Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Concerning design superstars

Concerning design superstars
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Last fall I was commissioned by Oliver Lindberg and the folks at .net to write a feature on “getting unstuck”. (You can read it here if you’d like.) During the process, I contacted a number of designers at various stages of their careers, asking them to share their thoughts on the topic. Most were gracious and responsive, but one made me want to heave.

What I was looking for

I believe design process to be unrealistically mythologized. This leaves young designers bewildered, thinking they should expect grand moments of inspiration. In my experience, this hardly ever actually occurs and the only real solution is to just keep working. Many of my peers share this perspective: good work habits lead us to address specific problems systematically. Sometimes we even stumble upon a great idea along the way.

As designers we’re always learning, and I think it’s smart to share what we can. Through my article I hoped to tap other designers’ suggestions and demystify this process by showcasing the methods they use. In my mind, we need to actively dispel misunderstandings about creativity and the design process. In doing so I believe that we stand to strengthen our practice.

This one individual’s response, however, was rather self-congratulatory with little interest in exchanging actual insight. There were a few vagaries and some rather snippy remarks on lifestyle decisions. Overwhelmingly though, I just felt as though this person (who I respected) had heard too much praise and started to actually believe it.

We pick type and draw stuff

Now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. This individual is well regarded and has a strong body of work. Additionally, we’re only human. Being told that you’re great feels nice; it’s understandable that one might “drink the Kool-Aid” after hearing that sort of thing enough. Nevertheless, that email stuck with me and I haven’t been able to shake the feeling it left me with.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in design and am a vocal proponent of it. At the same time, I sometimes feel that we too easily inflate the importance of what we do. We talk a good game with terms like “strategy”, “problem solving” and “design thinking”. Mostly though, these remain lofty ideals that surface only occasionally in our daily practice. On the flip-side, we designers love our toys, the novelty of our profession, and the fact that choosing type is arguably more pleasurable than reconciling bank statements.

Aside from a very limited few who concentrate on more socially relevant design, our work rarely dabbles in the kind of relevance we’d like to claim. We don’t save lives or fight poverty. Even those talented designers we laude most aren’t curing cancer. Mostly, we solve minor problems; the rest of the time, we do window dressing. I like to think that we’re the “plumbers” of communication.

The dawn of design celebrity

Many in design work independently; as such, we enjoy learning about others who share our experiences. I personally take comfort in finding that others are struggling with the same things we here at smashLAB do. As a result of forums, blogs and communities, it’s starting to feel as though we’re all on the same team, regardless of geography.

The design trade is really quite small and as a result, we’re getting to know one another quickly. Along the way, we find ourselves seeking icons to uphold as representative of our practice. This craving for shared touch-points leaves us with “micro-celebrities”. Although my neighbor may have little knowledge (or interest) in names like “Tibor” or “Spiekermann” these names hold certain relevance and connotations amongst fellow designers.

Although it saddens me to admit it, celebrity isn’t distributed virtuously. Those addressing concerns of social inequity, public health or education are not revered as they should be. Design, however, seems poised for such a cult of personality. Our work is compelling and tends to photograph quite well; additionally, there’s a growing public interest in what we do. Although we’ll never see a “Shia Lebouf” or “Megan Fox” of design (thank goodness), a few people are becoming familiar with names like Karim Rashid, Bruce Mau and Shepard Fairey.

Design is for the people

It’s certainly conceivable that a few well known practitioners in design will help build awareness and interest for what we do; therefore, I concede that such icons are probably good for our industry on the whole. More discussion about design, coupled with a greater literacy around it is something to aspire to. Design impacts everyone; as such it should be a matter of public discourse. Curiously though, it’s exactly this point that makes me uncomfortable with the notion of design celebrity.

Celebrity lends itself to qualitative beliefs largely predicated on social standing. As a result, celebrities and their insights are held in higher regard than the rest of us “plain folk” just doing our work. While art, music, literature and film can accommodate big egos, I argue that design is not so geared. Ours is a practice of utility. We aren’t concentrated on exploration, but rather the matter-of-fact process of planning and shaping outcomes.

Perhaps our work results in a more “grip-able” handle for a can opener, or a website made easier to navigate. It could be a design treatment that better entices customers, or perhaps a compelling book cover that begs us to look closer. It needn’t be banal. Just the same, it shouldn’t necessarily be exclusive. With the materialization of design celebrity, however, we find this notion challenged. As a “design-class” starts to emerge, two points of concern arise: Celebrity places the personality above the design solution; similarly, it creates a rift between the public who use the stuff and those appointed “arbiters of design”.

This is a problem. Designers are here for the people; not the other way around. When we — as individuals or as a practice — start to think we are somehow better than our peers, clients, or those in other professions, we belie the populist nature of design. At its core, ours is a medium of the people. We should remain weary of forgetting that.

An “ego-free” zone?

I look back at that email from a year ago and I vacillate between taking offense and thinking that I’ve perhaps read it the wrong way. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that there’s something distasteful there: perhaps a kind of dismissal of other’s struggles as pedestrian or a belief in them being somehow unworthy of thoughtful consideration. Although it may be unrealistic, I expect more from my peers, and this was a letdown.

Of the few things that really bother me, snobbery is certainly at the top of the list. I find it bothersome in the context of narcissistic Hollywood-types but at least it seems appropriate in such a domain. Design as a practice, however, shares little with the vulgar indulgences of Tinseltown. Ours is a pragmatic pursuit that begs the designer to cast aside ego in the interests of the solution at hand, and ultimately those who benefit from its devisal.

Given the rising interest in design, I don’t question that a few of our friends will become semi-public figures. Some will appear on the news and a few will become minor-celebrities. They’ll go to nice parties and be treated well. Perhaps they’ll do projects that are more exciting than the ones the rest of us take on, and good on them. It’s great to see a few of our own recognized for their hard work. My only request to those who are so lucky is that they don’t take their praise too seriously.

Even our nicest work rarely changes much. The last thing we need is for designers to start thinking they’re rock stars.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback: IONIZED: A Journal of Witty Commentary - Design Superstars

  2. Josh says:

    Thanks Eric. How will I ever be able to tell my mom I have some sort of status in this world, even if it is a niche. ;)

    I think it is okay to be fascinated and appreciative of the work some have been able to accomplish, but I also think its absurd to have an ego about yourself as a designer.

    You work for others. Using your plumber analogy, we come in, solicited at a high rate to fix your communication output and flow. Occasionally we're invited back and yes...we're often thought of as the nice, arty types. Though to most people we are no more their friend than an actual plumber.

    So to build some false reality around yourself as if you're vitally important to every passerby is absurd. Though certain people have obviously achieved "celebrity" status in our profession I can't imagine Bierut yelling out "don't you know who I am" like one of those horrible Hills actors.

    As for the process of design. I can't remember where I was expressing my sentiment previously, but a process is for marketing, work is where the magic happens. Its kind of necessary evil. It's not that we don't engage in a process of work, as it is very necessary, but the packaging and marketing of it is all hogwash. I also think trademarking a creative process is completely absurd as well.

  3. Rob says:


    Once again, this is a gem of a post. Seriously. This notion of designers as rock-stars is a new thing, and I think it has to do with the culture we've built. We place so much importance upon the ides of brands, and personas, and when push comes to shove...none of it matters.

    Letters we not created for people to obsess over. Visually appealing things we not either. It is all gingerbread. Its nice. It tastes good. That is it.

    They were all created to with a need to communicate with one another. That's it. Brands, personas, identities, were all created to "better" communicate things, but lets be honest, the best way to really communicate something it to talk to a person face to face.

    Everyman is a designer if they want to be.

    For example, one of my idols, Ed Benguiat is red/green colorblind. He still is an amazing designer and letterer. I think this is just proof that everyman is a designer if they want to be. It is all a learned process – not book learned but learned in practice. And yes, people get good at what they do, but you look at most everyone's first job and they are all cringe worthy. You must learn it.

    Thanks you so much for writing this. Once again took the words out of my mouth.

  4. cardeo says:

    I've found there is way to much ego in the Vancouver design community, so I tend to rarely participate in it

  5. Andrew says:

    Good read Eric. I'm trying to figure out the designer in question. I certainly have a few ideas.

    On the flip side, when attending conferences, I've had the pleasure of meeting many of my own design "heros" and found some to be surprisingly approachable, friendly and downright "normal". Which lends to your point of us all just being human.

    Hopefully when you launch your book and are rocketed to fame you don't forget the little guys. ;)


  6. I agree Andrew--most respected designers are really personable and down-to-earth. I think that's why I was sort of perplexed by this person's tone.

    As for me... I'm getting hair-plugs. Once those grow in I'm blowing this joint and moving to the Hamptons.

  7. Great post! It seems that the more "rock star" a designer is, the less they focus on communicating and the closer they get to being an artist expression their personal vision. That doesn't mean they aren't creating great work, but great work for whom?

    It seems an unfortunate byproduct of western celebrity culture that designers think they should be celebrities at all. Design is so rarely about a single individual, why should one person get all the credit?

    Perhaps the egotistical designer you corresponded with should be in advertising instead of design – there's plenty of room for egotists and narcissists in that field.

    Time to get off the soapbox and go toot my own horn...

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  9. I very much agree with this, Eric. All the talk of the "Creative Class" strikes me as the wrong kind of wishful thinking; being champions for good work seems a more noble ideal than supporting a new bourgeois super-class. That attitude doesn't improve anything anywhere else; why adopt it here?

    As well, since design is, as you say, a relatively small industry, the rockstar model only serves to exclude and inbreed. This doesn't help foster what I believe to be the ultimate goal: making the application of thoughtful design farther-reaching, more acceptable, and more desirable for everyone, not just those "who can appreciate it."

    Good design is invisible; so too should be good designers!

  10. Working with some of the big name Dj's of the 90's I can fully understand what you are referring to.

    Who would of thought that some of the big name DJ's, that developed big attitudes are now taxi drivers.

    “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

  11. Sarah says:

    I am 99% sure who the designer is you are talking about.

    I ran into one of the worst communication experiences working with this 'rockstar' designer. The work they produced, since we were a small company, and 'not important' was shockingly bad. They obviously outsourced the 'smaller' projects to new designers they most likely underpaid.

    Agree with you 100%, there are a lot of rock star designers showing up these days, and honestly, most of them are mediocre at best, BUT they are very very good at building a persona online... people follow them for their persona, rather then the work they produce.

  12. Brian Artka says:

    It is also sad when the "designer/marketer/pr person/idea guy(or gal)" etc. becomes a self proclaimed rock star and has NOTHING to do with actually building or physically making the end product.

  13. Tom Biederbeck says:

    Eloquent, closely observed & deeply felt, as usual, Eric. I can't help feeling, however, that "celebritization" is an unavoidable outcome, especially in a context where awareness of design is becoming more prevalent among audiences outside the profession. In any case, even if design were to remain an obscure niche for pixel - & pica-pickers, a hierarchy would emerge. Such is the innate human hunger for status & its flip side, obedience. The truly talented — those whose work will have lasting influence on society — know that status is only a means to the end of getting useful work & concepts adopted more widely. And BTW, design stars do a whole lot more good for the wider public than most rock stars. In either pursuit, those who "drink the Kool-Aid" are setting themselves up for a whole bunch of humbling. Fame can be a two-edged sword, but it's still a hell of a weapon.

  14. Clayton Misura says:

    Most of the design superstars I've encountered have been locals.

    When I decided to make the transition from artist to designer, a couple of years ago, I reached out to numerous people who I thought would have an interest in lending a helping hand, even if it was just for a minute or two. Very few responded.

    Later I decided to contact two 'superstars' in New York: Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Both responded quickly and with fantastic advice. Perhaps, they felt less threatened by a young boy from Canada.

    Since then, I've met some great people who have changed my opinion on the local design community, but it was a pretty rocky start.

  15. Pingback: Great article on Design and Ego « tggatsby…observations

  16. Joshua Giblette says:

    Great article Eric.

    In my career I have encountered designers that seem to fall on both ends of this spectrum. Some who are very talented that do not seem to realize the value of their abilities and then others that truly think they are the "shiz".

    Luckily, in my experience, the later haven't the majority. I have also been able meet or work with some very humble, yet incredibly talented designers who haven't let the many - "How did you think of that" or " I Love your work!" - go to their heads.

  17. Rebecca says:

    I have another side to this story that I would be happy to discuss privately. I love this article. It's about time someone started the debate.
    Good job.

  18. I'm not sure I entirely understand what you're suggesting Rebecca, but you're welcome to email if you have something you'd like to share. :-)

  19. Thanks Eric.

    One must need a complete lack of self awareness to feel like a "design celebrity". I just spent the last 10 minutes compulsively turning on and off a drop shadow. Not very glamorous in my book.

    By the way... didn't go with the drop shadow.

  20. Good call on the drop shadow--I always suggest the bevel/emboss tool. That thing's pure GOLD! ;-)

  21. olgatolga says:

    as always, your post is a candid and timely insight. Oops, i didnt meant to praise you :)
    cant wait for your book.

  22. Network Geek says:

    First, yes, a very good post. Though I think it's something that happens in may fields with public awareness. Micro-stars show up a lot of places. I find it very analogous to the art world. A friend of mine, Mark Flood, wrote a book taking shots at the attitude you describe titled "Clerk Fluid". It's a collection of essays and entries from a blog, with new material. It's worth looking at if you can still find a copy.

    Secondly, I'd disagree that designers are the "plumbers" of communication. More like the "house painters" or "makeup artists". It's far more glamorous than plumbing. On the other hand, I've often described myself a a "data plumber". I routinely unclog data jams on networks and unstop virtual toilets. I've lost count of how many viruses (virii?) I've cleaned from computers that were a result of illicit porn watched at work. Surely, that's a cesspool analogy if I've ever heard one.

    Thanks for your post and allowing comments!

  23. David Boni says:

    I hear that, Shawn Collins. Obsessive-compulsive indecisiveness ftw. It's good to be humble.

    Anyways: Great article, Eric! First time I've read anything by you—I'm about to read the article that lead to this one right now.

  24. Dwight says:

    This is one of the best design articles I've read in a while!

    It's supposed to be a rant about design celebrities but it's speaking on a much deeper level than that. This article addresses the fact that so many of us designers are lying to ourselves and treating "process" as some sacred object that nobody can touch.

    As important as designers are, we're just part of a greater process working towards goals other people share.

  25. Inka M says:

    Good article. I've met on designer rockstar online. His comments to a new designer was very mean. The new designer got very upset. Who wouldn't.
    Anyway, I've been working as a designer for about 12 years now. And I learned, that there is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, someone who is BETTER than you. Even though you might be the most top famous designer to date right now. I always try to remember that every time I got my "head inflated" a bit :-)

  26. Eric,

    I really enjoyed your article. This is the first time I have read you blog (but not the last). The headline was too good to pass up. I've never been able to resist a "Rock Star". Sorry.

    I think the "hero worship" thing is just human nature, but I have to agree with you... there's never a need to be snobby.


  27. Pingback: designers are not rock stars. | badmoomoo

  28. Steven Clark says:

    Micro-iconic status aside, the reality of this hit me several years ago when someone I perceived to be very famous in web design said that outside their office nobody in the street knows them. They're not famous, just over-represented on computers of like-minded individuals within a limited industry.

    I've run into several larger than life internet heroes who were a little like that. Y'know a few conferences here and a book deal there. Its made me more appreciative of the more grounded professionals in the industry. But I know what you mean, you almost come away from the conversation feeling a little dirty like a doggie did your leg at the dinner party (excuse the expression)... :)

  29. henry says:

    thank for the a great article. really love your post and am always feeling all soppy when you i visit and there isn't a new post :)

    its definitely still a bugbear in the industry where design more often than not is still viewed as window dressing or frivolous. which is definitely not help with superstar attitude.

    good design make our life a little easier and more enjoyable. period.

  30. Kevin Coffey says:

    Good points there, but clearly there are people who disagree with you on this topic - *facepalm

  31. *applause* - great post.

  32. Garth says:

    "Celebrity places the personality above the design solution..."

    Thanks for throwing this out there. Really no need for Rockstars in the design industry—just solid designs.

  33. wooo says:

    Very interesting article, and I agree. As much as I enjoy my profession, the level of importance some people give themselves is quite unnerving.

  34. wm says:

    thumbs up for the article, i've really enjoyed it.
    here is how i see superstar designer: recognized by all other designers as who they wanted to be. Its inspiring to see their work and making a living out of it.

    The thing that I wanted to know from most of 'superstar' is how do they communicate an engage with everyday people i.e their clients?.

    does ego involved in their discussion? (perhaps its a yes and no), it seems that they are always able to do what ever they want no matter what project or client they dealing because hey, i guess that's why they are superstar designer!.

    But does it rendering all of us, "the every day designers" as insignificant? I think it goes back to how we wish to perceived the superstar designer and the everyday people on the streets.

    We shouldn't feel negatively disconnected from any of them.

  35. Paul says:

    While I'm sure a lot of us aim for a 'prefect world' ... some call it being a times I think it's more being a control freak.
    It's the world, it takes all kinds to make it operate. And at the end of all days...ego based design and designers give (the rest of) us a great opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief and remind us that we're not like "that" - that said, I'm sure we've all had our moments.

    Thanks again for an interesting article. Stay humble.


  36. Led Brasil says:

    One of the best approaches on the subject I've seen in quite a while, congratulations Eric!

    Keep up the sharp thinking, that's what keep's us all coming back here.


  37. Thanks Led--I appreciate that! It's really nice to get positive feedback for these posts, and to see so many thoughtful responses and comments. (It makes me very happy!)

  38. Pingback: Weekly Web Roundup: The How To Edition #9 | Hi, I'm Grace Smith

  39. Mark Stevens says:

    Posted something similar about the rock stars in the cold heat of global depression blues. A bit daft now but amusing perhaps:

  40. David Morin says:

    I remember being that young designer, intimidatd while facing the mythical journey that eventually lead to inspiration.

    The process appears intimidating until you truly understand how the mind works. I eventually found a book that successfully demystify that part, that I consider a must for every young designers; "A Atechnique for Producing Ideas" from James Webb Young. I wrote a quick review on one of my posts. I wish I could have read it earlier in my career ;)



  41. David says:

    I completely agree with you. Egos, and snobbery are two things that will automatically make me put someone on my "shit-list". I think everyone enjoys the occasional compliment or praise in the work they do, but it's all in the way its taken. I appreciate it when someone is humble about their talent.

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