The windows were dingy, the plumbing from another century, the smell a foul mix of “cigarette smoke, scents of photo fix solution, melted wax and Bestine, for paste-up,” as Maureen McHale remembers it.
And yet, those two years the future Los Angeles design studio CEO spent in the basement of the ag building were some of the memorable of her life.
“When arriving as a transfer student to U of I, my placement adviser told me there was a job in the Cooperative Extension Service of the Agricultural Department. Excited to work in any way as a graphic designer, I accepted the position as student designer at agricultural communications," she says.
“I could not believe an entry-level, minimum wage job employed me to do real graphic design work. My previous job had been putting tags on clothing at a Target department store.
"Hidden away in the receiving department, conveyor belts brought in box after box of polyester pants and cheap sweaters in plastic bags. I struggled to stay awake. I learned how to sleep on my feet and break the tedium by competing with other workers to see who could tag clothing the fastest — earning $1.80 for every hour of mind-numbing work.
"Now, I was earning a staggering $2.30 for every hour of mind-enriching work.
“I loved that ag building and the work I did there. The staff were my anchor during my 21 months on the job: Jan, the bleach-blond, chain-smoking, smart aleck art director, always ready to dish out advice; Dick, with his formal vest and tie and his kind demeanor; Paula, a generous soul who married her husband when he was diagnosed with cancer and had lost the use of his legs for walking.
"They were graphic designers, devoting their skills to designing posters and brochures about nematodes, crop disease, nutrition education and animal husbandry.
“A changing cast of student characters also worked alongside me in the basement of the ag building: A thin young woman who confided about struggling with anorexia; Paul, who shared his stories of being brainwashed by the Moonies when he was ‘finding’ himself while hitchhiking across the West; Amanda, the receptionist who went from dating the drummer for REO Speedwagon to marrying a much older, abusive husband.
“A motley crew ensconced in our cubicles, we shared the work and assisted the art directors in whatever way we could.
“Kim, a friend and fellow student, wanted to work in a design, too. Enthusiastically, I described the nurturing environment of ag communications. When I returned from a two-week break, she reported to me that she had interviewed for a position, landed the job, and within a week decided agricultural communications was the most unprofessional and Mickey Mouse place she had ever worked.
"Within a few weeks, Kim had quit. I was mortified. I clearly was simple-minded, unsophisticated and foolish to recommend this place.
“Looking back, I realize she didn’t see that basement office for the treasure it was — a place where my ungodly slow pace as a designer was tolerated, where I honed my fledging design skills, where generosity of spirit was the norm, and the language of crop diseases and animal husbandry was interspersed with constructive criticism and gentle guidance.
“I don’t know what Kim is doing today, and hope she is doing well. I left the world of agriculture when I graduated. Today, I own my own Los Angeles-based design firm, working in the toy and entertainment industry.
“I am grateful for my friends and mentors at agricultural communications. You enriched me with an expansive set of skills and experiences that I continue to use and build upon today. I am a better person for having known each of you.”