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
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
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.
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
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
What makes a graphic designer successful? Lupton gives currency to design’s social impact as the true measure, not just the icing on the cake.
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