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The Unbelievable Ways 12 Successful Creatives Got Rejected

Laura Busche March 31, 2021 · 7 min read
If you’re a budding creative professional, you may wonder how the world’s most successful designers, artists, writers, and visionaries ever got there. In reality, most of them didn’t reach success on an easy or straightforward path. In fact, many received some pretty crazy rejections before they found their way. Check out these 12 unbelievable rejection stories. They’ll inspire you to never give up, no matter how hard the journey feels.

1. Henry Ford II rejected Paul Rand’s Ford logo

Legendary corporate logo designer Paul Rand is known for creating the iconic logos for ABC, IBM, UPS and Westinghouse. He didn’t fare so well when he faced a logo redesign job for the auto company Ford in 1966. Although Rand had a standout design career and had already created some of his most famous designs, Henry Ford II saw Rand’s work and rejected it. The design, according to Rand, was considered too radical. Rejection-Stories-Paul-Rand-Ford-Logo

2. RISD faculty members voted “no confidence” in President John Maeda

When John Maeda was hired to be the president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), he was already a leader in the design world and an associate director of the MIT Media Lab. He came to the school touting an open leadership policy, engaging students and faculty members in ways they hadn’t seen before via personal breakfasts, on social media and in anonymous grievance sessions. However, three years into his stint as president, 80 percent of RISD faculty members voted they had “no confidence” in his leadership capabilities. They cited the impersonal nature of his constant social media interactions and the lack of insight into personal communications. This was a pretty big fall for someone who became well-known for trying to humanize media. Eventually, Maeda left RISD to work in venture capital.

3. In 1976, Steve Jobs co-founded Apple; in 1985, its board removed him as leader of the Macintosh group

The Steve Jobs Apple story is the stuff of legends, and it’s one of the most inspiring comeback stories of all time. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Computer with Steve Wozniak in 1976. Their plan was to democratize computers by making them smaller and more user-friendly. As the company grew, they hired John Sculley from Pepsi-Cola to be their CEO. When some of Apple’s products suffered from design problems, things at the company got stressful; Jobs believed completely in the Macintosh, but the executives believed his stubbornness was getting in the way. After demoting him from the head of the Macintosh team, Jobs left and founded his own company, NeXT, Inc. He also helped co-found Pixar. In 1996, Apple decided to acquire NeXT, and in 1997, Jobs was reinstated as Apple’s CEO. Jobs redeemed his reputation by making Apple arguably the most successful technology company ever.

4. Walt Disney was rejected by 300 before anyone invested in Mickey Mouse

Walt Disney is one of the most creative minds ever, but his creativity wasn’t immediately recognized by the world around him. When he was 22, Disney was fired from a Missouri newspaper for his lack of creativity. When he brought the idea of Mickey Mouse to more than 300 investors, they thought it was absurd. Eventually, Disney went on to garner 59 Academy Award nominations and 32 wins, the most by any individual. Rejection-Stories-Walt-Disney

5. During his first decade of painting, Vincent Van Gogh sold only one picture

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most legendary painters of all time, but this wasn’t always the case. During the first 10 years of his career, Van Gogh went through countless personal and romantic dramas, and his art was largely ignored by the world. He did sell one of the 1,000 he painted, The Red Vineyards, for about 400 francs. Van Gogh continued to battle mental illness for the rest of his life, eventually dying from complications of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. After Van Gogh’s death, his sister-in-law, Johannah, gathered his paintings and put them on display at a show in Paris; he was immediately hailed a genius and became famous posthumously.

6. J.K. Rowling’s 2013 novel was rejected by many publishing companies

J.K. Rowling is one of the most successful authors of all time, having created the “Harry Potter” series. However, when Rowling decided to write another novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” and publish it under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, it was rejected multiple times. One publishing company even recommended she take a writing course. Rowling was redeemed when the book was finally published in 2013, and she has since published three books under the pen name.

7.Dr. Seuss’ first book was rejected 27 times before it was published.

Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was an extremely successful children’s book author and illustrator, but it wasn’t an easy path to get there. His first book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” received 27 rejections before he was offered a publishing deal. Eventually, he published 44 best-selling books.

8. Louisa May Alcott originally tried to publish “Little Women and Werewolves” but was asked to remove the werewolves.

Louisa May Alcott is best known for writing “Little Women.” What most people don’t know is that she originally wanted to write a novel entitled “Little Women and Werewolves.” Alcott’s publisher thought the idea would be distasteful to readers, and she asked the author to cut the werewolves out of the story.

9. The Museum of Modern Art turned down Andy Warhol’s gift of a drawing

In 1956, famous pop artist Andy Warhol attempted to gift one of his drawings, “Shoe,” to the MoMA in New York. He received a rejection letter, saying the museum did not have space for it. Today, art experts expect Andy Warhol paintings to sell for $50 million at auctions, and the MoMA now has 168 pieces by the artist. Rejection-Stories-Andy-Warhol

10. Disney rejected Tim Burton’s children’s book idea, then hired him as an animator

When filmmaker Tim Burton proposed a children’s book to Disney in 1976, the company politely rejected his idea, claiming it was derivative of Dr. Seuss. Three years later, Burton graduated from CalArts, and Disney hired him to be an animator. Burton made his first film, “Vincent,” which started his prolific film career, while working at Disney.

11. Jim Lee was rejected multiple times by Marvel before being hired as a cartoonist

Today, Jim Lee is known for his legendary comics style, drawing “X-Men” in the 1980s and founding his own comics company, Image Comics. However, Lee sent multiple comic submissions to Marvel and DC before he was hired, and they were all rejected. Lucky for all of us, the cartoonist was eventually hired by Marvel to draw “Double Vision,” and his career blossomed from there.

12. Houghton Mifflin rejected Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was eventually published by Knopf

Julia Child changed the cooking landscape forever when she wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Houghton Mifflin rejected the book outright in 1959, but Knopf liked it and agreed to publish it in 1961. Child went on to co-write 18 books, and has sold more than six million copies to date. Rejection-Stories-Julia-Child If you’re a designer aspiring to do big things, two of the most important traits to have are perseverance and belief in yourself. These now-legendary creatives received crazy rejections but didn’t give up, ultimately climbing to their great levels of success.
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About the Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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