What makes a successful designer? This question is asked frequently, perhaps too frequently, by young designers aspiring to the heights of fame and fortune achieved by their mentors. The American philosopher and psychologist William James was particularly scathing of success-worship. He wrote to HG Wells in 1906 of “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success – is our national disease.”
My experience, however, is that young designers, like aspiring writers, think of success in terms of reputation rather than money. Admittedly, those who do become mentors and go down in the history books accompanied by glossy magazine profiles, do seem to make a decent living. Paul Rand, for one, is said to have charged $100 000 per logo. But, if money were the only goal, pursuit of success would be a lot simpler.
The aim, then, is to carve out a reputation. But, unlike other professions, design has a slippery set of training guidelines. It might seem a moot point, for instance, to suggest a wannabe designer should go to a design school to learn the trade. But most of our design mentors did the opposite. Rand claimed that he was self-taught and that he learnt design from German magazines like Gebrausgraphic. David Carson didn’t go to design school; neither did Meta Design’s Erik Spiekermann, M&Co’s Tibor Kalman or Rolling Stone magazine’s Fred Woodward. Wolfgang Weingart rebelled against his teachers at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland and quit the course after three weeks. The pioneering Californian designer April Greiman argued: “If you’re trained in something that’s the death of it.”
If you did have the misfortune to study design at school, all is not lost. There is an element of bravado in these claims of auto-didacticism. Rand actually did study design at three New York colleges, and Weingart’s teachers Emil Ruder and Armin Hoffmann apparently allowed him to stay on at the school, working independently. Their point is that no one ever got famous by replicating the techniques and styles they learnt at school. This is a particularly valuable lesson in America, where schools quickly become associated with distinctive aesthetic approaches (the Cranbrook, the RISD, the Art
Center, the CalArts and the like). The schooling is not easily shaken off, but the distinctive signs – the uniform – can be removed.
In my view, the key common quality displayed by successful designers is uncommon insight or originality. Sadly, Adobe doesn’t yet make it as an off-the-shelf software package, and it’s notoriously difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a consensus among many design mentors about how originality is propagated. At heart is the principle that design cannot feed itself; it needs constant fertilisation from outside the profession. Kalman, who recently re-opened his design studio in New York under the name Baby, declared that he’d rather hire designers who subscribed to Pizza Today than those who subscribed to graphic design magazines. Weingart finds inspiration in deserts. The London group Tomato cites poets like Mallarme and philosophers like Wittgenstein. Ed Fella advises his students at California Institute of the Arts to read, read and ask why. Then ask why again and why it is why it is.
Again, sound judgement in other professions doesn’t seem to translate to design. Successful designers have bad attitudes. They turn down work, they walk out of projects, they argue with their clients and are stubborn. That said, it is worth noting how many design mentors flourished under one benevolent patron. Vaughan Oliver at 4AD, Carson at Raygun, Weingart at the Basel school. Success, it seems, owes a lot of rent to the landlord of luck.
Why are we so obsessed with success? Could it be, as James noted, a phenomenon of western, individualistic society, and inextricably linked with our economic system?
Or is it simply, as another American writer noted, a reflection of our urge to remain immortal? “Really, the writer doesn’t want success,” said William Faulkner, “he wants to leave a scratch on that wall of oblivion – Kilroy was here – that somebody a hundred, or a thousand years later will see.”