The Most Obvious Client of All

When I first started in graphic design, I thought I knew exactly what the most rewarding projects would be. The finely tuned annual reports, the subtly sophisticated books (jackets and interiors, mind you), the exquisitely crafted logos and, of course, the perfectly proportioned posters. All were going to be amazing, epic, awe-inspiring and a testament to the undeniable creativity and glamour that I imparted to them.

Of course, only some of that was really true. (The last part.) Projects became hurdles, some exciting and some grinding. In almost all cases, these “epic” projects were long-form labors of love and frustration. Many bore out the best qualities of myself as a designer, and I am certainly quite proud of them (even though I can still see every minimal detail I would change or improve). The surprising truth became that many of the projects that have given me the most joy—and have remained further untainted in my eyes—have been the least obvious, most unexpected, and in many cases, the simplest.

Early on in our careers, while working at Nike, my husband and partner Brian and I made a habit of taking the worst “dog” projects out there, and turning them into show stopping pieces. If the client was willing to take a chance, then it was our duty to make the most of it. The project no one wanted a year ago became the project every designer we worked with wanted to have because of the potential it represented. In turn, we were handed better and better projects, with more creative freedom, the client looked good for their boss by delivering great work on a project no one was paying attention to—and everybody won.

Many of the projects that have given me the most joy—and have remained further untainted in my eyes—have been the least obvious, most unexpected, and in many cases, the simplest.

Now, as studio owners, Brian and I look at potential projects the same way. What are the possibilities that the project and client represent? As designers, we can often trap ourselves with preconceived notions of what is “appropriate” and “responsible” to the project, client or brand while working on large-scale projects. The small, under-funded challenges with enthusiastic clients represent the work we want to be doing next, and inform us even better to what our large-scale work should be. By balancing out both types of projects, we are able to continually evolve as designers.

We make a point of always telling students to not be afraid of “bad” projects. Obviously, understanding a flawed client or project is key early on, but so is identifying your opportunity as a designer. You will never be given the golden ticket; instead you have to dig up your own opportunities to show off your potential as a designer. And if the opportunities do not present themselves, you need to create them. To this day, we still create many of our own projects—from toys to pillows, books to silkscreens. If we do not have a client to make these things for, then it is up to us to do it for ourselves.

There is an old saying, “No one will give it to you if you don't ask,” and that's also true for design. No one will coronate the next design talent—you will have to claim the crown yourself. The next time you are lamenting the opportunity or access of others, you are doing so only by discounting the potential you have to create the same, if not more than they have. None of your design heroes took the express train to stardom. They took part in the “turn a simple project into a great one” marathon that defined who they are today. To expect less than that of yourself is to waste the chance that you might just be as great as you think you could be.

In the end, I wouldn't change a thing (OK, maybe a few small things—mostly kerning). I still get up everyday thinking I have the greatest job in the world. I still love designing projects for clients big and small. I love the opportunity that each day presents, and the chance to make another dent from my little corner of the world. Even with the big name clients and the fancy budgets (sometimes), the work we are most remembered for is almost always the work we did for the most obvious client of all—ourselves.

(thumbnail image: Monsters by Brian Flynn)