The Curse of “Things I Have Done” Lists

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , advice , critique

In the early 2000s Stefan Sagmeister took a year off from his regular paid work to take a sabbatical from clients. It was a truly novel and inspiring idea for a designer to do. Upon his return he started presenting a series of lectures called “Things I Have Learned in My Life so Far,” which addressed the following aphorisms penned during his hiatus:

Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.
Thinking life will be better in the future is stupid, I have to live now.
Being not truthful works against me.
Helping other people helps me.
Organizing a charity group is surprisingly easy.
Everything I do always comes back to me.
Drugs feel great in the beginning and become a drag later on.
Over time I get used to everything and start taking it for granted.
Money does not make me happy.
Traveling alone is helpful for a new perspective on life.
Assuming is stifling.
Keeping a diary supports my personal development.
Trying to look good limits my life.
Worrying solves nothing.
Material luxuries are best enjoyed in small doses.
Having guts always works out for me.

On the stage he would read each statement and then explain its virtues along with a brief anecdote regarding his own success or failure with it. Sagmeister presumed that what he had learned might also inspire others to learn things, from him and from themselves. How right he was. The scores of subsequent lectures were well attended all over the world. Harry N. Abrams published a monograph with the same title, and Sagmeister was given an interactive exhibition at Deitch Projects (perhaps the first for a graphic designer). Students all over the world use this list as a model for class projects, and his points continue to be quoted by professionals.

Yet there is also an unintended (though predictable) consequence. Sagmeister's “Things” has spawned a surfeit of other “Things I Have Learned” lists by designers who have learned things they feel are valuable enough to be presented to the public in the form of lectures. Making lists, checking them twice, etc., is a fine self-enabling tool (there's even a book of creative personal lists from the Smithsonian archives), but sharing them with the public could be a tad (or excessively) narcissistic.

This became vividly clear to me recently at a design conference I attended where 4 out of 10 speakers presented personal lists of varying lengths and degrees of insightfulness. Two were even called “Things I've Learned” (without the deserved tip of the hat to Sagmeister) and two were simply introduced as “here are some insights that will make you a better and happier [whatever].” Through the act of making these lists, the list-makers somehow came to believe they were empowered and had the answers (or the questions). As intentionally funny some of these lists were (e.g., “Always eat a frog for breakfast,” meaning always do something that is out of your comfort zone, which is fair enough), there was the presumption, by virtue of listing them, that they are commandments handed down from you-know-who to you-know-who (hint: both had beards).

Lists are not in and of themselves disingenuous. Indeed, the four speakers who shared theirs were as ingenuous as could be, and presented some great work as well. I was convinced they truly believed that the best way to impart useful information (what in the speechifying business is called “the takeaway”) was through bullet points as motivational calls to action. For some in the audience it works. But the frequency of such lists at lectures and conferences has tainted their efficacy. Why does every insight have to be a bullet point or numbered item? 1. Why? 2. Why? 3. Why?

The idea of making lists has been around for a long time (although not to be confused with a manifesto, which can certainly be a list, but should have more gravitas). When I was younger I was addicted to Peanuts' “Happiness is…” lists, and tried to live up to the precept that happiness could be achieved if I owned a warm puppy (but I'll never know since I'm allergic). Lists that chart the road towards good things are useful, but there are some lists that have a morbid overlay. Take the so-called bucket list of things to do, learn, experience, etc., before one kicks the proverbial bucket. And of course there is the 12-step program, where in many cases participants must make lists of things to amend in their lives (and maybe the one circumstance where sharing publicly has a direct benefit).

Lists can be entertaining as a window onto the inner-workings of a private life. But when it becomes a public fad… well, follow these bullet points:

  • Please
  • Stop
  • (Really)

What I found, while attentively listening to the speakers at the conference (which will go unnamed as I don't want to embarrass anyone) as they rattled off their homilies and prescriptions for nirvana, is that even the best ideas were lost on the audience because the format of the list became more significant than the thoughts themselves. The format is always the same: a black (or sometimes white) screen, on which sans serif type flashes by as the speaker says, “What I mean by that is….” It is reminiscent of motivational speakers who work within clichéd templates.

Note for my list: Clichés are bad. Yes, it is tempting to make a list. Shorthand is easier than longhand. Bits and bites are more immediate than narratives. And when lists are on a screen at a presentation, the speaker has a guide to work with. But the bottom line is this: When Sagmeister did presented his list, it was a fresh old idea. Even shortly after, when Bruce Mau issued his “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” (a list by any other name), the notion was fairly new. But now it is a conceit, a means of framing a talk, and enabling people to take notes. Almost everyone I know keeps lists, which is good, but hearing them at conferences has become tedious.

Maybe happiness is no bullet lists at all. Check that off as done!

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.