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6 Top Designers Talk About Their First Jobs

Susan Kare, Sagi Haviv, and others talk about the job where it all began.

The thing about first jobs is that they always seem so much better in retrospect. Whether good or bad, our initial experiences in the workforce tend to be incredibly formative—even if we’re not able to appreciate them until years later.

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Fresh from school, toiling away on the lowest rung of the ladder, it feels like you have a long road to walk before you’ll have ownership over projects or the trust of your colleagues. But first jobs are more than the sum of their menial tasks. They lay down the foundation for your career, help you build a network, and show you the ways in which people and companies operate, which you can either adopt or reject later on.

Co.Design asked several designers we admire to reflect on their first jobs. From legendary Apple icon designer Susan Kare, to industry leaders at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, 2 x 4, and Slack, to self-employed designers making names for themselves today—they all started somewhere. For the first story in a series about designers’ firsts that Co.Design will be rolling out this summer, we asked: What was your first job? And what did you learn?

[Photo: The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies]

Susan Kare, product design lead at Pinterest

When I was 14, I started working as a lowly intern in the graphics department at the Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia. I did this for several summers during high school and college. Although art was my favorite subject from first grade onward, this was my first exposure to professional graphic design. I worked for the kind and talented Harry Loucks, who hailed from Ponca City, Oklahoma, and had studied automotive design at Art Center College in Pasadena before working at the Eames Design Office.

I learned so much from Harry and other designers in that group—Norm Ikeda and Ruth Schulte—even though I spent a considerable amount of time literally in the dark, making museum labels character by character on the long-ago-obsolete Photo Typositor. At that job I was introduced to layout, illustration, borders, typographical flourishes, the wonders of pro art supplies, and the inspiring Communication Arts magazine.

Sagi Haviv, partner and designer at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

My first design job was a three-day-a-week internship at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. As a student at the Cooper Union School of Art, I had come across TM: Trademarks Designed by Chermayeff & Geismar and was immediately drawn to the simplicity of the bold, focused marks in the book. The firm had become a beacon to me—but not one I thought I could ever get near. In my senior year, Steff Geissbuhler, then partner at the firm, came to teach a corporate identity class at the school. I begged him just to give me a chance to work for the firm in some way, and he did. The internship paid close to nothing—but I didn’t care. I would’ve worked there for free, just to be near my idols.

Georgianna Stout, founding partner and creative director at 2 x 4

After I graduated from RISD in 1989, I headed to New York City. I was interested in working in the arts and cultural world. After poring over books and magazines at Printed Matter, I scored interviews with a few smaller design studios. My first job was with Bethany Johns Design. Bethany had designed many of my favorite books at the time, and I was thrilled to work with her. My first projects were to design the cover for the Image World exhibition catalog at the Whitney Museum, a show that featured every artist I had looked up to at school. Bethany worked out of her home, so it was a very intimate work space, and we worked very closely together, lunched together every day, and became close friends. The great thing about starting out in a smaller-scale studio is that you really get to work holistically on projects from start to finish, learning everything from design and production skills, to working directly with clients, and figuring out how to bill the work.

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Tracy Ma, graphic designer

Between second and third year of university, I got a design job at a boutique denim company in Hong Kong, during the summer of 2009. I loved it. The little company was financed by this dude who made his fortune wrangling mass-market denim supply chains for places like Wal-Mart. He was obsessed with denim and wanted to be the first to start a high-end thing in Hong Kong. I made T-shirt graphics and some in-store graphics for them, and did a bunch of odds and ends like painting backdrops. I guess I learned how to hustle, learned what it’s like to work for people’s passion projects, and, ultimately, the good and bad of working with egomaniacs. Very useful skills for later on.

Kristy Tillman, head of communications design at Slack

My first real design job was as product graphic design apprentice at a footwear company. It was a yearlong program that allowed newly minted graduates to gain work experience. During the program I got to work on a variety of things from fully designed T-shirt lines to spec’ing out graphic treatments for young girls and baby clothes to designing repeat patterns for the inside of sneakers.

I applied to the program at the end of my senior year of design school and gained a lot of valuable experience in how to go from being a student to a practicing professional. I also spent that year learning that I wanted to do work that had more meaning.

Erik Carter during his time at the Office of Paul Sahre. [Photo: courtesy Erik Carter]

Erik Carter, graphic designer & art director

The first real design job I landed after graduating art school was working for Paul Sahre at the aptly named Office of Paul Sahre, or OOPS for short. It started as an internship, my seventh one that I had undertaken in art school (too many for any sensible human being), and it was the first internship that I did where I really felt like I belonged.

Paul was my mentor—the studio was just the two of us and whatever other interns were working there at the time. We laughed, cried, designed harder—and I learned the foundations of what it is to be a graphic designer working independently on the fringes of typography. I helped build and then destroy a giant cardboard monster truck hearsescored a few cans of free Red Bull, and (accidentally) smashed the studio toilet with a hammer, causing a flood into the Karlssonwilker studio located right beneath OOPS. It was the best job you could ask for for a young, dumb graphic designer.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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