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And the Winner Is…

Award-winning design isn’t always the best design. As a young designer working for Container Corporation of America, I was hired to contribute to the company’s design legacy. I replaced an established designer whose work was featured in design books, journals and exhibitions. Soon after I had started, I was asked to design a brochure for an engineering group that our company owned, which happened to be based in Iowa, my home state. I thought that I would be a good fit.

When I met with the client, I mentioned that I was aware of the work that had been done for them before, and assumed that like us, they must be proud of our award-winning design. They replied that if I would like more samples, that there were thousands of them in their warehouse. They went on to say that the designer who had worked on the project refused to listen to their needs and instead designed something that met his vision, not theirs. And, that whether it won awards or not, it was unusable. Despite that experience, they were willing to come back to see if we could get it right the second time. The brochure that I designed met the client’s goals and expectations, and met my criteria for quality design. That experience changed my focus from winning awards to designing high quality, aesthetically pleasing work that clients appreciate and use.

Although I do not particularly like attention, I was part of the design scene in my early years – sitting on the board of The American Institute of Graphic Arts and Chicago’s Society of Typographic Arts, making presentations in front of students, designers and non-designers alike. The awards that I won helped put me on the map as a professional designer and I must say, it felt good. But over time, I came to realize that awards and recognition were not important to the “big picture”. When asked why he didn’t submit his work to design competitions, Paul Rand remarked that the only outcome of submitting to competitions would be to encourage other designers to copy his work. Rand knew that competitions do not represent the best work; they typically highlight the work of designers who are interested in self-promotion and trends.

Every designer that I know, including myself, has pulled from the past to create something “new.” A long time ago, a designer told me that his motto was “only steal from the best.” While the notion of stealing an idea was shocking, I realized that it was honest, too. There are very few original ideas. Introducing an old idea into a new context and a new form is common, and sometimes ingenious. When my friend advised me to “only steal from the best”, it was clear that he meant that it was important to recognize a good idea from a bad one. Like The Rolling Stones who followed The Beatles, and The Beatles who were influenced by Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and the Beach Boys, designers take direction from one another. The Beatles never concealed their sources of influence, and neither should we.

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