Today’s subject is not one you will read anywhere else. So pay attention.
A quick story: A few years ago I was in Abu Dhabi at a huge worldwide product launch event. We had spent months building the presentation and all the support material the product champion would need to go to market. Everything went off great. Customers were blown away. Other product champions came up to me afterwards and told me THAT was what they wanted me to do for them when they launched.
As with everything the company does, the launch accompanied a trade show. A stupid business practice, but that’s another story for another time. I worked the booth to bring people in and cover for the experts when they needed a break or were with a customer. After 4 days of this, I got to know a number of the people involved in the launch rather well.
The product champion was a tall, smart Nigerian, who also happened to be the best dressed guy I’ve ever known. I joked with him that if I ran into him at a swim meet that I’d be in my trunks and flip-flops and he’d still be in an Armani suit. He laughed.
Towards the end of the show, he was milling around and anxious. Wringing his hands. I asked him what was wrong and if I could help. He replied that because the launch was garnering so much attention, his boss adjusted his sales numbers. Through the roof. Suddenly all the success in the world had become a curse.
This is something few people talk about and no one wants to address. If you are truly good at doing your job and reach the top of that proverbial mountain, more often than not that is only the beginning.
Success can be a curse.
Generally speaking, you will get your next project or job because of something you did right on the previous one. There is no rest, no pat on the back, no attaboy! You’ve achieved your goal, now move on to the next.
I had a boss years ago who would say “Why do we always get the tough problems?” I knew what he was getting at. Clients came to us because they had particularly sticky problems and they needed someone to help them navigate through the murkiness and get to something great. It is never easy and rarely fun. In fact, sometimes it was damned hard.
But the point he missed was that clients kept coming back. No, we didn’t always get the plumb assignments; we’d get the hard ones that no one else seemed to be able to solve. And more often than not, we’d work through the design and deliver something fantastic. Then another hairy project would show up on the doorstep.
Cursed wth success.
The key is to take it all in stride. And to take it as a compliment that you are the one who is being trusted to do something very hard. I am usually a person who is all about the journey, not the destination. But when these hard problems come calling, to keep your sanity about it all you have to focus on achieving the goal. The journey itself will not be pleasant, although it will make a great war story later on in life.
But once you’ve reached that goal, don’t watch that homer fly out of the park. Run those bases, savor that moment and get ready for the next one. Everyone now knows what you’re capable of and will expect more. You’ll be cursed, and there is no other way you want to be.
(Sorry for all the mixed metaphors)
I’ve been asked about my management style, how I work and how I get things done. My stock answer is the plain truth: I make all this shit up as I go along.
It really doesn’t matter if I’m designing a logo, working through a positioning exercise, developing a career development plan, pitching new business, getting a handle on the annual budget, I always use the same process I learned in college.
My mentor in school, Frank, said if you can learn to design you can do anything. That simple axiom has not only been true, but has been the guiding principle in my life. This philosophy doesn’t necessarily make life an easier; it’s just a great tool to help me move forward. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel like a fraud.
The day I first heard about “Imposter Syndrome” a couple of years ago and I felt better about life. The article let me know that few others in the world are actually the real deal. Most everyone else is just like me, trying to find our way through the world.
Seth Godin made me think about it again this week.
I think as life grows increasingly more complicated, more and more of us will be imposters. There is no way one person can be an expert at everything. Just look at the expectations of job descriptions posted on the online boards. There is no way any one person can handle most of the responsibilities and qualifications listed.
My wife’s advice has always been “fake it ’til you feel it.” She unknowingly provided the secret weapon against Imposter Syndrome.
It’s fine to be an imposter. The same can be said of being an amateur. Or a child for that matter. It’s how you handle that discomfort and uncertainty that matters most.
During your 6th semester of the design program I went theory at Texas Tech, you had your first significant critique with all the professors of the department. This is the big one — do you continue in the program or go choose another major.
All my work from the past four semesters is laid out on tables in one of the studios. The five professors walk around the tables, look at the work and grill you about each piece.
Back then I wasn’t quite the confident creative giant I am today. I was rather timid, shy and nervous. I was having a bad time of it.
The illustration professor, Jane Cheatham, was both kind and generous. She knew I was uncomfortable and talked me through the session.
One word of advice she gave has always stuck with me: Talk about your work as if they were your children. You’ve given birth to these ideas, raised them from infancy and now you are sharing them with the world. Be a proud parent.
This idea is permanently etched on my brain.
As a parent with three children of my own, the one thing I have never done with them is play favorites. The same cannot be said of portfolio pieces.
Back in 1995 I designed a logo for a local non-profit that converted run down, vacant lots into community gardens. The group is called Urban Harvest. I struggled for months with the logo. Hundreds of sketches and nothing seemed to be quite right. Not having a real deadline was part of the problem.
But as soon as a real deadline materialized, ideas poured out of me. The final solution to the problem was this:
More than 20 years later, I still could not be more proud of this logo. The tall skyscraper surrounded by curvilinear, organic shapes. A perfect visual representation of the organization: creating natural beauty in the city.
A few years ago, I was walking through downtown Houston and saw a small garden in these huge planters out in front of Shell Plaza. In the planters was also a small sign about the garden and who planted it – Urban Harvest. I beamed with delight, until I saw the logo.
They had altered it.
The gray color that is representative of the building had turned to a golden yellow. Someone turned the skyscraper into an ear of corn. Everything that made the logo great was gone. It broke my heart.
Brands are like children.
You raise your kids and they eventually leave home. As the grow, they change and mature into people way beyond our control. You’ve done the best you can to get them started in life and now you hope you raised them properly. But once they are out on their own, they are gone. Even though they are gone, and probably different, you still love them.
You have to be willing to let them go.
Now, I’m hoping my oldest doesn’t come home from college this weekend with purple hair.
Printmaking was why I got into design in the first place. Drawing was cool, but you did one drawing and that was it. I have always been fascinated by mass producing images.
I learned to silkscreen in Mrs. Hopkins’ 10th grade art class. We exposed the screens in the storage closet at the back of the room.
The first thing I printed was my interruption of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. I had seen the movie, loved it and created my own version of it as a one color print with lots of contrasting white spaces and dark shadows to create these forms that became a scene from Rick’s American Cafe.
I took two semesters of printing once I got to college. One was a silkscreening class taught by Lynwood Kreneck, and the other was a lithography class with Terry Morrow the head of the art department. I loved both those classes in very different ways.
I also had Kreneck for a freshman drawing class, which I think the university made him teach. The thing is, he only wanted to work with students who were committed to making art, not the kids who were there just to get a humanities credit, or worse, there to find a husband. He could be cruel to say the least.
One thing Kreneck said to the class one day has always stuck with me to this very day. “Mr Ratcliff, always strive to create the rich, visual feast”. Make something so compelling that you cannot take your eyes off it. So interesting that you can see something new in it every time you look at it. If you’re going to all the trouble to make art, make it interesting.
I was watching FX’s series “Better Things”, with Pam Adlon, a funny and poignant show about a single mom raising three daughters. I swear my wife and oldest daughter have had some of the same arguments I’ve seen on the show.
Beside the stories, the best thing about “Better Things” is the art direction. It is the most beautifully shot show on television. Even the simplest of shots are cinematic and break-taking in scope. With the sound turned down, the show is beautiful to watch. The backgrounds are colorful and deep. You see into their world, understand a little better about who these women are.
The rich visual feast.
I cannot take my eyes off the show even though some of the stories can be hard to sit through. The visuals and so stunning, so evocative, so captivating, I can sit perfectly still for 30 minutes and drink it all in.
Kreneck was right. When you make something so rich and interesting, you cannot help but make the world a better place in the process.