In an interview
with Adrian Shaunessey, the legendary graphic designer Peter Saville once mentioned something valuable he learned ten years into his career: that there is so much more to design than “just designing.”
designing? As a design student graduating nearly thirty years ago, I would have been stunned to hear this. Designing was everything to me. I had just spent five years in design school. I had entered college as someone who could do a nice pencil drawing of a bowl of fruit. I spent the next sixty months moving shapes around on grids, manipulating squares of colored paper, resolving compositions, drawing letterforms, learning the difference between Helvetica and Univers and between Herbert Bayer
and Herbert Matter
, redrawing a logo a hundred times until it was perfect, calculating the column lengths of Garamond set 12/13 on a 35 pica measure, and — for this was the point of it all — learning the difference between good design and bad design. When I graduated, my goal was to work with all my heart to create to former and avoid — nay, obliterate from the face of the earth — the latter. And now I learn that not everything’s about designing? What else is there?
But it’s true. I spent five years transforming myself into a designer. But what had I been before? That’s simple: I had been a regular person, like most other people in the world. And, as it turns out, it’s those people who actually make it possible — or difficult, or impossible, depending — for designers to do their work. And Saville was right: most of that work isn’t about designing.
This is the secret of success. If you want to be a designer, no matter how compelling your personal vision or how all-consuming your commitment, you need other people in order to practice your craft. Not all projects need clients, of course. But unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll need to finance the production of your work. This means persuading people to hire you, whether it’s bosses at first, or, once you’re on your own, clients. And people always have a choice. They can hire you or they can hire someone else. How can you get them to hire you? A good question, and although it has nothing to do with actually doing design work, you’ll need an answer for it if you ever intend to actually do any design work.
Once you’re doing design work, you face another challenge: how do you get someone else to approve the work you’ve created and permit it to get out into the world? But, you might protest, certainly they’ll recognize good design work when they see it! After all, you do, and your classmates did, and your teachers did. Ah, but that was in the rarified world of design school. You are now back in the world of regular people. And regular people require patience, diplomacy, tact, bullshit
and very occasionally brute force to recognize good design, or, failing that, to trust that you can recognize it on their behalf. Again, this is hard work, and work that, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with designing.
Finally, once your work is approved, your challenge is to get it made. This may mean working with collaborators like writers, illustrators, photographers, type designers, printers, fabricators, manufacturers and distributors. It also means working with people who may not care about design, but who care passionately about budgets and deadlines. Then the whole process starts again. In some ways it gets easier each time. In other ways it’s always the same.
I remember a lesson from my first year of design school, a series of exercises that we did to learn about the figure / ground relationship, the relationship between the thing that’s the subject of a visual composition and the area that surrounds it. For me, this is one of the most magical things about graphic design. It’s the idea that the spaces between the letterforms are as important as the letters themselves, that the empty space in a layout isn’t really empty at all but as filled with tension, potential and excitement. I learned you ignore the white space at your peril.
In many ways, the lesson of success in design is the same, and it’s a lesson that every great designer has learned one way or another. Designing is the most important thing, but it’s not the only thing. All of the other things a designer does are important too, and you have to do them with intelligence, enthusiasm, dedication, and love. Together, those things create the background that makes the work meaningful, and, when you do them right, that makes the work good.