Had a conversation with a very good friend yesterday via IM, and it was one of those times where the conversation takes a turn toward the deep end. We got into this conversation about design and it struck me at the time that some very meaningful ideas came out of it, especially for young designers. While it may be a bit self-congratulatory, I think it sheds some important light on what the creative process is really like and I think it’s a good read. I corrected for spelling and subsituted (laughs) for the traditional LOL. Enjoy.

I was just thinking to myself that in the 15 years I’ve known your work, you consistently come up with unique design. Do you ever freak out and say: I can’t come up with a new design?

Oh hell yes. You always have times when you’re blocked. That’s a weekly occurrence for me. That’s why they make single malt Scotch (laughs).

I’d be scared each time, wondering if I can do it.

Sure, and that’s exactly what happens. the trick to getting past it is to start SOMETHING, anything. Even if it flat out SUCKS. I open a sketchbook and start making marks on the paper, even if they make no sense at the time. Or I open a PSD (Photoshop Document) and start laying things down. Shapes, colors, rules, random color choices. You just have to do something, even if you have no idea what you’re doing or why. You gotta start.

Yeah, but if it were me.. I’d come up with the same design every time (laughs).

If I’m really, really blocked — as in I’ve done a million rough ideas and they all suck (laughs) — I take a screenshot of a site that impresses me and use pieces of it to get myself started — just seeing a couple blocks of color and a type style, observing how they interact, usually sparks an idea. So by the time I’m finished, days later, it’s morphed into something else completely.

It’s like what sculptors say, that the material tells them what it is, what it wants to be. If I can make two elements work together, that’s enough to get the flow going.


The design tells me what it’s supposed to be. I keep moving stuff until it reveals itself. Man, that sounds flaky (laughs).

No, because I’ve noticed with designers, they all fall into the same pattern..,if you look at their portfolio, you see the same thing with just a bit of variation. You, however, come up with completely different, unique designs each time. That’s what incredible to me.

Aw shucks. Look, a big part of that is never being satisfied. I could make a thousand things that all look like “my style” but that’s not the job. The job is to create something that fits the context of the company’s offering and the user’s need — so it CAN’T look like everything else and still be appropriate.

I get that…because your personal work has a very definite, consistent style.

Well, fine art is a different story. As a designer, you gotta work harder, because it’s not about you. It’s about the people on the receiving end and what will communicate with them, what will work for them. Most designers, in my not-so-humble opinion, are too lazy to do that.

Is it really laziness though? It may just be that you have a talent, a gift that others may not.

I don’t think so, because I know an awful LOT of talented people. It’s talent, sure — but the other part is pure discipline, period. Hell, it takes 16 – 24 hours easy to come up with anything worthwhile, and you have to work through a lot of crap to get there. A lot of seemingly good ideas that end up going nowhere. And then once you finally have an idea that you feel solves the problem at hand, you’re looking at another 24-36 hours of exploring that seed and figuring out whether it can do what you need it to. And don’t forget, at that point you STILL don’t have a finished design! You just have a solid, well thought-out solution that needs to be refined and turned into the real thing.

I’ve worked with plenty of junior designers who have talent, but they didn’t learn the relentless discipline in school that I did. And that’s why their portfolios are basically variations on a single theme. Their design process has never fully matured, because no one pushed them in the forceful way I’m describing here. So I force them to use a sketchbook before they touch the computer — give me at least 25 rough ideas before you do anything. If I see computer printouts at stage one they go straight to the circular file. You MUST do rough sketches to be a good designer — and especially if you have aspirations of being a GREAT designer. Helps you get rid of all the commonplace solutions, get past things that look like things you’ve seen already.

Wow, 25? That’s tough.

Listen, 25 is NOTHING. When I do a logo, for example, I do 200 sketches at least. Minimum.

Are you serious?

Absolutely. That volume is a key part of the design process. They’re loose — just quick rough ideas. I spend 30-60 seconds on each one. Create and move on, create and move on. Don’t take the time to judge or evaluate, just DO it and keep doing it. The first 100 are things you’ve seen somewhere, even if you don’t know it at the time — so once you have a couple hundred, THEN you go back and look and see if anything jumps out at you or seems to have merit. If that happens, you take those ideas and explore them further. The ones that are meant to be will go somewhere.

So that’s where the difference comes from.

Oh, absolutely. If you don’t do that extra work up front, you design generic things that are just like things that people have already seen and experienced 1000 times over. Things that they are now numb to and take for granted. Been there, seen that. You can’t possibly expect something like that to communicate effectively or impart something meaningful to someone. Doesn’t matter what the medium is — web, print, product or otherwise. If you don’t learn to originate, you’re dead in the water in terms of providing anything of real value to a business and its customers.

Interesting and true.

The brain keeps things, whether you want it to or not. People don’t realize how much visual information they store and internalize on a daily basis. But if you’re a designer, you need to be aware of that — and you need to have a mechanism for jettisoning all of it in order to create something meaningful.