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138. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

think.jpgI was very excited to read Debbie Millman’s new book, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. Not necessarily because she has contributed to our Art of Presentation series. And not because she was kind enough to send me an invite to the book release party either. (Even though I couldn’t make it, thanks Debbie!) I was anxious because I’ve been a big fan of her podcast, Design Matters, and knew that the book would not disappoint. But first, I had to get past that title.

The title, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer smacks of all those tutorial books that promise to make you more creative simply by reading it. Hate those books. It’s not that they can’t help, but it takes a lot of dedication, hard work, education, apprenticeship under a great mentor, and experience to become a great graphic designer. And that’s if you have talent and ability with which to begin. I get the sense that even Debbie and several others were aware of the title and all that it would convey. Take Malcolm Gladwell’s quote for the back cover: “The title How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is all wrong. It’s not really about graphic design, and it’s not really a how-to book. It’s a delightful opportunity to eavesdrop on some of the most curious and creative minds of our time.” It was Gladwell’s quote that helped me get passed this little issue. At least for the time being.

Given the 40+ days since this book was released, my copy is now dog-eared and well-worn. I’ve read each interview at least two times, some of them I’ve read more than five times. Looking back, I have highlighted more text than I haven’t highlighted because it is just crammed with insight from the greats in our industry. It is definitely worth a buy and several reads. With apologies to Debbie, here are some of my favorite nuggets.

  1. John Maeda talks about how curious he is, “...I am always researching the world in general. I’m always curious about things. Even walking across the street, there is so much to learn by what you see. In the puddles, in the sky, in the flowers, in the trash. Every person’s world is a museum.”
  2. Peter Seville discusses being a trouble-maker at Pentagram, “...I had to leave...I was kind of a fly in the ointment. I was part of a generational shift.” It was odd hearing someone being unhappy with what I consider to be the best design agency in the world.
  3. Stefan Sagmeister openly admits that, “ is difficult for me. I can’t sit down every day and actually design for ten hours. I can design for two or three hours. Then I am very happy to do other things.”
  4. Paula Scher talks about typography, “I really didn’t understand typography at all. I actually learned it on the job; I didn’t learn it in college. I didn’t seek it. It found me.”
  5. Neville Brody explains the struggle to do something meaningful in today’s world, “You have to look for opportunities. The problem right now is that radical design is just a fashionable space. There’s nothing really radical out there. Radical, for instance, would be non-commercial.”
  6. Michael Bierut talks about running, “It’s really cold when it’s nine degrees, even when you’re running. Twelve degrees you can run – it’s not so bad. Less than nine degrees, running becomes unbearable.” But he also discusses how he carries his journals, “I carry the current one and the previous one” and tells about how he has only lost two of them in his career.
  7. Milton Glaser declared, “You convey your ideas by the authenticity of our being.” (Think about that for awhile.)
  8. I laughed out loud when James Victore recalls the time he was talking to Pierre Bernard (French designer from Grapus), “I bragged that I had an amazing client who gave me complete creative freedom. He looked at my work and said – Sometimes, complete creative freedom is not a good thing.”

I could go on and on. I have gained a ton of insight from this book. These chapters read less like interviews and more like design parables. Each one filled with a perspective on design that can help shed light on how to navigate this difficult and rewarding career. And so when I go back and consider the title, a title I felt was misleading at best, I feel a bit foolish. As it turns out, Debbie’s work may very well be one of the best how-to books ever written on design. Even though – I’ve been told – that wasn’t necessarily the intent.

It's definitely going on the mandatory reads list. 

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Reader Comments (2)

From your description, I'd say the title would benefit by simply deleting the word "How."
January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterXiguli
yeah - it might be that simple. It's a great read.

January 14, 2008 | Registered Commenterjj

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