Design Like You Give A Damn

Someone once said that design is the toyshop of the business world. Someone else said it’s the most fun you can have with your pants on. They were right, but great design is not something arrived at easily. Rare are the occasions when the winning idea is the first thing that crawls out of your head. More often, you have to put down 100 ideas, then do 100 more. And then start all over again.

Many have the talent to be great designers, but few have the energy. Most people want to be with their friends, home with their families, they want to go to the club, the recital, The Hamptons. The result is forgettable effluvia flattened beneath the steamroller of low attention spans.

It is good to remember that while you are doing your laundry, someone else is still working. This may be enforced paranoia, but so be it. Great design is better than having a social life.

Whether you design cars or packaging, clothing or environments, graphics, experiences, or systems, it is important to know basics like divine proportion, the grid, and Who the hell are Geo Ponti, Abbot Miller, and Masamichi Katayama, anyway?

But it is even more important to recognize and understand the larger world of ideas.

And I don’t mean design ideas. I mean the big, gaping, cosmic world of ideas. Plato, Descartes, Derrida, pick your own apples.

We learn what has been done for two reasons. First, to know what it is and that it exists. And we want to know who did it. Designers are descended from a long and legendary legacy of craft, technique and talent. Great designers make their work such an improvement over what has been, that no one remembers the former.

Second, we want to what has been done because we want to know how it was done. Design is not just about coming up with ideas, it is about getting ideas produced. The great works of art and design would not have made it to public display except for the expertise of engineers, draftsmen, and craftpersons from a spectrum of disciplines. In that sense, you must not only create ideas but you must help figure out how to produce and implement them. Even industries that are very high gloss are, at the same time, very blue collar. You have to get your hands dirty.

You are part of a long and continuous line of designers who understood that design thinking created things that people (not just other designers) desired to enrich their lives. A partial list includes Vitruvius, Raymond Loewy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Coco Chanel, Herb Lubalin, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, and lately Zaha Hadid, Paula Scher, Marc Jacobs, Stefan Sagmeister, Richard Meier, Fred Woodward, Chip Kidd, Jean Nouvel, and others. Know them. Then crush them.

Most of all, understand the designer’s unique ability to make the humble spectacular. Think of the simple spoon. Now think of a Georg Jensen spoon. Think of a house, then think of “Falling Water”. When I lived in Europe, I noticed a series of bank posters on the advertising kiosks. They were magnificent. Simple, bold statements that were visual Superglue. I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” It was 30 years before I realized those posters were the work of a German designer named Gunter Rambow.

Thousands of designers flock to work for Apple, Nike, Shepard Fairey, Louis Vuitton, Karim Rashid, or some other gestalt that has already been created. The opportunity, though, lies in creating something spectacular for a brand, a client, a category that has not been realized. A company or product that does not have an image, who has not set millions of tongues wagging. Yet.

Service the neglected, they will be grateful for your attention.

There are rules in design, every iconic designer has some. Learn what they are, then shatter them. Shatter this rule. The world is not simply what has been presented to you. There are ideas everywhere that have not been imagined yet. Great design lives in the cosmos of what is possible, and has not yet been created. This is the challenge/opportunity whether you are designing a new flying ship, package design, or tagging a brick wall.

How was Gunter Rambow able to take an idea for a goddamn bank and make it so compelling?

One answer.

He gave a damn.