280 degrees of design

I didn’t study design at university – it was film and theatre for me – so I’ve always been curious about what I missed. Yesterday I tweeted a request for design graduates to summarise in 280 characters or fewer what they had learnt from their degree … and was rather taken aback by the volume of responses. Some highlights:

I learned an awful lot about the history of art and design, even more about the construction of books and how things can be produced in multiples, the value of a single line, and absolutely zilch about business. I would not change a single thing.
Anna Dorfman

The relationship, value, and exploitation of the intersection between thinking and making.
Mitch Goldstein

That there is a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo … that's all I truly remember, which is awful. However, I think that in terms of design it just gave me the space to explore my creativity alongside fellow creatives which is priceless.
Lex Lofthouse

Design can’t be ‘completed’ in three years at Uni. We experimented, learnt from people willing to share. Failed, failed again & this will keep happening. Your idea is not original, it is what you do with it that brings it to life. The mac was a tool. Explore!
Owen Turner

I learnt that becoming an illustrator requires far too much effort … and that before you're allowed to start any project you need to fill eight sketchbooks with research.
Steven Marsden

Critical thinking, how to critique your own work, understanding and implementing feedback from peers and tutors, semiotics, and always use a spraybooth if you are using SprayMount.
Matt Needle

The importance of ideas. The role of a designer in culture / society. The ethical significance and power of design for good/ill. The techniques and tricks to grab attention, to confuse, to communicate etc. The importance of group crits and sharing. Also, Foosball.
Luke Tonge

University lacked knowledge, real life experiences and learning about potential business problems. How to go around winning new business, invoice, chasing clients, brand promotion have been things I've learnt the hard way since graduating. Seemed too relaxed.
Aaron Miller

DO NOT paint your face with cadmium red oil paint.
Brian LaRossa

They taught me to learn and keep learning. To study current and past design solutions and techniques. Study the masters and what made them tick. To observe current trends. My teachers weren't extraordinary designers or business managers, but I value what they gave me in four years.
Derek Gabryszak

That in countries where secondary education is very STEM focussed (looking at you, Deutschland), having the time to slow-poke your way into creative thought structure at a Dutch design academy can be invaluable for the rest of your life in design and beyond. Art school basically taught me this.
Julia Errens

How to learn. And that a career in design is about constant learning (and unlearning).
Ben Brears

It seems to be an equal balance of lessons in the philosophical, practical, social and redundant. Pretty much in line with my own experience, just a few subjects over. Anyway, thank you to everyone who responded! The thread is still open if you want to add your own experience. Hopefully it will all be of some use to educators and prospective students wondering what they’re letting themselves in for.

Blogging to exhale

Nora Ephron wrote this about blogging in 2006, back when everybody was at it:

One of the most delicious things about the profoundly parasitical world of blogs is that you don’t have to have anything much to say. Or you just have to have a little tiny thing to say. You just might want to say hello. I’m here. And by the way. On the other hand. Nevertheless. Did you see this? Whatever. A blog is sort of like an exhale. What you hope is that whatever you’re saying is true for about as long as you’re saying it. Even if it’s not much.

It’s startling how quickly we’ve taken for granted this incredible new freedom to publish something, anything, nothing. I’ve fallen in love with blogging again; my own little corner of internet that I can spill my thoughts into without fear of them being washed away by the social media tide. I’ve been exhaling here for fifteen years, and although most of it is inconsequential whatever, it’s my inconsequential whatever.

Small joys

Thanks to Marie Kondo, there’s a whole lot of talk about “sparking joy” at the moment, mostly in the context of auditing/justifying your clutter. It seems a shame to only acknowledge tiny moments of pure happiness when you’re contemplating whether or not to incinerate an old sweater, so last year I stole an idea from chuckle maven Moose Allain and started cataloguing my own small joys on twitter. There’s no real purpose to it, just a thread of tiny sparks worth acknowledging. Perhaps getting them down in words somehow makes them more real, more cherished? Anyway, here’s a few: 

  • Looking up at the sound of a jet, only to see a tiny bird flying past.

  • The sound of a tent zip.

  • Picking exactly the right size screwdriver first time.

  • Draping your arm across your head like some kind of limb hat.

  • Reading Polly Vernon’s Grazia column on the loo.

  • Realising that The Crown will eventually have to do an It’s A Royal Knockout episode.

  • The beeping of the till at WHSmith in Victoria Station that sounds exactly like the intro to Take On Me.

  • Smacking a Tunnock’s Teacake on your head with just the right force to break the shell into even shards that can then be picked off savoured.

  • Going round the house and opening all the blinds in the morning. The small joy of pretending to have the awesome power of making the sun rise.

  • Hot air balloons. Flying in, hearing, spotting, everything.

  • Giving a lost tourist directions.

  • That brief moment of nirvana between trailers and film, when the screen is black and silent and you’ve momentarily forgotten what you’ve come to see.

  • The boy immediately falling asleep at the end of a bedtime story.*

  • Michael Hutchence introducing the sax solo in New Sensation by shouting “trumpet!”

  • Catching something, anything (rare).

  • “Washed and ready to eat.”

  • Peeking being a book jacket to find another bit of bonus bronze design.

  • Sending and receiving postcards. Really must do this more.

  • New book smell.

  • Old book smell.

  • Building a dam, changing the course of a stream, even just a little bit.

  • Desire paths.

  • Finding your receipt in a book you bought decades ago.

  • Finding someone else’s annotations in a second-hand book. 

  • The recorded announcement on the Leeds-York train that for some reason sounds like “We will shortly be arriving at … Björk”.

  • The way the tittle and umlaut line up just so in Björk.

  • Sitting at the front of the top of the bus. Yes, even when you’re forty.

  • … even better than this, sitting at the front of the Docklands Light Railway and pretending to be the driver.

  • Cello.

  • Getting the family parking spot closest to the door at Tesco, aka the best damn space in the whole damn car park.

  • Spotting the ISS.

  • The fortnightly evening clink of everyone’s recycling bins leaving home.

  • Observing correct Kit Kat protocol – from the fridge; thumbnail foil-score; snapping off a digit; snapping digit in two; cold milk chaser.

  • Discovering an accidental waferless all-chocolate finger of Kit Kat. Not sure if this still happens, but I like to think there’s still some out there, somewhere.

  • Kit Kats in general. I should probably make a separate list of Kit Kat-related joy.

* There are of course innumerable boy-related small joys, most of which are unique and fleeting. Just this morning he accused me of being a bad lawyer. I have no idea why.

About about

It's the same every morning. I plonk myself and my coffee down at my desk and harry the computer awake with a random smash of keys. And then there it is, waiting for me, staring at me from the top of my to do list.


It's been a priority for years, rolled over from a thousand yesterdays; for some reason the uppercasiness never quite insistent enough. Perhaps indelibility has robbed it of all authority – it needs doing, but I've coped this long without it being done, so maybe the doing of it can be postponed a little longer. Would another day without a few words really be so bad?

I edit and update and tweak the images on my site constantly, forever fussing over my little shop window, but I always stall when it comes to actually writing about myself. It's completely at odds with a lifelong default of self-deprecation – ideally my about page would just be the word "sorry" written in very small, faint text. I put more effort into my 404 page – it's more important that potential clients get lost than learn any thing about me. I suspect this may not be a particularly effective approach to self-promotion.

So where to start? You're meant to boil everything about yourself down into a tidy little paragraph or two, something that will give a passing art director a bit of context for your work. So should I stick to an industry-standard approach or try to stand out with something a bit unique? What do they actually want to know about me? Anything? Everything? Should I mention every client, or just a select few? How far back do I go? Should I share my particular design philosophy? Do I have a particular design philosophy? Does anyone care about my previous employment or qualifications or age or where I live? Are words even enough? Do I need a photo? What shall I wear in the photo? What me should I be projecting? Amiable? Wise? Coquettish?

And then there's the big question that all Aboutists must wrestle sooner to later: which perspective to stump for. Go for first person and risk sounding like a complete egomaniac – I did this, I am this, I do this, look at me, look at me. Write in third person and sound like … well, a regular maniac. Who is this disembodied narrator hovering over your work? Morgan Freeman? Sandi Toksvig? Oh right, it's just you, hiding behind a curtain and putting on a serious voice.

If you are going to distance yourself, perhaps the best approach is to not write anything at all. Get someone else to do it. Rather than committing to one version of events, Daniel Eatock's site has multiple biographies from various events and publishers. Details appear and overlap and are retold over time, making his About page more like a folk tale than anything else. Meanwhile Carly Ayres has gone one further and removed herself from the equation entirely, her website simply a Google document for anyone to edit. This may be going a tad too far for my liking.

No, subjecting myself to all this biographical reductionism and self-reflection and shameless braggadocioing is too painful for a page that literally some people may possibly skim one day. And so once again I shall retreat to my fallback position of “this is my name, this is my email address, what the hell more do you want from me” and hide everything else under my good old reliable bushel. Back on the to-do list it goes.

See you tomorrow, WRITE ABOUT PAGE.

Ed Ruscha x Arnold Newman

Ed Ruscha in his studio by Arnold Newman, 1985. I’m a sucker for photographers’ printing markup – especially when it features my favourite painting. More of this sort of thing in William A. Ewing’s Masterclass: Arnold Newman

Perfection, paralysis and design

“The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: PARALYSIS.”
— Winston Churchill

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
— Voltaire

Sorry, couldn't decide which quote to open with. Both are equally good … sure, Churchill is a marginally more contemporary voice … but Voltaire has a bit more umph … of course the context of Churchill's quote may be more relevant (a message to landing craft designers who were wasting too much time arguing over details) … but I like the black and white, good versus evil imagery of Voltaire … now I think about it, actually there may be an Aesop quote that's more appropriate … or perhaps …

This is how I spend my days, in a state of constant indecision. The debilitating belief that all options but one are incorrect could generously be called perfectionism, but a more accurate term would be option paralysis – the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. An interminable mull over whatever trivial options lay before me, every action bogged down by a fear of choosing unwisely – what to write, what to wear, what to watch, what to eat (my sincere apologies to anyone who has ever sat with me at a sushi conveyor belt), what to anything.

At some point, no idea how, I managed to make the decision to be a designer, a profession that revolves entirely around making decisisions. Every new brief brings a fresh blank rectangle, waiting to be filled with my astute selections. Type, colour, image – I'm paid to choose. A thousand preferences and variables wrung from my mind, and they all have to be perfect. The more minimal the design, the more glaring the non-perfection – nowhere to hide in all that damned white space. Once the precise shade of white has been chosen, that is.

Just getting the title onto the page is like wading through a mental swamp – I might narrow my typeface selection down to a few possibilities from that endless drop-down list (having agonised over which typeface selection method to use) and then … I stare at them. One of them must be the one, must be right.

Which is probably wrong. Every little fork in the road threatens to bring my work to a complete standstill, all because of some irrational belief that every molecule of the universe should be arranged to some ideal, unknown pattern. Perfection leads to indecision, indecision leads to procrastination, procrastination leads to cat GIFs. Perhaps perfect is the enemy.

Of course, perfection is just an excuse, an admission of defeat at the daunting multitude of possibilities and variables available to me. Design shouldn't be about scrolling up and down lists. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to self-imposed constraints, like Massimo Vignelli's "a few basic typefaces" ethos or Jenny Volvovski's From Cover to Cover project, in which she redesigned dozens of strictly green/Futura/Caslon Italicised book jackets. Can paralysis be bypassed by having all of those decisions already made? Maybe. Probably. Of course, to reach this point, first I'd have to come up with my particular set of constraints.

Besides, the paralysis only lasts so long. Once decisions start being made – usually once the white has been killed, the fear of the blank page overcome – the ball starts rolling and real design starts happening. And then it reaches a momentous point in the project where I am the one presenting the options to somebody else; the client takes on the burden of selection. Three or four ideas will be sent out into the world to fend for themselves. Not yet perfect, but perfectly good.

I reckon Voltaire will do just fine.