If you don’t properly plan, then you plan to fail. If you have no guide then you can become lost. At times during our careers we can become complacent and confused. “Why do I still work here?”, “How do I become better?”, “How do I earn more money?”. But if you have a map, all you have to do is follow it, and you can reach your outcome. You don’t ever have to re-invent the wheel, so don’t bother.
As contemporary designers, we follow in the footsteps of those who came before us, and we can easily look at what they did to replicate the process of becoming successful from scratch. The definition of success is entirely up to you, weather it’s critical acclaim and awards in the design community, landing a prestigious design or art director job, starting your own design firm, or simply working on creative projects and being able to support yourself financially while doing it. If you’re still in school, then read this, and begin following these principles now. If you’re already well established in your design career, then use these principles to brush up on lost habits. They won’t lead you astray. Here’s how to become the best designer in the world:
1. Draw constantly
Why should you be drawing all the time? because it helps to release all of your thoughts and really allow you to channel your creativity. Get a small sketchbook and keep it with you all the time, take it everywhere you go. Draw at the beach, on the bus, while you’re watching TV, in church, while you’re waiting at the dentists office, and especially during lecture classes, (if you’re a student). I often find that I actually pay better attention to conceptual thought while I’m drawing. The reason is because there’s no real analytical thought that goes into the drawing, no piecing concepts together, no math, no heavy thought processes, so you can let your pure motor skills flow as you listen to an audio book or TV. I recommend Moleskine sketchbooks, (good paper quality, clean minimalist book design, variety of sizes, and easily available. One other important reason is because they are so reliable that when you get used to drawing on one size sketchbook, you can just keep using that size, and rely on using that same size Moleskine over the years, and slowly build up archives of uniform sized sketchbooks to have on a shelf of your design library in your studio. When I met Milton Glaser he gave a presentation about the value of drawing. His book, Drawing is Thinking, is devoted to the ancient art. Milton draws all the time, so should we:)
2. Study the greats
Study those who came before you, look at what they did and how they did it. Before I became a designer I had never heard of any of the “famous” designers, mainly because the graphic designer is rarely recognized in the general pop-culture world for their work. But I was lucky enough to have a great design education in which I was able to study the greats of the field. So, If you’ve never heard of the best graphic designers in the world, here’s just a few to go study on Wikipedia: Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, and Saul Bass. Let’s leave it at that… for now:) But also, I seriously recommend buying Megg’s History of graphic Design, study it thoroughly.
3. Keep learning – you need to think like a lifetime student
Thinking you know everything is just… well dumb. The wise man realizes that he never stops learning knowlege and skills. I plan on learning new things and skills till the day I die. (I also plan on living to the age of 150, but that’s for another post.)
4. Typography, Typography, Typography
You need to become totally obsessed with fonts. The mantra of the real estate world is “location, location, location.”, and thus the mantra for the world of graphic design is “Typography, Typography, Typography.” know the best classic typefaces, and be on the lookout for new quality typefaces, don’t be tempted to just download all the crappy free fonts you can. Have your ear to the ground, keep watch on the pulse of the design scene and follow the good stuff. There are many typography forums you can read and participate in, I recommend: www.typophile.com , most everyone on there is extremely knowledgeable about type.
“Type design is one of the most visible and widespread forms of graphic expression in daily life. It is still not noticed by all readers of newspapers, magazines or books. Nevertheless letter forms reflect the style of a period, and its cultural background. We are surrounded by them everywhere.
The designer of new typefaces works in extremely small dimensions in shaping a letter, and he is also limited by the traditional forms of the alphabet. There are few possibilities for new ideas, for a good design should not have eccentric and unusual details. But the compromises required in designing for metal type can be ignored today because the new digital technology allows freedom in making new designs.
Typography is two-dimensional architecture, based on experience and imagination, and guided by rules and readability. And this is the purpose of typography: The arrangement of design elements within a given structure should allow the reader to easily focus on the message, without slowing down the speed of his reading. ”
5. Work in professional world
Get used to it, don’t just rely on school portfolio, that way you’ll have more options when you’re out, either going freelance or full-time corporate or full-time studio environment. Start off working for free even, it’s a great way to get your foot in the door, but get yourself paid as soon as you deserve it.
6. Work, work, work!
When you don’t know what to do, put your shoulder to the wheel. When you can’t come up with any ideas, ask for help. Bury yourself in work, practice makes perfect.
7. Your portfolio
Just like your expanding knowledge and skills, your portfolio is never final, At any given time it should be comprised of about 8-10 pieces, only include your best stuff, leave out the crap because it WILL hurt you. It would be better to just show 1 good, solid piece than 50 suckies. Don’t get emotional about your work, if it sucks then it sucks, make something better, cowboy up.
8. Raise your standards, but don’t go nuts.
Mediocre work is not acceptable, you are the best in the world, why would you ever accept anything less than the best from yourself? Again, cowboy up.
9. Be cool.
Be nice, be open, do anything, do everything. if you’re a hot-head then nobody will want to work with you in corporate world and no one will want to hire you in the freelance world.
10. Never retire.
People usually find this one a little hard to swallow. What do you mean? Isn’t everyone entitled to a nice retirement at the end of their life? Nope. I’ll explain why. Lets define what retirement is in the first place. Traditionally in American society and across the world people have worked long hours at hard labor jobs or hard desk jobs. They didn’t necessarily enjoy their jobs, but they endured to provide better lives for themselves and their families. Luckily, we live in an age when we have much more choice about our chosen career paths, its not like back in colonial times when if your father was a blacksmith then you had to be a blacksmith as well. So it’s much easier to make money doing something you love today than ever before in history.
The other thing is that if you’re reading this, you likely already love your job! but here’s the thing, if you really love your job, (which you should, or else quit) then you already fall asleep at night content and you wake up each morning with a burning passion to hurry and start working on your projects. If you truly love what you do, and you don’t dread going in to work every day, then you should want to continue doing it or some variation of it forever. Take all the vacations you want, take long vacations, take mini-retirements throughout your career, but never plan on completely retiring. See yourself as Pablo Picasso, if you’re a true artist then you’re full of great Ideas right? So full of these great ideas that you’ll want to keep working on your independent design projects and art projects until you die. Just never consider yourself fully retired, barring accounts of severe immobility or disease.
My grandpa is in his 90’s and he’s lucky enough to survive without any major health problems, and he still works on his business everyday. Once he told me that all of his brothers and sisters had already passed away, and all his high school friends and college friends had also already passed away. He’s the last surviving member of his peer group and going strong. But he made one interesting observation about his will to live and his general health, well-being and longevity. He told me: “When my friends retired, all they did was lay around all day and watch TV and eat. Their lives were thus without purpose, each day dwindling away with no major responsibilities, no feeling of reward or accomplishment and no work. Therefore, with no real purpose of staying alive, and they peacefully died in their sleep. Personally, Nothing about that sounds appealing to me, I feel a very strong sense of inner purpose each day, and I look forward to fulfilling my work and creating something new and totally awesome.
11. Never give up
NEVER give up. Remember that you and your portfolio are a big chunk of clay, being slowly carved into a beautiful sculpture. Never give up. You’ll make it.