Paradoxometer prototyped by Adrian Shaughnessy. Artwork by Tea Design
I’ve just finished writing a book about graphic design. Yep, just what the world needs — another graphic design book. In my defence, the book is about the stuff that doesn't get written about much. It deals with subjects like rejection, envy, and plagiarism. There are also entries on kerning, the wisdom of using only lowercase letters, and the merits of Univers. But mostly it’s a book about the soft stuff — the stuff that we deal with every day and tend to take for granted.
In writing this book I discovered that many aspects of graphic design are paradoxical. I’m using the word paradox here to mean an opinion or statement contrary to commonly accepted wisdom. And while there are many others, here are my top ten everyday graphic design paradoxes.
01: There’s no such thing as bad clients: only bad designers. We love to blame our clients for poor work. When projects go sour, it’s always the clients — never us — who are at fault. Sure, there are bad clients. But designers treating them badly have usually turned them into bad clients. As designers, we end up with the clients we deserve.
02: The best way to learn how to become a better graphic designer is to become a client. On the few occasions that I’ve been a paying commissioner of graphic design, I’ve learned more about being a designer than by anything else I’ve done. It’s only by commissioning graphic designers that we discover that most of us are not very good at articulating what we do and how we work. For many clients, designers seem to operate on the principle expressed by the architect hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.” As part of their training, all designers should be obliged to spend a sum of their own money on graphic design.
03: If we want to educate our clients about design, we must first educate ourselves about our clients. When I hear designers say that “we must educate our clients”, I want to break out in hives. Instead of educating our clients, we must educate ourselves in the ways of our clients. Then — and only then — will clients take us seriously.
04: If we want to make money as a graphic designer, we must concentrate on the work — not the money. Whenever I’ve taken on design projects “just for the money,” disaster has invariably ensued. When we put money first and work second, we end up with bad work and an even worse balance sheet. This is not to say that designers shouldn’t be properly paid for their work, or that designers shouldn't be financially savvy (clients usually are). But the designer’s primary motive has to be the quality of the design and not the size of the fee. When the focus is on the money, the work is usually poor.
05: For designers, verbal skills are as important as visual skills. Since graphic design should be self-explanatory, designers might be forgiven for thinking that the need to provide a verbal rationale for their work is unimportant. Surely the work should succeed on its own merits without requiring a designer’s advocacy? True. Except there never was a client who didn’t want an explanation for every aspect of every piece of creative work they commissioned. If we can’t talk about our work in a clear, rational and objective way — free from all jargon — then we can’t be surprised when we meet with rejection.
06: Ideas usually fail not because they're bad ideas, but because they're badly presented. The ability to present an idea is as important as the idea itself. The single most important thing we need to remember when presenting work to clients is that they are terrified at the prospect of what we are going to show them. For clients, commissioning design is like going into a furniture showroom to buy a sofa and being told by the salesperson, “Sure, I can sell you a sofa. But I can’t show it to you.” Who ever spent money on something they couldn’t see? Yet this is precisely what we ask our clients to do when they commission us.
07: “I’m a professional: I know best.” The only designers who use this argument are unprofessional designers. Designers often say, “No one tells a doctor what to do, so why is it OK to tell me what to do?” But the myth of professional omnipotence has been debunked. We no longer accept that doctors, lawyers and plumbers have a monopoly on knowledge. Speak to any doctor and they will tell you that people come into their consulting rooms armed with information downloaded from the internet. We have long since learned to question and challenge expert opinion. Why should designers be exempt? Anyone who uses the “I’m a professional therefore you must accept what I say” argument has lost the argument.
08: “All the good jobs go to other designers.” Not true: in fact, nearly all jobs start off as neither good nor bad. We are deluded if we think only other people get good jobs and we only get the rubble. Truth is, nearly all jobs start off the same, and our responses as designers determine the success or failure of each job. There are no good or bad projects in design, only good or bad responses. Good projects are made not found. I’ve often interviewed designers who told me they wanted to move jobs because they only got “lousy projects to work on”. Yet when they showed me what they’d been working on, they usually seemed like great jobs.
09: The best way to run a studio is to be domineering and forceful. In fact, the opposite is true. Designers who run studios or lead teams often think they have to lead from the front. They think they have to dominate. They think they have to take credit for everything. In fact, the opposite is true. Good leaders of design teams lead from behind. They put themselves last and allow others to shine. When designers are allowed to shine, they shine more brightly.
10: If we believe in nothing, we shouldn’t wonder why no one believes in us. In a world with no principles, people respect those who have principles. Impersonating a doormat is a poor way to be an effective graphic designer. In fact, standing up for what we believe in — ethics, morality, professional standards, even aesthetic preferences — is the only way to produce meaningful work. Of course we won’t win every time, but we will win more often than the designer who doesn't believe in anything. There are countless ways in which we can demonstrate professional integrity — the only mistake we can make is not to demonstrate any.
Footnote: Just like the amp in Spinal Tap that goes up to 11, my list of 10 paradoxes actually contains 11 items. Here is the eleventh paradox of graphic design.
11. When a client says the words — “you have complete creative freedom,” they never mean complete creative freedom. Whatever you show them, they will find a problem with. Happens every time.