I am one of those lucky people who knew early on what I wanted to do when I grew up, and my parents always encouraged me to develop my talent. Growing up in a family full of business professionals I was encouraged to “do more art” rather than persuaded to focus on something else like business, law, or accounting.
At an early age my parents sent me to an after-school art program run by the very well known Long Island artist Aida Whedon and her husband Dan, my first career influencers. The weekly workshops alternated between her studio learning about the great masters, how to paint and create etchings, and his studio throwing pots and working with wood (only in the 70’s would young children be allowed to work with band-saws and electric sanders). It was clear at 7 years old that I wanted to create things for a living, and here were a couple of people who were able to show me how. Although our school district had an excellent arts department, I was still encouraged to continue my personal artistic development outside of normal schooling. I attended several extracurricular art programs, focusing more on commercial applications of art such as advertising, illustration, and graphics, as I got older. And I started freelancing when I was 15, designing tee shirts for a local shop in town (experience that came in handy when I got my first in-house job in the product development department at Gap and Banana Republic).
Hero worship admiration
In the days before the Internet, finding inspiration – and professional direction – came from reading industry trade publications and annual design reviews such as Communication Arts, HOW, PRINT, Step-by-Step, @Issue, and others. I learned as much about design and the profession from those magazines and annuals as I did in any classroom at SVA. I was inspired by the work that I saw, choosing some of my classes based on wanting to do that kind of work (especially if the class was taught by the likes of Milton Glaser, Ed Benguiat, and Tony Paladino).
Early on in my pre-career days of art school, I built a list of my own design heroes. These were the creative rock-stars whose careers I wanted to model my own after. There were several long-lasting industry icons on my list such as Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Lou Dorfsman… and there were other rising stars (at the time) attaining design fame and winning awards and accolades year-after-year like Chip Kidd, Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, and Bruce Mau, to name just a few.
These were the professionals who inspired me to become a designer, and strive to solve creative problems using design. I wanted nothing more than to meet my design hero’s and pick their brains about design, and the design business.
The In (House) Crowd
Jumping ahead several years to the point in my career where my job became less about being creative, and more about leading in-house creative teams, my design heroes started to include people I respected for a different reason than merely being great or famous designers. I started to read articles written by (or about) Andy Epstein, Glenn Arnowitz, Tim Cox, Sam Harrison, Jenni Herberger, Emily Cohen, and others who earned a reputation for their creative business management and leadership acumen. They too were featured in the trade publications like my early design heroes, and spoke at conferences such as HOW Design Live (HDL).
One day in 2007 when I was having a particularly challenging day navigating corporate culture, I decided to seek advice by email from industry peers at InSource, the professional organization for in-house creative leaders. The email advice turned into real conversations with Glenn Arnowitz, then VP of InSource in person (Glenn later invited me to join the board of InSource, of which I am now serving as President). Glenn introduced me to Andy Epstein, whom he co-founded InSource with and was now program director for the in-house managers track at HDL. Andy and I started talking regularly about in-house issues, and he invited me to take part of a panel discussion at HDL in 2012. Tim and Emily were also on the panel, and I met Jenni and Sam shortly thereafter. I had come face-to-face with the professionals I admired, and began to know then personally!
Heroes, and friends
Since 2007, thanks to my involvement with HDL and InSource, I have had the honor of meeting a great many design leaders whom I admire. Many of these industry influencers I am happy to call my friends, as well as confidants and advisors. I have built relationships with them, had countless meals, coffees, cocktails, and phone calls with them. We discuss the industry, the conference, and I seek advice from them.
These connections I’ve made have undoubtedly helped me become who I am today professionally. I can only imagine who I’m going to meet next, and how they will influence the next half of my career.