Design as Art

An excerpt from my new book One Thing Leads to Another

There are two kinds of design. Design as a service and design as art. Design as a service is just like being a plumber or working any other trade. Someone calls you fix their pipes and you fix them as best you can, then you collect your money and move on. No matter how you slice it, you’re fixing pipes not building the Sistine Chapel. The client doesn’t want the Sistine Chapel; they just want their toilet to flush.

Service design is 99 percent of the paying work that’s out there. Don’t expect deep creative satisfaction from design as a service. Expect a good job and a paycheck. And be very thankful you’re in a nice soft chair pushing around 12 point Helvetica instead of out in the hot sun pushing around dirt. I’ve done that before. It sucks.


Design as art is a different beast. It’s the reason most people got into design in the first place. To make “cool” stuff. The problem is there is a rare sort of client who needs this type of work, and they come to you, you don’t go to them. You have to have a body of really great work, and then they’ll show up and say “give me a piece of that.” But you’ll never create that body of work doing service design. You need your own avenue, one where you have 100 percent control over the creative. Keep your day job, pay your bills, and make something else at night. An awesome blog, posters for your friend’s band, a screen printed ‘zine. But whatever it is, make sure people see it. Don’t make one and then put it in the closet. Get it out into the world and onto the internet. If people like it, then it will take flight. Make another one, and then another one, and another one. Work on your chops, develop your style, push your limits. Once you have 20 of something good people might start to take notice. But you might have to make 100 before you have 20 good ones.

If you want to start your own service design firm, start it at night as well. Expect to do a lot of selling. You’ll spend as much time talking to clients as you do designing, and you’ll still have to take their direction, just like you do when you work at a firm. When I started out on my own I had this notion that every single thing I was going to produce was going to be worthy of the design annuals. My first job was a brochure for a small nonprofit. I designed the hell out it. I threw in free illustrations to make it great. Slowly but surely they chipped away at it until the final result was a complete embarrassment. All I can say is that no matter where you work, if you’re doing service design your work will most likely get compromised. That is simply the nature of  the process.

If you want real satisfaction, get your own thing going that is actually your own thing. Start out for the love of it and make excellent work. The clichéd truth is that it’s a long road, but the money and clients will follow.