I grew up in a very artistic family.
My father was an art teacher for 40+ years at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn NY. He studied painting and art education at Pratt Institute in the 1960s for both undergraduate and graduate school where he met my mother who studied fashion illustration. My earliest memories involve me drawing and painting with my dad. Throughout my elementary school years, he’d bring me to his class on my days off to draw with his students. I was learning and drawing complex perspective techniques, still lifes, and even live figure drawing, while my age was still in the single digits. On rare occasions he took his students on drawing field trips to places like the Bronx Zoo or the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. At one point, early in my childhood my father started a wallpaper design business with a family friend, called “Lasky Designs.” Essentially, he’d design beautiful patterns and motifs, and the partner would get them screen printed and sold to specialized wallpaper showrooms for designers. It never quite took off, but I had notepads throughout my youth emblazoned with Lasky Designs… across the top.
He also taught a Saturday workshop for high school students in Manhattan at the School of Visual Arts that I would often tag along for. What I remember most about those Saturdays was not his class, but the in the classroom next door cartooning and animation was being taught. It was there that I discovered cel animation and the magic of persistence of vision. Using light tables, acetates, and reams of paper I became obsessed with drawing my own cartoons. These phone book size stacks of un-filmed cartoons still survive in my attic today.
Looking back at these early days of animation and hand drawn filmmaking, my career path makes total sense. Like most kids, I also loved watching cartoons and was hooked on Hanna-Barbera’s work. I recently discovered this letter I wrote them at age 7:
My love of comics was evident at a very early age (see A LOVE LETTER TO MARVEL), and I would often draw superheroes and my own comic books. I even submitted an original superhero idea to Marvel when I was around 8 years old and got this letter back from them:
I was always the ‘class artist’ in grade school. Every class had one. The kid who did all the posters, the covers for the creative writing and poetry compilations, the pamphlets for the school plays, and the signs around the classroom. It gave me confidence and I looked for any excuse to draw something for the class and the teachers. I was always told from an early age that if you love to draw, the best career to pursue is architecture. Unless you wanted to teach art, the only way to be commercially successful, I was told, was to design buildings. So from grade school on, my answer to the perennial ‘what do you want to be when you grew up’ was always “an Architect.”
I remember early on, my father had boxes of press type kits from Letraset he used for designing headlines in high school yearbooks at his school. He had pages and pages of these transparencies, with a wide variety of type styles. There was a special roller tip tool used to transfer and ‘rub’ the letters onto paper, one at a time. He taught me the technique, first drawing out a straight line with a ruler to align all the letters through the tranparency, and then painstakingly rubbing each letter down on the paper. I used this often for covers of book reports and papers—and I loved the satisfaction of peeling back the sheet once I was finished to see how good those ‘typeset’ words looked. I realize now, thats where I first fell in love with beautiful typography.
The other influence on my love of type and letterforms came from my mother, whose hobby and talent for calligraphy always inspired me. She studied with Mac Weissman (an incredible letterer who injured his hand in WWII and learned calligraphy as a form of rehabilitation)and that lead her to designing wedding invitations and hand lettering envelopes for many years. She also taught workshops in calligraphy that I sat in on.
Junior High school brought me to Mark Twain for the Gifted and Talented, where each student selected a ‘major.’ Of course, I landed in fine arts and was immersed in a class room filled with kids who were each their own elementary schools’ class artist. This was interesting. It was the first time I felt a competitive spirit for my art, and I fed off it.
I had my Bar Mitzvah at 13, and with the little money I was gifted, I plead with my parents to let me buy a computer. The year was 1986 and I had already discovered the 2 year old Macintosh. I saw this innovative machine as a tool to help me unlock my creativity and allow me to create things that could only be done with a computer. At that time, and for several years, the Mac was self contained beige box with a mere 9-inch black and white screen. The advantage—as it was touted back then—was it had ‘resolution!’ All the other home computers at the time were color, but soft and not user friendly at all (commodores, amigas, ibm’s, franklin ace, etc). The Mac had a crystal clear, razor sharp black and white screen, that used dithering patterns to approximate greyscale imagery.
I convinced my parents it was a worthy investment and off we went to Computerworld in Brooklyn and I bought a Macintosh Plus complete with 1mb of Ram and a double sided (800k) internal drive. I added an external drive to the bill and an ImageWriter II dot matrix printer. That pretty much cleared out my entire Bar Mitzvah kitty, but I was in business. Those first few years I dove head first into MacPaint, MacDraw, SuperPaint, Swivel 3D, Printshop, and any other image-making or painting program that was available at the time. Soon after, it was on to the “Desktop Publishing Revolution’ (DTP) as I proceeded to learn and master Aldus Pagemaker, Ready Set Go!, and of course, the industry standard of the day, Quark XPress. I took to these programs very quickly, and spent countless hours experimenting and creating. I looked for any excuse to make brochures, flyers, pamphlets, leaflets, and business cards for friends and relatives. I remember, one of my happiest days was when I finally saved up enough money to buy a scanner–ThunderScan it was called–which replaced the ribbon on the ImageWriter printer with a camera shaped like a printer ribbon, allowing pages to be fed into the printer’s rollers to be scanned. The problem was, like the printer, it scanned one lined at a time, taking almost an hour to complete one letter size page scan at a decent resolution. And only black and white of course. Prehistoric by today’s standards, but at that time, flatbed scanners were literally thousands of dollars.
Around late 1987-1988, Adobe Illustrator was born, and sharp postscript, vector based graphics were now possible. This also happened to coincide with me entering Stuyvesant High School and getting my first job working at Mac Emporium on 23rd street in NYC–the only Macintosh focused store of it’s day. They didn’t sell the actual computer, but sold every thing for the Mac—software, hardware, peripherals, accessories, and novelties. I worked every Saturday making $4/hr (min wage was $3.75 at the time and I was extremely proud to be earning more then that). I was “a 14 year old salesman,”demonstrating software to customers, and getting to experiment and learn the latest programs right as they were coming out. Through those years (and summers as I worked full-time) I steadily upgraded my Mac to newer and better machines, traveled to Macworld expos, devoured every page of MacWorld and MacUser magazine each month they came out, and got vast discounts on software and hardware. My knowledge and fluency continued to expand.
I looked for opportunities to put this to work for high school–any excuse to dress up a term paper, lend a hand with a school flyer or even help out teachers (and the principal on occasion) with computer questions and challenges.
In the first semester of my freshman year, my best friend and I wrote and created “The Roman Yearly” a newspaper from Ancient Rome filled with articles of historical significance, and a comedic tone, to submit as a class project for Social Studies. We got tremendous praise from the teacher and her administrators—documents like this from 14 year olds were unimaginable in 1988. I pulled out all the stops to make this thing—I remember sweating through Pagemaker for weeks to put it all together–scanning imagery with ThunderScan, recreating line art in Illustrator 88, and finally outputting it on a LaserWriter at MacEmporium. All together it was 40 pages of articles, images, fake ads, quotes, and other pieces of ephemera to create authenticity and genuinely researched Ancient Rome content.
Little did I know at the time, but The Roman Yearly paved the way for something much greater–The Culture Vulture–Stuyvesant’s only Film and Arts magazine.
With the same friend, we started in our Sophomore year (1988) a twice yearly magazine devoted to culture—film, art, music, and literature. Collaborating with other students on articles and essays, twice a year I would lay out this magazine and we’d sell it to the students in the lobby for 50 cents. We funded it with ads from local business (also that I designed to include on certain pages. The back cover was premium real estate and more expensive, of course). In addition to the publication, we’d often come up with witty flyers to post on the bulletin boards around the school to hype up the next issue, solicit writers and artists, announce meetings, etc. I took such pride in branding this entire enterprise–laying out each issue, drawing each poster, flyer, crafting the logo, and making a character out of this ‘cultured bird.’
I created the magazine in PageMaker, got a co-worker at MacEmporium to scan black and white 8 x 10’s on his thousand dollar flatbed scanner (we used to buy these photos at Jerry Ohlinger’s, a landmark film and memorabilia store on 14th street that had millions of promotional stills for sale from every movie and television show imaginable) and did all the illustrations in Adobe Illustrator. Additionally, I would sketch layouts for these spreads on paper before ever launching PageMaker.
In addition to teaching High School Art, my father also was in charge of John Dewey’s yearbook for decades. I used to watch him meticulously lay out these pages year after year by hand. He used to subscribe to Print and How magazine, and he’d share these with me as a great source of inspiration. I remember pouring through the Print Regional Design Annuals flagging dozens of spread and page layout ideas I wanted to try for the next issues of The Culture Vulture. It was in these magazines, that I first really learned and understood what the art of graphic design was all about.
Putting it all together ended up being quite the marathon session that last few weeks. Through MacEmporium, I got to know a customer who owned a digital printing service bureau (The Stat Store, later Digital Exchange where I actually worked at for 2 summers during college) who offered to print the plates for me on a Linotronic 300 imagesetter–a massive printing system in the 90s that output to rolls of film at resolutions of 1270 or 2540 dpi. From those plates, I would have an offset printing company print and bound the hundreds of copies of The Culture Vulture for sale and distribution. This was my introduction into the world of graphic design.
At some point around 14 or 15, I decided to try and make some money doing freelance graphic design. I made myself a business card (see image above), and even put together a flyer that I posted in some key areas of my neighborhood and the bulletin board at MacEmporium.
Through MacEmporium I worked with a wide variety of likeminded Mac enthusiasts, and I also got to know a very interesting and eclectic customer base. After all, at the time if you were a Mac user in NYC, there weren’t many retail options to purchase software, hardware or peripherals except for mail order in the magazines. One customer in particular named Howard Mandel (not the comedian) was a fiercely talented graphic designer who took a liking to me and enjoyed my passion for using the mac for design and creation. At one point, he offered me a summer internship at his design studio in SoHo, The New Media Design Group. I eagerly accepted and for 3 summers in a row (89, 90 and 91) I worked as an intern/design assistant with Howie and his team, while still working at MacEmporium on Saturdays. In addition to doing grunt work and errands, I also was building layouts for them in Quark, scanning and retouching imagery in PhotoShop, and drawing graphics in Illustrator. There were even a few opportunities I was given to design completely on my own. One in particular was an ad they were designing for an art gallery to appear in the magazine Art & Auction. Here’s the ad I design and created, straight off the pages of the September 1990 issue:
When it came time to apply to college I was focused on going into architecture school, as had been my mission since I was a kid. It’s easy to see now how graphic design should’ve been my path all along, but since I set my goals early on to be an architect, I never really considered alternatives. I was accepted to the some of the best architecture schools in the country (Cornell, Rice, Carnegie Mellon, Lehigh) but decided to pick CMU on a Tradition Scholarship that they awarded me. In part II, I will dive into the story of how I got my first job out of college at R/GA–from the entire portfolio building process to the ridiculous crusade I embarked on to find a job.