Monday, July 14th, 2008

Aspirations, mistakes, advice and death

Aspirations, mistakes, advice and death
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It’s summer and I’ve been writing very little. (Lately the beach has taken priority.) A couple of weeks ago, Mark Dudlik asked me a few questions for a magazine he’s involved with called Fill/Stroke. Mark’s been kind enough to allow me to repurpose this piece on ideasonideas. Here goes… (and now I’m off to sit in the sun).

MD: When you were a child did you always want to become a designer?

EK: I suppose so, but I likely couldn’t have articulated it then. I spent a great deal of time drawing logos and letterforms. At the time I didn’t really know that the term “designer” really existed. That being said, I was always interested in creative things, and my obsessive tendencies seem to couple with that for just the right mix.  ;-)

MD: If you couldn’t design, what would you be doing?

EK: I’m interested in a number of things. I worked as a visual artist for some time and wouldn’t mind returning to that. Alternately, I’d enjoy writing more. If I could play decently, I’d just make music, but that will remain a fantasy for now, as I’m tone-deaf at best.

MD: What, if anything, from your childhood still affects your approach to design today?

EK: I suppose it would be the interest in shared experience. I used to get excited about the notion of doing something that would actually connect with people. In elementary school I’d create games, puzzles, activities, and the like, with the notion of doing just this. I think that with sites like MakeFive we’re doing this as well.

MD: Would you elaborate on one project that changed your career?

EK: Design Can Change is an effort we started to unite designers to combat climate change. The effort has received a great deal of support from designers around the world. I think it’s one of the most meaningful projects we’ve worked on.

MD: Would you describe an evolution in your work?

EK: I’ve actually thought a great deal about this recently. Initially I just wanted to reach a technical proficiency that would allow me to design visually appropriate work. From there I moved on to a state where I was really interested in the idea, and as such every project needed to have a great concept behind it. Both of those are still important; however, I now find myself most interested in the actual role of the project in a greater sense. The question I ask most these days is whether what we’re working on can somehow positively affect someone’s life.

MD: What mistakes have you made that you think others could learn from?

EK: I used to think that if I didn’t know the answer it somehow reflected negatively on my capabilities. Now I see that as a rather limiting perspective. In my mind I grow the most by acknowledging that I don’t need to have the answers; I just have to ask more of the right questions.

MD: How do you face designers block?

EK: It’s funny, I just wrote a feature for .net Magazine in the UK on this specific topic. Ultimately I think it all comes down to breaking a project into smaller tasks and just getting down to work.

MD: Describe a project/person that humbles you.

EK: My wife–she’s actively involved in making people’s lives better and doesn’t seek any attention for doing so. I’m always looking for approval from others; however, she just seems to do good things as though it’s the “default setting”. She’s an amazing role-model for our son.

MD: Do you have any pointers for those just getting into the field?

EK: Concentrate on the area that you most enjoy; that way it will never feel like work.

MD: Any advice for students?

EK: I teach a little, and I’m always surprised by the excuses: Transit wasn’t working; My team-mates weren’t motivated; I’m really busy. I’ve found that even when these are in-fact the case, our clients are rarely lenient. In my mind people are largely separated into two groups: those who did it, and those who have an explanation for why they didn’t. Life is better if you’re in the former bunch.

MD: What is the best moment of the day?

EK: That time when I’m just working effectively: no phone calls, no emails to respond to, no desk to clean. I love it when this stuff almost feels effortless. (That being said this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to.)

MD: What are the last five songs you listened to?

EK: They are all from Chris Cornell’s recent album “Carry On”. It’s very good.

MD: What book is in your bathroom?

EK: I’m embarrassed to say that they are mostly magazines. Half are copies of the Economist, and the remainder are People and Us. (The last two are my wife’s, but I must admit that I read them from when I lack the energy to read something more substantial.)

MD: Do you have any tips for managing your time, both during design, and the balance between design and the rest of your life?

EK: On the first point, I think it’s all about concentrating on the big tasks and leaving the small ones for the end. That way I’m not caught scrambling at the last moment. As for balancing design and the rest of my life, I have few insights. Design is a very large part of my life and I find the two inseparable. That being said, I’m happy, so I suppose all’s well.

MD: How do you deal with plagiarism in the design world? It sometimes seems to be ignored/laughed at when in the classroom environment. Does this hold true for the professional life?

EK: Sometimes I get cranky. We’ve seen our whole site repurposed for other companies. The worst instances actually used our code line-for-line, going as far to copy our bios and insert their own names in them.

In this situation I’ve simply emailed asking for them to not do so, but rarely with any effect. That being said, even a boilerplate Cease & Desist seems to be very effective.

MD: At what point does inspiration become imitation?

EK: To be honest, this doesn’t particularly worry me. Design isn’t a terribly “original” practice. We’re all working to communicate with others, and as such we use icons, symbols and treatments that are commonly accepted. The aim here isn’t necessarily to be unique; rather, we want to effectively reach the audience.

MD: Do you prefer to work with clients who know exactly what they want or clients who want anything? Do you think there is such a thing as too much freedom?

EK: I prefer working with clients who know their goals well and then allow us to concentrate on doing our job. Those who simply want us to make pretty things to meet their personal desires tend to be tedious and not receive good value for their investment.

MD: How do you find the balance between your own style and the client’s aesthetic?

EK: I don’t have a style. I’m only interested in solving the client’s needs. Similarly, I don’t think that many of our clients should favor any one aesthetic. They tend to have bigger concerns than what they like or dislike. Most of the projects that we work on are focused on achieving specific goals. (We’re not decorating homes here.)

MD: What do you do with your non-applied ideas? Ideas that didn’t work for a project, ideas that were good but the client rejected or ideas that you have but have no time to get done. Do you write them down? Re-apply them to other projects? Try and forget about them?

EK: On the odd occasion these ideas pop-up elsewhere, but most of them tend to just remain in the client folder.

MD: What would you ask for if you had three wishes?

EK: I think I’d ask for a little more time.

MD: Where do you work on your projects?

EK: I’d love to say something exciting here, but the real answer is: at my desk.

MD: Do you discuss your work with other designers?

EK: Yes–all the time. I find that having to explain these projects really solidifies my perspective on them. It truly is a communicative practice, and as such one must “rally” these ideas back and forth a bit.

MD: When you get clients who come to you expecting a certain “style” of work from you, how do you find ways to try new things, instead of just re-interpreting things you’ve done before?

EK: This is a perpetual problem. Clients like one job, and then want us to do the same thing for them, even when it isn’t appropriate for their project.

All of our projects work through a process in which we determine how to best meet their needs. Typically as we work through this, they see that something else will work better for them.

MD: What’s your biggest complaint about the industry? Is there anything you’d like to see more of? Less of?

EK: I’d like to make more money and be less stressed-out. (Service-based work is tough.)

MD: What is the best interview question you could ever be asked?

EK: I’m not sure, but you’ve covered a lot of them!

MD: What question have you been dying someone to ask you?

EK: “Hey, Eric… Do you think that smashLAB would be interested in working on the new site for the MoMA?”

MD: Is there anything that you’re afraid of regarding the future?

EK: Yes, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. I’m always scared that something will get in the way of me seeing my son grow-up.

MD: What are three things you want to do before you die?

EK: Launch one project that really connects with people; spend a year in a warm place with my family; and, continue to make fun things at smashLAB, with my business partner Eric Shelkie.

MD: What typeface do you want on your tombstone?

EK: No tombstone; no decorations; no fluff. I’d urge them to just burn the body and have everyone get on with things.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Chris says:

    Eric,

    My favorite bit from this interview was:

    "No tombstone; no decorations; no fluff. I’d urge them to just burn the body and have everyone get on with things."

    Couldn't have said it better myself!

    Chris

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  3. Doreen says:

    Eric ... nice post, esp. to hear about Mark's Fill/Stroke ... i especially like the nugget about "I just have to ask more of the right questions" -- that's a pearl!

    ...Doreen

  4. Interesting to read pieces like this now and again. Reminds me that most designers haven't taken the circuitous path that I have in getting there.

  5. Bob says:

    "Design isn’t a terribly 'original' practice. We’re all working to communicate with others, and as such we use icons, symbols and treatments that are commonly accepted. The aim here isn’t necessarily to be unique; rather, we want to effectively reach the audience."

    I mostly agree. In pretty much any craft or art, originality tends to be pretty highly overrated. If you're doing "fine art" or whatever, it's never really the "what," it's the "how." If you're at most of a pragmatic, commercial level, it's mainly just a matter of keeping things simple and clear (easier said than done!) and avoiding actual copyright infringement!

  6. Lisa says:

    “Hey, Eric… Do you think that smashLAB would be interested in working on the new site for the MoMA?”

    Yeah buddy... forget it. That one's mine! :)

  7. Leo says:

    My favorite part:

    "I used to think that if I didn’t know the answer it somehow reflected negatively on my capabilities. Now I see that as a rather limiting perspective. In my mind I grow the most by acknowledging that I don’t need to have the answers; I just have to ask more of the right questions."

    As a student with some previous design experience everytime I felt I didn't know an answer I ended up feeling that way.

    Thanks for the insight Eric.

    P.S. I apologize for acting so unprofessionally in your branding class at VFS.

  8. Don't worry about it. I know I was rather tough on all of you. My hope was that being so would be helpful to you in the long run. :-)

    Thanks for visiting!

  9. Pingback: fill/stroke.com » Wim Crouwel is exactly 55 years older than me.

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