April, 2021 | A six-minute read with interactive visuals. (Worth a look just for the hair styles.)
I couldn't have imagined 47 years ago when I stepped into a graphic design studio for the first time at the age of sixteen, how I would be pulled into that world and remain transfixed for close to 5 decades. My career as a graphic designer, art director and creative director would introduce me to an amazing group of creative people and become a driving force in my life.
My first job in design came in 1973 when I was a junior in high school. I was hired as a keyliner for Pippel-Patterson Printing Company in Grand Haven, Michigan, two towns over from where I lived in Nunica. I got the job as part of a vocational training program at Spring Lake High School. A request went out to schools in the area for girls with good grades who were taking both art and drafting classes. I was summoned into the guidance office to see if I was interested in a job doing what was called at the time, “commercial art”. I was the only girl in the area who met all the criteria, so I was offered the job and figured I'd give it a try. I never found out why the girl part was important but convinced myself that girls were somehow better equipped than boys for the work.
I was only 15 when I got the job, so I had to wait a few weeks until my 16th birthday to legally start working. On a typical day, I attended a few morning classes and then met with my remaining teachers to get assignments before driving to my job around 11:00 in the morning. I worked until 6:00 or 7:00 and did my homework after that. I loved the independence I had with this new job.
As a keyliner, I would paste up artwork on boards to be made into metal plates for printing. The work was very meticulous and detailed, often requiring individual words and letters to be cut apart and pasted into place piece by piece. I mastered the art of drawing thin lines using India ink suspended between two prongs of a ruling pen that I adjusted by hand to various widths determined by sight. I prepared and cut “friskets” – fine tissue paper glued down with a thin coating of rubber cement used to mask areas of photos when retouching with an airbrush. I operated typesetting machines and process cameras. I had an innate talent for the work and soon began designing the look of the pieces myself.
After a few months, the creative director called me into his office and closed the door. I was certain I had done something wrong and was being let go. Instead, he cleared his throat and confessed feeling guilty about paying me the minimum wage – $1.60 an hour. He told me my work was excellent and I was doing as much as any of the adult designers. He doubled my wages. Around the office, I was known as "super kid".
I stayed at the printing company for 3 years. In 1976, a year after graduating from high school, I enrolled in the graphic design program at Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
With limited resources, I moved into the YWCA Women's Residence, which housed women who were homeless, abused, recovering from addiction or refugees of the Vietnam war. A few months after moving in and carving out a studio space in the basement of the old Heritage Hill mansion, I became the weekend manager. The job required me to be physically on the property 24 hours a day from sundown on Friday to sunup on Monday. In my time there, I had abusive husbands arrested, confiscated alcohol, cleaned up vomit, broke up fights and cajoled women who didn’t speak English into putting their fresh eggs in the communal refrigerator instead of under their beds. I was paid with a free room plus $19 a week. I was 19 years old at the time.
Because I had been working in the graphic design business already, fellow art students came to me for help with their assignments. The adult managers of the YWCA Residence loaned me some tables and chairs so that I could host work sessions in the basement. On many nights, there would be up to ten students hunched over folding tables working on projects. In addition to my own work, I walked around coaching them and offering advice and ideas.
I had the highest GPA ever of a first-year student at the time and earned a small scholarship. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough money to allow me to move out of the Y. The situation became unsustainable because I had no money and no social life. I quit school after my third semester and got my old job back at the printing company.
The small-town life wasn't what I wanted at the time, so in 1978 at the age of 21, I sold everything I owned and I moved to Denver in a van with $200 in my pocket. I got a job at Great American Printing Company and I was on my way to tapping into all the opportunities that a big city offered. I jumped around every twelve months landing jobs at The Children’s Museum of Denver, Young & Rubicam, Brock and Associates Advertising and Adolph Coors Company, where I became the youngest supervisor in the Promotional Department. Eventually, I joined with copywriter Jim Proimos and formed Harms Jonas & Proimos Advertising. I was 25 at the time.
I won my first Addy Award in Denver – Best of Show for a Children’s Museum of Denver poster I designed and illustrated.
Harms Jonas & Proimos only lasted a year but after working with Jim, I fell in love with advertising and I went on to work at ad agencies in Cleveland, Saint Louis, Miami, Nashville and Athens, Greece. In between full-time gigs, I freelanced for ad agencies and directly with brands, sometimes for years.
As an art director, I had the great fortune to partner with some amazingly talented writers to develop and produce ad concepts that would be launched out into the world as print ads, billboards, television commercials, brochures, websites, experiences and more. The process of producing those ads allowed me to collaborate with creative people all over the country and beyond including world-class photographers, illustrators, directors, animators, composers, printers, retouchers, and web developers to name a few.
I loved the fast-paced agency environment and the challenge of pulling together as a team to win over clients and consumers with the work. Over the years, I worked side-by-side with hundreds of talented agency people – designers, art directors, creative directors, writers, project managers, producers, account executives and media directors. I also had the great honor to direct creative teams and teach younger designers.
In my mid 40’s I helped form another ad agency, DH&Q Tombras, with three incredibly smart partners – Gill Duff, Steve Quarles and Charlie Tombras. We had a blast working hard to get off the ground and did great work that won lots of awards. But for all the long hours, the agency never took off as we'd hoped. I burned out and left the ad business entirely for a year.
The advertising business can be brutal on perfectionists with a strong work ethic like me. But the event ultimately helped me gain a better perspective. I once knew a creative director who summed up the episode pretty well when he said, “Nothing refreshes like a total nervous breakdown.”
I thought I’d left the business forever but soon realized designing and art directing was still in my blood. The pull of the work was strong and I went back into the business for nearly 20 years more. I mostly freelanced but also took full-time positions at two agencies in Nashville – The Buntin Group and Lewis Communications.
It’s hard to express what my career as a graphic designer, art director and creative director has meant to me. To say it gave me purpose doesn’t come close to explaining how it has enriched my life and defined my identity.
I moved from company to company 20 times over the years but only had one job – to help tell my clients’ stories through design and visual elements. In July of 2020, I retired from "commercial art" to start a new chapter as an artist working for myself. I don’t know where this new phase will lead but I can only hope it will give me the same sense of satisfaction in doing something I love and knowing I’m bringing a unique point of view to the world – if only in my small corner.
I have worked with more incredibly talented people than I can count and feel extremely grateful and honored to have known all of them. There's no way I could list everyone who impacted my career. I would surely leave out more than a few and feel terrible about it. But I can’t not mention those who played the most major roles in my development as a creative person. They are writers, creative directors and account executives who taught me almost everything I ever learned about the business (in order of appearance):
Jeffrey Buntin, Sr.
Jeffrey Buntin, Jr.
I’ll be forever grateful to the companies that thought enough of my work to make my career possible:
Pippel Patterson Printing Company
Great American Printing Company
The Children’s Museum of Denver
Young & Rubicam
Brock and Associates
Adolph Coors Company
Harms Jonas & Proimus
Meldrum & Fewsmith
Lawe Marschalk/Lowe & Partners
Crispin Porter Bogusky
The Buntin Group (3 times)
Endres & Wilson
ddn | Daniel Douglas Norcross
All the clients who have hired Sharon Harms Creative over the years