Success Ideas from Master Designer, Bill Thorburn

Success Secrets from Bill Thorburn:

  • It’s always been that feeling of passion and energy and excitement and learning, and growing. What more can you ask from a career?
  • I’ve always thought the best creatives were really, really, really humble at the end of the day, and very open-minded.
  • Build a strong foundation. Build the soul. Build the essence. If you don’t, you’re gonna’ be road-kill within 5 years.

Early beginnings:

I’m a little bit of an anomaly in the sense that I’ve never taken a design class in my life. And I might be a dying generation because of how important technology is in our execution. But, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Minneapolis College for Art and Design. My focus was painting. At the time it was kind of funny. Design wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. I think if you were to go back to MCAD you would see that it’s flopped. It was probably 70% fine artist and 30% designers at that time. I graduated in 1984. My designer friends all dressed up in Yves St. Laurent ties and carried briefcases. They stood out back then. Of course now the designers wear jeans and t-shirts, just like the artists.

It was the first year of the Mac, 1984, and I remember them showing me a 3/4 view of a pie chart. And they kept moving one slice in and out, back and forth, going “Hey Thorby, check this out. How cool is this?” And I remember just laughing and thinking, “You’re paying for an education to do that?”

Anyway, I had worked in a small graphic services firm to get myself through college, and so I had done everything from printing to halftones and typesetting, you know, those foreign words these days. They did everything from typesetting to logo design and printing. It was the first job right out of high school. I was called a “printer’s devil” which comes from that rich heritage of tradition that printing has, all the way back to Guttenberg. But it was a term that was created by Ben Franklin. Basically a printer’s devil cleaned up the presses. I worked in the bindery and ultimately learned how to run a press and then how to do film and halftones.

Moving into design:

One day they said to me, “Aren’t you going to art school?” And I said, “I am.” And they said, “Here, do a logo for us.”

Ironically enough, when I left college I became a ski bum in Salt Lake City. And I saved enough money after 3 or 4 months to tour the West – do my Jack Kerouac stint. I was going to live in my car for 3 days and then shack up in a hotel and wash up and eat at buffets, and I figured I could be on the road for about 60 days and then come home back to Minneapolis.

At my first stint I landed at Lake Tahoe. I fell asleep in my car in a parking lot and I was awakened in the morning by a guy who was about my age. He invited me in for a cup of coffee. He was wondering what I was doing in his parking lot, and turns out, he was the owner of a type house in town. And of course back then, the type houses were the center of the universe, right? We’d send out our galleys every night and get them back.

We started having a cup of coffee and I said, “Hey, I’ve just been skiing in the mountains outside of Salt Lake City for 4 months. I’m going to do my little tour and then go back. So I have to get a real job.” He said, “Well, what do you do?”, I said, “Well, I’m trained as a fine artist, but I’ve been putzing around in commercial art for the last six years. So I’m not really sure.” He said, “Well there’s a lot of designers up here and there’s’ a lot of design positions up here that are open. I can send you to 3 interviews in the next hour if you want to.” He also said, “By the way there’s more skiing per capita here in Lake Tahoe than anywhere else in the world.”

Communication Arts: an epiphany:

And so I went off and I did my first interview. I went to a women’s office literally an hour later. I put my best turtleneck on and my best loafers and khakis. I had no portfolio and just went to introduce myself. As I was sitting in the lobby I started flipping through the stack of Communication Arts she had sitting there. I remember at that moment realizing what a jerk I’d been to the people that had pursued a degree in design. It was the beginning of Post Modern. I think the first issue that I looked at was a whole issue on what was going on in Texas and Dallas and with Woody Pirtle.

Right then, I had one of those epiphany moments. I realized at that point that this was my career. And this was exactly what I had been looking for as I grew up looking at album covers and reading Mad Magazine. You know what I mean? I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to do this stuff, but I never really put the pieces together.

Passion that never leaves:

It was a very powerful moment and it is still. It hasn’t left me to this day. I still feel more passionate and excited about my job today than I ever have and I think that’s the beauty of graphic design: it’s constantly evolving and changing.

Now I’ve been doing this for 25 years. And the passion has never left me from that first moment, that epiphany moment, of sitting in that small little design firm in Lake Tahoe looking at Communication Arts and just being blown away, really realizing that this was it! This was the thing I wanted to do. It’s always been that feeling of passion and energy and excitement and learning, and growing. And I think, “What more can you ask from a career?” That’s what keeps it so exciting.

Finding his way to Carmichael Lynch:

I spent about 4 years in Nevada. Then I moved back in ‘88, ’89. I don’t remember, but Minneapolis was just blossoming at that time. I was looking over my shoulder, saying, “Wow, what a hip place to live, to work.” I’d gotten my start in a career. And so I went back and I was hired by a shop in town.

A year later, I moved into an incredible position with incredible people at Dayton Hudson Marshall Field’s. It was just a wonderful time to be there. After 5 years, retail begins to repeat itself. You know what I mean? It’s spring; it’s very light; it’s very sheer; it’s very gossamer. It’s fall; it’s very rich; very jewel tone. Oh gosh, here’s a flower show. It’s gonna’ be a country theme. And holidays we’ll do a traditional one. The other side of retail is that it is fresh and a reflection of the culture at that moment. It also brings the destination and experience into the creative. It was a great place to develop a broader approach to the assignments that I was given.

So I went off and opened up my own design firm called Thorburn Design. And that went on for a couple of years. It was really great. We were doing work for Nike and Microsoft and ESPN and Neiman Marcus and we had some great accounts and we were getting some good buzz.

One day I got a phone call from the head of Carmicheal Lynch, Jack Supple, and he said, “We’re looking to create a design division.” That’s where the conversation started. It was a really nice marriage from day one. So Thorburn Design became Carmichael Lynch Thorburn, and now we’re back to The Thorburn Group.

On staying small in a big agency:

We’ve just worked with phenomenal clients, from Coca-Cola, to Harley Davidson, to Porsche, to Benjamin Moore to Formica, to Toys‘R Us. It’s just been wonderful, the brands we’ve been able to accumulate. We still keep it small. We utilize the infrastructure of the ad agency, but we’re a completely separate division. We run on our own separate profit and loss operation.

We go after our own accounts and we end up working a lot in partnership with our brothers in advertising and public relations. And you’ll understand what I’m saying, it took a big burden off of me. MIS, human resources, and accounting is all taken care of. I can plug into planners.

For a group of 15-20 people to be able to work on those kinds of brands and rebrand them and reposition them to have planners involved has been really a leveraging kind of value-added proposition that my firm brings to the equation that a lot of design firms don’t bring, and so it’s been kind of a blessing from that point of view.

On the other side, aesthetics have become so important. When I first started, 12 years ago, this was definitely a copywriter’s paradise. And now, all the young hot talent that’s coming here on the art director’s side, is very much aesthetically driven. I think we’ve become very inspirational in creating that vibe within this building.

I think clients are really looking for design opportunities in this climate. Build a strong foundation. Build the soul. Build the essence. If you don’t, there’s just so much information flying around out there you’re gonna’ get lost in the crowd and be brand road-kill within 5 years.

On new business development:

Typically a director of new business and an admin handle new business development. It’s fairly small and when the door has been opened, the director of brand strategy and I will go and present our work and our process and look for opportunities to partner with whomever it is we’re talking with.

Influences in the design world;

Coming from retail, I tend to lean more towards fashion and fashion designers. I love the Japanese. I love the Issey Miyake’s, the Yohji Yamamoto’s. And I still look to people like Isaac Mizrahi and what they’re doing. I also think art is really important to me and it still maintains an important aspect of how I get inspiration. I try to create a culture of what I would call enthusiasts and advocates. There’s so much going on in the world. There’s a kind of cross-pollination from everybody.

On the importance of sharing enthusiasm:

Tomorrow, we have a thing called Taco Talk. All the creatives get together about once a month. I go out and buy the tacos and they come in and everybody shares what’s got ’em excited. We’re all trying to find that epiphany moment like I found back in Lake Tahoe.

It’s still true today. There’s still that kind of fresh awakening that happens with current work and current designers, and the exciting stuff that’s going on, whether it’s film or design or fashion or art or architecture. So we try to build a culture around that and just let people share it and turn each other on. I think that’s the beauty of having a mid-sized design firm. There are enough people here that can create a community of shared values. It really becomes a catalyst, and we all inspire each other. I’m grateful for that.

My greatest hope is to create a culture that encourages others to succeed and do great work. As you know, that’s an ongoing challenge.

The keys to success:

If I was talking to a younger designer, I would say it’s really all about what’s in your heart and in your passion. I think this is a passion sport. It has nice longevity as a career and it gives people the opportunity to come in every day and grow and keep evolving. It’s a career that constantly unfolds as long as you stay true to your heart and your passion of wanting to do great work.

Would you do anything differently?

I don’t think so. I feel very grateful. I think the mistakes and the flounders worked their way up to what became successful. So if you don’t trip and fall a couple of times, you’ll never move forward. I think the mistakes I made were blessings in disguise.

On the value of consultants and training

I try to encourage my staff to go to as many trainings as they can, to go to one a year. Also, we have hired consultants on a couple of different levels, once to help us become better at new business, another to become better at presentations.

There are so many great conferences. You can pick your medicine: the Aspen Design Conference, GAIN. We have a great local chapter of AIGA here that does a design camp every year. There’s the HOW Design Conference, AIGA National. I leave it up to the individuals to figure out what they want to do. It could be weekend classes at the Community College or back at Minneapolis College of Art and Design or one of the other art schools in town to learn animation or grow deeper into programs. I’m a complete advocate of that and encourage my guys and gals to pursue that stuff diligently.

A thought for people just starting out:

Stay focused on the work and do great work, but never forget the relationship. I think those two things balance out a career of longevity and your reputation.

On the importance of staying in balance:

I try to stay active and ski or rollerblade or running or mountain biking. We also have a place up in northern Minnesota. You gotta’ recharge the batteries every now and then.

I have a friend from Paris. I explained that to him that he’d have to come up north, up to the lake with us. This was mid-June and believe it or not, we actually do get warm in this state. So he showed up with all this winter stuff and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well you’re going up to the lake.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s up north” and he said, “Oh, I thought we were going up to the mountains.” So he’s brought his high altitude gear. No, this is lake country up here and there’s a lot of little shacks up there that people retreat to

I also think that when you retreat with your family you’ll have a balanced life. Sometimes you’ve just gotta’ turn it off and go float. That’s really what the lake represents for me.

Additional advice for someone just startingout:

Be passionate and stay pure to the work. Be humble. Realize there’s a lot to learn. Be open to learning because there’s a whole wide world out there. That’s what makes this such a great career, you’re always getting a little bit better, learning a little bit more. You have to be open to that. There has to be some humility to that. As much as you want to know it all, to be as good as you can be. Defend what you do. I’ve always thought the best creatives were really, really, really humble at the end of the day, and very open-minded.

About Bill Thorburn

Bill Thorburn, founding principal of The Thorburn Group, has 20 years of internationally recognized design expertise. He started with a fine arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and worked in the agency setting for several years before becoming design director for Dayton–Hudson’s–Marshall Fields. With The Thorburn Group, Bill exercises his vision for strategic, powerful, lasting design every day. His list of client work is impressive: Nike, Microsoft, Harley–Davidson, Neiman Marcus, Dayton’s, Coke, ESPN, and Porsche, just to name a few.

Bill’s design work is included in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art in London, and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. He has also had individual exhibits in Japan and London. TTG, Minneapolis, specializes in the design needs of clients looking to establish their identities and build their brands.

This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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Please comment. We’d like to know if you found this article informative or helpful?



  • By bill thorburn 06 May 2009

    “You are making a living document of our times, this could be the most significant document of living designers ever done.” Thank you Will for including us.


  • By My Homepage 21 Mar 2012

    Will Sherwood, a graphic and web designer with The Sherwood Group in Santa Clarita CA (just outside Los Angeles), can always be relied on to share meaningful and helpful information. Thank you, Will

  • By Clarisa 20 Jun 2012

    you are a great writer, i hope someday i will write as well as you do.

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