Dear Design School Grads: Be Authentically You And Harness Creativity And You’ll Succeed. No Big Deal, Right?

Mark Busse – No Comments

I was honoured to be invited back to Vancouver Island University to give the commencement speech for their design program’s 2013 graduation. I didn’t want to to do a repeat of my 2012 performance where I’m sure I scared many young designers with well over an hour of ranting, so this time I took an entirely different approach and chose to have a more casual dialogue with the graduates about authenticity, creativity, and how many designers it takes to screw in a lightbulb. I also borrowed heavily from a terrific speech on creativity given by my comedy hero John Cleese of Monty Python fame. What follows is a transcript of my talk:

Good evening everyone. Thank you to Nancy Pagé and VIU for inviting me back again this year, and to Aaron Heppell and GDCVI for generously hosting me and this event tonight. And please let me offer my sincere congratulations on this incredible achievement of your graduation from design school.

My name is Mark Busse and I’m honoured to be invited to speak with you on this important day in your careers. But why am I qualified to speak tonight? I guess having managed a successful design firm for nearly two decades and teaching design for the past ten years gives me some unique perspectives and insight that might be of some value I can share. I will try.

Was anyone here for my speech last year? I’m surprised I was invited back to be honest. I had a gnarly beard (affectionately named Archie) half way down my chest and looked like the Grizzly Adams of the design industry. And I gave a presentation I called “The Truth” that droned on for an hour or so. God, I can’t imagine anything worse than some grumpy old guy preaching sternly like one last lecture on graduation day. Yeesh. It did spawn an ongoing series of articles in Design Edge Magazine called “Design School didn’t’ teach you…” that some of you may have read.

Some of the questions last year’s grads provided that I tried to answer were:

  • How do I make a promotional piece that stands out?
  • Who should I approach and how?
  • What should my portfolio look like?
  • How can I make a lot of money?
  • Should I join design associations?
  • Should I enter design competitions?
  • Should I freelance or start my own firm with a friend?
  • Should I specialize?
  • How much should I charge?
  • …and many others

Looking back, I realize how arrogant I may have seemed last year, trying to offer a bunch of “here’s what’s really going on” sage advice framed as “the truth”. I hope everyone here realizes that there really is no “truth”, only individual experiences and perspectives. We each have to make our own version of the truth. I feel what I shared was accurate, valid, and hopefully useful, but let’s do something different tonight, OK? I want to share a few simple insights about what I think it takes to lead a successful creative life and then have a conversation with you all. If you want to ask me some of those questions again, you may do so at the end.

Likely many of you are already working or have lined up jobs. But those who haven’t, the thing most on your mind these days is “how the hell am I going to get a job and succeed in this hyper-competitive market and shitty economy?” Well not by listening to me dole out tips and tricks, that’s for sure, so let’s just tell designer nerds jokes all night instead.

How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Um excuse me, I’m a communication designer, thank you. We don’t DO light bulbs.

How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb? What do you mean you liked the first light bulb better? Fine… I’ll change it back… but I’m billing you for my time for BOTH bulb changes.

OK, seriously, I do have a few ideas to share, and even if each of you only goes home inspired by one idea, or riled up about a topic that leads to conversation, then I’ll consider tonight a success. And I promise, I will tell you the truth—and we can discuss whether you agree with me or not. Fair deal?

Like many of you, in the early days of my design career I obsessed over the aesthetic aspects of graphic design such as typography, colours, images, layout, patterns—all the design elements and production techniques. God I loved being a skilled expert at using desktop layout software and producing exquisite lithography—I still do if I’m honest—but unfortunately that isn’t even nearly enough to be successful in this trade anymore. Yet I’d argue the most important thing to getting ahead isn’t any of that stuff—or likely anything you could possibly learn in design school.

So what’s the secret sauce then? I suggest two things working in synergy: Being authentically you and learning to harness creativity. Easy to say, not so easy to do. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to teach you either to be honest.

You may know that I am the founder of the first chapter of CreativeMornings in Canada, a popular global movement of free monthly breakfast events with a mandate to build community around discourse about what creativity means and how it can be applied in people’s lives and careers. I decided to commit to this unpaid volunteer initiative because I was frustrated with the state of our industry and state of my own city, rife with slacktivism, apathy, isolation, and loneliness undermining both culture and community. As much as I love TED, Pecha Kucha, and design industry events as much as the next guy, it was in many ways a response to the scourge of formulaic, self-serving, profit-driven conferences, speaker, and networking events that end up being more entertainment or self promotion platforms than a learning or authentic networking experience. The CreativeMornings format forbids self-promotion and breaks down the walls between industries so everyone is welcome to participate in dialogue, not just sit in an auditorium like this listening to some cocksure “expert” like me tell anecdotes, promote themselves, or show off their portfolio. Aren’t you sick of looking at other designers’ portfolios yet?

Besides CreativeMornings, I co-host the Vancouver chapter of Likemind, a monthly coffee meetup, and the annual Interesting Vancouver storytelling event, which celebrates people’s interesting hobbies, unusual obsessions, and quirky idiosyncrasies in a casual forum. People often ask me why I invest so much of my time into events like these and I have to admit that while it seldom results in new clients, I profit immensely from exposure to so many highly creative people. I wish I’d had access to that kind of thinking, learning, and community years ago.

One of the presentations I learned the most from was by my friend and personal inspiration, Ian Grais, founder and creative director at Rethink. In a talk where he shared much about his own personal journey, design process, and approach to creativity, he told the story of Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” which really stuck with me. Have any of you read his book or seen his TED talk? His argument is that highly effective leaders are those that get past WHAT they do, which is where most marketing and promotion stops, and even past the HOW, which is how most try to express differentiation, and focus on the WHY. Citing examples like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.” he argues that people don’t buy WHAT you do; people buy WHY you do it. I think knowing WHY you do what you do is paramount to success in the design industry. Hell, I use this type of thinking with every of my branding clients as it is applicable to any industry.

So ask yourself: Why are you a designer? Why are you motivated? Why are you unique? Why do you believe strongly in certain things? Why should anyone care?

You all know what a SWOT analysis is, right? By now you certainly should. For those who don’t, it’s a research technique that examines strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. In design research we try to uncover the SWOT for a particular business, product, or brand, but for some reason we don’t often turn that analysis on ourselves. The first part of my argument is that by truly understanding deeply who you are, what you’re good at, what you need to learn more about, what you can offer, where you are going, and what hurdles stand in your way—only then can you express yourself authentically and with purpose.

I’ve said it a thousand times to young designers and I’ll say it again to all of you: design firms don’t hire portfolios—we don’t really even hire designers. They hire PEOPLE. And when we hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for our money, but when we hire people who believe what we believe, they’ll work for us with blood and sweat and tears.

So be authentically you. Avoid giving answers you think employers or clients want to hear. And try hard to be the best, most authentic expression of you possible.

How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb? We don’t actually CHANGE the light bulbs… we’re too busy critiquing the fonts and layout on the package they came in!

But being you isn’t enough to land a killer job, is it? I contend that it is only those who learn how to harness the confusing notion of creativity that thrive as designers. But explaining creativity is a very personal and nearly impossible thing, yet people long to understand it—likely another reason CreativeMornings is so popular.

When working with my clients I often find it’s easier to establish what they are NOT as way of defining what they ARE. Sort of a negative approach I guess. I know that creativity is NOT a talent. For communication designers, creativity is not the process we were taught in design school. Creativity is certainly not the tools we use. It’s a frame of mind. It’s a philosophy. It is a way of operating. It’s a way of life. Let me explain.

Experts have been studying creativity for years and the consensus is that highly creative people are those who’ve mastered the ability to put themselves in a particular mood or circumstance and tolerate the anxiety of struggling to find a way forward when there is no obvious answer. These are people who are willing to put themselves out there, to engage in play, to be unafraid of the judgement of others, and press on until the job is done. These are the people who can play with divergent ideas and allow them to converge, leading us to better ideas and solutions. But do we show this off in our design portfolios? Ha. Hardly. We too busy showing how pretty our work is, not the process behind it.

There really are only two modes of thinking—closed and open. Most people are closed when at “work”—even highly productive designers—relying on being structured, motivated by stress, and reactive. Harder to master is an open mindset, which is a relaxed, expansive, curious, interactive, and more playful. Both modes are required, but we often get stuck in the closed mode—which is best suited for execution. If you want to succeed as a designer, you MUST learn to be in the open mode—the creative frame of mind—and that goes to how you approach kicking off your career too.

 How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Screw you, I’m not changing anything.

Speaking of jokes, I am a big Monty Python fan, and thus have a tremendous respect for the John Cleese. Many years ago he gave a brilliant speech about his secrets for a creative life to the graduating class of Video Arts in the UK. The main thrust of his argument was that creativity thrives when one engages in a sort of “play”, but with purpose and structure by mastering this open mindset and applying it to problem solving. I confess a good chunk of my speech today was inspired by Mr. Cleese and I’m grateful for his wisdom. In his talk, he presented five components to creativity: space, time, time, confidence, and humour.

1. SPACE: this is the choice to create an oasis of quiet or chaos—depending on the mood and context. Creativity demands it’s own space with boundaries aside from a stoic work environment. I would argue that we as designers don’t always do this particularly well. My life is so busy and I’m so frequently surrounded by people, tasks, media, etc, that I schedule alone time to just think. I know many designers hide in cafés with their laptop, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I listen to a podcast, read a book, draw in my sketch book, or just sit there quietly and let my mind wander or go quiet. Perhaps this sounds counter-productive, but it’s probably the most creative time I have and feeds my entire day.

2. TIME: to benefit from creativity, one must break from the regularly scheduled program and apply structure. Give yourself a start and a finish. Cleese says that for him, he needs a minimum of 1.5 hours to properly engage his creativity. Resist the urge to be distracted by all the “stuff” we’re inundated with, but more importantly, learn to ignore the chatter of your own brain that can pull you out of the moment. We frequently host brand essence workshops for our clients and require all participants—often senior executives—to drop their mobile phones into a box for hours and challenge them to write down the top five things they’d be doing if they were at their desk right now. We then fold those pieces of paper, put them into the box, and give them back at the end of the day. We need to learn let go and give ourselves permission to think in a focussed manner.

3. TIME: yes, MORE time, but in the sense that we need to practice patiently pondering a problem longer and tolerate the anxiety of not having a solution longer. It seems counter-intuitive in an age where everything moves so fast, and in an industry where you are often tracking your hours, but you MUST give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original. I often find that the only way to crack the nut is to walk away and let the problem “percolate” in my mind until the solution comes at an unexpected time or location. I can’t tell you how many ideas I get ideas in the shower! I keep meaning to add a waterproof write board in there.

4: CONFIDENCE: students often feel that the way to succeed as a designer is to make quick and decisive choices and act in a bold fashion, emulating more senior professionals. This is bullshit and frankly strangles creativity. You must learn to be OK with going in the “wrong” direction and failing. There’s power in vulnerability. If creativity is play, then give yourself the room to play without consequence. While you’re being creative, nothing is wrong and any drivel may lead to the break-through. And don’t be afraid to start over—that takes confidence! Have you ever heard of Sony’s “Zero Ten Hi” approach?

5. HUMOUR: it should be no surprise to any of you that the fastest way to get “open” and playful is with laughter. Don’t let “serious” subjects distract you from having fun with the design process. Solemnity is different, but even that is stifling and serves pomposity. Humour is an essential part of spontaneity and play, thus creativity—share it and encourage it in others. Giggle all you want. One of my business partners, our Design Director, is the master of the ridiculous idea that often leaves us giggling and wondering what’s wrong with him, but frequently those tangents lead us directly to the idea hidden in his madness.

Cleese contends that if you arrange these five elements, space, time, time, confidence, and humour, you will have a more creative life—and speaking from experience, I know he’s right. I’ll tell you one thing, the most successful designers I know are those that have been able to harness creativity by mastering the open mindset, giving themselves the space and time to ponder challenges without the distractions of life, and tackle problem solving with verve and a good laugh now and again.

How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but I had my sister (who’s also a designer) pick out some bulbs that we would like you to use.

So, why is any of this important? Life is so distracting and cluttered and as designers, you must learn to ignore the perception of urgency and let your mind quieten down. Then as you start considering the problem, allow yourself to freely start making random connections and see if your intuition recognizes any with potential value and follow that lead. If you’ve followed these steps and put in the time, you WILL be rewarded by your subconscious—often at an unexpected time and place. And find people to play with. As tempting as freelancing may be at this stage of your career, be as cautious about working alone as with whom you collaborate. Nothing blocks creativity as trying to be creative with someone you don’t like or trust. Be positive and building, avoid negativity as much as possible.

And if you apply this same type of thinking to your own career pursuits, the same success will result. But you must remain open. You must experiment. You must play. You must be authentic. And as you pursue creativity, dismiss that which isn’t really urgent. Play must be urgent. Alone time must be urgent. Being YOU must be urgent. Do these things and express both and you will be the best PERSON for the job, regardless of who has better computer skills or prettier portfolio.

So how will you find success in your design career? I don’t have a clue—I don’t know any of you! But if you work hard to find ways to express your own authentic personality and vulnerability and combine that with mastering creativity, it’ll all fall into place, I promise you. Maybe not today, in fact I’d suggest your learning is just beginning, but in a few years I’d be surprised if you didn’t find yourself landing a killer job or client because of who you are and your approach, not what’s in your portfolio. Perhaps the only thing I’d add is that now is the time to start building relationships in the industry—everywhere really. Be a relationship-making machine.

How many of you will it take to screw in a lightbulb? It depends. On you.

In closing, remember that there is no truth—just a bunch of opinions you can draw from to come up with your own conclusions. You’re entering an industry filled with opinionated people, so take everything with a grain of salt and create your own truth. Combine that with being unapologetically YOU and you cannot fail. But if anyone wants a copy of my “truth” rant from last year, please just give your contact info or email me and I’d be happy to share it with you.

Thank you for let me be me, and best luck to you all.