Tag Archives: stefan sagmeister

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Always Keep Learning

Good Advice

By my senior year of college, I was beginning to keep up with the graphic design industry through blogs and podcasts. Occasionally, I would come across interviews of well-known designers talking about their design philosophies, including advice for new designers coming out of college. One advice that kept coming up from different designers was to always keep learning, even after school.

In their experience, sometimes newly graduated designers have the tendency to assume they know everything just because they completed their training at school and thought that they could take on any project and immediately excel at it. Even with just a few years of real-world experience myself, I would agree with the general sentiment as well. There is already so much I had discovered and experienced between graduation and now that I look at new grads the same way, sort of like how most adults feel about teenagers: foolish and naive. At the same time, I’m still relatively young (fortunately), so I’m sure more experienced professionals would probably feel similar about me (and rightly so).

So Many Things to Learn

Regardless of what stage you are in life, the important thing is to always have the appetite to learn. The subject matter could be an extension of what you studied or what your job needs, like new software and tools, or it could be a side passion of yours that you now have more time to explore, like cooking or new sports. It could even be as simple as consuming information, like following certain blogs, podcasts, or talks. Whatever it is, I believe that learning new things helps one become a more well-rounded member of society.

For me, since the last time I had been in school, I continued to teach myself programming languages, partly to set up my website for my career and partly for fun; I continued to work on improving my health by finding the right exercises and diet for my goals; I started learning new sports like surfing and snowboarding; I tried out different language learning programs in an attempt to be fluent in more foreign languages; and I explored my dancing abilities by joining local flash mob groups and performing in public spaces and planned events, including a wedding.

New Opportunities

The benefits of learning something new goes beyond just that thing you’re learning. It opens you up to opportunities to learn more things. Earlier in my college career, the teacher from one of my design classes shared with us a student discount for the subscription to the graphic design magazine Communication Arts. Subscribing to it led me to an article about the online personality Ze Frank. I became a fan of his creative, multimedia work, particularly his year-long vlog The Show. One of his episodes mentioned attending South by Southwest (SXSW), so I subscribed to the SXSW podcast and discovered a session covering the productivity methodology Getting Things Done (GTD). It revolutionized the way I work, and I now approach life with a better sense of purpose.

Also through Communication Arts, I encountered the article about Stefan Sagmeister’s class that focused on emotional connection through design. This helped shape the idea for the “thesis” project “Why Don’t We Care?” for one of my senior design classes. In the project, I also referenced Ze Frank and The Show.

At a higher level, I probably would have learned about some of these things in other ways, but it’s the progression of discoveries and the potential for serendipity that make this experience special and exciting. It also probably would have taken longer to discover.

Learning is Ongoing

It is worth noting that learning is always ongoing. New content may surface, existing information may become less important, and longstanding opinion may change. This is overall a good thing, because it usually means whatever you’re learning is improving itself, and by keeping up with it, you are improving as well.

This is important to me because 1) I often feel like I know the least out of everyone in most situation, and 2) I’m naturally curious and want to learn as much as I can about things that have the most of my attention. The fact that learning is ongoing sort of levels the playing field so those who are behind can try to catch up, and it helps satisfy my curiosity and feed my mind with more and newer content.

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Complaining is Silly. Either Act or Forget.

Stefan Sagmeister

Near the end of my college career, I learned about the designer Stefan Sagmeister. He quickly became one of my favorite designers, as his work was bold, thoughtful, emotionally rich, and perfectly radical. It was practically the opposite to my approach and sensibilities in design, which is why he has since been my inspiration and motivation to experiment and to think outside my own little box. In 2008, he published a book (or a volume of booklets) called Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, creatively illustrating and writing about his life learnings. One of the learnings that really caught my attention was “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.” It made a significant impact in how I react to external events. Paired with the goal to be positive (both in my post-college job search and just in life), I managed to take back the energy and time I wasted passive-aggressively tweeting and Facebook-posting rants and cynical notes, and used it proactively to resolve problems in my life.

When to Forget

Whenever I feel the urge to complain or vent to someone or via social media, I pause and ask if 1) it’s worth telling someone, as in whether telling that person or the public would realistically change the situation, and 2) the thing I want to complain about really matters to me or if it’s just a momentary frustration that would pass in a few hours or days. First of all, I rarely post anything negative on social media anymore because I believe that when a person is being negative, it affects the mood of the people around them. So I try to avoid doing that unless it’s absolutely necessary or urgent. And since social media is rarely a medium to express absolutely necessary or urgent information, I’ve made it a rule to only post neutral or positive things.

If I determine that complaining about something leads to very little change in the situation, I would drop the topic and “forget” it. For example, on my commute to and from work, unpleasant things occasionally occur, whether it’s a conflict between two people or it’s the way certain passengers behave differently from the social norm. In the moment, I would come up with scenarios for how I would respond if I was in the conflict. Then I would want to share that with my friends and coworkers at the next possible opportunity (ex. “Good morning! Oh my god, these two people were fighting on the bus on my way to work. One was being really rude, and the other person was trying to reason with him. If it was me, I would’ve told that person off…”) That’s when I would pause and realize how sharing this piece of information results in very little benefit for my friends or coworkers, for me, and for the public transportation system. Ultimately, what we would get is another story about negative experience of riding the bus. Unless I plan to lead a reform or awareness campaign in social etiquette on public transit or something, I believe it’s better to just drop the subject and move on to talking about things I care more about.

When to Act

When things actually do matter, like at work, it’s harder to “forget” them when they bother us. Working in a fast-pace environment, I encounter a lot of changes in plans, much to my preference instead to set a simple goal and work straight towards it. So when a project direction shifts or a deadline is shortened, my immediate thoughts would generally be negative, and I would want to vent to my peers. But instead of complaining or ignoring the problem (“forgetting”), my inherent drive to do well, especially in my career, suddenly leads me to be very pragmatic (“act”) and run through the list of potential questions to solutions in my head (“Are we sure we need to do this?” “What have I already done that I can salvage for this?” “Can I even take this on?” “How should we reprioritize to make it work?”) This helps me stay ahead of the situation and gives me as much control as possible.

Now and Plans for the Near Future

Of course, this is all work in progress. I am still learning and trying to become better with this approach every day. It may actually be nice to bond with friends and coworkers over a trivial story about a bus ride. And it may literally be a life-changing move when someone begins a conversation with a friend after seeing their cryptic tweet. Would complaining be considered silly in these situations? There are still fine lines I need to discover and learn about.

But for the most part, so far, it’s made a positive impact on my life; I find that I have more pleasant and stress-free moments, simply by reducing the number of times I let myself get angry and worked up over something I should have forgotten instead. As a result, I have more time and energy to act and focus on things that I enjoy.

This philosophy has worked out so well for me that I would love for others to adopt it. But another philosophy of mine is preventing it: I believe that how I live is my business and mine alone, and the same goes for other people. So as annoying as I find other people’s complaints to be, telling them to stop complaining disrespects their personalities. Until I figure out a way to act respectfully, all I can do now is to distance myself from them as much as I need, hide their posts from social media, and make my philosophy available in my space (here) and hope they stumble upon it.

Practically speaking, it can be more tough to actively tell people about “my approach”, especially when I have yet to fully prove that it works in normal social environments. For example, there are many complicated and controversial issues in American culture. It is sometimes said that silence to a social issue equals agreement with the status quo, while any action from sympathizers and supporters may mean detracting from the goals of the movement and worsen the situation. What’s left is the dissent, loudly and angrily pointing out the issue. But since acting and forgetting are out of the question, who am I then to advocate for suppressing the dissent?

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Early Start

I had been interested in graphic design at a very young age. I remember taking a stab at typography in the first grade when I used the gridded lines from a spare school workbook to draw out the letters of some phrase like “HAPPY NEW YEAR” to put up on the classroom wall. I spent a good amount of time on it (as much time as a six-year-old can) and was really proud of the quality. But when I showed it to my teacher in front of the class, she appreciated my work but said it could be better. After looking at it with fresh eyes, I agreed. It was clear I struggled with a few letters. I had trouble deciding how far out the tail of the R would go: having it flush with the curve would make it look top-heavy, having it go out just one grid block farther would make it look huge. Another dilemma was determining how wide the diagonal strokes of the Y and W should reach: having them closer together would force narrower strokes and look inconsistent; having them out more would make the letters too wide. These were the challenges I faced as a six-year-old, and I loved it. I knew then already that I want to keep doing stuff like this as much as I can.

Life with Design

Since then, I had always done something related to design. When my family moved and I got my own room for the first time, I would rearrange the furniture many times a year. When I learned what the Olympics was, I started to become fascinated by the logos, marketing campaigns, pictograms, and the designs of the medal, the torch and the cauldron from each Games. When I learned web design in the sixth grade, I created many personal websites, redesigning them every so often and incorporating new visual techniques and coding patterns I had learned through the years. When I was a senior in high school, I was the Design Editor for the school yearbook and touched practically every page, stressing over every square inch.

So at the height of my design major in my junior year of college, I was in my element and really enjoying it. I got to work with different physical and digital mediums, and learned a lot about design philosophy (ex. the grid and the golden ratio), history (ex. the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements) and figures (ex. Josef Muller-Brockmann and Stefan Sagmeister, who are my two favorite designers, for very different reasons). With so much knowledge and coursework thrown at me, it was a challenge to do everything and do it well. But because this was my passion (and I was a pro of the all-nighter), the thrill and joy that come out of doing something I loved outweighed any stress and fatigue that I experienced.

Moving to UX

In the five-plus years I’ve been at my current job, I went from a purely graphic/UI designer to a UI-slash-UX designer, with an ever-growing lean towards the latter. I owe this partly to the experience I gained from working with product managers, addressing business goals in addition to making things pixel-perfect. I feel like my design consciousness had gone from the surface level of stressing over visual details to a deeper level of examining the nuances of modern human experiences. It’s opened up a new field of design for me to learn and to grow. It’s more than just driving less clicks or taps, or showing less copy or secondary content on a particular screen; it’s about honestly answering “Why do we want this?”, “How does this help our goals?”, and “Is this the best solution for this specific problem?” In addition to questions about colors, fonts, and sizes, there are now a greater number and wider range of questions for me to consider. As a result, the trick now is to ask the right ones that get to the core of the problem. When that is done correctly, I am rewarded with the clearest, simplest, and presumably the best answers.

Design in My Future

Even though my interest in design is slowly shifting from visual to experiential, I still enjoy all aspects of design. That’s because fundamentally, design is about problem solving. It just happens to be a special form where it mixes logic (which I love) with emotion and experience, and sometimes something visual. It was the case when I drew out “HAPPY NEW YEAR” on a grid; it was the case when I co-created a convertible cardboard bench/table-and-stools (called the “Collabench”) for a design student showcase in college, and it was the case when I adapted and optimized a mobile game at work to the web platform.

I used to worry that my skills and interest in graphic design would become irrelevant as I get older. But with this slow shift to UX, I know now that what I really love and am good at is solving problems, and graphic design just happened to be the vehicle in which I did it. So as long as there are problems in the world, I will have a way to make a living doing what I love.

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Design Lecture: Debbie Millman

Last Thursday, I attended a talk by designer Debbie Millman, who is currently the AIGA president, and so many other great things.

I’ve enjoyed her design-themed online radio show “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” for many years, and I was excited to see her in person and listen to one of her insightful and articulate lectures. I thought she was going to promote her new book, which I was all ready to purchase that evening and probably get it signed. But there were no books or book-signing in sight, and the topic of the evening turned out to be about branding, which ironically, I wasn’t expecting.

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Advice for (Design) Students 2009

Thus begins another school year for my alma mater. For the past two years, I gave some advice to design students (2007, 2008), whether they just started, or that they’re one year from graduating. I reviewed the previous entries recently and noticed that they still all apply. Whether you should follow what I say based on my current career status is another thing.

Nonetheless, I will add onto the list, though since I sort of ran out of design-related tips for design students, I’m going to instead offer advice from my post-graduation experience to all students.

Never Stop Learning

I mentioned variations of this in the previous lists, but it’s important to be explicit about this one, especially since I really believe in it. Schooling may end after graduation, but you never stop learning. As a side advice, don’t assume you know everything, because you don’t. Be humble and ask the right questions when you don’t know. I’ve never actually seen recent graduates get cocky in jobs, but I’ve heard that it happens quite frequently.

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