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Comments (61) Posted 03.24.04 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Michael Bierut

Michael McDonough's Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School


The Architect's Newspaper is my new favorite design publication. It's a 16-page tabloid that comes out about twice a month. It's literate and timely, a fast-paced collection of news, reviews and opinion from voices as various as Michael Sorkin, Peter Slatin and Craig Konyk, all beautifully designed (in two ruthlessly efficient colors) by Martin Perrin. And, best of all, it has a gossip column.

Last month, they published a piece by Michael McDonough, the accomplished New York-based architect, writer and teacher, called "The Top 10 Things They Never Taught Me in Design School." I read lots of these kinds of things (and even written a few myself), but I found McDonough's not just entertaining but actually quite useful, and valid for nearly any kind of design discipline. He has graciously given us permission to reprint it here at Design Observer.


The Top 10 Things They Never Taught Me in Design School
by Michael McDonough

1. Talent is one-third of the success equation.
Talent is important in any profession, but it is no guarantee of success. Hard work and luck are equally important. Hard work means self-discipline and sacrifice. Luck means, among other things, access to power, whether it is social contacts or money or timing. In fact, if you are not very talented, you can still succeed by emphasizing the other two. If you think I am wrong, just look around.

2. 95 percent of any creative profession is shit work.
Only 5 percent is actually, in some simplistic way, fun. In school that is what you focus on; it is 100 percent fun. Tick-tock. In real life, most of the time there is paper work, drafting boring stuff, fact-checking, negotiating, selling, collecting money, paying taxes, and so forth. If you don't learn to love the boring, aggravating, and stupid parts of your profession and perform them with diligence and care, you will never succeed.

3. If everything is equally important, then nothing is very important.
You hear a lot about details, from "Don't sweat the details" to "God is in the details." Both are true, but with a very important explanation: hierarchy. You must decide what is important, and then attend to it first and foremost. Everything is important, yes. But not everything is equally important. A very successful real estate person taught me this. He told me, "Watch King Rat. You'll get it."

4. Don't over-think a problem.
One time when I was in graduate school, the late, great Steven Izenour said to me, after only a week or so into a ten-week problem, "OK, you solved it. Now draw it up." Every other critic I ever had always tried to complicate and prolong a problem when, in fact, it had already been solved. Designers are obsessive by nature. This was a revelation. Sometimes you just hit it. The thing is done. Move on.

5. Start with what you know; then remove the unknowns.
In design this means "draw what you know." Start by putting down what you already know and already understand. If you are designing a chair, for example, you know that humans are of predictable height. The seat height, the angle of repose, and the loading requirements can at least be approximated. So draw them. Most students panic when faced with something they do not know and cannot control. Forget about it. Begin at the beginning. Then work on each unknown, solving and removing them one at a time. It is the most important rule of design. In Zen it is expressed as "Be where you are." It works.

6. Don't forget your goal.
Definition of a fanatic: Someone who redoubles his effort after forgetting his goal. Students and young designers often approach a problem with insight and brilliance, and subsequently let it slip away in confusion, fear and wasted effort. They forget their goals, and make up new ones as they go along. Original thought is a kind of gift from the gods. Artists know this. "Hold the moment," they say. "Honor it." Get your idea down on a slip of paper and tape it up in front of you.

7. When you throw your weight around, you usually fall off balance.
Overconfidence is as bad as no confidence. Be humble in approaching problems. Realize and accept your ignorance, then work diligently to educate yourself out of it. Ask questions. Power - the power to create things and impose them on the world - is a privilege. Do not abuse it, do not underestimate its difficulty, or it will come around and bite you on the ass. The great Karmic wheel, however slowly, turns.

8. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; or, no good deed goes unpunished.
The world is not set up to facilitate the best any more than it is set up to facilitate the worst. It doesn't depend on brilliance or innovation because if it did, the system would be unpredictable. It requires averages and predictables. So, good deeds and brilliant ideas go against the grain of the social contract almost by definition. They will be challenged and will require enormous effort to succeed. Most fail. Expect to work hard, expect to fail a few times, and expect to be rejected. Our work is like martial arts or military strategy: Never underestimate your opponent. If you believe in excellence, your opponent will pretty much be everything.

9. It all comes down to output.
No matter how cool your computer rendering is, no matter how brilliant your essay is, no matter how fabulous your whatever is, if you can't output it, distribute it, and make it known, it basically doesn't exist. Orient yourself to output. Schedule output. Output, output, output. Show Me The Output.

10. The rest of the world counts.
If you hope to accomplish anything, you will inevitably need all of the people you hated in high school. I once attended a very prestigious design school where the idea was "If you are here, you are so important, the rest of the world doesn't count." Not a single person from that school that I know of has ever been really successful outside of school. In fact, most are the kind of mid-level management drones and hacks they so despised as students. A suit does not make you a genius. No matter how good your design is, somebody has to construct or manufacture it. Somebody has to insure it. Somebody has to buy it. Respect those people. You need them. Big time.
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Comments (61)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Yes yes yes. Disagreeing can be useful and interesting for a dialogue but I have just found myself wholly agreeing with Michael's exceptional piece. And that's good too. Thank you for re-publishing it here.
Antony Hare
03.24.04 at 03:53

I think you could just erase all of the 9 things except for the last, the number Ten, once you figured that one, anytime in your life, in or out of school, the others come right at you, nice and easy
Alex Belman
03.24.04 at 04:57

Being a design student I really appreciate you posting McDonough's points, Michael. I'm going to print this very large and post it in my studio. Here are 10 goals I can now work on fully understanding and emplimenting, starting in the classroom tomorrow.
JT Helms
03.24.04 at 09:11

i would say i learned most of these thing in design school, not during lectures and classes, but over time while interacting with the professors, or working on specific projects that required outside vendors and being observant during critiques and comparing work to other students'. i definitely learned about hard work and self-discipline and learning how to do non-creative research and organization before starting a project. it was never implicitly pointed out by our teachers, but after critiques and final reviews and specific challenges, one would start to put two and two together and realize that yeah, luck and timing plays a big part in what makes a successful project and how most of our work was crappy, and how we couldn't do everything on our own and many other points made here... whether or not we realized these lessons applied to the real world as well probably came later in our careers for most of us.

however, my school made it a point to not teach us anything about the business aspects of design which several of these points adress. in fact the very first day of class, mr. ed trigg, rest his soul, told us that the program was not going to help us get jobs, and if a job is what our main goal was then it was time to leave the program that instant. i used to resent the program and faculty for letting us in on the "secret" from day one, but over the years i've gradually come to learn that they were right. they really focused on teaching us how to think and problem solve and i'd like to think that what makes me stand out from the slew of designers out there today. i think if they had let us in on the realities of the business behind design, it would've depressed us for the next 4 years of our lives. if they had spent any more of their time specifically holding classes and teaching us about the business and marketing aspects of design and self promotion instead of letting us learn on our own through our individual processes and later in our careers, i think i would now resent the fact that i wasn't as good of a designer conceptually.
yi
03.25.04 at 12:06

I'm especially enjoying Show me the Output (beats Cuba G's show me the money). So damn true. Have an idea? Great, get it done. Otherwise it's pretty much useless - once you have an idea, you need another idea on how to get that initial idea done.
Armin
03.25.04 at 09:44

Great list, I totally agree with it... if the points he stated weren't true, I wouldn't have a career, that's for sure. When I was starting out, I took night classes at Art Center in Pasadena... I didn't have the money to go there full time so I worked long hours to make a living and did what I could to learn to be a designer along the way. A roommate I had back then, an AC graduate, told me that I should consider another career because "nobody would ever hire me as a designer when there are so many Art Center alumni fighting for the same job." At first I was really depressed for a while but then thank god my instincts told me not to believe her. Years later, I've had a much more solid design career than 90% of the people I knew when I was in art school. Some of them still have no idea how to work in the real world and are studying for yet another masters... meanwhile, I've been designing for a living every day for over a decade.

Moral of the story? She was an idiot.

Anyhow, on that note, here's a little website I created that you all might enjoy... let me introduce you to The Six Patron Saints of Graphic Design... let us pray.
lynn
03.25.04 at 10:59

Real life trumps the cloistered school life.

The best education I got after design grad school was plying my trade within a large organization. A humbling experience to say the least. In my case, #10 might read "The rest of the bureaucracy counts." My success depends on learning to navigate these organizational eddies.

And, in the end, my design abilities will only take me so far. My success will be determined by my ability to work with all sorts of people with many different agendas. I may have been a design student in school, but I've become a student of human nature now.
Jeff
03.25.04 at 11:01

Thanks for this list! It's perfect to paste over the "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" that you guys put in Looking Closer 4.
Kenneth FG
03.25.04 at 12:23

This applies everywhere, not only to design. Professional life not only depends on our magic "talent", but on the ability that we have to connect that with the rest of the people, and negotiate our way through the stages that any idea has from inception to development.
Camilo
03.25.04 at 01:37

Thanks for the pithy observations. One complaint,though: white/gray text on a black background is just plain painful on the eyes.

Maybe another item for your list:
11: Don't make your viewers suffer for your art
James
03.25.04 at 01:38

They are all excellent points. But I think first and last points are the hardest to learn outside of direct experience. It's not enough to master design, because the only way to maintain a smooth relationship with paying customers is to speak their language. It took me too long to realize this, but now I'm back in shool studying the field I mistrusted and feared: business.
Mat Bergman
03.25.04 at 03:22

Most of these points are true for achieving just about anything, not just design. As the goddess Nike said, Just Do It.

And I completely disagree about the white-on-gray text being difficult to read. I find light-on-dark far easier to read than black-on-white on any computer monitor I've used.
Andy
03.25.04 at 05:07

Ho hum. Another dreary tirade about what design schools don't do. All the comments are fair enough I suppose - though the spurious anecdotal arguments like "no-one from that prestigious school has ever been really successful" betray a certain chip-on-shoulder attitude that's fairly unattractive :7. But it's what's left out of the list that interests me. As someone who was "successful" in "the industry" before returning and getting an education, I can think of another list that might be useful, like "The Top 10 things I wish I learnt by going to design school earlier"... here's a start:

1) If you don't bring your true self into your work, you're basically a visual call centre worker, and this will quickly become unfulfilling, no matter how much money or high-profile work you get.

2) Creating uncertainties is more difficult and more fun than resolving them.

3) It's not actually necessary to write off 95% of your creative career to shit work if you think a bit more flexibly about who you want to work with, the kinds of projects you want to take on and their relationship with the rest of your life. [And more to the point I don't see the value in encouraging students to write off 95% of their life to boredom]

I'm sure others could add a few...
Danny
03.25.04 at 09:51

Sometimes I feel like I'm doing 95% shit work, but then I remember to keep outputting.

OT: I like the white text on a dark background. This site feels "cool" to my eyes, especially after 3-4 hours of using Illustrator or InDesign.
TJ
03.26.04 at 09:38

Very interesting points. My favorites:

SACRIFICE. I've gotten pretty comfortable in life lately, and I realize I'm not sacrificing much anymore. I should start looking for something to give up to get me to that next level. Perhaps I will pledge to wake up an hour earlier to give myself more time to do things...

OUTPUT. Sometimes quantity is more important than quality. I'm going to try to create more and not care about quality so much. Just create a whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks.
Trent
03.26.04 at 10:15

I will have to agree on the talent thing. I have been told all my life that I have a talent. Not that it is important. To only go through school and find out this commercial art world is filled with a bunch of no talent hotheads... ha it is actually not much diffrent then the fine art world... or the indy rock scene... power is pitiful
anthony
03.26.04 at 11:23

1-9 are all true.
10 is ultra-true.
Balonius Funk
03.26.04 at 02:12

I like the 'output'!! Yes, show me the output or else it's just crap...
swannie
03.27.04 at 08:01

AAAwesome....

Thanks!!!
Perhaps you will blame me for having spent so much of my time in Music Halls, so frivolously, when I should have been sticking to my books, burning the midnight oil and compassing the larger latitude. But I am impenitent. I am inclined to think, indeed I have always thought, that a young man who desires to know all that in all ages in all lands has been thought by the best minds, and wishes to make a synthesis of all these thoughts for the future benefit of mankind, is laying up for himself a very miserable old age.
Max Beerbohm, "Music Halls of My Youth"
Jozef
03.27.04 at 10:01

Personally, I disagree with the tone of some of the top ten list...Andy's post is on the right track. If you truely believe in something and are working towards that goal...then none of it is shit work because it is all a part of what is required in that journey. Change your perspective...otherwise you'll see things as shit.
John
03.29.04 at 06:32

My favourite is the point about talent. I have only studied art and design for about 12 months and I have got a place in a well known art school in London. I'm not particularly gifted but I really enjoy it. That's what got me there, not talent and at the ripe old age of 31, what the hell you are never too old.
Andy P
03.29.04 at 09:21

Good commentary with a slight bitter edge, but many points are accurate.
The delicate balance of self-fulfillment and self-preservation are definitely tenuous at times.
Success is dictated from within, not without, since only you know how you went from start to finish and your growth or lack of it along the way.
Keep the white on grey - it is easy on the eyes.
Bill
03.29.04 at 09:25

Yeah... that's right. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, bludgeon them with quantity... like the world needs more lists.
odegaard
03.29.04 at 05:30

So... If 95% of design work is "shit work"... and if it all comes down to output.. then Design and Diarrhea have a lot in common.
manderson
03.29.04 at 05:36

After spending 2 days comping up nearly 60 options for a restaurant logo, I'd actually say "yes" to that... sometimes it feels like design & diarrhea *do* have a lot in common. Design smells & looks a lot prettier, though. Oh, and it pays your bills better.
lynn
03.29.04 at 10:59

I think Mr. McDonough needs to go back and read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It appears to me that Mr. McDonugh's notion of "success" is defined by money, fame and landing that big assignment. He's no Howard Roark. It's not about output. It's all about input, that is, how you judge and feel about yourself.
David Walker
03.30.04 at 04:49

Recent grads or soon to be grads:

if you hate 95% of your job, and the tasks that are involved on a daily basis, but 5% is "fun" - than i feel for you. Of course there will be tedious, boring crap in every job, and you'll have to pay your dues along the way, but if you look like your enjoying that mundane nonsense,and doing it too well... than thats what you'll always be doing. Be very flexible, but not to the point where you find yourself in a job you can't stand. You spend the majority of your life working, if 95% of that time sucks, than you might as well gather the rest of the sheep you know, and start attending the weekly AA meetings.
justin p
03.30.04 at 06:39

I loved The Fountainhead. I read it in art school twice. I think every creative human being should read it.

That said, immediately after reading The Fountainhead, any self-respecting creative type will find themselves suddenly changed & transformed into a self-righteous, insufferable a$$hole for a good long while. Took me about five years to exorcise Howard Roarke out of my system so that I could became a more well rounded person & designer. I was such an arrogant know-it-all after reading that book that I wish I could go back & slap myself a few times for all the people that had to listen to me.

Neither altruism or individualism is the answer to our creative problems in the real world, it requres much more. One thing for sure, good design (and LIFE ITSELF) should be about teamwork & respecting the world around you (#10)... something Howard Roarke was not very good at. The man was a sad, lonely, martyr of a man. That was very romantic to me at 19, but at 37? Not so romantic.
lynn
03.30.04 at 07:20

Elmore Leonard recently published a list of "Rules for Good Writing". I happened to be reading Anna Karenina at the time. I couldn't help but notice Tolstoy broke every "rule" on Leonard's list.

Point? I think I'm done with lists.
paperfingers
03.30.04 at 07:22

I'd like to add another. The less you charge, the less you will hear back from your clients. Let me explain. I used to charge very little when I first started out on my own a few years ago. I was new and I figured I had to get my foot in the door. I soon learned that many clients wouldn't call me back for weeks after I sent them work to look over. Sometimes months would go by and not a word. Now they all seemed to have loved what I had done for them and they were often happy to send more payments but feedback and time were hardly ever granted to me in large amounts. Finally it hit me. Of course they don't have time for me. I'm not costing them anything! As soon as my prices went up, clients were all too happy to spend hours in meetings or on the phone going over what now seemed important. My work improved as well. Now that my client cared. I cared more too. So do yourselves a favor if you are the one billing the client. Charge what the project is actually worth and everyone will benefit.
Sean Tubridy
03.31.04 at 03:39

After reading my last post, I realize I sound like the kid from those Encyclopedia Britannica commercials back in the late 80's. I apologize for that.
Sean Tubridy
03.31.04 at 04:00

actually sean, you made an interesting point. I never noticed it before, but I've experienced the same pattern. so thanks to you, I'm raising my rates again. yay!!!!

p.s. - that kid in those brittanica commercials had some pretty fugly glasses, didn't he?
lynn
03.31.04 at 05:33

Most of these points seem to illustrate how to be a graphic designer with a shitty economic system. Or how to be a (financially) successful graphic designer. I quite like the state im in now. Unknown, poor, and having 100% fun. If you don't like the system, the best way to fight it is to drop the fuck out. Marxist graphics. Wooot.
Gary Robbins
03.31.04 at 07:50

Another example of wisdom vs. knowledge, within another example of the kind of lists and manifestos that designers love so much. The list contains things one needs to learn through experience, not read. And as for the list—at least call them rules and put some weight behind them, it might be more fun and less like every other motivational/self referential list out there.
Christian Palino
03.31.04 at 07:52

As a past student recently starting work in a design position, I can not agree more. My initiation of fire within a workplace has proved humbling and difficult. The ten rules pretty much outline what I'm learning day by day, mistake by frustrating mistake. There is no substitute for leaning these things yourself but the list sure helps to clarify them...
Emerson Ringrose
03.31.04 at 10:11

In real life things are not the same as when you are in school, asking your mother and father "Can I have fast internet" or something like that.
I am still a student but I realize that the real life can be really hard. Some people think that they will find job when they are 18, but it's not that easy. I like rule 1 and 2. They are giving good information (the other too). Hope everybody agree with my opinion :)
Rosen Tomov
04.01.04 at 08:00

Intelligent and well-written stuff. It applies to the design school I attended as well.

I agree on all points except that about talent. I do not believe in talent. Talent is greek for "divine gift".

I believe a fat ass for sitting down and working is what it takes... and then some luck and timing. Talent is just a word put out to label a skill who's origin we cannot explain. No such thing.

Great advice though. I found it very useful.
Joen
04.01.04 at 08:11

Wow... what a kewl post... I agree to all those lists... thanks a lot for posting them here... great!
Dfets
04.01.04 at 09:48

> Hope everybody agree with my opinion

Nothing personal Rosen...
Your comment just sparked something they don't teach you at school either. Perhaps there should be a number 11.

11. Don't expect everybody to agree with your opinion.
Armin
04.01.04 at 10:37

Talent is a higher day rate and Fridays off! Hard work is disputed invoices and weekends at the desk.

Points 4 and 7, couldn't agree more.
si
04.02.04 at 05:29

I like most of the rule ....except rule #2 if u thing 95% of the work outhere is shit ...u have a big ego...the truth is there is a good percentage of good work out in the world ...if not ..the clients would not keep coming back..and most of the design firms would not be here....

CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK AT THINGS AND THE THINGS YOU LOOK AT CHANGE.
dragon
04.02.04 at 01:33

Thank you for the great words!
julio
04.03.04 at 12:37

Re: the 95% shit thing. I think some posters are missing the point here. Shit means what you do without thinking. Whether it's giving a jr. designer direction about kerning or attending a meeting that requires your "body", but not your "mind".

Face it. That's life. 95% of what we do personally is "shit."
Whether it's grocery shopping or cleaning the bathtub.

I'd take a good communicator over a hot house flower any day.
But a good designer that can communicate with a team -well I think that's what the whole article is about.
mnik
04.03.04 at 12:42

Re: #9

I think it was Steve Jobs who said, "A true artist ships."

Yes, it all comes down to output.

Yeah, maybe one day, perhaps long after you're dead, someone will find that brilliant manuscript of yours in the attic, will send it to Knopf, and it will become the Harry Potter of existentialist novels. And maybe while accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on your novel, Charlie Kaufman will reveal that he taped a grainy Xerox of your photo to the edge of his imac for inspiration.

But maybe not. It's just as likely (more likely, actually) that it will get tossed out with your hockey equipment and all those LPs that you foolishly re-bought on CD. Your original issues of Rubber Soul and Abbey Road? Gone. Your novel, tentatively titled Dummy Text? Also gone.

If it's still there, go get it, OCR it, and send it off to...EVERYBODY.
Buzz
04.05.04 at 02:18

As a student these comments made were very inspiring and it helps you take a deeper look at the world of design. The ten commandmets that this dude made are true and as i have read them and read them i feel i get stronger in the ways i produce the work neede for me to succeed in the design way of life.
mike schoeneman
04.05.04 at 10:46

Lesson 7 and others that deal with ego, narcissus and overconfidence can not be overstated. I have watched so many peers rise to "rockstar designer" status only to watch them engage in self-destructive bridge-burning behavior.

I was taught, growing up, to consider myself special and unique but to always remain humble and true. They were lessons that helped me to avoid the traps of ego-centric delusion. If only more could learn them also.

Barkley Anderson
04.05.04 at 04:40

Some of you have mentioned this is stuff you've learned in school. I'd just like to point out when you get out of school and find that neat job and start doing what you've learned, you go thru a little bit of a know it all phase. Things start becoming somewhat automatic and you think you've got it all down.

Then you end up doing something really lame like sending out a fjob without fonts, or screwing up a photo and saving over it. Or something bigger like have a client you've been freelancing for scream at you because they hate your design and think you're a fraud. All things that have happened to me and many of my peers. Nothing new.

THEN you'll be able to understand why some of the things on this list are important to point out. After a little bit of progress people tend to forget those humble beginnings.

There, humbly put, is my 2 cents at half price.
shebee
04.06.04 at 04:05

...it was like hanging a mirror in front of my face. Would just like to add my tuppence worth:

1. There is no one type who makes an entrepreneur. But they all seek opportunities and then make things happen.

2. Think big. There are a lot of small business opportunities, but entrepreneurs create larger economic values.

3. Build on what you know. Successful entrepreneurs do not do something different. Generally their business is an extension of their experience, abilities or hobbies.

4. Think before you spend. Don't spend millions on market research. Quality of thought is more important than a 40-page plan.

5. Don't be limited by your own finances. Find opportunities - then find resources to match. There is plenty of funding for good ideas.

6. Avoid business traps. Many people measure their position in life by the number of people they control and the amount of money in their budget. But entrepreneurs think how to create economic opportunities. They are not weighted down by the need for power.

7. Don't put money first. It's the opportunity that is critical, not having enough money in the bank.

8. Don't fall in love with your product. Make sure you see its faults.

kevin paul scarrott
04.10.04 at 08:13

I am in design school right now, and some of these subjects are the types of things that the professors try to avoid. For example on point 4, Michael says,"Sometimes you just hit it." He explains that you can't overthink a design. If you over work it, most of the time it just gets worse. The hard part with school is that the professors want you to make progress on your problem each time you meet. Also we can't have a finished project until it is due. I have felt a few times that I have worked so hard and long on a few problems that I came out with a worse design, where as if I could have turned it in a few weeks earlier it would of been solved better. It is also good to know that I am going to fail and that everything that I make isn't going to be great. It also helps to know that others have failed in the past. I really wonder why can't the professors teach us these simple facts?
Ryan Pace
04.11.04 at 10:23

Here I am a poor college student starving for some encouragement from the outside world. Encouragement that life in the design world only gets better. But no, I was shot down with "95 percent of any creative profession is shit work." ...Really? Well I guess that might be the case, but there has got to be something better than sitting in a class for 3 hours only to hear, 'yes, there is something wrong with this design, but I want you to figure it out on your own.' Translation; 'I have no idea what the hell I am doing so therefore I cannot help you better your design.' Is there something better than that? I sure hope so. So what are they teaching us in school? Problem solving, (that goes on and on forever), form, function... yes, very valuable things, however, Michael McDonough is right, nothing it seems to prepare us for the outside world. Remember in high school when your English teacher would always say, 'well in college they won't let you turn in hand written things,' 'in college that is totally unacceptable,' and 'this class is the class that is going to prepare for college!' Yeah right, nothing I learned in high school prepared me for anything that I have experienced in college, well maybe one thing, don't take early morning classes. But that is not the point, the point is, thank you Michael McDonough for teaching me those 10 things that I won't learn at the university I am presently attending, thank you.
Emily
04.11.04 at 11:20

Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's about time students really get some useful advise from the "real world." As a student myself, I get so sick of people (professors) acting like they are teaching us everything we will ever need to know to make it out there. It's refreshing to have some real advice. I, like Ryan, think number 4 couldn't be any more awesome to hear. Day after day we have to go to our professors and show them the same old shit and get the same old critique. They want something new everytime, and heaven forbid you actually made a "good design" on the first set of roughs. It's nice to know that you can hit on something on your first try, and it won't always take 200 rough sketches to get there.
Oh, and as for munber 1, AMEN! Finally someone will admit that everything does not depend on your talent, unfortunately (or fortunately) who you know does matter and luck is always a good thing.
Tara
04.12.04 at 01:51

Thank U for pulling out these impressive points. As I've been being a design students, I kind of got the sense of these principles in doing design work whether or not it's school projects, outside of school work. In more broad perspective, I'd say these principles could apply deep into life. Be humble, do not over think, and start with what you know, these are the good examples of what I see and I always try to keep in mind as I get through all the problems I'm involved in real life. I see many things in common between life and design principles, which get me keeping going on....

Thanks again for good words... ^^'
Junior Kim
04.12.04 at 04:59

I'm rather late joining this post, but yep, 'they' never taught me those things at design school either. As I'm about Michael's age, that is some time ago. I would also hazard a guess by saying that these insightful gems are still not on the curricula of any school [for reasons that are largely about political and social control]. But then certain of them are experiental in nature and cannot be 'taught' in the objective sense - some things are best learnt out of school - and maybe this is why one's early working life is so very important. Of course such lessons learnt the hard way should not only become viable working habits; they should be 'big picture stuff' in the best sense, not just about design practice. For myself, I would add the following to the 10 - turn up on time, be nice to people. You'd be suprised how many of us can't even manage to remember these ones daily!
ben archer
04.14.04 at 05:52

It is interesting reading everyone's point of view on the list provided above. As a student like a lot of the people that have posted, I feel that taking in many different views of a subject like this one you can make your own conclusions. I can't wait till I get out of design school and start to learn this first hand. It is hard to apply them completely to the work that I produce in my classes now but, I have always tried to keep an open mind with things that come my way. I wish more design firms would let design students into their working industries to help learn some of these traits before the real world hits us in the face. I sure would like to work for a design firm part time for free or minimum wage to apply the skills that I have built up over the last couple of years and make my designs better and get me out of working for a supermarket part time due to the shitty economy in my school's town. Thanks
E. Stern
05.02.04 at 11:54

Thanks Michael for this fantastic piece of writing. It is applicable globally (I’m in India).
Of course design students struggle for many more fundamental issues here once they are out in the real world, but all your points still hold lot premier value.
Very often designers take long time to understand the need of mental discipline world expect in any deliverable. They feel uncomfortable of being a part of the loop of professionals involved in the project. Design syllabus is usually designed to create “designers”, and ignore the essential subset of qualities like ‘observer’, ‘team player’, ’reviewer’, ‘writer’ and ‘reader’ too….
Debu
05.06.04 at 02:33

In less than three weeks I will graduate from art school and thrust into the design world. What I have learned in school is that quick thinking, hard work and love is crucial to interesting design. Point 2 troubles me....95% shit work...5% fun?! I don't want to live my life like this! I think it depends on the individual. Personally, if the design world turns out to be 95% crap I will get out of it and knit full time... make scarves for a living. I have simple pleasures and I want to have fun. Can I be a designer, too?
kelly r
05.09.04 at 12:35

Kelly, I think many people have misinterpreted McDonough's point number 2. It doesn't mean that 95% of the design work you do has to be crap. Instead, what he's saying is that the actual practice of design involves lots of mundane, unglamorous, "un-fun" things. Unless you learn to enjoy (and become good at) the "simple pleasures" of, say, a well-prepared invoice or a productive conversation with a printer, you're not going to be able to get to the 5% you really live for.
Michael Bierut
05.09.04 at 07:02

I recall advice from an insatiable Swiss type instructor at U.C., "Why don't you do another one" . What seemed pointless and open ended at the time was actually "the practice of creativity" which would mature into conviction,
decisiveness, and professionalism.
Time for a reunion Michael.
Steve Danemayer
05.26.04 at 09:08

Agree with Michael regarding the interpretation of the term "shit work". There's no point trying to avoid any career for the sake of ensuring that nothing you do is tedious. There's no job like that. If we were to take this concept to the extreme, then it should be noted that any design becomes irrelevant at some point. Work that I did ten years ago that inspired me is sad and sorry now. Fit for nothing, not even inclusion in my own portfolio. So better to enjoy doing what you do in your career, than trying too hard to CHOOSE what you do (No one lives like that without starving).

Landing the occasional inspiring project is like finding that really nice piece of meat in your stew. It ADDS to the enjoyment.
mvad
10.05.04 at 12:15

This is VERY apt to me, I graduated last June and have been working for a design practise for the last four months! I am just trying to put this into practise at the moment, 'priortising'! Everything is important, but which is most urgent, that's how I work it. I wish I'd read it before I went to uni, but to be honest, I don't think you understand until your out there working in design. I do think that changing your goal as you develop is bound to happen, your eyes are being open to new things all the time, or they should be. People change all the time, through circumstances, events, but it is always good to write a list of perhaps expectations to help you achieve your original ambitions and tick them off, very satisifing, although not quite there yet myself! Not long though! Start with what you know then take away the unknowns, I sure as hell wish I'd known that when I was at uni, that would have knocked a few hours off every assignment I'm sure! Thanks, it was an interesting read and very relevant too!
Laura, J
02.22.05 at 02:04

Thanks Micheal for clarifying something that I intended to do as soon as I got to the bottom of the list! I run a small design shop in India (cheers Debu! There aren't enough of us active here.) and sure enough, 95% of my work is to do with the non-creative, financial and workflow management part of being in the design business.

I'll add a caveat: Either learn to enjoy those activities (and lest you lose heart, they -can- be more enjoyable than is implied here!), or learn to outsource them. If you don't, you'll go out of business.

Two years ago I found myself spending too much time 'housekeeping' so hired an accountant to take care of the financial things and expanded the job role of another employee to include some administrative tasks. The result is that I had more time to spend on the seductive 5% - both more enjoyable and more lucrative. We doubled our turnover that year.
andy
02.23.05 at 02:35


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Michael Bierut studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, and has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1990. Michael is a Senior Critic in Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Michael Bierut

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design
Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

Forty Posters for the Yale School of Architecture
Winterhouse Editions, 2007

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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