On a recent trip the east coast, I was reminded why I don’t go to Italian restaurants in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s not that the Italian restaurants in Fort Collins are bad; it’s just that the Italian restaurants on the east coast are so much better.
I take food seriously, so when I go somewhere, I want to experience that place’s strength. In Fort Collins, we have great microbreweries and brewpubs. On a visit to Texas earlier this year, I sought out Mexican food and barbecue. (You know any Texas barbecue place with a hand-painted sign is going to be great.) In Los Angeles this summer, Shea and I enjoyed seafood and, of course, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘N’ Waffles. A couple years ago, my wife and I had sushi for breakfast in Japan at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because we knew it would be the best sushi we would ever eat. (We were right.)
Each of these places excels in at least one area of cuisine, and my goal as a consumer of food is to take advantage of the best options available.
It’s the same in the world of design.
When I was in graduate school, I was told by one professor that I should work to improve my “level of craft.” By this, he meant that, in the course of constructing three-dimensional projects like models or packaging samples, I should try to avoid accidentally gluing my hands to the table or impaling myself with an X-Acto blade. Other students in the program would construct elaborate scale models of the Parthenon out of corrugated cardboard in the time that it took me to get the dried glue unclogged from the bottle of Elmer’s.
From this I took it that perhaps my strengths as a designer lay elsewhere. I developed a particularly strong interest in typography, because no matter how tightly you kern, it’s pretty hard to injure yourself with a keyboard and mouse.
One of my responsibilities as a designer is to know what resources are available to me—not just where to get good photos and fonts, but utilizing the knowledge and expertise of fellow designers. Not every designer is going to be great at every aspect of design. Just as certain locales will specialize in a particular type of cuisine, certain designers will excel in a particular area, like color, composition, type, animation, and photography, to name a few. There’s real value to understanding the strengths of designers you know and getting feedback from them. (Just make sure you go to the right person for specific feedback, or else it’s like eating sushi for breakfast in Texas and Mexican food in Japan.)
I’ve found, as I’m sure it is with any profession, that being a designer is most rewarding when you can set aside ego and competition and open yourself up to ideas and inspiration from fellow professionals. (I probably don’t even have to say that to IBD readers. I’ve always admired the way interpreters inspire and support one another, rather than tear each other down.)
I would encourage designers—those new to design in particular—to add one more resolution for 2011: Keep an eye out for work that you like and talk to the people responsible for it. One particularly great place to do this is at an NAI event like the International Conference or National Workshop, but even if you can’t make it to an event, pick up the phone or fire off an email to someone whose work impresses you. I can guarantee the conversation will be worthwhile.
And now if I could just get a few restaurant owners here in Fort Collins to pick up a phone and call my people in Philadelphia, maybe we could get a decent marinara out here.