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Five Design Lessons from the Early Career of Charles Schultz

You can learn alot from the early career of Charles Schulz.  Like many designers, you might be surprised at how Charles Schulz broke into the industry, changed careers, got fired, experimented, and transformed daily comic strips forever.  As with any story, the life lessons are priceless.  Enjoy!

Lesson #1: Your First Job May Not Be Your Ideal One

When Schulz broke into the comics industry, you might be surprised to learn that his original job was not as an illustrator.  Instead, Schulz began his career as a Letterer, writing the captions for other comic strips.  You can instantly recognize the Peanuts font, as it was used exclusively with the “Peanuts” comic strip and its associated merchandise.

Schulz began his career as a letterer, not an artist.

According to his wife, Schulz had established himself as a quick and efficient Letterer.  In this job, he was able to learn how to meet deadlines, work with other artists, and earn a paycheck.  Schulz would use these lessons from this first career to write, draw, and caption all of the “Peanuts” comic strips.

Lesson #2: Learn Your Craft, Then Do More

Schulz Li'l FolksIn those early days, Schulz, would write the captions for other comic strips during the day.  At night, Schulz would draw his own cartoons, which he called “Li’l Folks“.  The “Li’l Folks” characters are, clearly, early renditions of his “Peanuts” characters.  In these strips, you can find a dog that looks like Snoopy and a boy named Charlie Brown.

Recently, I purchased a wonderful book called Charles Schulz: Li’l Beginnings by Derrick Bang.  These drawings were first published by St. Paul Pioneer Press, as a weekly cartoon.  The Schulz Museum has collected all of these early cartoons.  Some interesting patterns emerge when I read Derrick Bang’s book and reviewed the Schulz cartoons:

  1. Schulz signed this comic strip as “Sparky”, which is his nickname.
  2. Each comic has four different, one-panel cartoons.
  3. The individual panels do not really relate to each other.
  4. Schulz would repeat similar gags (example: baby in a high chair talking).
  5. Almost all strips used a 2 x 2 format.  Deviations were rare.

I think the lesson for designers here is learn your craft, and then do more.  For Charles Schulz, he learned how to be a quick, efficient letterer initially.  Then, he drew the weekly comic strip known as “Li’l Folks”.  His first career as a Letterer helped with his scond career as a weekly comic strip artist.  Your early career choices define your history and impact your future, too.

Lesson #3: When You Get Fired, Seize the Opportunity

Charles Schulz - Saturday Evening Post - May 29, 1948

While he was drawing his “Li’l Folks” cartoons, Charles Schulz drew 17 one-panel cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post.  These cartoons seemed to embolden Schulz with his publisher at St. Paul Pioneer Press.  The Saturday Evening Post cartoons were some of his first paid cartoon projects.

Schulz wanted to have his “Li’l Folks” cartoons syndicated through the Newspaper Enterprise Association.  The syndication deal did not happen.  In January 1950, St. Paul Pioneer Press dropped “Li’l Folks”.  Schulz was essentially fired.

Schulz built a portfolio from his best “Li’l Folks” and Saturday Evening Post comic strips.  Schulz still believed in his daily comic strip.  He decided to approach United Feature Syndicate with his portfolio and his dream.  On October 2, 1950, “Peanuts” debuted.

Let’s focus on the design lessons when Schulz was fired rather than the success of “Peanuts”:

  1. Schulz still believed in the idea of a daily comic strip, which was unusual at this time.
  2. He developed a portfolio with his early work, as well as the Saturday Evening Post strips.
  3. According to his wife, Schulz did not harbor hard feelings with St.Paul Pioneer Press.
  4. Schulz never liked the name “Peanuts”, which his publisher called the strip.  He kept it, though.  He wanted the deal
  5. The themes from”Li’l Folks” cartoons would often appear in the “Peanuts” strips.
While we don’t like to think about being fired, it will happen in your career.  Charles Schulz developed a portfolio, networked with United Feature Syndicate, and created a syndication deal.  In short, Schulz made his own “luck”.  You can, too.

Lesson #4: Design for Flexibility

When Schulz started with his new syndication deal with “Peanuts”, he was designed the comic strip to be flexible in its design.  Most of the early comics were designed as four-panel stories.  By using four panels, his design was adaptable to a horizontal, vertical, and square layout in the papers that picked up his early “Peanuts” cartoon strip.  The following picture illustrates how the first comic stri might appear.

Schulz and Flexibile Design

As previously mentioned, Schulz was flexible with the naming of the “Peanuts” strip by his editor at United Feature Syndicate.  This layout was carefully chosen to allow for maximum flexibility for the papers, too.  As a designer, you will need to also design for flexibility.

Lesson #5: Re-use Your Old Material

Li'l Folks and PeanutsThe biggest lesson from the early career of Charles Schulz is how he reused material from his previous work.  The best example of reuse is how closely the “Li’l Folks” cartoons resemble the “Peanuts” cartoons during its first year.  In some cases, Schulz would take a one-panel drawing from “Li’l Folks” and develop a four-panel story for “Peanuts”.

As mentioned earlier, Charles Schulz: Li’l Beginnings by Derrick Bang describes how Schulz reused his earlier strips in the early years of the “Peanuts” comic strip.  Each page describes a theme, shows an early “Peanuts” strip, and shows a full page strip of “Li’l Folks”.  In some cases, Schulz uses the same words and characters.  In other instances, Schulz uses a similar illustrations,but he draws it out over four panels.

The importance of reusing his work goes beyond just the themes and stories.  Charles Schulz would create the words and drawings for all of the comic strip.  His early lettering lessons would be used daily.  Some cartoons are lifted in their whole.

Consider getting this book as a gift for a designer or any fan of Peanuts.

s a designer, your work and experience will lead you to different directions and jobs.  Your life experience is something that you take with you, too.  Reuse what you learn.  When you do good work, it becomes universal.  Your early career lessons can shape your work for your entire career.

That’s not peanuts, either.



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