How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul

I love being a designer. I love thinking about ideas freely and observing them taking shape:
I love working concentratedly on a project all day. losing myself in the work, and, even after having been involved in this field for almost twenty years, I still love getting a piece back from the printer (if it turned out well).
There are so many fantastic designers working today: creators like Jonathan Barnbrook and Nicholas Blechman who emphasize the social role of design; designers who pro- duce breathtaking forms, such as M/M in Pans, Nagi Noda in Tokyo and Mark Farrow in London: designers who blur the boundaries between design and technology like John Maeda. Joachim Sauter and their students; and a new generation who manage to work with one foot in the art world and the other in the design world, like the young Swiss group Benzm and the American designers involved in the ‘Beautiful Losers’ exhibition, including Ryan McGinness and Shepard Fairey.

I recently taught the spring/summer semester at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and was happy (and a bit astonished) to see how smart the students were. They are better educated, more widely travelled and more culturally astute than my generation was. On the same note, the range of students I currently teach in the graduate design programme at New York’s School of Visual Arts includes a biology major from Harvard and a senior designer from Comedy Central.
There is also a new emphasis on how design is reviewed and critiqued, driven by Steven Heller’s Looking Closer series, Emigre magazine’s reconfigured essay-heavy format. Rick Poynor s No More Rules and Obey the Giant, and maybe most significantly, by the emergence of design blogs like underconsideration.com and designobserver.com. I don’t think there ever was a time when design was reviewed so critically and enthusiastically by so many people in so many cultures.
Of course, as it became a wider discipline, graphic design became more difficult. It now embraces what used to be a dozen different professions: my students compose music, shoot and edit film, animate and sculpt. They build hardware, write software, print silkscreen and offset, take photographs and illustrate. It’s easy to forget that routine jobs like typesetting and colour separation used to be separate careers. A number of schools have realized this and opened up the traditional boundaries between graphics, product design, new media, architecture and film/video departments, encouraging the education of a truly multi-faceted designer.
For me, it has become more difficult, too: as I get older I have to resist repeating what I’ve done before; resist resting on old laurels. Before the studio opened in 1993,1 was working at M&Co., my then favourite design company in New York. When Tibor Kalman decided to close up shop in order to work on Colors magazine in Rome, it didn’t feel right to go and work for my second favourite design company. So I opened my own studio, and concentrated on my other great interest, music. I had experience working for both tiny and gigantic design companies and having enjoyed the former much more than the latter, I tried hard not to let the studio grow in size.
I feel a lot of designers starting out want to be concerned only with design and find questions about business and money bothersome. The proper set-up of a studio and the presentation of a project to a client – in short, the ability to make a project happen – is, of course, as much part of the design process (and much more critical to the quality of the process and the end product) as choosing ink colours or typefaces.
I learned a lot from my time at M&Co. They had used time sheets, for example, and I thought, if it’s not too square for them, it can’t be wrong for me. I am glad I did too; it’s the only way to find out if we made or lost money on a project. If I’m not on top of the financial details, they will soon be on top of me and I won’t have a design studio any more. It is much cheaper to sit on the beach and read a book than it is to run a financially unsuccessful design studio.
Everything else about running a studio I learned from a book called The Business of Graphic Design. A pragmatic business book giving the reasons why you should or shouldn’t start your own company, it talked about how to design a business plan and estimate over- heads. It described the advantages of both setting up alone and of partnerships.
I was also influenced by Quentin Crisp, now – sadly – remembered mainly as the subject of Sting’s song An Englishman in New York. He talked to one of my classes, and he was such an inspiring character. Among the many smart things he said was: ‘Everybody who tells the truth is interesting’. So I thought: this is easy, just fry to be open and forthright and it will be interesting.
I recently took a year off from clients. I used the time to make up my mind about all the fields I did not want to get into (but had previously imagined I would). I surprised myself by getting up every day at 6 am to conduct little type experiments (without a looming dead- line). It made me think a lot about clients. I decided that I would rather have an educated client than one I have to educate. Tibor’s line was that he would only take on clients smarter than him (but remember, a client does not have to be design literate to be smart). After reopening, I also decided to widen the scope of our studio to include four distinct areas: design for social causes, design for artists, corporate design and design for music.
So how does a graphic designer avoid losing his or her soul? Having misplaced little pieces of mine, I’m not sure if I am the right person to answer this question. What soul I have left I’ve managed to keep by pausing; by stopping and thinking. In my regular day-to-day mode. I get so caught up in the minutiae that I have little time or sense to think about the larger con- text. Because I used to work in different cities, a natural gap occurred between jobs, allowing for some reflection. When I got tired of moving and decided to stay put in New York, I created those gaps artificially by taking my year off or by teaching for a semester in Berlin. But even three days out of the office, alone, in a foreign city can do the trick.
I hope this book helps young designers find their way. I don’t think that the designers don’t read’ bullshit is true. A good book will find good readers.

 

Book Details

  • Title: How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul (New Expanded Edition)
  • Author: Adrian Shaughnessy
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press; New edition (September 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568989830
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568989839
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 7.5 x 0.6 inches

 

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