7 Leading Designers Describe The First Time They Got Rejected

From Susan Kare to Tobias Frere-Jones, designers remember the bite of rejection.

7 Leading Designers Describe The First Time They Got Rejected
[Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images]

Every designer remembers the first time an idea gets killed, or a competition proposal doesn’t win, or even the first time they didn’t get that job. Rejection is painful, often disillusioning, and can feel like a massive setback at the time–even if later you can look back in relief. It’s also something everyone inevitably experiences.


In the second installment of our “Designers’ Firsts” series (check out the first story on designers’ first jobs here) we asked a handful of our favorite designers to tell us about the first time they remember a truly stinging rejection—from the New York studio 2 x 4 not getting chosen to brand the Obama Library to Susan Kare’s job rejection at Hallmark.


I’d say approximately 84.291% of the ideas I send off to art directors end up in the graveyard, so it’s hard to pinpoint the first real “rejection” in my career aside from early examples and failed starts. When I was 18 I had somewhat of a mental breakdown and only decided to apply to one art school because they were nice to me at portfolio review day. Then, in art school, I had numerous internship letters get rejected and many a failed interview in various strange corners of the design industry: hotel marketing, a now defunct music magazine, failed startup after failed startup. I learned then that I should try and not wrap up my identity in my career, a lesson that I still have failed to take to heart.

I’ve been extremely lucky, I was afforded more privilege than most, which made me force myself to try and design as hard as possible because I actually had the chance to. But every day I try and distance myself from the work I make because the more emotionally involved I get with it, the more I end up beating myself up for thinking it’s not good. It’s something that you have to try to do when approximately 84.291% of the things you make are never seen by anyone, but I can’t say that it ever gets easier.


I came to New York from Israel because I had heard about Cooper Union—a great art school that was free. I had no money and no visa, but I was sure I would get in. After submitting my application and doing their home test, a very thin envelope came from Cooper Union in the mail informing me that, in fact, I had not been accepted. The future I had imagined seemed to be slipping away: I could not afford any other college or university. For the next two years I explored other directions, but then applied to Cooper again and got good news in a much fatter envelope.

Tobias Frere-Jones, Founder and Design Director of Frere-Jones Type

My first rejection came coupled with my first acceptance (and made for a pretty confusing day). I traveled to Berlin in 1991 and met Erik Spiekermann. I had brought a serif text face I had been working on for months, researching and testing and revising as best as I knew how. I went to Berlin hoping he would want to publish this through FontFont. This was my first chance at getting something published, and I wanted to show the very best work I could make. I showed Erik my first Real Typeface—as I thought of it—and he didn’t see much future in it. He looked at the proofs and handed them back to me after a few seconds. No thanks. What? But then he asked about the other design I had in that stack of paper. It was “Dolores,” a cartoonish thing I had made in two days. Erik thought it was great and offered to publish it. What?


A few years later, I was able to see that Erik was right: This design that I thought was so great was pretty weak, and it needed major reworking to succeed. Thankfully, I got a chance to do that in 1994, when Lisa Naftolin called about a new typeface for the redesign of the AIGA Journal.

At the time, I needed to be a much harsher judge of my own work, and that meant stepping out of my own shoes and looking at this as a user.


Around September 2011 I took a Megabus from Toronto to New York and scheduled a few meetings around town. Right before a meeting with Bloomberg I sat down all wide-eyed with Su Barber at Opening Ceremony, who said to me after I showed her my work: “While I think you could do this, I don’t really think that that’s your thing,” and booted me out of their office, which is on top of the Red Egg (restaurant) on Centre Street. It was kind of a nothing episode, but I keep replaying it in my head, probably because I live around the corner now and pass by Red Egg on Centre Street all the time.

[Images: courtesy Susan Kare]


No particular rejection stands out in my mind, but I definitely applied to many graphic design firms and advertising agencies in Palo Alto and San Francisco and was rejected by all of them! No one was willing to take a chance on me. I had a portfolio, but it wasn’t very slick because I hadn’t gone to art school. I also tried to get a job at Hallmark (still have my book of sample greeting cards), but that didn’t work out either. My dad was smart—he told me that even though it’s painful, every time you get told “no,” you’re closer to a “yes.”


When I was starting out, one of the T-shirt lines I was working on with another apprentice at Reebok got killed at the last minute by the sales manager. While at the time it was tear-inducing event, it was a good wakeup call to younger designers like us at the time about the business of design and the role design plays in a corporation beyond the value of aesthetics.



I don’t remember a first big rejection. There have been a few, but I don’t harp on them. Some of the more recent rejections have stung more because we are so invested at many levels in our work now and so many more people are affected. One painful rejection was our team not being chosen to work on the Obama Library project. It would have been a huge honor to work on that, and the whole team was really disappointed. Another was a big store concept we were working on with a client that was cancelled after we worked for over three years developing every aspect of the experience. I think the best way to think about these is to recognize all of the good work that went into them, and retain those ideas and approaches for use in other ways in later projects.

About the author

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