Who Are You Trying To Impress?

As a young creative, I had dreams of being famous. I wanted to be admired, loved and I suppose part of that was also for revenge on my more obnoxious classmates. Is that shocking? Ask yourself if you were any different? Ask yourself if you still feel that way. You do and it means you’re human.

I spent a good deal of my time and efforts grasping for notoriety. I volunteered for organizations, hoping to elevate myself in the eyes of peers. I networked for my own public relations, which is not a bad business move if done for the right reasons. My reasons were not purely for gaining business.

I think back to some of the bravado and bragging and feel anxiety and shame. I wish there was something that could wash that part of my life away. I guess that the passing years, maturity, using the experiences as lessons and seeing success for what it truly is cured me of those negative feelings. Still, it was a long road to what I now see as success.

That’s the word and notion that escapes most. “Success.” In speaking with students at art schools in San Francisco California and around the world, I hear many different versions of what people see as success. Most of the time it involves notoriety for the purpose of making more money. People believe that if they have the clout of the more famous designers, they will earn higher fees. It is true that sometimes a name will bring a higher fee. There are, of course, higher expectations, too. Some people believe it means that clients will put 100% of their trust in the designer and not ask for changes. Some people want to find attention they feel they have never had in their life.

The Reality And The Fantasy.

I’ve attended and/or spoken at design conferences where the question was put to a panel on how that particular city could become the “design capital.” Lucky me, I always get to play the Devil’s advocate. For good reasons and having lived in so many different cities, I have a good insight into why this is such a waste of thought. Generally, designers believe that New York, Paris, London, Milan, Moscow, Berlin, Toronto, etc., etc., are the big “design cities.” Yes, they are… for architecture, fashion, interior and environmental design but not for graphic or web design. If you ask an average person, who is not in the creative field, where the center of web design is, they will shrug and say, “Silicon Valley” or “Googleville.”

instantShift - Who Are You Trying To Impress?

By the same token, if you ask who Paul Rand was, you will hear them guess he was the founder of an atlas company or a prime minister of England. Everyone knows who Snooki is but no one can name a graphic designer… or where Mumbai is. There’s a cosmic weirdness about that. Kids rarely, if ever, say they want to grow up and become a graphic designer.

This really upsets audiences when I bring this up. Naturally we want to feel important and that we have a place in society and that our work means something. It does, but we just don’t get pats on the back for a design well done. I once tweeted, “I will punch the next person who sends a resume that says, they want to make the world a better place through meaningful design!” That tweet got some attention. I was trying to be funny but with a twisted sense of cynicism. Design can make the world a better place through posters, web sites and Snooki’s best selling book cover but it is still an obnoxious and self-inflating thing to hear.

Design is important to life and society. It is a cornerstone of civilization. We certainly know that. It is in the signs we see around us, packages we handle, menus from which we order and the digital messages we spend hours with every day. Like oxygen, the average person doesn’t see it and therefore it’s just not in the frontal lobes of one’s brain. Rather sad for us but that’s the choice we must make for doing what we love. We may love our work but others won’t love us for our work.

When I was the Art Director for MAD Magazine, the neighborhood kids would eagerly await me in the lobby of my apartment building once a month to get the latest issue I would bring from the office. One day I approached the crowd and had to announce I was no longer working with the magazine and had no issues to hand out. They looked dejected until I mentioned I was designing something called Pokémon and asked if they wanted some products. After the fainting and child orgasms at receiving free weird crap, I realized I wasn’t the object of their respect for what I did — it was the free stuff. Of course, if I had offered free issues of the Wall Street Journal, they would have thrown them into burning piles in front of my door. Our names are not important… it’s just the objects we design that people respect and remember.

People, however, can ruin their own careers with a self-important attitude. When I ran a small studio in New York City, a large advertising agency offered one of the designers a series of three ads for a top credit card agency. He turned them down, demanding a higher fee. Although I urged him to take it, he insisted that turning them down would make him “more desirable” and he would get bigger and better offers from them. I thought he was insane, although I had heard others believing in the same practice of, “the more you turn them down, the more they want you.”

Unfortunately, the campaign of three ads, entitled the “A to Z…” of something or another, which I can’t remember, turned into almost the entire alphabet and the designer who accepted it was suddenly thrust into the limelight of the advertising world. Even with that notoriety, I only saw her work for a short time thereafter. The fame slipped once some time had passed. All that remained was the money earned and I hope she invested it wisely.

In the end, one designer was poorer for his bravado and unknown to mankind and one was richer and unknown. So who was more successful in their design career?

A friend of mine use to speak of a designer he knew who used templates he designed for real estate ads for sales agents. He made a six-figure income but feeling that other professional designers did not respect him drove him crazy. He lived in a beautiful house and drove a nice car and his family wanted for nothing. His desire for “acceptance,” such as it was in his head, made him miserable.

What Is “Success?”

Money is not the only way to happiness. Poetess/Writer, Dorothy Parker once wrote, “money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.”

Whenever I hear a designer speak of fame, they usually believe it is the key to higher fees. There is a ring of truth in this but the fact that many top design firms have been renting out desk space in their studios, I guess fame is not exactly bringing in the big bucks anymore.

Success should, as many people without money say, “be inner happiness with what you do in life.” When I had money, I certainly thought success was being able to sleep at night without worrying about paying my bills and planning my next vacation. So why did the aforementioned designer who dealt solely with real estate agents feel he was not successful? As mentioned, he cared too much about what OTHERS thought about him. Chances are, other designers envied his financial stability but they wouldn’t say that. Why? Because we can be petty and jealous. If we are going to be truthful with ourselves, then we have to admit that to be true and that is the evil that drives us to want love, respect and, admitting to the dark side, being feared by others as well as in a power position. That’s not success.

So, Whom Are We Trying To Impress?

Do you have a blog? What posts do you put on it? Are they tips and tricks for other designers? Why would you spend time advertising to other designers when you need to spend that time advertising to those who will buy your services?

instantShift - Who Are You Trying To Impress?

Do you go to events with other designers and chat about business or just trade cards and hope some work will trickle down or is it to see who has the most creative card? Shouldn’t you be attending networking events with business people who can become clients?

Let’s stop beating ourselves up for a moment. Why do we hide within our little community? Selling is hard and most of us can’t or don’t like doing it. Hanging out with other designers is a comfort zone. Deep down, we understand each other. That understanding will always be there, so can’t we just be happy with that camaraderie? What is it that drives us to try to climb upon each other for some notoriety?

I’ve become a hermit from the design community, except for these articles, which are written under an old childhood nickname so there is no recognition in the design community or by clients who might be upset at pieces entitled, “Why Design-By-Committee” Should Die!” or “Creatives vs. Marketing.” I do like to attend a creative happy hour every now and then so I can hear about other designer’s problems and formulate outlines for articles like this one, but I have to shy away when the discussion starts the one-upmanship. A designer once told me, referring to my experience, that she couldn’t believe I was speaking to her like I was a friend. The fact is, we became good friends. My experience was more being in the right place at the right time. My friends lovingly call me the Forrest Gump of the design world. As I tell students who show the same starry-eyed admiration for my experience (which is not my actual design abilities), “you will have my experience as you grow, so don’t look at me with admiration. Look at me as your own future.”

I once applied for a creative director position with a local firm that did local work. Although my past work was global and for international corporations (I’m not bragging, mind you), design is design and they did some very nice work.

“Have you won any design awards?” was the first question the owner asked me. He was VERY into design awards and lining them up in his reception area. The truth was, I had more than he would ever had but it wouldn’t be good form to say so as it would have put him on the defensive.

“Actually,” I started, trying to be as humble as possible, “the awards were accepted on the part of the staff.” I explained that, “no one person could take credit for a winning piece. There’s a creative director, writer, artist or photographer, designers, editors, production persons, printers and interns that are responsible for each and every finished product, package or design. How can one person claim sole credit for any design?”

He didn’t care for that statement and I didn’t get the job. Who is it that judges these awards? Having been on many design competition juries I can tell you it’s other designers. So, what makes them the last word on “great design?” Truth be told, the more pieces you submit, the better of a chance you have of winning one of the awards. At $100 or more to submit pieces to a competition, chances are, there are great designs that are never submitted. What really makes a great design? A great design generates business for the client! There will always be clients that are impressed by a firm that touts numerous design awards but if the work doesn’t generate a return on the investment, it’s not so great, is it? Once again, what good is being in the pages of some small design magazine or journal, showing your award-winning work to other designers?

To reiterate a quote of mine that got a lot of tweets from the audience in attendance, “do you really want to be the smartest kid on the short bus?” The real world has too many problems to spend time and effort thinking of what color would be right for the background of your web site. Besides, if you ask twenty designers which color would be best, you’ll get twenty different answers. So who is right?

Time Better Spent.

It seems this article goes around and around. Cause and effect, so to speak. The cause is your business and success. The effect is how you promote it for success.

instantShift - Who Are You Trying To Impress?

Think about how you run your day, as you would plan a design project. There’s NO time to waste.

How much time do you spend commenting on other designer’s work? How much time would that add if you used it for your OWN promotion?

Do you blog about OTHER designer’s work or your own? Shouldn’t your social media efforts be aimed at getting CLIENTS?

Do you look at other’s designs and think, “I wish I had done that!” and feel jealous or do you take a LESSON from the creative thought and apply it to your OWN work?

Do you attend design events and skip business-networking events? How are you going to network with the RIGHT people?

Can you NOT CARE what other designers think about your work?

Can you be happy for what YOU have?

In the end, we are responsible for our own careers and ourselves. Every career counselor and motivational speaker will tell you that no matter what happens – no matter if you are laid off, fired, skipped over for promotion or ignored by your boss, YOU in the end are the only one responsible for your life. If it’s not working the way you want, then change it. Yes, it won’t be easy and it will be a struggle but those who judge you and your work won’t hold out a helping hand nor will they pat you on the back when you have succeeded. When you can go to sleep with the satisfaction that you’ve pleased yourself and look forward to another day and doing what you feel is your best, then you have impressed the most important person – yourself!

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  1. beautiful inspiration in this article as i believe on research before any project, your post helping me. thanks

  2. Nice article. Thanks for sharing.

  3. OMG!

    I have never read an article such as this one. Thank you so much. I do have this dream if always making the world better. I do understand that you are not trying to say dreams are bad. However, we should live and work for it. Is that the main idea?

    I LOVED THIS “Our names are not important… it’s just the objects we design that people respect and remember.” And this “you will have my experience as you grow, so don’t look at me with admiration. Look at me as your own future.”

    Thank you again!


  4. Oh! I have very impressed with your way of explanation. I agree with you. Nice post. Keep updating.

  5. I agree with your view, often new are not given that opportunity to prove itself… We should understand that the brands we pray for now, happened to be new ones; so give the new a chance to prove it’s talent and uniqueness….

  6. I agree with your view, often new are not given that opportunity to prove itself… We should understand that the brands we pray for now, happened to be new ones; so give the new a chance to prove it’s talent and uniqueness……

  7. Voice of experience again :) Love all your articles.

  8. Written from the heart and from real experience. It’s a pleasure to read a beautifully written post that is about the view from the real world. Thanks!

  9. Fascinating suggestions here. I do agree that we ultimately need to be mindful of our “own careers and ourselves,” but I often have considered aspirations of fame and wealth to be manifestations of this. Part of feeling impressed by your own efforts is articulated what others think.
    We should always strive to produce the best that we can, and be contented in knowing we’ve given it a significant effort.
    Navigator Multimedia

  10. Speider, you never never cease to blow my mind by taking a different stance than everyone else. From time to time, I’ve thought about these things, especially about social media and blogging; should be doing it to get clients, not appealing or asking for acceptance from other designers. But then I thought I was just crazy to think this way. Thanks for the article and reassuring me that my way of thinking really wasn’t that crazy after all.

  11. Good and true read. It’s important from time to time to really read these things, written by someone else. It’s not enough to know it’s about these things, when reading about it and refreshing the memory from it you keep it alive and true.

    Nice one mate!


  12. I agree… just do it! It’s best to spend your time “doing” instead of worrying about what others think… “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” – Buddha

  13. Wow, great article. Never before have I read such an evolved article on a design-type blog. I definitely remember those days and I think growing out of it takes that, just time. All I know is that life is so much happier and easier since I gave up the ego of constantly trying to impress. Its exhausting!

    //Beth @ the New York City Ad Agency

  14. Self promotion without a valid reason can be unproductive but we tend to be the average of the people who spend the most time with. If you don’t network and meet talented designers you will never become one yourself.

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