Rick Valicenti
(Part 2 of 2)
May 5, 2003—May 14, 2003

by Patric King

Speak Up (MAY.07.03) in one of the fisher catalogs, “invest in yourself” is a large chunk of the concept. but over the past few years, your work has become less concerned with inserting your own worldview in client works. it’s kinda suprising since, in the last fifteen years, you cultivated a reputation as the world’s most outspoken designer - and, in fact, only one of a few who could actually sell his own views. what changed?

Rick Valicenti (MAY.08.03) PK, you’re finally getting to the core of things.

Having referred to myself yesterday as design’s Zelig, I was both haunted and delighted since then by the accuracy of the reference.

Last night I attended the ‘NIU senior show.’ A young graduating designer said she had interviewed with Chicago’s Bart Crosby and during their conversation my name came up. She mentioned how ‘out there’ I was and Bart cautioned her type casting by saying, “I could do Swiss typography better than any Chicago designer.”

I suppose both perspectives are accurate, along with a handful of others.

For me it is the ‘experience’ of playing the role of ‘a Swiss-style typographer’ that intrigues and delights me. Since I am not Swiss or trained as a typographer, the role offers challenge. Being ‘the world's most outspoken designer’ or ‘a client’s best friend’ a ‘young designer’s mentor deluxe’, etc., comes much more naturally. But each of the roles offers personal reward while at the same time amplifies the various facets of who I am.

Of late, my creative focus has been on photography, public teaching and my role as a father.

As Sonny, 17, nears high school graduation, my father/mentor role has trumped any visible designer/provocateur/business presence.

You are insightful enough to see that the ‘rick-as-smart-ass’ balloon has been low on hot air. Most of my ‘personal investment energy’ has been going into other people and their professions. Certainly my collaborative creative and business efforts, with and on behalf of chester’s future, are quite evident on the Thirstype.com site. I have devoted valuable time and energy in two other individuals and have considerably less to show for those investments.

Today, I consider this domestic hiatus simply as intermission.

For what it is worth, my mind, tongue and eye still remain razor sharp. *see RANT Emigre #64* This performance was an early morning warm up exercise a year ago.

A young...designer said she had interviewed with Chicago’s Bart Crosby and...my name came up. She mentioned how “out there’ I was and Bart cautioned her...by saying, “I could do Swiss typography better than any Chicago designer.”

There is also a photographic essay from the fall dealing with the end of branding’s excessive presence. It is online at www.3st.com/maul. The supportive text is being readied for self-publication in print as you go to the internet with this conversation.

...in short, i’m back in that ol’ feisty skin again...but still sitting patiently in the green room.

‘Investing in Oneself’ remains for me the holiest grail. Time and time again, I am reminded that this mantra is the only path to real reward. It is, however, the notion of ‘real reward’ that requires a new definition real soon.

SU (MAY.08.03) I’m guessing by the BIG HINT here that nobody’s asked about any of this so far. What are your current notions of the holy grail?

RV (MAY.09.03) Is it just me, or have you also noticed that design and designers seem somewhat at a loss. There does not seem to be a shared sense of purpose. Instead there seems to be a shared spirit of surrender. Somehow, when the dot-com detonated and overpaid talent roamed the on-line employment postings having spent their severance checks; something changed.

Others smarter than I will be better poised to say what exactly transpired, but somehow ‘designer -- the noble messenger’ vanished or morphed into ‘designer -- the look and feel.’ It was as if there was nothing left to say. As a result nothing seemed to say very much.

Now I know, not everyone practicing design shifted their daily priorities to growing business models and nurturing high school offspring...But only a handful of the next pioneering generation seemed to emerge in full-throttle self investment.

Come to think of it, ONLY a few really put their faith (and time and money) in themselves. Maybe, it is too early to pass any judgment. Maybe, I am wrong here.

Let me run upstairs to the ad agency guys and borrow the latest CA Design Annual. Let me see if in fact I can locate the pulse in that vein.

*tempus fuggit*

There is a great deal of well produced energy in our field. Beautiful, in fact. ’nuff said.

Okay, back to the driver’s seat.

Can a designer practice ‘external’ and ‘internal’ design? Or better stated, can one designer work in service of him/herself and for others?

That question to me is at the heart of the discussion and is answered simply with a resounding YES!

How many clients actually come-a-knockin’ with an invitation and a blank check for the designer to say whatever he/she wants? Sorry, I lost count on my right hand. And sadly, they have not arrived in these ’burbs of late.

Therein lies the issue...the Sugar Daddies are NOT out toolin’ the burbs, or calling up with just reward. The ‘bling bling’ funding has to begin with the individual(s). They, the fire starters, have to be the ones with the burning desire and a hungry heart who fuel their own smoke fire. They have to be the ones who have something to say AND the means at hand to forge their statements. Only then, when their fire burns a bright spot in the darkness, does the community of like minded and/or commercial pilot fish ‘pay’ attention and gather ’round the campfire.

May I repeat; this original firey blaze of passion and commitment does not first come in the form of patronage or commission, it comes only from a personal and very heartfelt ‘what ever it takes’ desire? Without this kind of funding nothing new really bubbles to the surface and floats out into the mainstream. Even the most generously supported R+D can’t generate the new messages exploding with real value. Along with the best academic systems they can only foster the new means to express the new messages.

Funny thing about things ‘new.’ They are really weird, indeed. Too personal to be accessible, too raw to be pretty, too impassioned to be coherent. But, once downstream, the ‘raw’ gets cleaned up and commodified and (re)processed as ‘new.’ And, in a relatively short time just about all design practitioners are bottling the current formula. Others begin manufacturing ‘it’ amazingly well with proportional profits. Some even become ‘specialists’ at the look and feel...and so, here we are again. Tastes great. Less filling.

*All dressed up with nothing to say* (in a world with so much to speak up about)

SU (MAY.12.03) i have seen much of the design strategy (which is actually my favorite part, the idea behind the surface) reassigned to marketing and product managers, who then pass on visually primitive concepts to the design contingent.

i’m fairly sure you’ve seen this more too, and i could see the sheer physical beauty of your work acting against you in this context. “pretty,’in business, seldom stands with “smart.” are you finding more difficulty in convincing clients (or potential clients) that you are completely capable of thinking strategically?

RV (MAY.13.03) good afternoon, PK

Yesterday, I found myself saying, “for me design happens in ‘conversation’.” You know the talk between friends. Over lunch. At dinner. Across the conference table. It is in these exchanges that the real strategic stuff happens with clients (and their customers).

If this holds any truth, and i have witnessed it first hand, it should be of NO surprise that ‘primitive design’ concepts migrate from the ‘marketeer or account personality’ to the ‘design functionary.’ You know, the ‘marketeer and account personality’ were the ones that were in the conversation(s) to begin with. Damn.

The moral of the story is, ‘Get in the meeting,’ for it is in these conversation where everything related to the ultimate shared common ground is agreed on and the permission to draft a proposal is granted.

(See below for thoughts on the young designer)

Smart Friends Make Smart Things Happen.

I have been asked on a number of occasions, “How did you get away with such a design?” The answer is simple, I was ‘present in all the conversations’ or present ‘at the important meetings’ and always in there throughout the ENTIRE process.

The moment one ‘emotionally’ and ‘personally’ disengages from the promises made in the meeting, the whole thing gets reduced to formulaic stuff (assign your own value judgment in lieu of ‘stuff’.)

NEVER has a client given me permission to do whatever I wanted. Instead, they usually give me a long enough leash to pursue and do what we agreed is right. How do we know what is right? You don’t. But, because the ‘right path’ was charted by BOTH you and your client, (two people who have a relationship beyond just client/designer,) it feels more right.

Remember, designers do not write proposals to strangers, or at least they shouldn’t. They also shouldn’t expect ‘permission’ to do whatever they want from their proposal. These documents serve only to acknowledge what has been agreed on and how long and how much it would take. Once on the right path of research and implementation, new creative possibilities very often reveal themselves.

The ‘shared’ context for evaluating these new possibilities, however, rarely changes.

End of Story.

post script mantra: Smart Friends make Smart Things Happen.

On Being Young or New to the Table

Most young designers are not always welcomed to the table as valued participants. They may be called on to discuss the details or underscore the research, but are seldom embraced to connect the dots within the BIG picture. You can make assumptions as to why this is the way it is, but the fundamental reason is that they do not YET have a ‘relationship’ with the client and or their customer. Without a relationship, how can one expect to discuss the important shit? You know, the stuff that deals with one’s livelihood, one’s success, one’s reputation or one’s future!

On How to Secure Opportunities

There are two ways in which a designer or firm secures their opportunities: reputation and relationships. Reputation is inevitably a result of successful relationships, but on its own does not guarantee a collaborative ear at the conference table. Relationships are the big ticket item. They demand investments of trust, compassion, honesty and real human presence in order to be of any meaningful long-term value. Without this asset called relationship nothing much good happens.

On Lip Service vs. The Way of Doing Business

Business today speaks of fostering better relationships with their customers and as a result are forging strategies and messaging to sell their renewed commitment. Designers too are (re)discovering the merits of their very own lip service on relationships. But the truth be told - this is the end game! This is what it ALL comes down to.

Everything else is cake decoration.

NEVER has a client given me permission to do whatever I wanted. Instead, they usually give me a long enough leash to pursue and do what we agreed is right.

(MAY.14.03) Damn it all Now!

It is not in my nature to be acting like someone qualified to pontificate. But, you have got me goin’ everyday through this email channel; talkin’ shit that is best spoken over cocktails in a coffee shop circa 1971...

*anywhere or somewhere near here*

Today we received an annual report designed by one of Chicago’s most respected graphic ‘designers.’ I know if I write about the sadness I experienced while holding what might actually be the ‘end of good design’ (which is not to be confused with the ‘end of print’,) I will damage some occasional personal relationships.

This particular annual, like so many others, speaks through the handsome neo-modernist style typography. It was photographed with all of today’s code for ‘now.’ Members of Chicago’s elite architectural design community along with the consulting firms’ staff designers were cast as ‘real customers’ in ‘real situations’ and all were accented with just the right minimal propping.

*I felt a chill*

The same kind of chill one feels when viewing an open casket. You know the one. If not, i trust you can imagine...

And there, right in my hands, was the end of ‘good’ design.

*sad indeed*

Designers (or many of them) everywhere have been hiding behind their professional practice/process and extremely well-crafted production values.

Rather than attempt to create real meaningful content for their audience starved with an appetite for something meaningful; some ‘human’ contact, these designers have surrendered their very being as they stand face to face with the challenge of awakening their audience’s imagination...

I suppose feeling passion would be just too much to ask of the dead.

*Do you have a kleenex*


*here are two little known facts*

01_You can’t fake passion

02_Beliefs refuse to be held by poseurs



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