On My Many Mentors

When it comes to mentors I’ve been blessed, both personally and professionally

Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design, AIGA national website, March, 2004

I didn’t know what graphic design was when I went to college. I just figured that, as a liberal arts major, I would find something that I liked. I lucked out that Penn State happened to have a strong graphic design program led by Lanny Sommese. By the time I studied there, the program had been going for about ten years or so.

I stumbled upon graphic design during a break in a drawing class. Down the hall from my class, I saw a silkscreened gorilla on the hall wall with type (“graphic design,” bold sans serif, all lowercase) running vertically up the wall. Music was blaring and students were silkscreening posters. I thought this was way beyond cool and went to visit the program and talked to Lanny about graphic design. The next fall I took his intro class and have never looked back. Graphic design opened up all of my senses and appealed to so many of my interests. I felt that I had truly found something that I really liked, something that I could do.

My introduction to graphic design was through the way Lanny Sommese worked and taught. The approach to graphic design was conceptual, always about communication, and always with an idea. Lanny stressed excellence: he urged us to try to make something distinctive, to care about our work and to push it to be the best that it possibly could be. It was an experience to see Lanny roll up some posters (many of them printed by his students) and ship them over to Walter Herdeg at Graphis in Zurich, Switzerland and to see them published a year later in Graphis Posters. To see your professor’s work, or an article authored by your professor in a design publication, was an eye-opening experience.

Through Lanny Sommese I met my next mentor, Joe Scorsone. Joe had just recently taken over the graduate program at Tyler School of Art in suburban Philadelphia and he became my faculty advisor when I decided to go to grad school. Joe Scorsone is kind of a walking sketch: rather tall, thin, and lanky. Almost any of Joe’s former students could do an imitation of him cracking up at one of his own jokes, complete with a wide cheshire grin. Joe has always had a wonderful sense of humor, a dry wit (it was from Joe Scorsone that I first heard the ultimate phrase for futility: “that’s like setting up the deck chairs on the Titantic.”) The thing about Joe is that he always seemed to know exactly what to say and when to say it. How to motivate a student, to cajole, to brainstorm an idea. He was, and still is, full of great ideas. There have been many times throughout my career when I have talked with Joe about life, work, and career moves and he’s always been willing to offer sage advice.

My next mentors came from when I worked in New York City. At Bernhardt Fudyma Design, from Craig Bernhardt and Janice Fudyma, I learned so much about how to run a design business. And not just any design business, but a thriving, award-winning studio that has been producing excellent work for a long time. From Janice especially, I learned the importance of the meticulous craft of typography.

When I went to work for Walter Bernard and Milton Glaser it was like working at the feet of design gods. I found them both to be brilliant men, warm and caring. Milton encouraged me to make something beautiful (when I was struggling with a project he would say, “but, it’s not beautiful, yet.”). Milton draws like an angel; I have never seen anyone draw so well before or since. From Walter Bernard, I learned to think editorially, to find just the right meaning in a piece to convey the message.

All of these people continue to be prolific designers. Open any design annual, and more often than not, you’re likely to find their work. And their work still looks fresh—it’s just as accessible, humorous, witty and as beautifully done as ever. In a word: timeless.

I am so proud to be an alumnus of these places, not just the schools that I attended and the professors that I studied with, but the significant studios and wonderful designers that I worked with. I learned so much from these experiences and I want to deeply thank all of these people. As a designer, I strive to produce the kind of work that would make my mentors proud. And, now as a teacher, I see the opportunity to be a mentor to my students, to try to give them some of the same opportunities I was given, to give back. I am only too happy to do so.