Being Less of a Designer

Sitting in a classroom primarily filled with both undergraduate and graduate writing majors, a single architecture major, and finally myself—an undergrad graphic design student now pursuing a masters in illustration—I felt out of place. Last night I attended a small lecture by newly published author, Hannah Palmer where she discussed the intersection of creative writing and urban design. Here I was, the oddball out. However, as Hannah discussed how her writing journey has progressed into another career as an urban designer in Atlanta, I realized exactly why I was there: my career has been taking an inverted approach from designer to writer.

I walked away from this lecture and a small conversation with Hannah asking myself the question, “Did I spend the past 5 years studying the right thing?” The answer to that question is less important than how I choose to move forward, but more importantly, the reasons for why that question exists. Reflecting on the previous years of my studies, my favorite classes were never something like Typography III, Type Design, History of Graphic Design or any graphic design class for that matter. Instead, my favorite classes were oddball classes I decided to take on a whim: American Realists and Naturalists 1850-1900 (an English elective), Roman Art and Archaeology (an Art History elective), Poetry Writing I (a Creative Writing elective), and now I suspect my current class, Nonfiction II (a Writing elective), will be another favorite.

Studying graphic design was by no means the wrong choice, and I must say that I’ve loved all of my classes in that department. However, I’ve found that I’ve become a better designer in learning to be less of a designer; in stepping into uncomfortable environments where I don’t really know what I’m doing, such as poetry or Roman art.

“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

While this is the commonly used condensed version of Epictetus’ words, the longer version reads as, “What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” In a similar vein, what is the first business of one who practices design? To get rid of self-conceit. I’ve found that these seemingly random classes outside of the scope of the graphic design department were arguably the most enjoyable and beneficial to my career as a designer because in those classes I didn’t know anything. In not really knowing anything, I lacked the confidence and ego which comes from being a designer in a design-oriented class.

In Don’t Look at Vending Machines, I wrote that “innovation stems from drawing unexpected connections” and described it as “the synthesis of different concepts and ideas to create work that’s both novel and useful.” In doing what’s expected of a designer, you become an expected designer. It’s only in daring to step out of that role—the exploration of other fields—that you can garner knowledge of different concepts to form these unexpected connections in your role as a designer.

“Establishing a chink-proof world of appearance is not only the first responsibility of the writer; it is the primary step in the technique of every sort of fiction… Fantasy itself must touch ground with at least one toe, and ghost stories must have one foot, so to speak, in the grave.”
—Eudora Welty

In learning about Eudora Welty and reading her work, I’m reminded that there is a wealth of knowledge and concept beyond the confines of our design industry. A past professor of mine, Scott Thorp, always reminded us that “If you only look where you expect things, you will always find what you expect.” I’m interested in being less of a designer less so from a position of my career, but more so from a position of intellectual pursuit—who I’m learning from, where I’m searching, what I’m surrounding myself with. If you’re producing expected results, start with being less of a designer.