Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Kindness of Strangers

This essay was first published on October 6, 2008.

The spring of my junior year in college, I decided that the ultimate fulfillment of my two passionate interests — Italian and graphic design — could only be met through the deft maneuvering of post-graduate study at the Politecnico in Milan. Heading into what was clearly an economic recession, I figured the other side of the pond held enormous potential for my newly-minted approximation of adult life: affordable food, cute guys, a 24-7 chance to practice my Italian and — oh yes — advanced study in my chosen profession. It was, by all indications, a win-win situation.

Yet even more brazen than this was my decision to ask for advice outside the confines of my narrow, yet fairly solid pantheon of advisors. No, I didn't ask my parents, or my professors, or even a number of rather sensible grad students I knew at the time. Instead, I headed straight to the top, and wrote to Massimo Vignelli.

And he wrote back.

A century from now, when the current climate of celebrity bad-boy culture is written up as the self-immolating series of disasters it so often seems to be, such examples of kindness may be so rare as to be altogether forgotten. Common wisdom suggests that celebrity is inversely proportionate to generosity, and time and time again, star antics bear this out. At the unparalleled top of the heap are movie stars (and the paparrazzi who stalk them) followed by professional athletes, musicians and — this just in — the newly deprived financiers of Wall Street. From last year's Alec Baldwin to last week's Christian Bale to this week's Bobby Brown, it's a foregone conclusion: anyone really famous can't be nice.

Arguably, where designers are concerned — and here I am referring to famous designers — there may be evidence of a similar trend. I have seen my share of pretentious, affected, and indeed, nasty designers, who see themselves as somehow superior to the younger, unseasoned types of people who occasionally approach them for advice: in fact, I've been meeting people like this most of my adult life. Some of them were my teachers, others my employers, and all I can say as I approach that abyss of transcendant self-awareness (as far as I can tell, the only benefit of my incipient slide into middle age) is that it was absolutely not necessary for any of these people to treat me as a slave, or a half-wit, or a peon in their exalted, myopic universe. And yet, they did.

So how to explain people like Massimo Vignelli, who didn't know me, who had no reason to write back to me, but did? Or Bradbury Thompson, who annually treated his entire class of thirty-plus graduate students to lunch? Or, for that matter, Steve Heller, who found time from publishing a new book, say, every fifteen minutes or so, to give me my first break as a writer? I was once even the beneficiary of the famously charitable designer/writer/humanitarian Dave Eggers, whose unsoliticited email I've always been tempted to frame.

Email from Dave Eggers, following the publication of Reinventing the Wheel.

I have heard that Milton Glaser will never accept a social invitation if it means canceling a class, because his students come first. This makes him a rock star in my book, and makes me wonder if we should start teaching ethics in design school. If charity begins at home, how can we proclaim new and progressive agendas of social change without examining ourselves, our students, our profession?

Consider the alternative. Some years ago at a charity event, a certain well-known designer (who shall remain nameless) maneuvered his tall, slender frame past me in order to ensure himself strategic proximity to a particular item in the silent auction. He shoved. I fell. He won.

I was about 7 months pregnant at the time.

How about the tale of a certain well-known design studio in New York City, whose partners literally stole an intern from another, perhaps equally (if not more) well-known design studio? I wish I could report that the names of the offending studio partners were mud, except that such mudslinging would have required cooperation in stooping to this level. Which, as it turned out, the owners of the other studio refused to do.

True, it is much more common — and clearly more fascinating — to hear tales of the abuse of privilege, stories of the kinds of trainwrecks and disasters that fuel tabloids in a way that actual kindness inevitably fails to do. Even blogs aren't inuired from this condition: speaking about this with Ellen Lupton and members of her graduate class at MICA last spring, the consensus was that snarky comments from our readers here on Design Observer are much more engaging to peruse. All true, and even understandable: such is the foundation of any provocative, spirited debate. At the same time, I suspect that most of our contributors (myself included) probably prefer substance to snark.

True disclosure obliges me to report that the same individual who resisted the aforementioned mudslinging was, in fact, equally generous when it came to me. A few years after my dreams of grad school in Italy were pragmatically dashed, I was back at Yale and — knowing of his appreciation for Bembo — I sent him a floppy disk with a digital variant that a classmate had designed. It sent a nasty virus spewing through at least a dozen of his studio's computers — a fact which, notwithstanding, resulted in his sending me a beautiful thank you note acknowledging my gift. He didn't avoid my calls, or vilify me for my inexcusable transgression, or pull the kind of rank he so easily could have pulled given the fact that he was well-known and I was, frankly, a nobody. "So maybe my next call should come during a trip to New Haven and we can have another brunch," he wrote on his studio's elegant letterhead. I used it as an excuse to phone him and ask his advice — over brunch, maybe?


Turned out he wasn't free for brunch. He was, however, free for dinner. And a few years later, he married me.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History

Comments [66]

My first trip to Chicago was on a student scholarship to the AIGA conference in 1991, when I was a senior from Kent State University. At the pre-conference cocktail, I saw Milton Glaser standing across the room by himself. I managed to bolster my courage and go up and talk to him.

I babbled something about being a great admirer of his and how important it was for someone to have a role model like him, etc. No doubt the same banal praise he had heard from naive students countless times before. I expected the brush off.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was charming, engaging and treated me like a peer, with a grace and elegance I have seldom seen since in my career.

It's been a long time and I've always held him in high regard as a designer, and more importantly, as a decent person. I try to keep that encounter in mind any time I review student portfolios.
Matthew Brett

Thank you, Jessica, for that enlightening and inspiring article.

Right after I graduated with a degree in Communication Design at Texas State University, I undertook a project idea where I had to get in touch with designers and illustrators from all over the nation. (I sent them a card to respond with.) While some did not respond, I was thrilled to find that I received cards back from Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister, to name a few.

(See them here sabrinadesignproject.blogspot.com)

I agree with you completely about how being generous and courteous to students and aspiring designers can make a great impression, and I also regard these kind gestures as reasons to have greater respect for these designers.

One of the things this wonderful piece reminds me of is that back in the day of Vignelli's note to Jessica, the design world was smaller (and analogue) and it was not unusual for older and accomplished designers to meet face-to-face with young designers looking for a job. I met a ton of people in person and saw their offices with my own eyes when I was job-hunting in New York, and that was an education in and of itself. On hearing that studios would ask young designers to "just drop off your portfolio," (or, now, "just send a pdf") I understand it as a pragmatic response to being to busy, but also implicitly read it as the design world getting bigger and less personal, and a bit cold. Maybe with the onset of the "slow" design economy, a bit of this generosity Jessica describes may become more common?
lorraine wild

That first response is great! I'm never going back to school! Now to find that "good design office" ...

About "snark": People prefer substantive comments to blind praise. Unfortunately, being critical—as in thoughtfully examining—is unnecessarily linked to a combative mentality.

Should we start teaching ethics in design school? Not in any official way. Any systematic teaching or enforcement of being a good person falls flat on its face and is counter to the true motive for being kind—which is simply caring about other people, not being told to do so. As state employees, my husband and I have to do ethics training. We live in Illinois, land of Ryan and Blago. Need I say more?

How you teach kindness is through example and by upholding acts of kindness as this post does. We need to recognize and value kindness, and not respond to negativity with more of the same.

Thanks for this post. I look forward to contacting you for professional advice!
Miriam Martincic

@Miriam Martincic

I want to pick up on your comment that "Unfortunately, being critical — as in thoughtfully examining — is unnecessarily linked to a combative mentality."

I would urge all of our readers to read the interaction about signage in Los Angeles between John Kaliski/Lorraine Wild and Lawrence Barth, and then Kaliski's response in the original post.

There was substantial disagreement, and yet an amazing dialogue that expanded the conversation with historical fact and local politics. In the process, acute readers learned something. The disagreements were interesting and enlightening, and yet the tone was mature and constructive. Oh, that more of our conversations were like that.

I believe Jessica is right that much of this has to do with a generosity of spirit, and that an interest in a critical dialogue is not incompatible with listening and being open to the ideas of others.
William Drenttel

oh, i love a good success story. thx for sharing jessica.
felix sockwell

Thanks for your story Jessica. I have to agree with you on Massimo. I was lucky enough to intern for VA in the mid-90's, but unfortunately he spent most of that summer in Rome with Mr. Benetton working on a revamp of the Benetton identity. He was back in New York for about a week, and I spent most of my days with him working on digitizing his sketches. Easily one of the top-five design-related times of my life. He is a brilliant man, and a great educator.
Jeff Boisvert


Fantastic piece of writing and one that fills me with a little bit of hope and inspiration to perhaps start contacting the designers I hold on a pedestal for help and advice.

I realised the other day that I am severely under-challenged in my design and writing career and that 1. I need guidance, advice and help and 2. I need a push. So perhaps, following your example, and starting with emails to the design heroes of my world will give me the kick start I need.

Thanks again.
Vikki Miller

probably prefer substance to snark.

I definitely prefer the substance on DO over any snark that is posted.

This is a great article to post and reminds me that I love my chosen profession. Whether I chose it or it chose me, that's another story.
Diane Faye Zerr

great article - it's always heartening to hear stories like this.

Beautiful post!

This article is timely in that I was very recently (15 minutes ago), and very tersely and very publicly abused by one my design professors over an unfortunate misunderstanding. (Admittedly, these events are anything but rare at school. In fact, I hear that these encounters are intentional skin-thickening preparations for the rigors of working life. That's awfully benevolent of them.)

But the post, to me, did not as much incriminate my instructor as it did inspire me to RESPOND in a dignified and gracious way.

Hope my resolve will remain stiff on this issue throughout my career.

THANKS AGAIN! Wonderful post. Really.

wonderful post! thank you for sharing

What a wonderful article!

It reminded me that I need to stop being so damn nervous about asking seasoned designers for advice (especially my barely-starting design writing "career") and just do it. I've gotten a lot of good advice from several designers (including the writer of this article), and I've always been surprised that they will take time to speak to a young upstart like me. Advice from well-known designers (and of course teachers and peers) helps me feel less alone and wandering in the world. Thank you!

Now to write that e-mail to Steven Heller...
Nicole Peterson

Thank you for another wonderful heartfelt posting!
Mr. Peacock

Thanks for such a lovely post Jessica.
It is something that we don't think about enough amongst daily deadlines, etc...extending kindness & taking the time to share what you know. I have had the privilege of teaching typography, and while I hope my classes were informative and enlightening for my students, being able to teach them—watch them think, work out problems, discover new things—was endlessly rewarding for me. I think as designers we all need to take time to help one another. When we share insight, critique, and help to make another designer better, we make our profession better—ourselves better—and in this age of endless technologies, we make design just a little more human.
Thanks again.
Kathleen Losche

What beautiful sentiments. As a quasi-outsider, I have always been struck by the deep generosity of spirit of the members of the graphic design community whom I have encountered in my travels. I guess I am lucky that I've only met the smart, generous, and compassionate ones similar to you.

As an educator, I do try to teach ethics to my students. It is about understanding the great power one has as a designer and human being and then learning to use that power compassionately. Your words reinforce that lesson.

What a great post. Perhaps it's just luck, but I've been operating under the impression that most design professionals are kind, gracious and generous with their advice when asked politely; that's been my fortunate experience to date, as a student and as a working designer, and it's given me an impression of designers as true professionals, the sort of people who are passionate about what they do, and who are keen to share that passion with others. Such generosity and grace is a credit to the profession: it turns a creative activity into a shared tradition, an attitude that is sorely lacking in many other creative disciplines. It makes the practice of design an eternally living, breathing, growing thing, and that raises everyone's boats at once.

I lived and worked in Dubuque, IA for two years. While there, I frequently flipped through an arts & culture rag. I loved the design. It was all distressed graphics and bold colors, not to mention unique perspectives on local and global media. One day, I sent him an email, asking if I could stop in and meet the man behind the desk. I also listed 2 or 3 things that I absolutely loved about the publication.

A week or two later, I'm in his office, shaking his hand, and adoring his vintage collector toys. I asked him how he achieved his grungy effects. Well, he not only showed me step-by-step how to do it, but even GAVE ME A VECTOR FILE that he consistently used. What a nice fella! He really was touched that a fellow (though much younger) designer would want to meet him and his staff (one other designer). I wasn't looking for a job, or a freelance gig, I just wanted to say hello. He also asked me point blank about things I did NOT like in the rag, and really took them to heart, evenapplying some of my suggestions. This publication was his JOB, and he let me, some random young cat, have influence on his work. I still communicate with him every now and then, via email (I live in Minneapolis now). Hmm, it might be time to send him another hello, see how he's doing . . .
John Mindiola III

This is my most favourite post, EVER.
Thank you for sharing this.


Also, wouldn't you love to see a movie called "Forget About Milano"?
Michael Bierut

I'm so glad I was nice to Jessica. (What she didn't say about that corrupted version of Bembo — well, we usually refer to it as her giving me a very special and rare case of VD. My first computer virus.)

Little did I know she would marry me, give me two beautiful children, and be my friend and partner. It's such a love story.

It's my favorite movie.
William Drenttel

Great post, I just may write you for some advice someday.

Jessica; You should post the letter you sent to Massimo. Your own vivaciousness was no doubt clear in your initial letter, prompting a kind response.

John Kaliski

Can't speak for the Politecnico di Milano but from what I can see around here (Italy) Mr. Vignelli's words, sadly, still ring very true today.
Derek Stewart

Jessica, this is by far the best piece I have read on Design Observer, perhaps because it comes so close to home. I currently work with my own set of pretentious, nasty, and cruel designers. The appalling way they treat their staff, and utter lack of tact and consideration have shattered whatever good opinions I had of them coming in, and nearly soured my view of design as a whole.

Fortunately, I know they are not the rule. I have worked with and met other well-known designers who are sharp, frank, personable, generous, and considerate. But it is easy to forget them where I am now, and your article was a much needed reminder that there are better people and better places out there. Thank you so, so much!

This is a wonderful post!

As a young designer myself, I actually gathered my courage and emailed a link to my fledgling blog over to Michael Bierut recently, for a possible feature in Design Observer's "Observed" collumn. He even replied back!

For my generation of designers, our heroes are those that run blogs and hold sessions at the design conferences. Jessica, you are one of my heroes, as are Stephen Heller, Michael Bierut, Stephan Sagmeister, William Drenttel, and countless others (many of whom are contributors to Design Observer).

To me, as a designer, our work is sublimated by our intentions. An honest, kind designer can be counted upon to create work that adds to an honest and kind discourse between a brand and its consumers. Our profession has no place for incivility or displaced anger.

Sincerely, and with best wishes,

Alice Barford, aka addverb
Alice Barford

Great post, Jessica: of the three writing heros I had in my teens and twenties, I was lucky enough to meet two of them: one became a mentor and, eventually, a good friend as well.

Although he died a number of years ago, I can't sit in front of a keyboard without thinking about how he would approach whatever the topic is at hand.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you have this week's bad boy as being Bobby Brown (ex of Whitney Houston) -- shouldn't that be Chris Brown (soon-to-be-ex of Rihanna)? Inquiring minds, and all that.

Back to sifting through seed catalogues to look for this year's eventual garden failures.... : - )

L.M. Cunningham

Yikes! Yes, that's the one. My bad. (Though they're both, in fact, bad!) But yes, Linda: thanks for pointing this out.
jessica helfand

"a certain well-known design studio in New York City, whose partners literally stole an intern from another" - intrigued by this, was he/she mugged or drugged, put in a bag, transported against will and then imprisoned at his/her new desk?


I'm a complete outsider, not a designer of any kind. I think this is the most thoughtful, and most entertainingly insightful, blog post I've ever read. Thank you so much!
I chuckled at the Alec Baldwin reference... I, a true nobody in his book, was introduced to him circa 1990 at an opening of a theatre. The nonprofit group I worked for at the time had helped finance the build-out of the theatre and he was the honored guest/draw at the opening. The theatre's director was treating me like the honored one at this opening, which was sweet of her, but way over my head. She brought HIM over to ME, actually, saying how great I was and how the loan had helped them so much, etc. He politely said hello, then looked beyond me, physically took me by the shoulders, and moved me aside so he could speak to the more important person behind me! Ahhhh... good memories.

Wow Jessica what a great article.

I think everyone wishes for that one e-mail or that one letter in the mailbox and you were lucky to experience it.
Brian M Curley

Thank you, Jessica for such a well written post. I have worked off and on with folks in, what to call it? "The creative professions"?, for a number of years. If I had to pick one attribute of talented people who persist it would be generosity. This is illustrated so well in this story.
Brian Hutchins

Peter Cooper is the kindest stranger I know.
In 1983, I was in Craig and Bevington’s typography class at CU, when I first met my beautiful wife. I was a transfer student from MICA and she was a freshman who defended my work during a classroom critique. She wore a long brown dress and had brown eyes with long curly hair that reminded me of a waterfall. In a few days, we will be married 18 years and we also have two wonderful children.

At CU we were introduced briefly to many wonderful and kind strangers, Andy Warhol signed one of my art books in the street outside CU, Robert Rauschenberg and I laughed and drew on the gallery floor with crayons during an opening inside CU, Tom Kluepfel introduced me to his friend a young art director from Rolling Stone in the Design Center at CU. The art director asked me if I thought his CU brochure (hot off the press) was beautiful. It was a picture of Peter Cooper with about 20 little photographs (moments of kindness) superimposed on his face. I said yes to the stranger and he smiled. Also thanks to kind strangers, I got to be an intern at the Push Pin Group and Milton Glaser Inc.

Have you seen Cooper Union’s New Logo?
Carl W. Smith

Thank you for a wonderful post, and for reminding us how much harder it is to be nice. Snarky is definitely the easy way out.

Great Post! These stories are always inspiring for young designers like myself. It makes the world feel less cold.

I must admit, I was totally psyched about getting an unsolicited email from Mr. Heller himself, albeit an email to reinforce his point from the infamous "online identity" thread on this site...

I tried my best to extend the moment of conversation with what might now be called "desperately off topic responses," but he is a busy guy, and I ran out of material...

That doesn't take away from how it felt to get noticed, if only because I used my real name and credentials on the web...
Ed McKim

And, in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.

In the following story, names are not changed to protect the innocent or guilty.

When I was a graduate architecture student at Penn, Lou Kahn was recently dead, Postmodernism was the fashion, and the faculty was very confused about what to teach us. On the other hand, the architecture school at Cornell (and its outposts at Columbia and Princeton), had a definite body of knowledge it was teaching, and I decided it would be good for me to take two Columbia summer school courses taught by Cornell acolytes to better understand what that was.

The first course was in Rome, and the second in Paris. In between, I traveled around for two weeks with the only other student who took both courses. Our first stop was Venice, where Duncan whispered on our first day, "Look, there's Peter Eisanman. Should I go speak to him?" (Duncan was a Columbia student who had charretted for Eisanman once.)

"You must be here for the Biennale," Eisanman said, talking about an architecture event about to take place that neither of us had heard of. "Meet me here tomorrow at the same time and I'll give you some tickets."

When we went back the next day, Eisanman had no tickets but Bob Stern was with him. "Meet me here tomorrow and I'll have the tickets for you," Eisanman said again.

The next day the same scene played out again. Stern waited for Eisanman to leave, reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of tickets. "If you're here for a few days, I can get you into lots of events," he said. "Just let me know." He also gave us tickets for two older students from Penn who were in Venice on a traveling fellowship from the school.

The first night, Stern generously included us all in the opening events, as well as a cocktail party afterwards, where it seemed that half the most famous architects in the world were standing around chatting. Stern kept us under his wing and introduced us to heroes like Denise Scott Brown.

After an event the next day, Stern invited us to dinner. The dinner was on an island and the boats coming back would arrive too late for the curfew at the hostel where the other two Penn friends were staying, so they had to choose between a free dinner and having a place to spend the night. They chose dinner.

We arrived at the address Stern gave us, where two gleaming Venetian motorboats were waiting to take us to dinner. Right after I boarded, Jim Stirling (a large man) sat down in the stern, the entire boat sloped sharply in his direction and off we went into the Venetian night, with San Marco glowing behind us.

To make a long story short, at dinner I sat between Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. I don't know who would have been more impressive to a student. At one point, Venturi said to me and one of my Penn friends, "If I were your age, the first thing I would do would be to go to Finland to visit the works of Alvar Aalto. He's been the greatest influence on my life."

Needless to say, the next day we went to the bookstore where we had first seen Eisanman, bought the small Praeger book that showed all the Aalto buildings and started planning our trip.

We both had Eurailpasses and arranged to meet in August at a university dorm outside Helsinki designed by Aalto that in the summer operates as a hostel. We visited virtually every Aalto building in Finland that could be reached by rail, and had discussions along the way about things like the Finnish stick style that had clearly influenced Venturi's Trubek and Wislocki houses. When Jim later worked for Venturi (I later worked for Stern), we discovered that Venturi had only been to Turku, where he had seen a single Aalto building before going back to Sweden.

But that's another story.
John Massengale

John, that is such a great story. I would like to think the same thing might happen today.

A note to readers who might be curious about the reproduction of the Vignelli letter that Jessica uses to illustrate her essay:

In the early 80s, Vignelli Associates used letterhead that was not only European format but sideways. Letters were inserted into the typewriter with a landscape orientation, and were hand-typed on a three column grid that corresponded to the three panels that resulted when the letter was folded for mailing. The first left hand column was for the addressee and date, which is what you see at the top of the essay. The second and third columns were for the body of the letter. Massimo's letter, shown in the second image, would have fallen in the second, middle, column.

I was introduced to this approach when I arrived at Vignelli as a junior designer about 11 months before Jessica's letter. (I even vaguely remember Massimo asking me around then what I thought the best design schools in the country were, which may be why my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, is on the list.) When I was introduced to the Vignelli method of letter typing, I was convinced, as I think Massimo was, that this would be the wave of the future. It truly turned every letter into a "little brochure," particularly when you folded the letterhead so the addressee's name faced out, on the "cover" as it were.

Massimo liked this method so much that the same format was successfully sold to Trisha Brown Dance Company and the Drawing Center in Soho, among others. (Trisha Brown had images of her troupe dancing on the back as well!) Of course, the unforgiving nature of early desktop publishing quickly put an end to this kind of thinking, including the use of non-8.5 x 11 stationery paper. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Michael Bierut

The opening story and series of comments are a great dose of collective optimism and goodwill.

As a fairly recently minted graphic designer, I'd enrolled in brief Harvard GSD summer program which Massimo was instructing. On the second day of class, I walked up at the end of the class session to bring up a question that had emerged earlier in the day, but wasn't fully resolved in my mind. That question turned into an extended walk-and-talk around campus; a real conversation with a true luminary. The unimportant specific topic was something he'd been asked to address a hundred times before, but his deep passion for design was plain–and really galvanizing.

To me–some random kid from Ohio–this wasn't an interaction I'd ever really considered likely.

Looking back now, however, though an outstanding instance, it wasn't a complete outlier.

In a different way, my professors at the University of Cincinnati (my alum status left some suspicion as to why Massimo was kind) had set a similar example.
Gordon Salchow, Joe Bottoni and Robert Probst (long-time faculty members in the School of Design) were all amazingly willing to share time giving feedback after class – and coaching after school. Visiting Joe Bottoni at home, hanging out with his family and having a drink? [Joe: I'm overdue for a visit...]

Through the course of school & professional practice, I've had a few opportunities to work with people who were either *famous* or at least classified differently than the rest of us rank and file.
I've been consistently surprised at just how open, accessible and "good" most of the the leading design minds I've worked turn out to be. It is indeed, clearly what holds together many of the small firms and studios through rough seas.

Not all, of course, is apple pie.
I vividly recall speaking event featuring a very *hip* and hot designer - one which most of my friends & colleagues (students at that time) were fairly excited to see.
A few minutes into standard fare discussion, the esteemed visitor struggled with a good question raised by one of my classmates. He refused to directly answer, and then added an ineloquent tirade against the value of any design education – to an audience composed of at least 50% students.
Maybe it was just a bad day. Data points from others' who've worked with the character in question suggest otherwise.

Later that year, I joined a group of students from the different design programs to participate in a "discussion" with the starchitect who was creating the new building for the School of Design.
It struck me as amazing just how rapt the architecture students by every word, every non sequitur, every breath he expelled...
To many others it seemed as if the dismissed and mocked every legitimate question, and gravitated towards the softballs inquiring about the foibles of jet-set life.
Even those of us who were pre-disposed to go along theory and grand "ideas" walked away from that afternoon a little disillusioned and depressed.
Fortunately we’d learned enough by then to take it for what it was worth–not much.

About a year later in Cambridge, Massimo, in characteristic fashion, redeemed. A real life design hero.

Jeffrey Tull

@ William Drenttel

Thanks for referring me to the two DO posts on LA signage. I see an interesting parallel between ethics (the issue of kindness in Jessica’s post) and aesthetics (one of the subjects in the LA Signage posts). There are no “solutions” to problems regarding either taste or morality. There is only appropriate and productive response—that being respectful (or call it kind) critical discourse where we care more about listening to and learning from each other than about being right.
Miriam Martincic

Famous designers who are kind and actually notice or respond honestly to interns or young students have more effect on a youngsters mind than they ever imagine. It re-affirms our faith in the people and the design profession. Even if they don't give you that dream job or internship, a kind and honest response (like the first letter of Massimo Vignelli posted in this article) goes a long way in the making of a young designer. No matter how great a person's work, its the truly great who remain honest and down-to-earth, and remember that they were students once upon a time too. That attitude and openness they have makes them great designers and human beings.


In 1983 I'd been working on my own for a year and feeling a bit isolated in Pittsburgh. I decided to spend a significant amount of money to attend a design conference in California. There I was bowled over by Kit Hinrich's work and presentation (this was pre-Pentagram). Cautiously and shyly, I approached him, asking if he'd look at my work. "Meet me back here at four," he replied. That afternoon he could not have been more generous with his time and advice. He was wonderfully supportive.

A year or two later I attended one of the first AIGA conferences. One evening the hotel lobby was full of designers. I hardly knew a soul and of course, it seemed as if everyone knew everyone else. There were the Yale people, the Basle people, the New York people. I spotted Kit coming across the lobby. Should I say hello? No, don't be a jerk, he won't remember me plus I'd seem like one more pandering acolyte. But, he came right up to me. Extending his hand he said, "I remember you. You do good work." I was stunned by his kindness.

What a generous man.
Rick Landesberg

Massimo sets a very high standard for generosity, indeed.
After an unmerciful pillaging in Lisbon (ATypI 2006) by blood thirsty-crowds of font designers -- Massimo had noted his belief that there's really no need for more than six type families -- he was as elegant and unflustered as a certain new US President.

Kindness and generosity are the hallmarks of a conscious mature human. "Rock-star" arrogance is nothing but the self-importance of a three-year old written large ;-)

I'm grateful for the friendship of such luminous people, who remind me, in their graceful giving, to pass the same along when the opportunity arises!

Happy Valentine's Day (slightly delayed!)


Peter Fraterdeus


Great article!

I hope it doesn't backfire too much and inundate you lot with myriad requests for intimate, brain-picking lunches. Michael, I've got you slotted in for 1.30 next Wednesday. That work for you? (Ha!)
Elizabeth Carey Smith

What a lovely article! It is so nice to hear stories of kindness-I know they are out there and I hope this piece inspires more of them!

In Spring 2008, during the third year of my career as a designer in a global branding firm, I decided "the ultimate fulfillment of my two passionate interests" — cities and typography — could be met in a masters course in The Netherlands. I thought it held potential for my career: world-renown design culture, people-friendly urban planning and advanced study in my chosen profession. I too thought it was a win-win situation.

Perhaps naïvely, I trusted the selection of mentors (mostly design practitioners) by the Department Head who is quite the Dutch design icon. In accepting his offer to study there, I quit my job, hastily swept myself abroad to seek the advice and expertise of his mentors.

In the program, I too experienced these "pretentious, affected, and indeed, nasty designers, who see themselves as somehow superior to the younger, unseasoned types of people who occasionally approach them for advice." There was no spirited debate in classrooms. Graduates advised new students to just sit pretty. If you didn't, you ran the chance of getting cut off (literally), you were lectured about the importance of listening and you were graded down accordingly.

In the New Year, I decided I wanted to be treated like a human being and officially de-registered.

So, yes, how do we explain people like Michael Beirut, who barely knew me, and had no reason to be nice to me either, yet found the time to be professional and insightful when I sought his advice by email last year? How do we explain design educator Steve Quinlan, Faculty of Design Assistant Dean at Ontario College of Art & Design, who took the time and energy to meet with a group of "us students" once a month to have lively discussions about design, ideas and life? Or Willem Velthoven, Director of Amsterdam-based Mediamatic, who enthusiastically welcomed me, my work and my questions when I interviewed with him last week?
Michèle Champagne

As a student i have been an intern at studio dumbar, anthon beeke and through this way i have met several (a lot) famous designers ranging from good ol' wim crouwel to Saito james victore. These 'design superstars' were all really nice and proved really approachable, some became friends. But the strange thing is that the people surrounding them professionally were behaving as sharks/snakes/whatsoever. As if to make sure that these superstars' glance would not miss their shine on their near-perfect wannabe designer bodies and make themselves better. We call them 'onderknuppels' here in The Netherlands (roughly translated in 'under-stupids'). love your post and point though.

i was 6 when i began an unusual habit for a kid by writing to corporations with suggestions (they always advertised it on the side of the cereal boxes, so why not?) i wrote to lego and said they really should make "star wars" legos. i got a letter back (i didn't always) explaining that they did not do movie lego sets. i was crestfallen, but forgot about it. years later, trolling through a toy store, i saw the first in a decades long trend of co-branded lego sets....this one was the maiden "star wars" lego set - one of many.

i am miffed about it to this day. i am glad *your* letters to the beyond yielded in lovely magnificence. not so for me!

i am going to send something to winterhouse. maybe one of my famous "letters of suggestion". see what happens.

:) thanks for such a lovely read.
Gong Szeto

As the others have celebrated, what a wonderful--and influential--post!

I got caught on the image...The texture of the paper, the width of the text, the nature of the white space, the gestural character of Vignelli's signature, the letterhead with an address but not a company name or logo, the process implications of "MV/mk"...in addition to his thoughtful professional generosity is generosity in the nature of touch, the embedding of time, the participation and influence of and on others, a care in the composition of communication, personalization, the pleasure of anticipation and expectation, and so very much more that is substantially missing from our communication now.

Imagine (remember), instead of the cadence of dotted lines and posted dates on way too long of a digital page, a Monday morning mail delivery with envelopes of different sizes, colors of inks and return addresses, paper textures and weights. Remember the initial evaluation of the message from the nature of the envelope. Remember the time it took, the almost all senses experience (the cold sharpness of the letter opener, the texture and color of the paper, the sound of the rip, the edges of the opening, the crispness of the fold, the reading, the re-reading), the visible, physical pile on the desk.

Is generosity more present, more robust, when not digital, when everything else about the communication contributes? Vignelli's message is, in a sense, a "Tweet." It's influence and impact is so very, very much more.

Jim Meredith

Having worked with Massimo for several years in the 90's, I have always referred my graduate students to Massimo for advice. To this day I hear stories from them about the hours Massimo shares with them in his studio, sometimes even including lunch. This has been going on for over 10 years. Truly an incredibly generous and passionate human being - should be a mentor for all.
Graham Hanson

Jessica! what a beautiful story to happen upon. I reminds me of the time nearly a decade ago when I mailed YOU a little box of stories and objects called 'vignette'. Imagine my surprise at the lovely exchanges that came later. Now, 10 years later, you are still an inspiration.....

dear jessica,

thank you for reiterating what my mother always taught me: there are no substitutions for good manners or graciousness.

i do however, believe we reap what we sow. you have demonstrated your graciousness and generosity in many ways to me; most recently when you signed my books at portfolio center in atlanta.

it is not surprising you would have gotten such a good-advice letter from vignelli. nor is it surprising that you did not divulge names of mean spiritied designers with bad manners. and finally, not at all surprising a charming and sweet note (forgiving a virus) would lead to a marriage proposal.

you and bill = a fine lady and a gentle man. i am so pleased to have met you both in person.

with warm regards,


Maria Viray

As a design student I have had encounters, mostly with teachers, that have both crushed me, and then others that have totally lifted my spirits and inspiration. The things people say to you, especially coming from somebody with more experience and talent than you, really do have an affect on the whole direction of your thoughts. I really appreciate when I hear about or experience brilliant people, designers, etc., that are encouraging and helpful when they can easily dismiss and hurt you. It makes all the difference to be kind, especially when talking about art and design, because you're putting yourself out there and it can be intimidating. Good to see that some amazingly talented people are willing to communicate positively with others.
Ali vM

When I was 5 I wanted to be an astronaut. So I called Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut and invited him over for dinner. He invited me to a luncheon he was speaking at at the rotary club. Such a nige cuy, he signed my astronaut book, gave me official nasa photographs, badges and stickers. We kept in touch for a few years. He was a cool guy who had crossed the atlantic on a sail boat and done skydiving with large groups. Anyway, that was cool. I like to think design work is a kind of exploration of inner space. Imagination is our shuttle and Marc is a kind of related symbol to show what's possible. I'll always treasure those memories.
Ben Weeks

Unfortunately, elitism is inherent to the design business. I have found that the bad boy at 30, can be a pussycat at 60. Time neutralizes ego.
Douglas May

During my senior year in art school at Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington DC, I decided to do my thesis on grunge design, so I tried contacting the main people
associated with that era, and the only designer who would speak to me was Art Chantry.
He not only helped me with some of the background information from his personal experience but was very charming and fun when I met him in person. I was also honored to have email conversations with Mr. Steven Heller. There are some famous designers willing to speak with students or unseasoned professionals, but I feel that it is far and few between. Perhaps in the future there will be more dialog among designers.
Bonnie J. Ramon

Jessica. This thread gives me a public space to thank you for your own kindness. When I was seeking a visa to stay in the US nearly fifteen years ago you wrote a letter in support after taking my call. The application went smoothly with your and Red Burns contributions.
Coming from sleepy Glasgow I was learning New York was a tough town but I remember your kindness and taking the time to listen.

Thanks again
Duich McKay

It is funny how many designers hold other "celeb" designers in high regard, almost like one would treat a movie star. We are all in this industry together, even though at varying levels and educational backgrounds, it is the collaborative effort within design that creates new innovations. That's what creativity is. Without support this would be lost.

It is very rewarding, yes, to have those conversations with a renowned designer, especially about topics that matter. Thank you for your article reminding us all of the importance of this.
Shawn Meek

Dear Jessica,
You certainly understand the importance of "paying it forward." Your most generous response to my very mundane inquiry meant a great deal to me. The fact that you would take time from your busy schedule to respond was touching. You made my day, and made me feel important. Thank you for your kindness. It is often the little things people do that leave the grandest impression.
Lisa Garrett

Where does this assumption come from that "design" has anything to do with "progressive" political/social positions? Why do the editors of this assume take for granted that its readers are sympathetic with those positions?
To me, it represents a dangerous kind of hegemonic power-base; you will not be a part of "design", should you speak out against the party line.

Nice site. i visit the site many time but this time are very nice article
LEED Training

it has been my observation that those with the greatest talent exhibit the greatest humility. and being pretty never hurt anyone's chances at getting a brunch date. bill had good taste, then and now. thanks for making me feel good. sorry it took so long to find this nice piece.
Matthew Porter

Thank you for such a fantastic blog. Where else could anyone get that kind of info written in such a perfect way? I have a presentation that I am presently working on, and I have been on the look out for such information.

Absolutely beautiful Jessica.
Jodi Wilson

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