Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer

by Debbie Millman

This is an excerpt from the book "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, Publication Date: October 17, 2007)

The first time I saw James Victore, he was wearing a gorilla suit. And no, he wasn’t trick-or-treating. He was headlining a talk for the New York chapter of the AIGA, the professional association for design. Titled “Mad As Hell,” the presentation was classic Victore: brash, brilliant, and unbridled. Victore didn’t focus on his impressive client roster or his singular talent, but rather crafted a presentation that discussed the designer as a master communicator who had an obligation to inspire social change. The second time I saw Victore, he was speaking at an event, along with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, for students involved in an AIGA mentorship program. Unfettered by conventional norms, James addressed the students with raw honesty, enthusiasm, and quite a few expletives. In fact, I remember that one AIGA staffer kept track of the number of times James used the word “fuck,” as she planned an exit strategy from her job. She needn’t have worried. Not only did the students give Victore a standing ovation, they spent hours after the event clamoring for the signed posters he was giving out. James is a master designer with a kind, generous, and engaging spirit. The day we met, he picked me up on his motorcycle for a trip to his studio. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the responsibility of designers in today’s world, creative freedom, and his parent’s dashed hopes that he would have become a nurse.

Okay, just to get us started, tell me about your very first creative memory.

Have you ever read My Name is Asher Levy?

It’s great. In the book My Name is Asher Levy, the author’s dad is a rabbi. His father’s father was a rabbi. His grandfather was a rabbi. He’s supposed to be a rabbi. But he sees.

What does he see?
As a young child, the author starts seeing perspective and shadows, and he explains that shift in this book. He becomes an artist. He explains how he was born to be an artist. He explains the process. I saw this happen with my son Luca when he was about three. We were in the kitchen, where there was a lamp overhead, and I could see him moving his head; I explicitly remember the white table and the white milk and watching him realize that as you move, your perspective changes. When I read My Name is Asher Levy, I realized the same thing. I remember that. And I tell everybody, anybody who asks, I was born to do this job. I was born to be a designer. This is my dharma.

How did you describe what it is you wanted to do when you grew up?
I was raised on a military base. There was no real option of being an artist. You couldn’t be an artist or a writer because people just didn’t do that. I came from a small town in upstate New York. I remember coming out of high school and people saying, “Well, I hear there’s good money in nursing. You should go into nursing.”

James Victore, R.N.
Yes! I thought it was ludicrous, but I still didn’t know that I could be a designer for a living. Nevertheless, I drew constantly. I was always making up wordplays and bad puns and creating new lyrics for songs. I’d make up lyrics to Led Zeppelin songs that I didn’t understand. The only person I know in the business who thinks like this is Emily Oberman. She and I both thrive on word association. We get triggered—bzzzzzz—and off we go to find all these other associations. And that’s how I work. That’s what I do with my job.

Do you remember the moment you made the decision to become a designer?
Well, when I first got out of high school, I didn’t get into any of my universities of choice because my grades weren’t good enough.

What were you intending to study?
Engineering or physics. I became a physics major at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I did horribly, and I was asked not to come back for a second semester.

You were kicked out?

Yes, I was kicked out. So I went to work for my father. He had a ski shop. I also waited tables. And I slept in my car. I was crying a lot. It was like, “What the fuck?” Then my dad gave me a card from someone who came by the ski shop. He was from a design and advertising agency. This was something I’d never heard of. So I put some drawings in a folder, and I went to the guy and he was like, “Yeah, okay. We need some help.” He had a tiny little advertising agency, and they made menus and fliers for dry cleaners. That’s what they did. But he recognized something in me. Through him, I got the idea to apply to art school. So I applied to RISD, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pratt, SVA, and Cooper Union. The only school I didn’t get into was Cooper Union. I made the decision to go to SVA primarily because I wanted to go to New York City: The city of vision, the city of light. That was where I wanted to be. I left with 350 bucks in my pocket, and I showed up at school. But when I was there, I questioned whether or not I belonged there. I couldn’t help but think that I was not like these people around me.

Why weren’t you like them?
I just felt that I didn’t belong. I was living in the YMCA on 34th street. My classes weren’t that interesting, and I was supposed to be studying art and design in New York—and I just wasn’t that interested. So I dropped out.

What did you do then?

I had one instructor in my second year, the graphic designer Paul Bacon. He gave me a D. But when I dropped out of school, I went to his office and said that I’d like to apprentice. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I wanted to apprentice with him. He looked at me and put his pen down and told me that no one had ever asked him that before. Then he agreed to let me do it. I learned a huge lesson at that moment: You have got to ask. I got that apprenticeship because no one else had ever asked. So I started hanging out in Paul’s studio, looking over his shoulder. I’d get there in the morning and sweep; I didn’t really have any jobs. And then I’d hang out. When a desk became available, I tried to do some “real” design. Three months after I dropped out of SVA, I had put together a portfolio with three fake book jackets. I started showing my portfolio, and I got hired right off the bat. I’ve been working ever since.

What do you do when you have a client that gives you negative feedback?
We are professionals. We don’t care about negative feedback.

There are some designers who would say, “Do it my way or bye-bye.”

No. No, no, no, no. This is what we do for a living. The unspoken part of what we do is compromise. Clients don’t just come to me and say, “James Victore, he’s the auteur, we’ll let him do what he wants.” I have very little of that. And the funny thing is when I was a young Turk and trying to push my elbows out as wide as possible, I had the opportunity. I knew a guy in town, Pierre Bernard. I knew of his reputation, so I searched him out and arranged to meet him. He is an amazing French designer from Grapus, a design collective that broke up in 1989. He spent an afternoon with me, which was unheard of, since I was a nobody. As I was showing him my work—a greeting card I was doing at the time for a publisher—I bragged that I had an amazing client who gave me complete creative freedom. He looked at my work and said, “Sometimes complete creative freedom is not a good thing.” That was excellent. I don’t really want complete creative freedom. A lot of people look at my work and think I must have complete freedom, but that’s not what I do. Saul Steinberg couldn’t entertain the idea of working for a client. Paul Rand could. He needed a client. He needed “The Job.” When I worked for The New York Times for a short stint, I called Saul Steinberg to do a project, and he said to me, “Let me get this correct. You want me to illustrate somebody else’s idea? It seems there are two artists on this project.”

Do you consider your work to be good?
I consider my work good. I enjoy doing it, which helps a lot. Unfortunately, I get a lot of feedback, constantly, from people who write me about my work. But I know when I’m “giving one from column A, one from column B.” Overall, I think my work is pretty good, but I don’t think it’s great.

What do you mean by “giving one from column A and one from column B”?
The rule here is there are jobs you do for “god,” and there are jobs you do for money. I try to approach everything as a “god job”—lowercase g. At the beginning of a project, I ask, “What are we going to do, and how are we going to do it? How are we going to make a person fall in love?” And when we start getting questionable feedback about what we’ve done, we have to realize it’s not always possible to do the god job. That’s when I know we just have to get it done and get paid.

How do you know when something you’ve designed is great?
I don’t. Quite frankly, I don’t. Sometimes I think something is awesome, and everyone else thinks it’s crap.

How confident are you in your own judgment or assessment of things?
Less and less as time goes on. Less and less. I’m wrong a lot more than I think. And that’s why I have other people to check me, like my wife, Laura, and my son. As I progress and get older, I want my world to get bigger and bigger and bigger, not smaller and smaller and smaller. But I find that it takes constant effort. I’m not a good judge of my work or other people’s. Especially other people’s!

What do you worry about in your life?
Professionally, I don’t really have any worries. Any. I like what I do. But I am worried about what the state of the profession will be in the future. I’m worried about the state of the world. My concern now is to make a little bit of money. And for the first time in my life, I feel guilty about it.

Why do you feel guilty about it?
In regard to the state of the world. Laura is currently reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the book, when [Jacob] Marley’s Ghost comes to Scrooge, Scrooge says, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!” “Business!” cries the Ghost. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” This is what I worry about. I like what I do, and I seem to have a reputation for altruism and telling the truth; but at the same time, all that work I do for free. Or I pay for it with my own money. And now I’m worried about making a living for my family. And this bothers me because I don’t know how to do both. And I want a hot rod!

I was just reading about Nan Kempner and her desire to have nice things.
I remember Tibor used to say, “I want to take taxis.”

You mentioned that you were worried about the future of the design business?
The business as I know it. The Internet is changing things in the same way that the invention of ink on paper did. And there is this wonderful, funny question that people like to ask all the time: “Are posters dead?” It’s like asking Twyla Tharp, “Is dance dead?” People try to reorganize and rename things and change them and qualify and quantify them. I just want the spirit of design to remain. I feel now the way Tibor did: People have not fucked with the printed page as much as we still can. I want those opportunities. But I think those opportunities get fewer and fewer. And there’s too many of us. But there aren’t not enough crackpots and artists in the business—they’re all MBAs.

Who do you think right now is an artist in the business?

Any of the designers who are 50 and older. They were around before computers. They were working with their hands. Most younger designers don’t do that.

You work both on the computer and with your hands. Are you equally comfortable with both mediums?
No, I’m dreadful on the computer.

How do you know when a project is done, aside from a deadline?
I asked Pat Duniho that question, because he could draw like a motherfucker. It was beautiful. I asked him how he knew when he was done. And he said, “Well, you have a big piece of paper like this. And you start in the middle and you fill it out and when you reach the edge of the paper, you’re done.”
Knowing when you’re done is essential. That is where most people falter. I think we’re so in love with the fact that we can do this thing called design, and when we get the opportunity, we just want to do it so much! Especially when you get pro bono opportunities. The not-for-profit stuff is the shit because it’s our opportunity to go off and get really creative.

But knowing when you’re done is hard.
The thing that’s great about this profession—and doing it well—is that it’s like medicine. Doctors can see a patient get sick and die, or they can help them get better. We can do that with our business, to a certain extent. You know you’ve done a good job when you can see positive change. That is the most awesome feeling in the world.

You mentioned that a lot of people write and tell you how much they’ve been impacted by your work. What do you think touches people so profoundly?
I don’t know. I got a message from someone this morning telling me he liked the way I told the truth.

How do you think you tell the truth?

I think I either get the opportunity, or I go looking for it. Sometimes I have to go digging for it. There are surface, veneer solutions to design problems, and that’s appropriate if you’re talking bullshit. But to get to the truth, you have to push everything aside. Everything—and then get down to that one perfect little gem.

How do you know when it’s a gem?
I talk to my students about that all the time. It’s about whittling. It’s about taking something and whittling and whittling and getting it sharp and perfect. Then you’ve got something.

Do those things come instantly after all the whittling away?

No, a lot of the time it comes as a surprise. It’s hard work. It’s the time when I’m sitting at the table, and I’ve been working on something for hours and hours and I come up with something and I make myself laugh. That’s what I do. And I’ll ask Laura to come and look at it. And she’ll either say, “That’s funny,” or she says it’s funny and she laughs. When she does that, I know I’m good as gold.

Is it about being funny, or is it about making a connection to something that might not have been done before?
Yes, it’s definitely finding another way to say something. It’s about realizing that you have kept something in your mental files forever, and now you’re going to take it out.

Do you think that it takes a special type of mentality to love your work?
I don’t think so. I think it takes a special type of mentality to not get uptight about my work, a special type of mentality to have a sense of humor about it.

I’ve read that people believe that in your work, you’re able to communicate what other people are afraid to say. Is that something that you’ve consciously worked on being able to do?
No. I’m just inappropriate. That’s who I am. I have a foul mouth, and I like off-color jokes—but I’m not a boorish, Shakespeare’s Richard kind of character.

How would you describe yourself?

I like to think that I’m strong and quick to judge. But at the same time—similar to when I am talking to my son—I am extremely stern, but full of love.

How content are you?
Not. Never have been, never will be. I don’t think it’s possible—unfortunately. It’s something I want.

Do you think that’s what fuels you?

Yes. I wake up in the morning knowing I’ve got to start at 5 or 5:30. I’ve got to get downstairs, I’ve got to get working. I’ve got to sit on the couch and start studying, or I’ve got to go run. And I don’t do that because it’s naturally in me. I do it because I have to force myself to do it, because I know that if I don’t, I’ll be a wreck.

What do you mean by that?
I push myself really hard. I live by lists. I have today’s lists, I have my short-term list, I have my long-term list. It makes me immeasurably happy when I cross something off one of my lists.

Are you a control freak?
I have to be. I think we all have to be in this business. I try not to show it in my work, but I think I am. Definitely.

If you didn’t push yourself so hard, what would happen?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Probably nothing. I just like doing it. It makes me feel like I’m progressing. It makes me feel like I’m getting things done. If I could include “brush teeth,” it would be on the list. But it’s not. Sometimes I recognize that I’m not doing something on the list because of fear; and I see that in myself and I’m like, “Nope. Do it. Do it. Do it.”

Do you consider yourself to be afraid of a lot of things?
Yes. I’m afraid of everything. I am. But I do them anyway. This is my dharma. This is what I was meant to do. I just want to do a good job.