Brain Pickings

I Used to Be a Design Student: Advice on Design and Life from Famous Graphic Designers

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“Work your ass off + Don’t be an asshole”

“A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing,” iconic graphic designer Massimo Vignelli famously declared. But this maxim holds true — if not truer — of personal history: It’s that agglomeration of lived experience that centers our sense of self and fuels our slot machine of creativity. In I Used to Be a Design Student: 50 Graphic Designers Then and Now (public library), the more pragmatic counterpart to Advice to Sink in Slowly, Billy Kiosoglou and Philippin Frank set out to reverse-engineer the power of personal history by tracing the creative evolution of influential designers, who reflect on their education, profession, and how their preferences in everything from reading to food to modes of transportation have changed since their university days.

Besides short interviews and work samples, the book features several than-and-now comparative grids that reveal a number of recurring patterns — designers tend to cycle, walk, or take public transit to work; consistent with the life-stage evolution of our internal clocks, their wake times have gotten slightly earlier; many couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine any calling other than being a designer; their influences are wildly eclectic; their most precious valuables have shifted from status symbols and technical tools (camera, watch, walkman) to existential anchors (love, legacy, literature).

One of the questions asks for a piece of advice and a single warning to a budding designer. Here are some favorite responses:

Like another wise woman of design famously advised, Margaret Calvert urges:

Enjoy +
Don’t waste time

Reminding students to define their own success and beware of prestige, Kai von Rabenau advises:

Follow your own path +
Don’t do it for the money or glamour — neither will come true

Like other famous champions of the habit, Isabelle Swiderski swears by the sketchbook:

Sketch, sketch, sketch +
Don’t fall in love with your ideas

António Silveira Gomes cautions against over-reliance on technology:

Design affects the way we perceive information. Students must understand the consequences of their work before placing a new artefact into the world +
I would like to quote Cedric Price: ‘Technology is the answer, but what was the question?’

Emmi Salonen echoes artist Austin Kleon in reminding us that “the world is a small village” and kindness is king:

Avoid automatically applying your ‘style’ to a project — let each assignment influence you, your approach and the way you work +
Be nice to people, respectful.

Lars Harmsen echoes Jackson Pollock’s dad:

Work awake +
Get out of the dogma house

Michael Georgiou stresses the line between plagiarism and influence:

Do as much research as you can +
Never copy, only get influenced

Renata Graw reminds us that the fear of failure is one of the greatest hindrances to creative work:

One can never say something won’t work until they have done it +
Don’t be afraid to fail

Richard Walker assures in the dignity of ignorance:

Always finish your work +
Don’t feel obliged to have an opinion on everything. If you don’t know, say you don’t know.

But perhaps the sagest, most timeless and universal piece of advice comes from Stefan Sagmeister, who makes a case for the timelessly potent combination of work ethic and kindness:

Work your ass off +
Don’t be an asshole

I Used to Be a Design Student comes from British publisher Laurence King, who previously brought us the formidable Saul Bass monograph and the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Complement it with How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

Images courtesy Laurence King

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