Ellen Shapiro: Things I Have Learned In My Life
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Ellen Shapiro: Things I Have Learned In My Life

Ellen Shapiro: Things I Have Learned In My Life

When I came to New York I was introduced as “a young designer from the Coast.” Even though I’d lived in California for my first 22 years, I’d never heard the term “the Coast,” which was how New Yorkers referred to L.A. and San Francisco. More recently, I’ve been referred to as “a veteran designer.” That’s one good thing about graphic design.

The greats, like Paul Rand and Herb Lubalin, worked until the day they died. Well, I hope it’s a good thing.

Over the years, you learn a lot. You learn from working with colleagues and clients. From design conferences and events. And as a writer for design magazines, I’ve learned from the designers I’ve had the privilege of visiting and interviewing. Not the least of whom has been Stefan Sagmeister, who last year added to his international fame with “Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far,” a book and exhibition I reported on for the French magazine Etapes. Sagmeister’s aphorisms like “HAVING GUTS ALWAYS WORKS OUT FOR ME” become virtuoso typographic compositions made from objects ranging from pollen to clothes hangers. The piece that most touched my heart is “KEEPING A DIARY SUPPORTS PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT,” a short film during which a small boat bearing the word “DEVELOPMENT,” crafted from bamboo rods, glides along a waterway, then goes up in flames.

Sagmeister challenged readers of his book and visitors to his New York exhibition to become part of the conversation, to answer the question: “WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE?” The things I’ve learned with may not be as spectacular as Sagmeister productions, but I hope you find them useful.

Never present anything you don’t want the client to choose. This is one of the first things I try to teach students. Don’t pad your presentation with lesser designs. One of them will invariably get picked.

I learned a useful strategy from Louis Gagnon, brilliant and gutsy creative director at Paprika in Montréal. He has perfected a presentation methodology that leads to very classy, inventive work. “It is our philosophy to show three things,” explained Louis. “First there is something safe. Of course it is good, not boring, but safe. It won’t challenge the client too much. Then there is the more creative solution. And then there is ‘get ready for this one!’ We hope the client will fall in the middle, and usually they do. This middle might be pushing the limits for the average client, but not for the client who chooses Paprika.”

NEVER PRESENT ANYTHING THAT ISN’T AS GOOD AS OR BETTER THAN WHAT YOU WOULD DO YOURSELF. One of the best lessons I learned in this business was from Joyce Cole, communications director of a W.R. Grace, a Fortune 100 company that gave design firms the opportunity to “try out” on a small project before trusting them with bigger ones. My firm was assigned the employee newsletter for a company division that made plastic film for the meat-packing industry. Entertaining a belief that the subject matter—snapshots of shrink-wrapped pork butts coming off the assembly line—was beneath my dignity, I gave the job to my junior designer, who did a not-great but, I thought, good enough, job. When I showed the comps to Joyce, she pulled her glasses down on her nose, looked at me, and said, “Ellen, you didn’t do these, did you?” When I admitted I hadn’t, she said, “Let me give you some advice. Don’t let this happen again.” I re-did the design, and Joyce and I went on to produce a number of significant projects together.

GIVE A TEST. How to find employees who are capable of doing work you can be proud to show becomes increasingly challenging in this era of weekend InDesign workshops and “aspirational” resumes, which describe the candidate people aspire to be rather than who they really are. Some people are patently dishonest about their background and skills. They show work that other people did and get “references” to lie for them.

I have learned to do a pre- phone interview in which I ask key questions like, “What design magazines do you read?” and “Who is your favorite designer?” Those questions quickly separate people who are serious about design. And I close each in-person interview with a short written application that includes questions about common production terms and asks for identification of a few classic typefaces. I also invite candidates to sit at the computer and draw a simple icon in Illustrator. Recently, seduced by a few arty portfolio pieces and someone’s looks and charm, I failed to give such a test. A mistake for both of us.

 DON’T LET YOURSELF GET PUSHED AROUND. This applies to working with illustrators and photographers. You have a vision. You need them to help you realize it. They do something that doesn’t quite work and try to convince you of the rightness and brilliance of their idea. If you’re not seeing what you need, remember that you are the art director. Your talents are the ones the client is paying for. Speak up. This applies to printers, too.

NEVER BURN BRIDGES. Whether it’s an employee or freelancer that didn’t work out, a colleague you had a disagreement with, or a client you think is unreasonable, try to not to let things end badly. End it with lunch or coffee and a handshake. You never you when your paths will cross again—and you’ll need a referral or ally. Does this sound too corny or obvious to state?

WORK AT HOME. I spent the profits of about 20 years of work improving spaces for New York City landlords. In the 80s and 90s it was de rigeur to have an architect-designed office in a chic part of town. Today, I can see my air conditioning ductwork and Italian light fixtures through metallic mini-blinds I paid for that someone else is using.

At the height of the dot-com boom, I lost my lease on a great midtown office. At the time I’d been working on an article about Barbara Nessim, the chairperson of the illustration department at Parsons School of Design. Barbara combined her home and studio in one downtown loft space. She explained, “This way, you integrate your life: your art, your cooking and entertaining, your professional work.”

That made so much sense. I had been grimly contemplating renting and renovating yet another Manhattan office. Really bad unfinished spaces were going for about $6000 a month. I started keeping a diary of my time and realized I could work anywhere with a fast Internet connection. Clients never visit your office any more, anyway. Barbara was right. I turned the lower level of our house into a full design office. It wasn’t easy, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. And the improvements belong to my husband and me, not to a landlord.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. It may not be as bad as bending over a drafting table all day, but working at a computer can be physically devastating. I developed serious back, hip, and neck problems. For me it’s an absolute must, no matter how busy I am, to make time to go to the gym a few times a week and to get up every few hours and stretch. (Working on the laptop in bed, like I’m doing right now, is nice, too.)

IF YOU DO CHEAP, CRUMMY WORK, YOU’LL GET CHEAP, CRUMMY CLIENTS. IF YOU DO GREAT WORK, YOU’LL GET GREAT CLIENTS. I learned this most important thing from Michael Rotundi, founder of Sci-Arc, Southern California School of Architecture. When I interviewed him for a piece in Communication Art,s he described Sci-Arc as “a place of experiment and invention.” I asked him whether, in the real world, there’s enough demand for experimental work for his students to find employment. Mr. Rotundi’s answer: “It’s easier to get a job when you’re inventive and you’ve found your own voice. Your work is identifiable. The passion comes through. Clients want to work with somebody who’s committed. The kind of work that you do attracts clients. Period. Those who don’t grasp this simple relationship continue to wonder how to get better projects. If you do cheap, crummy work you attract cheap, crummy clients,” he explained. “If you push the limits, then you attract clients who also expect this.”

I’ve been trying to follow his advice ever since. It’s not easy. I keep trying.

WHEN IN DOUBT, TAKE IT OUT. I learned this from a smart book editor. If you are unsure about an idea, quote, sentence, or word, hit “delete.” This applies to graphic design, equally well.

More: www.articulado.org