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How Do You Do It?

I spent most of last week with 2400 designers at the HOW Design Conference in San Diego. Nearly 50 sessions on design, including typography, color, brainstorming, motion graphics, web graphics, trends, sales, freelancing and broadcast design. There was even a session about email marketing essentials. You literally could have come to San Diego without the slightest clue about the business, art and science of graphic design, and you could have left with an overview of just about everything we do.

There were some wonderful luminaries at the conference, and depending upon your taste and inclination, you could pick and chose whom you wanted to hear speak. I was in joyful sensory overload as I tried to navigate my way around sessions with Hillman Curtis (unbelievable), Alexander Laurent (everything you ever wanted to know about designing illusions for film) and graphic activism in the work of David Rees and Shepard Fairey (one word: wow).

What I found most interesting attending the HOW Conference was actually seeing all the how’s—how people work the way they do, how they come up with (or don’t come up with) ideas, how they choose different directions, how they use technology (or don’t), and how they basically, well, do what they do. It was fascinating. It was like getting a peek into a designer’s studio. Or their soul. It was like being invisible while watching the “way” in which a designer actually lives their life. Heady stuff.

I was part of a panel that Print Magazine created called Ironic Chef. The overall theme of Print’s series of sessions was called The Oxymoronic Spree, and it was just that: a wonderfully eclectic line-up of designers and thinkers (Rick Poynor, Steve Heller, Michael Dooley, Colin Berry, among others) presenting design dichotomies and offering delightful and insightful diatribes on, among other things, designing in an election year and designing “pornotopia.”

Jeremy Lehrer, senior editor at Print came up with the idea for Ironic Chef. An homage to the popular television show Iron Chef, the session was described as follows:

Four designers. Two judges. Zero budget. One design-improv competition. That’s right: It’s Iron Chef, only this time, graphic designers will compete live, on stage, with a stop watch running, to create an identity system, logo, book jacket or other design work.

My fellow contestants were daunting competitors: Alex Isley, David Lai from Hello Design and Michael Hodgson from PhD. Several weeks prior to the event we were queried about our work preferences. Alex, David and I replied, “sketching.” Michael preferred working on the computer. The only question we were asked again prior to the competition was “What is your favorite typeface?” (me: peignot) Until the moment the competition began, I pretty much had no idea what to expect. Even Armin questioned the logic of my doing this.

Once we were all seated on the stage, we were arranged at a specially rigged desk that could project either our sketches or the computer screen. We were informed that in the ninety-minute session we would be given two design assignments and that we had to create exactly what was requested. Also: we were given a number of images provided by Veer, which we were required to use in the concepts. We were then asked to create an identity and a poster for a T-square company. Next up were an election poster and a slogan for a presidential candidate. But the real challenge was this: we had only 20 minutes for each “project” and our sketches and concepts were projected on a tremendous screen to approximately 400 designers in real time as the actual ideas were created and evolving. So essentially, everyone saw everything. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Designing on the spot is hard. Really hard. Needing to come up with a good idea in record time is difficult enough, but doing it with a huge audience of designers watching and judging every step of the way is, well, a bit mad. The first thing I wrote on my sketchpad after getting the first “challenge” was the word HELP. I think David and Alex wrote it also. But the game had begun and the stopwatch was rapidly marching on. I needed to come up with ideas. And fast.

After I got used to the embarrassment and my utter fear of failure (after all, we were being judged not only by the audience but by Michael Dooley and Steve Heller), and as the ideas were projected, I became fascinated by the way the designers around me were working. Alex wrote lots of ideas down. He had several ideas in a matter of minutes. He then drew up beautiful little storyboards. The idea was multi-faceted and funny. Ironic and smart. He handily won the first round. David was seated next to me, and in the second assignment he basically sat quietly and thought. Chin in hand. He doodled a little bit, but it seemed primarily to keep himself occupied. But then, in the nick of time, he had it. The idea. He had one idea. He wrote it down. He sketched it out. It was brilliant. The audience went wild.

Michael also worked differently. He was robust. He was confident. He made up his own rules (yes, he did change the name of the T-square company to a T-shirt company). He worked quickly on his computer, and suddenly it was all there: a grid! color! a gorgeously kerned headline! It was almost as if he created the idea completely in his head and then poured it all out, in one beautiful fell swoop, onto the computer screen.

I worked slowly, on paper with colored pencils, oil pastels and a variety of tools. My ideas were executed more like an art project, and for lack of a better word, they were more “painterly.”

Four designers. Four totally different ways of working, all in earnest pursuit of the same goal: beautiful, purposeful design.

It was an extraordinary experience to “see how” other people design, to see their magic and their muse, their process and their end product. I think HOW and Print are going to ask four different designers to do this again at next year’s conference. It will be interesting to be able to peer into another practitioner’s heart and mind for a few minutes once more.

So now I put this forth to the Speak Up readers, if you can: please tell us “how” you create. Fast? Slow? Is it agonizing, painless, painstaking, ruthless, with guts, with fear, with joy, with love? Do you sketch or paint or draw? Work straightaway on your computer? Work by hand AND by mouse? Are you shy about your ideas or confident? Do you work better alone or with a team? And, lastly, how do you know what to pursue, what to discard and when, oh when…to stop?

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PUBLISHED ON May.24.2004 BY debbie millman
Steve’s comment is:

I always sketch first, millions (almost) of words, doodles, impossibilities, absurdities, etc... I don't go to the black-box (computer) until I think I've refined a sketch a few times into that one Aha! idea. I find the computer is such an easy way to get off track and get lost. By sticking to the hand drawing I feel connected to the roots of design which I think is extremely important. One of the very last items I introduce is color, which may or may not be in colored pencil, paint, marker, or whatever.

Thanks for sharing your experiences on HOW and this specific challenge, sounds exciting!


On May.24.2004 at 07:49 AM
Rebecca C.’s comment is:

Honestly, it depends upon the project and deadline. I prefer to brainstorm word lists, then free-associate to see what concepts pop up. Only then do I go to the computer. I haven't sketched a project since my college professors stopped grading on comps. On a tight deadline I start by gridding (is that even a word?) my layout and go from there. Color is important, but I try to apply it for mood, not distraction or to fill up a design.

P.S., I was at HOW, loved the week, and got a lot out of your presentation on conservative clients. Thanks.

On May.24.2004 at 08:03 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Debbie, you are a brave woman. I'm painfully shy during the concept phase. Nobody — rarely even my wife — gets to see the sketches until I'm ready. When I worked in cubicle land, I had a small mirror I kept on my monitor so I could see anyone coming up behind me. If I wasn't ready to show what was onscreen, I quickly moved it out of view!

My process is all about lots and lots of pencil sketches and then, when I feel like the idea is ready to grow, I hit the computer. If I get stuck, I'll go back to the paper and refine and see if it is still working. I do this back and forth quite a bit, convincing myself the idea is decent, then trying to realize it. If it's not coming together after a few tries, it gets benched and I try something else for awhile.

The big question: Debbie, care to show your workshop results here?

On May.24.2004 at 08:53 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

The big question: Debbie, care to show your workshop results here?

Jon! Is that a dare?

; )

Sure I'll show...however, the T-Square piece I threw out, it was so hideous. One of the campaign posters I gave to Mr. Heller. The other two I think I still have in my HOW conference bag at home. If so, I will post tomorrow am. Cool?

On May.24.2004 at 08:58 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

Fortunately I don't usually have to create alone--typically I work with a writer, which is good for getting feedback and bouncing ideas around and developing something worth printing or finishing or whatever. Typically it depends on what kind of project it is; some of my clients already have existing brand identities so they don't need to be redefined, which gives a nice framework to create under. When that sort of organization exists, its just a matter of knowing the brand and creating the appropriate solutions. Of course, lately, I've been working on a number of clients who have no identity whatsoever and that's usually the more interesting and challenging aspect of my job. I spend a lot of time going over various strategic documents, looking at audience research, trends, and analysis of other data. These things are important to consider when making stuff that runs in the mass media, but simultaneously, you have to be pretty inventive so you don't hash out a literal translation of the information you already have.

Generally the process is simple (and painfully short)--sit down with my writer and talk about stuff. Anything. Everything. Start making the conversation relevant to the problem at hand, come up with as many ideas as humanly possible--usually this requires a lot of writing on both of our parts--toss out anything that you even think you've seen or already said. Sometimes we do a lot of free-association and stream of consciousness, sometimes we look at things going on in the category and intentionally move in the opposite direction. It just depends.

I usually enjoy the process, but every now and then it drives me absolutely crazy.

On May.24.2004 at 09:30 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> When I worked in cubicle land, I had a small mirror I kept on my monitor so I could see anyone coming up behind me. If I wasn't ready to show what was onscreen, I quickly moved it out of view!

That is just too funny. But I can sympathize. I don't like showing work in progress at all. I understand the importance of having other designers' (or anybody for that matter) input during the process of designing. But I just don't like it. If I'm working on a logo (web site, brochure, whatever) I don't like to show anything until I don't feel it's ready because a) it's not ready and b) people tend to come to conclusions on unfinished work or can't visualize it. So, I like holding off on showing anything until I have the idea and execution flushed out.

I would probably fall under the Michael Hodgson from PhD category. I sit, think and do (mostly on the computer right away). I do use my sketchbook often (as was proven in my ode) but most of the time I have a clear idea of what I want to produce: colors, imagery, type, layout, etc. and it's just a matter of putting in together.

And lastly, on this how you work idea… when working with other designers does anybody get frustrated with the way they work on the computer? Like the way they'd use Quark or Illustrator or Photoshop? Bryony and I both work really fast on these programs (she more than I) but we do it in completely different ways and find it equally perplexing how we work.

On May.24.2004 at 09:49 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

I agree (sort of?) with Bradley. Creative work seems to flow much faster and with better results when done collaboratively from start to finish. (Akin to Extreme Programming.)

My ideal workflow is with a small group of creatives that get along (ie, no silly ego issues). It's good to have a really dry, analytical project manager in the group as well to keep things moving. Then, it's a gigantic white board (our old office had an entire wall that was just a whiteboard) and a couch or two where we just start tossing up ideas/thoughts/brainstorms.

We'd do that for an hour, then, leaving the sketches on the board up, we all return to our desks for a couple of hours to pump out some tighter concepts.

Then, they'd all go back up on the board and we'd do a quick group critique, pulling off the ideas that we feel aren't worth pursuing at this time. We're then usually left with a hanful of good ideas which we hand off to one or two designers to polish up for presentation.

I found that environment to be the most enjoyable and productive way to produce graphic design than any other place I've worked at.

On May.24.2004 at 09:50 AM
Tan’s comment is:

I'm with Armin and Hodgson. I sit, think, sketch/paint/collage, then spit the idea out onto the computer. According to Briggs/Meyers, I'm (we are) typed as an introverted designer — in the intellectual/creative sense. We formulate and organize our thoughts internally before manifesting them externally.

The opposite is an extrovert designer — which sounds a bit like how you work Debbie. Extroverts think and formulate as they sketch and visualize.

Neither way is better or more productive. Extroverts tend to work well and thrive in team environments and brainstormings. Introverts are good at creative direction. Each has its strengths.

Btw, this is NOT the same as an introvert/extrovert personality. That's social categorization. I'm talking about intellectual/analytic process typing. Because personality/social-wise, I'm anything but an introvert.

>when working with other designers does anybody get frustrated with the way they work on the computer?

Totally. I hate sloppy files. But that's probably because I'm a control freak, not because of how I create.

On May.24.2004 at 10:25 AM
vibranium’s comment is:

I kinda just let it roll around until something (HOPEFULLY!!) clicks. So I guess I fall into the Introverted Designer mode. I do often write words no matter what I am trying to solve...I usually only sketch out page layouts and even then it's usually *right* before stepping onto the mac - and they resemble little shapes with scribbles and slashes thru them...

I like driving, it helps me think. And listening to Fresh Air or This American Life...talk puts me in the right brain.

I HATE showing work that isn't complete...or even talking about an idea before it's done...

wow...HOW sounded great this year....

On May.24.2004 at 10:36 AM
Rob Bennett’s comment is:

most of the time, i work the idea out in my head and then bring it to life on the computer. i think this is mainly because i don't have the formal art background and i hate my drawings/sketches.

i do sometimes work around key words and phrases when I am feeling stuck. since most of the work i do is financial in nature, it's sometimes difficult to come up with a clear visual solution that works with the text that comes out somewhat more literally, and less conceptually. And I really try to avoid all those financial cliches that I see too many of our competitor's using. Dare to be different only if works for the product, though.

i much prefer a collabrative environment but right now am flying solo due to corporate mergers/buyouts/takeovers.

On May.24.2004 at 11:42 AM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

great post deb!

I think its important to throw out any exacting process and put yourself at odds. I'm currently contructing a home-made pedicycle (with an outsourced artist/ manufacturer) that I can use to pick up art directors in Midtown and collaborate on the spot in Central Park (the design will be unveiled at the Art Directors club at next month's illustrator portfolio review- pls stop by).

On May.24.2004 at 12:26 PM
Kurt’s comment is:

HOW was great this year and the weather even cooperated.

I was at the Ironic Chef session (and the consevervative client session also) and it was fun to watch, although I kept thinking, "what if that was me up there"? I think I would've drawn a perpetual blank! It was interesting to hear the crowd opt for the conceptual drawings instead of the computer generated concept (I think it went a little long also).

The point is that we all have different ways of doing creative and coming up with what is needed. And it may even be slightly different each time.

I was working on a logo this weekend and the whole thing just gelled in about an hour (cat distractions and all). That's never happened.

Debbie and all the HOW speakers did a great job!


On May.24.2004 at 02:53 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> (cat distractions and all)

There is something worth exploring here… distractions. How does everyone work around them? From the silly (like cats — no offense, I have two to entertain me), to the mundane (like meetings, phone conversations) to the more difficult (fight with girlfriend, sickness).

It obviously affects the way we work and must ultimately transpire into the work itself. (This would be similar to this recent discussion, but less "deep")

On May.24.2004 at 03:21 PM
dan’s comment is:

I'm trying this new thing out this summer where everything goes on a big sheet of paper instead of into a folder or sketchbook.

If nothing else, it's a change of scenery.

On May.24.2004 at 03:54 PM
Maya Drozdz’s comment is:

As an educator, I constantly push my students to sketch out EVERY idea when brainstorming on a project. 50 thumbnails by next class, etc. I also point to my sketchbook [which is always with me] and talk about the myriad things that go into it [for a specific project, or because I find them interesting].

Earlier this semester, a student asked to see my sketchbook. No one had ever asked, so I complied. Surprisingly, there was not one actual sketch in it, only lists of words and phrases, occassonal paragraphs, groups of color swatches, etc. The only things resembling sketches are these weird schematics that resemble flow charts or maps [for any kind of project, from ID to web]. Huh, I guess I don't sketch.

I figure out the concept on paper, plus the general placement and its rationale. My sketches are entirely digital, and my early digital sketches also resemble the analog schematics.

On May.24.2004 at 05:01 PM
Kurt’s comment is:

There is something worth exploring here… distractions.

Great idea. One person's distraction is another's great idea (or just another pain in the butt distraction).

Idea + distraction + mix/stir/blend = another possible idea.


On May.24.2004 at 06:14 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Distractions...How does everyone work around them?

For me, the more white noise, the better. I hate complete silence. iPod, tv, background stuff...I've learned to zone it out.

Except I can't seem to zone out one particularly annoying distraction to my work day — Speak Up. Not sure what the cure is.

>Surprisingly, there was not one actual sketch in it, only lists of words and phrases, occassonal paragraphs, groups of color swatches, etc.

hahaha...thanks Maya for admitting that. Gave me a chuckle. I do the same exact thing w/ my students. Do as I say, not as I do.

Just think of it this way. It took you years of experience to get to a point where you can sketch in your head. They have yet to acquire that skill, so they have to sketch.

On May.24.2004 at 06:24 PM
Peter Scherrer (ps)’s comment is:

It took you years of experience to get to a point where you can sketch in your head. They have yet to acquire that skill, so they have to sketch.

very valid point. i often let concepts "simmer" in my brain. than i go straight to mac to implement. of course in freehand...

there doesn't seem to be a routine for me. i fill sketchbooks. scraps and pieces of paper, but often i sketch in freehand or quark.

for identity work i tend to create tons of roughs before zooming in on favorites. and yes, i'm a meyers/briggs introvert. so i'll need some time on my own before sharing.

On May.24.2004 at 08:46 PM
marian’s comment is:

When designing any kind of document, I also work things out in my head (and rework, and scrap and start over) before going to the computer and working it up. Occasionally I will sketch (particularly logos) but it's rare. I do make little paper mockups though, and for some reason they are always tiny. I mean tiny! So my desk is often littered with Barbie-sized magazines.

I'm also superstitious and don't like to talk about my ideas before I've worked them out (and of course don't like to show them). This is, I think, a bad thing.

However I have always liked and benefitted from brainstorming sessions with other designers.

I tend to work very quickly--this is also, I think, a bad thing.

Funny about distractions. When designing, I can't work without music (and I like it loud), but voices bug me. I hate chatter, can't listen to the radio. But when I'm drawing I like to listen to episodes of This American Life (I seem to have more of my brain free). When I'm writing I prefer complete silence.

On May.25.2004 at 09:01 AM
Kurt’s comment is:

It would be interesting to take a survey of users of this site to see what categories designer fall into with regards to working style, type A v. type B personalities and others. I think you might find many similarities with these things as designers seem to be more of a self-selected group.

I personally find it easier to design with music in the background, but like some have said above, I need total silence when writing (gotta hear that inner voice). I do not like to display my work before its time. When I first started with my current employer, my boss would hover over me and watch what I was doing. That didn't last long!

On May.25.2004 at 11:10 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

It would be interesting to take a survey of users of this site to see what categories designer fall into with regards to working style, type A v. type B personalities and others.

Interesting idea, Kurt. Do you mean Type A as more hyper, active, decisive and Type B as more thoughtful, introspective, tempered?

This is a tough one! I am thinking about Armin and how he would fit in--online he is definitely a rabid Type A (rabid in a nice way) but in person he seems more of a Type B...is it possible we all have a "lead gene" personality type, but ultimately call on both sides of our brain when we are creating?

I think I am probably Type A professionally but Type B personally. Maybe.

On May.25.2004 at 11:19 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> but in person he seems more of a Type B

"Seems"? I'm definitely a B, more like a BB+

Kidding aside, a designer survey might be interesting. Maybe it could help dispel the black-turtle-neck-wearin'-iPod-rockin'-PC-hatin' label. Or reinforce it. I'll put some thought into this.

On May.25.2004 at 11:34 AM
Kurt’s comment is:

I'm probably Type B on both accounts, but can easily move into Type A when needed or I feel something is important (or when it comes to presentations or public speaking). I think the definitions you assigned to them are what I was thinking about.

I believe most people are more complicated than that and some may fear getting pigeon holed by these types of descriptions, but they do have some validity and are a good base to start from.

I'm a big fan of This American Life also (Car Talk is a strong second).

On May.25.2004 at 11:36 AM
Rob’s comment is:

I always tend to be more of a Type B also but friends and co-workers (when I had co-workers) always like to refer to me as a laid back Type A. Whatever that means?

I definitely have to have music or something to listen to when I am working. Without it my mind wanders off into never, never get anything done land.

I think a survey could be very interesting and thought provoking in its own way. I look forward to whatever Armin comes up with.

On May.25.2004 at 03:43 PM
Jason Sonderman’s comment is:

This is such an intriguing thread! Since I left the professional creative world after hitting a ceiling, I realized how long it has been since I have designed with other designers around.

Like many of you, I am a "go away until the ideas are viewable" type of person. I need to make sure what is showing makes sense to me before I can even entertain another designer's input.

As for process, I am a man of words: hand listing down the visual words that are known (client's inspirations, requirements, etc.) then building a verbal language from that. Words become images and textures quickly, and I am not one of hand-drawn sketches (just never really honed that skill) but I start sketching on the computer.

Depending on the project, I use Photoshop or Illustrator, and pretty much stay to the basic tools. No color, not yet.

I have had art directors criticize my process in the past (probably lead to my abandonment of the Creative Agency life), but really... how can one dis on another man's creative process if said process leads to a strong design?

On May.25.2004 at 06:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Wait… did you say Peignot Debbie?

On May.26.2004 at 12:53 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

yeah, I did Armin...you gotta problem with that?

On May.26.2004 at 01:13 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

(it's a Mary Tyler Moore thing--or are you too young for that?)

On May.26.2004 at 01:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

(Actually, close… but not quite)

> (it's a Mary Tyler Moore thing--or are you too young for that?)

Is she like Demi Moore's mom or something? 'Cause she and Ashton got it goin' on.

On May.26.2004 at 01:23 PM
Joyce’s comment is:

I don't think Debbie's discussion of the How/Print conference should slip by without this pic of her all toqued-out at Print's first-ever Ironic Chef session. (Behind her: Alexander Isley and Michael Hodgson, co-participants ). Photo: Stephanie Skirvin/Print magazine.

On May.26.2004 at 01:29 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Nowhere near as attractive as this.

On May.26.2004 at 01:32 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

I'm surprised no one's jumped on this yet:

How Do You Do It?

with love.....


concepting & word association > really horrible sketches - looking at/gathering related designs > onto the computer (usually sifting through suitcase) > back to sketchbook > back to computer > back to sketchbook > back to computer...

On May.26.2004 at 07:06 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Joyce, thanks for sharing… why is Isley's chef hat so straight? Notice Debbie's and Michael's have more of that expected "fluffing" at the top.

On May.27.2004 at 10:24 AM