#36. karlssonwilker inc.’s Tell Me Why: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company. By Clare Jacobson. 4 Stars.

This book was a huge departure for me content wise, and was also a huge surprise. I read it for work, as our business model is changing slightly and may begin soon to include graphic design.

I have been doing some of the graphic design for our company for the last two years, but barely had time to touch it, but we hired someone new for the office and so for the last six months I have been doing a lot more of it.  I’ve been loving it, but it has also been scaring me silly as I actually dropped out of my University of Arizona graphic design classes so that I could transfer to The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) that offered degrees in sequential art, comic books to the layman. I know, stupid. But what’s done is done.

So, to suddenly be doing something that I kind of gave up on more than 10 years ago (wow…I’m getting so old) is weird. It’s also incredibly exciting, especially since it is the first time in my life that I’m doing work that is something I like and something I’m good at (other than being “organized” and “responsible” and all the other things that you either are good at or get good at when you work in administration for so long). I’m also working with a boss that is completely nurturing and encouraging and supportive…and a good man. I know. I got really really lucky. But luck scares me sometimes, so I’m having trouble sleeping these days as my imagination concocts bizarre (but realistic) ways for me to screw this up. That’s what brought me to Tell Me Why. I was buying a bunch of graphic design books for our office online, everything from stuff about printing and contracts to basic logo design books. Nothing is more inspiring and helpful than books. I love them, and so does my boss. Which makes it easy to say “let’s start building a graphics library.”

While shopping, when I read the full title of Tell Me Why…”the first twenty four months of a new york design firm”…I thought that it sounded right up my and my firm’s alley. Although we have great experience in design, we don’t have this kind of design experience, just some raw talent, so who better to learn from then some people who started out a similar way. And the book is SO good. I read it in 4 or 5 hours in one sitting and I was just completely transfixed. I feel I learned a lot that will benefit my firm in a practical way, but more importantly there was some kind of zen knowledge of reading about the travails of Karlsson and Wilker that calmed me (and will hopefully help me sleep). They have a beautiful way of looking at things and it shows in their design and in the people they are.

I suppose that is what is most impressive, you get the distinct feeling that both Karlsson and Wilker, though they went through much in those first two years (and I assume went through much more since then) they never seemed to lose their selves…they remained incredibly true to who they were. I suspect in the end that is/will be what makes them so much better than so many other firms and designers out there. And what will keep their clients coming back.

Additionally, what makes this book so much better than other “vanity projects” that design firms tend to produce…and “retrospective looks at their ‘best’ work” is that this book is incredibly honest. They tell it how it really happened, mistakes and all. All the designs are there so you can see what worked and what didn’t and the commentary about all the projects in unflinchingly honest without ever being cruel. They sometimes learned why something didn’t work and were able to avoid that the next time and sometimes they didn’t figure it out and admit they are still scratching their heads. This kind of honesty is unheard of…well almost anywhere these days, but certainly in business, and I for one appreciate the hell out it.

I can’t recommend this book enough to graphic designers, especially those just starting out. I’d also recommend it to any creative person that runs or wants to run their own business. It’s a great honest look at how it happened for these two guys and I think a lot can be learned from just reading and absorbing it fully. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to business majors/graduates as they would probably be very frustrated with how backwards Karlsson and Wilker often behave (sometimes it doesn’t seem like a way to run a business) but you can’t argue with their success and if you’ve got any creativity in you at all you might love it, and learn something.

4 stars.

I couldn’t find a picture of the book online, but here is a link to their website where they talk about their book:



  1. k’s avatar

    this is exciting! i love printing, it’s weird i know. now we can talk print & design. good luck & don’t stress!

  2. 1979semifinalist’s avatar

    i love that printing is something you love…maybe you can help educate me. it’s the part i’m most nervous about in this whole new world/venture (that might not even happen…we’ll see). you should totally read this book. i’d loan it to you, but it belongs to my office…

    i hope you have a great show tonight (or are already having i should say). and wish steve a happy birthday for me. i tried to come, but i’m just not ready. adam’s about to head out to the show now…

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