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Life is short: a design philosophy (or not)*

I have been a professional, reasonably successful “designer” for over 15 years now, with a rather comfortable life and a healthy list of prominent clients, and still feel unable to define exactly what I do. I am not a web designer, because in spite of becoming primarily known as such during the Wild West online boom of the 90s, I soon ventured into print, branding, exhibitions, film and motion graphics as well. I even cannot possibly define myself as a designer, in all justice (I did not train for it, and my degrees are in literature and cultural studies, which is ironic: a man of words, with rather poor eyesight, becoming so enmeshed in the visual world). “Information architect” is more evocative, but a bit pretentious these days, and not exactly all I do either (although it is usually part of my brief, when building web apps).

“I am an artist”, sounds terribly hipstery, perish the thought. We are not artists, are we? “Craft” sounds more like it, as far as I am concerned. Being extremely lazy (a birth defect), and having no need to communicate unless forced by necessity, I veer towards procrastination by nature. Let’s say I am a hack, a hired hand, a craftsman. I do things for money, when I need it. Don’t we all?

So, what is “design” about? I would say it is the ability to convince clients to pay what you think you deserve, on time, and – if possible – in ready cash. Anything else, (the pernickety negotiations about code and negative space and colour and all that), are variations of The Craft.

Life is short, and the craft is long, as Hippocrates said, so let’s keep it simple, shall we? You always sign a contract, you always get paid 50% of the total budget upfront, no excuses, no delays, and you never do speculative work or pitches for free (Hippocrates would also add “don’t kill your clients”, but that sometimes is too much to ask).

That’s it, really. This is all “design” is about. The rest, what we tenuously call “talent” (a combination of stubborn self-belief and infuriatingly debilitating self-doubt, mixed with large doses of patience and insomnia), is negotiable and tends to develop over time, if one keeps at it single-mindedly for long enough.

What we do is more akin to bespoke tailoring mixed with voodoo and engineering, and therefore we have to put up with everybody having an opinion about it, which is annoying, but also good, as it imposes some self-discipline on our own wilful whims, and keeps any temptations of being uselessly arty-wanky at bay. We have constraints dictated by our clients, so we are forced to make the most of what we are given, and try and avoid, if humanly possible, the end result turning out to be a pig in a wig (usually those tend to win Lions and other assorted mercantile menagerie, though). Firing clients from time to time also helps maintaining sanity (and profitable accounts).

Oh, I almost forgot: big lessons learnt: you don’t know a thing, nobody owes you anything, and teenagers these days are much, much more creative than you will ever be (so, take them as unpaid interns, and suck them dry: they will thank you for it, once they forgive you, and in your old, old age, when you are 40 or so, they might even give you a lifetime achievement award, or some such funereal rites).

Tastes change, and what is considered valuable today will be discarded tomorrow as junk (and vice-versa). Go to a museum, have a look around: they keep about 100 times that many pictures stored away in the basement, vanished from public view. So, let’s forget about “art”, and let’s get back to work. Craft is long, life is short, and we live, as ever, in uncertain times. Everything else (technology, opinions, recognition, ideas, hopes and wildly unrealistic wishes) are secondary to The Craft. Learn it: it is around you, inside you. Try to survive as long as you can, and keep trying.

So there. I told you I didn’t have any answers.

*Miguel Ripoll: Designer

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