Why I’m a Graphic Designer

Why I’m a Graphic Designer


Why why?

As we’ve recently worked on developing brand identity and key messaging for our clients as well as Toolbox, we’ve been following the tried and true Simon Sinek method of starting with why. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People also believe you more when you repeat yourself. That’s called getting Sineked. You all just got Sineked. Bam.

Anyhoo, it got me thinking about why I got into the topsy-turvy business of graphic design — and why I still love it after all this time.

So I’m going to start from the beginning. I’m going to start with the why. My name is Tom and I’m a graphic designer and this is why.

What’s in a title?


Some lofty titles I’ve given myself

I wear a lot of hats and titles at Toolbox (Funkmeister General, Arbiter of Harmony, MFCFO), but when people ask me what I am, I tell them I’m a graphic designer. I just renewed my passport, and under profession, I listed graphic designer. So if I’m kidnapped abroad, the headlines will read American Graphic Designer Kidnapped by Dirka Dirkastanian Rebels, and that will make me proud.

I knew what I was pretty early


About the time I knew I was a designer (I briefly wanted to be a fireman)

For the first 10 years of my life, I alternately wanted to be a fireman (until I figured out what firemen did), a rockstar (still want that) and a cat. But deep down inside, I always knew I was a designer. I didn’t have a word for it, but I knew what I was. My mom knew, too. I think that’s part of why she let me listen to these guys:


A guy named Michael Doret designed the best album cover. Ever.

The KISS effect

I have to say that in spite of having five KISS pics in this post, it’s still really downplaying the influence they had on my design career.

Let’s start with the logo:


This was the first logo I drew. The first letters I formed. My copy of the first KISS album has visible grooves in it from where I traced the logo over and over and over. Designed by lead guitarist Ace Frehley, the logo features beautifully handcrafted lettering, mesmerizing negative space and trademark lightning bolt S’s.

Given the unfortunate previous use of lightning bolt double S’s, the band had to use a different logo in parts of Europe. They still do — the photo below was taken last month.

2015-06-20 09.02.47

Lesson learned: Typography is powerful. Use it wisely.

I’ve borrowed a lot from KISS in my design and marketing career. When KISS released trading cards, the backs contained one small piece of a larger image – so you’d need to collect them all to put the big image together:

KISS Cards 1978 8

When Dawn directed a huge collaborative design project for the AIGA national conference, my contribution was inspired by my heroes. Conference attendees were encouraged to make friends and put their guides together to finish the illustration.


At the end of the conference, extra guides were tossed in a dumpster. Designers dove right in after them so they could collect the entire set and complete the illustration.

Likewise, with some interlocking posters we did for Bohemian Nights a few years back:

KISS_Posters BoNi_Poster

While the visuals and cheap tricks were super cool, what I take most from my childhood experience with KISS into my adult experience as a designer is that a viewer’s time is precious and you need to make a big statement quickly. If you’re going to bring it, you should bring it big, loud and bold — make sure you’re remembered.

OCD is A-OK!

I’m 43 years old, and literally last month was the first time I drew a correlation between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and graphic design. That need for things to be a certain way. That twitchy anxiety you get when things are akimbo. That immense, intoxicating pleasure you get when things are right where they need to be. Ohh, that’s good.

That’s design.

I was designing before I knew I was designing. Whether it was collecting, sorting and organizing baseball cards or building giant towers out of my penny collection, I got (and still get) immeasurable, disproportionate joy when everything fits together perfectly.

I don’t talk about my OCD, and while I don’t think it’s ever been really bad for me — looking back, there have been times in my life where it was a lot less fun for me than it is now. As with any malady, the goal is to make it work for you and not vice versa. So if you have a bit of the OCD, I can not think of a better profession to make it work for you than graphic design.


Not my rock wall

When I work on my rock walls, I think about the first designers. Stacking rocks just so, depicting a buffalo on a cave wall. Sure there was a function. You keep your enemies out. You tell future generations the story of the great hunt. But there is something more. Something intangible. There is a beauty and an order that goes beyond mere communication. There is a spirit and a passion that leaves the world better than you found it — that makes the world a better place.

Designers can be funny


No puppies will be harmed


A couple Canadians were offended

Back when there were magazines, there was a magazine from Canada called Adbusters that lampooned brand culture, especially American brand culture. When they came to speak to the Colorado AIGA, I volunteered to design the card and decided to serve them a slice of their own pie. For the record, I love Canadians and hockey and John Candy, and I still don’t understand why the Queen is on their pennies.

Below is something I included because it made me laugh (I made me laugh) as I was looking through old work for this post. It’s a branding ad for a branding firm, (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) centered around the idea of “I believe.”


Note the address line

Invision_close up

The Dawn of a new era


My all-time favorite photo of my partner in crime, circa 1998 (before we partnered up)

In 1995, I was in the first semester of my 5th year of college. I had my portfolio and I was done with college, except for the degree. Fulfilling a writing-intensive requirement, I took a class designed to help the starving artist majors plan out their lives. I was the only designer, and I thought I had my life figured out. As part of the class, we plotted out our goals for the next 10 years. Among other things, my goal for 1999 was to party like it’s 1999. My goal for 2000 was to find a partner and open our own design shop.

I met Dawn first on the phone about 1997. I was living in Denver and looking for work. She was a connector in Fort Collins trying to help me out. The following year, I got a job in Fort Collins, and at a basement party at the film house Impressive Images (you younguns can Google what a film house is), I heard that voice — the voice I’m listening to right now as I type — and said, “Excuse me, are you Dawn?”

I worked at invision and she worked at the Jensen Group. We talked shop, drank beer, swapped stories and became fast friends.

When she moved back to Eagle Marketing, she hired me because of how I think. I don’t believe I’ve ever said this so directly to her, but that one sentence changed my life and my career. I knew the combination of how I think and how she gets shit done would be an unbeatable force. And the seeds of Toolbox Creative were planted.

At Eagle, we designed direct mail pieces for radio and TV stations, learned a lot about demographics and had a ton of fun.


I even got to work my heroes into some pieces


The one and only time we were asked to make the logo smaller, we framed the request

We also leaned all about MTLB (make the logo bigger). Radio stations care about two things when it comes to marketing: ratings and gigantic logos. We once (no lie) had to make the logo so big, it no longer fit on the piece.

Rocking the box

I found my partner in crime in 1998 and by 2002 she had convinced me to take a chance on doing our own thing. Read out first press release (note the KISS reference). Toolbox was started by designers who didn’t want a boss, rather than business people who wanted to run a design firm – so we learned how to do that along the way. Nearly 14 year, 45 employees, 2 offices and thousands of projects later, we’re still figuring it out. We’re having even more fun today than we did on day one and on day 2,500. We have incredible clients who trust us to build their brands (and make the logo an appropriate size). We have the best crew ever (meet them here), and I really cant think of anything else I’d rather do with my time. Unless KISS needs a new drummer. Then I’m out of here, suckers.