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What has kept you in the Graphic Design business for over 25 years?
Passion. That is the answer in its simplest form. From the time I was a small kid I was passionate about art. I knew it was the path I wanted to take for a career. After 27 years in this profession I am still excited about what I do each day. A long time ago I realized I was not the “designer in a cubicle” type of person. Still, along the way I selected job opportunities – as art director for a group of medical publications, art director of a small ad agency and creative director of a clothing company – that would provide me the skills and knowledge to have a successful independent design career in the future.
As I often say, “It’s not that I don’t play well with others; it’s just that I want to choose where, when and with whom I play”. Being an independent designer, particularly one specializing in identity design, gives me an incredible freedom to work with a wide variety of clients, including grass roots nonprofit groups, one person start-ups and major corporations. Each project is a welcomed challenge. Because of the variety of client types my work is never boring. Not being bored keeps the passion alive. I would not be happy doing work a chimpanzee could be trained to produce. That freedom also allows me to work from wherever I may be at the time. Years ago I mentioned that I would be perfectly happy designing T-shirts on a tropical beach. With the technology of today that is actually possible.
Are there any designers who have influenced your design passion?
Milton Glaser has been the major design influence in my career. As a high school senior in 1974 finding his book “Graphic Design” gave a name to the direction I wanted to take my art and design interests. It also showed me that someone could actually make a living with their artistic endeavors in a world of “you’ll never be able to make a living as an artist” doubters. The simplicity and strength projected by Glaser’s graphic design works are something I try to achieve in most of my identity efforts. Other designers having a major impact on me have been Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Herb Lubalin, Seymour Chwast, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar. These individuals are largely responsible for bringing graphic design out of what had often previously been referred to as commercial art. Their impact on the industry is huge and, I’m always somewhat amazed, when I mention their names to young designers – or students – today the response is often a “Huh?”.
One of my college professors, Roy Paul Nelson – who wrote the book “The Design of Advertising” – also had a great deal of influence on my design career. He was the individual who convinced me to get out of a frustrating Fine Arts School experience and into a program of advertising and publication design. The change in education direction forced me into course work in writing, marketing, typography, copywriting, public relations, marketing and other aspects of the business of design. I was much more prepared for a career in the industry due to his mentoring.
Why does logo design interest you?
Attempting to convey as much information as possible about a business, organization or event with the simplest of graphic elements and/or type is always an exciting challenge to me. In my own work, playing with letterforms, manipulating graphic images, or combining the two uniquely to establish an effective identity involves strategy, art, design, a dose of theatre, research, playfulness, a bit of cleverness, a pinch of engineering, some understanding of business marketing, knowledge of advertising principles, and many other recipe ingredients.
I get a great deal of personal satisfaction when an unsuspected “brain fart” – usually when in the shower, driving my car, gardening, sleeping or doing something else unrelated to design – suddenly presents the solution to a client’s business identity crisis. That “a-ha!” moment makes any frustration, or struggle, in the context of the concept development for a project very worthwhile. Occasionally I create one design, and present it as an only option to the client, knowing it is the design to represent their company or organization. In about 80-85% of identity projects the final logo for a client evolves from my initial concept.
What is your favorite design project to date?
That is like asking a parent to select their favorite child. Many projects for nonprofit causes over the years come to mind. I think that is because I’d rather work for free with a nonprofit client in whose cause I truly believe, than for a big budget client I don’t like. Among such design projects one pro bono effort stands out. It’s the logo for the Seacoast AIDS Walk in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A friend asked me to create a design for the event. I knew my first very simple effort was the perfect identity for the event and it was the only one I presented to a thrilled event organizer. They have used it for several years now.
I’m partial to other designs for a variety of reasons. My own identity has served me well for almost a decade now and has a timeless quality to it. The logo for my friend, and former hairstylist, Jeff Maul appears in nearly a dozen design books and is responsible for bringing a number of clients my way. Two heavy law books creating the letterform “S”, for the firm Samuels Yoelin, is one of my most simplistic designs and evolved out of one the most trying “design by committee” procedures of my career. The identity for Kidstuff PR was literally created overnight and is evidence of what can develop under extreme deadline pressure. Black Dog Furniture Design and DataDork probably best convey my personality, and the fun I have as a designer.
What are your greatest frustrations as a designer?
The almost constant need to educate the potential client, or existing client, about the process of design is always frustrating. Justifying the value – or cost – of design, in a cyber world of bargain basement Internet “design” firms, just adds to that challenge. Those aggravations were recently combined in correspondence with a potential client after providing an estimate for a corporate identity for his business. He responded to my estimate with “I realize the scope of what you are referring to, however what I am looking for is a simple stylized logo, the likes of which could be done in a few quick minutes with the right program, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, etc.”. I immediately had to accept that this was not a client for me. Educating a willing client can be very satisfying experience and tempers some previous frustrations.
Educating designers to take pride, and establish true value, in their own work is a frustration as well. The only thing worse than a potential client who does not value the efforts of a professional graphic designer is a designer who doesn’t appreciate the value of their own time and work. If a designer is going to make a living in the profession they need to be establishing a living wage for themselves – not undercutting the competition just to get the job and then making less than minimum wage for their efforts.
Annoyances, rather than frustrations, are those with a computer and software who call themselves designers and the Internet “design mills” offering discounted services. Computers and software don’t make someone a designer. They are just some of the tools of the trade. I always encourage those who truly wish to be designers to educate themselves as much as possible about all aspects of the design profession by whatever means are at their disposal. A designer needs to pick the education path that works best for them given their circumstances, desires and personal goals. Designers should not look at the discount design services as competition. Put yourself on a higher level than the low-balling Internet options by offering personalized services, backed by talent, skills, knowledge and professionalism.
What advice would you give to design students starting out in the business?
My initial advice would be to read my book.
Seriously, the complaints I hear most from design students about their education experience is not being prepared for the business and marketing aspects of the industry, and not being knowledgeable when it comes to the history of graphic design. Much of the blame for these complaints must be placed on the schools where the students are getting their education. However, the students themselves need to accept a great deal of responsibility for not doing enough research when selecting their school, not demanding more of the educational institution they are attending and not actively seeking out the information they need to be prepared for the business of design.
One of my pet peeves is the designer who can’t write a complete sentence. How can a designer expect to be offered the job they desire when they are not able to write an intelligent cover letter? How does the designer who wants to strike out on their own plan to excel when they can’t write their own marketing materials or even a professional e-mail message to a client? Learn to write. A designer who is able to write well is worth their weight in gold.
Just out of school 25 years ago, due to very challenging economic conditions and no job possibilities, I began working as an independent designer. I would not recommend that design students, just out of school, take such a route in starting their career. Seek out employment opportunities in the real world of design firms, ad agencies and in-house design departments. Once in those positions, become a “sponge” and soak up all the information possible about the business of design.
When a designer is ready to go out on their own I do suggest they pay a great deal of attention to their own “gut instinct” – it will always be one of their best personal business advisors.
A designer’s education never ends. As I write in “The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success“: “the real world will kick you in the rear end as you walk out those school doors for the last time – and your design education will finally begin”.
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