Design school

When I started out in the design business, I opted to take a pragmatic approach to my work. I probably read somewhere that in a business that caters to the subjective whims of clients, I’d get nowhere with a “my way or the highway” attitude. That only seemed to work for Howard Roark, and I had little desire to go work in a rock quarry waiting for clients to find me.

After my time in design school and in the first few years of my career, I came to believe — and still do — that a smart designer will trump a good designer. In other words, it matters more that you can sell your work than produce it. I’ve met people in my business who blow the doors off of anything I could ever do, but if they ever had to explain why they chose that font or used that color, their reasoning rarely ventured deeper than “Because I think it looks better that way.”

Clients always seem to have their own ideas, especially after you show them yours. So far in my entire career, I can count on one hand the number of clients that didn’t turn into art directors long before we finished the project. Because of my pragmatism, I would eventually throw up my hands and say to myself, “Whatever it takes to get your signature on that check.”

You want purple and yellow together and 50 point Comic Sans on a funeral announcement? Fine by me. Just make sure the check clears and don’t tell people I did this for you.

I look back and consider the body of my work done for others, and I have to wonder if I haven’t blown it. Too many compromises have lead to a portfolio that has far too little in it that I take pride in owning. Yes, I’ve won a few awards, and I have some clients that swear by me, but when I look out there and see the work of others, I wonder if I should have followed that impulse and become a Porsche mechanic.

I have no qualms about what I’ve done for Roadside. Under the bootstrapping circumstances from which that magazine emerged, I’d challenge any designer with no formal business training to do any better. I cite only my inability to find the right business partners as the major failure in that effort.

However. I look at what I’ve done in other areas and I see the costs of my pragmatism. I wonder if I didn’t fight hard enough or just find a better way to explain my intentions. I’ve come to understand that acquiescing to the client (or my employer) makes neither of us happy in the long run. I certainly know how I feel and the fact that I didn’t get repeat business confirms this. When I lose to another designer, I’d like to believe that they just did a better job of selling themselves and the work they did.

I hope my daughter stays away from any business that depends upon anything but physical certainty. When people hire a plumber, they don’t tell him where to lay the pipe. They only tell him where they want the water to come out.

Perhaps she’ll become a better salesperson than me, and succeed in areas where I haven’t, but I hear the frustrated remarks of designers more successful than me, and I wonder why anyone would chose this path.

I try to remember the experience of Frank Lloyd Wright. In a career that spanned almost 60 years, we mostly know him for what he did in the last thirty. I’m at that milestone now, so let’s hope my ship soon emerges from the fog. And that I stay healthy enough to get on board.

  • julielucey

    Don’t be so sure they don’t tell him where to lay the pipe… these days, customers think they know everything.