I Was Really Smart

By 1975, at age 25, I was really smart, probably the smartest I'll ever get.

I was living in Marin County, just across the bay from San Francisco. I had a new BMW, lived in a great bachelor pad, and was a partner in an increasingly established design studio. Life was remarkably good. In the course of everyday activities, I reviewed the portfolio of a young woman returning from study in Europe. She was very bright and sincere, but also intimidating as I was reviewing a portfolio more sophisticated than anything I could imagine or comprehend. Like walking into a room you've never been in, over the next days and weeks I found myself trying to find a connection to this new awareness of the design world.

Eventually-and I'm not sure how long it took-I realized it was something I had to confront. I looked into graphic design graduate programs, of which there were very few at the time. Eventually narrowing down my choices to the Royal College of Art and the Kunstgewerbeschule Basel, I elected to go to Basel. Once the decision was made, the mechanics of going weren't that difficult: closing out credit cards, selling almost everything, leaving a few things with friends. Leaving people was harder, although once some of my friends heard that I was leaving the country, they took the initiative to leave me.

Restarting the first time
As is well documented, the school in Basel is more monastery than college, with plenty of time to get deep into things, free of distractions. The back-to-basics, rather, “back to the roots” approach requires you to get every preconception of your system, and then to restart. This was fairly intense, but after about two years I was ready to move on, and decided I should continue to push further in this direction. I looked for the most conceptually grounded design studio I could find. Rolf Müller's studio is in Munich, and after several nervous attempts, I managed an interview, my first in another language. Over the next months my persistence in landing a job was greater than his lack of need for another designer. The team I joined consisted of eight designers, the others all from Germany and neighboring countries.

Really restarting
My belief that I was smart still persisted. By not speaking unless spoken to, I reasoned, my colleagues would certainly believe I spoke perfect German. But, as seems common to all design communities, my studio crisis was resolved by a printer. Dragging us off to a reserved table at Oktoberfest, and supported by significant amounts of beer, I was soon quickly arranging and rearranging my 20 words of German, even in the form of song. The design position, while in a very democratic studio, was all the way back to the beginning for me, even more so than the fundamental graduate program. My initial assignment was the creation of simplistic maps of medieval wars in Germany. Humbled, far from art directing, having assistants and complicated assignments, I was still more puzzled by everything than insulted. With time came more interesting assignments, but coupled with a regimen of strictly conceptual design development, and a serious and up-close relationship with the craft of design. Still five years before the Macintosh would be introduced, we had a traveling man who periodically sharpened our scissors and ruling pens.

It doesn't take looking back to know that this experience changed my entire approach to the design world. After leaving my previous life, the two experiences in Europe shook most of the “b”'s out of my system. Interestingly, it wasn't any longing for the States that brought me back, but rather a new curiosity, and a much clearer sense of the potential here. I returned and worked with another great designer, Jim Cross. Later, and by circumstance not design, I ended up starting a new practice. We now work as a group of six or seven, together, which I know to be my best attempt to recreate the way I learned to work in Europe. So far, it's working very well.

John Clark
Principal, Looking, Los Angeles, CA