It’s hard to believe I started at Grafik on March 14th—of 1989. In our business, design professionals typically hop from agency to agency, building their portfolio and adding credentials to their CV. I chose a different path. I knew in my bones that Grafik was the place for me at my first interview. I met with Judy Kirpich, the founder, Susan English and Claire Wolfman, both senior art directors, and India the company dog. We talked about my experience at small but reputable agencies in Baton Rouge, my work and aspirations. I left feeling I had nailed the interview and, driving down the GW parkway listening to show tunes, there were tears in my eyes because I felt I’d finally found the right fit.
But, no call back. Weeks passed, and I reluctantly took another job. Then procreation saved me: because Judy’s vision was a place where moms could have careers and family, when one of the moms went on maternity leave, I got the call back. And as the late, great Elaine Stritch once sang, “I’m Still Here.”
I’m often asked what keeps me going.
Last week I collaborated with 5 other jazz vocalists and musicians. I had a great time working with the jazz trio, trying out new songs and taking some risks. When you’re at your best it’s never a solo endeavor. It’s a collaboration between you the singer and the musicians. It‘s your job to lead the band, set the tempo, signal how you want to end the tune. But when you’re really on, you’re listening to them and finding moments in a song that you might not have expected or can’t replicate—even when you try.
I’m relating my experience as a singer because I believe it enhances my role as a creative director. As a creative lead, it’s my job to facilitate an environment in which our teams can thrive, experiment, play—and find their moment. Without that freedom to explore, work becomes a chore, and we don’t grow.
As a leader it’s important to listen. Listening requires patience, empathy and a willingness to explore new avenues. In a song, patience lets you try new turns and be in the moment with your fellow musicians, making your performance more unexpected, transparent, and authentic. This authenticity creates a stronger connection between you and the audience. The same is true leading a creative team—the best work comes from giving my team the space to experiment, play, fail at times and own a creative solution.
I don’t sing to make a buck (you don’t want to know what these talented jazz musicians get paid per gig). We play because there’s not an option not to play. Music’s my way of pushing my own boundaries, telling stories and overcoming my fears. It’s made me a more patient collaborator and more confident presenter. It has also allowed me to find avenues to make stronger connections with my clients and, I believe, made me a stronger leader. The most talented designers I’ve worked with have that same relentless passion for design.
“I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, c’est la vie
I got through all of last year
And I’m here.”
So, after 30 years, why am I still here? I continue to grow. I’ve stayed at Grafik to build on Judy’s legacy and create a different kind of agency. A place that is constantly evolving—or to use musical terms—always in the moment.
Left to right: My partner Lynn and me decades ago. With designer Alex Diaz in 2009 for AIGA 50
With Eric Roden on Halloween 2017. Johnny Vitorovich, Hal Swetnam, and me circa 2014
My debut role as Zangara in Signature Theater’s Assassins, 1993. Performing at Mr. Henry’s, 2018