Thursday, January 19th, 2006

Reconsidering design

Reconsidering design
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In the first years of our studio, I was happy all of the time. No amount of work was too much. I had been unhappy for so long in the role I had previously held that the business was inspiration in itself. We were broke, and I mean really, really broke. We were also invigorated though. We were thrilled by the possibility we saw in our studio, and as a result, I was in love with every moment I could put in to the work.

Having always been a rather emotional person, I often fall into bouts where I am unsure of my direction. In my early years of art school, I nearly quit to pursue a business degree. Thankfully, UBC didn’t accept me, and as such, I was forced to follow through with the only pursuit that ever really mattered to me.

The five year cycle

My partner at smashLAB often notes that he and I are similar in the way that we like to learn. He noted that he’s only interested in things until he starts to succeed, at which point, he feels the need to change careers. (Paradoxically, this is often the same point at which one is actually earning a survivable wage.) He has also noted that this pattern often runs in five year cycles. I share this tendency, and by last fall, I was starting to question where we were at.

The five years leading to this point had been both wonderful and exhausting. I had learned and enjoyed more than any other period in my life. I had also worked harder than I had ever believed I could work. Weekends had become a distant memory, and the studio’s demands went above any other needs. Additionally, the obsessive pursuit of this one shared interest had lead to a strong friendship between Eric Shelkie and I.

We were finally seeing a consistent amount of unsolicited work coming to our studio, and experiencing what we considered to be a measure of success. Perhaps it was this success that made me wonder what the whole point was.

One of the most overwhelming sensations was one of “is this all there is?” After all of those years of chasing work, we had ample work to complete; however, when I looked at some of the work, it was starting to feel as though our efforts were rather prescriptive. Companies would come to us and we would help them, after which we would all go about our business once anew. Repeat ad infinitum.

As much as we respected the work we were trusted with, I started to wonder if it was enough. Did it fulfill what I needed to do? Was it what our studio aspired towards?

In some respects, our small amount of success was making life less enjoyable. With it came a new set of tasks. No longer was I working so much as a designer as an administrator. Complexities in the studio were growing, and sometimes it felt as though my day was one of negotiation rather than one of invention or exploration: Negotiate with clients, staff, and suppliers, to get the best work out. Negotiate with partners (life and business) to manage personal and work demands. Negotiate with time, to finish as much of the necessary work as possible, while maybe getting a moment to actually get my hands dirty, and design something.

These are still issues I wrestle with on a daily basis. I’m not entirely sure that they will ever truly diminish. We do work with a couple of great people here who bring new life to the studio, and I work aggressively to manage the business aspects of what we do, so that I can find some time to make some things I am passionate about. I also work to learn more about design and explore ideas by reading wherever I can.

A good book

After much time reading books on what seems like my weakest attribute (business acumen), I decided to treat myself to a book that was focused on what I love: design. In September I stumbled upon a book by designer, Stefan Bucher, called All Access, The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers.

This book was a rather fortuitous find, but it re-awakened my interest in the joy of making things. I read and reflected upon the content in it exclusively for a number of weeks. This is particularly rare for me, as I generally have about a dozen books on the go, all in varying stages of completion.

I’m not going to go on too much about what I changed in my behavior as a result of the book, but rather, would like to note why I think it’s such a gem of a book.

It feels as though the design community has recently experienced a deluge of monographs which take on either a hero worshiping or somewhat self-indulgent nature. Although he’s clearly excited by the people he chronicles in his book, Stefan manages to stem any kind of adulation, instead breaking his studies into small chapters. Each of these passages works to illustrate the challenges real practitioners of design have struggled with, and how they have come to find their voice through their work.

If anything was difficult for me in reading this book, it was in keeping names and bodies of work straight. The vast collection of gifted designers and their wide ranging oeuvres, felt a little like a crash course that I couldn’t quite process in time. As a result, I’ve been re-reading the book in fits and spurts since the fall, and have referenced it extensively in discussions ever since.

A designer I’m glad to know

Over the past short while, I contacted Stefan, and we have shared an email or two. He’s a talented designer whose work features a playfulness that always feels a little cynical or suspicious. It’s a balance that I believe makes the work more curious and intriguing.

I don’t really know him, but I feel like I owe him one. He reminded me that what we do is fun, and that all of us are sharing in a journey to do meaningful things. When I step back from the daily demands of what we do, I find it’s a profession full of energy and possibility, and I find that rather inspiring.

I think I also appreciated learning that none of us are that far away. Even the most successful designers in this book appear to be quite grounded and human. It’s refreshing to learn that even for those who have “succeeded”, this profession is still all about work and growth. I think that the craft feels somewhat pure in that respect. It’s something that I’m lucky to share a small part in.

You should buy Stefan’s book too. Just click here. See, it’s easy and good.

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