For nearly 25 years, John Sayles and I have worked side-by-side as partners in Sayles Graphic Design. In that time period, we grew a successful business from nothing. In two and a half decades we received over 1000 awards, published three books, and employed scores of talented people. We designed everything from logos to album covers (remember 33 1/3 rpm?!) to restaurant interiors. We judged design competitions, gave keynote addresses and saw our work be selected for inclusion in the Smithsonian. We survived two relocations, the 1980s farm crisis, the Great Midwestern Flood of ’93, the introduction of the computer, September 11 and even an IRS audit.
It was—by just about any standard—a great ride. But on September 4, 2009 we made the announcement that we were closing Sayles Graphic Design.
It would be an understatement to say that to close was not a decision we made easily or lightly. For almost half our lives we had been partners and close friends. But the time had come and we each wanted to do other things with our lives. I had found a passion in the health and nutrition arena, after receiving my certifications as a raw vegan chef and nutrition counselor. John discovered a love of fine art and a desire to work more independently. Quite frankly we both had become rather miserable in our roles as design firm principals and we each needed new challenges.
The agonizing decision to cease operations was just an initial step in a months-long process of unraveling. As we made our decision known—first to staff, then to vendors, clients, bankers, friends and colleagues—we simultaneously faced a barrage of questions: “Why are you doing this: is it the economy? Can’t you just hang on until you retire? What’s the real reason?” And all this while we were struggling to dismantle what we had so carefully created.
Even as I write this—60 days after the employees’ last paychecks were signed—there are loose ends to tie up. Transferring titles, getting liens released, shutting off services, writing employee references—these are the sorts of activities that have occupied my recent months. Additionally, I have my plate full with the challenges of being a startup in a new industry: finding office space (and clients!), hiring staff and yes, getting marketing materials designed (thank you, John!). In a way it feels like being a new graduate: all that had become familiar is now gone, and while the future is bright and beckoning, a part of me wants to cling to the familiar. So each day I remind myself that “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” (Anatole France)
At the time we decided to close, Sayles Graphic Design was still healthy but John’s and my passions were on life support. These were many signs that it was time for a change. I started to dread the out of town travel for clients that I had once so loved. John began to come into the office later and leave earlier. We both had less patience for employee mistakes and client indecision. For me the defining moment came on a Sunday at church when I actually cried not because the sermon was so moving, but because I knew that in less than 24 hours I had to “go back to work.” It was clearly time to do something.
There are those who have applauded us for having the courage to do something so drastic, and others who deem us insane when we could be “so close to retirement.” All I know is that, as scary as this time is, it has rekindled the adrenalin rushes I have not felt since surviving that IRS audit.
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