I'll never forget my first lesson from Penn State Graphic design professor, Lanny Sommese. He drew a circle on the chalkboard and asked us all what it was. "Um, it's a uh, a circle?" someone in my class dared to answer. "Yes! It is a circle!" he said.
Then he wrote the word "Goodyear" under the circle. "What is it now?" He asked. "A blimp? "A tire!" we answered. "Right again!" He said.
He proceeded to jot various words under that circle. He wrote rising sun, and we said, "Japanese flag!" He wrote coffee and we yelled, "A cup! From above!"
And so went my very first lesson in Visual Verbal Closure: when pictures and words come together in different ways, they create different meaning. It was an absolute revelation. I was so darn excited. I don't think any single class in all my years of school had as much impact on me as that one. "What a great start to an awesome year of graphic design", I thought. I mean, Lanny Sommese is a design legend, and he had quite the reputation for being a real son-of-a-gun, but I remember thinking, "Aw, hey, he's not so bad."
Boy was I wrong. Starting in our very next class, I found out just how bad he could be. We presented our very first assignment. A slide show. He yelled. He screamed. He made fun of us. He had strong coffee breath. Later, he even poured coffee all over our assignments just to teach us a lesson on ephemera.
I was terrified of that man. And soon I hated him terribly.
A few weeks after that first class, when photos of Lanny were passed out to all the students so we could decorate them for a birthday surprise, I remember no one having a hard time deciding what to do. We gave him devil horns. We tied him up. Stuck X-Acto blades in his eyes. Clearly I wasn't the only one having "Lanny issues".
But, as the year went on, and my design work started to get better, I started looking at Lanny a little differently. He was a drill sergeant, all right. And what art major signs up for a drill sergeant?? But really, when you think about it, what art major doesn't need a drill sergeant? Especially an art major that, in a few short months, would be running headfirst into the industrial fan blades of the Advertising Industry.
Nine verrrrrrry long months after Lanny first drew that circle on the blackboard, I graduated. And by then, not only did I not hate Lanny, I was a little in love with him – with him, with my entire design class, with the graphic design world as a whole. Yes, I was high on Visual Verbal Closure. But as dreamy and idealistic as I was, I was also very green, and terrified of starting my new career. Thankfully, as scary as entry into the real world was, the one thing I wasn't was unprepared. In his unique way, and without me realizing it, Lanny had prepared me for exacting bosses, for demanding clients, for difficult problems, for astonishing solutions, for yelling, for screaming. For crying. For fun. For excitement. For all sorts of innuendo. For total abject humiliation. Yes, Lanny had prepared me for the ad biz.
I was ready.
I kept one of those weird black and white photos of Lanny that were passed out 24 years ago in celebration of his birthday (I even kept one that was free and clean of X-Acto blades). I've kept it in my office for all this time so he can watch me – keep me in line. And now that I am a freelancer, working from home, he's somehow wormed his way in with all my framed family photos. After years of working in agencies I was a little afraid of going out on my own. But there Lanny sat. In my dining room office, smiling at me among all the people who mean the most to me in my life. He reminded me that I was prepared.
I was ready.
I've had a great 24 year career in advertising, and have been successfully freelancing for three of those years. And this fall, after a zillion years of teaching, Lanny is retiring. So when I was asked to create a retirement gift for him, of course my first thought was, "No. HELL no!! No way I'm putting myself though another Penn State graphic design assignment. I can't do it! No one can make me! I'm absolutely not going to do it." Then I looked up at Lanny's smiling photo and thought, "Oh, what the heck. Yes I am."
I was ready.