Be Careful What You Wish For

Be Careful What You Wish For Michael Walsh, the art director of the Visual Arts Press, asked me to do the next SVA subway poster this past January. I was completely blown away, and of course, said I'd be honored. The next day, the lovely Ric Grefe from AIGA called to tell me I was getting the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Medal. I assumed that before the end of that glorious week, I'd get clocked by a car on my bike ride home and would linger in a coma that would last beyond both the poster deadline and the big AIGA gala in September. Surprisingly, I've been spared (though I'm still waiting for an anvil to fall on my head).
After many, many years at Rolling Stone, I made a mid-life switch to designing posters for Broadway shows, at SpotCo ( I've learned to do multiple solutions (sometimes even dozens) for every project, and to work within the often-kooky contractual obligations we're handed (stars at 100% above title, side by side billing, stacked billing...). You'd think that someone telling you to "do whatever you want" for a poster would be completely liberating. You'd think you'd just dive right in. I didn't. I was terrified.

Tony Rhodes, the Executive Vice President at SVA, said, "Do something inspirational. It's not an advertising poster for the school. It should just make you think. Don't worry about making it all about SVA." And then Michael Walsh added the kicker. "We should see something in around April, and the mechanical is due in June." Both pieces of information should have been even better news than the AIGA thing. I should have leapt over the table and kissed them both squarely on the lips, but I was now even more frozen.

I guess I'm just so used to the puzzle-whether it's a magazine with its deadline cycle, or the challenge of designing a poster with many restrictions and many layers of approval-I'm used to structure. Tony and Michael gave me what should have been a dream job-a big blank canvas and a long deadline. What was my problem?
I decided to put it on the shelf for awhile; you know, to THINK about it for oh, a month or so, to see if maybe my shakiness would then subside. I thought about designing it with my department instead of all alone, since I'm used to being part of a group and not a solo act. In the end, at my boss, Drew Hodges' encouragement, I decided to go it alone. After all, they'd called ME and I should just grow up already and not be so shy (or more like chicken).

Around March, I figured it was time to open up an Illustrator file and get started. I wanted to say something sort of interesting, that would make you stop and think while you were waiting on the platform for your train. I bought some books of quotes, but was taken by a little metal sign that one of our production artists had in her cubicle. "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?". I wanted to say something like that, but I'm not good at the short form; only the long. I wisely decided to ask for help.
I consulted with Jimmy McNicholas, one of SpotCo's writers, and we went back and forth for a little while, as we watched the days on the calendar fly by. I needed a restriction; I needed a quote to design and to then set some boundaries for myself. Jimmy dove right in in a way that I couldn't, and his enthusiasm and willingness to just keep going finally lit a fire under me. We had an original quote that felt like something I really wanted to say (though they were his words), and I started to design. I set out to do something really elaborate that I could just pick at and pick at over time, and give myself small, manageable weekly goals to be met at night while watching TV. The main goal, though, was to enjoy the process and to not wait till the last minute to finish up.
Of course, as the first month went by, I was kicking myself for making it all so complicated. Was it so elaborate so that at worst, people would say, 'Well, she spent a LOT of time on that,' and not, 'Wow, isn't that good?' I examined my motives in therapy, of course, and plodded along at home on my now-ancient iMac. The vector points proved too much for Old Faithful by the second month, and I was soon relegated to taking long bathroom breaks every time I saved. I switched to working at the office at night, but by the following month, my tired old G5 started to fight back. By some act of, I can only assume God, I was upgraded to an Intel G5 with tons of memory the fourth month, and I was able to pick up the pace a little. On the last day, even that computer told me I was almost out of memory to save the preview, and I decided it was time to call it a day.
I like the final product, though admittedly, I'm a little tired of looking at it and can only see things I wished I'd changed. But it's done, and I did it myself and maybe it'll make a subway rider or two stop and think. Maybe someone will even want to steal one or my niece will hang it up in her bedroom. The thing is, though, since I ride my bike to work, I'll never see it on the subway platform, so I can only hope it holds up. Or that someone doesn't draw a penis on it.

  • compareo

    It is a well made post. i liked reading and studying it.

  • KMinster

    Me too, saw this and loved it on impact.

    Just wonderful!

  • Emily Smith

    Gail, I absolutely LOVE that you actually got to see this in person! Your bike conspired against you, but for you. Another reason to love that bike!

  • frogers

    Really great post. Amazing poster! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the process. That is really helpful and inspirational. I think a quote from Bette Midler would be appropriate right now. "You are the wind beneath my wings." -Bette Midler

  • Matthew Bates

    What a great poster. I love the detail.

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