10 Principles For Being a Graphic Designer

Industrial designer and list maker Dieter Rams wrote a mini-festo in 80s called “Ten Principles for Good Design”. It’s hard to disagree with but I always felt it lacked a practicality that a student or someone early in their career might find helpful. Although I have years before I can consider myself a master like Rams, I thought it would be useful to post my own list of what I’ve learned so far. Here are ten I find most important:

1. The computer is a production tool, not a design tool.

Design is both a noun and a verb. A design is something you create, a technical drawing, a digital comp, or a set of instructions. To design is to imagine then articulate; it is the act of forming an intention. The verb form takes place in your head, then must be translated and worked out with a tool — and the less restrictive the better. I recommend a pencil.

2. Understand the golden ratio and use it.

I like to think of 1.618 as the Pi of rectangles. Just as Pi describes the relationship of a perfect circle to its radius, The Golden Ratio describes the relationship of a perfect rectangle to its diagonals. Because graphic designers work almost primarily with rectangles, (e.g. computer screens, paper, televisions) it is important to know how to use them correctly. Oddly enough, the ratio also describes the shape of spiral galaxies and just about every system in nature. There is much to learn, so read up.

3. Do not reinvent convention, use conventions that work.

Convention is something that is adopted by a user group or society, more than it is created by a single designer. Think of it as a process of consensus that over gets harder and harder to change over time. Asking a user to adjust to something unconventional is asking for their time, most users are only willing to spare a little before jumping ship.

4. You, the designer, must decide what is most important.

Hierarchy is what separates something that is designed from something that is not. It is a tool to create a linear narrative, even if the experience is non-linear–such as with most websites. Users left to there own devices will create a wide range of experiences for themselves, but most will take the path of less resistance. It is your job to make that path lead somewhere.

5. Tell a story.

Design is communication. Communication at its most basic level is the telling of a story. A good product or brand is an extension of our personal story. Our smart phones, our sports cars, our clothes. Anything that says something about our personality and the choices we make. Graphic design is a big part of how that is story told.

6. Done is better than perfect.

I once took a class with Ed Benguiat, a legendary logo and type designer who drew most of the fonts you use everyday with his hand. Reflecting on a long and prolific career he once said, “I never made a single piece that I liked”. This is the rub of being a perfectionist; you are never satisfied, you are never finished. Unfortunately clients don’t think the same way and judge you by the work you actually produce. At a certain point, often before you’re ready, you must hand over your masterpiece.

7. Making good work is difficult.

If you’re tired, frustrated, and are thinking of a career change, you’re probably making progress.

8. Understand typography and use it.

Developing your typography skills is akin to learning how to play the piano. Playing a note is as easy as pushing a key. There are a few simple tunes you can pick up quick, but mastering arrangement, rhythm, and cadence takes time and practice. Like music, type has subtleties that are not easily explained–it just has to feel right. There are a few rules too. Find a great teacher.

9. Be a psychologist.

Clients are often terrible at saying what they really mean or even knowing what they really want. The reasoning behind their decision making often has to do with factors that have little to do with a good design, like what they think their boss will like. Use design rounds as a way of understanding what they want, not as a way of gaining their approval. Convince them a great idea is theirs–they are paying for your council and your expertise, not your ego.

10. Learn to love the process not the product.

My first drawing class in college involved making countless three minute gesture drawings in charcoal, which were thrown away at the end of class. After a few classes our teacher gave us the chance to really show our stuff, telling us to spend an hour and a half on one drawing. When we were finished he instructed us to throw those drawings away as well, without sharing them with anyone. It was a special kind of torture for a group of young art students who were eager to impress, but it was an important lesson.

In design, anything worth doing will involve a team of people and most likely someone else’s money. Falling too much in love with your own vision will not only prevent you from accepting other’s good ideas, it will cause friction from your co-workers. Love what you do and let the good work happen on its own.

Content Creation vs. the Creative Services Agency Model

Two years ago, after deciding to leave my role as Creative Director at NBCUniversal, I began to plot out what to do next. I had spent five years working on a team that would do anything for our clients — a can do spirit that gave us a great reputation and would often help us to win business away from outside agencies. We worked on everything from rebrands to app design, internal marketing to interior spaces, digital campaigns, strategy, content creation, even sports jerseys. Anything and everything. If a client asked we’d simply say yes.

What seemed clear to me at the time was that if I took this attitude with me into the world, I’d have everything I needed to start my own creative services agency. I knew how to build a pitch, how to present, how to design an experience, how to concept a campaign to market it, and I was willing to take on any type of work. I could start small and grow over time, using onsite freelance roles to supplement my income.

The service agency model is simple. Find a big client that needs a website, mobile app, or campaign. Become a reliable partner. Take on as much work as they’re willing to give you. Build out a creative team and retain a percentage on their billable hours. Sustain this over time and repeat. The model breaks when a client underestimates the value of your services on a small scale. This happens almost every time. Most companies are already overpaying a large agency on retainer, often by millions of dollars a year. This makes it hard to justify paying other, smaller firms. Unless they can do so cheaply.

A smaller project such as a site redesign can bring in say, fifty grand. This sounds like a lot, but there is a ton of work that goes into it. You’re often starting from the ground up, creating requirements, wireframes, concept, UX, content strategy, and visual design. There is also the time and effort to win the business and the period where you literally just wait for the approvals on their end, which can take months. These are all unbillable hours. I would estimate 50% of an agency’s time can be spent in this way.

In order to build this into the cost you need to do one of two things; double your cost to the client or work for free. Doubling the cost is directly contrary to the benefit of being cheap. Most successful smaller agencies use interns that are working for next to nothing (or for nothing) or push salaried employees to work unfathomable hours to bridge the gap. This has become standard practice for almost every small to mid sized agency. Churn and burn is often only path to sustainability.

In the past year and a half since Science & Co. incorporated I have looked for a solution. It’s a problem that became most obvious after pitching a large client and not winning the business — a process that took three months. It became more obvious after winning business from another, only to learn the project would eventually be cancelled — six months. The solution became clear, either put my own and others blood, sweat, and tears into running a company that would be barely profitable firing on all cylinders or change the business model.

Over the next few months I’ll be shifting the focus of Science & Co. toward content creation. I hope to specifically explore data-based storytelling and visualization. Content that is both easily consumable and highly compelling. Using my experience in design, art direction, and technology I will be exploring topics in politics, science, and other subjects that have the potential to reveal big truths. I have seen so much great work in this sphere recently and I’m extremely excited to be a part of it.

The reason why I became a designer and art director lies in the ability for design to tell a story. With the onset of big data from so many new sources that story can not only be inspiring and disruptive, but it can be supported by real-time information. With the focus on this kind of content creation, I have a new found sense of freedom — not just from the trap of the agency model but from the idea that I can help give information a voice. Stay tuned for what comes next.