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Dialogues with Creative Legends and Aha Moments in a Designer's Career: Tipping Point on a Train and Paul Rand

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David Calvin Laufer discusses what finally pushed him to become a freelance designer, and shares the story of IBM graphic designer Paul Rand.
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Tipping Point on a Train

MAY 1977 New York is in a raw emotional state; there has been a bloody accident that is all over the news, involving a helicopter shuttle from Kennedy Airport to the top of the Pan Am building in midtown Manhattan. I am very familiar with this shuttle, because from my north-facing window at Oxford I feel the percussive whump, whump, whump as the copter settles several times a day onto the rooftop heliport ten blocks away. During a recent rush hour, one of the choppers had malfunctioned, and there was terrible carnage. People standing by were cut to pieces. The part of the story that gets the most buzz, though, is the tragedy of a commuter walking down Madison Avenue. Fifty-nine stories below and several blocks away from the accident site, she is struck by a piece of the helicopter’s rotor and killed without ever knowing what hit her. Numerous others are injured by what was described as a hailstorm of broken glass. I even hear that Ed Gottschall sustained an injury from this glass while walking in the area, though fortunately not too serious. In Manhattan, everyone is a pedestrian for part of the day, everyone identifies with this commuter. Everyone’s inner voice says, “That could have been me!”

I am in a muddle. I shuttle daily between New Brunswick and New York City. My job at Oxford pays for food, rent, and my train ticket. I make up the difference by staying up all night designing book jackets, so I am always exhausted. I calculate that I am making enough by freelancing to quit my day job, just barely, but letting go of the security of a regular paycheck is terrifying.

If I can get out of the shower by 5:20, I can catch the 6:02 Metro-liner out of New Brunswick and get to Midtown between 7:00 and 7:30. Oxford starts at 8:30, so this gives me an hour to deliver freelance projects or make calls from Penn Station Booth 6. The blue bloods from Princeton are on the 6:02 heading for Wall Street, and on one particular morning I sit behind a Princeton banking executive and his boss, the very picture of a British aristocrat, visiting the operations in the States.

My work at Oxford has attuned my ears to the fine points of the King’s English, so without intending to eavesdrop, I find myself drawn into their get-acquainted conversation.

The Princetonian is explaining, “No, I don’t come from a banking family; in fact I read economics with the intention of teaching, but a college chum convinced me to help him for a year at his start-up company. I became the bookkeeper and CFO and liaison with their bank—Rodney was our lending officer. After it took off, I decided I liked the thrill of companies in their go-go growth years. Rodney had just gotten kicked upstairs and I talked him into letting me start a unit to serve that market. I didn’t realize at the time how risky that was, but fortunately my friends brought me enough business to make my quotas until I learned what banking really is. So I fell into it because of enthusiasm, not training or competence!”

His British counterpart nods as if he knows this narrative, and responds, “You know, I’m in banking because it’s what my father’s family has always done, and I had to do what was expected of me. If I had announced that I wanted to be a soldier or a choreographer, he’d have discouraged me. If I did as you did, following my own interest, the Pater would have given me a stern thrashing. If I persisted, it would go without asking that I’d be disinherited.

“But here in the US, you have this amazing agreement amongst yourselves—you can just declare yourself to be whatever you want, and everyone says, ‘OK, fine, jolly good, carry on!’”

He turns to look his American counterpart squarely in the face. “Do you have any idea how extraordinary that appears to the rest of the world? How like an impossible dream? That anyone at any station in life can just decide their destiny and enjoy the support of family, government, and even get a tax incentive to do it? Is it any wonder that people are risking their lives stowing away in cargo containers, crossing oceans to immigrate to your ‘land of the free?’”

It seems this little paean to American exceptionalism is put in my ear by Providence for me to hear, at this hour, at this juncture in my career. I can’t really keep burning both ends of the candle, that’s for sure. The newsstand in Penn Station is a wall of tabloid photos of the recent helicopter crash. The sudden feeling of everyday danger somehow puts me over the top. The risk of freelancing seems small compared to the risk of doing nothing.

  • “Here in the US, you have this amazing agreement amongst yourselves—you can just declare whatever you want to be, and everyone says, ‘OK, fine, jolly good, carry on!’ Do you have any idea how extraordinary that appears to the rest of the world? ”

I must find a way to tell Fred Schneider, who has become like a second father to me. I stammer my way through a sentence or two, but it seems he has expected to hear it for some time. In words remarkably like those still fresh in my ear from the bankers on the train, he tells me, “Well, OK, fine, go ahead. I’ll give you as much freelance work as I can—get an office close by.” He writes a recommendation letter that is as humbling as it is useful. It opens many doors. To complicate matters, I break my foot playing squash racquets the same week I begin freelancing, so I hobble to meetings with my leg in a cast and the Valise in a backpack. It generates a lot of sympathy, and work surges. Nevertheless, I don’t recommend the old “Break a leg” as a marketing strategy for a new business.

  • The feeling of everyday danger puts me over the top. Suddenly, the risk of freelancing is small compared to the risk of doing nothing.
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