These past couple months in the “real world” have reaffirmed something I have been feeling for a few years now — as much as I love design, I feel myself turning away from the world of graphic design. Four years ago, I was looking up to the likes of Frank Chimero, Oliver Munday, Nick Felton, Jessica Hische, Olly Moss, Mikey Burton, and Curtis Jinkins. I admired them and dreamed of being in their shoes someday. I wanted badly to be an ADC Young Gun or one of the 20 under 30. I believe strongly in design and wanted to be skilled, influential, and recognized in my field.
I have changed a lot since then, unsurprisingly I suppose. Now I find more inspiration in Louis CK’s brilliant, observational comedy than on any of the “design” blogs out there.
Nowadays, a short list of my role models looks very different. Dave Eggers, the force behind the avant garde publishing house McSweeney’s, 826 Valencia, and by association Wholphin, is one of my biggest influences. I admire Jesse Thorn for building a modest podcast empire around content that he wanted to produce, and looking good while doing it. I am inspired by John Bielenberg, who walked away from high–design — everything I was running towards four years ago — to start Project M. Ben Pieratt, the last of my heroes who could still be considered a true designer, says bluntly on his website:
I used to be a graphic designer but now I run Svpply.com.
I am especially enamored with Ben, whose posts in the past have expressed, more eloquently and thoughtfully than I ever could, ideas that had been bouncing around my own head. These four in particular, in chronological order and going back almost a whole year, resonated strongly with me:
- In Praise of Quitting Your Job
- My Design Career is Dead, Long Live my Design Career
- My Job pt. 1 — I Have No Idea What I’m Doing
- Dear Graphic and Web Designers, please understand that there are greater opportunities available to you.
Ben has been through some big changes this year, and it has been fun to follow along. His shift from wonderment to confidence in his newfound career path has been inspiring.
This all leaves me in an interesting situation. I no longer identify with or look up to any “real” graphic designers who are alive and working today (with the exception of Paul Sahre and Milton Glaser, perhaps. Both of whom reside on the fine art side of design, which I have eschewed for years.) I chose not to take a job at a design firm when I graduated. I haven’t taken a significant freelance job in almost a year. Instead, I am working with three of my best friends to build websites and mobile applications. Right now, some for others and some for ourselves, but our goal is to be supported by our own web-based products and services as soon as possible. We are entrepreneurs, and we are working on a number of self-initiated projects that we hope will connect people in meaningful ways and make a difference in the world.
It seems, without trying or really noticing, I am working on "startups" full-time.
Ever since I first heard the term “startup” I disliked it and didn’t want to identify with it. Every new venture is a “startup”, so the name itself holds very little meaning. Additionally, I always heard the term in relation to venture capitalists, angels, and other investors; I didn’t know anyone that self-identified their project as a startup, until it became fashionable to do so, at least. The whole thing reeks of capitalism. To say you’re building a startup — as opposed to a service, community, website, etc. — implies, at least to me, that your focus is on money. Startups are meant to be sold, traded, and bought by Facebook and stunted in their infancy, as countless Silicon Valley institutions have shown us. I too hope to make a comfortable living from web-based products, but I make an important distinction: I am deeply passionate about all of the businesses I pursue, and the thought of building something merely to fill a niche only to sell it to the highest bidder doesn’t interest me in the least. An unbelievable and burgeoning business, for sure — just not for me.
As I have touched on before, I am drawn to design because of my affection for people. The simple fact of the matter is that the web allows me to reach a wider and more diverse audience than I could ever practically reach in print. I still identify as a designer, and I suspect I always will. Design is how I solve problems, visual and otherwise.
The web is a tremendous well of opportunity and we’ve only skinned the surface; it’s an exciting time to be working. I cannot imagine finding satisfaction in designing anything else.