Every time I’m on the verge of a new experience, I feel like a giddy little kid on Christmas morning. All the butterflies I felt as a 5 year-old come rushing back, and I’m overwhelmed with anticipation. Eventually, however, I stumble across the blemishes of my once perfect idea, and reality overcomes my hopes and expectations. I do this with myself, with others, and—as a designer—I do this with my work. I do this because I’ve been taught that complacency is the bane of one’s design career, and that if I’m not careful, it could become inertia. And I’m certainly not the only one. I think our common thread, in some capacity, is that we all desire the “new.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that regardless of one’s title, salary, recognition or experience, everyone wants more. As designers, we’re perpetually working to reshape our future. And whether it’s constantly updating our portfolios/resumes/websites, changing jobs, picking up more freelance, or going to grad school—this narrative undoubtedly continues. We’re never quite satisfied—always enticed by the unseen possibilities just around the corner. Some are more patient about it, while others work diligently to get on to the next thing.
The legendary graphic designer, Tibor Kalman, had an interesting theory. He said, “You don’t want to do too many projects of a similar type. I’ve done two commercials in my life; I don’t want to do three. I did two of a number of things. The first one, you fuck it up in an interesting way; the second one, you get it right; and then you’re out of there.” He continued: “I think as long as I don’t know how to do something, I can do it well; and as soon as I have learned how to do something, I will do it less well, because it will be more obvious. I think that goes for most people. I think most people spend too much time doing one thing.”
I first found Kalman’s quote in design school, and promptly fell out of my chair and died. After all, as an impressionable young designer, it’s easy to believe that there’s a set of methodical rules to follow in order to achieve respect and gratification. The idea that I didn’t need to conform to any rules, stick to an agenda, or even “know” what I am doing, was and still is, incredibly liberating.
Three months ago, in the spirit of his philosophy, I moved from New York City to California in search of that very new thing. Suddenly, my entire life was new again: New city, job, apartment, neighborhood, friends, coworkers, weather, time zone, and culture that’s equally as predominant and distinct as New York’s. I find myself (and consequently, my work) being pulled in a variety of directions, and all the while, I’m subconsciously trying to fit in, stand out, and be myself.
This dichotomy between living in the “new” (with all its fear and excitement), and being myself (the same old dude), directly mirrors the feelings I encounter throughout the creative process. As a designer, I’m in a constant state of unrest, trying to create something that solves, pushes and reinvents the brief, in hopes that it’ll somehow resonate with the audience. Simultaneously, I’m trying to fulfill my own desire for self-expression, looking to turn an old routine into something new and memorable.
Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the reasoning behind our professional decisions and why they affect us so profoundly. The struggle of staying put, as opposed to the possibility of moving on to new endeavors, is filled with doubt, curiosity, and fear. Questions arise: Will I be challenged enough? Will I be able to do the kind of work I want to do? Is it worth the money? Will it take me to the “next level?” That familiar critic emerges, trying to convince me that the unknown is unnecessary. Yet, how will I ever know what I really like unless I try everything?
The good thing about doubt is that it enables me to ask specific questions, and questioning encourages me to challenge myself. The potential to create unexpected work is revealed through this discovery. By pushing myself and my work into this space, I begin to see the “new” now; which is to say, I see it as a process, without constantly looking for results.
But, as designers, how can we achieve the sensation of the new without re-living the past? When is it time to move forward without actually going anywhere? And is the price for the “new” an insatiable flux only possible by having the philosophies of Tibor Kalman?
Note: Due to the feedback from friends on how much they enjoy my writing, but dislike my grammar, this piece was edited by the semi–talented, mildly interesting Ashley Ma.