An excerpt from a keynote address to the BC Chapter of the Graphic Designers of Canada Salazar Student Design Awards / by Matthew Clark
I am thirty-three. I have been doing something vaguely related to the field of graphic design since I printed t-shirts and sold them to schoolmates in grade twelve. That means I have been doing this for 16 years: slightly less than half of my life. I have worked in paste-up at a quick print shop while I completed my bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. I worked for 90 days in a larger print shop, and quickly remedied my mistake.
I have run my own freelance company for more than 10 years. I have been employed as a junior, a middle, a senior and an associate creative director at a leading Canadian design firm. I up and quit and have formed Subplot Design Inc. with a talented partner. I have worked on horrendous projects for mean-spirited clients. I have worked on ground-breaking projects with fabulous clients, and I have been honoured with some 120 design awards by magazines and various societies.
All of this puts me in the precarious position of neither being able to claim blissful ignorance in the world of design, nor having yet reached a level of quotable notoriety. As Pope put it, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.
Thus armed with my little knowledge and dangerous things, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the BC Chapter of the Graphic Designers of Canada Salazar Student Design Awards. Given the captive audience of the best, the brightest – and the youngest – in BC’s graphic design community, I decided that they should be let in on the fundamental principles of being a graphic designer.
We all know: there are 10 + 1 rules. They are universal. They are unquestionable. When followed to the letter, they make design very easy. And they are very, very serious.
Design is Easy: Rules to live by
Rule 1: You are born a designer. Were you bothered that the birth canal ruffled your otherwise impeccable hair and you immediately began requesting every hair product you could lay your hands on? Did buying the “right” magazines, handbags, shoes, music, bedroom paint and half-caff, no whip, no foam lattés just seem to come naturally? Does waving your arms in the air while you walk and talk colour theory happen without you even knowing it? That’s right: you’re a designer. Just ask the TV shows. And talking like a designer about things like “mood”, “tone”, “kerning” and “dynamic tension” will also go over really well in big client presentations.
Rule 2: Limit your education. A good designer is never distracted along the way to success. Don’t stray off the beaten path: go to design school! Learn the tools of the trade, do fake projects for fake clients and receive actual grades. Why have clients when you can have teachers? The point here is to not be waylaid by liberal arts courses, commerce, earth sciences, mythology or philosophy. Certainly not marketing. Don’t believe the hype behind a so-called “well-rounded education”. And remember, surround yourself with people just like you: diversity is for suckers.
Rule 3: Pick one thing, and be really good at it. It’s no wonder East German gymnasts were as good as they were; they gave up all the distractions of “childhood” and “literacy” to become focused, diligent gymnasts at the age of four. The same goes for design. Don’t try everything out and just become a “jack of all trades”; pick your specialty and stick with it. Some of the larger design firms even have entire departments for “retail packaging” only, and nobody every crosses the line. And don’t worry, if the bottom falls out of your specialty, there’s always account management to fall back on.
Rule 4: Only work on really cool projects. I once heard a junior freelancer say to the creative director, “I don’t do packaging”. That’s the spirit! The goal of especially your first few years is to only work on really sexy design for amazing clients. By being extra selective, it will show everyone how high your standards are. You shouldn’t even acknowledge anyone who utters the word, “retail” in your presence. You can only dream of where that junior is now.
Rule 5: Love your computer. Always had an affinity for technology, but just couldn’t stand the dress code of the IT department? Here’s your chance. When people ask you (and they will) what you do, and you say, “designer”, and they say, “like, you do stuff on the computer?”, you’ll be able to answer “yes, exactly” without any of the gut-wrenching shame. All your best ideas will come from these cool little boxes where magic just seems to happen when you move things around a page. You’ll forget what a layout pad and marker even is.
Rule 6: Style = Substance, Substance = Style. I know this one looks complicated, but it’s really not. The big secret is, that even with all the “creativity” that designers are always harping on about, there are simple tips for approaching every design project. Designing an electronica CD case: use silhouetted figures and an outline of headphones. Designing a refreshing fruit beverage: show fruit splashing in water. Not sure what the company does: use really big type with philosophical fragment sentences. By just picking a “style” that is the best “fit” with the company, you manufacture meaning!
Rule 7: Never meet the client. Let the suits do the hard work. Let’s face it: clients just get in the way. The more you meet them, the more you get to know them, the more they get to know you, and the more they start to think that they can stick their anti-creative noses into your precious design process and mess things up. Remember: their ideas are always bad. Never give in. Stay behind the scenes and keep your work pure. An added bonus if you can successfully avoid returning any of their calls.
Rule 8: Work in a design firm that pits designer against designer. Darwin had it right: it’s “Survival of the Fittest”. Every large studio knows that the best way to engender an atmosphere dedicated to design excellence is to lock designers both in mortal combat – and in their own offices. Job comes in, everyone takes a stab, someone wins! That person gets a bigger office and a pay rise: it’s the free-market system. Remember: collaboration is just an excuse for other designers to steal your ideas. Stay secretive, stay competitive, stay strong.
Rule 8 Addendum: Make sure you also work on projects that pit design firm against design firm, without any compensation. It shows your true professional character.
Rule 9: The more senior you get, the less design you want to do. Why do yourself what you can get others to do for you? Managing people and talking business is always better than actually designing for a living. Ask around. By the time you are 15 years into your career, things will be really easy and you can just sit back and coast: it’s time for you to jet off to New York and Milan to attend world-wide conferences and sip martinis. Celebrate by trading in your sneakers and rock t-shirts and getting a Beemer.
Rule 10: When you show people your work, never let them in on the process. Your work is your secret formula. Remember Rule 8: your competition is your enemy! The best disguise for letting people into your process is to invent a “Branding Process” which you then claim is totally proprietary to you and to which you give a really cool name like “BrandizationTM” or “The Brand Character MatrixTM” , or maybe name it after you company name. Give it 10 unintelligible steps, maybe a super-cool pyramid or some chart with lots of intersecting circles, and you get a bonus: you won’t only fool your competitors, you’ll fool prospective clients, too!
Rule 10 + 1: Someday, if you are really lucky, you will get to write an article or give a speech to young design graduates on the cusp of their careers who are ready and eager to receive some insightful advice from a designer who’s been around a while. When you do, lie to them.
Matthew Clark is a founding partner of Subplot Design Inc. in Vancouver, BC and enjoys serious intellectual writing.
He also claims this was much funnier with PowerPoint visuals. www.subplot.com