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Design Pressure: Work on your Skills
Guest Editorial by Eduardo Pires

Agonizing and intimidating situations will arise in the everyday life of a graphic designer. However, if you’re a master of your craft, or at least a good apprentice on the way to becoming a master, you’ll be able to dribble your way out of any complicated design situation. Often, you’ll find yourself a few hours away from a huge project deadline for which you have not sketched anything, nor given it any thought, due to having a million other things on your plate. The clock is ticking, the computer screen in front of you is still blank, and the expectations of your supervisors are extremely high. You’d better come up with brilliance soon, because all the sales executives have done their jobs at this point, and the account’s life is in your hands. A lot of pressure indeed.

If you like sports, you can flatter yourself and imagine you’re Michael Jordan or Pelé, who often found themselves with minutes, or even seconds left, in a crucial game they were losing, but turned it around by dribbling their way past five opponents over and over again. How did they do it? A lot of practice, because practice makes perfect. Designers must constantly dribble their way past a blank Quark Xpress screen, a crashing computer, paper jams and who knows what else. However, if you’re lucky enough to be in the business of creating art, then you can actually have fun preparing yourself for these situations.

Jazz, I find is one of the best ways to creatively overcome these challenges. In other words, improvise. Improvisation is key when time is lacking, and one can improvise effortlessly even when they are not inspired, or are having an off day, simply because a lot of graphic design relies purely on great technique. When you have your technique in great form and at the tip of your fingers you don’t have to be inspired to produce outstanding layouts quickly. It’s rewarding and almost makes you feel like a wizard or a magician, pulling one trick after another out of your hat. The bigger trick is, however, where to look other than your imagination to acquire these tricks.

Mastering technique has to do with discipline, so like any great artist you have to study, and you can never study enough. Be pro-active; always read about graphic design, see what others out there are doing, and pay special attention to design history. Paul Rand, Hans Schleger, Jan Tschichold, Saul Bass and W.J.H.B Sandberg can teach you a lot. They have become legends, not only because of how passionate they were about design, but also because they mastered, and had superior knowledge and control over their typography.

Go to art museums, and go often. Become a member of art institutions, surround yourself with visual communication, architecture, and absorb it - let yourself be consumed by it. This way, you’ll come to work each day with tricks loaded up your sleeve. You’ll have different grid structures, paragraph separation styles, typeface combinations and color schemes to choose from. Layout will come easy because it has been absorbed through your eyes and ears. You have to be a sponge in a sense; let the environment that surrounds you sink into your skin, and then sweat it all out on your canvas.

Make it your environment the best you can by putting some great music on and relax. Now, like Michael Jordan and Pelé, you’re confident, you’re on top of your game. You now have the skills you need, and pressure will melt away as you beat the clock to win over another client.

Eduardo Pires is currently a Senior Designer at PFS where he helps set artistic direction for many design-related projects and executes creative concepts through his own unique style and graphic design talents. Eduardo earned a bachelor of fine arts in communication design from Parsons School of Design, New York City. He previously worked for Popular Science and Rolling Stone magazines, Giovanni Bianco Studio and collaborated with Bouchez Kent and Co., as well as various freelance projects.

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ARCHIVE ID 2236 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Mar.04.2005 BY Speak Up
Armin’s comment is:

To be honest, I was at first hesitant to take this as a guest editorial. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but it seemed a bit Hallmarkish and, with all respect, a tad corny. However, there is an interesting point on this post: "When you have your technique in great form and at the tip of your fingers you don’t have to be inspired to produce outstanding layouts quickly."

Recently, I was discussing with a friend how some times — under certain circumstances like unrealistic deadlines or low budgets — it is possible to simply reach into our "bag of tricks" and whip out a very decent-looking piece of graphic design, whatever it may be. This "bag of tricks" can be anything from using a "style" to using a favorite typeface or color combo to any other visual trickery. This, of course, verges on the icing-on-the-cake scenario, but let's face it, sometimes that's all a job requires…

On Mar.04.2005 at 09:43 AM
Greg’s comment is:

I think we're all guilty of it at one time or another - "oh crap, this is due in fifteen minutes...I have nothing...blue square time!" Or instead of "blue square" insert your favorite meaningless/all-encompassing graphic device. The fact is that counting on inspiration to strike in the final hour is sometimes dangerous, and I think that is what Mr. Peres is getting at here. There has to be the knowledge and support of some "book-learnin" to back it up. It reminds me of a discussion on DO, in which Michael Bierut was talking about a design student that had never heard of Barbera Kruger, yet was imitating a style pioneered by her almost perfectly. If that student had been fully immersed in the background and history of design, something like that might not have come out. I'm not saying that everyone should have a bag of tricks to reach from when they're stumped, but it certainly helps to recognize a style and be able to justify its use. When you have the "feel" of design, not just its history but also the technique, creation becomes much easier.

On Mar.04.2005 at 11:45 AM
Nicholas’s comment is:

Though it's amazing what great stuff you can think of when your brain is pushed hard with the clock ticking. I know that many creative people work this way, stewing on thoughts and ideas until the 11th hour, when they whip out ideas like a factory.

Often started early and can lead to overworking an idea or concept to death, but everyone is different.

On Mar.04.2005 at 12:58 PM
Tan’s comment is:

We used to have junior designers that would marvel at how fast some of us old farts could pull layouts and logos out of nowhere. Logos in hours, a brochure cover in 15 minutes, etc.

But my business partner said it best, "It didn't take me 15 minutes, it took me 10 years and 15 minutes." Meaning that experience is everything. Experience helps shorten techniques, sharpen instincts for better improvisation, and build a warehouse of design tricks.

On Mar.04.2005 at 01:00 PM
John’s comment is:

i don't understand the aversion to this kind of work. not only is it acceptable, but in most cases desirable. clients are looking to me to execute design in my style. that is why they contracted with me in the first place.

i assume we are worried about the communication angle of our profession. if we can't talk about it, maybe it doesn't exist. could be, but maybe it's there and sometimes we have to use it and other times we don't and if I'm a communicator and a creative thinker, i don't need to worry about creating something in a style i've possessed.

also, the post mentions the necessity of study and development. if, during my "study" i am dilligent and searching, when i develop (or evolve) my style it will be mine, and have a deep backstory which aids all communication i create in that style

just a few thoughts

On Mar.04.2005 at 01:14 PM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Damn. I've got to slow down my reading. On the first run I thought Tan said...

"build a whorehouse of design tricks"

On Mar.04.2005 at 01:53 PM
Tan’s comment is:

...that would be a different kind of tricks.

On Mar.04.2005 at 02:24 PM
RavenOne’s comment is:


wow. That beats my misreading of a book on photography as 'pornography'.

...Hey Tan, Where can I get a whorehouse of design tricks? :)

On Mar.04.2005 at 02:44 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

some of us old farts

How old are you, Tan? I know you're scaling the heights of Landor & all, but in your pictures you don't look a day over 12*--the picture of youth & vigour.


When I'm I'm up against the clock, my layouts fill up with circles. Circles always seem to work in a pinch. I've also used the ironic pastiche of popular cliché as well, but only with clients that are annoying me. Not surprisingly, they tend to think it's something great.

*Deliberate exaggeration

On Mar.04.2005 at 02:44 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>How old are you, Tan?

I just turned 37 about 2 weeks ago. To me, that's old compared to some of the 20 year old designers around here.

But I'm still a tshirt and jeans kind of guy, which can make me look perpetually 16. In fact, I have to say, that most of the SU authors all look relatively young and lovely — some really belying their true age.

And just a small correction — I jumped off the Landor tower last year, and now hang my hat at Young & Rubicam Brands. Same work, different bosses, sort of.

...now back to our whorehouse of design tricks.

On Mar.04.2005 at 05:16 PM
gregor’s comment is:

Tan: How did I get the idea that you were at Hornall Anderson Design in Seattle? Hmmm, maybe that's my "senior" moment....

But I'll completely agree with you that while it appears superhuman to pull a great design "out of a hat" in a relatively short timeframe, it's an accumulation and combination of years of concepts that have been stirring in the thought processes that just gel for that project at that time -- when needed at the 11th hour.

for some it may be an entirely different experience or process, but that's what happens when my back is against the wall. good strong espresso helps too.

certainly much of the advice in the article is useful, and I would say three things certainly help us all:

have a life that exists more than 2 feet away from your monitor: which can be anything from visiting galleries, being an avid movie watcher, hanging out with your spouse and/or kids for a full weekend w/o turning on a computer or picking up a trade magazine, or collecting stamps -- doesn't matter as long as your involved in life away from the computer or other design related tasks

always think critically (or most of the time -- keep that brain working)

relax when the time is there to do so

On Mar.04.2005 at 06:29 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:


Age: I never would have guessed. Well done.

Employment: Time to update the Speak Up bio.

On Mar.04.2005 at 06:47 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Gregor — I might have mentioned HADW a time or two here. I'm a big fan of Jack Anderson, plus, my wife used to work there. In my opinion, they produce the best design work in Seattle.

Jeff — "well done" in looking like a kid at 37, or well done in leaving Landor for Y&R? Either way, thanks mate.

Ok, is that it? Anyone want to know about my high school or college years? No? Ok...thanks for stopping by.

Have a good weekend folks.

On Mar.04.2005 at 07:00 PM
Mitch’s comment is:

But my business partner said it best, "It didn't take me 15 minutes, it took me 10 years and 15 minutes."

that was actually better stated by pablo picasso - the story goes (seen at 1designsource.com:

Picasso was in a park when a woman approached him and asked him to draw a portrait of her. Picasso agreed and quickly sketches her. After handing the sketch to her, she is pleased with the likeness and asks how much she owed to him. Picasso replies: "$5,000."

The woman screamed, "but it took you only five minutes."

"No, madam, it took me all my life," replied Picasso.

but the point is true - one thing i have learned over time is to pull good things out of my ass on very short notice - and to date i have gotten away with it quite nicely - i do not always do it, sometimes it takes forever, and not every 'ass idea' is great, but a good chunk of them are. sometimes the best idea generation is to not have time to generate ideas.

On Mar.04.2005 at 10:05 PM
Valon’s comment is:

But my business partner said it best, "It didn't take me 15 minutes, it took me 10 years and 15 minutes."

I like that better than say "bag of tricks". Bag of Tricks makes me think like we're working with set templates on our minds. Not that anything's wrong with having your own templates in your mind, but saying that it took you 15 years to come down to 15 minutes sounds much much better.

k, it's friday nite & i'm out.

On Mar.04.2005 at 10:56 PM
Keith Harper’s comment is:

i think this is a really great thread for young designers to discuss / read, because you really do develop a “bag of tricks” as you gain experience. The best thing you can do is continually observe your environment, your culture, everything around you is an influence. You may generate an idea now that you will not use for 20 years. When you're young sometimes its hard to see beyond the present, you just have to keep yourself open and absorb it like a sponge. I really like that line. Soak up as much as you can and carefully select what you spit back out, and use the past to inform the present.

On Mar.04.2005 at 11:11 PM
RavenOne’s comment is:

...I like my whorehouse of design/art tricks. As for burning the midnight oil to get works done; I've done it for writing. Seems to work.

On Mar.05.2005 at 12:27 AM
Rob’s comment is:

Last minute solutions is one good reason to keep a treasure trove of good samples and sketches around. They help trigger ideas that will work for the situation and isn't an exact replica of what inspired the idea.

Have good weekend.

On Mar.05.2005 at 05:50 AM
Nick Shinn’s comment is:

Actually, "it took me a lifetime" goes back to the tragic JM Whistler vs. John Ruskin libel trial of 1878. Whistler, who was accused by a grumpy old Ruskin of "throwing a pot of paint in the public's face", took his accuser to court. The defense asked if two days of work was worth the 200-guinea price of the painting in question (Falling Rocket). Whistler replied, “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

The jury awarded Whistler damages of one farthing, effectively bankrupting him through legal expenses. Ruskin was fighting a losing battle against mental illness, it was the end of his career as a writer.


I've been working for 30 years, and have picked up a bit of speed. But I find that the biggest advantage of experience is that I can keep working on a project and get further, knowing through past experience which dead ends to avoid. It's that extra distance which should be worth the big bucks of experience -- but the market doesn't always see it that way.

On Mar.05.2005 at 07:56 AM
david e.’s comment is:

Design really is very much like jazz, where you explore one musical idea, take it as far as you can, then move on to the next. Musicians draw from a language that they're already fluent in, and adapt what they already know to fit the song they're playing—much like designers adapt their knowledge of design to fit the project. When musicians fall into a rut, where they find themselves playing the same "licks" over and over, they study what other musicians are doing in order to find fresh ideas—building on their existing musical vocabulary. It's the same as designers keeping up on what others are doing to build on their design vocabulary (I prefer "design vocabulary" to "bag of tricks", which sounds more like gimmicks, or surface style)

I don't think there really IS any other way to design. Eventually, every project you do has reference points in things you've already done. It took me a long time to learn that lesson. I would have saved myself a lot of frustration when I first started if I had realized that it would all come with experience.

On Mar.07.2005 at 02:12 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Eventually, every project you do has reference points in things you've already done.

This is indeed the recursive nature of our practice. Insight, skill, and knowledge come from multiple cycles of experience. Our creative ability is the expressive outcome of a cyclical process: Observation and accumulation of components within the external context of a project, derived from the interests of both client and their customers and from the greater design/creative community, are then drawn inward for internal reflection and analysis. Filtered through past experience, and "masticated" by objectives and personal ability, we produce our design "solutions, which are then presented externally and juxtaposed against objectives, which is then again internalized and modified through continuing analysis. This cycle continuing until we finally come up with a solution. But then this "solution" is not a final end, but merely an interim stop along the continuing route of development (of both the client and the designer).

The advantage that experience gives is to have a set of pre-established cycles that are built into one's endeavors. Like software, designers with more experience have had more "version" upgrades and are therefore more effective and efficient with processing design challenges.

On Mar.08.2005 at 01:56 PM
jHar’s comment is:

I think that every designer is guilty of occasionally phoning it in and just falling back on techniques that have worked in the past. Nobody is perfect, but I think we should always strive for solutions that match the needs of the project. Sometimes using a technique that you can execute well might look great, but it might not really do the project justice. A bag of tricks can become a crutch and can facilitate a body of work that looks similar and is lacking in strategy. Experience is one thing, tricks are another.

Also, as far as soaking up the world around us and incorporating that into our design, the author is right on. That is a huge part of original design and honest inspiration. However, we're all control freaks and workaholics, if we let the pursuit of inspiration become part of our work process then when do we live? If we're watching movies, reading books and going to museums because we want inspiration, are we really enjoying these art forms or are they part of our job? It's really easy to think that in order to be good you have to always be working, always be surrounded by inspiration, always be expressing yourself and taking it in. I guess I just hope that designers, old and young alike, realize that inspiration will come to you when you are enjoying life, so seek happiness and peace first, take time to develop your craft, but take time to develop your philosophies as well. Inspiration shouldn't be homework, it should be fun, so let's not stress.

On Mar.09.2005 at 03:33 PM