The Daily Heller: “The Assistant,” Camille Murphy
Welcome to the second installment of "The Assistant," a paean to the usually unsung designers working behind the scenes. In this episode, Camille (Millie) Murphy shares her experiences working with Seymour Chwast. Over the next few months we will feature those who are currently assisting contemporary designers, or those who did so in the past. If we are lucky, as we are now, the two will be on the same call. Take it away, Millie …
How long have you worked for Seymour Chwast?
Millie: Seven years
How did you get your job with Seymour? What did you show to convince him you're the one?
Millie: I saw his posting on the AIGA website and applied. I assumed that everyone applying would be qualified, so I put a joke in my cover letter. I said all the usual things, and then added that I would be fun to sit next to.
What did you see in Millie that influenced your decision to hire her?
Seymour: Her résumé and chemistry at the interview.
You work with Seymour one day a week—that's a lot to cram into one day. What are your responsibilities?
Millie: We work on a variety of projects. Books, branding, illustrations. I basically do everything at the studio that is digital. When we used to work in the studio in New York City before COVID, Seymour would make a pile of things to do and have them stacked up on my desk for when I arrived. Now that we work on Zoom due to COVID, I start each day by asking, "What do you want to do today?" And he's got an organized list each time.
For book projects, I set up mechanicals in InDesign, and prepare press-ready files to send to print. We go through the pages of his book projects one by one, laying things out. Years ago I was a staff designer at Penguin Books, Marvel Comics and Simon and Schuster. I learned to design books when working at those companies.
For some illustrations (depending on the medium), I take the scan of his line art done in marker on paper and do the color in Photoshop, preparing the high-resolution art. Sometimes his illustrations do not require digitizing, though. It depends on the client and style that he chooses to work in.
I update the social media and his three websites. I also made seymourchwastart.com, and assisted in the design of pushpininc.com. And I help Seymour to respond to various digital media requests, complete invoicing, and do other business and marketing tasks.
What do you need from Millie that makes her essential to your work?
Seymour: She helps to keep me focused. Her attention to detail that I don’t have. Her complete knowledge of the computer and her professional knowledge in publishing.
What is your happiest role in Seymour's working life, particularly since he is so creatively active at 89 years old?
Millie: I just try and keep up with him. Five minutes into the day you forget how old he is. He seems younger than me.
What else do you rely on Millie for? What is the synergy, so to speak?
Seymour: Millie catches inconsistent design or art in books with a constant format. Her easy temperament during challenging occasions when she won’t let me get away with bad stuff. She does my boring work with no complaints and positive attitude.
How do you see the synergy between you and Seymour as working?
Millie: We both love making things. No task is too small. I keep showing up and he keeps paying me. It's perfect.
I know you have a teaching load. What else do you work on?
Millie: Yes, I am an associate professor at Moravian College, and lead the graphic and interactive design track there. When I am not there or working for Seymour, I work on other freelance design projects—mainly branding and web design—under my own studio, skybluepink.co.
On those days that Millie is off, what do you do? Seymour: I draw and lay out books I am working on, preparing them for Millie for the production stage.
Seymour is such a major figure in the field. How does this impact how you work with him?
Millie: It's a huge opportunity for me to work with someone that I learned about initially by reading about him in a design textbook. I see every day that I have the chance to work with him as time in a design masterclass. It makes this work not only a job for me, but a large part of my scholarship as a design professor.
Indeed, what have you learned from him?
Millie: I've solved the mystery of why I am not a famous designer. I now can see what it takes to be one as prolific as Seymour. He works all the time. He only takes one vacation a year. He redoes drawings over and over again until they are right. For every book that gets made, he has three pitches that aren't picked up yet. In his free time, he draws. He works so very hard.
Millie is not an intern but an experienced pro. What have you learned from her?
Seymour: Aside from improving my knowledge of the computer, I learn patience and assurance that everything is “all right.” She keeps my projects on track. I rely on her judgement, talent and knowledge of pop culture.
Do you take away anything from your weekly experience that you share with your students?
Millie: I've really learned about the importance of concept. I've learned about countless design styles. I've learned not to be so precise with design that it becomes boring. I've learned design history—what press type and Cel-o-tak was.
And a few specific things:
1. Always sketch to scale—mark out the trim size of the layout first, then sketch.
2. The best red is 0c, 80m, 100y, 0k. The best yellow is 0c, 10m, 100y, 0k. There are no good purples.
3. Bodoni and Gill Sans are go-to fonts.
I'm always telling my students about something Seymour said or did. Working at Pushpin has been invaluable for my scholarship.
When you had a larger Push Pin Studio, there were many assistants and associates. Can you picture yourself working solely on your own?
Seymour: No. I need help. I always need help.
What are the most valuable things that you both get from and give to this professional relationship?
Millie: That's hard to say. The first thing that comes to mind is that I look forward to Wednesdays. I get to look forward to work each week. As far as giving, I hope that I give Seymour a reason to like Wednesdays also, and not dread them. I could see where the day you hand your artwork to an assistant to work on could be the worst. I try to make it better than the worst.