Thursday, June 15th, 2006

What would you do differently?

What would you do differently?
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Two months ago, a student group from Central Washington University visited smashLAB and a few other Vancouver design firms, in order to gain a better knowledge of the industry. I suspect it was also a tremendous opportunity to visit a nice city on a very sunny day.

The meeting was certainly pleasant. I must say that the group was very affable, particularly given that they all were held hostage in our elevator for nearly a quarter hour. Once they made their escape, we had a chance to discuss how smashLAB functions, and shared some thoughts on how some small design shops work.

Upon nearing the end of our discussion, Emily, the organizer of the tour, asked if I had any suggestions for young designers entering the industry. It was an odd moment. I still feel a little too young to impart any wisdom; however, I think I managed to come up with something at least partially intelligible.

Over the next days, I wondered how some of the designers I admire would respond to such a question. Often when I look at the work of these individuals, the design seems so polished as to imply that they never had doubts, questions, or made any wrong turns. So, I decided to ask.

The question to the designers of note was: “If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?”

This was quite fun for me, as I was afforded the opportunity to get in touch with a number of individuals I admire. It was equally nice to have so many of them respond.

And here we go…



Rick Valicenti, Thirst

I would have behaved like a self-indulgent rock star…and stopped trying to please everyone.



Michael Bierut, Pentagram

If I could do it over, I would have gotten a BA from a good liberal arts college before getting a degree in design.

As it is I started my first job a week after I graduated and haven’t taken a breath since.



Erik Spiekermann, United Designers

Apart from my metal type and presses burning down (which wasn’t my doing, not even by negligence, but it did change the rest of my professional career), i made one bad decision by giving equal shares to partners who i didn’t know enough about. I was too lazy to think about it, didn’t listen to friends who warned me and never read any paperwork that one of those partners drew up. In the end, after 10 years together, they cheated me out of MetaDesign, the company i had started in 1979. I now take better advice in legal matters and i don’t shy away from questions of power and hierarchy.

All this has nothing to do with design, but with business. But as design is a business, we designers have to learn those rules as well, even if it is against our nature. Business people know that and they exploit it. Don’t pretend business will take care of itself if only you care enough about design. The people who make the most money in design are the mediocre designers. The best ones have more fun though. I won’t die starving, but i will never be rich either. But i’ve worked with some great people and i continue to be respected by other designers. If that’s important to you, forget about making millions, but don’t pretend that other people think likewise.



David Carson, David Carson Design, Inc.

yikes. not much.
things have gone pretty good.
maybe stay out of newspaper classified
designing,
and DO NOT TURN DOWN ANY MUSIC VIDEO DIRECTING, regardless what you think of the music, or any free jobs that will get your work actually printed or produced so you dont end up with only student assignments in your portfolio.

-i turned down directing the first bush single, thinking it /they didnt have a chance….
would have put me into more directing much sooner!!



Stefan Sagmeister, Sagmeister Inc.

I do not have many regrets, so I am not the ideal person to answer this question. I would take on that Zadie Smith on Beauty book cover, that I declined. Turned out to be my favorite book from last year.



Bill Cahan, Cahan & Associates

I don’t have a short answer on this—but I will give some thought to it—I made the mistake of starting out on my own without having worked at another agency—so I invented all the processes and business practices I have, in a vaccum–I would also suggest partnering with a business development person and strategist—I had to do both—and it spread me too thin.

I would also not have named my company after myself—I was told to do that by my sister and friends who said that’s what advertising agencies do—so I had my friends torturing me for the first year asking to talk to my associates (who didn’t exist)–

Moreover—when I got into a buyout a few years ago—the valuation of my company was contingent on me—meaning if I left they thought the company would fail—which in my opinion isn’t true—I have great people working for me—so that was a mistake…

To be honest—I’ve made so many mistakes I am not sure where to begin!



Carlos Segura, Segura Inc.

“I’d do it earlier”. …I had a pretty lucky run. All by accident, since I had no clue when I was 19 that there was a real difference between “advertising” and “design”, primarily because I have no formal training at all. So, I got into the biz very early vie the “ad agency” route. I was very fortunate to get into the very best agencies around (for a variety of reasons, but I’ll keep this short as requested).

When you do this (especially during the 80s) you get real conformable with the money, and perks. I always said at the end of each year to myself, “Man, I should have gone off on my own last year.”

In hind sight, I really can’t complain though, because I am doing quite well, and have achieved everything I wanted to, so I suppose, it really wasn’t a “mistake”. I just wondered how much farther I could have gone sometimes.



Closing thoughts

So, there you are. All of the aforementioned designers have rather remarkable careers and respectable bodies of work. As designers, our paths are often less clear than some other professions. It’s nice to know that we’ve all been through similar challenges though. Hopefully some of the thoughts presented remind us all of that.

BTW: The only answer I had for Emily’s question was to “maintain humility”.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. bramick says:

    Interesting, I think I would have gone to business school and been a stock broker. Then I would paint for fun.

    I guess there's still grad school though.

  2. No regrets, but two things...


    I would still stay in the field of design and communications, but would have liked to have had the many choices of where to study that students have these days.


    I would have started writing sooner.

  3. I regret working for a racist asshole but justifying it that it's been an agency job for the past 2 years. Designers, keep your sense of morality. We're all not sellouts (well, some are), and you can do this job by keeping your moral standards. Not Republican morals, but things you can hold on to. Green design, eco-friendly clients, having respectable business practices.

  4. Looking back, without a doubt I would have taken better care of my portfolio. I should've done a better job maintaining an offsite current copy of my work, instead of carelessly stashing everything in a folder on the machine I used at my former place of work.

    Things went bad, and I didn't have an oppotunity to get back to the computer to at least get some digital copies of my best work. I had to scramble to get my hands on anything I could get. Unlike some other lines of work, especially early in your career when you haven't established many working relationships, your portfolio is your career. It's everything. It's all you've got. So take care of it. Hang on to your work. Make copies. Be sneaky if you have to.

  5. I found your answer to be quite meaningful, despite what you might have thought. I also found our visit with you to be fun and meaningful as well...well worth the trip (and the elevator jam)!

  6. Tami says:

    As one of Central's student designers to visit smashLAB (and their elevator), yes the answers you provided were very insightful and meaningful. I had a great time meeting everyone, listening to everyone's experiences and advice, and gaining an even greater appreication for the field and the designers. I think all of the advice and experiences mentioned here are valuable and I greatly appreciate everyone's willingness to share it with those of us making our way into the design world. Thank you agian for everything.

  7. Tina says:

    I was one of the lucky people who had the awesome tour of the elevator. As a student still currently attending Central I found your answers to our question very honest. It was nice being able to meet people in the industry who have the experience that we will need to succeed later in life. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to see us and I hope that you will have the opportunity to do it again with other schools.

  8. I would have gone to UK for a masters degree instead of Switzerland. Since I´m a brazilian designer, acting all around the world, the fluency in the English language is much more important than french or spanish either.

    (note: this was translated by my daughter!)

  9. Liz Waldner says:

    I'm doing a 'do-over'
    Left my good job (as Director of Marketing & Communications) and am returning to university full time for a Bachelor of Commerce with a Major in Marketing.

    Life’s an adventure and I think we should take all opportunities that come our way, and if they don’t come, we should go out and ‘get em’. :)

    Cheers, from your old home town.
    Prince George, BC.

  10. Such a great question and even greater answers. Thanks for sharing all of those responses with us!

  11. Tom says:

    That's sad. I mean I know most successful people are happy with themselves...but if there is anyone in the world that comes up saying they wouldn't do things differently again in their lifetime then they either A. aren't putting much thought into the question or B. didn't learn a damn thing from life. There is always better - there is always different - and to truly believe you have it all and know everything simply means you know nothing at all.

    I was really excited to read this post too =( My heroes are breaking my heart.

  12. Luis Vazquez says:

    I would have chosen my educational path differently. I don't regret the path I took, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have made different choices. I also would've spent the last 10 years NOT idolozing other designers, as well as not be jealous.

    This was an excellent post. Really gets you thinking.

    L.

  13. nick clement says:

    Stay out of newspaper layout and classifieds, ruins your typography skills.

    Go straight to the city and try not mess about with small business, do try your hardest to get into the top list of agencies.

    Don't suffer fools, especially if they are management and use Copperplate Gothic for everything.

    Take some time out after college and see the world, I wish I'd done this.

  14. Vincent Lau says:

    I would take more chances. I've found that sometimes, you have to take that big risk even if you're scared that everything will not go your way. Having siad that, I've found that often enough, if you believe in yourself and you are passionate about what you are doing, that risk turns out to be a great oppurtunity. Taking risks also eliminates doubt and shows you what you can/cannot do.

  15. Jeff Rogers says:

    It was great reading the responses. Thank you.

    A wise man once told me after I said, "I wish i would have done this earlier" about something or other, "NO! Don't ever say that. It doesn't do you any good at all. Learn from your past and look forward and do everything you can today to get to where you want to go, but don't EVER say you WISH you would have done something. The fact is... you didn't, and that's it."

    This post made me think of this guy's statement and how profound it was for me at that time (by the way, he was a drum set teacher at UNT). I think we should all learn from the choices we have made and the opportunities that have been placed before us, but regretting may be dangerous. I do it all the time but I still believe learning is more important than regretting.

  16. Lee Gallison says:

    I love my work, and I think it takes a while to discover that you can't please everyone. I do designing for family entertainment now. In my industry, it is dangerous to specialize like that, but I do wish I had been bold enought to take
    the plunge earlier. Sometimes it does take 20 years in the industry to find out that you are indeed, a child. And, happily, I am.

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