Just Designing: Cross-Pollination in Design Practice

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Not so long ago, the Nicework team decided to start making a regular thing of presenting our ideas and experiences to each other – both to spread a little knowledge and brush up on our presentation skills. There are very few limits to what we can present on, as long as it seems interesting and useful, and everyone gets a turn.

When our delegation returned from the Design Indaba Conference in March, I was full of inspiration and excitement, and eager to throw my proverbial hat into the ring. You can read the full text of the presentation after the jump – make sure you have a cup of tea ready. A big one. Maybe make yourself a pot. If you read all the way to the end, I will give you a present.

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 Just Designing: Cross-Pollination in Design Practice

Lately, I’ve been finding myself pining for my student days. Perhaps it’s because I have a younger sister who has just begun looking at colleges, or because I miss being young(er), wild and free. I can admit to myself that I’m thoroughly romanticizing my younger years, because in truth I spent a lot of that time the same way I spend my time now – frantically powering through as much work as possible and watching an embarrassing amount of bad television.

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Mostly, though, I miss studenthood because it was a time to try things out. I wasn’t expected to be amazing at stuff or know what I wanted my “thing” to be – in fact, in college, I frequently whined about being pushed out of my comfort zone and being expected to dabble in forms of design that weren’t flowy typography and pictures of doggies. (Which I still love.)

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A large portion of my experience as a student can be summed up by “that” Ira Glass quote – you know the one. It goes like this.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. 

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So as a student, you don’t know how lucky you are. You’re in a phase of life where nobody expects you to be amazing yet – people expect you to try stuff out and be bad at stuff and learn from that stuff, and ultimately find the stuff that is going to be YOUR stuff.

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With that noble goal in mind, I found myself on this very linear track, determined to pare down my skills over the course of my university career, pick a “thing” that would be MY thing, and just kick ass at it for the rest of my career.

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I had this neat and tidy overview of the design world in my head, and it looked a bit like this.

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I was a pretty creative kid, so I figured it would be nice to be a designer of some kind. I was never meticulous enough for sewing, or patient enough for woodwork, so I dismissed fashion and furniture. Drawing up architectural plans seemed awfully tedious, and I’d watch the Behind-the-Scenes features of Aladdin enough times to know how long animation takes. Graphic design was, it seems, the natural choice. That would be my “thing”, and after much time and effort I would surely find my “sub-thing” – the thing that I could be the best at.

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Like many a student before, I wanted to become like my idols. I loved the work of people who really seemed to OWN their work – people whose styles were recognizable on sight:

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…people who had carved out a niche for themselves in the local design world:

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…people who pioneered entire styles, which were immediately aped by every other designer on the planet:

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…and design gods who created work that inspired entire movements.

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We all want to be the first one to discover something, or make something, or be something… and when I say “we”, I mean “me”. It’s easy as a working designer to become so focused on finding your niche, on becoming someone, on design as SERIOUS BUSINESS, that you forget to how to play. Anything that doesn’t serve a purpose, or send a message, or get you closer to your “thing”, isn’t a good use of your time. (And, of course, when I say “you”, I mean “me”.)

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No doubt a lot of this ties into having a limited number of hours in the day, or needing to make money, but supporting all of that is a very basic foundation: fear.

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Nobody wants to have to start at the beginning again. Here’s how things are supposed to work: you choose your thing, and you bust your buns getting there. Who in their right mind would go back to the bottom of the pile again? Being at the bottom sucks. You don’t know what you’re doing, everyone you admire is way better than you, nobody takes your work seriously. Just ask our friend Ira Glass again:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. 

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You’re damn right, Mr. Glass.

Nobody wants to be a a small fish in a big pond. Starting in primary school, we make our way up the ranks until we’re at the top. Just as we get used to our newfound authority, we’re thrown into high school. When we get big enough to rule that pond, we get tossed into university. It’s an unspoken promise that once we grow to become a big (or even medium-sized) fish in the working world, we’ll never have to move ponds again. We say, “I’ve spent years getting good at this thing. Just let it be my thing now.”

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At Design Indaba this year, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Stefan Sagmeister – if you’re a designer, you may know him as “OH MY GOSH IT IS STEFAN SAGMEISTER, I FEEL FAINT”.

I had gotten to know some of Mr. Sagmeister’s work in college, and was a great fan of his project Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far. (If anyone wants to get me that book, I do have a birthday coming up.) I had him pegged in my head as a typography guy. Sure, he was exploring typography using many different platforms and media, but all that experimentation was happening within the confines of his “thing” – type design.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Sagmeister began his talk, and touched on a number of projects I had never heard of before. Afterwards, I went away and had a better look at the portfolio of Sagmeister & Walsh.

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Packaging design! Experimental furniture! Papercraft! Sculpture! Illustration! Product design! So much for my typography guy.

Earlier in the conference, we’d also been treated to a talk by Dutch design duo Scholten & Bajings – their portfolio encompassing more design disciplines than you could shake a stick at, so to speak. Textiles, ceramics, household goods, furniture, and most recently, a flippin’ concept car.

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Granted, the designers I’m looking at here are the big guys. The rock stars. Of COURSE they can afford to pick and choose the best projects and most innovative clients. They have the recognition and the awards. Surely they just lay back in their beautifully appointed studio spaces and wait for the killer briefs to roll in.

The thing is, though, that this theme of cross-pollination between disciplines appeared in almost every talk at that conference, one way or another. And when we got back, I found myself seeking out a different kind of designer to admire: the individuals and collectives who don’t really have a “thing”. Comparatively smaller players in the game, who were saying things like, “What if I do this other thing?”

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Designers who said, “How can I use different processes to make my work strange and new?”

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I suppose a part of my post-conference Googling was driven my a desire to find out of this cross-platform experimentation was, as I had suspected, a luxury reserved for the likes of Sagmeister & Walsh. To my delight, I was proven wrong. The neat little organogram I had drawn for myself when I first decided to become a designer was starting to look a lot more like this:

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To put it another way, I got very excited about the idea of making a coffee table.

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Of course, all my misgivings were still there – what if I am bad at this new thing? Who can I ask for help? What if my table is crap? What if I accidentally cut off my thumb?

Luckily, another big theme at Design Indaba this year was the power of prototyping. Here’s the gist of it: you can design on paper all you like, but until you make your design into a thing that people can interact with in the real world, until you fail, you won’t know if it’s any good. Prototype early and often.

This, combined with all my talk about cross-pollination and experiments, cast all my fear and doubt in a  new light. Fear is nice. Fear refreshes and invigorates. Fear can make a medium-sized fish feel like a tiny little one again.

These days, for myself as a designer and the industry at large, the path is looking a hell of a lot less linear.

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If you’re allergic to cheesy metaphors (and have gotten this far without going into anaphylactic shock), brace yourself, because here comes one more: being a little fish in a big pond is nice, because there’s just so much more room to swim.

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I could conclude with some sweeping point about how collaboration is awesome, or how you should explore outside your comfort zone, but whatever. The blogosphere is saturated with messages like that, written by people far smarter and more experienced than me. So maybe I’ll just end off with a little reminder to myself, and to you, that professional designers sometimes forget.

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Jess is not a design genius, but she is hoping to make it her “thing”.

She does, however, work with a whole lot of brilliant people, who are waiting in the wings to to take your business to the next level. Come and visit, or take advantage of our generosity with some free pointers on making your own presentations better.

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Published by Ross

Ross grew up on the wrong side of the Jukskei. He studied at Vega and was awarded the Top Student prize at his graduation. After working as a freelancer for four years, he founded Nicework with Ben Vorster. He has a penchant for Scandinavian wood furniture and really nice shirts. He is open to bribery- all iPads are welcome. He also likes chocolate cake and is happily married.

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