How to Become a Design Visionary Without Really Trying

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , critique

I recently received an announcement for what may be an interesting design conference, except it roused my suspicion with the claim: “A celebration of multidisciplinary design innovation starring 22 of the world's most remarkable design visionaries who are changing the way we see the world.” I bristle when I hear words like “visionary.” Who ordained them as Design Visionaries? Is this one of those hyperbolic claims like when the TV weatherman, Dr. Forecaster, boasts a bogus PhD in meteorology?

Retro-future illustration from Russian magazine Teknika Molodezhi

Retro-future illustration from Russian magazine Teknika Molodezhi (source).

Let's ask ourselves: What is a Design Visionary? Where does one fit on the design hierarchy? Is it below Design Genius and above Design Thinker? Where is it situated in relation to your run-of-the-mill Designer? Is a Design Visionary a few steps above? And how do you become one? Is there a qualifying exam similar to the Eagle Scouts? Can you be voted into the “DV” club? Can you aspire to be a Design Visionary? Or must you be born to the role? Is there a statute of limitations? Can you be a DV your entire life—even if nothing visionary comes to pass? Or is there a periodic Design Visionary evaluation?

I'm pretty sure that none of the individuals honored with the Design Visionary honorific call themselves Design Visionaries (or do they?). It is usually the organizer or master of ceremonies that makes such claims. But just in case one is looking for Design Visionary status (and wants to put the initials DV on their business card), below is a handy little checklist to become a bona fide visionary.

12 Ways to Become a Design Visionary

  1. Make at least one design breakthrough every two years (that's not too much to ask). Breakthroughs might include, on a sliding scale, everything from developing a new typographic language for the post-digital future to a sustainable alternative to Post-its to a theory on how to monetize creativity.

  2. Write a design manifesto with enough bullet points so that design teachers can assign a different poster to at least ten undergraduates at a time that typographically and pictorially illustrate each point.

  3. Answer the “what is the future of design?” question without referencing a new computer operating system, program or app.

  4. Design at least one novel product that enables designers to design better design that will make the world a better place—iPad apps are acceptable.

  5. Never use in a lecture, essay or conversation about design the terms “design innovation” and “bandwidth” (in any context, even a derisive one).

  6. Get invited to a conference, congress or gathering that is not organized by design organizations. The Economic Summit at Davos is acceptable, but a little old hat. A real visionary should be invited by an emerging nation or NGO that caters to emerging visionaries.

  7. Mentor not one but three future visionaries, who must, during the course of being mentored, make a minor breakthrough that will be recognized by the design and mainstream press.

  8. Publish at least one book (not self-published through Blurb or Lulu) that condenses all your beliefs and wisdom into a collection of visual aphorisms that are at once witty and profound, and use neutral typefaces to avoid being identified with any style that could be deemed trendy.

  9. Turn down all offers to speak at conferences, congresses or gatherings (other than the one noted above) unless your payment is referred to as a “fee” and not “honorarium,” signifying you are receiving a significant rate.

  10. State categorically that you no longer make things, because making things is no longer innovative, and designers make too many things anyway. Then six months later end your moratorium by declaring that making things is “what designers do.”

  11. Do not associate with other design visionaries (even if they are old friends), lest you be considered part of a clique. A design visionary must be independent and above the fray.

  12. Take a year or two off from being a visionary, and give others a chance. You can always return—it's like riding a bicycle.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.