Graphic Designers on Graphic Design
Updated: Apr 18
Selected observations from some leading American graphic designers, shared in interviews with Debbie Millman in her 2007 book, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.
NEVILLE BRODY: A graphic designer is an opinion former. All graphic designers hold high levels of responsibility in society. We take invisible ideas and make them tangible. That’s our job. We take news or information or emotions like “hope” or “turn left” or “buy this” or “be sexy” and give that tangible form. We make it real for people.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: Design is one of the few disciplines that is a science as well as an art. Effective, meaningful design requires intellectual, rational rigor along with the ability to elicit emotions and beliefs. Thus, designers must balance both the logic and lyricism of humanity every time they design something.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: There is one trait shared by each and every person in this group of designers [the twenty top graphic designers interviewed for How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer]: high levels of empathy. Their sensitivity has given them the ability to logically, poetically, and telegraphically transfer ideas from one mind to another.
BONNIE SIEGLER: Graphic design allows me to use every part of my brain…As designers, we get to do the analysis and the problem-solving. We get to take a blank piece of paper and transform it into something else. Something magical. We get to work with interesting clients. We use our management skills and math skills. Everything.
EMILY OBERMAN: I love it when we put our talents to good use, and when we get to work on something that changes how people think. I love it when we get to work on something that helps people. I love when we get to use our skills in order to help change the world. One other thing: I love that with every new project we undertake, we learn something. We learn something new every day. How lucky is that?
DEBBIE MILLMAN: Do you feel that there is any objectivity in assessing design?
JOHN MAEDA: I think the one point of objectivity, as Paul Rand always said, is relevance. Not just relevance to message, but relevance to cultural timing.
PAUL SAHRE [on his process]: I’m a firm believer in logic and creative thinking and being able to think your way through the process and arrive at a solution that makes sense and is going to be effective. It’s applied design. I think you have to operate with both of those things working—if not simultaneously—at least one letting the other play for a while.
CHIP KIDD [on his process]: If I don’t have a clear sense of what I should do, I’m instantly filled with dread, which hangs over me like a thin, stinky fog until I either figure out a way to solve the problem or throw in the towel. I will say, though, that those ‘eureka’ moments—when it all comes together in your head and you realize the perfect thing to do and you just know it is right, whether the client will like it or not—those are the closest moments to sex in graphic design.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: How do you know when something you’ve created is good?
CHIP KIDD: When after ten years I can look at it and not wince, that’s a good sign. Fifteen years, even better. Twenty years and up—yay!
JESSICA HELFAND [on drawing]: Words don’t replace making things—they can’t. And I think that having grown up in Paris, and having to speak French in school every day, and playing the cello—its own kind of language—I appreciated, early on, the ability to communicate something quickly, instantaneously. That’s what drawing can do…it can move an idea along so efficiently. There’s a purity to drawing that I find intoxicating.
STEFF GEISSBUHLER: Intuition plays a large role in my work and has rarely let me down. I often intellectualize my work after the fact.
STEPHEN DOYLE: Logic will get you nowhere. But imagination has the opportunity to rescue you from the quicksand of logic. You could be a banker with logic. To be a designer, you have to find a new language. You’ve got to find new colors. You have to surprise people. You’ve got to make things that are magnetic to humans who don’t like design.
STEPHEN DOYLE: Creativity comes from being able to deconstruct what people say and find the words in it and blow it back up again. We take paragraphs and slogans and presentations and chip away at them. And then we bring it all back to life. Our design work is reductive. We’re more like stone carvers. A big block of stone comes in, and we start chipping away at it until we find the sculpture inside. Some designers are additive. They’ll add and layer things on. To me, this is decorative rather than reductive. I would rather uncover the essence of what is already there. All we ever do with the material our clients give us is take things away. We take things away until we can see what is in front of us.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: When you’re commissioned for a project, how do you begin?
STEPHEN DOYLE: I interview the clients. I’ve got to understand what the problem is from their point of view. And then you have to not believe them.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: Why?
STEPHEN DOYLE: They are the client, and they see it through their own filter. I always imagine myself as their audience…Can we associate at least with the audience? Are we the audience?
DEBBIE MILLMAN: What do you like best abut being a designer?
ABBOTT MILLER: In any area I’m working in, I’m striving toward making something more understandable, more accessible and more beautiful. As I’m engaging with all of these subjects, I’m constantly learning about them and being influenced by them, and that is amazing.
See excerpts from another Debbie Millman interview-style book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, here.