Creating a Lasting Impression
The mission: World’s first automated
On his first day as a University of Minnesota student, Keith Brintzenhofe expected that he would major in engineering. On his second day, he knew his future would be in art.
This apparently amazing transformation happened because, in addition to his engineering courses, he had signed up for an elective class in printmaking. From the moment that professor and master printmaker Zig Priede started talking about lithography, Keith was hooked.
you can fail, but you can also win,”
Brintzenhofe says. “And when you
win, it’s wonderful."
“My experience of that first couple of minutes was, ‘Oh, I understand this. This is amazing,’ Keith says. “I changed all my courses over to studio arts.”
It wasn’t the first time he had entrusted his future to intuition. After all, it was a fluke that he was even at the University. He had been hitchhiking from Maryland to California, intending only to make a quick stop in Minneapolis to visit family. He stayed because on his first night in town he met the woman he knew he would marry.
More than 35 years later, with both his marriage and his career intact, Keith says his seemingly divergent undergraduate interests are really quite similar. In fact, he believes that “the best printmakers are actually engineers at heart,” each requiring the essential ability to collaborate with others throughout the creation process.
Few people know this better than he does. He went on to become a master printmaker at New York’s fine-arts publisher Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). In his 17 years there, he became one of a small number of masters in the rarified world of fine arts, rendering original lithographs, etchings and screenprints with some of the world’s most important artists. He might even have stayed, except that in his case, the great printmaker was also an entrepreneur. And that required another intuitive leap.
This one seemed even more unlikely than his engineering-to-printmaking metamorphosis: He decided to leave fine arts for the digital world. It was like moving his venue from a museum to a town-hall meeting.
“I went from a very high-end environment to thinking about the democratization of art and how digital tools might be used for that,” he says.
Having immersed himself in learning digital skills while in New York, he moved to Seattle, where the desktop publishing revolution was in full swing. There, he co-founded Design Intelligence, whose first product was i-publish, which Keith called “publishing for the rest of us—from the PTA president, to the real estate agent who needed to do a newsletter.”
At the time, the software was revolutionary: With no special graphic skills, anyone could place a photo or content onto a page and simply create a quality design with just a single click.
“It went back to being a master printer and all those years of thinking about how the parts fit, about what’s important and not important,” he says of his invention. “Those are the elements of the software we created.”
When i-publish began shipping in 1997, it won rave reviews and professional awards for the company that one commentator said was “finally working on the right problems.”
Still, a David-and-Goliath problem loomed: Microsoft began competing directly in this area of desktop publishing.
“I had to realize we were not going to be successful on the scale we needed to be,” Keith says. So he re-framed Design Intelligence into a technology licensing company and eventually sold it to Microsoft. In another twist, Microsoft hired him.
Today, he works for Microsoft in enterprise identity and access management. It’s a huge job and he’s highly successful in a company that fosters the kind of entrepreneurial, collaborative environment that has marked his own career.
“When you create your own path you can fail, but you can also win,” he says. “And when you win, it’s wonderful.”
“I’ve been trained to think, to make connections, to reach beyond the obvious. With that, you can do anything. Still, it’s up to each individual to articulate that in his or her own experiences. And get mentors. They helped me along at each stage.”
“You need a mix of things—the ability to make connections, to hear what the customer is saying and apply it to the technical component and have it make sense to people.”
“Along the way, you have to judge who gives you guidance and feedback—from people you can trust. That’s one thing that helped me traverse each of these things—the people who helped me at each stage.”