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True I.D. Stories

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  19 Aug 2014  |  Comments (0)

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Editor: Designer and entrepreneur Pat Calello explains that in order to grow your business, you've got to start relying on other people. But what happens when those people let you down?

(If you missed Part One, where Calello first conceives of Automoblox, catch up on it here.)


As an entrepreneur, your roles expand exponentially and change by the moment. Sure, you're the President and CEO, but pursuing your own gig means you're also a Marketing Project Manager, Product Development Manager, Supply Chain Manager, Design Director, Public Relations Manager, Business Development Manager, Director of Customer Service, Mechanical Engineer, and a Lawyer... among other things. You won't have the competence needed in these areas, so you'd better have access to people who do. I have been blessed with a network of professional colleagues that were vital to this project, and my wife, Susan, can step into many roles when she's not changing diapers and chasing our two-year-old.

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A good friend, Brett Marshall, called to tell me about a book he had just finished called The Mouse Driver Chronicles. He said that while reading the book, he was constantly reminded of me and my toy car project. I immediately went out and picked up a copy. It was written by John Lusk and Kyle Harrison, two Wharton MBAs who, upon graduation in 1999, took a pass on high-paying dot-com jobs and instead decided to manufacture and market a product (a computer mouse designed to look like a golf-club head) they dreamed up during their entrepreneurship class. With some seed money from their professor and tons of their own, they set up shop and were quickly in business. Their success was modest by their own account, but they did develop an impressive following. An e-mail update to some friends turned into a web journal that eventually became course material for entrepreneurship clases around the country, and, before long, guest lecture gigs turned into a book deal.

At the conclusion of the book, Lusk and Harrison welcomed people with new product ideas to contact them for advice. Not shy and always willing to take advantage of an intriguing offer, I promptly contacted them. At this point in the evolution of Automoblox, I was still at Colgate, and I had yet to select a supplier for the line. The three initial Automoblox products required quite a bit of tooling, which meant that a significant capital expenditure was needed to get started. Lusk and Harrison had positive experiences with their supplier, and suggested I contact the company for a quote.

Within a few days, I was on the phone with the Hong Kong trading company, Swift Tread*. (*Denotes that I've changed this name to protect the guilty.) Vinnie Meola* was a 30-something American who had been in Hong Kong for over 10 years getting his former employer's sourcing business off the ground. The company eventually folded, but Vinnie stayed and started his own trading company. His partner, Lenny Chang*, a Hong Kong native in his 50s who pretends to understand enough English to inspire a certain amount of confidence, is the actual liaison between the factory and the customer.

Doing business with an overseas supplier created some anxiety, but since Vinnie is an English-speaking American, I felt confident in Swift Tread. The fact that Vinnie and I are both Jersey boys further helped me to sleep at night—at least for awhile. Swift Tread submitted the low bid on the tooling and per-piece price, and came highly recommended by my entrepreneurs-turned-book-writers friends. It seemed that the stars—at least in the Far East—were lining up for me and my new toy company.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   5 Aug 2014  |  Comments (0)

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Editor: In some ways, this is really Core77's first-ever True I.D. Story! Told to us years ago by designer and entrepreneur Pat Calello, this charts his challenging course from wide-eyed design student to CEO of his own company. Here it is, in his own words.


Many of us can recall the pride we felt the first time we spotted a product that we had a hand in designing sitting on a store shelf. And this pride turns to absolute nirvana when that product is your product—something that you've brought to market completely born of your vision and manufactured by your own company.

The story I'm about to share with you chronicles my journey with Automoblox, a product that started out as a school project and ultimately turned into a full-time obsession. My road to nirvana was a dark and bumpy one, fraught with emotions that ranged from exhaustion and panic to frustration and rage. But the day I delivered the first order for Automoblox to a small toy store in Darien, Connecticut, was a day that rivals only the day that my daughter was born.

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The Starting Line
The high school I attended didn't present awards for "most likely to design stuff." Nonetheless, I was pretty good at it (for an 18 year old) and headed to Carnegie Mellon University to study graphic design. Fortunately for me, CMU lumped together aspiring artists and aspiring designers into a basic Art School where students were exposed to art, 2D and 3D design. Like many of us, it was in a basic 3D design class where I first learned of the Industrial Design profession—a turning point for me. My future took on a new direction as I abandoned graphic design and pursued a future in I.D.

During the fall of my senior year, a local wood manufacturer came to campus, offering to sponsor a project challenging students to come up with new products for the wooden hobby market. Being a car-guy, I immediately rolled up my sleeves and worked on a novel wooden car concept. Soon after, the wooden car idea evolved into a modular wooden toy system—one that inspired children to design their own cars instead of simply duplicating an image displayed on a package. I was intrigued with the idea of an interchangeable toy system that would be both fun and educational, and with one semester left until graduation, I developed the first Automoblox prototypes during that class.
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Along with the design development, I spent much of my final semester in 1993 discovering that it was going to take more than a business minor to bring my vision of Automoblox to market. A cousin who had contacts in the toy industry put me in touch with a retired buyer from Toys R Us, who, while impressed with my wooden cars, advised me that they would need to retail for the low price of $14.99. At that price, I couldn't see any possibility of my making money on the project, and, stepping back from the cut-throat nature of the toy world, shelved the Automoblox idea, deciding to take a safer, more familiar road for awhile.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  24 Jul 2014  |  Comments (9)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: This True I.D. Story comes to us anonymously, from an up-and-coming designer ready to hit the trade shows. All he needed was a little manufacturing help...


I'd been working on this one [tabletop item] design for a while, I think Core77 even covered it. After a long development time, I finally got it to a point where it was time to industrialize it, get somebody else making it. Before that point I'd just been cranking out prototypes myself, with my little shitty little Craftsman router table—in other words, I was not set up to do any kind of real production.

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So I'm looking around for someone who can get the job done and I hear about this one older dude, I'll call him OPG for Old Production Guy. He's a friend of a friend of a friend, within an hour's drive of my shop, and is by reputation a fantastic woodworker. He came highly recommended with years of experience in the furniture industry. The word was that he'd eventually moved on into a tangential field related to woodworking machines, but was now reportedly itching to make stuff again. With all of his experience, he sounded like a good fit, and having worked in the industry, he presumably knew all about the importance of deadlines.

So I pay him a visit, and this dude has a gigantic warehouse with access to like every woodworking machine under the sun. Table saws, bandsaws, router tables, shapers, planers, joiners, and all of these crazy contraptions for performing multiple operations at once. He grabbed some scrap wood and demonstrated the tolerances of some of the machines for me and they were pretty impressive. You could tell by the way he handled the wood and the machines that he'd been doing this his entire life.

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I figured with a warehouse full of equipment like that I might be too small-potatoes for him—I just needed a small run of these [objects] that I could bring to a trade show—but after I pulled out my drawings to show him, he seemed excited by my design and eager to make it, and my low numbers didn't faze him. I got the vibe that he just wanted to make sawdust again.

So he asked me to bring out two prototypes, as I had designed both a smaller and larger version and he wanted to see them both. I brought them out there and we had lunch and talked about it while he looked the prototypes over. At the end of the meeting he goes "Okay, why don't I try to make a couple of these and we'll see how it goes? And then we'll go from there."

I was like "Wait, don't you need like a deposit? Or to like, give me a quote?"

"Nah, don't worry about it, we'll just test it out," he says. And I'm like "Oh, sweet!"

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So this was my first misstep.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   8 Jul 2014  |  Comments (2)

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Editor: Last time Anonymous Designer ran down the first five hassles with organizing a group design show: Getting funding, organizing your unruly band of designers, wrangling the troublemakers, fighting over the design of the space, and finally producing your own work. Here he lists the remaining five obstacles.


6. Transportation Logistics, Part 1: Group to Home Base

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You know what makes you wish you'd gone into graphic design, rather than industrial design? Physically transporting your pieces. First off, in a group show you've got to get every designer's pieces from their separate workshops and production houses to the central loading dock that you will ship out from. And in this city a lot of people don't have cars, so they have to figure out a ZipCar, but they got the wrong size and their piece doesn't fit, or they try to borrow a friend's car, but the friend is late or doesn't show up, and now you're going to miss the truck to City B...

7. Transportation Logistics, Part 2: Home Base to Venue

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How do you actually get the entire group's stuff from City A to City B? Do you rent a U-Haul and flip coins to see which two team members are going to make the 16-hour drive? Do you trust the guy who couldn't find your shop from his shop just four blocks away to make it several states away to City B within the prescribed time window?

Last year we ended up hiring a private trucker. He drove the 16 hours to City B, unloaded, then drove to a site we found outside the city where he could dump the truck for five days. Then we put him in a taxi to the airport and flew him back to City A. Five days later we flew him back out to City B, sent someone to pick him up at the airport to bring him to the truck, then he drove the truck to the venue, loaded up, and drove back to City A. Imagine how long it took to plan and coordinate that, and then double your estimate.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  24 Jun 2014  |  Comments (1)

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Editor: Is there a community of like-minded designers in your area? Have you ever thought about teaming up with them to set up a group show, one that you could export to another city? Well, Anonymous Designer figured he'd do just that--and here's what he found.


Where I live in City A, there are a lot of individual designers, but not much of a design community. So ever since I graduated design school I've been trying to organize some group shows here to get some community going. We all want to get our work out there and explore the larger markets outside of City A, so a group show held in larger City B made sense.

So last year, me and a half-dozen other designers put together a group show and exported it to City B. It ended up being a bit of a nightmare because the curator was sort of a train wreck. But this year we decided to repeat the experience and hold another group show in City B. We figured it would be easy this time—new curator, and we had the experience, contacts and relationships from last year that taught us what we needed to do and in what order. Simple, right?

Wrong. This year turned into a clusterfuck. You festival-goers probably have no idea what's going on behind the scenes, so here's my list of Top Ten Problems with Organizing a Group Design Show, in order of how they unfold.

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1. Getting Funding

To set up a group design show, you need sponsorship and funding. Last year we hit up corporations, manufacturers, wealthy families that patronize the arts, anyone local who had anything to do with design. After they all said no we resorted to cold-calling everyone in our network. Here's what we found: Everyone in City A was excited about the prospect of this group show, but except for just one production house willing to sponsor us, no one was excited enough to fork over some cash.

So this year we decided to try crowdsourcing, turning to Kickstarter for our funding. And we found that putting together a Kickstarter campaign is a real bitch! It is a process: Writing and editing the script, finding a good videographer, setting up the lighting, shooting video clips, traveling around different shops to shoot more video clips, finding a video editor, recording the voiceovers for the videos, not to mention getting all of the stuff organized for the actual campaign web page. Don't underestimate how long it takes to try to get all of these things right.

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2. Organizing Your People
Setting up a group show involves endless emailing. You've got a dozen designers in the show, several organizers, sponsors, partial sponsors, and it's a constant communications snafu. Some people weren't CC'ed when they should've been, someone did a "Reply" when they should've done a "Reply All" so now some people only got part of the information, someone typed "can" when they meant to say "can't," et cetera. You are constantly glued to your phone and practically getting an electromagnetic tan from the screen.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  11 Jun 2014  |  Comments (3)

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Editor: You're an up-and-coming designer getting ready to show your stuff at a big furniture show. You've got a great design and know exactly how it should be made--so what could go wrong? Here an anonymous furniture designer shares one of his early-career tales.

This article was originally published in the C77 Design Daily, Vol. 1, Issues 1 & 2.


With the big furniture show coming up, I had spent the past few months designing this large dining table that was going to be produced for the show by a new-to-me fabricator. I'd never worked with these guys before, but they were billed as fabrication experts and had a good rep, so I felt I was in good hands.

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This dining table was made entirely out of a heavy type of wood (which I am not going to name, for reasons of anonymity). The base was the most complex part, with a fairly complicated structure involving a lot of joinery. This is the part I was sweating because of how difficult it was to manufacture: They had to get all of these different pieces to meet up very precisely, while still leaving enough play to compensate for wood movement. There were complicated radii and angles, and if the parts were joined incorrectly, the top wouldn't register with the legs.

Well, these guys nailed it! Totally got every single part exactly correct, it was just perfect. Up next was fabricating the top, but I wasn't sweating that—the top was just a plain rectangle that needed to be glued up from narrower pieces to create a thick, hefty slab. In total it would be eight feet long by 42 inches wide. This was expensive stuff and I didn't have the money—or the time, with the show looming—to do this twice.

Now I had specified that the glue-up had to happen with the individual pieces laid with alternating grains, to compensate for each piece's tendency to cup. By flipping every other piece before the glue-up you can get the cupping to largely cancel out and I can then flatten the table out with a sander.

Well, instead, these guys glued the thing up with all of the endgrain MATCHING. Meaning all of the cupping would happen in the same direction. So when they took the clamps off and the slab adjusted to the ambient humidity, the whole goddamn thing just taco'ed.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  27 May 2014  |  Comments (1)

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Editor: Here we have our first ever True I.D. Story from a manufacturer! In this story you'll read how an iconic product, one with more than one billion units sold, came into existence through a combination of careful design planning, manufacturing knowledge and serendipitous happenstance.


At more than a foot long and weighing nearly two pounds, this brass-handled implement feels more like something from Game of Thrones and less like a tool for working fabric:

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This is a pair of Fiskars tailor's shears from 1896, probably the best that money could buy at the time, and they had to be—they were extremely expensive. So the task set to Fiskars designer Olof Bäckström in the mid-1960s must have sounded like something from 1966's "Mission: Impossible" TV show: Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to re-design this tool for both mass-manufacturability and affordability using modern-day production methods and materials.

Fiskars had been producing these heavy-duty shears since the 1830s, and they were functionally perfect. But that perfection came with a price tag so high that only the wealthy or a professional tailor investing in his business could justify the cost. Fiskars wanted to produce a similar pair at a price so low that anyone could afford them. And they intended to accomplish this using design and manufacturing know-how.

First off, the cost of the 1800s tailor's shears was tied to the manufacturing. Any industrial designer or metalworker should understand why these shears were so expensive to make. The chunky blades were made of forged steel, meaning some guy with Popeye forearms had to stand over an anvil and bang the things over and over again with a hammer. The ergonomic, curvaceous handles were made of brass, cast in a mold, and it then took a different craftsman a lot of re-work to get rid of the flashing and render them perfectly smooth.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   6 May 2014  |  Comments (2)

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Editor: Accidental Designer and his wife have gone all in, and run into a major production roadblock just weeks before filling some major orders. Find out how it all ends here in the exciting final chapter of their story!


When my wife and looked inside the shipping container and found it full of cracked cutting boards, we thought Holy shit, we are bankrupt. This container was supposed to contain the product we'd use to fill the major orders we'd scored, and now we were screwed.

But something didn't add up here. I could understand if some or even most of the load had been damaged in transit. But this container was entirely filled with broken product, every last one, and some of them in suspiciously consistent ways. Why would the factory ship this to me? They had no incentive to screw me, and in fact, their fortunes were tied with mine—they'd floated me several months of credit. This didn't make sense. At the time I didn't know much about factories, but I knew that they weren't in the business of playing expensive and career-ending practical jokes.

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I got on the phone with the go-between in China, I'll call him Mister X. When he found out what happened he sounded as panicked as I felt, and he immediately flew out to see us and inspect the container. I mean this guy hung up the phone and headed straight to the airport.

After he landed and checked things out, Mister X figured out what had happened. When the factory was producing the first batch of product, it was trial-and-error, and there were a lot of hiccups before they got the manufacturing down pat. This shipping container was filled with all of the rejects and defects. Mister X knew that somewhere out there was a shipping container filled with all of the correctly-executed product, he swore he'd seen it with his own eyes. Somehow these two containers had gotten swapped out.

I didn't sleep for almost a week. But somehow, Mister X found the right container and got it to us—just before some major purchase orders were going to be canceled! We made it, but I think I lost a few years of my life in stress.

I became good friends with Mister X and this factory, and with good reason—from that point on, business doubled and then tripled each year. I paid off what I owed them and now we were all making money.

At that point in time, no one in the world made bamboo cutting boards. But three years after we got started, no less than 20 companies had knocked me off. I'm talking the exact same designs, some of them right down to the packaging! There was one "competitor" in particular who started turning into a real problem, offering virtually identical product and lowering their prices by 10 or 15 percent every year to price me out.

Remember that chair design that I'd "borrowed" in an earlier entry? Well, here was the karmic payback.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  22 Apr 2014  |  Comments (5)

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Editor: After going Hollywood in Part 5, here in Part 6 Accidental Designer finds a casual suggestion from his wife is about to change their lives. As one door closes, another door (this one on a shipping container) opens....


I was down in my basement workshop, failing.

I had been trying to produce a lightweight and affordable bamboo folding chair for Hollywood sets. After hundreds of hours and countless prototypes, this problem just had me beat—and I knew it. I mopped my brow and called up the stairs to ask my wife if we had any sandwiches left.

My wife is a mean cook and she goes through cutting boards like nobody's business. It doesn't matter what they're made of, she just plain wears them out. "I need a new cutting board, this one's through," she called down the stairs. "Can you scrape up some of that bamboo and make me one?"

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I looked around at all of the bamboo scrap I had and thought, well, here's a problem I can solve. I glued up a bunch of scrap pieces, more than I needed just for the sake of doing something, and by the next day I'd made her a cutting board and a few back-ups.

Following that, to clean up my shop area, use up a bunch of scrap and exercise my brain, I threw myself into gluing up cut-offs and began experimenting with different styles of cutting boards. After failing with chair prototype after prototype, it felt good to successfully make something—anything.

I had consistently-shaped scraps in several different sizes, and so I designed the cutting boards around the shape of the scraps. By the end of my clean-up project I had several dozen good-looking cutting boards. I felt like my table saw and router respected me again.

I didn't think much of this until a few weeks later, when I was loading up my truck to hit a craft show in Arizona. I was bringing the $2,000 bamboo chair even though I knew it wouldn't sell, and also bringing some consumer-grade chairs I knew I could sell, just because I needed the cash. The extra bamboo cutting boards I'd made were sitting in the corner. I figured they'd be Christmas presents for relatives, which would save my wife and I some cash since we were getting close to broke.

Still, I grabbed a bunch of the cutting boards and threw them in the truck. I didn't think I'd sell any, but figured I'd use them to gauge interest.

Maybe you can guess what happened next.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   8 Apr 2014  |  Comments (0)

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Editor: Here in Part 5, Accidental Designer gets a taste of the Big Time with a little help from Hollywood; pisses off several hundred propmasters; and finds himself faced with a serious production challenge.


Tradeshows are expensive to get into, but they can be an important part of growing your furniture business. You never know who's going to walk into your booth and change your life.

I'd started selling my tall, padded folding chairs at movie industry trade shows, and there would be a line leading to my booth. The chairs were apparently perfect for Hollywood sets. The orders were still individually small, five chairs here, ten chairs there, some orders as small as one. But I didn't care how small they were and I'd still deliver the units myself. In fact, I'd stopped driving the Ford Ranger pickup and bought a used 15-passenger van from a Korean church; I'd ripped out all of the seats to turn it into a cargo van.

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Anyways, one of the people that came into my booth was a makeup artist with a small order. I delivered the three chairs myself to the Warner Brothers lot in Hollywood.

Well, turns out that person was one of three makeup artists for The Drew Carey Show. This was the '90s, and the peak of that show's success. And I found myself hauling those chairs onto that set.

I'm setting one of them up, and who should walk past but Drew Carey himself.

"Hey," he says, pointing at the chair, "whatcha got there?"

I told him that I designed, built and sold these chairs, and started pointing out the various features. Drew seemed interested. "You mind if I—" he gestured, then sat down in the chair himself to try it out. He wriggled around a bit to get comfortable.

"These are so cool!" he exclaimed. He jumped up out of the chair. "Give me one of these for everybody on the set!" He then hustled off to do something else.

I looked around, trying to figure out how many people were on this set. I'm naively thinking it's a couple dozen, and I'm standing there counting people with my fingers when one of Drew's headset-wearing assistants hustles over to me with a clipboard. She places an order with me for 120 chairs.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  25 Mar 2014  |  Comments (2)

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Editor: Here in Part 4, Accidental Designer comes face to face with someone he'd been looking to avoid. Following that encounter, his subsequent talent for design accidentally gets him the attention of Hollywood!

Previously: The Accidental Designer, Part 3 - Is This Seat Taken?


"Hey man," Rusty said. He introduced himself even though I already knew who he was. "I've been following you for the past few."

"Oh, ah," I said. What was there to say—what could I possibly say? All I could do was apologize. "Listen man, I'm, ah, sorry—so sorry that I took your, uh—"

Rusty cut me off. "What are you talking about, man?" he said. "Your chair looks awesome." Your chair, he'd said.

"But I took the design from you," I said.

"Yeah, you did, and I took the design from somebody else. And I made it a little bit better. And that guy I took it from, he took it from someone before him, and he'd made it a little bit better. This chair has been around for ages, dude," he said. "And yours looks awesome."

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I was so relieved, and felt a huge weight come off of my shoulders. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should all go out and steal someone else's designs. These days, things are copyrighted and IP'd and everybody's all lawyered up. But that sling rocker chair had come into the world iteratively, like shipwrighting skills. People got better and better at it and the product improved through succession and collaboration. No one owns a shiplap joint and back then no one owned that chair (though I'll betcha someone with lawyers does today).

Rusty and I remain good friends to this day. But before you think I got off easy for taking that design, well, I didn't. Rusty might not have given a damn, but though I didn't know it, the karma was going to come back around one day.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  11 Mar 2014  |  Comments (4)

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Editor: Have you ever been tempted to take someone else's design? What do you think would happen to you if you did? Here we've got Part 3 of "Accidental Designer's" story, as he follows through on a fateful decision.

Missed the last one? Catch up here.


At a craft fair I'd spotted this guy, I'll call him Rusty, selling these chairs he had made. As soon as I saw his design, I realized I could build them myself, even better than he had. And I darn sure had enough wood to make them. Now I have to point out that these chairs were not my design. But before we talk design theft, I have to detour into auto theft. Because in my life there were two cases where people were getting rid of a boatload of wood and it worked out in my favor, and with the first one I ended up getting my car stolen.

Some guy was selling a garageful of teak, which I'd mentioned earlier. These were huge pieces of rough-cut lumber and you couldn't believe how much of it there was. The guy's grandfather had brought it all over from India on a ship in the 1950s. I had this crappy Chevy Astro van, and each trip I loaded it up to the brim with wood, so badly that the van was practically bottoming out. It was a 1.5-hour round trip and it took me six freaking trips to get all of the wood back to the boatyard where I was living.

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By the time I made it back with the final load, it was late at night and I was dead tired. I couldn't lift my arms to unload that last batch and figured I'd get to it in the morning, so I left the car in the lot, staggered back into my sailboat and fell asleep with my boots on.

In the morning I got up and went out to finish the job. But my van was gone. I always parked in the same spot so it's not like I misplaced it, and the keys were still in my pocket, so it's not like a buddy of mine had moved it. It had just disappeared, along with its load of valuable teak.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  25 Feb 2014  |  Comments (0)

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Editor: Here in Part 2 of "Accidental Designer's" story, he engages in one of the more unconventional design/build educations we've ever heard of—and unwittingly lays the foundation for a big next step on his way to starting his own company.

If you're behind on this tale, you'll want to catch up with Part 1 first.


It amazes me that those of you in design school learn your craft in four years. Since I had no plan, I spent well over a decade building up my skillset and learned a lot of things the hard way, though I don't regret a day of it.

After graduating high school I had no notion of design as a career, and more immediately I knew college wasn't for me. Neither was staying in my mom's house. So at 18 I moved out, and started living on a derelict wooden sailboat that my brother and I had bought with money we'd saved up working for my dad.

With every dollar we had spent on the boat, there wasn't anything left over for paying for a space to dock the boat. So my brother and I became experts at "the slip-around," where you'd find a slip someone had recently vacated, then dock the boat there. Eventually Harbor Patrol would realize your boat was in a slip that someone had stopped renting, then you'd get towed to the impound dock. But it didn't take a genius to figure out that paying a $35 fine a couple times a month was a helluva lot cheaper than the $300 monthly rental fee.

I supported myself using the skills I'd learned under Mr. Barkington in that hellish Shop class, particularly that last big boat restoration job. I had also taught myself some new tricks through trial and error, and I talked some folks into hiring me to restore their boats. With the money I saved I was able to buy some boats of my own, real junkers, but I'd live in them, restore them, flip them, then buy another, rinse and repeat. That worked out pretty good.

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People got to know my face around the marina, and I got hired to do odd jobs around the place. Instead of the Harbor Police writing me tickets, I became the guy they'd call if a boat was sinking in the harbor, and I'd go pump it out. If someone showed up in the middle of the night for an early-morning haul, I'd help them get set up. Because I was there practically 24-7, I became the boatyard's de facto security.

Eventually I caught the attention of the local boatyard. They had this old-school shipwright, a really crusty old-timer who wanted to retire, and he needed an apprentice who could keep the work up. I'll call him Mr. Wright, and I'll tell you that this guy made Mr. Barkington look like a kind, nurturing soul.

But I wasn't there for praise, and apprenticing under an old-school guy like that, who really knew his business, was one of the best educations I could get. Soon I was living in the boatyard with my own, legal, slip. And for the next eight years Mr. Wright taught me proper process and procedure, along with a system of wood joinery that was centuries old. He taught me how to balance following tradition with thinking on your feet. I got to use all kinds of unusual shipwright's tools, like a handplane with a bowed, springy bottom so you could plane concave surfaces, tools the likes of which I never saw before or since. He had this special kind of adjustable "story stick" that he used to measure windows, he called it a "Preacher stick." I asked him why and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said "Because it never lies."

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  11 Feb 2014  |  Comments (2)

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Editor: Here "Accidental Designer" tells us the epic tale of how he backed into a career in designing and building by discovering something no one else had. We won't tell you the name of our protagonist for now, as we don't want you to Google him yet and find out how the story ends. Just sit back, enjoy, and see how a man with no formal industrial design training launched into a career many of us would envy.


I knew that I'd screwed up, but knowing it didn't make it any better. I was made to stand up in front of the class, where thirty pairs of wide eyes all stared at me, afraid of what was going to come next, yet glad that it wasn't one of them up there.

You see, before I had any inclination that design was going to make me a success, and before I even learned how to design, I learned how to build. I read in a previous True I.D. Story that the designer learned how to build in his grandfather's woodshop as a kid. Well, I didn't have a kindly grandfather teaching me: Instead I had a hard-ass I'll call Mr. Barkington, who ran the Wood Shop class in my high school. And I thought he was a complete asshole.

Wood Shop was a mandatory class, and Mr. Barkington was quite the ball-buster. For our first assignment, we had to make a checkerboard—pretty basic, cut squares out of two different colors of wood, then put them together in an alternating pattern. Well, I forgot to account for the kerf, the thickness of the blade, when I cut my pieces up. Add up a 3/32" kerf across the entire board, and by the time I got it all together the damn thing was a couple inches too short on each side.

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Mr. Barkington called me out in front of the entire class. "Take a look, everybody," he said, "take a good look at what this fucking idiot did! Jesus Christ!" He held my board up so everyone could see. "Does that look right to you? Hey asshole, do you even know what a kerf is? Jesus, Saint Mary and Joseph!"

As you Millennials can probably tell, I went to high school a long time ago, back when it was perfectly acceptable for a teacher to say these kinds of things to a student. Today Mr. Barkington would probably have been fired, but back then, I dunno, I think we didn't take stuff so personal, or we learned to endure it for our own betterment. When he humiliated me in front of the class, sure, my cheeks were burning, but I didn't cry, or go tell the Principal (who wouldn't have given a shit) or go whine to my parents. And no, I didn't throw the checkerboard out; it became a cutting board for my mom.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  28 Jan 2014  |  Comments (2)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: This True I.D. Story comes to us from "Diceman," who landed a killer I.D. job straight out of school—then fell on harder times when the market shifted, and had to go back out on job interviews.


I was on time for my interview at the softgoods company. Five people filed into the room, a mix of junior and senior designers and the company's Design Director. After exchanging pleasantries, we got down to brass tacks and I cracked my book open.

I started off by showing my sketches, which, frankly, are not my strong suit. I hoped to blow past that and get to the things I was good at, modelmaking, CAD and fabrication, but the interview took a left turn. There was some general murmuring about the weak quality of my sketches, which I could handle—design school crits can be brutal and do a good job of fortifying you—but this one junior designer clamped on like a pit bull and just wouldn't let go. He kept going on, and on, and on about my "shitty" sketches; I looked around the room to see if anyone was going to rein this guy in for saying the word "shitty" during a freaking job interview, but all I saw were disappointed eyes looking at my book.

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Ah, how far the mighty have fallen, I thought, reflecting on my last ID job, where I probably made more money than the Design Director did here.

Let me back up a sec and tell you how I got to this GD interview in the first place.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  14 Jan 2014  |  Comments (0)

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This is our first non-anonymous True I.D. Story.

As a musician and sound engineer, Stephen Ambrose spent the '70s touring the world with hard rock acts. This led him to invent the world's first in-ear monitor, essentially the progenitor to the modern-day earbud. In this True I.D. Story, Ambrose—who went on to commercialize his invention by founding Asius Technologies—reveals why Spinal Tap's "11" is, in real life, more like a 3.5.

Editor's Note: This story is primarily paraphrased from a conversation with Stephen Ambrose, and is not comprised of direct quotes. If there are any factual and technical errors here, they are mine, and not Ambrose's.


As a sound engineer in the 1970s, roadies used to hate me because I'd show up for the tour with 23 flight cases and they all had to be hauled; musicians, especially the hard rock guys I was working with, need to hear themselves on stage, and they like to hear themselves LOUD, the thinking went. So there was a lot of gear.

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Aside from the roadies, I had a financial incentive to develop an in-ear monitor; if I could make something that fit into your ear and gave you that crucial feedback, then you wouldn't have to ship 10,000 pounds of speakers all around the world. The air freight on those speakers was pretty expensive.

A lot of [these rockers] had actually developed hearing damage from years of being up on stage, though they'd never admit it. Image, you know. So one challenge in designing my in-ear monitor was that it couldn't look like a hearing aid, because no rocker wants to look like he's wearing a hearing aid—even if he really needs one! So I made them out of gold so that they looked like jewelry.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   1 Jan 2014  |  Comments (0)

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Core77 2013 Year in Review: Top Ten Posts · Furniture, Pt. 1 · Furniture, Pt. 2
Digital Fabrication, Pt. 1 · Digital Fabrication, Pt. 2 · Digital Fabrication, Pt. 3 · Digital Fabrication, Pt. 4
Insights from the Core77 Questionnaire · Maker Culture: The Good, the Bad and the Future · Food & Drink
Materials, Pt. 1: Wood · Materials, Pt. 2: Creative Repurposing · Materials, Pt. 3: The New Stuff
True I.D. Stories · High-Tech Headlines

For 2013 we rolled out a new section, one that's quickly become a reader favorite: True I.D. Stories, where industrial designers in our readership stepped forward (albeit anonymously) to tell their tales. What can go wrong for an industrial designer? The short answer is, lots.

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First, "Newbie Designer" sounded off with "Off the Grid," the tale of his first ID business trip. The newly-minted exhibit designer was flown across the country to oversee a store installation, and the trouble started nearly as soon as he got to the store.

» True I.D. Stories #1: Off the Grid

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Next, "Design Minion" told us his story of "Fun in the Sun." The designer of recreational pleasure craft found no pleasure during his first, hellish, on-site product catalog photo shoot.

» True I.D. Stories #2: Fun in the Sun?

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Then we got into epic tale territory, as "Good Ol' Boy" took us through his multi-part adventure of going from useless, unskilled design grad to getting his dream ID job. It was by no means a straight line—this tale has more crazy twists and turns than a spy novel!

» True I.D. Stories #3: Get a Job, Any Job!
» True I.D. Stories #4: My Master(s) Plan
» True I.D. Stories #5: Game of ID Thrones
» True I.D. Stories #6: Opportunity Knocks. And Her Name is Amber
» True I.D. Stories #7: Money, Revenge, and Miscalculations

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  17 Dec 2013  |  Comments (1)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: The conclusion of "Family Man's" cross-country tale! After he confronts his boss about shorting him on his salary, said boss suddenly drags him into another ID firm that shares the same building. How is this going to be a solution?


"[Jimmy the Bear], this is [Family Man]," Batcopter Boss said, introducing me. "He's a talented designer. And right now he needs some extra work."

I didn't need extra work, as far as I was concerned; I needed to be paid the correct amount for the work I was already doing. But I kept my mouth shut for a second, to see just what the hell was going on here.

Jimmy the Bear got up and came around from behind the desk to shake my hand. I call him Jimmy the Bear because that's what he looked like: A big, bearded gentle giant type, who moved and even blinked ponderously and deliberately. "How are you doing, Family Man," he said, encasing my hand in his huge mitt. "So what's your skillset?"

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Batcopter Boss excused himself while I ran down my list of credentials. Jimmy motioned for me to follow him back out through the door and into yet another office.

In this room two guys were sitting in front of some monitors. They looked pretty young, I had at least ten years on both of them. On a large table against one wall were some drawings for the coffeemaker I'd seen the other guy working on in the model shop. Jimmy started describing where they were in the project and what more needed to be done, quizzing me on various parts of the drawings; I offered input and pointed out something on one of the drawings that I thought would be a problem to mold.

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Underneath the messy stack of drawings was something that didn't match, and I pulled it up to ask about it. They were drawings for a toy design, another ID area I had experience with. Soon Jimmy and I were talking about that project too. Now here's the thing: At that point I didn't have a lot of money, I didn't have a lot of what I considered professional respect or renown, but I definitely had a shitload of experience. And in that 15 minutes, Jimmy saw it—because next thing I knew, he was asking me how I'd like to head those two projects up. A half an hour ago, he didn't even know my name.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   3 Dec 2013  |  Comments (4)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: After a nasty paycheck surprise, suddenly underpaid "Family Man" has to figure out where he went wrong with his new employment contract. Has he screwed himself and his family, or are they getting screwed by the company?


It was well after closing when I got to the office, so everyone else was long gone. I flipped the lights on, headed over to my desk and ripped the drawer open. There was the contract. I pulled it out, slammed it down on my desk and started reading through it, to see where I'd screwed up. To be told you were going to be paid an annual salary only to have some clause slipped under your nose in the contract stipulating you'd instead be paid hourly wages—this made me angry, and I had to figure out where I'd make the mistake so that I'd never make it again.

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I spent fifteen minutes going through the contract from top to bottom, and could find no such clause. So I read through it again. And again. Then, a fourth time.

There was nothing in the contract like that, no clause, no loopholes. It was totally straightforward. I was supposed to be paid $85,000 a year in biweekly installments, no ifs, ands or buts. So I had read the thing correctly the first time. That made me breathe a sigh of relief since it meant the error wasn't mine, but my anger shortly returned. The boss was shortchanging me.

I went home that night angry, and when my wife asked me what was wrong I lied and said I had to learn some new software for work that was giving me a headache. I couldn't bring myself to tell her how much less money we were going to have, not until I talked to the boss and figured out what the hell was going on.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  19 Nov 2013  |  Comments (4)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: "Family Man" has quit his old ID job and moved his entire family cross-country to work for specialty manufacturer "Liberace Batcopters." He's also negotiated a huge salary bump for himself. Now it's time to settle into the new job—what could go wrong?


This might sound strange, but even though I was new, my first week at Liberace Batcopters was the first time I really felt confident as an industrial designer. On that first day, a Tuesday, I was a little nervous; up until then everything I'd ever designed could be held in your hand, or at least picked up, and here I was designing pieces of a massive vehicle of a sort I'd never even ridden in. But as the week went on, the confidence started to happen as I realized that, on some level, design is design. The scale of my new projects created some new challenges, but it was all very manageable. When you lay things out in the proper sequence and you attack the design problems from the correct angle, your experience will carry you through.

The first week went by in a blur. I was redesigning a shroud to cover the gun turret that fired Bat-a-rangs to make it more aerodynamic. One of the engineers confided to me that no matter how sleek I got it, it wasn't really going to do a damn thing for the drag coefficient, but that they would compensate by adding more thrust and burning more fuel. Our clients, you see, wanted the aesthetic change and weren't the type to worry about burning more fuel, especially since a lot of them had made their fortunes by sitting on its sources.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   5 Nov 2013  |  Comments (1)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: Where we last left off, "Family Man" was in the middle of an important salary negosh. But with a wife and two kids to support, money is just the first hurdle he needs to clear. Can he get the clan to the other side of the country?


"I can't do it for less than eighty," I said. That was exactly double my salary back home. Less than what my wife and I made together, but the cost of living out here was slightly lower.

"Eighty grand," Batcopter Boss said.

"That's right," I said.

He leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head.

"I can't do eighty," he said, grinning. "I'll give you eighty-five."

I thought I heard him wrong. I didn't. He was offering me $85,000 a year.

Before I knew it we were both standing and shaking hands across his desk. But I told him I couldn't finalize yet, that I still had to sort some things out. See, if I was a single guy, it would have been a done deal right then and there; but my name in this story is Family Man, and there's a reason for that. The money Liberace Batcopters was offering was great, but now I just had to make sure I could provide a good home for my family.

When I told Batcopter Boss what I needed to do next, he said he'd ordinarily accompany me, but that he had to finish up some things. So he opened a desk drawer, pulled out a set of keys, and tossed them to me. At first I thought they were the keys to his Audi, but I was wrong; he led me around the side of the building to where there was a freestanding garage. He punched a code into a keypad, the door slid open, and inside was a shiny, cherry-red, jacked up Ford F-150 with a Batcopter logo on the side. "Company car," he explained. "Try not to scratch it."

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  22 Oct 2013  |  Comments (4)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: Where we last left off, "Family Man" and his wife decided to give up their safe life and move their brood to where they really wanted to live. To get there, Family Man needs to chase down what might be the most unusual industrial design job we've ever heard of—and he's got to prove that he's got what it takes to design Batcopters for Liberace. Does he? And how much money does it take to feed four mouths?


I e-mailed my portfolio to Liberace Batcopters, Inc. that very next morning. I wanted to do some more research to try to find out what that other ID firm was, the consumer products one that shared the same address as Liberace Batcopters, but I didn't have the time; I had to get to work.

Where I worked back then was clean and air-conditioned, a prerequisite in this hellhole of a hot state, but it was kind of soul-crushing. We're talking an aluminum warehouse, maybe 60 by 200 feet, filled with cubicle farms. Industrial lighting. Concrete floors that I was pretty sure would ruin my knees for snowboarding.

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The design group was pretty small and I shared a cubicle cluster with a fellow industrial designer I'll call Rick. Rick was the only good thing about this mediocre job; he was a talented designer, a funny guy, never got stressed out, and we could talk motorcycles, guns and snowboards all day when the boss wasn't around. (And that was a lot, since our boss had quit two weeks ago and they hadn't found a replacement yet.)

Rick and I had grown close in the years that I'd been there, we were both present when our sons were born, we'd gone on hunting trips together, our wives got along (important!), that kind of thing. I was tempted to tell Rick I was applying for a job at Liberace Batcopters because I knew he'd think the vehicles were cool, but something told me to hold off on that. And anyways, it would probably be days before they got back to me, and there was no guarantee I'd get the job.

Well, I wasn't at work for more than an hour before my cell phone started vibrating. Rick hadn't heard it, so I put a cigarette in my mouth like I was going out for a smoke break, scooped up the phone and made for the door, to take the call out in the parking lot.

By the time I'd made it out there, I'd missed the call, so I dialed it back. It was from an area code I didn't recognize. "Hi, this is [Family Man], I just missed a call from this number," I said.

"Hi, [Family Man]," said the male voice on the other end. "This is [Batcopter Boss] of [Liberace Batcopters]. We got your book this morning, do you have a second to talk?"

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |   8 Oct 2013  |  Comments (4)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: This True I.D. Story comes to us from "Family Man," who spots a rather unusual ID job listing and hopes he can chase it down for the betterment of his family. With a wife and two young children to support, the stakes are higher than for you single folk; can he pull it off?


I'm not bragging, but the fact is I designed [something that became pretty famous]. And I know a lot of you designers are in the same boat and did something similar, but never got any credit for it, like I didn't.

You wouldn't think the designer of [famous object] would be making just $40,000 a year, as many units as that damned thing sold. On top of that, as this story begins I had [famous object] to my credit, two degrees in Industrial Design, both a Bachelors and a Masters, and four years of work experience, yet I found myself an underpaid Senior Designer cranking out consumer products at a fairly mediocre company. I can't tell you what I was designing, or where we were located, or you'll figure it out; but let's just say the weather there was hot and if you had children in the '90s, chances are high you used something I designed.

Now I noticed that all of these True I.D. Stories have come from single guys, so my story's a little different. The reason I could afford to have a lousy $40,000-a-year salary in a major U.S. city is because my wife made more than that. We had a four-year-old son and a newborn (also a boy) just eleven months old at the time that this story starts. Between the two of us we made just about six figures, and that was enough to get us a 1,400-square-foot house just outside the city that was about $150,000.

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We were comfortable, and more importantly, my wife's career was fast-tracked. All we had to do was wait for a few years, and then something in my wife's career was scheduled to happen, and then we'd have a lot more money. So all we had to do was sit tight. I could stomach designing [certain category of unexciting consumer products] for another four years because I had my eye on the prize, and I knew we'd be able to provide a financially secure future for our two boys.

Well, all of that changed when we took a little vacation.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  24 Sep 2013  |  Comments (0)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: Where we last left off, Design Ninja had practically killed himself to generate 100 concept drawings, in an effort to impress the design consultancy where he'd been hired. Now it's time for the client presentation. Will they be wowed?


I felt both relieved and worried, standing there at the baggage carousel, watching my giant plastic bins come tumbling down the slide. Relieved that the airline hadn't lost them, and worried that the drawings might be damaged. I wanted to take the tape off of the bins and check them right then and there, but my boss said we didn't have time; our flight had been slightly delayed and this was one of those in-and-out meetings.

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Before I knew it we were in a minivan taxi on the way to Ninja Throwing Stars LTD's headquarters.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  10 Sep 2013  |  Comments (0)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: In Part 2 of Design Ninja's story, we look at his rather...enthusiastic approach to his first work assignment at his new job. If you missed Part 1 of this story, catch up here!


You can't learn to be a ninja in two weeks, but that's what we industrial designers are often asked to do. Our skills, creativity, technical acumen, and understanding of human nature are supposed to enable us to re-think existing products and re-design them in just months, though people may use these objects for years.

As I mentioned in the last post, I'd just scored a sweet gig at [Best Design Consultancy] and already had the first project where I was running point, so to speak. The gig was to redesign ninja throwing stars (not really, read the last post) and I'd spent the last two weeks trying to master them. Now I was ready to produce what my new employer had asked of me: Thirty to forty concepts for a re-design. Hit with a bolt of inspiration, I grabbed my pen and sat down to sketch.

I had a particular approach in mind, and I started burning through ink and paper. I was really eager to impress my new employers, and my approach was this: I'd been asked for 30-40 concepts. I was going to give them 100. And these weren't going to be 30 good concepts, 30 okay concepts and 40 shit concepts, I was going to crank out 100 concepts that all had merit. Because I was a goddamned design ninja.

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Posted by hipstomp / Rain Noe  |  27 Aug 2013  |  Comments (1)

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This is a true story. Descriptions of companies, clients, schools, projects, and designers may be altered and anonymized to protect the innocent.

Editor: This one comes to us from "Design Ninja," who early on in his ID career finds himself grappling with something many of us have: Should I go Corporate or Consultant?


Loosely speaking, as big-city industrial designer looking for full-time work there are two paths you can pursue straight out of school: Going consultancy or going "in-house," i.e., corporate. After undergrad, I discovered the hard way that my book was good enough to get me corporate work but not good enough for the consultancies. So I landed a job at a certain corporation's in-house product design department.

Corporate work was fine for me in the beginning. The hours were great (strictly nine-to-five), I never minded wearing a suit, and I got along great with the four guys and one woman in the design department. But the things I were designing were all in the same family of products—let's say that I was designing restaurant equipment—and after a while you get tired of doing soap dispensers, injection-molded dish racks and coffee stations.

After a few years I decided I had enough ambition and talent to do more than that. That's not to say the guys who worked where I did lacked those things, it's just that they were content, and I was not. So I started secretly sending my book out to several consultancies in the area. I scored a few interviews, but during them it became clear that my narrow focus in one area of products was not adequate.

So I did what Good Ol' Boy did and went back to grad school. The decision didn't come lightly, but I looked at some of the older guys at my job's design department and decided I didn't want to end up there.

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My grad school story isn't as epic as Good Ol' Boy's, but I achieved what I wanted, which was an improved book with a good range of stuff in it. Money was an issue for me, so during grad school I only interned at corporate design places because they paid more. But it was consultancy work that I really wanted to try. It sounded so exciting from what I'd read about it, to get to work on an interface for a car dashboard one month, then a cool retail store, then a line of furniture.

Straight out of grad school I was pretty proud of my book, and sent it to the Best Design Consultancy in the city. I knew I wouldn't get the job, but I wanted to aim high and work my way down.

They called me in for an interview—and I actually got the job. I couldn't believe it. First place I'd applied to! I'd been prepared to flounder for a couple of months and freelance to pay the bills, but here I was with a job at [Best Design], basically a week after getting my Masters.

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