Myths of the Self-Taught Designer: The Third Conversation between Ego and the Devil

Ego and the Devil are ready to contemplate the designer’s project of self-definition.

Ego is eager to note that this project of defining oneself is not the exclusive domain of the self-taught. Every designer enjoys this opportunity, even if the designer’s choice is to decline to engage the project willfully, but instead, to let circumstance control. A designer, for example, may specialize according to her desire, and this would require rejecting certain kinds of work, whatever their pay scale, in favor of other kinds, whatever their future viability. Another designer may simply stick it out indefinitely, wherever “it” happens to be, accepting without complaint the ebbs and flows of a working life defined by others. The former defines herself as, say, an expert in multicultural branding; the latter shrugs at the half-finished logo on his monitor. In either event, the project is as open, or closed, as any designer, self-taught or otherwise, wishes to make it.

In defense, the Devil says his intent is not to claim territory for the exclusive enjoyment of the self-taught but only to explore the point of view of one type of inhabitant, one with which the Devil happens to be familiar: the self-taught.

But their discussion is interrupted. A figure emerges from stage right. He flips open a ringing cell phone. Ego and the Devil eye him suspiciously. Bald, the stranger wears a purple scarf, cashmere tank top and jeans. Inky letters squirm on the toes of his spiffy designer bowling shoes. On the left toe is scrawled Thought; and on the right, Trouble. The stranger speaks.

Bump: You two are going to be taking calls.

Devil: Who are you?

Bump: I’m Bump.

Ego: As in the Bump in our night?

Bump: As in the Bump on your head.

Ego: What’s with the words on your shoes, Thought and Trouble?

Bump: One always leads to the other, and I need them both to get anywhere.

Ego: So where are we going?

Bump: Talking about self-definition is fine, but we need a few selves who’ve done some defining. I’ll be cold-calling self-taught designers to hear what these real folks have to say. First up is Bri Tucker of Breez Graphic Design Studio in San Marcos, Texas. Devil in the red T-shirt: you’re up.

Devil: I think being self-taught matters most to those who are self-taught, and not as a source of shame or a point of pride but as a simple—or complicated—fact. How do you feel about your experience?

Bri Tucker: Being self-taught felt giddy at first because it was new and fraught with danger for a 21-year-old who was steeped in academics and clutching a newly minted degree in a completely unrelated field. It was a sudden decision to start my own design studio, simultaneously learning graphics software and the complexities of running a business (for which I had no natural aptitude). Pride in being self-taught and self-employed is completely justified. Pridefulness, however, is not. Instead, I have humble gratitude that I live in America, where we have the freedom to reinvent our lives, the technology to reach out as far as the imagination can take us and the luxury of introspection.

Devil: The canyons of my ignorance will need to be bridged somehow, and I think the educational experience provides a safe bubble in which, free from the usual daily pressures, you can learn the history of the discipline, the tools of the trade and the skills of the craft. But I don’t want to eat my knees at a tiny desk, to be the slow kid in school. But maybe I’ll get over this and take some classes. What about you? Will you ever return to school? How do you feel about it?

Bri Tucker: I will never return to school—not for graphic design. I acknowledge that I am missing valuable exposure to the history, theory, tools and skills of our industry; I am simply burned out on the demands of academic achievement. I am very good at what I do, and yet without continuing education, I will inevitably fall behind my potential. But, while my dedication and joy for making my clients happy is undiminished, I have developed other interests. My curiosity and passion are now directed toward organic horticulture and ecology. That’s right. If I’m ever caught in a class or seminar, or even searching Google, I’ll likely be researching plants, birds or bugs.

Bump: Thank you, Ms. Tucker. Ego in the tie: comments?

Ego: Individuals regard design as only one part of their lives, as some subplot of their larger life story, whereas I as a critic tend to look at individuals as playing some small role in Design’s larger story. The eccentric unpredictable details of any designer’s life complicate my wish to present a coherent narrative. I want Design to have a story. Designers want to have lives.

Devil: The issue of being self-taught may not matter to Design, but it matters to those who are self-taught. It influences their specific relationship to their work, the way it might for artists and writers and any craftsperson you might name. I’m not talking portfolios, job titles or industry trends. I’m talking about the personality of the worker, the way a person crafts an identity through her work.

Bump: The next identity on the line is Brad Jamison of Snavely Associates in State College, Pa.

Devil: Brad, you’re a self-taught graphic designer who started out working for a Pennsylvania ad firm. How did you overcome the presumption of ignorance during the interview and hiring process? Was it a smashing portfolio, a willingness to be paid peanuts or a relative who put in a good word?

Brad Jamison: Definitely a willingness to be paid peanuts. My first interview was for a production “artist” job at a publication known for its high turnover and low wages. Ignorance during the interview was probably more obvious than I recall, but whatever I did worked because I landed the job. Maybe I was the only applicant? My portfolio was nothing special. I majored in Communications in college and had a few projects to show from my one required graphic-design class. Other than that, I guess it was just good fortune.

Devil: How did you think of yourself and your work as you presumably struggled to learn and advance in your craft? For example, you might have been insecure as a self-taught designer, and so, unwilling to advertise your ignorance of certain matters, you had to learn in secret.

Brad Jamison: I definitely felt insecure. However, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I’m sure I asked things that made people think, “What an idiot,” before I finished my sentence. Even so, my goal was to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. My work at first, being primarily small publication ads, required little design. So I really didn’t experience design insecurity until I started working for the company I’m with today. That’s when it began, that feeling of “What did I get myself into?” It took a long time and a number of projects to overcome this.

Devil: You were promoted to senior designer at this firm. I imagine you kept your eyes open, learned whenever you could, worked hard and moved up. But this is true of many designers, self-taught and otherwise. A meritocratic working environment is ideal but rare. You had to be confident in your abilities to design as well as manage other people. A degree and some education are often an Ego boost, inspiring self-confidence. You lacked that. You also had to perform, which means you had to deploy acquired skills. How did you do that?

Brad Jamison: An eyes-open, learn-from-others, sponge-like existence was a big part of how I grew. Getting things done obviously helped too. My real break was having an environment that allowed me to grow. We’re a group of 15 people doing a tremendous amount of work. Everyone wears many hats. My confidence grew slowly out of this environment. A good job here, a happy client there. Acquiring skills was a little different. My creative director mentions often that having an eye for design is not something you easily learn; it’s more something that you possess. I spent a tremendous amount of time drawing as a child. I think that a lot of my understanding of basic design principles started with these projects. Software skills came from spending lots of time in front of the screen, reading plenty of tech literature and not being afraid of trying something new. My company has also provided training opportunities as well.

Devil: I can imagine many self-taught designers working in print, crafting logos and brochures, booklets and business cards. But you style yourself “an interactive media expert.” This is quite a broad and ambitious bit of self-definition. I am overwhelmed by the Teahupoo waves of media software. I have no idea where to even start. How did you start, and how did you develop your skills to the point where you can bravely stake a claim as an expert?

Brad Jamison: You are a Devil, aren’t you? My brave claim comes from our copywriter having a little fun with our website bios. I’ve learned quite a lot about the, as you say, “Teahupoo waves” of media software primarily though good old-fashioned trial and error. But something too many people lose sight of is that it all boils down to concept and message. I don’t know every piece of software on the market. It’s not my job to. If I don’t know it, I find someone who does. Or I bury my nose in another book, message board or whatever, and solve the problem. So am I “an interactive media expert”? You make the call.

Bump: Actually, I’ll make the call. Thank you, Mr. Jamison. Next up, Chuck Anderson of No Pattern.

Devil: I’ve read some interviews with you in which your interviewer introduces you as young and self-taught, both of which seem to highlight the fact of your achievements. Identifying you as self-taught implies a certain kind of biography: you’re either the intuitive creator, born with a gleam in your eye but no guidebook in your hand; or else you’re the heroic loner working hard into the night to learn what you know. What's the more complicated truth?

Chuck Anderson: I was born with a gleam in my eye and a passion in my heart to create. I've really never “learned” anything about art from any teacher or stayed up late at night practicing things. I have always been extremely independent, and in school I think I was a bit of a loner. I would say I am an intuitive creator who likes to laugh in the face of guidebooks. I’d like to think I’m more of one of the guidebook’s authors.

Devil: One of the myths of being self-taught, in any discipline, is that you lack the capacity to self-correct. You don’t understand enough about the history or the craft itself to recognize when you’re unintentionally referencing the style of Stalin-era propaganda, rehashing the mannerisms of Modernism or just plain making every color theorist cringe in agony. To create, you have to be reckless, but to review your work, to develop it during the process of creation, you have to criticize it. You have to self-correct. What criteria do you draw on to evaluate and develop your work?

Chuck Anderson: Making color theorists cringe in agony is probably the last thing in the world I have any worry about. That’s not to say I have the world’s best eye for colors, but it is to say I could care less what they’d think about my work if I’m happy and getting paid. My self-correction comes when I sit back and go, “Wow, I am burnt out.” Self-correction for me is just stopping, getting out of the office and the house, and spending time with my girlfriend or my friends or my family. I don’t sit around all day worrying about why the composition on a certain piece didn’t turn out right or what I could have done differently with the colors. If I'm not happy with a piece of work I’ve created, I finish it and say, “Well, that sucked. I guess I’ll start over or just try something different.”

Bump: Start over and try something different? Don’t mind if I do. Ego and the Devil? Sit down and shut up. For next month’s fourth and final chapter in this ongoing conversation, I’m going to wash my mouth out with fire. I’m both a self-taught amateur and a pro with a degree, and I know in my heart that graphic design is for happy servants, the gullible and glib, the literal and cynical. Smart people get bored by it. Smart people move on. Already, Ego squirms with outrage, and the Devil lusts for revenge. Ultimately, they will join forces in battle against me. Don’t myth it.

About the Author: David Barringer is the author of There’s Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), as well as American Home Life and American Mutt Barks in the Yard. The recipient of the 2008 Winterhouse Writing Award for Design Writing & Criticism, Barringer is currently a visiting faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and teaches design at Winthrop University.