Tomorrow, I start teaching an intro to graphic design class at my Alma Mater — Brigham Young University. I was thinking about the class outcomes and the lasting influence I want the class to have on the students. The ultimate outcome of the class is to help the students become great designers. A great designer is not only good at their craft, but he or she is also a good person. All of the stated class outcomes ought to create a path to become a great designer.
But what makes a great designer?
I am sure there are many ways to answer this question, but I just thought about a few fundamental attributes that all designers must develop to become great.
A designer is only as good as his or her resources. Good designers constantly collect physical and mental resources. Physical resources include the tools of the trade as well as collections of inspiring things. Access to quality paper and drawing instruments, and high performing computers and software, and printers are the basic tools of the trade. Great tools don't make good designers, but great designers need great tools. A great designer will constantly seek after the most inspiring and uplifting designs in order to learn from them and to be inspired by them. Sites like Pinterest can be a great resource for filling the mental and spiritual well.
Mental resources include pure talent, inspiring ideas, or a natural intuitive eye for beauty. Some people are born with more innate talent than others, but as long as one has some innate talent, he or she can nurture that talent through hard work.
One will not be great without a lot of hard work and a willingness to stay up late and work on weekends. The designer Bradley Munkowitz, whose work I admire, finished every work week by working Friday night until sunrise on Saturday morning for a year.
The great inventor Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This is a great quote that can help procrastinators gain perspective. But, for those who have mastered the habit of being proactive, they may gain more inspiration from Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who said,
If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.
So even though hard work is a necessary habit of a great designer, one will progress faster if they combine good practice with good theory. Both are necessary. One's resources are worthless unless one works hard to put them together in new and inspiring ways.
I don't think a designer will ever learn to work hard unless he or she is passionately motivated to constantly improve themselves and their communities. A satisfied person is an unmotivated person. Only unsatisfied needs and desires can truly motivate a person to do whatever is necessary to progress.
In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins analyzed visionary companies and found that they did not focus primarily on beating their competition. According to Collins,
Visionary companies focus primarily on beating themselves. Success and beating competitors comes to the visionary companies not so much as the end goal, but as a residual result of relentlessly asking the question "How can we improve ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today?" And they have asked this question day in and day out - as a disciplined way of life - in some cases for over 150 years. No matter how much they achieve - no matter how far in front of their competitors they pull - they never think they've done "good enough".
Just like the visionary companies in Jim Collins study, designers must always have a bit of dissatisfaction with the results of their work. If a designer wants life satisfaction from their craft, then they should not focus too much on the results of their work, but they should focus on the process of design. Paradoxically, the calm of constant improvement comes with a bit of dissatisfaction that fuels personal progress.