344 Q&A FOR STUDENTS
Based on questions I've received
from students over the years.
I hope this will be helpful to you.
As you may know, I'm a bit obsessed with careful rags.
They are sadly and obviously absent from this page,
so that you can resize the text to the point where you
can read it most comfortably. Forced line breaks
would make that into a mess I just could not bear.
How's that for a typographic disclaimer?
Please use this information only for good.
Why did you choose graphic design as a career?
How did you discover design?
Well, I didn't choose graphic design as a career, actually.
Let me start at the beginning:
I've always drawn. At age 12 I got my first drawing published in a German fanzine and I was hooked. From then on I kept looking for opportunities to put my work in print and that continues today.
After that first drawing, I gradually took over that fanzine with my drawings. I was on my way to becoming an illustrator. At age 16 I had a falling out with the editors and was suddenly left without a way to get my stuff seen, so I had to find a new way to get my ink fix.
I took the ugliest ads in the local paper and redrew them---to the same specs, with the same basic information---and went to see the various store owners. I offered them a new and improved version of their ad at bargain basement prices---usually around $50, though I later went up to a whopping $250. After a while I had quite a few regular clients around town. I even figured out how easy it was to get flat artwork made into slides to run at the local movie theater. I was a mini ad agency.
After I graduated from high school I wanted to study in Los Angeles and chose Art Center. The hard working "I'll smack your fingers with a ruler if you don't do it right" vibe felt very comfortable to me, and I loved the shiny black building.
I wanted to be an illustration major at first, but was intimidated by one of the paintings in the catalog---a photorealistic self-portrait by a first term student. "I can't compete with that!" I thought. Had I done my research, I'd have found out that that student had a prior degree from another college and was also a bit psycho. But I didn't look into it and decided to go into advertising instead. I thought "Well, I've already produced all kinds of ads. I know how this works. This way I get to write, design, draw, and take pictures."
Which isn't really what it turned out to be. Advertising is very conservative and narrow in its thinking. It's all very segmented.
After four terms I decided to switch to Graphic Design, but the financial rules at the school made that impossible. So I stayed an ad major. I just took all kinds of graphic design electives.
After graduation, I was recruited as an art director at Wieden & Kennedy in Portland. Working on Microsoft. I thought "Maybe advertising will be fun again if I go to one of the top creative agencies." I went against my instincts and I paid the price. They're an amazing group of people, but it wasn't the right fit. They needed things from me I couldn't deliver, and they didn't have what I needed, either. As hard as we tried to make it work, I had a miserable (and thoroughly soggy) year.
After that it was finally clear that I needed to be a graphic designer.
That was back in 1997.
Today I'm moving away from being a graphic designer, and back towards being an illustrator once again. But even that will only be a temporary stop-over on my way to being a full time maker of things---kind of like being an artist that doesn't make paintings or sculptures, but books and posters, and little movies, and clothes, and toys, and whatever else I can think of. Maybe even paintings and sculptures.
What makes you passionate about design?
I get to re-create the world as I think it should be, if only on paper. Sometimes I even get to bring creatures to life.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town outside of Hannover in northern Germany. (POP. 20,000)
Who do you look up to the most?
You know... it's hard to pick one person. there are some teachers I still adore, illustrators and artists I admire, some that I look up to specifically for how they've handled their careers. I look up to writers and musicians that can express themselves beautifully. I think the people I look up to are the people that make me laugh, because it means that they surprise me.
Who are your typical clients?
My typical clients are a strange bunch: Art galleries, film directors, a sculptor who's starting a cappuccino business, independent design studios, magazines, record companies. Looking at the list, I guess the unifying element is that all my clients come from the cultural and media sector. Which suits me just fine.
Every once in a while, I do some work for giant accounts through their ad agencies---Apple, Toyota, Honda, Motorola. But those aren't really my clients and I'm more of an advisor in those cases.
Do you live a busy life or do you get a good amount of down time?
Down what? Occasionally, there are slow periods where I get to relax a bit. I think the last one was in 2003. I hope I'll get another one soon.
Do you get to travel a lot? Where have you been?
These days it's all busman's holidays. I travel a lot to speak at schools and AIGA chapters or to judge competitions. So all my travel happens in three to four day chunks. I've been to something like 20 cities in 11 states over the last three years. In between I try to travel to New York once a year. Before I moved to the U.S., I used to go to London a lot, but now the only place I'm really eager to go to is New York.
Have you made any mistakes that had huge impacts on your life?
Yes. A few. I'll tell you about one of them:
When I took the job at the ad agency, I was guided by fear that I wouldn't find any other work, and by the glow in all my friends' eyes. They were so excited that I got the chance to work at a place they all wanted to work for. So instead of taking a few days to listen to my gut and work up the courage to say "No, this isn't right for me." I took the easy way and said "OK. Sure. I guess that'll work out."
Mind you, I met some great friends at the agency that would later have a great positive impact on my career, but it also brought me to the verge of despair a number of times.
In the long run, it all worked out for the best, but in retrospect, I think I might have been better off if I hadn't taken that job. It really took a lot out of me and it took me years to recover. In some ways, I'm still dealing with the experience.
But I learned my lesson.
There are also girls I wish had kissed that I didn't. I remember that much more than any job I didn't take, or a printing error that screwed up my week, or some money that I didn't make.
I wish I'd been more courageous growing up. And not in a stupid stunt way. Courage is trying your hand at something that you're scared of----where there's a real possibility of failure. It's going where you want to go vs. where you think it's safe to go. In that sense, I wish that I was a little more courageous now. I'm working on that, but it's hard.
What part of design is your absolute favorite?
As far as design is concerned, finishing a piece and seeing it in print is still my absolute favorite part. All the decisions are made, all the production problems are resolved, and I have another little object that looks like it's supposed to look.
When it comes to illustration, I love drawing creatures and having them look back at me. When the eyes are right, the little things get their soul and come to life on the page.
Where did the bubble map idea in your STEP column come from?
A friend of a friend invited me to silk screen posters at Cal Arts and I had to design something printable overnight. That's how the cow poster came to pass. I always thought that cows have a rich inner life that we just don't see, because cows have us fooled. I thought, well, their thoughts probably look just like mine. So the bubble map came out very naturally in a few minutes.
A 344 fan later e-mailed me and said that she had printed out a copy of the cow poster, laminated it, and had her kids use it to figure out their homework on it with dry erase markers. What a brilliant idea, right? So that led directly to all the later bubble maps.
What colleges did you attend?
I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA from January 1993 until December 1996. I graduated with distinction, holding a BFA in advertising.
What subjects did you study and which one did you most enjoy?
I studied advertising, as you well know by now. I also took a lot of typography classes, which I loved, and lots of drawing classes, which I loved, too.
If I had to pick a favorite, favorite class, though, it was probably "Intro to Desktop Design" in 2nd term.
I learned Photoshop 2.5.1, Illustrator 3 and Quark all in a three month period. I had never had a computer before, and it was a revelation! Photoshop alone was a dream come true! Finally! Perfectly flat colors and even gradations (which I was never able to do by pen). The airbrush tool! The clone stamp!!! Finally a machine that did all the things I always tried to do by hand, but could never pull off! Plus, I was 21 and my teacher was 24 and I had a huge crush on her. What more can you ask from a single class?
What would you say has been your favorite project that you have designed?
That would have to be my book about the Daily Monsters. I've wanted to publish a book of drawings since I was a kid, and I finally found a good way to make it happen.
My dad worked part-time at the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hannover when I was growing up, so I got to go backstage at all kinds of great illustration exhibits. I got to see all kinds of beautiful drawings from two inches away, and take home amazing catalogs.
Now, at 34, I make drawings, I design catalogs, and my biggest hope is always to have an idea that will let me make another book.
What has been the hardest part about becoming a designer?
The hardest part about being a designer is having to think about money. I wish I could just do the work without having to worry about where the next check's coming from. But that's life for almost everybody. I live in a great apartment, I always have enough money to eat and keep the lights on. I can afford extended cable and a New Yorker subscription, and I look good in off-the-rack clothes. I'm doing good.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I absorb. I read, I watch a lot of TV, I listen to NPR, I listen to a ton of music, and for better or for worse, I have to listen to myself think all day. When it comes time to do something, the trick is to get past my (substantial) fear of the white page and sit myself down. As soon as I start making something, inspiration flows through my hands.
I recently read a little bit about the process of writing a book---a process I found to be incredibly painful---massive and unrelenting anxiety.
The writer said that you have to shape clay into a rough lump first before you refine it into a sculpture. The first draft creates the lumpy clay. Then you work on it until it's beautiful. You have to recognize that it's a process and that it's perfectly OK (if not downright desirable) for the first draft to look lumpy and grotesque.
I understand what he's saying, but it's still hard for me to start a piece and have it enter an ugly phase along the way. It scares me. I'm not good at surrendering control. But that's what made the monsters so much fun to do: It was all about choosing to surrender control, in this case to the random ink blots. Surrendering control is much, much different than losing it, but you have to learn to get past the fear.
What advice would you give to an employee that you just hired about being a designer?
My advice would be "Get out of my house! What are you doing here? I told you that I work alone!"
But that's not what you meant, is it?
My advice is two-fold. As a designer, as a human being, no matter what age you are, you have to do two things:
1. BE USEFUL
2. DON'T BE BORING
That's all there is to it.
I know this answer is shorter than the others, but if you remember anything I talked about , this is the one to tattoo where you can easily see it. If you follow these two directions, you'll never be hungry or alone.
If you could work with anyone in this world who would it be and why?
It's gotta be somebody on THIS world? Because most of all, I'd really like to go home to my own planet.
But alright... let's see... I would have liked to have held the ladder steady for Neil Armstrong.
Right now, today, hm... There are a lot of people that I'd like to work with on a project. Jon Stewart, Aaron Sorkin (despite the fact that Studio 60 was a bit of a disappointment), Ira Glass, Chris Ware, Bert Ruttan, the guys at CERN, Al Gore, Martin Scorsese, Matt Groening, Ralph Steadman, Randy Newman, Joe Jackson, Paul McCartney, Steve Martin, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ricky Gervais, Michael Chabon, Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Ronald Moore, Richard Serra, David Bowie...
I did work with David Hockney and that was pretty damn cool. (Well, I did a catalog for him and I got to spend two and a half hours with him. He gave me a lecture on optics in art history. That was a seriously great day!)
If I had to narrow it down to one and one only, I'd have to say this:
If I could work with anyone in this world it would be Richard Branson's check book, because the two of us could make all kinds of cool books and toys together.
What are your strong likes and dislikes about design?
I like everything about design, and I dislike that I want to tweak and retouch everything I look at.
Have you always put 100% effort into your work even though you may have totally hated the project? How did you push yourself to do it?
I always put 100% effort into the projects I work on, because my off-switch is broken. I don't know how to just let things go. Something in my brain is pushing non-stop.
It helps that I'm at a point right now where the projects that find me are genuinely cool, loveable projects. I'm getting better at sniffing out projects and clients that don't work for me. By keeping my lifestyle humble, I have the luxury of telling them "No, thank you."
In the few situations in the past when I've totally hated a project, I still put in all of my effort. In fact, I may have worked harder, because they always started out sounding cool and I thought it was somehow my fault that things weren't working out. I also usually burned out and got fired. People don't reward compulsion like they used to.
I hate to end on sort of a downer question, so I'll say this:
Graphic design is a brilliant home base for a life in the arts. You'll be surrounded by a community of genuinely nice and supportive people. You get to make things look pretty for a living, which is fun. And the boundaries of the field are morphing daily, so you can make this whatever you want it to be. You can't say that about plumbing, banking, or astrophysics.
Is it particularly difficult, for a young graduate to get a career in print design?
I don't think it's more difficult than it would be in any other arena. If you've invested all your energy into being great at what you do, you'll do fine whatever your field may be. Sounds like a platitude, I know, but it's true. The proof is always, always in the pudding.
What would you be looking for in a graduate's portfolio, to make you really sit back and be amazed?
For me to be amazed, I need to see something that I couldn't do---wouldn't even know how to do. Excellent humor is a good way to amaze me, because funny equals clear communication with a surprising insight.
Incredible craft and illustration skills also amaze and delight me.
I absolutely must see immaculate typography, though I almost never do. Typography is the big shortfall in 99.9% of the portfolios I see.
Is it really important, especially for a young designer, to be unique?
It's absolutely not necessary for you to be unique to be successful. If you can be my 100% Reliable Swiss Modernism Peter Saville Clone Plug-In, you'll be very useful to me, indeed. Until I can find somebody who can do it better than you, or faster, or both.
There are two ways designers get hired: You can either do what everybody can do, but cheaper (faster), or you can do something nobody else can do. The former makes you a replaceable element, the latter gives you job security.
In contemporary print, do you feel that design is possibly taking priority over the concept?
Well, sometimes design is the concept. I'll take a fantastic execution over a half-baked concept with shoddy type any day. I never quite know what people mean when they talk about "concept." I fear that it often refers to some lame joke that is barely funny to the person making it. To me a concept is the thing that fills the client's need. First I build a boat that doesn't sink. Then I carve some oars and make a sail. Only then do I worry about adding a sexy figurehead.
My only imperative is this: DON'T BORE ME!
I don't care if you keep me interested with the beauty of your execution, or with your brilliant and coherent thought process or with your meticulous attention to language and storytelling, or with photos of naked girls. I just don't want to be bored.
Within print design, what excites you most?
Seeing my design come off the press. That's the Big High. Ink on paper! Especially when it's a case-bound book, because it feels so wonderfully REAL and important.
Would you much rather employ someone within print who could follow the rules of design perfectly, or a designer who breaks the rules with exciting work?
That's not a leading question is it? NO. Surely not.
The latter doesn't work without the former. Few and far between are designers that can skip learning the rules and go straight to some sort of brilliant new discovery. So far, I've not met any. You have to, have to, have to learn to play your instrument until it becomes like breathing. Then you can start improvising. I'm not there yet, either.
What do you regard as being the most powerful visual tool, type or image?
Eye contact. No contest.
Is there such a thing as the perfect design?
There are many. If it's design and it brings me surprise and delight, then it's the perfect design.
What would you say your status as a designer is right now in the world?
I can't really define my own status as a designer in the world. Somebody other than me would have to determine that. It does seem that people enjoy the work I do and seem to extend me a great deal of good will. It feels like I've accumulated some store credit right now, and I'm working to honor that by coming up with fun things.
How would you compare your work now to during school?
During school everything took ten times longer and felt ten times more important. Now it's all a bit lighter, which makes the work more fun to look at in the end. My colors are much, much better now. I was still quite black and white in school.
I've been rediscovering some tricks I used to do in high school, combining them with what I've learned in the 15 years since then.
What is your process at tackling a design, and what design has been in your eyes your biggest success?
Images always come when I need them to. It's simply a matter of forcing myself to focus on the assignment (instead of doing anything and everything to escape from an inevitable deadline). As soon as I get to work, my hands have a mind of their own.
The Daily Monsters have been my biggest success so far, because they've been fun to do---which was a first. As a rule, I never enjoy working. I enjoy finishing a project, balancing all the elements, tweaking the details. But the monsters came without a struggle. They had energy. They were fun to discover. They felt alive and loose and fun. I hope that I get to do more work like that.
Thinking as an entrepreneur, what value have you created from your work, and who benefits from this?
The ultimate purpose of my work is entertainment -- mine in the making and yours in the using. If my work achieves that I think that's pretty good. An important secondary benefit is that the work will lead to more new work for me, so that I can keep making more fun things.
Could you briefly explain your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievement is that I've been self-sustaining since the day I graduated from college. I've never had to take out a business loan, I've never had to ask my friends or family for money. Maybe there are other things that I've done that involved greater effort or had higher stakes, but that's the thing that gives me the most pride.
From the very beginning, what were your goals and what helped you achieve them?
It's not yet clear to me what my goal is. I know I'm chasing something, and I know I'm dying to reach it, but I don't quite know what it actually is. It takes different forms -- getting published, getting awards, having a TV show for the Monsters, being famous, finding love -- but I think it's all about feeling comfortable with who I am when I sit still. (You can see how working constantly and creating more and more activities for myself is a great strategy for achieving comfort in stillness. I'm not saying I'm anywhere close to figuring this out.)