Storyboard: Matt Haligman

The unpredictability of the creative life

Here’s a scenario for you:

Imagine you’re the smartest person in the room. Then, one day, imagine that this changes... dramatically. You’re no longer the smartest person in the room. Not even close. In fact, the proverbial “room” is now filled with people who are smarter than you.

That’s what it was like going from high school to ArtCenter. And this is coming from a guy who graduated at the top of his class.

ArtCenter was many things, but it was never a lonely experience. My peers and I shared dinners, classes, mixers, and field trips. The only thing we didn’t share were secrets of the trade that could give us an edge. Sure, we’d critique each other’s work. If we heard about a promising gig, though, we kept it to ourselves.

A couple of weeks before graduation, I wanted to get a jump on my classmates and see what the job market had to offer me. The funny thing was, my “me-against-the-world” mindset brought me to a waiting room at Doyle Dane Bernbach, where I discovered two of my best pals from ArtCenter, David Nathanson and Gary Goldsmith, both of whom were also interviewing for the same job I was. Anecdotally, Gary now serves as Chair of Advertising at ArtCenter.

We sat there, laughing about the cosmic irony of it all. After all, we were the best of the best, and we shared the same goals. It was only natural that we found ourselves gunning for the same position.

ArtCenter is funny like that. Wherever I go, I seem to bump into people from the College. Trust me, I never planned it like that. It’s just that this creative life can surprise you in innumerable ways.

The truth is that I never wanted to study advertising. I was the son of a lawyer, and I harbored dreams of making a living as a fine artist. I saw my father and his practical trade and thought, “How am I ever going to be able to do that and still satisfy my creative urges?” Was there a place out there where I could take my skills in graphic design and fine art and make them… marketable?

As a matter of fact, there was.

In high school, I was lucky enough to befriend a graphic design teacher who just so happened to be an ArtCenter graduate. At the time, my main thing was designing books and album covers, while also helping with the layout of the school yearbook. The thought of advertising as a career was a million miles from my mind.

This teacher, a man named Peter Bryan, taught me how to construct a portfolio that would make me look like a legit ArtCenter candidate. Mind you, this was back in 1977. The idea of ArtCenter accepting a high school student with no graduate experience was practically unheard of.

I traveled to ArtCenter’s campus with my dad and had a meeting with Harvey Thompson, Head of Admissions at the time. Harvey was brutally honest with me and told me that ArtCenter had never taken a student who was fresh out of high school. Still, he encouraged me to take a tour of the campus and come back in an hour.

To this day, I am convinced that Harvey must have looked at my portfolio while I was away. When I returned to his office, he had a different kind of attitude. He thanked me, told me he hoped that my dad and I had enjoyed the tour and told me that we’d be in touch.

I left ArtCenter that day unsure of what my backup plan would be. Two days later, I got an acceptance letter from the College. At first, all I wanted to do was to be an ArtCenter sponge. I wanted to take it all in. I told myself that I must absorb every lesson from every class, build out my skill set, and amass a network of like-minded creatives.

Some of you may be asking yourself at this juncture, “Hold on, this guy mentioned advertising earlier in the piece. How did he land on that?”

How, indeed?! I still see advertising as a culmination of many of the disciplines I studied in my younger years, including graphic design and art direction. As a young man, I idolized the likes of Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Lou Danziger, and Milton Glaser. These guys weren’t just creatives to me – they were Gods. Most of the time, when confronted with the prospect of making an important creative decision, I would think to myself, “What would those guys have done?”

The best part of my ArtCenter experience was that my peers were my mentors. I learned from them and was as inspired by them as I was by my professors. How else to explain the fact that when applying for my first post-ArtCenter job, I encountered two other equally-qualified ArtCenter colleagues that also happened to be my friends? There’s no predicting what will happen in this creative life – and that’s only part of what makes it such great fun.

Matt Haligman
BFA 81 Advertising
Co-Founder of Citron Haligman Bedecarré/AKQA

... the creative life has a way of surprising you in innumerable ways.

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