Margo Chase on her first job

Margo Chase in the early 90s; photo by Ethan Hill

“When I first began looking for a design job I had just dropped out of a master’s program in medical illustration. I had a great deal of optimism, very little money, and a portfolio that included things like a diagram of the structure of the human foot and a carbon-dust rendering of the underside of a cat’s skull. The idea of being a graphic designer sounded much more exciting and creative than working with a lot of dead things. So, while living on the remainder of my student loan and sleeping on friends’ floors, I optimistically began to send out resumes and make calls.

Getting up the nerve to make the calls was hard; everyone was miraculously in a meeting or out of the office. Getting an appointment felt like begging, and actually going on the interview was even more demeaning. Most of the people I saw just flipped through the portfolio and didn’t comment; a few asked me why I didn’t become an illustrator, or offered other equally helpful suggestions. It took five months and a lot of macaroni and cheese before I got my first job. And even then I only got the job because a friend who worked there convinced the owner that I might at least be able to do paste-up work.

The job was at an agency whose primary account was a large grocery store chain with a line of generic products they called ‘plain wrap.’ The head of the agency liked to call himself ‘the king of plain wrap,’ because he had managed to apply a single blue stripe on a white background to a wide variety of product packages. My job was to paste these up.

After three discouraging months of this, one of those early interviews finally paid off. I got a call from the editor at a small publishing house who had seen something in the carbon dust that he liked. I started doing tourist guide books, and a year later I got to design the catalog for the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. I was just getting comfortable when the publishing company was sold and I was let go.

So I had to start interviewing again. I had a slightly improved portfolio, but it still didn’t go well. I finally decided I’d try to freelance as a logo designer. I had done a lot of logos for book covers and I thought I might get work that would lead to a design job. Instead, after six more months of no work and lots more macaroni and cheese, I got my first logo job for Warner Brothers Records. Now, almost eight years later, I’m running my own studio and designing album packages for some of the record industry’s biggest artists. I certainly didn’t plan this, but it’s work I love.

When I was asked to write this piece, I wanted to write something encouraging and inspirational. But the months of interviewing with the cat skull book were the worst times of my life. The best advice I can give is: be patient, do the best work you can, and buy your macaroni and cheese on sale.”

— Margo Chase (via Graphic Design Career Guide 2)