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(Note: This is the “non-Photoshop, non-photography” piece I talked about on Friday–see Friday’s post).

I think many of us can look back on where we started and point to an event that changed the way you think, or the way you did business, that helped get you where you are in your career today.

Mine happened about 16 years ago. My wife I had started a graphic design company, based in a one-room office we sub-let in the back of a direct mail business. My graphic design hero back then was Clement Mok. If you’re a designer today, you’re no doubt familiar with Clement’s amazing work (he was the graphic designer on Apple’s original Macintosh team, and built the foundation of Apple’s graphic “look,” but that’s just one stop in his amazing design career). Anyway, I just thought he was “the man.”

It was a couple of weeks before my brother, my buddy John Couch, and I were going to San Francisco on vacation, and I mentioned to my brother that Clement’s offices were in San Francisco. I was telling him how I would love to meet him, see his offices, and just bask in his glow (so to speak). So my brother says, “Why don’t you ask him?” I said, “Are you nuts? You don’t just ASK him! He’s Clement Mok!” He was like, “Why not? He’s a designer. He’s probably a pretty cool guy. Why don’t you just ask him?”

I asked him
So, after much hand-wringing, I wrote him a letter, on my design company’s letterhead, telling him he was my hero, and that I would be out there on vacation, and could I come by his offices for just 15 minutes to meet him and see his offices. So, I held my breath, and faxed it over to him (that’s right—this was before the Internet. Scary, I know). I didn’t hear anything for a few days, and I figured if he got the fax at all, he trashed it.

Then one night, I’m working late (in that little sub-let office), and a fax starts coming in. By now, I had lost any notion that it would be Clement, but as it was coming through I saw his logo on the top of the fax, and I thought, “It’s late at night. Here comes the “Thanks, but…” letter, but instead, hand-written, it said, “How’s Friday. About 3-ish?” I fell over! I went running around my dark empty office with the fax held high over my head (there was no-one there to high-five). I called my wife, my brother, my design buddies—anybody who would listen!

Off to San Francisco
Well, the day came for me to meet him, and I found his office (there was no GPS, no Google Maps. I don’t know how people got along back then). Anyway, when I got in the elevator, I didn’t see his name listed, but the top floor button had a bear playing with an Apple on it (it was his logo). I thought, “Cool! Top Floor,” and I went up. I was a bit caught off guard when the elevator doors opened because I wasn’t in a hallway outside his office; it opened smack dab in the middle of his office (he had the entire floor), and there was no reception desk, so after a few moments of looking like the Florida boy lost in the big city, somebody came up, asked if they could help, and then led me to a conference room.

Clement came in and I tried to act as professional as possible, but I was about coming out of my skin. He was just wonderful. He didn’t spend 15 minutes with me. I was there for well over an hour (much to the chagrin of my brother and John, who were waiting down in the parking lot).

He showed me around his incredibly cool offices (which was full of talented designers working for him), and showed me his portfolio and how they worked, and their other conference room (which was outdoors, overlooking the San Francisco skyline), and he showed me some Mac-based Kiosks he had done for Apple, and anyway—I was just blown away with everything; from how generous he was with his time, to his way cool offices, to the kind of work he was doing, to how he never made me feel like I was just some schmuck from Florida (which is exactly what I was).

Letting It All Sink In
Anyway, I left that meeting on cloud 9, and not just because he saw me, but because he was so “real” and regular. A regular, nice guy, but doing extraordinary things, and it really helped me to believe that although I couldn’t be a Clement Mok, I wanted to be doing that kind of work, I wanted to do big things, and to do that I had to aim a lot higher than a small room in the back of a direct mail company.

I came back from that trip totally energized, and before long my wife and I had come up with a game plan that soon had us in our own really cool offices (not nearly as cool or as large as Clement’s, mind you), which led to us getting higher profile clients, and charging more for our work, and we were finally getting the type of jobs I’d always dreamed of. After struggling for years (and I mean struggling), we were finally making a decent living doing advertising design, and we were loving it!

Then, in 1993, we (along with our friends Jim Workman, and Jean A. Kendra), just for fun (and partially for the prospect of getting free software to review), we started Mac Today, a free, tabloid-sized newspaper for Tampa Bay Area Macintosh users. This took off, and soon became Mac Today Magazine, which went on newsstands nationwide. This later became Mac Design magazine, which today is now called “Layers Magazine; the how-to magazine for everything Adobe.”

It was starting that magazine and that really got me into using Photoshop, and getting into Photoshop got me into teaching Photoshop, which led to us producing one-day seminars, which eventually led to forming NAPP, writing books, doing training DVDs, and online training.

We’ve gone from just the two of us (my wife and I), to the four of us, to now nearly 80 full-time employees. Today I have my own in-house staff made up of some absolutely brilliant graphic designers—people I look up to–led by the amazing Felix Nelson, (that’s them in the photo above, taken from the door of my office—click on it to see a larger view and who’s who) and they’re so talented, creative, and productive that I’d put them up against any team in the business. The work they do consistently blows me away, and every day they go far beyond what I ever did as a graphic designer, and I totally love it!

A Mental Turning Point
That meeting with Clement Mok was a real mental turning point for me. Although the work he was doing was far beyond what I was doing, or would ever do, meeting him made it seem a lot closer, and something to shoot for, rather than something I could only dream about. It started me down a path that led me here, and I couldn’t be happier with where my career path has taken me. I truly love my job, and thank God every day that I get to do what I do for a living.

Maybe this is why when people ask if they can come by NAPP’s Headquarters and meet me, I always see them (even though my assistant and co-workers want to kill me, because it gets me off track from what I’m supposed to be working on). (NOTE: This is not an invitation for everybody to come to NAPP’s headquarters and hang out—please don’t get me in trouble over this).

As Time Goes By
Anyway, I’ve told this story to friends over the years, but as I write this I realize that I’ve never talked or corresponded with Clement Mok since that day back in 1991. My fault. I should have. I guess the real reason is; he probably doesn’t have any recollection of meeting me, and if I contacted him it would be awkward for both of us. But even though he probably doesn’t remember, it sure was a day I’ll never forget.