Back in my days at the Art Institute, I took a class in Art Direction. Our first assignment was to pick an art director who we admire, get up in front of the class to tell them what makes our art director awesome, and what we should learn from them. I picked Paula Scher. The advice that she gives in her TED talk, is arguably the best advice that I’ll ever receive as a graphic designer. Have a look.
If 21minutes is too long for you - I’ll give you the coles notes.
She describes her work as the fitting dictionary definition of “play.”
1 [ no obj. ] engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose
2 [ with obj. ] take part in: bet or gamble at or on
That is, when you’re designing, you should be playing and having fun the way a child does, and you should be taking a gamble with your design decisions. If you’re not, you’re doing it wrong. Rather then focus on the ideas, she circles in “serious” - why can’t play have a serious or practical purpose? She goes on to update the definition, that there are two kinds of play; serious, and solemn. Being solemn is easy, being serious is hard. Being solemn is common place, being serious is where new ideas come from. Being solemn is re-doing something that you’re already good at, being serious is getting stuck, and being forced to grow.
When you apply these ideas to design, there’s a clear need for both of them. You don’t want a serious designer to make a bank identity, you want a solemn designer who has designed 100 of them, and is just reapplying all the right principles. You don’t want a solemn designer to communicate “ground breaking.” It’s a risk to want a serious designer - they might come up with a brand new idea, and knock it out of the park, or the might be playing around, and totally miss the mark. A solemn designer is a safe bet, a serious designer makes waves.
Paula goes on to say that she was only, truly, a serious designer three times in her life. Every time she found herself thrown into something that she wasn’t necessarily qualified for, she went with it, solved the problem as best she could, and it yielded some ground breaking design work. *This* is what really hit home for me, and has guided nearly all of the design decisions that I’ve made since. I don’t want to be a solemn designer, I want to be a serious designer.
After taking this advice into practice, I can without a doubt say that it has had a positive influence on my career. I studied the principles of design as applied to *print* design - we took two classes in web design, and it wasn’t about how a website should look, it was just enough HTML & CSS so that we could talk to developers. Now, I’m a confident web designer, icon designer, mobile designer and the latest addition to my repertoire: presentation designer. All because I have clients who are willing to take a chance on me (I’m quite lucky there) and I’m not afraid to try something that I’ve never tried before. The only caveat I would add, is that when you take on a project that you’re not necessarily qualified for, be honest. You don’t know what you’re doing, but you think you can figure it out, and you’re excited to try.