Designers share the best advice they’ve ever been given

As has been proven throughout the coronavirus pandemic so far, the UK’s designers are ready and willing to do their bit for their communities, be that through awareness-spreading campaigns, innovative product design or sharing helpful tips and tricks. And with many designers feeling the pressure that comes with cancelled contracts, closed university doors and socially-distanced studios, we asked a group of creatives to share the piece of advice given that they have carried with them throughout their career.

“It is impossible to predict what is going to happen next as there has been nothing like this. I doubt any advice I have been given in the past is relevant at this time. Having been a teenager in the 70’s living through the threat of Nuclear war and two recessions in my working life, I can only give you some of my survival and moving forward thoughts.

In seismic changing times like this my instincts are it is a good time to reset to challenge convention and conditioning, to build a new landscape and not be controlled by the existing or in this case maybe eventual non existing. To focus and use your energy on rethinking the world around you and what type of world you would like to live in.  Persevere and be determined. When the majority think it is not possible you need to prove them wrong but that takes alot of belief in yourself and your abilities and you need to be brave and hungry and able to adapt.

Work together, initiate projects and make things happen does not matter how small everything is worth doing in the end.”

– Morag Myerscough, Studio Myerscough

“I began my design career as a freelancer, which gave me the opportunity to work on really exciting projects and to see how different studios operated. The best piece of advice came from the first recruitment agency I worked through.

Their advice was to always look for ways to do something extra. This could be proactively making the first round of teas and coffees for everybody in the studio when I arrived, which gave me a reason to chat to everybody and learn their names. When I presented my designs I would always add in something that went beyond the brief, for example a future application of an idea. If I enjoyed freelancing in a studio I would stay in touch with them after a project had ended. This approach became second nature pretty quickly and I’ve applied it throughout my career.”

– Sarah Hyndman, graphic designer and founder of Type Tasting. 

“At the time of finishing ‘Eating with the Eyes’ [photobook published in 2015] I sent a short written piece, that appears at the end of the book, to a very dear friend and mentor for his opinion. I had shown this to others who by and large had said it was perfect. However, he sent back a damning critique of the writing, explaining that a good friend should be your toughest critic and that my work was not true, authentic or more importantly not me.

He explained if you approach things purely rationally, you often miss the emotional honesty that should be in everything you make. I was devastated, I was also at the deadline for handing the book to the printer. It took me two months to be able to sit back down and write sincerely from my heart. If I think back now I would have been ashamed of the original piece, and I am forever grateful for his powerful act of friendship. I learnt that creativity is not about impressing people, it’s about being honest with people.”

– Harry Pearce, Pentagram partner

“The wisest words I’ve ever heard were from my mentor, and the founder of the agency where I continue to work, the late Rodney Fitch: ‘Be sure to draw something every day’. Now, that may sound like a dumb thing to say to a designer, however you would be surprised by how many ‘professional’ designers no longer draw and they let the software do all the heavy lifting. The point here is about hand drawing and using pen and paper to start an idea, craft a detail or to doodle away while daydreaming, all are time well spent.

My advice is to have a balance in your portfolio. This balance needs to be between final slick content of visuals and photography with your rough and ready sketch books and note pads. These sketches, notes and doodles are gold and do not need to ‘slicked’ up. All the software you can learn on the job.”

– Alasdair Lennox, executive creative director at Fitch

“Having left school at 15, advice from others has been crucial to keeping me afloat.

From yacht designer Martin Frances when I turned up at his studio having completed a transatlantic yacht delivery: “You’ll be bored here in ten minutes. Go and find a more creative outlet than a traditional design studio.”

From my former business partner Shona Kitchen who taught me the essence of purity: “Stay focused on the narrative as opposed to the perceived function.”

From designer Alberto Meda describing the key to designing furniture: “Remove all weight possible and then put it back where you want it.”

From architect Eva Jiřičná in a tutorial: “Three materials make a palace”, and then “A thousand bad ideas killed the ox.”

From designer Daniel Weil, when he refused me a place at the RCA: “Go deeper into the process.”

From my grandmother who taught me pottery: “Always hold the clay.”

From our brilliant client on Maggie’s, from Laura Lee who taught me about the courage of one’s convictions: “Never accept second best and always remember the human beings at the centre of the project.”

And from her collaborator Marcia Blakenham: “How important laughter is to foster creativity.”

And from my father when recently discussing our careers in parallel: “Your greatest aptitude is your fearlessness.”

Being an avid cook, I must finish with designer Gaetano Pesce: “Design is like a minestrone. Looks what’s in the fridge and cook it all.”

…and combine this advice with my mum’s wise words: “Make sure the pasta is al dente. And cook with your nose.”

– Ab Rogers, Ab Rogers Design

“The one gem of advice that’s stuck with me all the way through my career came from Fred Deakin (formerly Airside and currently Professor of Digital Arts at UAL). In the early 2000s I was invited to show my portfolio at Airside, it was good, but I wasn’t ‘there’ yet. I was creative and imaginative and I could draw but my techniques were still developing when it came to execution.

Fred recommended that I “really stick your head in the computer and see what’s possible” he acted it out, as if physically putting your head in a box, which isn’t necessarily what he meant, but he did mean to get deep into the technology available, experiment with tools, learn how software can work and how you can use it to suit your creativity, to play and create the same as you would with pencils or paints, and that, 18 or so years later, is what I have always done.”

– Ben O’Brien, Ben the Illustrator

“It was 2001, and I’d managed to land a placement at Williams Murray Hamm, one of the most rebellious, groundbreaking agencies of the time.

The work was ridiculously good. The people, much gentler than their bombastic reputation had led me to expect. I was nervous, self-conscious, and desperate to be part of it all.

Some weeks into my placement, I was making tea when Richard Williams walked into the kitchen. He asked how it was all going, and I explained that I was loving it, but had no idea how to convert my placement into job. His reply? ‘Don’t ask, don’t get.’ It was simple, obvious advice. It was also a revelation that’s stayed with me.

Almost 20 years later, and I still find there’s a magnetic quality to vocalised enthusiasm. Whether it’s a designer asking to work on one of my projects, or speaking to one of my own clients, there’s immense power in telling someone that you love what they do, and want to be a part of it.

So don’t be afraid to ask. Be brave. Throw your hat in the ring and put your hand up. Because it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.”

– David Azurdia, founder and creative partner at Magpie Studio

“Lockdown is bouncing somewhere between an interesting, and a disinterested time watching our design world shaking the corona pandemonium jar and seeing how the strategies settle.

Liking and hearting creatives — people — breaking free from the shackles of direction, deadline and delivery, heading into new socially distanced territory, joining up their thinking into different shapes, is inspiring and inspirational, as has been the remote monitoring of ‘pro’-designers who know better (and ‘ams’ who choose not to) sharing random insights and stories, having time to breathe, and on and on, and on.

Of equal spark has been the levelling of a creative topography where idea-fuelled-and-hungry students and would-have-been-graduates, ruling their social media (as the massage), are outrunning agency dodos locked into skill-set groundhog days waiting for things to get back to ‘their’ normal (where experience and the nineteenth hole is king).

Yes, the nation could doorstep us, applauding all the people healing minds, ‘thinking and doing’ differently, remixing the human condition in affirmative and thought provoking ways; the creatives, the problem solvers, the artists, the thinkers, the writers, the communicators, the seers and the sages who’ve been kaleidoscope filtering our scared new world… but please don’t drag me into the self serving strategies of those ‘designers’ desperate, not for questions and dialogue, but jostling for position, empire building in the name of building community.

The designers who matter right now aren’t those blowing their own bubbles on social media but those using their skills to push real life initiatives and charity work, without planning a shoot and an insta-story around it.”

– Ian Anderson, founder of The Designers Republic

What is the piece of advice that you have carried with you through your career? Let us know in the comments below. 

Hide Comments (6)Show Comments (6)
  • Sergio Guerra April 30, 2020 at 1:26 am

    “Would you show that work on your Behance?” from my EX-Creative Director

  • Robin Tierney April 30, 2020 at 7:08 am

    Aim for connection more than perfection.

  • Brian Wheatley April 30, 2020 at 9:02 am

    First ever job I had as a Junior way back in the 80’s “If it looks right – it is right”
    And – KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

  • Carl St. James April 30, 2020 at 10:58 am

    I used to play a lot of wargames with my father as a child and would put a lot of effort into building my army coming up with a scenario as to why they would fight, back stories for the campaigns they were involved in and organic stories for the leaders that grew out of the many battles we fought with each other.

    My father once said to me “If you put as much effort as you do into preparing for wargames into your career you will go far,” and it has stuck with me all these years.

  • Steve April 30, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    “No pay, no way” from my commercial director.

  • Guru May 4, 2020 at 10:28 am

    I am not a designer, but work with them. If the roumor is true that this virus is resetting the nature and teaching lessons to humans, then my sincere and heartfelt appeal (not advice) is to keep the planet in mind while designing any product or service. Please think like ancient yogis of India, all their grand designs stand tall till today are ecofriendly and respect nature around. Ultimate test how our designs is to check how they affect the planet and other species who we share the planet with.

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