This week and next, we’re asking the judges of the Print Portfolio Review to tell us about their portfolios—specifically their first portfolios, and how they helped or hindered their early careers. Yesterday, Mirko Ilić told us about the “big paper salad” he brought to New York City in 1986. Today, Debbie Millman writes about her first portfolio.
The only job I wanted after graduating from college was to work for Vanity Fair magazine. Back then (the early 1980s), the magazine was a heady literary publication edited by Leo Lerman. The covers featured quirky designs by David Hockney and Irving Penn photographs of Susan Sontag, Italo Calvino, and Woody Allen (as Groucho Marx). I obsessively pored over each issue trying to crack the code of brilliance I was convinced they contained. Per the policy at Condé Nast, I dutifully dropped off my faux-leather, sienna-brown portfolio for review. My precious portfolio was filled with plastic-covered pages I’d edited and designed (and spent months agonizing over) for my school newspaper, The Albany Student Press, as well as overwrought logos for a pretend restaurant I’d named Cherries & Walnuts. It also contained several mock Vanity Fair covers I’d taken it upon myself to create; they featured a series of black-and-white Russian Constructivist–style wood etchings without any cover lines whatsoever. Miraculously, when I returned to pick up the portfolio, I was informed that Charles Churchward, the design director at Vanity Fair at the time, requested I come in for an interview. Human Resources would be the next stop.
This, to me, was the equivalent of winning the lottery. I spent every waking hour prior to the interview reorganizing the contents of my portfolio and trying on everything in my “career closet,” posing in outfit after outfit in an effort to ensure I could make the best possible impression. My wardrobe consisted of clothes my mother had lovingly handmade as a graduation gift. The morning of the interview, I settled on a royal-blue bolero jacket, a matching knee-length A-line skirt, a beige faux-silk (polyester) blouse with blue pin dots and an oversized, floppy bow in front, sheer black stockings, and flat black patent-leather loafers. I anxiously gazed at myself in the mirror and took a deep breath before leaving my mother’s Queens apartment. I knew that what happened next could change my life, and as I sat on the cramped, balmy express bus into Manhattan, I fantasized about befriending the Human Resources director, being invited up to meet Mr. Churchward, getting hired as his trusty 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 the best magazine company in the whole wide world.
I exited the bus on 42nd Street and Madison Avenue and skipped toward the Condé Nast building, my big bow billowing in the July breeze, my overstuffed portfolio banging against my legs, when the unthinkable happened: I tripped. I fell knee-first into the sidewalk. I toppled so hard and so fast that my portfolio went flying and three passersby came to my side. As they asked me if I was OK, I felt my stinging knee 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 buy new hose, but I quickly realized that my skirt and the tactical placement of my now scuffed portfolio could mask the bruise. I lumbered on and made it to my appointment on time. When I met the Human Resources executive, I was mesmerized. She was unlike any other woman I had ever encountered. She was breezy and elegant and alluring in her a pale yellow sleeveless shift and a big jangly bracelet. 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 shyly complied; I felt the hole in my stockings widen and prayed she didn’t hear the ripping sound. She looked through my bruised portfolio without uttering a syllable. I remember that I could hear the slapping of the plastic pages as she quickly rifled through them. When she finished, she shut it with a thick thud. She looked me up and down. And then we had the following conversation:
“So. What kind of design do you want to do?”
“What kind of design do you want to do?”
“Kind of design?”
Me (with a furrowed brow):
“Hmm. Um. I think I would like to do any kind of design.”
She (with very furrowed brow):
“You can’t do any kind of design. You have to pick.”
“Yes. You have to pick. You have to pick editorial design or promotional design or advertising or custom publishing. You must choose one.”
Me (thinking 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.
Me (actually speaking):
And then I couldn’t help myself. I continued talking:
“But I would do anything. Anything you need.”
And then there was silence.
“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, at that moment I knew I was never going to hear from her again, and I never did. I made some small talk as I was escorted out; I remember asking her how long she had been at Condé Nast and I remember her replying “12 years” with a clip in her voice.
Several months later 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-television magazine. I worked late nights 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. And I look back on that first portfolio, now long gone, with a combination of sentimental nostalgia and a little bit of shame. But all these years later, I’m still proud of those Russian Constructivist copy-free covers.
Early fragments of this essay appear in the book Essential Principles of Graphic Design by Debbie Millman (HOW Books, 2008).