AR-Black Book, AIGA, the Art Directors Club of Los Angeles, and Print. Her client list is quite diverse and has included Borland, Litton Industries, Spelling Productions, SunAmerica-AIG/Kaufman & Broad, LAX, Novadyne Inc./HP, and the United States Navy/NAF/Blue Angels.


On getting started in business:

In 1984, I decided I wanted to have the freedom to create, build, connect, and it was the right time for me to do that. I wasn’t working for someone else, but previous to going it alone I had a business partner. We parted around then, and I thought it was time for me to form my own business approach.


Joan’s thoughts on the keys to success:

I would say that the key to my success is being centered-brained. Not necessarily left-brain or right-brain, but being right in the center. Having a finance and fine art background and literally smashing the 2 together to create a way to work with people and work with companies.


On working with entrepreneur CEO’s and CFO’s:

I found that I like working with entrepreneur CEO’s and CFO’s because I respect their vision and business sense. I wanted to join in and help them realize their goals. An entrepreneur has to have a vision; a unique plan and they can’t always put their vision into what it should or shouldn’t be, or what it should look like.

Most of the time they cannot even describe what their vision is. At least not like they are able to do for a financial document. But to take a document and describe what the vision is, to try to say, “Okay, where you want to be in two years, in five years,” and I have the opportunity to develop a plan with a creative approach to communicate their message to a particular audience.


On translating a CEO’s vision into a particular medium:

I would look at what they are trying to do, and basically look for a common theme in what they were trying to say. If they were able to communicate that verbally, then I would literally write everything down. Then I would look for common themes within the writing, while at the same time allowing the words to depict visual images in my mind. I would then research like and unlike businesses and then use the words and visuals to create a way to market them. I think that is what made me successful and in turn contributed to their success.


On accomplishments that stand out:

I would say that I’m really happy about everything that I did, some things more than others. I think what made me most happy was to living up to my commitments and promises, and accomplishing what I said I would do.

Would you do anything different if you were to start over?

No. Not really. I’ve really enjoyed the entire journey. I only worked for one major Designer in Chicago. He was one of the designers in the “Design 27 Group in Chicago” at that time.


On getting started out of school:

I was born and raised in Cicero Illinois. I went to The Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. After graduating, I interviewed with some of the top designers, and basically I did not have a design portfolio. Mine was more fine art, illustration and advertising. But when the designer I was interviewing with looked at it and said, “Oh, you’re a designer,” I said, “Well, great!”

I didn’t get the job right away because jobs were pretty scarce at the time. So I went on lots of interviews. After a while, I decided that I wanted to work for Norman Perman and that was it! So I just literally created a plan to get hired, but he wanted to be sure that I could take dictation and type.


The qualifications needed for the job, and contingencies:

Yes, dictation and typing. Both of those I could do, but I was never really good at either. He hired me because I was a total package along with my fine art background. I had the opportunity to work with some very powerful companies, and when he went on his vacation, he left me in charge of everything while he was gone. That was great.

He also had a contingency from the beginning. He said I could work there only for one year. But once the year was up, he wanted me to continue working and I asked him, “Why one year?” He said that in his previous experience working with designers, they started to develop their own vision of what they wanted to be and then wouldn’t take direction. And I said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. I want to design whatever it is for you and the client to be successful. I decided to stay on, but a little bit later I decided to move to California, and that’s when all the craziness started here.


Joan’s thoughts on business development:

Though I don’t have a business development program in place now, I did early on, in the beginning when I get started my company in 1984.

My system was mostly reading. Lot’s of reading: business magazines and newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal. I tried to understand and anticipate where the market was going, and learn the new technologies. Then, I would send away for information about the company, read their information, analyze what they did, and look at how they marketed themselves. Based on my understanding, I would call up the CEO or the CFO and try to create an opportunity to meet with them to talk about what their vision was.


I created a system of indexing clients where I would constantly stay on top of the people I had called and actually develop personal relationships with them. Not necessarily going after their business, but looking to develop some kind of personal connection.

These days that’s harder to do, because so few people take your call.


On going solo:

About 2 years ago, I made a decision to change the dynamics of my office by not having employees and to work with specific people on a contract or hourly basis.

I started by giving everyone in my office 6 months notice, then I followed through. I felt that the technology and the overhead was more than I wanted, and the nurturing and working with the staff was very time consuming, something like 24/7, and I needed to spend more time with my thoughts and what I wanted to do. So, I changed.


The challenges of having employees:

Making sure projects get done on time and within budget is the hardest part. The creative part is easy. I believe I was a good employee. I listened, and if I don’t necessarily agree, I’ll do what someone asks, but I’ll offer other solutions on my time and not on their dime. Many times designers who are employees will do what they want to do, and it doesn’t always work. As an employer you want them to be able to be creative, and express that creativity, but they have to accomplish the task within a certain time frame and on a certain budget, and that is the part you need to manage, as you probably know.


Joan’s thoughts on hobbies and activities to stay in balance:

I had always been a runner. Then my husband and a couple of friends started challenging me. So, for my first marathon I trained for 6 weeks. Then in one weekend, I ran 18 miles and thought, “Wow, if I can do that, I can do the marathon.”

You’ve got to have your physical, but you’ve also got to have your mental. It’s that mental strength that says I’m going to run 4 or 5 hours, whatever it takes. So basically, I was running with my husband and friends and they were running a little too slow for me, so I kind of “left” them. And I beat all of them! I did it in 4 hours, so that was pretty good. It was in Palos Verde’s, CA, over the hills. It was probably one of the more difficult ones.

I also did a double century called the RSVP, 200 miles, 2 days, from Seattle to Vancouver going to the border on bicycles and biking in the Canadian highway.


The Blue Angels

Another thing, and this was really exciting for me, I was a sponsor, worked with and was the designer for the NAF El Centro Air Show, home of the Blue Angels for 4 years. I was able to market their air shows. I didn’t do it for the money; I did it for the experience, and to help our Navy.

What I get out of it was a tent right on the flight line so I could invite friends and clients, and then go to parties with the Blue Angels. I also got to fly jets and do aerobatics. I was able to fly strait up and do all sorts of dives and other challenging maneuvers. They actually gave me the controls. It was great. I loved it. I’d design for free if they’d let me fly every day. (Laughter)


On seminars, consultants and business coaches:

The only consultants I’ve actually used for business are accountants and lawyers. The majority of information I’ve found useful comes from reading books on management, managing people, and managing businesses.

The last seminar I went to was an AIGA conference in Denver, just to see what is going on, to stay in touch, and what progress was being made. Actually I met a lawyer there. She was the speaker on how to draw up contracts, so I spent a lot of time talking with her and have stayed in touch. I felt it was about time that designers stepped up to the plate and became more business savvy. I think that is very important. We are not only designers; we are business owners as well. AIGA is a good organization for helping promote that.


Joan’s thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

In order to grow and sustain a business you have to have the passion and the love, and pursue what you want to do. And if you have the passion, and you make the commitment to what you are doing, and you’re consistent with it, you will be successful. But you’ve got to forge that vision for yourself, push yourself, and enjoy what you do. It’s all about loving what you do.

When I first started out, I put the artwork of artists I really appreciated and respected on my walls. Seeing those images always gave me the inspiration to do what I wanted to do. I looked at what they did, and said, “I can do this.”

Also reading, learning, experiencing life. Walking down the street and really seeing what is happening. Going to the market and studying people and having a consistent focus on what you want to do, and a vision of what you want to accomplish in your business. Hopefully all those things will keep you on tract.

© 2013 - The Sherwood Group
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