Speak UpA Former Division of UnderConsideration
The Archives, August 2002 – April 2009
advertise @ underconsideration
---Click here for full archive list or browse below
To Hell with Mentoring

You can learn how to do anything just by grabbing a thick read from your local Barnes & Noble. Do-it-yourself books fill their shelves. Design is no exception to this morass.

Still, how many designers are self-taught? Is it even possible? Mentoring remains the best means of educating aspiring designers. It happens in the classroom, in the studio, or through an internship, but there are some skills we must acquire on our own. What skills (technical or otherwise) have you mastered through a books’ series of exercises or assignments? And beyond the microcosm of learning Flash, PhotoShop, or Final Cut Pro, can design be self-taught? Not just the tools and software we use, but the trade itself and visual literacy as a whole.

As a designer, share your do-it-yourself experiences, regrets, or ambitions.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Aug.26.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Sam Sherwood’s comment is:

I'd say it's one of those disciplines you simply get better at with practice. You can always look back on your past work and say, "Gee... I was terrible back then!" If there comes a day when you're completely satisfied, then you have finally contracted the old-timers' disease, and probably don't even remember the hue of your undergarments (tho' you can feel the saturation...).

While in college, 'studying' to become a Computer Engineer, I spent much of my time treating the campus and its inhabitants as my test subjects. Of course, I spent more time bumming the books off of my art student roommate, rather than bother with differential equations.

After blowing 75k on 3 years of schooling, I found a job one summer at a local clothing catalog company (read: Satan's workshop). It was truly a trial by fire experience, because it was nearly impossible to get funding for projects a first time, much less get an attempt at a second pass. In the first 6 months, I had the role -- not title or pay, mind you -- of lead designer. I created a new brand (yes, not just a logo) for the company, and slowly put a bit of myself in every aspect of the business. Now, whenever someone sees the cover, the cards, or even the order form, they see me.

When meeting with printers, I'd ask all the questions I could. When talking to packaging reps, I'd prepare another gargantuan set of queries. Even the server maintenance techs couldn't avoid my curiosity. If the company wasn't going to pay me for my work, I was going to take what I could using their money.

Anyhow, that's pretty much how I learn. It may not be the most efficient practice, but it does keep me at a pace that I find comfortable. If I'm working, I tend to not notice I'm learning.

On Aug.27.2004 at 12:05 AM
Jordan Winick’s comment is:

Most of my computer skills are the result of self-teaching. I've been using computers since I was two and my grandfather bought us a Commodore 64. Therefore, during most of my life I have had a comfortable familiarity with computer systems. The computer education they were teaching in public schools was miserably behind my intellectual curiosity and scalene from my interests (I'm sorry, but teaching me how to use Microsoft Works Spreadsheets is engaging in the way that graphing conic sections is). I taught myself how to create digital art (beyond my Koala pad I started with 16-color pixel drawings of X-Men in MS Paint) and how to make webpages (Netscape Composer). This continuing education has given me a significant technology advantage in high school and college, and with the spread of the internet it has multiplied.

I regularly search with Everything2 and the Wikipedia, and, of course, with Google to gain skill sets and general knowledge. I can testify with recent events. I worked a summer job that involved cleaning up a lot of webpage code, and to brush up I grabbed the O'Reilly CSS book and the W3C's XHTML specs and redesigned the style sheet to work with semantic tagging instead of Vendor HTML. Now I am able to comfortably author standards-compliant web pages with just a little research and some goofing around. I've also learned-by-research several knots (as in tying), how to tune my drums, how to create and modify 3d models and game levels, how to create computer fonts, how to create a tripod out of a bottle cap, how to do multitrack audio recording and editing on a limited budget, how to make a kite, how to make a decent General Tso's (ok, I'm almost there), how to impose a document for self publishing (I ended up teaching a whole group of people at my school), as well as many other things. I think a successful design education should combine independent curiosity, traditional learning, team collaboration, and real-world experience.

A possible and exciting future extension of this principle is When Blobjects Rule the Earth.

On Aug.27.2004 at 12:42 AM
Bo Parker’s comment is:

I, too, am a "self-taught" designer. I had a background in art and illustration but fell into the advertising/design community. I actually didn't start into design until I opened my own shop; I had been on the account service side up to that point.

There was nothing more valuable than my mentors. At my last agency, I had two creative directors that would show up at work in the morning at 6:00 and we would work through briefs and talk about nothing more than how account/marketing/media strategy translated into design and art direction execution. We did this for six months before I was even allowed to touch a pencil. They would even stay after work for a couple of hours to go through things.

After six months, I began pencil sketching layouts and was taught the elements of design, layout and type and was not allowed to touch a computer. After a year, I left the agency (the other two creative directors/designers left as well) and I opened my own shop. I used books and "how-to's" to learn illustrator, photoshop, etc. but I learned an important lesson from my mentors.

What we do is not art. It is not our emotional expression. It definitely has artistic elements and can have a great concept, but if that concept is not grounded in sound strategy, seamless integration of design, advertising and the overall brand and lacks the details of execution to create a really great piece, then you have failed to communicate. Our job is to clearly communicate our client's message. Sometimes communication supercedes aesthetic but our bottom line is to communicate.

I don't think that there is any way I would be in this industry without those mentors and no amount of knowledge I could glean from a book could ever substitute for the time and wisdom they spent with me.

On Aug.27.2004 at 08:50 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

My main source for almost anything is books. I love books, I basically live them. I push myself to read about subjects that interest me and those that don’t that can add to the way I think about a project, or that can provide a different dimension to a possible solution. Take my last read for example. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0142003697/speakup-20 " target="_blank">Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King. 300 pages of descriptions on how he went about painting, deciding, sketching, all the transferring techniques, who his assistants were, you name it. All the details, nothing left out. I gave me a better understanding of the Sistine Chapel and it’s development, and it has given me great ideas I want to experiment with in the future that I would never try had it not been for this book. The same would happen with a psychology book, or and old cookbook.

I would have to say that more than a tangible skill, books have taught me (and continue to do so) to see the world in a different way, and to see myself as a source with many paths.

On Aug.27.2004 at 09:27 AM
szkat’s comment is:

there are three things that enhanced my design skills more than anything else: wanting to be a photographer early on; going on Semester at Sea; and attending Design Camp.

from the first, i learned how to interact with my subject, regardless of the subject and its environment. from the second, my God, i can't even get into it here. i went to thirteen countries in four months and was reborn in each one. and then Design Camp is 300 designers who spend a weekend leaving pretension and shyness at the home. being around people who are equally motivated recharges me for the whole year, just getting a glimpse of how many raging ideas there are around me and getting to meet a few people that think them.

i am not self-taught... i have a degree in graphic design from Drake Univ. and i'm happy with it. but i've found that our calling is still young enough and instinctual enough that it is possible to teach yourself to live and learn and grow as a designer. in fact, i feel that a traditional education is not enough. in my experience, a connection to humanity is a large part of what's required.

On Aug.27.2004 at 10:07 AM
beeple’s comment is:

I agree that mentoring can be an extremely valuable tool in a person's growth as a designer, but I also feel that simply being a keen observer is infinitely more important. We are constantly being bombarded by design (both good and bad) on a daily basis. Since actions speak louder than words, those looking for a mentor need simply open their eyes a little wider to find an endless number of mentors ready to teach 24 hours a day.

On Aug.27.2004 at 10:23 AM
Michael H.’s comment is:

> then you have finally contracted the old-timers' disease, and probably don't even remember the hue of your undergarments (tho' you can feel the saturation...).

Too funny Sam, I almost wet myself when I read this.

I remember when I was an intern and about to finish up school. I was full of so many questions. Many many questions. But they were the right kinds of questions, they were good questions. I yearned for the day I would be the one to answer someone else's questions. Now I do get to answer some questions, but I still ask them too.

I keep in mind that I always want to ask questions, to never tire of learning. Like Byrony, I love books too. When I tell my wife I am going to Barnes & Noble, she tags along to act as chaperone.

And beeple, I agree 110% with you.

On Aug.27.2004 at 11:33 AM
Gerardo Reyes Jr’s comment is:

I feel that my time in school was a good introduction to many things particularly relating to Visual Communication. In school it was mostly having to meet the deadlines, participate in critiques (with people as inexperienced as you), polish that project up and start a new one for another class, and meet the deadline. I felt that I couldn't get any real work done, what I put up most of the time were mannequins (metaphorically) when I knew I really wanted to and could put up breathing, kicking beings. I knew the truth was out there and tried, but never quite attained it. So now after a long sabbatical and semi-wasted years (depending on who you ask) the things I learned in school have further been explained and illuminated in the time after graduation in the long and lonely act of reading.

The book I am most thankful for is The Elements of Typographic Style. Others favorites include Willi Kunz's Typography: Macro- + Microaesthetics, Fred Smeijers' Counterpunch, various monographs and books written by Rick Poynor and even books by John Cage or about the Conceptual Art movement, all the way down to To Hell With Culture by Robert Read. Like I said before, the trick to good self-teaching is knowing which books to pick up — to know yourself, which books you need, and where you want to be.

I feel that I am the wiser for it. I'm kind of glad I didn't get a design job right out of school because I have seen and talked to old classmates and seen their work with haste (for fear of finding out that they are Superdesigner now) but have mostly found out that they have been stunted a bit. They do work 'round the clock but ask them to talk about their work (which is bettering slowly) and they still sound like we're back in Intermediate Graphic Design/Viscom 3001. Would I have attained a full-time position I might not have had the time to read as much as I have and experiment and develop.

Currently, I am remaking myself through portfolio form and exercising those truths that I've learned and renouncing those that I've unlearned since school let out. In short it will be my second and first coming all at once, and it will be fierce.

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”

— Walt Whitman

On Aug.27.2004 at 12:28 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> As a designer, share your do-it-yourself experiences, regrets, or ambitions.

In my third year of college — when I finally realized I liked design — I would select a typeface (sometimes I would download some crappy freebie font), open a 5" x 5" Illustrator or Photoshop file and just do whatever. I did some terribly silly stuff, other stuff I thought it was my gift to the human race, but most importantly, I just played. On my own, without repercussions. Sometimes I would also mock up covers of Matiz, thinking that one day they would use it. As soon as I started working I stopped doing that and now with all this Speak Up stuff it's harder to find the time but it's something that I found extremely helpful for developing my own visual language and seeing what works, what doesn't, etc.

One of the things I really enjoyed/envied/admired of Sagmeister's year off was that he took that time to play, he would do from 10:00 11:00 a CD package, from 11:00 to 1:00 he would jot down crazy ideas, etc. I think finding that time to just do is extremely important. Of course not many of us can take a year off just for that.

It's all really just a matter of staying aware and be observant of all the stuff that happens around us — from the mundane, to the glamorous, to the entertaining, to the scary.

On Aug.27.2004 at 02:19 PM
graham’s comment is:

play is work. (vice versa). you don't make/take time to play. taking time off to play? as if a different, isolated activity? what use would that be? play is central, like breathing. how can it be otherwise?

On Aug.27.2004 at 02:27 PM
Kristian Walker’s comment is:

Both of my parents are designers (mom-graphic, dad-industrial) and I grew up with one goal in mind and that was to be an artist. I had decided by the time college came around to study illustration because I was trying to avoid walking in mom or dad's shoes. They had "mentored" growing up, though. I could do perspective drawing when I was 8, I knew about kerning and typesetting when I was a wee lad. I used to pore through mom type spec books and she'd give us here left over sheets of Letraset press-type to play with.

In the middle of college I had been doing some illustration for clients and happened to take a photography class. Fell in love with that. Then a big ad shooter in town that worked with mom told her he needed an assistant. I got the job, dropped out of college and started my career going as a commercial shooter.

After 4 years I decided to go back to school, but that crashed (long story). I started looking for work as a shooter, but that market is small, so I decided to try my hand as a designer. I bought as many books as I could and just started cranking out spec portfolio work. Actually some of it still pretty good.

What I think is cool is that now that I'm a creative director, I find my experience as an illustrator and photographer helps me tremendously, not only in design, but in being able to collaborate with shooters and illustrators well.

I guess because I spent my childhood hanging out in the design world with my parents, I absorbed a ton of stuff that came flooding back when I started work as a designer.

On Aug.27.2004 at 02:30 PM
Daniel Green’s comment is:

Paul Rand's last two books (Design, Form, & Chaos; From Lascaux to Brooklyn) both have wonderful examples of presentation books that Rand used to introduce a logo concept to a client. His presentation book for next Computers was particularly stunning in how it revealed both the process and solution in a way that made the mark look inevitable, yet still surprising and fresh. I have learned much from these books in how to present my own work to clients.

On Aug.27.2004 at 03:33 PM
david e.’s comment is:

I think that design is one of the hardest things to learn — at least it was for me. Compare it to playing a musical instrument or riding a skateboard: if you hit a bad note or land on your butt, it's going to be pretty obvious that you're doing something wrong — and it's going to be easier to correct your mistakes. When you're learning to design, it's nearly impossible to see what you're doing wrong without someone pointing it out to you. Plus, I think there's a natural tendency to look at things you like about your work and convince yourself that you're doing something good.

I think that learning from teachers and/or on the job from people you're working with is the only way someone can learn to design. Reading and studying examples of other designers work has also been very important for me, but if I hadn't had someone to teach me how to be critical of my own work I don't think I ever would have become a good designer.

On Aug.27.2004 at 06:43 PM
felipe’s comment is:

I am too a self-taught designer. books have served as a great way to learn the trade. One of the greatest, actually. It is to the work of the masters that you compare your work to, not your fellow classmates’ or your boss’. The only bad I thing I’ve found learning this way is that you always feel so insecure with some basics other designers know by heart. you have had to find those basic rules by yourself, experimenting and failing time after time, while most of you guys have been lucky enough to have someone point them out for you.

But in the end, I’ve come to understand that design is a craft you can learn but you cannot be taught, so it’s ok to keep learning everyday, as if it was the first day at school.

On Aug.27.2004 at 09:01 PM
justin m’s comment is:

It is to the work of the masters that you compare your work to, not your fellow classmates’ or your boss’. The only bad I thing I’ve found learning this way is that you always feel so insecure with some basics other designers know by heart.

I agree with this whole-heartedly and it causes me a lot of heartburn. 99% of what I know I have learned by reading and studying the work of people I admire. School has taught me a few cool things, like how to bind books by hand. That has been handy and useful lately.

Being self-taught though, I feel a lack of confidence at times and self-censor myself because I feel I'm not good enough. It is something I need to get over, so that I can develop a better portfolio and start showing it around.

On Aug.28.2004 at 10:35 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> play is work. (vice versa). you don't make/take time to play. taking time off to play? as if a different, isolated activity? what use would that be? play is central, like breathing. how can it be otherwise?

Oh Graham, you are such a romantic. Yes, play is central, it drives what we do and I don't disagree with that notion. But, there is a difference — a big difference — between play and work, that is why each word has different meanings and they could actually be antonyms.

Take for example professional basketball players. They work in the NBA, where they have to abide by rules and regulations, they have to run the plays the coach tells them, they foul out of the game after six fouls, they get benched. Why do you think basketball pick-up games are legendary? Because it's all play, there are less regulations, it's more free, players can do whatever they want, they can pass, not pass, dribble between their legs a dozen times, shoot as many damn threes as they want, throw crazy alley-oop passes… they can play without inhibition.

And I see design the same way. It's a job. It's a creative endeavor. At times it needs constraints, rules and regulations. Other times, it needs no boundaries to really blossom.

So, yes, I think designers need to take time to play… work is not play in the purest sense of the word. Play is integral and necessary and there are glimpses of it in work but work carries too many responsibilities to be only play.

On Aug.29.2004 at 11:03 AM
graham’s comment is:

not romantic at all. i'm describing what i do. play (the activity) like work (the activity) builds relationships, tests limits, finds common ground, shapes and reshapes ideas, allows rule-making to grow and change according to need, asks questions, creates, starts again . . .

i'm not interested in definitions i'm interested in experience and the fruits of that experience. experience shows me that definitions-words, terms, synonyms, antonyms- while handy in the moment, don't bear too much wear and tear. or they can get stuck, calcify and end up choking you.

i question any approach that relies on entrenched and/or preconceived notions of what a thing can or cannot be, any approach that would use those notions to limit the scope of human relationships -it would be irresponsible not to.

this is a real question-the phrasing might be off-but why do you seem to want what we do to be so proscribed?

and i don't know anything about the nba or what a pick-up game is, but football was alot better off when the leagues were leagues. george best really knew how to play.

On Aug.29.2004 at 04:48 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> why do you seem to want what we do to be so proscribed?

I'm not sure if I'm trying to proscribe how to do what we do and everybody is free to play and work and mix it up as much as they want, but I just don't buy a utopian work=play=work view. It's not that easy… it should be, but realistically, it isn't.

(I've been typing, deleting, re-typing and re-deleting a bunch of answers and come back to the same thing — work and play are different — and you will just get frustrated with me Graham, so I'll have to leave it at that).

> and i don't know anything about the nba or what a pick-up game is

A pick-up game is when people just get together at any court and play, no referees, no end-time, just playing.

On Aug.29.2004 at 06:26 PM
Laura Pavelko’s comment is:

"Regular" books have been tremendously helpful to me because they introduce new perspectives, challenge me to redefine them, and rework obvious solutions. Mark Oldach wrote that the answer to real design problems comes from the research, not an annual.

In short, you can't design for the big bad world without knowing something about it.

I also think teaching yourself to be a designer requires you to trust your own thinking, which is something that I found can be jeopardized in a classroom setting. It's the element of intuition and trust in that sixth sense that separates the designers from the Designers.

On Aug.30.2004 at 02:58 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

Graham/Armin, I hope you mean 'prescribe', not 'proscribe'.

I'd really be worried if someone tried to ban graphic design.

On Aug.30.2004 at 07:18 PM
Jason T’s comment is:

It's interesting how most of us have come to books as an educational source. I thought more people would touch on experiences, like that of play. I really appreciate those kind of exercises, as they are more rewarding. It usually feels better when you learn something on your own. You discover through self, and that's empowering. This is the first time I've heard about Sagmeister's little excursion, and surely, many of us have similar exercises we set up for ourselves. Call them play, call them self-directed, or call them research. It's working through self when you feel like, To hell with mentoring.

But there are times when you can't work in a vacuum. Are these self-directed experiences valuable? Don't you still require a client, peer, or audience to validate your work? If not, does it become just research? Or maybe even... art?

On Aug.31.2004 at 12:25 PM
Steve Mock’s comment is:

When I was much younger and exploring letterforms for fun, I would get the big type books from the library and draw entire alphabets. Not trace... look at 'em, and draw 'em. I didn't know a serif from a counter - at least not by name.

Later, in high school, this hand and eye thing came into play when I was asked to "letter" some sports certificates. I had no calligraphy pen, and - if I had one - little experience. So I would draw the intricate blackletter forms with a Flair marker and fill them in. Clunky, but charmingly handmade and the athletic director loved them.

So there's an example of a book and an excericise that I think was pretty good fun and it kinda' paid off later on. I was learning and doing something... just didn't know what it was called at the time.

George Trosley's work in CARtoons was a huge source of drawing and design 'exercise', as well. (Hey... it's a book!)

On Aug.31.2004 at 01:55 PM
szkat’s comment is:

Jason - I'm with you. I have on my desk right now Chip Kidd by Vienne, Street Graphics, Dawson, Clean New World, Lavin, and Hindu Art and Architecture, Mitchell. They're all nice - they made it to my desk, right? But even though I've grown from reading them, spending time in 13 countries messed me up more than any of these static books. Travel and simple human interaction pushed me much further in problem solving and nonverbal communication than any assignment from my college profs.

It's not about going somewhere exotic, either; I went to college in Iowa and a friend of mine had grandparents who had never left the state. Now that's a very different group to target than, say, me. And sitting down with them for tea changed my perspective on their decisions 180�. And to think I almost declined to meet them because I thought they might be boring...

Instead I learned something, and just keeping my mind a sponge is what makes the difference for me. Like what was said by Graham's questioning of limits - limits are malleable constructs. My best mentors have been people who didn't speak my language but could communitcate to me which train to take to get to Osaka from Kyoto. I think we all feel that, the willingness to communicate and the desire to understand. The willingness is how we teach ourselves to be designers; many people have neither the willingness or the desire, and that's what makes them... not us, I suppose.

On Aug.31.2004 at 04:10 PM