Getting It

As the semester begins to wind down I’ve been talking with students about their performance and their readiness for the level to come. Everyone is anxious to excel and while we do always strive for excellence, my role as a teacher is to seek breakthrough. The light turns on for different people at different times — something that’s easy to forget if you’re locked in a race for the top.

Reflecting on these conversations, I was reminded of a column I used to write for STEP Magazine. In the March 2008 issue the topic was “getting it.” I interviewed ten accomplished designers about when they had their “aha” moment that helped them understand design differently. As you will see some came in school, others not until years later.

It’s a little long to read online so if you’re so inclined you can download a PDF here.

Getting It
Originally published in STEP Magazine
March, 2008

We enter this profession armed only with what we have been taught, tempered by some measure of personal experience. The rest we learn as we go along. As we plot the course of our careers, inevitably there are points around which we pivot— moments of personal clarity that redirect our passion, focus or interest. I’m speaking of those eureka moments when what was once obscure or unknown becomes suddenly visible. Whether by chance or design or forcible intervention, all require a willingness to learn and an openness to accept wisdom from an unexpected source. As you will see, these epiphanies may occur at any stage of even the most accomplished career. Each deserves a column to itself, but instead is presented here in enviable company.

In seventh grade, Bill Gardner was helping his parents clean out a duplex they managed. The tenant had skipped town, leaving an apartment full of belongings behind. The bedroom was wallpapered with black light posters which could be illuminated by way of switches the deadbeat renter had built in next to the waterbed (also left behind). Among the abandoned clothes, records and assorted sexual contraband, Gardner remembers a book: Seven Designers Look at Trademark Design. The seven designers were Bernard Rudofsky, Herbert Bayer, Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Will Burtin, Creston Doner and Egbert Jacobson. “It was the first book I had ever seen that showed not only logos, but showed them in applications beyond just a letterhead. It talked about logos as complete identities and not just simple forms. That book helped define my relationship to identity design from that moment, through college, and even today.” His copy is now 41 years overdue at the library.

Bill Gardner is president of Gardner Design in Wichita, KS., and the force behind The fourth edition of his popular LogoLounge books is due out this spring.

When Ric Grefe was thirteen he wanted a portable radio. Specifically, he wanted a Grundig. His father, on the other hand, favored a different radio with a better technical review. “I fought for the Grundig. It was beautifully designed and I refused to accept the unappealing one.” About the same time, Grefe also remembers seeing a Zapf typeface in a small German book. Like the radio,  it looked different and inviting. “In both instances I had this intuitive sense that someone was purposefully making my experience more enjoyable.” Decades later, these moments still resonate with Grefe. “They were first to inform me that great design could not be accidental; it must be purposeful, and they awakened the awe I still feel for great design that can delight as well as enlighten.”

Ric Grefe is executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design.

As an undergrad, Hank Richardson was known for getting by—getting things done because they came easily, but never going beyond expectations. One day, while attempting to ditch his art history class, a professor intercepted him. “He reminded me that Ellen Johnson, an Art Historian from Oberlin College, was guest lecturing about Claus Oldenburg. I’d never heard of Oldenburg, and so the professor essentially shamed me into heading back to class.” To make a long story short, the lecture blew Richardson away. Through Oldenburg’s work, he realized that design could be important, that art and design had the power to change life for the better, and that the best designers were also cultural contributors. “I just needed to be shown that what I did mattered. Mattering gave me direction, and suddenly I became a better student.” Today Richardson writes, practices and teaches mindful of the fact that what he does matters and that everything has consequences. “Those consequences grow with every student I encounter. After all, as the saying goes, you can count the seeds in an apple, but can you count the apples in the seed?”

Hank Richardson is president of Portfolio Center in Atlanta, where he also teaches his legendary History of Design course in which getting by is simply not an option.

It wasn’t until she was until her junior year at CCAC (now CCA) that Cinthia Wen understood what she was doing. To that point she simply made things, without ever really understanding why she was making them. Then, in Melanie Doherty’s class level three design class she finally got what she had been missing. “To that point I had never had a fulfilling critique—one where I walked away feeling good about myself. Usually I was just more confused. Melanie was the one instructor who was incredibly harsh with her critiques, but who was also very clear. That was the first time that I really understood why my work wasn’t succeeding and what I needed to do to improve it. It was also the first time I got something better than a C on an assignment.” Now a teacher, she remembers that moment. “It reminds me that a teacher has the power to make that tiny difference — to offer that little bit of hope that might help someone keep going. Sometimes that’s all a student needs.”

Cinthia Wen is the principal, creative director and janitor at NOON in San Francisco. She is also the chair of CCA’s graphic design program.

When he was eighteen and first working as an art director at the New York Free Press, Steven Heller’s design experience consisted principally of enlarging type on a photostat machine. That is, until the day illustrator Brad Holland walked up to him and demanded, “What the fuck are you doing with those photostats??!!” Heller was just doing what he had been taught; to make type larger just blow it up on the stat machine. There was no nuance, no intent. The frankness of Holland’s confrontation embarrassed Heller, but he turned that embarrassment into motivation and learned to embrace words for their typographic form as well as their meaning, “Now that I know what type and typography is, it sure makes it easier to write about.”

Steven Heller was an art director at the New York Times for 33 years. The author or editor of more than 80 books on design, illustration and typography, Heller is now co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Stanley Hainsworth had a system: always present three concepts—one that answers the brief, one that’s a little out there, and a safe one (just in case). That’s what he was taught to do and for two years on the job at Nike, that’s what he did. Then one day his client called him on it. “I showed her three directions and of course she picked the safe one, so I tried to change her mind. She just looked at me and said, ‘You shouldn’t present anything you wouldn’t be proud to go forward with.’” Hainsworth felt like a little kid. “She was absolutely right, and from that moment on I’ve never presented anything that I wasn’t totally committed to. Sometimes I might have only one direction, but I’ll never make up other directions just to offer choice. If its right they’ll never miss the other two.”

Following stints as the creative director for Nike and Lego, Stanley Hainsworth is now vice president of global creative for Starbucks, a Seattle-based coffee company. [Ed. note: Stanley has since started his own firm, Tether]

Ten years into his career, John Bielenberg was still going through the motions. He was making beautiful work, but he wasn’t really making a contribution. Then one day he saw two comps that Michael Mabry had presented to one of his industrial design clients. One was an oversized brochure full of highly-detailed product close-ups that celebrated form and precision and elegance. The other was a small book with stark, Richard Avedon-esque photographs of CEOs from various firms holding the products. “It was at that moment that I realized that the only thing these two very different ideas had in common was that they were both driven by the designer. It was the first time that I realized design could be idea-driven and that the designer could be in the driver’s seat. I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw those two comps, and I’ve never felt the same about design since.”

John Bielenberg is a founding partner of the design firm C2, and the maverick provocateur behind Project M.

Paula Scher  joined Pentagram’s New York office in 1991. Around that time, Michael Bierut was presenting a design system to Lexmark. One of his exhibits included a board that read, “This is Times Roman. It’s the one with the little feet.” When Paula Scher saw it she realized what she had been doing wrong with every client she had ever had. “Until then I thought most people were philistines whose whole purpose in life was to make things mediocre. I didn’t realize that it was unreasonable of me to expect them to understand design the same way I did, and so I was speaking to them in design speak instead to talking to them like a normal person.” Bierut, on the other hand, understood that there was no reason why a client should choose the better design over the lesser one unless he helped them to understand the difference. “He accepted what they didn’t know without judgement. I never fully understood what that meant until I saw that dumb board. I laughed out loud when I read it, but it changed the entire way I talked to clients.”

Paula Scher is a Partner at Pentagram Design in New York. She’s the one with the little feet.

In 2000, during his first “year without clients,” Stefan Sagmeister briefly considered giving up design to become a film director. Having previously worked on a music video, Sagmeister wasn’t naive about the implications of such a shift, and gave himself a window of 10 years to produce something meaningful. But after two weeks of research he came to a different realization: “I thought, maybe it is smarter for me to see if I have something to say in the language I can already speak—graphic design.” Sagmeister recommitted himself to design, and credits that period of unencumbered exploration with enabling him to see the big picture. He will begin a second year without clients this September.

Stefan Sagmeister is an Austrian-born graphic design. He lives and works in New York City.

As a graphic designer in Minneapolis, Brian Collins solved graphic design problems. In San Francisco he worked on larger problems, expanding into environments, products and television, principally with his work for Levi’s. When he relocated to New York to found Ogilvy’s Brand Innovation Group (BIG) he spent a decade helping to build huge, global brands like IBM and Dove. Then he had an epiphany. “My experiences last summer in Alabama with [John Bielenberg’s] Project M, and also doing BP’s Helios House in LA showed me that design can be a catalyst not just for brands, but for social and cultural good. We have to keep asking bigger and bigger questions, because the questions we ask define the lives we live.” In pursuit of the bigger question, Collins has now started his own company, committed to working with clients who give as much as they take, and dedicated to the idea of “problem seeking, not simply problem solving.”

After leading BIG as its chief creative for almost a decade, Brian Col-lins recently launched his own company, COLLINS, a lab for design and communication based in New York City.

  • chatch

    I was just thinking about this and feeling like i am on the “before” side of a breakthrough, like I haven’t quite put it all together yet, and I don’t know that I will ever have it all, but i am definitely assembling pieces…

  • mdalessandro

    I definitely have the same feeling. It’s like having this big image right in front of you, but only being able to see small pieces of it. You know the big picture is right there, but just can’t seem to find the right angle to see the whole thing from. At least that’s how I feel.

  • chatch

    it’s nice to know other people have felt (and still feel) this way!

  • If it helps, just about every one of the terms and conditions in our contracts is the result of some oversight, error or omission. In other words, we learn from our mistakes.

    As for really “understanding” what design is and how do practice it well, those are lifelong pursuits.

    Imagine how boring it must be for people who think they have it all figured out!