The First Career Stages of a Young Designer

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)

By Wayne Hunt

Either I never paid my dues or I’ve been paying all along, every week, every year—just one continuous balance due in the design business. Lessons learned are not a brief period for me, but a continuum. Sure, these are the few formative “I’ll never do that again” goofs and difficult situations, but I still say that to myself at least once a month. But the real dues I’ve paid, and I'm sure this is not uncommon, were in my first two jobs out of school.

Yes, early design-jobs-from-hell are dues paid big time—and I’ll devote this short essay to that challenging and painful period in the first career stages of a young designer. Diffuse the blame.

As a senior in college, I got a job in a small Illinois ad agency—I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The art director directed me to spec Murray Hill decorative caps for all of the letters in a bunch of headlines. This was when you ordered type from a vendor overnight, and it cost money. When the proofs came back looking like a wrecked birthday cake, we tried to rush reset and still missed the ad close. The art director told the account guy and the client it was my fault. When you know its wrong, don't do it.

Keep ’em sharp 
Their creative director and partner was a writer who had a big, spotless desk with only a chrome cup full of No. 2 Dixon Ticonderoga's, sharpened to a faretheewell, making a golden bouquet on the otherwise empty desk. Dozens of perfect yellow pencils ready for “great” copywriting onto yellow pads—pre-computer, remember. The guy went through a pencil about every five minutes and he hated to be out of pencils (less than fifty?) and couldn't write with short ones (less than six inches?). Yes, it was my job to keep that cup full, and twice a day, like a waiter topping off a water glass, I'd knock on his door and refill the cup.

California dreamin’
Arriving in California, I hooked up with a fairly well known designer. What was well known to many but not to me was that he went through employees like rubber cement (a adhesive commodity used back then), and he was cheap. Not just cheap, but bare bones, iron grip on a dime cheap. For typesetting he had the two junior designers actually hand cutting letters together from magazine pages and then photo-stating than to make headline art. The worst thing he did was interview lots of young illustrators and actually buy outright original pieces from their portfolios for 50 or 100 bucks cash and use them in future magazine layouts. Exploitation with a capital “E.”

A penny for your Pentel 
When I started there, he gave me one new Pentel pen and told me I could not have another until I could show him the first one was dry. “And don't lose it.” I didn't. Value your tools and supplies. And realize that other people may not value your time.

Where credit is due 
I showed the same boss some collage stuff I was fooling around with then (and still am today) and he used one for the major part of an illustration in a magazine we worked on. In the paste up, I listed both his name and mine under the illustration, but when the issue hit the newsstands, surprise, my name was gone. That's the day I started to look for a new job. Don't expect credit for anything until you call the shots.

Note that working for that S.O.B. was—ironically—the best design boot camp I could have had. Dues were paid every day in that small graphics sweat shop. Nearly everything he did is the opposite of how things should be done, technically, ethically, you name it. But, the experience taught me in great detail what kind of boss not to be, lessons that have served me well in over twenty-five years of boss-hood.

From darkness into light 
After eleven months of design office hell (I think I set the longevity record there), I fell into the opposite environment—one of the top multi-discipline design practices in LA, and it was a respectful, humane place where people liked each other and the projects were cool. I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning. And, my luck even got better; after a year, the senior guy who hired me “up-and-quit” and I kind of ended up with his responsibilities. So two years out of school I was more or less in charge of the graphics part of the studio. Here I learned how a real design office should be run.


© AIGA  Used with permission.