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It felt like I was leaving the mob for the witness protection program. Making the decision to leave my past career of journalism for graphic design seemed impossible at the time.

I received mixed reactions when I announced my decision to enroll in a design school in Boston. Some saw my leaving journalism as a failure. “She couldn’t hack it,” the tried-and-true weathered reporters thought. Others viewed my change of career as a black mark on my résumé. “If you hop around too much your résumé will look unfocused,” they said.

A few applauded my decision. My parents, as always, were right behind me. “You have to do what makes you happy, honey,” Dad said. I remembered that as we backed out of the driveway of my old apartment in southeast Massachusetts with my goods loaded in a trailer Mom said, “You’ve flipped the last page of one chapter of your life. It’s time to begin another.”

And so I did. I now view my time as a reporter for two small New England newspapers, and my short-lived career as a waitress and bartender before that, as building chapters to my career as a graphic designer. I call the paths that led me to my graphic design career, my past lives.

It is said that the average person will meander through three to seven careers. Yet there’s often a stigma attached to abandoning one field for another. Some still view it as a lack of commitment, wishy-washy and wasteful—as though you’re throwing away years of experience to start from scratch.

Lucky for creatives, however, what is viewed as a negative in other fields is a positive in ours.

“I liken it to travel,” said Clint Runge, creative director at Archrival in Lincoln, Nebraska. “If you’ve only been to one place your whole life, you have a limited perspective. If you’ve been to other places, your world opens up...It adds to your palette.”

Margo Chase, of Chase Design Group in Los Angeles, echoed the sentiment. She said she appreciates the experiences a person brings to the job. “I look for people with varied pasts,” she said. “I find they’re often really dimensional people.”

“None of these additional backgrounds ever hurt,” said José R. Nieto, design director in the office of creative services at Northeastern University and vice president of programming for the Boston Chapter of the AIGA. “They always help. Design is the ultimate synthesizing discipline. It’s all about bringing things together...having a rich background is only going to help the design.”

Alisa Aronson, of Alisa Aronson Graphic Design in Boston, has witnessed the breadth of experience past lives bring to their new-found careers. As the coordinator of the Massachusetts College of Art’s Graphic Design Certificate program, Aronson has the privilege of reading the essays submitted by applicants.

“Some of these essays are confessionals...People have a trail of design-related things they’ve done. It’s a pattern they put together, that they discover has led them to graphic design...It’s interesting to see how they’ve gone down their path.”

Aronson often tells her students one of the keys to interesting design lies in culling from your interests and experiences. “The more interesting you are as a person, the better designer you’ll be,” she said.

This dialogue made me wonder, what have my fellow wandering designers learned from their paths?

Margo Chase, Chase Design Group
Margo Chase’s renowned work for artists including Madonna, Prince and Cher, among other notable clients, may never have been had she not discovered her true calling.

Chase’s original career venture started as an undergrad at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. She studied biology with the goal of treating animals. “I loved animals, so I wanted to help them,” she said. “Then I spent the summer as a veterinary assistant, and learned that vets watch animals they can’t save die every day. It would have been a terrible choice for me, but only later could I see that.”

So she stayed the course throughout her undergrad years. Eventually, in a two-pronged effort to keep up her grade point average and hang out with kids who wore cooler clothes, Chase signed up for a graphic design class. Upon finishing the class, in which she got an A, Chase added a graphic design minor.

After her bachelor’s degree, Chase enrolled in the University of California, San Francisco’s medical illustration program, thinking this might be a way to combine biology with design. “It’s not,” she said. “You can’t move the liver, or change its color, to make the composition look better.” Chase opted to shop around for a job in design with her book full of medical illustrations.

“I had the world’s weirdest graphic design portfolio,” she said. “I interviewed everywhere, but most design employers didn’t know what to make of my carbon dust rendering of a cat’s skull.”

In spite of her portfolio she landed a job doing pasteup for a grocery store chain’s ads and packaging. Later she hopped into the world of publishing and designed a book for the Olympic Arts Festival. When the publishing company was sold, she made several failed attempts at finding another job and eventually decided to start her own design studio.

Chase’s early sensibility remains evident in her current work. “Biology strongly informs the way I think about things,” she said. “I love beautiful organic forms.”

From her tedious job as a pasteup artist, Chase also learned to love technology. “Pasteup taught me to really appreciate computers,” she said.

Michael Donovan, Asphalt Media
Like Chase, Michael Donovan of Asphalt Media in New York City also began his career studying to become a vet in the ’70s.

“I grew up in the Midwest next door to a veterinarian, it was the path of least resistance,” he said. “But it wasn’t really what I wanted to do...”

Donovan later settled on design as his course of study. But at the time, design programs weren’t exactly mainstream. So Donovan began his design education at what was then called the College of Home Economics at Iowa State University.

“As soon as I graduated, I knew that I didn’t know anything,” he said.

Looking for more instruction, Donovan enrolled in Parson’s Environmental Design program. The program was in its early stages. After graduation, the school would ask Donovan to teach and shape the curriculum.

During the course of his impressive design career, which has included work for the American Museum of National History and the Ronald Reagan Library, Donovan has often referred to his scientific beginnings as a source of structure to his design divination.

“It’s not possible to create different experiences unless you’ve had experience with classical forms of communication,” Donovan said. “In some respects, there is a process and order in science. It’s not chaos. That certainly suits my style.”

Science has also provided a model for Donovan to test his work in many cases. “When you criticize a design solution, it’s almost like looking at faulty science,” he said. “If the building blocks aren’t there, it doesn’t work. I evaluate an awful lot of design on that basis.”

Eliza Grinnell, Harvard University’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science
Psychologist/Social Worker/Project Manager
Eliza Grinnell’s path has had a few bends. Grinnell started out as a psychology major. Her first job at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Hospital involved research on memory deficit in Alzheimer’s disease patients. It took little more than two years for Grinnell to realize that hard science was not for her.

Using her background, Grinnell sidestepped into a related field. She took a job as a social worker in a locked psychiatric unit counseling troubled adolescents struggling with addiction, suicide and other serious issues. She described her job as part-time police, part-time therapist. This job too soon drained her.

So, Grinnell bounced again. At the height of the Internet boom, Grinnell took a position at an educational software company as a writer and project manager. It was there that she discovered her true passion—creating.

“I loved creating something. Having something at the end of the day and saying I made this.”

After the bubble burst, she enrolled in design school. Luckily for her, she’s been able to transfer many of her skills to her current position as a graphic designer within Harvard University’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science.

The role of therapist has served Grinnell particularly well, she said. Her psychology experience has been invaluable when trying to unveil a company’s, team’s, or project’s character. “Sometimes people don’t know what they know,” she said. “You have to help them with that.”

Grinnell’s therapy experience has also been helpful in knowing how to help people feel comfortable with the process of design and where it takes them. “I think it’s important to put people at ease, let them know I’m not there to judge them. (I am there to) help them and make them feel they’re in good hands,” she said. “I want clients to feel they can trust me and that I understand.”

Grinnell has also learned, the hard way, about being placed in uncomfortable positions and digging herself out. While in the psych unit, Grinnell found herself locked down in the middle of riots. And, while working at the software company, Grinnell was often responsible for giving presentations to large groups. Both experiences were terrifying, but “I had to do it,” Grinnell said. “I just had to walk in with confidence and do what I had to do to get the job done. [Because of these experiences] I’ve learned to just throw myself into projects and fake it until it gets familiar.”

José R. Nieto, Northeastern University
As a kid in Puerto Rico, Nieto adored video games and adventure stories. This love inspired him to study computer science in college in pursuit of developing adventure-style video games. Nieto realized rather quickly, however, that the kids in his classes had been hacking away at computers long before he touched a keyboard.

“Being a has-been at age nineteen felt pretty bad,” he joked.

So Nieto shifted his studies toward writing. He graduated with a BA in English and History at Tufts University and later enrolled in the NYU writing program. Out of school, Nieto wrote many pieces including a Spiderman novel, but the work wasn’t as satisfying as he once might have thought.

“I was enjoying being published more than writing,” he said. “I always loved books. What I thought I loved was the words. But I guess I loved the physicality of them.”

Working as a production artist to make ends meet, Nieto found his calling and returned to school to study design. But the lessons he picked up as a writer still appear in his new career.

“The novelist background has really helped me in telling stories visually,” he said.

Because of his background Nieto understands how to tell a story and what elements to highlight to bring the narrative to life. “I can dig deep into the story itself...and let that inform the design.”

Alisa Aronson, Alisa Aronson Graphic Design
Marketing Manager
Aronson actually began her career on the opposite side of the table—as the client.

After graduating from college with an English degree, Aronson signed on to a position working in an architects’ office writing proposals and marketing materials. In the ’80s, desktop publishing hit the scene and Aronson started dabbling in the programs to enhance her proposals. She soon found herself enjoying the design more than the other facets of her job.

Aronson’s past life has made her sympathetic to the client. “I was a very uninformed client.” Aronson confessed that at the time she didn’t understand the process of design. Aronson now approaches her projects with the same finesse she does in her other role as coordinator and instructor in the Massachusetts College of Art Graphic Design Certificate Program. “I always try to educate the client.”

Her experience has also made her more sensitive to the message. Since Aronson worked so diligently to develop the communication strategy and craft the message in her past career, she now works equally hard to make sure that those words are read, understood and retained.

Robynne Raye, Modern Dog Design Co.
One of Robynne Raye’s earlier careers lasted less than a week. The partner at Modern Dog Design Co. in Seattle was fired from a Jack in the Box only five days after being hired for sneaking food to her friends.

The episode’s only a blip on Raye’s career track. Since then, Raye has focused on two things—design and music. At the age of nineteen, Raye spun punk records for Western Washington University’s radio station KUGS. The experience is one that not only taught her much, but it literally changed her life.

The experience at the station helped Raye develop her business savvy. In her role at the station Raye headed many fundraisers. It was working these gigs that Raye realized a core business principle. “You’ve got to make more than you spend,” she said. “That’s basic business!”

And it was at the studio that she started designing, making ads to promote activities, placing and printing ads, designing posters and other materials. She learned to juggle deadlines along with her assignments. And the experience gave her a primer on managing people through, as she fondly put it, dealing with flakey bands.

The best thing to come out of her past life, Raye said, was her business partner Michael Strassburger. It was at that very studio that the pair met. “If I had not been hired as a DJ, I would not have met Mike and my company would not have happened,” she said. “I would not be here.”

Mark McDevitt, Methane Studios
Bus Boy/Grill Cook
Mark McDevitt’s first job wasn’t exactly glamorous. McDevitt, partner at Methane Studios in Atlanta, cleaned tables for pocket money throughout high school and college. Later on, he graduated to grill cook.

Some may dismiss this early experience, but not McDevitt. “When I was a grill cook, that was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.”

“I learned how to do the job right,” he said. “If you’re a grill cook and you mess it up, your waitress is going to let you have it.” In restaurants as in a design studio, it’s a lesson that rings true.

McDevitt also learned the importance of customer service. “The customer always comes first,” he said. “You do whatever you can do within reason and hope they come back.”

McDevitt also learned to prioritize and juggle. “You have to know when to put the toast on and take the hamburgers off,” he said. “It’s a good analogy. You have to know the flow and the process of everything.”

Clint Runge, Archrival
Some of the tricks Runge still uses in his trade were actually tricks. Through high school and college, Runge performed as a magician for corporate parties and birthdays.

Runge sees his current career as securely rooted in his early days waving a wand. As a magician, Runge was tasked with wowing his audience. That meant calling upon creativity to develop the tricks and upon his performance skills to execute a presentation. And in part, it called upon his mind-reading capabilities. “It’s being able to read an audience. You need to make them like you,” he said.

It’s also about the art of the save. Not all of Runge’s tricks went as planned. It was during those experiences that he learned a vital skill. “Having to pull yourself out when things fall apart,” he said. “All those situations still apply today.”

And above all, Runge picked up the talent of making magic. So much about creating magic, like design, is about generating an experience or telling a story, he said. “What we do is looked upon as magic. You’re always trying to create this interest and a story.”

Nancy Goulet
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t use something I learned in my past lives. My restaurant jobs taught me the core elements of good service—patience, timeliness and to keep smiling no matter what. Early on as a waitress I learned to juggle multiple tasks—table five needs more ketchup, tally the check for table three, table ten needs their drinks delivered. I learned to prioritize and to think literally on my feet, but best of all, I learned to work with people at their best and worst. I now realize that if I could manage to serve and satisfy a hungry, stressed, time-pressed customer on their lunch break, that I can tackle almost any difficult design client.

My journalism experience taught me to ask thoughtful questions and not settle for flimsy answers. I learned the ever-useful skill of research. And last, but certainly not least, I learned to worship the core of communication—the word. Having been a writer has kept me honest when designing. Everything I do as a designer must add to the communication of the message.

I don’t know where I’d be in my life and my career without my past lives. I hazard to guess that I probably wouldn’t be a designer. It was my introduction to layout at the newspapers that ushered me into design. And I certainly wouldn’t be writing this article for Communication Arts had I not once been a journalist. Each experience I’ve had built upon the other, like links in a chain.

Eastern philosophy refers to reincarnation in which a soul goes through a series of lifetimes for the purposes of growth and development. In some New Age religions, it is said that each life lived prepares the being for who he or she wants to become in the next life. I always thought the idea was a bunch of baloney. But in this context, I realize this philosophy makes sense.

As designers we often talk about the creative process. We talk about brainstorming and sketching. We talk about role-playing. The creative solution isn’t arrived at by following a formula. More likely, it’s a series of trials and errors.

I’d like to think of our past lives as being more of trials than errors. And these trials, past lives, or whatever you might call them are the fodder we draw upon for our creative solutions, our growth and our understanding. My trials have given me different perspectives and inspiration to draw from. They’ve helped me connect to the world to enlighten my work and enrich my life. In other words, these past lives have prepared me for the career I’m building.

Often our lives and our creative process feel serendipitous. We didn’t set out to create colorful pasts. Instead, we followed our proverbial hearts.

In retrospect, maybe we should consciously seek out different experiences. I’m not telling you to quit your jobs to become a mechanic or anything. But stretch a little. Get uncomfortable. After all, like my fellow designers said at the beginning of the article, every experience can add to our repertoire if we look at them the right way and grow. Our future is informed by our past. Our experiences define us, they add to our language and understanding and make us better people and designers and communicators. They also provide us with challenges to not only overcome, but conquer. We’ll never know what potential resides within without challenging ourselves. That’s what all the past lives in this article tackled and accomplished. They had the courage to reach, despite the insecurity and the black mark it may or may not have left on the résumé.

So, let the nay-sayers and narrow-minded think my wandering career path was a failure and a waste. Given the choice, I’d do it all again. CA

Editor’s note: Many of the most popular Design Issues essays are now available in the book of the same name, compiled and edited by me and copublished by Communication Arts and Allworth Press (www.allworth.com). —DK Holland


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