With the challenge to staying relevant, the quickest way to irrelevance is to tie your career to pop culture: “Don’t trust anyone over 30” should be retranslated “Smile patronizingly and wave dismissively at the ideas of anyone over 50.”
Whatever the clichés about midlife, it’s mostly true that the older one gets, the less in touch one becomes with the fevered pitch of pop culture. If you’re an accountant and 46 years old, that’s probably okay.
But a marketer? Even if your career has not been about pitching teenagers on acne medication or condoms, you worry about staying relevant and avoiding irrelevance. Every time I watch a clip from the MTV’s Video Music Awards, I realize I’m drifting farther from culture’s shoreline.
Insights on Staying Relevant from the Greatest Graphic Designers of Our Generation
An aging book (published in 2007) by Debbie Millman, How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer helped me think anew about my work. It should be noted up front that the book is not at all about design tactics. I stumbled onto the book by first reading Millman’s latest, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (2013). Millman is a managing partner and president of the design division of Sterling Brands and host of the Internet talk show “Design Matters.”
How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is twenty interviews with some of the greatest graphic designers of the last four decades. It’s distilled wisdom of professionals who are still going strong and staying relevant in the second half of life.
Career or Calling?
I confess that I had heard of only of a couple of the designers. While no Studs Terkel (the great prize winning Chicago author and interviewer of the common worker), Millman teases out some powerful insights on the nature of work and staying relevant. I love the interview format. It allowed Millman to pursue conversational rabbit trails that created snappy dialogue, producing a thousand one-liners. I dog-eared almost every page.
The many interviewees include Peter Saville, who designed record covers for Joy Division, New Order, Suede, and Pulp, as well as designing the brand identity for super model Kate Moss; John Maeda, professor at the MIT media lab; Paula Scher, who designed covers for Atlantic and CBS Records from the ‘70s; and Milton Glaser, who designed the Dylan poster, the “I Love New York” campaign, and worked at New York magazine.
Common threads run through the interviews: the state of design,the role of a graphic designer, reflections on success, the creative process, and collaboration. About the purpose of graphic design, Stefan Sagmeister said, “[D]esign is audience-related. I like the fact that it’s not ‘art’ and that your’re typically collaborating with other people.”
Who hasn’t worked with a designer who thought design is art, that Michelangelo was a punk artist compared to him, and that your tastes are so pedestrian?
Staying Relevant through Shifts in Creativity and Focus
In one of my favorite anecdotes, Carin Goldberg tells a story about fishing for flounder with her father as a child. Occasionally, she and her father would discover a “pocket of flounder.” They would catch so many fish that even their neighbors had fish for the rest of the winter.
She applies the story to her success: “And that’s how I think about my career. I hit some flounder holes. I hit the record business when flounders were there for me…I was very lucky to find…these moments of utter fertility.”
Goldberg goes on, though, to say, “But after the luck, there was all the hard work. That’s the part that makes me just absolutely livid, when I hear men talking about women and their careers. In my own career, I had to be as tenacious as a dog with a bone.”
Millman asks Peter Saville whether, as we age, we become less intuitive.
“No,” he said. “We just become less intuitive to that pop-culture sphere. We become intuitive to another sphere.” In different ways, the designers all indicated that with age comes a necessary shift in creativity and focus. It’s futile (and silly) to pretend you can still think like and design for a teenager.
“For me, it’s important to stay within the terms of your own relevance,” said Saville, “which means don’t be permanently 18. Shift your point of engagement to that which is relevant to you.”
In recent years, I’ve observed a few peers who may have not made the shift. They appear to have lost passion for their work. Maybe they stopped growing, stopped staying relevant. Maybe they figured they could skate the rest of the way on their current momentum.
I like the old-fashioned concept of calling. I don’t recall any of the designers using the word, but they framed their work as an ongoing, relentless pursuit of something larger than a paycheck or a position. A calling is for life. That view of work seemed to energize them to keep honing their craft. To swim against the current of entropy. And to keep at the excruciating but rewarding work of delighting and surprising clients.
How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is really twenty stories about the quest of staying relevant in a field of perpetual obsolescence. “We do not quit playing because we grow old,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great American poet, “we grow old because we quit playing.” The trick to staying relevant is to keep playing.