Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design books’

27 MARCH, 2013

Iconic Designer Henry Dreyfuss on Beauty, Serenity, and Shaping Public Taste


“Man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty.”

The role of the singer, argued Lilli Lehmann in 1902, is to educate people about good music. The role of the writer, argued E. B. White in 1969, is to educate people about good writing. In his 1955 classic Designing for People (public library), legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (March 2, 1904–October 5, 1972), mastermind of such cultural staples as the very first answering machine and the once-ubiquitous Hoover vacuum cleaner, considers the role of the designer as a tastemaker, educating the public about what constitutes good design.

Dreyfuss writes:

It is my contention that well-designed, mass-produced goods constitute a new American art form and are responsible for the creation of a new American culture. These products of the applied arts are a part of everyday American living and working, not merely museum pieces to be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

I find no basic conflict between those who appreciate the fine arts and those who respond to classic examples of the applied arts. They are stirred by the same impulse, a desire for beauty.


Public taste, as used here, embraces a heterogeneous mass of people, not any particular income group or educational level. Some will be moved by a Van Gogh, others will feel elation at the sight of a sleek jet plane. Exposure to a fine piece of sculpture is likely to create in a person an awareness of the excellent lines of a thermos jug or a lamp, and vice versa. Thus, when a good design is mass-produced, its influence is tremendous. This impact will be translated into an improvement in people’s taste when they go shopping. Unconsciously, a person’s contact with beauty quickens and heightens his perception and taste for all forms of art.

Guided by a certain belief in human aspiration and the conviction that “the American people will listen to good music, if given the chance,” Dreyfuss observes the capacity for betterment that technology affords us — a prescient vision for what the internet, too, could empower if used wisely:

It may be recalled that, at the inception of radio, fear was expressed that people would stop going to concerts if they could hear the same symphonies in their homes without cost. Yet concert-hall box-office receipts are proof that radio has educated a huge audience to good music. There is reason to believe that television, particularly color television, will do the same for art, literature, education, history, and the crafts. Already, able critics and teachers are guiding the uninitiated into these provocative realms. A half-hour’s tour through a museum with a TV camera can bring to life a wealth of art and knowledge that could otherwise not be seen in months.

Furthering his faith in the common capacity for good taste, Dreyfuss champions the life-enriching power of beauty:

Most people have inherent good taste, but they can’t be expected to use it if they can’t find good things, Many persons are intimidated by what the stores and advertisements tell them is the proper thing. Many want what their neighbors have. But given an opportunity to have fine things, people generally choose them.


It would be fatuous to assume that every man is constantly aware of the details of his surroundings. I do not believe this to be true. But I am convinced that a well-set dinner table will aid the flow of gastric juices; that a well-lighted and planned classroom is conducive to study; that carefully selected colors chosen with an eye to psychological influence will develop better and more lucrative work habits for the man at the machine; that a quietly designed conference room at the United Nations headquarters might well help influence the representatives to make a calm and just decision. I believe that man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty. We find our most serene moments in great cathedrals, in the presence of fine pictures and sculpture, on a university campus, or listening to magnificent music. Industry, technology, and mass production have made it possible for the average man to surround himself with this serenity in his home and in his place of work. Perhaps it is this serenity which we need most in the world, today.

Pair Designing for People, which is indispensable in its entirety, with this spectacular 1957 meditation on scientific taste.

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20 MARCH, 2013

Sign Painters: What a Disappearing Art Teaches Us About Creative Purpose and Process


“It is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.”

As a lover of exquisite handlettering, elegant vintage-inspired typography, and vibrant storefront signage, I was instantly smitten with Sign Painters (public library) — a stunning companion to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s documentary of the same title, exploring the disappearing art through interviews with some of its most prominent masters amidst a lavish gallery of extraordinary hand-painted signage, with a foreword by Ed Ruscha. But this is no mere eye candy — brimming with candid insights, personal stories, and wisdom on the creative life, the book envelops the “what” with rich and ample layers of the “how” and the “why.” Macon affirms this in the introduction:

This book, like the job of the sign painter, isn’t always about eye-popping, flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned over time that transform a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.

Cautioning against the glamorized nostalgia that the trope of documentaries about near-obsolete occupations tends to deliberately play on, Glenn Adamson, head of research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, writes:

In setting on this topic, Levine and Macon are just in time. Many sign painters are now retired, or about to hang up their brushes; others have made the transition to easier, cheaper, but depressingly homogenous vinyl lettering or large-scale digital printing. As is often the case, it is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.

In many ways, the individual journeys of the featured painters embody Daniel Pink’s concept of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. We see them enter into the craft via astoundingly different paths — from generations-old family sign-painting traditions to serendipitous discoveries, from fine art to street art, from graphic design to gardening — yet what unites them is a shared celebration of having found creative purpose, loving the work in and of itself rather than seeing is as a means to some material end.

Doc Guthrie (Los Angeles, California) echoes Alan Watts and articulates it beautifully:

This was a real creative way to make a living — and notice I said ‘make a living,’ not ‘get rich.’ If your’e under the illusion that you’re going to do something like this and get rich, it’s not going to happen. If you want to make a good living, and you want to wake up every morning and look forward to the day, look forward to painting a truck, getting up on a wall, painting a movie background, that’s a good life. Many people in this country dread getting up and going to work. You have fifty years of work ahead of you, and it should be something that you really love. I never got rich, but I provided a living for my family and owned a home — that’s a working-class American success story.

Over and over, we see this recurring theme of creative romanticism scoffing at mercantile motives. Bob Behounek (Chicago, Illinois) laments:

Bigger and better machines became available. People were getting into the sign business just to make money. … There are more people out there now who don’t understand or don’t have the passion to create a well-designed sign. Vinyl machines can cut, they can give you a circle and a square, but they can’t give you the passion of a sign painter.

If you’re in a creative field and have ever been asked about how you’re going to “scale” what you do, you might share in shuddering. Sean Starr (Denton, Texas) gets to the heart of it:

When you get the sign-painting bug, it’s not about the money. If it was, you could expand in the right market and have twenty people working for you, but you wouldn’t have the enjoyable aspect of taking time on projects. If you’re in a high-production shop, which I worked in on the digital and vinyl side years ago, it’s just miserable. It’s like a sweatshop. You don’t have the latitude for creativity because you’re being told, ‘Okay, we need three hundred of these, two hundred of this, by this deadline.’ Who cares about the money?

Coupled with that is a courageous championing of pursuing creative rewards despite uncertainty and the fear of failure. Norma Jeanne Maloney (Austin, Texas) echoes Thoreau and captures it beautifully:

There’s some fear involved in doing what you love. I get up every morning and I look at that fear and say to myself, ‘I’m doing what I love today,’ and that gets me through the day.

Some are journeys of overcoming unlikely odds, like the story of Rose Otis (Las Vegas, Nevada):

I worked with the master [Jerry Albright] for five years. After the apprenticeship, he tagged on six months for students who wanted to learn gold-leaf techniques. There were probably three or four women in my class, and it was very hard to get a job. The guys at the sign shops said that i was too small an d short (I was), that I couldn’t carry my ladders, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. They basically said that they’d hire me to sweep the floors and make coffee, but as a woman I wasn’t going to be working in the world as a sign painter.

Or take Bob Dewhurst (San Francisco, California):

I first got interested in sign painting because I was locked up in a mental institution. THere was this guy who escaped, and when they finally caught him everyone wanted to know what he’d been doing. ‘I went to San Francisco and made all this money as a sign painter,’ he told us. I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe if I escape I can go to San Francisco and paint signs, too.’

For some, this is the dawn of a brave new world that only expands our collective creative acumen. Gary Martin (Austin, Texas) marvels:

I’m extremely happy. I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other people started showing up to join me. I weathered it,and sine the new wave of these younger sign painters started getting involved it makes me work and try harder. It has energized me so much. Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters. When I’m designing a sign I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this will be seen by a lot of people who have discriminating eyes. I have to make this good.’

For others, the virtual world is the villain to beware. Ira Coyne (Olympia, Washington) shares in Anaïs Nin’s celebration of handcraft and considers the cultural value of this disappearing art:

Sign painting creates jobs — more importantly, jobs for artists. Art and music are the first things to go in schools. The role of art is disappearing. When we were kids, we learned about bakers and candlestick makers. We learned about cobblers and all these old-school, awesome things that people did their entire lives. They specialized in making one thing. … In archeology, the things that matter most are handmade: ceramics, glass, sarcophagi, paintings. The most valued objects of lost cultures are the things that were made by hand. We need to start making things with our hands again.

In fact, Coyne believes that learning to avoid work and pursue passion will profoundly change our cultural landscape:

When corporate America started taking over and steamrolling everything, we became more and more disconnected. People are starting to rebuild those neighborhoods. If the guy who’s been working at some job that he hates moves on and opens that coffee shop or store he has always wanted to own, that will change the landscape of America.

Keith Knecht (Toledo, Ohio), who passed away in 2011 and to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, frames the historical context of sign painting as an intersection of art and commerce:

Sign painting, as we know it here in America, is a good 150 years old. It all started when growers and manufacturers began to brand their products. Before that, if you needed flour, you went to the general store and the shop owner would have a barrel of flour and would fill up a canvas bag for you. Manufacturers realized that they had to market their products to show that their goods were better than the competition. That’s when Gold Medal flour, Morton Salt, and other brands were introduced. In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns for these companies. Sign painters designed these logos.

This osmosis of the creative and the practical appears again and again. Forrest Wozniak (Minneapolis, Minnesota) observes:

What I feel separates sign painting from art is that art is an exploration of one’s self. Whether they are exploring their egos, emotions, or their pasts, artists are exploring themselves. There’s no real failure in pursuing art. you have to do signs correctly; there’s a correct format. It’s similar to carpentry. If you need to cut something seventeen inches long, you have to cut it the right size. Sign painting appealed to my logical nature. It’s a way to pursue art with a right and a wrong.

From Wozniak also comes what’s possibly the most poignant observation on the craft’s singular allure:

As a sign painter you are a deacon to society because you don’t work for someone who is successful, you work for someone who hopes to be successful.

But underpinning the entire cross-section of sign artists is a quiet yet unflinching testament to the ethos that the best kind of success is the one you define yourself, based not on prestige or money but on process and happiness. And what makes Sign Painters particularly alluring is its focus on something so tangible and lasting, on permanent atoms in the age of ephemeral bits, reminding us that these artists are not remnants of a bygone era in the evolution of creative culture but a vital signpost pointing in the unchanging director of what’s truly and everlastingly human.

Thanks, Lisa; images courtesy Princeton University Press

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18 MARCH, 2013

A Design History of Childhood


“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso famously proclaimed. “Every child is a scientist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson reformulated. But, as it turns out, every child is also a designer — so argues Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 (public library), the impressive companion book to the MoMA exhibition of the same title, which explores “children as design activists in their own right, pushing against imaginative and physical limitations and constantly re-creating the world as they see it, using whatever equipment they happen to have at hand.” Remarkably researched and lavishly illustrated, the large-format tome is titled after Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s seminal 1900 publication presaging a new era of focus on the rights and well-being of children. Through 100 years of toys, playgrounds, classrooms, clothing, furniture, posters, animation, books, and other ephemera, it covers such expansive and interrelated subjects as genetic engineering, the role of play in cultivating creativity, the importance of children in expanding 20th-century economies, the rise of comic strips, and the cultural significance of nostalgia.

MoMA curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin writes in the introductory essay, titled “Hide and Seek: Remapping Modern Design and Childhood”:

[W]e have been periodically reminded how the forces of modernity shape design and childhood in ways that are extraordinary and exhilarating yet complex and contradictory. What has remained consistent, however, is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life. As an embodiment of what might be, children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real: they propel our thoughts forward. Their protean nature encourages us to think in terms of design that is flexible, inclusive, and imaginative.

Lorraine Schneider. 'War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.' 1966

Schneider, an artist and mother of four, created this poster for a print show at Pratt Institute in New York, out of concern that her eldest son would be drafted. The rough composition, with its simple sunflower and childlike scrawl, became the logo for Another Mother for Peace, an organization led in the present day by Lorraine’s daughter Carol, and went on to become one of the most ubiquitous protest images of the Vietnam War era. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lewis Hine. Child in Carolina Cotton Mill. 1908

American photographer and sociologist Hine recorded children’s working lives on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, an organization established in 1904 to alleviate the exploitation of children, with headquarters in New York. A source of cheap labor then as now, children in factories and sweatshops assisted in the process of churning out goods designed for markets that included their middle-class peers. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin examines children’s awkward placement in the historiography of modern design:

The stereotypical perception of children as sensual and intuitive sits uneasily with the critical discourse of intellectualism and rationality that surrounds heroic modernist architecture, but with the advent of postmodern and psychoanalytic approaches to academic studies, beginning in the 1970s, many innovations in children’s design have begun to attract the critical attention they deserve, particularly in relation to comics, animation, and video games.


Bringing children from the periphery to the forefront of our attention cuts across geographical, political, and stylistic demarcations in the mapping of modern design. … Children bring into focus how modern design has straddled high and low cultural practices, from comics to architecture and urban planning. They enable us to follow threads throughout the century that connect the most disparate and apparently contradictory tendencies.

Rudolf Steiner. 'In mir ist Gott – Ich bin in Gott (God is in me – I am in God).' 1924

This drawing indicates how Steiner, one of the most influential educational theorists of the twentieth-century, would illustrate school lessons and public lectures with rapid chalk sketches on a blackboard or sheets of black paper. By means of such instantaneous mark-making, he communicated his sense of thought as living, creative energy, and of the individual as part of larger metaphysical harmonies. Steiner established his first school in 1919 for children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Within a decade Steiner schools had been established not only in Germany and his native Switzerland, but in Austria, Britain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States, where the first one opened in New York, on East 79th Street. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lyonel Feininger. 'The Kin-der-Kids' from Chicago Sunday Tribune. April 29, 1906

The modern mass-circulation comic appeared in Europe and the United States in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that comics and animation – two art forms initially created for children – began to have a profound impact on modern visual culture. Feininger and Winsor McCay, the two great illustrators of American comics in the opening decades of the twentieth century, conceived of the comic strip as full-page layouts with radical and inventive experiments in scale, sequence, and format. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Like Steve Jobs, who famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things,” and Paula Scher, who likens creativity to a slot machine, and like other theorists of creative problem-solving, Kinchin emphasized this inherent pattern-recognition gift of the child mind, also manifested in the most impactful design for children:

Designers, like children, find patterns and make connections. The importance of pattern making and creative play with material things, for children and adults, as a route to understanding spatial relations and problem-solving, as well as creating a sense of the individual in relation to larger cosmic harmonies, comes up again and again in the twentieth century.

She cites the legendary Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect and designer Breuer:

When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square. . . . Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and a structure . . . . That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry.

Vladimir Lebedev. Cover of 'Vchera i segodnia (Yesterday and today)' by Samuil Marshak. 1925

Lebedev’s philosophy toward children’s books was clear: they should be, in his words, 'colorful, specific, concrete,' and find a balance between sophistication and accessibility, high and low. Though he drew on the avant-garde languages of Cubism and Suprematism, he never fully abandoned figuration, offering a familiar anchor to children while introducing them to new visual modes. Likewise, the goal of his collaborator, writer Samuil Marshak, was to create a new children’s literature, one that nourished the mind in both content and form. Lebedev and Marshak, who began working together in 1924, created dozens of books, many so popular that they were issued in massive editions of 10,000 with reprints not far behind. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Advertisement for Gymbo School & Gym Shoes. 1930

This brochure advertising Gymbo shoes emphasizes the 'absolute freedom' given to every part of the foot by the rubber-soled canvas shoes that were required for pupils in most British schools in the 1930s. With medical experts and educators endorsing the beneficial effects of physical activity on academic performance as well as general health, schools began to pay greater attention to nurturing children’s bodies through movement and exercise. Innovations in children’s clothing soon followed, with designs for activewear to accommodate this new emphasis on freedom of movement. Girls in particular benefited from the increased mobility and encouragement to participate in sport or dance that challenged conventional constructions of femininity. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin points to the unburdened optimism of the child as a beacon of modernist thought:

Children, with their perception uncluttered by the baggage of social and cultural conventions, have long symbolized the visionary modernist focus of the future. In this respect they belong at the heart of utopian thought, and they inspire us to demand a different, better, brighter future.

Frankie Faruzza. Cover of the book 'Children and the City,' by Olga Adams. 1952

Adams, one of the best-known kindergarten teachers in the United States in the 1950s, initiated a classroom project called 'Our City' at the Laboratory School in Chicago to stimulate children’s appreciation of how cities worked. Following extensive discussion about how they interacted with and understood the city, the pupils imagined a model town, and then went on to develop their ideas into a cardboard community that they governed themselves. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Times Wide World Photos. 'A Famous School of Dance Has a Birthday,' class at an Isadora Duncan dance school. 1929

A quasimystical belief in the psychological and therapeutic power of expressive movement inspired pioneers of modern dance education in Europe and the United States, among them Isadora Duncan and Margaret Morris, each of whom established private schools for children. Classes were frequently conducted outdoors, and emphasized a natural athleticism. Touring troupes of scantily clad girls trained by Duncan performed with bare feet and loose hair, causing a public sensation before and after World War I. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable,” science educator Ainissa Ramirez argued in her manifesto for saving science education, and Kinchin sees an equally pressing urgency in how the intersection of design and education evolves in the future:

It now seems as urgent to drastically shift our conception of education and modern design as it did in 1900. What is necessary for this to happen … is a new generation equipped with new ways of thinking. … The need to foster the young child’s innate capacity for divergent thinking — the ability to come up with lots of different answers — brings us back to the early-twentieth-century pioneers of the kindergarten movement and the concept of open-ended play as a strategy for learning and design innovation … If there is one lesson that adults should learn from children, it is that at a time of environmental and economic crisis, play is a crucial point of connection to the physical and imaginative world. We need to give ourselves time and space for play, space in which the unpredictable can happen.

Froebel Gift 2. 1890

Intent on fostering the curiosity and creativity of young minds, Froebel devised a series of twenty playthings, which he called 'Gifts.' These objects formed the core of his pioneering model of early childhood education, anchoring sessions of play that were either directed by teachers or instigated by the children themselves. Gifts one through ten included crocheted balls in different colors, wooden building blocks, geometric shapes, and steel rings that could be arranged in numerous temporary configurations. Gifts eleven through twenty provided the materials for focused activities, such as multicolored sheets of paper for cutting, weaving, and folding. By the early twentieth century, this system was so popular that Froebel Gifts were being manufactured on a large scale in both Europe and the United States. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. 'Optical Color-Mixer.' 1924

Experience with toy design, often as a result of idealistic attempts to bring up their own children in a new and creative manner, was common among staff and students of the progressive Bauhaus school. These spinning disks, also known as the Optische Farbmischer (Optical color mixer), adhered to the emerging Bauhaus aesthetic of simple geometric forms and unmodulated primary colors, which was due in part to a method of teaching inspired by the kindergarten movement. Toys like the spinning disks and Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s construction blocks sold well, providing an important source of income for the new institution. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The introduction opens with a beautiful quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (free ebook):

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will.

Nigel Henderson. Untitled, from Chisenhale Road Series. 1951

In 1953 architects Peter and Alison Smithson collaborated with photographer Nigel Henderson on this influential visual statement of their new approach to urban planning. As seen in this mapping of urban experience – from house to street, and district to city – it is children at play who embody the Smithsons’ guiding principle of social connectivity that underpins the concept of a 'cluster city.' The Smithsons were critical of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy of the rational, zoned city; instead they searched for new architectural equivalents to the more intuitive unfolding of spatial relationships that they observed in children’s play. Their approach brought them together with Aldo van Eyck and other dissenting architects within CIAM. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Werner John. 'Kinder Verkehrs Garten (Children’s traffic garden),' poster advertising a children’s traffic school. 1959

The graphic simplicity of John’s poster design succinctly references both the abstract forms of children’s construction toys and modern styles of road signage being introduced internationally. In the 1950s and ’60s, the proliferation of motorized vehicles was creating concern about children’s public safety and liberty. One response was to merge traffic and play in the form of children’s traffic schools. For play advocates, however, the lack of public space allocated to children and the overbearing presence of cars were indications of adults’ lack of respect for children’s freedom and basic human rights. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Walt Disney with original aerial-view painting of Disneyland, produced for ABC Television. October 1954

Walt Disney introduced Disneyland to the public with this bird’s-eye rendering by Ellenshaw, an artist and designer. The park, which opened in 1955, was a physical extension of Disney’s cinematic and television projects; it was originally intended as a kiddieland adjacent to the Burbank television studios but grew to become one of the most iconic statements of twentieth-century American popular culture. Disney planned the park as a miniature city that followed the layout of the world’s fairs of the 1930s, with a nostalgic Main Street based on his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, linking four distinct areas of what he called his 'magic kingdom' – Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland. Together these elements contrasted a sentimental image of nineteenth-century America with the modern, exotic, and futuristic. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Boys in a Glasgow back court show off their Christmas presents, which include astronaut suits and Space Hoppers. 1970

Outer space, a new frontier, was sufficiently vast and mysterious to allow designers and toy manufacturers near-complete freedom of imagination and creation. One rather enigmatic but popular product was Mettoy’s Space Hopper. These bright orange vinyl bouncing balls, two feet in diameter, with kangaroolike faces and handles that resembled horns, are said to have been inspired by children bouncing on fishing buoys in Norway. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin concludes with a conception of the child as a sort of antidote to the pretense of the present:

For designers seeking to reconcile in their work the tensions and ambiguities of modern life, children seemed an inexhaustible source of renewal, evoking both a paradise lost in the remote past and the future possibility of an ideal city or state. … In directing their attention to children, many educators and designers sought to recover an authenticity of expression that they felt had been lost with the innovations of modern life.

Century of the Child goes on to explore the paradoxical role of children as both targets of consumer culture and cogs in its machinery by providing cheap industrial labor, tracing how the New Art movement catalyzed a new culture of relating to childhood alongside an evolving conception of pedagogy, covering such cultural revolutions as the rise of kindergarten, the golden age of the playground, playtime in the avant-garde era, and the body politics of the child. Complement it with Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, another fantastic and mind-expanding companion to an eponymous MoMA exhibition by Paola Antonelli.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2013

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


“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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