Good designs are like evergreen songs

A brilliant melody like Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers or a timeless beat like We Will Rock You by Queen doesn’t need any instruments. We can whistle or clap it, and everyone knows the song immediately. On the other hand, a flat or banal melody cannot be saved even by the best orchestra with the most expensive instruments in the world.

It’s the same with design and ideas. A rough sketch of stick figures and speech bubbles on a napkin can visualize an idea for an advertising campaign worth millions. A boring illustration composition, on the other hand, doesn’t become more exciting when we color it in Photoshop. As far as logos are concerned, Kurt Weidemann puts it in a nutshell:

A logo is good when you can scratch it in the sand with your big toe

Kurt Weidemann (typographer, designer).

Before we waste too much time working out an idea or a design, let’s just put in the minimum effort as soon as possible. After that, we can always decide whether to take it a step further or drop it. Just visualizing it in some form usually shows whether it will work.

Let’s stop adoring our creative heroes

As artists, designers, and illustrators, we all have role models who inspire us. Beginners and students, in particular, tend to cling to their heroes initially.

But all that idolizing eventually gets us nowhere. At some point, we must forget the romance, pick up the pen, and above all, ask the only important question: What exactly fascinates us about our hero’s works? The answer is right in front of us. As we contemplate the artworks, we observe ourselves. What happens to us as we do so? What touches us? Is it perhaps the colors, the strokes, the subjects, the material? Finding this out while becoming active in the process is the key to our own artistic style.

Pride in creativity is often actually fear of criticism

“I’m really proud of how this illustration worked out”. I heard this phrase often from my fellow students when they had to present their latest work or designs to the professor and the class. It is a strange feeling to hear this phrase myself, ten years later, from students before I look at their work.

The sentence expresses pure self-protection. In reality, behind it lie the words, “Please don’t be too harsh with your criticism”. Especially as beginners, we identify particularly strongly with our work. I can relate to that. That is only natural. I remember the feeling when one of my drawings turned out particularly well. I would look at it days later and ask myself, “How did you do that?

But over time, we realize that this attitude makes it difficult for us to grow. The ego seeks validation, which inhibits creativity and productivity. We start to understand that we’re not the star of the show. Our work is. Improving and optimizing it is all that matters.

Praise and recognition may feel good at the moment, but we gain more if we seek constructive criticism. It makes a huge difference in our attitude whether we hope for positive feedback or specifically ask right away what we could have done better about our work.

1 + 1 = 0

Humans are sensitive creatures when it comes to paying attention. In design, illustration, and especially advertising, the now hackneyed-sounding guideline “Less is more” applies. After twenty years of experience, I can agree with this, too, when conveying messages to the viewer fast and immediately.

Let’s take my Mindshot-series as an example. I don’t refer to the minimalistic, black-white-red drawing style, which is just an inevitable reflex to the attempt to visualize complex content in a concentrated way. It’s about the message.

After hundreds of illustrations and thousands of ideas and attempts, at some point, I was able to realize: The illustration collapses as soon as it is overloaded with information. So the challenge is removing as much information as possible while it still works. As in preparing the poisonous blowfish, this sometimes requires meticulous dissection.

We see the principle every day in advertising. Effective advertising conveys one main piece of information (always on an emotional level).

A car ad cannot unfold all the benefits of the vehicle on an A4 page or in a 20-second commercial. It cannot show to the same extent how fast, environmentally friendly, safe, economical, exclusive, status-enhancing, and beautiful the car is.

Well-done advertising distills the product’s advantage and conveys it unambiguously. Otherwise, our brain pulls the handbrake on too much information and turns its attention to something else.

If I’m not nervous about a project, I get nervous

Creative service is not an exact science, whether it’s creating illustrations, an advertising campaign, or a corporate design. Uncertainty resonates throughout the creative process. At the end are questions like: Does the illustration, the ad campaign, or the logo convey the intended message at first glance and unambiguously?

No matter how often we go through it all in our heads, the truth always emerges when we present our design to others. Therefore, personally, a basic sense of nervousness is part and parcel of every project. That helps me stay focused, effective, self-critical, and objective in the service of the client.

When I think of a commissioned project, and I don’t feel nervousness but a sense of calmness, all alarm bells immediately go off. That’s when I get too confident about, for example, the deadline or the illustration idea. The rude awakening occurs at the latest when I sit down at the desk and notice that the execution takes more time than planned or when the idea in my head doesn’t work as well as I thought once it’s on a sheet of paper.

The nervousness that cost me sleepless nights in my studies and the early days as a freelancer has become a well-dosed motor for creative work over time.

Every dream job is packed with little nightmares

We usually refer to earning a living doing what we love most as a dream job. Waking up every day and can’t wait to get started is what we all want. But let’s not delude ourselves. No dream job comes without nightmares.

The dream of owning your own restaurant means taking a loan, seeing your family rarely, dealing with the health department, looking for capable employees, etc.

Being a film producer means being responsible for dozens of people. It means keeping a cool head when the lead actor gets sick on the day of the shoot, the requisites don’t arrive in time for the shoot, or the director doesn’t act on the schedule.

Being an illustrator means years of practicing, experimenting, working alone, enduring frustration over one’s own inadequate skills, acquiring clients, and tough price negotiations.

Even ultimate dreams of being, i.e., a professional soccer player, means that other people make decisions about them. A professional soccer player must be ready to pack his bags at any time, separate his children from his new friends, and move to another city, another country, or even a foreign continent. A professional must be aware that a severe injury can mean the end of his career and a financial downgrade.

When we decide to go for our dream job, it is essential to know that, deep dark days with stomach aches and headaches are inevitable. We are prepared for this, so we don’t turn back when facing the first headwind. We must be honest with ourselves. Are we willing to put up with the downsides of our dream job? If love and passion are such that we can answer yes to this question, then there is no stopping us. If the answer is no, great. We were honest and can now leave this illusion behind and continue our search for our calling.

Don’t believe what I’m writing 

I write this blog for two reasons. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It is an attempt to make them more tangible to me. Formulating forces me to focus on the essentials, which allows me to fill in gaps and identify contradictions. In short, afterward, I realize whether what I have been thinking corresponds to my reality.

On the other hand, I have gained much experience in the creative industry over the last 20 years. Starting with an internship at a small advertising agency, then an apprenticeship and a degree, and ending with many years of freelance work as an illustrator.

Both reasons are equally important to me. It is a pleasure if the reader can use and take away something from my experiences for his or her own journey. After all, I know from my own life how much people can positively impact others.

But they are and remain my very subjective experiences and views. If I write in a post about how I think it’s helpful in the home office not to work in jogging clothes or pajamas for various reasons, that’s entirely my view. It is my experience. It cannot and should not necessarily be taken as law. Some people would vehemently disagree with me on the jogging pants question. And that is perfectly okay. Everyone eventually finds their own methods and makes their own experiences. There is no right or wrong sometimes. I avoid formulations like “you must” and “you shall” when writing. No one can know what works best for the other. That is up to each of us.

However, sharing your own experiences can have a positive effect, especially on young people. It can motivate, encourage, warn, and provide clarity. That’s why I do not expect it, but I am happy if you gain something of value for your path in my texts.

What we do is not who we are

It starts with the language. In Germany, we say, Ich bin Illustrator, Ich bin Maurer, Ich bin Psychologe (I am an illustrator, …). This formulation creates a strong connection between work and identity: I am what I do.

But this attitude is risky and can be unhealthy. From a connection, dependency may arise. So, as part of society, I am measured by what I do. At the same time, I begin to measure myself by it. It’s constraining.

What happens when a serious injury forces a professional football player to end his career? Or when a 5-star chef loses his sense of taste? Is his identity lost with that? 

In Italy, they say Faccio l’illustratore, Faccio il muratore, Faccio il psicologo. This means as much as I make … or I work as … The language creates a distance to identity.

Once we realize that what we do is only a by-product of who we are, our lives will become easier. We deal better with criticism, detach more easily from expectations, and take the freedom to redesign our lives.

A toddler does not hang up his drawing. The parents do

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Pablo Picasso

What exactly makes a child an artist? The first thing that comes to mind with this is fearlessness in creating. A toddler who sees a pencil and a piece of paper doesn’t hesitate for a moment. She doesn’t wonder if the paper is rough or shiny. She doesn’t consider whether the crayon is sharpened or dull. She starts, draws lines, taps dots on the paper, and tries different colors.

As soon as she is done, she puts down the pencil and runs to her friends or the next toy. She has already forgotten her work. She does not sign it and then carefully puts it in a folder. For the toddler, the picture has no value. When my son scribbles lines on a paper, I’m the one who keeps it or hangs it on the wall. He, on the other hand, moves on.

From an adult’s perspective, this is enviable. It is not about fearlessness but the absence of judgment. The child does not yet evaluate her work or compare herself. She has no expectations towards herself, her abilities, or her talent and does not think about the expectations of others. She just does it and then does it again.

This approach we can take as a model because, out of fear of the outcome, we often don’t even start or, as Homer Simpson would put it, “Trying is the first step towards failure” 😉

A sketchbook can be an outlet. It’s where we can try things out, make mistakes, and record bad drawings or ideas. The pages are not masterpieces. They are our playground. And when the book is complete, we close it and just move on. 

Drawing skills are not a requirement for creating illustrations

When we talk about the profession of an illustrator, we usually think of drawings. But drawing talent is not necessarily required to create an illustration. A cursory doodle while talking on the phone, a photo collage, or a child’s drawing can be an illustration when used in the proper context.

In art, the artist usually tries to externalize his inner emotional world. On the other hand, an illustration always serves the viewer, the audience. The illustration is a call to action. It captures the reader’s attention in a magazine, encouraging him to read the article. In advertising, an illustration style can be distinctively associated with a product or service. In a medical book, the purpose of illustration is to simplify complex content.

As long as an image that is not a photograph conveys or supports a message, it can be considered an illustration.

We believe the expert

“The life you live is equally or more important for longevity.”

Alexander Imich

This is a nice and positive saying. Nevertheless, it might sound a bit trite, and you think you’ve read it dozens of times on calendars or postcards. Maybe a young fitness coach also mentioned this sentence during his lecture on healthy eating.

The words come from Alexander Imich, who in 2014 became the world’s oldest living man. He was 111. With this information, the phrase “The life you live is equally or more important for longevity” suddenly impacts us. After all, it comes from someone who has achieved something extraordinary that only a few do.

At work, we often say, “Success proves her right.” If someone is successful in his doing, it usually makes us more willing to listen to the person very carefully.

Asking doesn’t cost us anything

This is the German and Italian version of the saying “there’s no harm in asking.” Sometimes it is helpful to remind ourselves when we need advice and help.

At the beginning of my studies in communication design, I was supposed to lecture about a Korean designer. When researching, I faced a problem because I could hardly find any information: only a simple homepage, no interview, and only a few reports.

The whole week I searched desperately for information. Finally, I had to explain to my professor that the presentation would be relatively short. He said, “have you asked him?”.

The scales fell from my eyes. Why didn’t I think of it myself? The possibility was so close? What prevented me from simply writing to the designer directly and asking for an interview? Was it the thought of not wanting to bother, of being a nuisance? Was it awe? Or perhaps the shame of revealing myself as an inexperienced student in front of a renowned designer? I can’t put my finger on the reason, but eventually, I wrote a short email asking for a few questions to be answered.

The presentation was a success. My fellow students were amazed that I had written directly to the designer. So I was not alone with my initial concerns.

Therefore: It costs nothing to ask. There is nothing wrong with approaching people directly when we have concerns or need advice. We may not get an answer, but we don’t take that personally. However, if we do get one, it is most likely to be positive.

With this attitude, four years later, I contacted countless designers in Australia and Southeast Asia for a meeting and an interview for my thesis. As many as 90% replied, and about 70% were looking forward to our meeting. The result was dozens of inspiring and warm conversations that have stuck with me.

PS: there are very few cases where asking actually did “cost” me something. More about that in another post.

Let’s become observers of our feelings to find our calling

By consciously paying attention to how we feel in different situations and moments, we get to know ourselves better.

A simple example is movies when we go out of the cinema and afterward talk with our friends about how bad the movie was? In the next step, we can try to find out why exactly we feel that way. Was the story perhaps too predictable? Were the dialogues too unrealistic or the characters unsympathetic?

Now we ask ourselves what we would have done differently? Can we think of any ideas on how the story could have been more exciting? How would Tarantino have written the dialogue? What exactly was missing from the main character so we could have empathized with her better?

We can apply this inner analysis to almost everything in life. We usually remember one or two works in particular when we visit an exhibition. Maybe it will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Let’s not just take this experience for granted. Let’s find out the reason. Is it the colors, the idea, the material, the motif? What precisely in this particular work is the essence of our attention? The answer to this question is a piece of the puzzle to our vocation, style, and inner voice, making us unique.

I have always liked the color combinations of black, white with red, for example, like the movie posters for Scarface with Al Pacino or the covers of Sin City comics. They have stuck to me since childhood. In retrospect, it was inevitable that my Mindshots series would consist of this color combination.

Standing with confidence and positive energy while presenting

How we stand in front of our audience immediately reflects how we feel: insecure, confident, nervous, on the verge of flight, or joyful anticipation. But more importantly, our stance and posture directly affect ourselves.

A secure and firm stance means that both feet are shoulder-width apart. This automatically means that the knees are pushed through, and the back is straight. Through this stand, completely different energy flows in our bodies. Our voice becomes minimally deeper, our gaze more concentrated. Shoes with a stiff sole can support this, as we are not as flexible wearing them as soft sneakers.

With the firm stand, we give our body and our head the signal: Now it gets serious! We go into communication mode. We are facing the audience head-on. Our total concentration belongs to them, and we start to talk consciously and thoughtfully about what we have planned.

No matter how the audience perceives us, sympathetic, arrogant, friendly, or hardened, there is one thing we do not appear to be: insecure.

Feeling burning stress is a warning shot we shouldn’t ignore

We all know that nagging feeling of procrastination when we put off a job, a study project, or a simple call to the tax office. The task is stuck in our head and keeps popping up, whether we wake up, work, watch a movie, or are at the gym.

The best solution is to just get it done. But sometimes, things get in the way and make it difficult or even impossible. There comes the point when we think about the task and feel more pressure to get it done than we did yesterday. Perhaps the client or professor has asked about the status, or the deadline of the tax office is about to expire.

Suddenly, an uncomfortable heat rises inside us that stirs us up. We should never ignore this moment. Our subconscious fires a final warning shot that we should listen to. It means that it is not too late yet… but it will be very soon. Even if our head could suppress or postpone it for a long time to do the task, our subconscious does not.