Things I Know


Being a design student is hard. There is a huge amount of technical information, craft, concept, and form to learn. In addition, students today need to learn how to work in a range of media from print to motion. It’s frustrating to teach and realize that I can’t prepare my students for every situation. I recently asked some of my students what questions they might have if they could ask me anything. They only had one question, “What would you have done differently?”

This is a complicated issue. If I had taken another path, would my life be different? I like my life, I wouldn’t want to change it. But I might have made it a little easier.

I like the idea of time travel. I’d like to travel into the past and witness the building of the Great Pyramid, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t want to step on a Jurassic butterfly and return to a world where Nazi Germany won the war. I take a more personal approach. What would I change if I could go back and provide counsel to myself?

1.     Be kind to myself and others

Let me be honest. In high school, I was a jerk. I was the kind of person who made others miserable. I was not like one of the glee club characters on Glee. I was the person who threw the Slushies. I’m not proud of this and regret many of my actions. If karma exists, anything bad that happens to me now is payback for high school.

But let me provide some background, not as an excuse, but as cause and effect. By the time I was a senior in high school, we had moved twenty-two times across the United States, and two other continents. My stepfather was my mother’s fourth husband. My parents didn’t work and spent most of the time playing cards, tennis, and arguing about the boredom of life. I was angry. Unfortunately, this translated into the person who coined names such as “Iguana Woman”.

I would return to 1982 not to tell myself to be kinder, I’m sure I would simply dismiss my older self and call him something mean and witty. I would tell the 17 year old me to be less angry. And more importantly, I would suggest losing any pre-conceived ideas of who I was supposed to be. I took on all of my family’s expectations. “You know, we haven’t had a Senator in the family for many years,” was a common theme at dinner. It takes too much energy to be someone else’s idea of who you should be.

2. See beyond the glitter

Before I graduated, I needed to decide where to go to college. I assumed that I would go to Harvard. People in my family have gone to Harvard since 1649, when a distant grandfather was the fourth president of the college. Unfortunately, there was no graphic design program at Harvard, and I didn’t think any of the other subjects mattered. So I gave the issue little thought, turned down my acceptance, and went to CalArts.

What in the heck was I thinking? Why did nobody say, “Stop, think about it. It might be nice to live in southern California and sit by a pool, but come on!” I regret not taking advantage of this opportunity. It was nearsighted to believe I had to go to art school, or give up design entirely. I thought design was only about color, form, typography, and images. What I did not know then, was that design is about knowledge, history, and communication. The rest is frosting on the cake.

3. Suspend judgment

When I was in school, I worked hard, listened intently, researched beyond given assignments, and immersed myself in design and design history. But, I was only a couple years away from the Slushie throwing character, and I was dogmatic. Cool design was the only way to design. Any other solution was boring. And worse, I demonized the designers responsible for the “uncool” work. Once again, dumb, dumb, dumb.

I went to one of the world’s leading corporate identity firms my sophomore year to interview for an internship position. I sat in the lobby and looked at the packaging and corporate identity projects and thought, “I can’t work here. I want to do the cool stuff.” I lost an opportunity to work with some of the smartest people in the industry. Those projects are the solutions that had impact and lasted longer than a new wave invitation for a Go Gos concert. It took years to turn off the hyper-judgmental switch. But when I gave up any notion of being cool, or judging others, the world opened up as if the color had been turned on from black and white. There was so much amazing work done in ways I wouldn’t imagine, or want to do. But that didn’t detract from its value. The designers who created that work were like everyone else, doing what they believed and trying to carve out a life with their visions.

4. Be patient

When I’m asked, “What’s the secret to success?” I say, “Perseverance.” Unfortunately it’s true. After I started my first job, as a designer for The New York Public Library, I was convinced I wasn’t moving forward fast enough. I thought every assignment was the critical project that was going to make or break my career. I pushed and pushed and berated myself for any error. In retrospect, it’s easy to say, “Really, the invitation to a Ten Treasures Gala was going to propel me to the top of the profession? Doubtful.” When that much pressure is applied to every situation, it was impossible to ever feel a sense of accomplishment.

Success is not based on one single achievement; it is based on a series of successful projects over a span of time. I had a “lottery” mentality. We all believe the Hollywood myth, that one lucky break will make you a star.” Simply showing up, working hard, and consistently delivering the best quality over many years was the secret. I learned that each part of a career takes time. This allows us to grow, evolve, learn, and become a better designer.

5. Don’t get a fat head

After Noreen and I started AdamsMorioka, we received a large amount of attention from the design media. We were doing something, clean and simple, when the rest of the design world was focused on degraded and complex. And we were multi-racial and young, which sells magazines. We were asked to speak at conferences, published often, and began to think we were the cat’s pajamas. We didn’t get to the point of demanding green M&Ms, but we were probably miserable to be around.

A year after starting the company, AIGA invited us to speak at the first national business conference in New York. We were given 45 minutes and asked to discuss our thinking and process. We wrote a lecture and prepared our images. Waiting backstage, the coordinator told us that the conference was running behind schedule and we only had 20 minutes to speak. Since we were such cracker-jack presenters, we confidently went on-stage.

Then everything went really, really bad. I realized that the lecture in front of me was 45 minutes long, so I started editing sections out as I spoke. This resulted in a nonsensical barrage of half sentences that didn’t connect. Noreen and I had never spoken together publicly, and I assumed she’d be funny and irreverent and I would be serious. Instead she stood frozen behind me and I lamely tried to ad-lib jokes. It ended with a few people politely clapping and then silence. We left the stage convinced we’d just ruined our careers.

We walked around Central Park for hours trying to make sense of the car crash we had just had. We were no longer the best things since sliced bread. The final result was an review in a magazines that started with the line, “Children should be seen, but not heard.” It also snapped us back to being normal people. We never again believed our own press, assumed we were better than anyone else, or cavalier with speaking engagements. Now when I see designers beginning to receive some attention, and they have a bad attitude, I tell them, “Get over it. Famous designers are like famous dentists. I’m sure they exist, but I don’t know them.”

The Big Lesson

The theme that runs through all of these is the idea of kindness. It may seem corny, but I’ve learned to allow others to be who they are. Every person on earth wants to feel important and valued. I’ve learned to be kind and patient with myself, and, to contribute to the design community. The lesson that took the longest to learn, but I use everyday is this: don’t worry too much about people not liking you. Just try liking them.