John Bielenberg on Don Bell and Michael Vanderbyl

I have many design heroes. Some of them I know and some I just know through their work published in books and presented in lectures. They're the usual suspects, I guess, like Mockbee, Kalman, Gehry, Sagmeister, Starck, Mabry...

Unfortunately, I have very few true mentors. This is probably due to my own, not recommended, career tactic of “going it alone.”

However, there are two people that deserve “mentor” status.

The first was a man named Don Bell who taught Design and Photography at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where I attended for three years. I was a Studio Art major at the time, since they didn't offer a design major, but I was starting to take some design related classes like 2-D Design, Screenprinting and Black and White Photography.

Basically, I was a design virgin.

Don was really the first person to formally introduce me to the craft of graphic design. This was 1976, so we did everything by hand... which unlike some old people like me, I don't miss at all now. What Don did was spark an interest in design and then offer me much unwavering support. In fact, it was Don that suggested I leave SUNY Binghamton after two years and go to a “real” design school.

So, I transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology after my sophomore year. This turned out to be a tremendous mistake and I left after a year and a half and happily returned to finish up with Don at SUNY Binghamton. Well, actually I was “asked to leave? because I was a ”trouble-maker“ but that's a different essay. (Although I'm delighted to tell it whenever I get the chance.)

To be clear, I don't feel like I learned how to be a professional designer from Don. What he gave me was much more valuable. It was the desire to create and the encouragement to keep going.

My other mentor, Michael Vanderbyl, is more ”professional“ and ”famous.“ Michael has had a significant impact on my career that can be classified in two distinct phases. These are BF, Before Friendship, and AF, After Friendship.


I moved to San Francisco in 1980. This was the very beginning of a well-documented period called ”The Michaels.“ While I admired them all (Schwab, Mabry, Manwaring and Cronan) it was Vanderbyl who most impressed me. He seemed almost God-like at the time and frankly, scared me shitless. I closely followed his career and eventually mustered the courage to call and visit him for a portfolio review. He was very well behaved and even took me back to his office to show me some new work. (I recall that I saw a comp for a poster for Simpson Paper Company that was peeling slightly off the illustration board.)


I am very happy to report that Michael and I are now very good buddies. He has continued to be a huge role model through his commitment to design and teaching. Michael has also offered me tremendous support in my career and even, almost single-handedly, got me accepted into the exclusive and super-secret Alliance Graphique International.

I am most indebted to both Don and Michael and can only hope that I can offer the same help and inspiration someday.

John Bielenberg
The Bielenberg Institute at the Edge of the Earth
Belfast, Maine
C2 (A Creative Capital Network)
San Francisco, California