Calling All Famous People

If you haven’t yet seen it, the reigning lion of design criticism blogs, Design Observer, recently launched a new visual make-over. At long last, the tiny white type on dark gray background of their old look and feel has been cast aside, and now it’s finally possible to read the text without incurring lasting corneal damage.

It’s not a revolutionary design, but it’s exactly what it needs to be. The new look is austere, tasteful and orderly, and I like it quite a bit even if I do wish the text was larger still (I’m somewhat prematurely succumbing to that inevitable decline in the power of the eye to make out teeny tiny designer typesetting). I’m not going to get into a big review of it, though — for that, you can turn to the excellent roundtable discussion on this subject over at Speak Up.

Mainly, I point it out because I want to piggyback on a great piece that Michael Bierut published on the site a few days ago about the recent, unfortunate passing of photography great Arnold Newman.

Who’s Calling?

In “My Phone Call to Arnold Newman,” Bierut recalls how, as a young designer working in the studio of Lella and Massimo Vignelli, he was instructed to contact the legendary Arnold Newman as a possible photographer for a brochure that the studio was then designing. When he picked up the phone and dialed Newman’s number, he was surprised to hear it answered by Arnold Newman himself, who very graciously received the call with utter respect, agreeing without protest to actually submit his portfolio to Bierut for review. He writes, “In that one short — and needlessly polite — conversation, he taught me a lesson about humility, patience and elegance that I’ve never forgotten.”

I’m not really the sort of person who pines longingly for lost innocence and the decline of civilized society, but this is an example of something that I truly feel is not as ideal in this age as it used to be in the ‘good old days.’ It used to be that anyone could pick up a telephone and place a call to just about anyone else, regardless of the recipient’s social status, and expect the call to be received with politeness and some modicum of graciousness, at least.

There was probably never a time when you could call, say, the President of the United States and hope to get him on the line, of course. But this reminds me of a story Steve Jobs tells often of how, as an adolescent electronics enthusiast looking for parts for a school project, he looked up the home phone number for Bill Hewlett, legendary co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, and just rang him up at home. Hewlett answered the phone himself and spent thirty minutes chatting with the young Jobs. Supposedly, Hewlett even offered him a summer job.

All of which could be part of Jobs’ notoriously sketchy mythology, so one is well advised to take that story for what it’s worth. Still, I’m not just drawing on anecdotal evidence here, because I had a similar experience that, as it happens, ties in somewhat nicely with Bierut’s.

How I Never Met Massimo Vignelli

Many years ago, I quit my job in Washington, D.C. and moved to New York looking to make a career and name for myself in graphic design. One of the many things I left behind in D.C. was a copy of Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s career monograph, a book called “Design: Vignelli” (which actually includes work done by Bierut himself during his time at the studio). I had never owned a copy myself, but my previous employer had one in the studio, and I guarded it jealously at my desk and pored over it constantly.

Having left that job, I was without the book at my new home studio in New York. I missed it terribly and I resolved that I would buy myself a new copy. But I was barely working, hadn’t yet nailed down a reliable income, and “Design: Vignelli” fetched a fairly exorbitant price on the used book market, even then.

On a lark, I looked up the telephone number for Vignelli & Associates in the phone book. It was late in the afternoon, maybe 5:30p, but I decided to give them a call anyway, with the idea that perhaps the receptionist could help me locate a bookseller in the city that might still have copies for sale. I dialed, waited as the line rang, and then a man’s voice answered — Vignelli himself. He spent five very cordial and friendly minutes on the phone with me, and when I asked him if he knew where I could buy a copy of his book, he said that I should just come by the studio and he would give one to me for free. The very next day I picked up the book from their offices on Ninth Avenue — he wasn’t in the office at the time, so I didn’t get to meet him, but I still feel like I made out like a bandit.

Kids Today

New York has a predilection for issuing cold tests of will to those who move here and try to make lives for themselves. Just being able to reach someone like Vignelli on the phone at a time when the long-term prospects for my career here were still questionable was a big deal. I wouldn’t dare to compare myself to Michael Bierut, but like his call to Newman, my call to Vignelli is something I’ll never forget, and it’s part of the reason I’m doing what I do for a living today.

Maudlin reminisces aside, that kind of immediate and unexpected personableness is something that I think we’ve lost. There’s a whole industry laboring to create ‘social software,’ and in many ways the Internet is generating more and stronger connections than ever before, but it doesn’t necessarily make people more approachable.

The way we interact with one another on My Space or Flickr or any other social network is mediated; it’s not direct, or at least not as direct as placing a telephone call and talking to a person one on one. In spite of being more open and available to mediated connections than ever before, we guard direct forms of contact with new acquaintances more strictly than ever before. We may dole out our instant messenger handles frequently, for example, but most of us would never consider publicly listing that same contact information in a public directory for anyone to use to find us.

No one’s to blame for this, it’s just the way society has evolved and adapted to technology — approachability is among the trade-offs we’ve had to make in order to protect our privacy in an age when almost anything about anyone is knowable through digital means. I’m just saying, though, that I owe at least one small but very cherished building block in my career to the idea that people you admire can treat you with respect and humility. It’s something I hope I never forget.

  1. I agree 100% that people should be more approachable in today’s society, no matter their social status. Humility does seem to be a lost art, and is something worthy of admiration. I’m not one to reminisce about days gone by either, but that’s not saying society can’t learn a few things from the past. Great entry Mr. Vinh!

  2. What a great story. I still remember stories like this from the apocrypha of the industry being told in lecture halls in school. It made me excited about the future to imagine these real, humble, wise men and women driving these great creative enterprises. Now they’ve all been sold to holding companies for holding companies and nobody answers their cell phones.

  3. If only more people would be flattered or interested in people who were interested in them and their work. Great stuff.

    I’d have to admit after several forum beatings and email lashings I’m probably always going to be too scared to pick up the phone and call someone famous… but now the seed is sown of course. You just never know. Thanks.

  4. I’ve done it a few times, well, not famous-famous people, but authors that i’ve respected from books and articles have usually helped me out or put me in the right direction whenever they can if i’ve contacted them.

    That is what I really love about the web development industry, the very cool sense of community that can get going, even if you’re just on the fringe there is nothing wrong with jumping in and going to meet people or calling them. It’s great!

    Very nice post too, enjoyable saturday morning read.

  5. It’s surprising how accessible famous people turn out to be, but in particular when you consider that “fame” is relative. None of the people mentioned on this page are really famous at all compared to, say, Prince, and none of them are recluses like, say, JD Salinger. They’re successful people with name recognition within their fields. Creative people below a certain fame level in their careers are incredibly accessible in proportion to their popularity. I’ve seen no-name CEOs of companies with less than 100 people who are harder to reach than internationally famous art stars and indie rock gods.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.