“Creativity disrupts.” Design Matters at 15: James Victore

Posted inDesign Matters With Debbie Millman
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If you’ve ever met James Victore—or studied his design, heard one of his talks, read his books—you know, quite simply, there’s no one like him.

It starts from the moment you see him, the gunslinger mustache giving way to razor-edged turns of phrase and a design style that pummels you with the force of a barroom brawler. Aptly described as part Darth Vader and part Yoda, he is, unabashedly and brashly, himself.

As Victore has observed, “People have lived these lives before and left us some directions—their quotes are our access points.”

And thus to ring in this episode of Design Matters, here are 28 of his own.

Victore, photographed for PRINT in 2016 by Brent Taylor

“I learned to design the same way I learned to swear: I had to pick it up in the street.” (source) “I was born to do this job. I was born to be a graphic designer. As a kid, I drew and made wordplay constantly. Malcolm Gladwell has this idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at something. My 10,000 hours started when I was 5.” (source) “I spent a little bit of time in design school and I felt that we all went in with this empty shoe box and we were handed out these particular tools and these particular answers, and as soon as we got out of school, we would be a success if we looked alike and acted alike. I thought that was the job. I think you could work in New York city and be very successful doing that, having no opinion, having no look, just melding to the client. It’s just not something that I can personally do.” (source) “From Paul [Bacon] I learned to how to throw your shoe at talk radio programs. I learned about wine. I learned about cars and auto racing. But mostly I learned about jazz. I learned how to use my ears. I learned why Fats Waller is relevant. I learned how good Jelly Roll Morton really is. And also how to listen to Philip Glass, James Brown and rap. In other words, he taught me everything I needed to be a designer.” (source) “Most people start by stopping. An utterly genius idea pops into your head—start a business, write a story, quit your crappy job—and you let it die a death of inertia. You fail to start. This makes complete sense; as Newton’s first law tells us, an object at rest—like your ass—tends to stay at rest. For any creation, any new project or new move in your life, starting is the hardest part. Too many of us are waiting to start. But while you are waiting, others are already living the life you want—the only difference between them and you is that they started.” (source) “I don’t think there’s a point in my life that I’ve ever decided not to take a risk. For better or worse, safety and comfort don’t interest me. To me, risk means feeling and being alive.” (source) “We do advertising, we do posters, we do all these things; we’re doing product design and customizing stuff—it’s all the same to me. I don’t really want any one discipline. There’s this wonderful line about being a samurai: A samurai doesn’t have one favorite tool.” (source) “I hand-pick my clients, that way I can fire them. Clients need to be educated to what we can, and can’t, do for them. This takes a lot of work. Talking the talk, as they say. Not all of us are good at it or even interested in it. Rarely does a good one just walk in the door. We have to make them. I also pick and find clients that I am interested in. I can’t work for Campbell’s soup. Campbell’s soup does not give me an erection.” (source) “Part of the problem these days is there’s so much choice. At some point, someone just has to say: We’re going to do it like this because I want to do it this way. Because, if you don’t, you’re going to be churning out oatmeal. You look at some graphic design today, and you can tell that nobody is in charge.” (source) “No amount of fame feeds this thing. It has to come from the inside. I don’t work for money. I’ve never worked for money. Don’t chase money because then you get so caught up in what shit costs, and what we don’t realize is that shuts the rest of our lives down. If you’re a graphic designer who wants to make a lot of money and do good work, there’s a good chance that you won’t do either of those things.” (source) “The larger audience out there responds to work when they can see that a real human being made it. So much of the work today just looks as though it was spit out by a computer. It doesn’t have any fingerprints or cat hair on it.” (source) “When we see freedom in someone’s work, it frees us up; when we see intelligence in someone’s work, it makes us smarter; and when we see vulnerability in the work, we feel closer, more human.” (source) “I’m doing a job right now for Bobbi Brown cosmetics, and using a Sumi-e brush with India ink precisely because I suck at it. It’s so much more interesting than being good at something—I like the idea of chance and mistakes. I can’t wait until I’m 80 and have that shaky old-man handwriting.” (source) “Our industry changes
all the time, and keeping up with it is like chasing a bus cross-country. We also change. The motives that drove us to become creative at 21 now have grown, developed and want more, different and uncharted. If I never changed careers, I’d still be doing book jackets for books I don’t care about with budgets fit for 10-year olds. I’m almost forced to seek more beauty and wealth and horizons.” (source) “Part of the teaching thing is to give back. That was the original intent: to give back. The other thing is, if you do a really good job of teaching, it’s a selfish occupation—I get so much more out of these guys than they get. And the third thing is I have a history of hotheads and grassfires that I want to be associated with.” (source) “This is a radical idea I’ve been developing over the last few years: When you see your work as a gift, your goal is no longer to satisfy a boss or client—or even to gain a paycheck. It changes how you think about work, why you do it, what you make and who you work for. You work to make yourself happy, and in turn speak directly to your audience. Because you now give them something of value—a piece of yourself.” (source) “Weird is good; it’s an anomaly and it’s unique. I teach on the simple premise that the things that made you weird as a kid make you great as an adult—but only if you pay attention to them. If you look at any ‘successful’ person, they are probably being paid to play out the goofiness or athleticism or nerdiness or curiosity they already possessed as a child. Unfortunately for most people, somewhere along the road their weirdness was taught out of them or, worse, shamed out of them. Crushed by the need to ‘fit in,’ they left their quirks and special powers behind. But it is our flaws that make us interesting. We need to not only hang on to them, but hone them.” (source) “Many of my peers see this as dangerous—I am the fox in Pinocchio, leading the good little boys and girls off to a life in the circus. ‘But however will they find a job?!’ they ask. When pushed to invite danger into their work, my students find something much better than a job—they learn to create their own place in this world.” (source) “Often I am told by young designers that they wish to ‘someday’ be as brave and as opinionated in their work as I am. I have to ask them why they are waiting.” (source) “Designers possess such amazing powers through words and imagery, it boggles my mind why we don’t wield it.” (source) “‘Mr Victore,’ he said, ‘I hear what you mean about taking risks in your career … but I’ve got rent to pay.’ …‘What’s your name?’ I asked.‘Thomas,’ he said.‘Thomas, here’s your headstone: Here lies Thomas. He would have done great work, but he had to pay the rent.’” (source) “Looking back is a trap. I could say that I wish I had a million dollars, but the amount of shit I would have to swim through for that wouldn’t come near the reward.” (source) “Wall Street is run by fear and greed. Social media is fueled by fear and ego—I know this because my ego is in charge of my Instagram account. From the outside everything looks easy and has a nice soundtrack, but the truth is we are all just making it up and trying to attract more attention as we go. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s Instagram account.” (source) “Whenever I’m at a loss for ideas I go for a run or to a bar. We’re all guilty of sitting at our desks, forcing meat through a grinder and hoping for excellence to gracefully emerge from the other end. Get out of the studio, wander, play, take a nap. Only when you step outside of your daily habits will chaos, madness and life-changing opportunities find you.” (source) “The world is brimming with would-be authors, dancers and entrepreneurs full of bright and innovative ideas, holding the future of creativity inside them. Most of their ideas will never make it to market and their talents will remain silenced. The biggest reason for this is too much thinking and not enough doing, too much worry and not enough action. Success goes to those who are moving. … You can’t be a mover and a shaker if you’re standing still.” (source) “I feel like a smoker who has just quit and can finally smell dinner. I am just realizing the full potential of my work and I now want to wield it like a large club with nails in it.” (source) “Bring the fire. Bring the fire that, quite frankly, god gave you.” (source) “Learn everything. Then forget it. THEN design.” (source)