Good Design is Always About Paying Dues

Chapter One: You Gotta Love the Smell of Ink
Just after graduating from college as a printmaker and design student (age 21), I returned to Los Angeles (the last place on earth I wanted to live at the time) because of a love interest. Trying to get my bearings, I found a job at George Rice & Sons, at the time, the best commercial printer in Los Angeles. I was hired as the receptionist, but within a couple of months was promoted to the print production department because they thought I was knowledgeable about paper. Of course, all I really knew was fine art printmaking papers, so it was trial by fire.

I was often asked to do the most tedious tasks, but I also met the best designers in town and got to work on their projects. I stayed another year before going to work at a design studio, but I look back on the job as the perfect apprenticeship-in the classic medieval tradition. To this day I have a soft spot for press checks in the middle of the night and all those “blue collar” guys who are, in fact such fine craftsmen. One learns that as high tech as it gets, great printing happens in places that feel akin to a printmaking atelier.

Chapter Two: The Marlo Thomas Years
When I was about 26, I moved to New York City because I wanted to try on a completely different life. Not knowing anyone there, I pounded the pavement for six weeks, and had the good fortune of seeing the best firms in the city. (In retrospect, it was like a series of nerve-wracking studio tours.) I was hired by the firm that is now Addison, to design annual reports for several Fortune 500 companies. It was like an intense boot-camp graduate school. Just picture our team staying up until 2:00 a.m., hand-cutting in a new ampersand on each and every mention of “Black & Decker” in the 56-page Black & Decker annual report mechanical, because the night before we went to press the client decided he hated the ampersand in Univers (this was way before the first Mac).

All I can say is that I was tested for a brain tumor before the doctors realized that two months of non-stop dizziness was simply due to intense fatigue. However, I will also always remember Len Fury teaching me to determine when to invest in and when to let go of a job before it drove me crazy. And that Les Segal taught me the beauty of drawing ridiculously primitive, deliberately rough sketches as he talked with CEOs-so they could imagine the solution, as opposed to the details.

Chapter Three: What's Entrepreneurship, Anyway?
I returned to LA when I was 28 because I wanted a backyard and a dog. As I was again trying to get my bearings, I started being referred to clients to do projects. I finally figured out I'd better design some damn letterhead so I could do some invoicing. Thus I inadvertently started a design firm. But what did “a firm” mean? The studio was located in Old Town Pasadena at a time when our only neighbors were grungy thrift stores and seedy bars. For the first year, we didn't have enough money to buy tape dispensers so we just kept stacks of tape on our desks. For the first two years, we had to walk down the block to make each Xerox copy. We used my parents' old dining table as the conference table. (During our first meeting with a CEO, one of the legs fell off.) Twenty-two years, two dogs, four studio locations and many long hours later, you could make a case that good design is always about paying dues. I honestly wouldn't have done any of it any differently.

Kim Baer
Principal KBDA Los Angeles, CA