London, 06.2011

Interview in Dialogue, a book published by staff and students on the FdA Design for Graphic Communication (LCC) considering the relationship between third-level design education and graduate practice, with contributions from Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton and Adrian Shaughnessy. Questions from Ben Rider and Nathan Medford, both FdA DGC students.

Is it better to follow what you love, or what you should do?
I think that you know the answer to this one already! If only for the peace of mind of your future old-age self, it seems to me to be of the greatest importance to have a go at doing something that you love for a while. Or failing ‘love’, (which is a strong word) at least something that makes your brain tick in an applied fashion. There are many days ahead, and it would be a great tragedy to move through them un-engaged, no? 

How important do you think it is for designers to be socially aware?
I think that the best way to answer this question, is to first replace the word 'designers' with 'human beings'. You might then ask “How important do you think it is for human beings to be socially aware?”, and question seems to answer itself. Design can't be separated from the rest of life, and the characteristics that define human beings are the same ones that will define them as 'designers'. If someone is oblivious about what is happening in the world around them, it is quite likely that this lack of awareness will filter through into their design work and it will suffer as a result. However, social awareness as a term, should not be taken to apply only to work created for charity organizations or environmental concerns (as is often the case within graphic design). Having a ‘social awareness’ should simply imply having an understanding of one’s place within design, and being conscious of how the work that one make contributes to society, or impacts upon it, or helps to shape it – in both small and larger ways. This applies across the board, whether one is designing a commercial advertisement, a schoolbook or an art exhibition. Viewed in this way: the future success of design depends entirely upon there being a prevalence of ‘socially aware’ designers creating work to be used our society — as socially aware designers are the only designers whose work will be able to respond intelligently to the changes experienced within that society.

Which is the best way to win new clients – making work that stands out for its originality or work that buys into current fashion and trends?
In my experience, it is always better to design the way that feels right for both you and the project itself. If you try and copy a style that isn’t your own, or one that doesn’t suit your personality or working methods, the chances are that it will be unsuccessful anyway — and then you will have succeeded on neither front: either in making a good piece of work, or consequently, in making one that is likely to generate more work.

Do you think that the life-span of trends are being shortened by their constant exposure on the internet?
I can’t really say, I don't really spend much time looking at design on the internet. There is so much of it available that it becomes quite tiresome, and it all starts to look the same in a way — through no fault of the work necessarily, but rather through the homogenising nature of the presentation format. It’s quite unrewarding to look at design like this I think — thumbnail, next thumbnail, next thumbnail, next thumbnail, etc… If trends don’t last as long now as they used to, I think that this will be a good thing. The more that people copy the trends and they become exhausted, the better — hopefully we can all get back to coming up with actual “ideas” then instead!

Where did you learn most about design, at school or while working?
I once read an interview with Experimental Jetset where they commented that one of the biggest mistakes that they made as students, was in believing that becoming a designer was a process that would start after college, out in the 'real world'. They had since come to acknowledge that this was a false distinction to make: there was, in fact, no concrete split between the two environments — they were already a part of the 'real world' while they were still in college. I think that this is a very valid point to make, one that points toward a much more fully rounded understanding of the concept of education. But this could be taken further to its logical conclusion in recognising that education itself is a life-long process. It begins before we go school, it continues during school, and afterward into the professional world and whatever else comes then. In this sense, learning about design arguably begins at a much earlier stage than most people consider, when they talk about their design education. If you think of a child experimenting with building a Lego house, they are already engaged in a process of designing, much like the one that we would understand as ‘design’ now — choosing colours, finding the most pleasing form, making decisions about the character of the building, how best to structure it so that it doesn’t fall down etc. These are fundamental concepts that we learn from a very early age. It is true that our skills become more focused as we become more specialised in our chosen field, but the process of 'design education' can be traced right back to these early investigations, to infancy, of which we don't even have any memory of. It's a lifelong process. I’m still learning now, I hope to still be learning when I’m 60...

Are you worried that advances in technology will render the skills you learned at school obsolete in the next 5–10 years?
Design is really just about ideas. While the technology and tools used to create it are constantly changing, ideas (or the human beings who come up with them) are the driving force behind design. And ideas never become obsolete (well, the good ones anyway). So long as one keeps abreast of the technological changes, and doesn’t become complacent, I think that they should not have to worry too much. Besides, the ability to adapt to change is an important quality for a designer to have anyway — as society evolves, the good designer will evolve with it (which goes back to the awareness question at the beginning).

What is the one thing that clients expect from you?
Problematically perhaps, I think that different clients generally expect different things. Figuring out exactly what these things are can be a bumpy process, with plenty of headaches and misfires along the way. It goes without saying, as with any profession, the client will expect that you carry out your work in a dutiful and conscientious manner. But in terms of what they expect the design to be, as far as I can tell, quite often they aren’t sure until they have seen it — at which point they know if what you have made for them is, or isn’t 'it'. But this is all part of the process, and you get used to it. If you are fortunate enough to have some regular clients, you begin to get a sense of the kind of work that they like and it becomes easier to judge what they are expecting from you.

Is there a risk that designers are becoming so skilled at using Adobe software that they will lose their abilities in more traditional craft skills such drawing or print-making?
I think that the people who enjoy drawing, and find it a useful means of expression, will continue to draw regardless, for all the rest of time. So long as there are pens and pencils! The Adobe software is just a tool — it should simply find its place amongst all of the other tools that designers use to make work, instead of replacing them. Society has constantly developed alongside technology, and the human race has (for the most part?) consistently found ways to successfully integrate technology with human skill, without losing its own identity. But it is most likely that each person must find a balance for themselves, between hand and computer. I don't think there aren’t any hard and fast rules about which is the best solution in this case, it depends entirely on the individual.  

Is having a 'style' relevant anymore? 
I think that having a consistency in approach is more valuable than having a style. In some cases, this may end up looking like a particular ‘style’ after a while — however, the important thing is that this style develops naturally out of a consistent process of making work, rather than through an attempt to find a ‘look’ for one’s own work. I think that there is room in society for all kinds of designers to practice many different ‘styles’ of designing. Some of these may be highly stylized, some of them are the style of ‘no style’. Each can be valid, so long as they are a truthful reflection of the designer’s capabilities/interests and are appropriate for the project at hand.