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Pick One

I dropped my portfolio off at Condé Nast the moment after I graduated college, and I somehow, miraculously, got a call back to come in for an interview. To me, this was the equivalent of winning the lottery and I spent every waking hour prior to the interview agonizing over the contents of my “career wardrobe,” posing in outfit after outfit in an effort to ensure I would make the best possible impression. The outfits primarily consisted of the clothes my mother lovingly handmade as a graduation gift, and the morning of the interview I chose the royal blue bolero jacket, matching A-line knee length skirt, a beige faux-silk blouse with blue pin dots and a big, floppy bow in the front, sheer black stockings, and flat black patent leather loafers. I anxiously gazed at myself in the mirror before leaving my mother’s Queens apartment and took a deep breath. I knew that what happened next could change my life forever. As I sat on the cramped, balmy Express Bus into Manhattan, I fantasized befriending the Human Resources Director, being invited up to meet the design director of Vogue or Vanity Fair or Glamour, getting hired as his or her crackerjack assistant, working late nights and weekends, cavorting with the glamorous editors and art directors and designers and, of course, spending my entire career being fabulously successful at what I considered to be the best magazine company in the whole wide world.

I exited the bus on 42nd Street and Madison Avenue and skipped towards the Condé Nast building, faux-silk bow billowing in the breeze, faux-leather portfolio banging against my legs when the unthinkable happened. I tripped. I toppled so hard and so fast that three passersby came to help me. As they asked me if I was okay, I felt my stinging knee and burning face and knew without looking: I had an ugly bruise on my leg and a vicious tear up my stockings.

I didn’t have time to change my hose, but realized that both my skirt and the tactical placement of my portfolio could mask the bruise. I lumbered on and made it to my appointment on time. When I met the Human Resources Director, I was mesmerized. She was unlike any other woman I had ever encountered. She was cool and elegant and alluring in her pale yellow sleeveless shift. She had the thinnest arms I had ever seen and the biggest office I had ever been in. She invited me to sit down and I complied; and as I tumbled back into the overstuffed orange chair I felt the hole in my stockings widen and prayed that she didn’t hear the ripping sound. She quickly looked through my portfolio without uttering a syllable and when she was finished she shut it with a thud. She looked me up and down, and we had the following conversation:

So. What kind of design do you want to do?

Excuse me?

What kind of design do you want to do?

Kind of design?

(Said with a furrowed brow)

Er…um…I think I would like to do any kind of design…

You can’t do any kind of design. You have to pick.


(Said with a very furrowed brow)
Yes. You have to pick. You have to pick editorial design or promotional design or advertising or custom publishing. You must choose one.

I sat there for a moment and thought to myself:
…well I really want to say editorial but maybe I am not good enough and though I don’t know what custom publishing or promotional design are I will say “promotional” but really I would happily sweep the floors if they want me to…

Finally, I cleared my throat and said:

And then I couldn’t help myself. I continued talking.

But I would do anything. Anything. Anything you need.

And then there was silence.

And She responded:
Well. Yes, then. I see.

And with that, she sighed and made one sweeping gesture for me to take my portfolio back. I looked at her and picked it up. Though she said she would be in touch, I knew that I was not going to hear from her, and I never, ever did. I made some small talk as I was escorted out; I remember asking how long she had been at Condé Nast and I remember her replying “12 years” with the slightest clip in her voice.

Several months later, in a moment of aberrant fearlessness, I got up my nerve and called her, but the person who answered the phone told me she no longer worked there. By then I had gotten my first job as a traffic girl at a fledgling cable magazine and worked late night and weekends and cavorted with the editors and art directors and designers and, of course, I didn’t spend the rest of my career there. But when I worked there, I joyfully learned about editorial design and promotional design and advertising and even custom publishing. I realized how much I did know and how much I didn’t know and embarked upon what has become a lifelong journey in learning about the abundant and bewitching specialties in the marvelous discipline that is considered graphic design.

Twenty-five years after that decisive day, I’ve come to the realization that my ill-fated interview did indeed impact the rest of my life, just not in the way I intended it to. But this is likely the most interesting thing about possibilities: there is always something new to dream of and always something different to choose. And you don’t have to pick just one.

Pick One is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Essential Principles of Graphic Design, Rotovision, July 2008

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Jan.22.2008 BY debbie millman
Michael Holdren’s comment is:

Nice, Debbie. Stories about first interviews or first jobs are always a treat.

On Jan.22.2008 at 11:07 AM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

Years ago I'd been working at various design agencies in the Pacific Northwest...Landor Seattle, Leonhardt Group, a few others. I was struggling to find my place and amidst all of the "real" designers I felt out of place. A studded leather jacket amid the black turtlenecks. I did what I was asked and put in a lot of energy where there was an opportunity...but still I never achieved any sense of belonging or acceptance.

Then a local company bought the company that makes Dungeons & Dragons. That presented a career opportunity at an in-house art department helping create the kind of geeky stuff that I'd loved as a child...er, young adult...ah, last week. I immediately (against my better judgement) invested myself emotionally to getting a job at this company.

I cold-called an art director and explained my situation:

"I need to work for you guys."

He was patient, friendly, and offered me a small project to get a sense of my talents. It was bumpy but successful with more revisions that I'd expected...each comment somehow presenting another barrier to my chance of working here.

At the end of the project he and the creative director informed me that they didn't have any openings but that I should check in "from time to time."

Which I did. Every two weeks. Any project, any design work, I'll work there, here, at home, on the bus. What do they need?

Probably to get me off their back they put me in touch with the magazine department. I came in with my portfolio (including a sample of the still-warm calendar I'd done for the company) and met the magazine department creative director. She didn't look much at my portfolio but we talked for about an hour...what magazines do you like? Seen any good movies lately? What's it like working there? And so on.

She hired me on the spot and it turned into the hardest, most gratifying, rewarding job I'd ever had. I still have it, in fact, after 10 years and unless they lay me off for being too rough around the edges, I'll happily stay here 10 more.

On Jan.22.2008 at 11:28 AM
Armin’s comment is:

During my last semester at college in Mexico -- where Bryony had already left for Portfolio Center in Atlanta six months earlier -- I went to an AIGA student portfolio review. I called up the AIGA ATL chapter to check if a non-US student could participate, they said yes, I signed up, and purchased my plane tickets. I wore pleated khaki pants and the only dress shirt I owned at the time and made my way with one of the weirdest portfolios you have ever seen. It was the usual set up: a bunch of tables in a big room in some hotel. I sat down and waited patiently for the professionals to rotate. Everybody was nice and encouraging but no one had a job for me. The very last person I saw was a very nice lady who had her own small firm and was not looking to hire either, but she happened to be the wife of the creative director at USWeb/CKS (the consulting firm later known as marchFIRST) and she urged me to pay him a visit, as he had openings and was eager to hire. Me and another awesome chick from Iran heeded her advice and called him up to set up an interview the next day, when I had planned on going back. I changed my flight.

Out in the middle of nowhere were the offices, and he interviewed me and the Iranian girl at the same time. Slightly awkward. He asked me if I knew how to design web sites and I said “No, but I can learn”. After more back and forth he offered us both jobs. (When I arrived, I soon learned that a good 20 more designers had been offered jobs since that fateful day -- talk about good times!).

This was sometime in April or May of 1999. I still had to finish my last semester and my thesis, which is usually presented on the next semester, but I had to finish before that so that I could start my job in September -- I started so late because of the work visa delays -- so I hauled ass and finished my thesis faster than anyone before me. I picked my advisors based on whether they were teaching summer courses or not and I picked the dean of the school of design as my main advisor (since she couldn’t really go anywhere) and presented my thesis the very first week of the Fall semester of 99. I had to leave my basketball team in order to do this, which was very sad at the time. I used to practice three days a week and play tournaments once or twice in the weekend. And in that summer we had the Maccabi games in Mexico, which are a big deal, and I was training extra hard, coming into the gym in the mornings and doing some special jumping exercises. Before I left I was almost dunking with one hand (if you know me now, you realize that this sounds almost preposterous) and shooting 3's like nobody's business. When the games started and I sat in the stands cheering for my team, I felt like I regretted the decision to focus on my thesis so that I could go to Atlanta. Looking back on it, and seeing how things are turning out, I can’t help but feel lucky, grateful and happy for the decisions I made based on the opportunities that were presented to me.

On Jan.22.2008 at 12:35 PM
Jessi Long’s comment is:

This story both made me laugh and terrifies me as I have an interview less than 2 hours from now.

On Jan.22.2008 at 12:39 PM
Mike’s comment is:

Not quite as traumatizing, but on my very first day of work, at my very first "real design job", I stepped in a huge, wet pile of freshly laid asphalt right before entering the building. Trying desperately to be punctual, and set a good first impression, I brushed off as much as I could, but still had a bad case of "clicky shoe" all day. It was horrible.

On Jan.22.2008 at 05:55 PM
alex’s comment is:

Why are interview stories almost always the same yet you can't get enough? It's the stuff sitcoms are made of. Predictable with only one of two possible outcomes, but everyone in the world can relate.

Mine should be no exception...

One day after class in my second-to-last semester, a professor, that I got along with quite well, approached me in the hall and asked me into her office. She held up a piece of paper. "I got a fax this morning from a local design firm, they need an entry level designer part time. Let me know if you're going to call, because you are the only person I've showed this to."

Of course I was going to call! I felt honored that my professor chose me, and this was my shot at my first real job.

Fast forward one week. I pull up to the almost 100 year old red brick car factory that has been converted into office lofts, buzzing with excitement. The building is neat, but is in a really bad part of town. Mental note: lock the doors, and leave anything valuable out of site.

I entered the building and found my way to suite 204. I walked in and expected to find my way over to the receptionist's desk. But all I found was a huge empty room with hardwood floors, 25ft ceilings and windows that went all the way to the ceiling. "We're up here" cried a voice. I turned to my right and climbed the stairs into the loft. I ducked under the huge black pipe that about took off my scalp, and shook hands with the man who introduced himself as the owner of the company.

I showed him my school portfolio, and he silently turned the pages, showing no emotion. The tension mounted, he closed it and said, "Well I like what I see here, when can you start?" I don't even remember what I said, but I'm sure it was along the lines of "immediately."

So my new boss was telling me a little about the company and himself, and suddenly blurts out "Oh by the way my business partner and I are gay. Is that a problem for you?" Although it wasn't, I didn't even know how to react. If the man had said the converse "by the way I'm straight" its still the kind of thing that totally takes you off guard... especially in a job interview. Next I was told they didn't have a computer for me, but they would be buying one from a designer they had worked with on a freelance basis.

Later the freelancer with the computer was hired, who ended up being on meth. I don't know how many times his Camaro IROC-Z broke down. Or how many times I was told about how he couldn't get any sleep because he fought beasts all night in his dreams. Or how many times he told me he wished the aliens would just come and take him away.

Like I said... sitcom. After growing and merging with a magazine publisher, there was talk of a studio that wanted to make a reality show out of our office. Whether that was actually true or not I never found out, but I gotta tell you, it would have been a show worth watching.

I ended up working there for two years, and leaving on bad terms with the owner. Although when I left it was way past due, in some ways it was the best job I've ever had. And that's the story of my first interview....

Now almost 5 years later, I work out of my house, and hope to never have another job interview again.

I think this has been one of my favorite posts (as well as the comments that followed) in quite some time.

On Jan.22.2008 at 06:23 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Debbie, you have a great flair for comedic timing, which is usually the stuff stand-up comedians are made of. Yet here, you do it well in writing. Nice. Moreover, your moral is quite valuable. I appreciate you sharing this.

On Jan.22.2008 at 09:13 PM
Kevin M. Scarbrough’s comment is:

"Do you know how to do web stuff?"

It was the last part of the interview, with the principle of the 20-odd person ad agency in Central Florida. The other two candidates were graduates of a more prestigious school. I was nervous as hell, I was half way through a two year design program, but I had a decent ("fantastic" in my eyes) portfolio, I knew the programs, and I was full of ambition. I was the favorite in the creative director's eyes (I think), I'd had an informational interview with him a few months earlier and we really seemed to click.

I knew web. They needed someone who could do both print and web. I wanted the job bad.

After the interview, I raced home. I fired up my computer and redesigned the agency's entire web site with a heavier emphasis on motion and animation (something they seemed keen on), introducing my own ideas of how their work could be presented, how things could flow, ect.

I was on the phone with the creative director. It'd been twenty three hours and fourty five minutes since the interview. I hadn't stopped working for sleep or food. "I redesigned your site! I just sent you an e-mail, please let me know what you think!"


"You did... what, now?"

A few weeks later I got the job and loved every minute of it. In the end, they kept their old site (apparently they'd recently redesigned it and were, frankly, quite happy with it).

On Jan.23.2008 at 08:08 AM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Wonderul story, Debbie.

“First Interview” stories rank right up there with “First Date” and “How We Met” stories. They’re universally frought with tension, the unknown, and an ending in unmitigated success or failure...perfect elements for tragi-comedy.

My very first interview can be summed up fairly easily. The old guy interviewing me -- after looking at my portfolio -- told me to not bother trying to break into the field. (Unlike Debbie’s situation, he didn’t even give me any options to pick from.)

I’ll have to admit, my portfolio back then wasn’t even a diamond-in-the-rough. It was more like a lump of coal that had the potential of turning into a diamond with enough pressure and heat.

Anyway, the fitting postscript is that I’m still around, and his firm isn’t.

On Jan.23.2008 at 09:33 AM
Armin’s comment is:

My most memorable interview moment was with Rick Valicenti. His office is in a suburb outside of Chicago, so Bryony and I rented a car to go out there. He was stuck in a meeting in Chicago all afternoon long and didn't make it back until late in the evening. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the car with Bryony, parked outside the office, eating powdered doughnuts as it got darker and darker and thinking, "one day we will look back at this moment and laugh".

On Jan.23.2008 at 09:41 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

"one day we will look back at this moment and laugh".

Yeah, powdered doughnuts just make me smile too. Seriously, though, what were you thinking? Those things are messy!!!

On Jan.23.2008 at 10:52 AM
agrayspace’s comment is:

Great story Debbie. Thanks for sharing it. Can't wait to see the new book.

On Jan.23.2008 at 01:11 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Looking forward to the whole book, Debbie! Thanks for the great read.

On Jan.23.2008 at 08:56 PM
felix sockwell’s comment is:

nice story deb.

youre a real charmer.

my first interview (17 years ago) was with the ad legend David Fowler (writer of Motel 6 ad fame). after i showed him my portfolio he said youre hired and how much you want. I said I didn't know whatever you got. I was lucky he was in a good mood that day.

I spent the next 6 years in advertising hell. My bad.

On Jan.24.2008 at 09:02 PM
designer’s comment is:

My story isn't of my first job interview, (which was a disaster) but of the most memorable one. It starts with me being recently hired at one of the most established design firms in Chicago. I interviewed and to my surprise, got the job. Two days before I am scheduled to start I get an email from Segura, Inc. asking me to come in and interview. I was shocked! I tried contacting them months before and did not get a response. I was pumped, I really wanted to work there. Now comes decision time. I was torn. Do I go into my new bosses office on my first day and ask to leave early. How do I hide my portfolio? What should I say? After hours of debate, I decide to just go for it. My first day at "old school design firm" comes and I need to go in and explain to my very cranky boss that I need to leave early for an... er... dentist appointment. He glares at me for what seemed like an hour and then agrees to let me go. I felt that it wasn't a good idea, but i figured, why not go for broke...

As I drove to Segura, Inc. I kept thinking how crazy I was for doing it. I walk in, (take off my shoes) and notice unbelievably loud sitar music blaring from Carlos' office. I'm told to sit on the couch in the living room and Sun will be right with me. I sat there looking through a million T-26 books trying to hear myself think. I felt like I was in that scene of Boogie Nights. Finally, Sun comes down, we talk and look through my portfolio. I feel like I am yelling as I go from project to project. She says she likes my work and is going to go and talk to Carlos. She leaves and goes upstairs. The music is never turned down and all I can hear is two people screaming at each other. It must have been over two minutes of this. I couldn't believe it. I was totally freaked out. She comes downstairs with 3 huge Corbis books for me and says... "We'll keep in touch".

On Jan.25.2008 at 12:27 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Designer... I know EXACTLY what you mean. I had the same experience, sans the leaving early on my first day at work. For me, the order was in reverse though. I talked to Sun -- shoes removed of course, and I think this was a stage in my life when they smelled a little -- then she went to talk to Carlos (no screaming that I can remember), came back and said that they would be in touch, but that before leaving I "could" see their books. I had no idea how long I had to look at the books for, or if I was supposed to do anything special after seeing them, like light a candle or something.

And I didn't even get no corbis books.

On Jan.25.2008 at 11:49 AM
Josh B’s comment is:

My wife and her friend decided the phrase "career wardrobe" should be shortened to careerdrobe. It's a good word, and somehow perfectly describes that silk blouse with the polka dots and floppy bow.

On Jan.25.2008 at 02:34 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

Thank you Debbie, great story. Here's my humble addition; a purge from my teenage diary...

Way back in high school - before I knew what graphic design was - the Alberta College of Art & Design hosted a portfolio review day for prospective students, from a variety of art and design schools. My mom and I flew into Calgary, I think it was November... I know it was about -40ºC. All I had were paintings and drawings from art class - some watercolors, charcoal drawings, almost nothing drawn from life. I don't remember most of the reviews I got, which were I think vaguely encouraging, but I do remember the negative one, from this heavy old man with sagging jowls and a prominent nose that he looked down over. It was of the "this is crap!" variety. That wasn't the part that bothered me though - I watched as he praised this other girl's portfolio, saying she was going to go far, oh yes - and I could not see anything, anything at all, interesting about the painting he was talking about...

On Jan.27.2008 at 12:25 PM
erica frye’s comment is:

My two interview "learning experiences":

At a Rotary scholarship interview, an astute panel member guessed I didn't know anything about Rotary. When I confirmed that indeed I did not, the man looked down his nose, through his bifocals, and said to me "If you're asking us for money, don't you think you should have gone to the trouble of learning a little something about us?" I've never gone into an interview unprepared again. (Reason #354 why I love the internet.)

After graduation I landed in Chicago, and it took me a few interviews to understand that the bemused looks I received upon entering those chic downtown lofts were due to my interview suits. I thought I was being "sophisticated" in my misguided, 22-year-old way, with my precious, matchy-matchy coral suit complete with nude hose and generic pumps -- sort of a Junior League newscaster look, overstyled hair and all. It turns out my mom was wrong. You CAN be overdressed for an interview! We still argue about this. She doesn't believe me. Thirteen years later I still have flashbacks whenever I put together an interview outfit. (And thank goodness I've found some style since then. In my defense, that was the mid 90s.)

On Jan.28.2008 at 12:41 AM
ammre’s comment is:

My first interview in this field was for designing/branding for new housing developments. I was super excited, then about 2 days beforehand I was chopping wood and I messed up one of the muscles in my back. I got put on some pain meds for that and was prescribed "if it hurts don't do it. Lay down a lot it should feel better in less then a week". I didn't want to cancel my interview because I didn't know if I'd have another opportunity with them, so I went. I had to have someone else help me dress (I couldn't twist or bend well) and putting on pantyhose when you can't bend is something akin to torture. Then they had to drive me since i was on meds that made driving illegal, and the pain was worse when I was vertical, so I laid down in the back seat. I got there and hobbled in, trying to stand up straight while maintaining a pleasant face. I met with the guy and we hit it off from the start. I had what they were interested in, they had the pay and health insurance I was interested in as an entry leveler.That takes about a half an hour and I think, hey this is good maybe I can go now. Then he pulls out his giant binder of "what we'd be doing". He flipped through not only every section, but stopped and talked about every page. I'm sitting there trying not to whimper in pain, and sweating with the effort of keeping myself upright and he's telling me about this one time when the old designer had to change a blueprint layout at the last minute. The "interview" lasts for 2 and a half excruciating hours. By that point my back is so stiff and in so much pain that when I get up I can't stand upright and I look like Quasimodo. He asks if I'm ok, and I quickly rattle off something along the lines of "oh fine i mussed up my back I'll be better in a day or two", smiled really big, and grabbed onto the molding to help straighten myself. I got myself upright and got out to where I was supposed to meet my ride. She had gone to B&N next door and so she was a few minutes in getting to me, and in those minutes I started to cry. Then the guy who interviewed me left and on his way to his car walked past me and smiled. I smiled back which I'm sure was convincing with tears and a red face.
Later on I did a sample page for them and they said they loved my portfolio and the sample was amazing. Then they never bothered to call or e-mail me back, even after I called twice.

On Jan.28.2008 at 04:36 PM