Storyboard: Tom Cordner

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

It may seem strange for an ArtCenter grad to admit that they haven’t always been a great student. In my case, though, it would be true.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I found it damn near impossible to sit still and focus in a classroom. I even dropped out of the University of Maryland because I simply wasn’t ready for the abundant challenges of collegiate life.

Eventually I found myself enlisted in the Air Force – which was, oddly enough, where I was first introduced to the concept of graphics. Early in my service, I was trained to be a part of a group that put together military graphics presentations. It was pretty basic stuff, but all the same, it was a space in which I could learn – more importantly, it was a place in which I could fail safely.

Once I learned that I possessed a gift for graphics, I immediately wanted to go back to school and give it another try. I ended up at a junior college in Baltimore. My main goal was to prove I wasn’t stupid – silly as that might sound, it was very important to me at the time.

I took a two-year class called Commercial Art. The first semester I took 14 units. The next semester, 18 units. By the third semester, I was up to 21 units. I was on the Dean’s list and done with school after just three semesters.

I had set a goal and achieved it – and yet something was still missing. I was now lost, adrift, untethered to the next challenge. I had no idea what was next for me.

One of my instructors at junior college was the first person who ever made mention of ArtCenter College of Design. At the time, the mere thought of going to California seemed like a pipe dream. After all, it wasn’t like I came from an artistic family: my dad was a carpenter, and my mom a waitress.

I set another goal for myself. “I’m going to get a scholarship from ArtCenter,” I told myself. Eventually I did, but it was far from easy.

Being at ArtCenter was the first time in my life that I felt seriously challenged on an academic level. One of my earliest challenges came in the form of a class taught by advertising legend Bob Matsumoto, who served as a mentor to me and so many other notable ArtCenter alumni. Once again, I found myself ill-prepared for the rigors of life at school – mid-term, I was barely keeping a C-.

I pushed through the class humbled by the brilliance of ArtCenter, and ended up finishing, miraculously, with a B-. It may seem paltry to brag about such a grade now, but that class – difficult, and demanding as it was – was one of the defining trials of my life. To this day, Bob Matsumoto remains one of my most formative advisors. Now that I find myself in a position to bestow knowledge to younger advertising students, I try to mentor like he mentors.

Matsumoto was also a mentor to Julian Ryder, who became one of my partners in FullCircle. Julian and Richard Holbrook, the co-chairmen at the time, invited me to dinner and asked me to join the board. At the time I may have objected: I felt as though I wasn’t a “committee” person, and that I was perhaps more comfortable in my world of writing and art directing. And yet I took them up on their offer because it was a challenge. In other words, it was another chance to confound expectations.

Perfection may be unattainable, but the struggle toward achieving it is what engenders growth. We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable, because the process is never going to be perfect.

Having made it through the trenches of ArtCenter and graduating to the echelons of FullCircle, I realize that this place is more than just a school. It’s like the Ivy League of the West Coast. In addition to being one of the premier art schools in America, ArtCenter is an institution that improves our world. We design cars, phones, appliances and environments that people inhabit – all of which is a collective result of setting goals and achieving them.

Tom Cordner
BFA 71 Advertising
Vice Chair of FullCircle
Founding Member, Team One

Perfection may be unattainable, but the struggle towards achieving it is what engenders growth.

Tom Cordner
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