One week after I graduated from college in Ohio, I moved to New York with my new wife Dorothy and began working as a design assistant at Vignelli Associates. It was 1980, and I was the lowest employee on the totem pole. Working in a design office in those days was different. I never touched a computer. As I recall, the office didn’t even have a computer. In fact, we didn’t have a fax machine.
I spent most of my days putting thinner in rubber cement and taping tissue paper over mechanical boards. Every once in a while I would get to do a mechanical myself, usually following the direction of one of the more experienced designers. I was working in New York City for a designer I idolized and I was the happiest person on earth. It so happened that we got an apartment that was three blocks-literally, a 135 second walk-from the Vignelli office. Work started at 9:30 a.m. I usually got up at around five minutes to 9 and still had time to pick up a doughnut on my way in.
Dorothy, on the other hand, had a corporate job downtown, in the World Trade Center to be precise. She had to wake up before 6 to be at work at 8. I literally slept three hours later than her every morning. Every night Dorothy would go to bed at around 10 p.m. I was still wide awake, and our apartment was so small it drove me crazy. I had a key to the office. So I got in the habit of tucking my wife in every night and going back to work to start another shift, which often would last from 10 to 3 in the morning.
This went on for four years. Anything I’ve achieved in my career I credit today to those four years. I loved working late at night. I worked on office stuff, and I worked on personal projects. I played music really loud and drank Mountain Dew. I would design anything: invitations for my friends’ parties, packaging for mix tapes, one-of-a-kind birthday cards, and freebies for non-profits.
When Massimo Vignelli noticed I had extra time during the day, he started giving me extra work. Things that would have taken two days only took one, thanks to the night shift. The more work I did, the faster I got, and the better I got. It never occurred to me to ask for overtime. 25 years later, nearing 50 with three kids (and the same wife), I can’t tell you the last time I was awake at 3 in the morning, intentionally, at least. So my advice to anyone starting a career as a designer? Stay up late while you can. It pays off.
Partner, Pentagram Design New York