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Famous Graphic Designers Offer Advice on Design and Life to the Young

“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


Happy Birthday, United Amateur Press Association: H. P. Lovecraft on the Early Spirit of “Blogging”

“Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism.”

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of amateur press associations (ASAs) — small groups of writers, often without professional training, who would produce individual articles, pamphlets, or magazines mailed to all other members of the association; in other words, a progenitor of subscription-based blogging, and yet another example of primitive versions of modern social media. The first such group to become a formal organization was the National Amateur Press Association, founded on February 19, 1876, in Philadelphia. Over the century that followed, NAPA went on to produce a series of wide-ranging and intelligent articles spanning politics, language, religion, literary criticism, and more, including NAPA vice-president H. P. Lovecraft’s famous advice to young writers. For the first time in the history of mass media, a small group of dedicated writers had pulled into question the distinction between “journalists” and “amateurs,” a line all the more profoundly blurred today.

Lovecraft himself lays out a mission statement in Writings in the United Amateur (public domain; public library):

The desire to write for publication is one which inheres strongly in every human breast. From the proficient college graduate, storming the gates of the high-grade literary magazines, to the raw schoolboy, vainly endeavoring to place his first crude compositions in the local newspapers, the whole intelligent public are today seeking expression through the printed page, and yearning to behold their thoughts and ideals permanently crystallized in the magic medium of type. But while a few persons of exceptional talent manage eventually to gain a foothold in the professional world of letters rising to celebrity through the wide diffusion of their art, ideals, or opinions; the vast majority, unless aided in their education by certain especial advantages, are doomed to confine their expression to the necessarily restricted sphere of ordinary conversation. To supply these especial educational advantages which may enable the general public to achieve the distinction of print, and which may prevent the talented but unknown author from remaining forever in obscurity, has arisen that largest and foremost of societies for literary education The United Amateur Press Association.

Amateur journalism, or the composition and circulation of small, privately printed magazines, is an instructive diversion which has existed in the United States for over half a century. In the decade of 1866-1876 this practice first became an organized institution; a short-lived society of amateur journalists, including the now famous publisher, Charles Scribner, having existed from 1869 to 1874. In 1876 a more lasting society was formed, which exists to this day as an exponent of light dilettantism. Not until 1895, however, was amateur journalism established as a serious branch of educational endeavour. On September 2nd of that year, Mr. William H. Greenfield, a gifted professional author, of Philadelphia, founded The United Amateur Press Association, which has grown to be the leader of its kind, and the representative of amateur journalism in its best phases throughout the English-speaking world.

Lovecraft offers a necessary disclaimer to the term “amateur,” reminding us that it is a distinction of motives rather than of competence — those who pour countless hours and endless heart into the publication do it for love rather than for commercial gain:

In many respects the word ‘amateur’ fails to do full credit to amateur journalism and the association which best represents it. To some minds the term conveys an idea of crudity and immaturity, yet the United can boast of members and publications whose polish and scholarship are well-nigh impeccable. In considering the adjective ‘amateur’ as applied to the press association, we must adhere to the more basic interpretation, regarding the word as indicating the non-mercenary nature of the membership. Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism. Many of them are prominent professional authors in the outside world, but their professionalism never creeps into their association work. The atmosphere is wholly fraternal, and courtesy takes the place of currency.

Today, the spirit Lovecraft describes endures online, where countless brilliant “amateurs” craft with love havens of knowledge and stimulation around their passions — like Joe Hanson in science, Tina Roth Eisenberg in design, John Ptak in history, Christopher Jobson in art, Dan Colman in education, Emily Spivack in sartorial history, and many more. To be an “amateur,” in that sense, seems to be to avoid work by doing what you love.


Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

On February 19, 1974, shortly before visiting Timothy Leary in prison, Carl Sagan sent the psychedelic pioneer a letter discussing evolution, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the details of the upcoming visit. The postscript read:

P.S. The enclosed poem, ‘The Other Night’ by Dianne Ackermann [sic] of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.

But the poem was eventually finished and, along with fourteen others, included in the 1976 poetry anthology The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (public library) by Diane Ackerman — a whimsical and wonderful ode to the universe, celebrating its phenomena and featuring a poem for each planet in the Solar System, as well as one specifically dedicated to Carl Sagan.

From “Venus”:

Low-keyed and perpetual,
a whirling sylph
whose white robe stripes
around her; taffeta
wimpled like a nun’s headcloth;
a buxom floozy with a pink boa;
mummy, whose black
sediment desiccates within; wasp-star
to Mayan Galileos;
an outpatient
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
Cleopatra in high August–
her flesh curling
in a heat mirage
from Alexandria;
tacky white pulp
through the belly of a larva;
the perfect courtesan:
obliging, thick-skinned,
and pleated with riddles,

Venus quietly mutates
in her ivory tower.

Deep within that
libidinous albedo
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead,
90 times more unyielding
than Earth’s.
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
is no cheery chrysalis
brewing a damselfly
or coaxing life
into a reticent grub,
but a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
all sweating
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
No sphagnum moss
or polypody fern here,
where blistering vapors
and rosy bile
hint at the arson
with which the Universe began.

Hubble Space Telescope photograph taken within minutes of Mars’ closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003. Click images for more

From “Mars”:

The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
follows Coprates
(the much-travelled
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
bypassing Bliss,
many moons from Tranquility.
But, Romantics, take heart:
you can breakfast
in Syria, lunch in Sinai,
track the Nile
to its source (Nilokeras)
before dinner, and there,
making ablutions to Osiris,
win a boon to Eden,
where all four rivers
of Paradise converge,
then spend the night
in Pandora, or with Ulysses,
Proteus, or even Noah,
in the Land of Gold (Chryse)
or by the Leek-green Sea.

From “The Other Night (Comet Kohoutek)”:

Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.

Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.

Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whorling dustbowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.

From “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”:

When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering
that makes blue light, canting off molecular

grit, go slowgait through the airy jell, subdued,
and outlying mountains look swarthy, or wheat

blaze tawny-rose in the 8:00 sun, how I envy
his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle.

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken
by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots
with the everythingness of everything else.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s views on science and mystery, Ackerman writes of her poetry:

I’ve always been baffled by people who write about nature only in terms of, say, junipers and cornfields, eschewing all things so-called ‘scientific,’ as if science were, per se, the spoil-sport of feeling. So wonderless a view of nature really doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t see the Universe divided up that way, into ‘The Junipers’ on the one hand and ‘The Amino Acids’ on the other.

So how did Sagan know of Ackerman? Most likely, through his second wife — the author photograph on the back of The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral was taken by artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan, whom Carl married in 1968. The two divorced in 1981, after Sir Sagan fell in love with Annie Druyan in the course of creating the Voyager Golden Record, which Linda co-produced. Cosmic love, it seems, is always a little more complicated than the poets might wish us to believe.

Complement with the first poem published in a scientific journal, which actually turned out not to be the first.


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