Over the last seven months, I called up 15 successful, respected designers from around the world and asked them each a set of 22 questions about their backgrounds, their current projects, their working habits and their thoughts on design. In the course of conducting these interviews—which we dubbed the Core77 Questionnaire—I noticed a handful of themes begin to emerge. Even though I talked to designers with a wide range of backgrounds and work experience, many of them had remarkably similar answers to several of our questions. So as part of Core77's year-end review, I wanted to highlight these outstanding themes in the form of the following six insights into the design mind.
Designers Don't Procrastinate
One of our 22 questions is "How Do You Procrastinate?"—and I was truly surprised by how many designers were incapable of coming up with an answer. As a writer, procrastination is an integral part of my daily routine; successful designers, by contrast, seem to actually want to do their work. Either that, or they just have a lot more self-discipline. As Paul Loebach said: "If I'm going to work, I'm going to work. And if I'm not going to work, I will take a vacation." Marcel Wanders can't bear to have work hanging over his head: "For me, procrastinating equals suffering," he said. Sandy Chilewich said the same thing: "Procrastinating, for me, is extremely painful. I'm really not having a good time if I feel like, 'Shit, I should really be doing this other thing.'" Ditto Paul Cocksedge, Piet Hein Eek and Sam Hecht. Even those designers who did come up with an answer really had to think about it first—none of my interviewees could imagine indulging in frequent bouts of work avoidance.
Designers Think Most People Don't Understand What They Do
This was another common theme, and it came up mostly in response to the question "What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers?" Over and over, our interviewees said that the general public basically has no idea what industrial designers do. Here's Ayse Birsel: "No one knows what we do. Fashion designers they get, but with product design it's like, 'What's that?' And then people say, 'Oh, so you style stuff? Or you engineer stuff?' And I'm like, 'Neither.' There's no easy answer."
Sam Hecht answered similarly, noting that because "design means so many different things now," the term designer has become almost useless. (When asked what he does, Hecht prefers to say, "I make things.") Fellow Londoner Paul Cocksedge agreed, saying, "It would be wonderful if there were another word besides designer, but I don't know what it would be." And Adidas's James Carnes suspected that "people would be absolutely amazed by the depth and breadth of a designer's daily work."Designers Like Their Job (But Dislike the Paperwork)
No big surprise here. When we asked designers about the best part of their job, most had no trouble listing its numerous positive aspects, from the fruitful collaboration with colleagues to the sheer pleasure of turning ideas into actual objects. But when asked about the worst part of their job, several admitted that the day-to-day business of running a design studio can be a real downer. James Carnes and Fred Bould both said that they dread the administrative side of things; Ayse Birsel and Harri Koskinen cited the accounting and bookkeeping as particularly unpleasant; and Lindsey Adelman picked e-mail as her bête noire. Brendan Ravenhill also noted how time-consuming all of this stuff can get: "I never realized how much of my time would be spent on bookkeeping and e-mailing and doing all the paperwork that goes into the backend," he said. "You know, I consider myself lucky if I spend a couple hours a day designing."
An exception to the above: The Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek claims to actually enjoy these chores. "I like the whole process," he said. "I even like the administrative side—sending a letter, calling for money. Of course I don't do everything myself, but I like almost everything."
Designers Still Use Paper and Pencil
Benjamin Hubert carries a Moleskine at all times. Piet Hein Eek keeps a little sketchbook in his back pocket. Fred Bould's most important tool is a pen; Lindsey Adelman's is a pencil. Clearly, good old-fashioned sketching (and list-making) is not going away anytime soon. Not only is it essential for generating and working through ideas, but it's an invaluable tool for communicating those ideas to others. As James Carnes noted, "The ability to draw an idea transforms a conversation from being about words to instantly being about possibilities. You can talk and talk and talk, but the person with the pen actually starts to shape the idea."
Designers Are Not Necessarily Design Collectors
I was surprised by how many designers had trouble answering the question "What is your most prized design possession?" A few people gave the kind of answers I expected—Paul Loebach has a knife that his grandfather made; Marcel Wanders loves Tejo Remy's Chest of Drawers. But several others said that they don't really have prized possessions at all. Microsoft's Ralf Groene: "I'm not a collector of things; I'm not that type of person." Harri Koskinen: "I don't have that kind of approach." Sam Hecht: "I don't really have many things like that, that I feel attached to in a physical way." Paul Cocksedge: "I feel a bit guilty, but I don't really buy those kinds of design objects." Others cheated a bit by citing colleagues and family members as their most prized "possessions."
Designers Don't Take Themselves Too Seriously
Thankfully! The Core77 Questionnaire, like pretty much any magazine-y questionnaire, is not easy to answer. Coming up with clever, concise responses that also reflect your actual experience and thinking is a tricky prospect. But all of the designers I've spoken to so far were good sports about submitting to the twists and turns of this particular Q-and-A; indeed, based on this admittedly small sample size, even very busy and successful industrial designers tend to be pretty modest and down-to-earth people. Bec Brittain noted as much in her interview; she said that one of the reasons she pursued an I.D. career is because "What could be a painful networking night was just hanging out with people I like."