Where’s the Finish Line? Examining Success in Design
Paris Hilton is a superstar. This celebrity icon is best known for her role on The Simple Life television series and the scandalous sex tape that made its way around the internet. Her rise to stardom has taken the route followed by many famous socialites—her fame and success are accidental and inherited.
Just a year younger than Hilton, Natalie Portman, 28, is an actor who has achieved both celebrity status and professional success. Portman has been a prominent actor since her childhood. She took a brief break from performing to complete her degree in psychology from Harvard in 2003, and then pursued graduate coursework. She is both an artist and a scholar and has worked to produce quality work in both roles.
Most professions have their own versions of success. These include, in some form, wealth, recognition, awards, speaking engagements, publishing deals and more. Our culture has grown accustomed to these models and expects nothing less.
Driving our admiration is the desire to author our own success, especially if it can parallel the stardom we are so used to seeing and reading about in tabloids—online and off. In mainstream culture, celebrity and success are far from synonymous. Celebrity can be attained for arbitrary reasons, as we have witnessed with Paris Hilton—fame does not necessarily stem from professional achievement or even personal satisfaction.
In graphic design, however, this is not the case. Design's celebrities have earned notoriety as a result of their success—for their body of work in the service of clients. Their stardom reflects the quality of work they produce as well as their ambition to succeed.
Our celebrities, like most, are easy to recognize—at least within the confines of the graphic design community. They appear often in the industry's standard publications being lauded for this project or that. They are the keynote speakers at major conferences and events. They are the subjects of documentaries and books. We hold their work up to high standards and we are quick to criticize them when those standards are not met. These design idols are the leaders of our profession, setting trends and providing the critical discourse that becomes the backbone of much of what we do and what we think about. And like the demographic of the audiences they inspire and influence, these designers run the full range of ages.
This last observation is reassuring. The community of graphic designers is getting bigger, with a larger number of young practitioners whose skills surpass their experience. As business schools begin to understand the importance of design and adopt our model of “design thinking,” we will be facing a more competitive and specialized collective than ever before. We face more pressure to achieve and succeed at an earlier stage of our lives. Like most mainstream celebrities, who risk being considered “washed up” when entering their 40s, young designers feel like failures if they don't get early public recognition. Thinking like this is a sure way to end up burned out and disillusioned.
Malcolm Gladwell's recent bestseller Outliers explores how people manage to achieve greatness in various fields of endeavor. Gladwell's research reveals that “genius” doesn't only come to brilliant young prodigies (like Picasso), but is also attained by people who plod along for decades (like Cezanne). Today's youth-obsessed culture tends to focus on young upstarts and new talent, but designers achieve success across ages and generations.
David Reinfurt is a critical thinker and maker. Those who don't know his name might have read his ideas while thumbing the pages of Dot Dot Dot—an underground magazine published by his workshop and bookstore Dexter Sinister, which Reinfut runs with Stuart Bailey. Reinfurt has managed to blur the lines between the standard client-based studio practice with that of critical research and investigation into all areas of our field: print, web, interactive, video, installation and even performance. His work has transcended the sphere of mainstream graphic design to receive recognition by the international art world—and all this while in his mid-30s.
In contrast to Reinfurt's quick start, Ed Fella's career took years to germinate. The artist, educator, and graphic designer hails from Detroit, where he spent 30 years working in the advertising business before attending graduate school at Cranbrook. Fella received his MFA in 1987 at age 49 and has gone on to have a long and influential career while teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. In design culture he is widely known and revered for his playful typographic compositions.
Paula Scher entered the profession in the early 1970s, a time when when women faced the glass ceiling in nearly every corporate structure. She started at CBS records, moved to Epic, and then back at CBS as an art director. Her quick wit and thick skin served her well in the company of men. For Scher, design has always been about making. It has been about producing work and being challenged by that work. Considered one of the world's most influential graphic designers, she has achieved a success and celebrity status that most of us dream about, and she has been able to do so over a long period of time while satisfying her internal desire to produce work that is unconventional, emotional, political, dimensional and poetic.
Marian Bantjes calls herself a “graphic artist,” and it is under this designation that she has gained an international reputation for ornamental type and organic lettering that brims with originality and brilliance. Prior to becoming the Bantjes we are all familiar with, she was, much like Fella, a working designer at a traditional agency in Vancouver, BC, Canada. In 2003 she left her conventional career behind and started a journey of redefinition—a journey that has lead her to immense accomplishment. When she redefined herself she was 40 years old.
The work of G. Dan Covert and Andre Andreev tells a different tale. Now 28 and 24, respectively, they operate the small studio, dress code, in New York City and have found themselves in the spotlight since the release of their book Never Sleep: Graduating to Graphic Design, published in April 2009. Energetic, exuberant, and loaded with everything from student projects to personal IM communications, Never Sleep is not a disciplined retrospective so much as the collective musings of two young guys who can't believe how fast they got ahead after graduating. Dan and Andre are the new guys on the block and already enjoying success!
These designers represent the immense talent that can be found throughout our industry and at every point in the timeline—from rookies to veterans. While the aforementioned group may be touted as successes and celebrities, their achievements have been both internal and authored. Their models of success derived from not how much money they were going to make or who was going to give them the credit they deserved, but rather from how they were going to continue to produce work they believe in. Without this inherent belief in our work, our successes will be fleeting and disappointing.