One of the most remarkable things about reading the interviews contained in Debbie Millman's How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is noticing just how many of the interviewees seemed to know even in their earliest memories that graphic design was their calling. For the reader hoping that the book will live up to its titular promises, learning that the childhoods of many iconic designers already showed indications of their future promise may be disheartening. That said, in any examination of Millman's interviews of established design figures such as Stefan Sagmeister and Michael Bierut, the reader would be remiss in forgetting the value of hindsight. No less than Milton Glaser puts it best in his own interview. When asked about his first creative memory, he responds, "My memory of the past is that there are so many areas that are opaque, and I feel that there are so many areas that I made up later in life."
In some ways, everyone is entitled to writing their own stories, and after a lifetime of design, it's not surprising that successful designers look back on their childhoods as idyllically creative. Paradoxically, many of the designers whose earliest memories were of art still had trouble finding graphic design as a career path. Instead, they approached the field tangentially, embracing graphic design after becoming dissatisfied with fine art, or suddenly realizing the beauty of a layout or a typeface.
As the introduction states, Millman herself knows that the question of how to think like a great graphic designer is not an appropriate topic for a self-help book. Instead, it may be more like receiving the Dharma. As the host of Design Matters, an internet radio talk show, she is quite accustomed to the give and take of a lively Q&A and her questions reveal that fluidity. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer offers outsiders a rare glimpse into the minds of designers; and they are a multifaceted bunch, united largely by early creative memories, truly philosophical levels of introspection, and most profoundly, a sense of humor (more on that later).
Given the title, however, the prospective reader must wonder what prescriptive advice could be gleaned from the book's pages, I can recommend the following totally unrelated recurrent habitual behaviors: early morning jogs, a borderline compulsion for order, a complete embrace of creative destruction, tenacity and occasional forced isolation. I also couldn't help but observe that that while designing record covers in the seventies and eighties seems to lead inextricably to dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in design at the new millennia; a willingness to take on a variety of clients and jobs seems to generate lasting happiness.
To stick with the Dharma/Zen metaphor, it seems in closing that the question of "how to think like a great graphic designer" is a bit of a koan. Wanting or trying to think that way or to attain that state of mind may be a sure-fire way to fail. Instead, creative spirit, artistic talent, and a diverse set of non-design interests must be catalyzed by a dedication to the task at hand and a playful sense of humor. The creative state itself is spurred by humor, and perhaps one of the reasons that Millman got such interesting interviews out of her subjects (well, other than her capable and flexible questioning) is that her interviewees were uniformly funny. Comedy is predicated on the establishment of a set of rules followed by the sudden and unexpected violation of those rules. That sounds suspiciously like what any teacher in the arts will tell aspiring students. Whether it's said about the graphic design grid, Picasso's cubism, or a Zen book of koans, once the student learns the rules, they can throw out the book. The value comes in the contrast of expectation with the arrival of the truly new. The lateral thinking that makes for a creative designer is akin to that of comedy, so it is not surprising to find a significant wit among these designers. While I'll leave Chip Kidd's comical list of fears to the reader to discover, I can't resist repeating Massimo Vignelli's closing joke. When asked by Millman, "Is there anything that you haven't done that you want to do?" Vignelli replies, "Oversee the redesign of the Vatican. Such a joke! Can you imagine? The pope as a client! That'd be lovely, turning to the pope and saying, 'Well, the symbol is okay. We can live with that, but everything else has to go.'"