Words Worth Repeating #7: Richard Tait

“Orville Wright didn’t have a pilot’s license.” - Richard Tait

I’ve never heard of Richard Tait, but he sure does illustrate the point. With all our talk lately about how to channel an initial pang of hunger into a plan of action, we’d do well to zero in on how the transition from sheer passion to impassioned work realistically happens.

So, that’s where we find ourselves. There are plenty of personal anecdotes out there that would provide ideas for how to get started. But you can talk amongst yourselves about those. If we were to boil it down, taking that first step depends on one fundamental rule.

Don’t waste too much time in the ramp-up phase. It’s a recipe for inaction. This translates into many things, one of which has to do with schoolin’. As Mr. Wright could have told us, making changes to the world doesn’t necessarily require a third party to announce your legitimacy before you’re allowed lift a finger.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everything. Me, I like my doctor to have a shiny diploma hanging where I can see it.

But sometimes, the ready-made framework for doing something can be more stifling than enabling. Don’t let a degree distract you from earning real-world chops. If you feel a sense of injustice about the society that surrounds you, go be the next Che Guevara. If you find you have a knack for entrepreneurship and for a budding technology, go be the next Bill Gates. And who didn’t love Good Will Hunting? Or Ernest Hemingway, for that matter. I, at least, have a soft spot for writers who craft their own voice by working through trial and error -- not with excessive formal training.

The point is that if you have the zeal and the skill to do something, there’s a good chance you can make a go of it now. Not after you do this, that, or the other thing.

Try honing your own ability to set the right goals at the right time. Doing that is a question of being able to take calculated risks, and it’s a matter of trusting your instinct. But that’s a subject we’ll take up next time.

Words Worth Repeating #6: Carl Sandburg

“I’m an idealist.  I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” - Carl Sandburg, American writer and poet I like this bard’s style.  It sounds trite these days to say that life is about the journey, but we can still appreciate the sentiment.

The same goes for doing good work.  Over here, we prefer to let the ideas come together organically into a conclusion that makes total sense.  Problem-solving is always flexible, with possible solutions and potential tactics constantly molding each other.  You can’t know your destination before you know where you’re coming from.

Words Worth Repeating #5: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

“Less is more.” - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, German-born American architect Mies might have said it most succinctly, but we’ve heard it in every context imaginable.  This idea seems to operate best when it’s understood not as a call for plainness, but rather thoughtfulness.  A piece of work tends to gain a greater effect when you include only those elements that were chosen by wittingly -- the ones that really make sense together as a whole.

It’s especially easy to see the brilliance of that adage when it comes to projects involving the visual arts or any sort of design.  If your composition is ill-conceived, you’re nowhere.  And it’s immediately obvious to onlookers.

The less-is-more dictum applies to writing as well, but there it often gets translated in a slightly different way.  With writing, they say deciding which details should be left out is the key to crafting a compelling paragraph.  Whether it’s a novel, a journalistic article, or the copy used to describe a brand, the ebbs and flows of good storytelling only work when you don’t force your reader to slog through any clutter.

But if we extrapolate this out a little further to the level of information (full stop), the situation gets murkier.  What would Mies say to the maze of potential knowledge on today’s Internet?

On the one hand, the vast amount of information that is becoming available to more people every day can only be seen as empowering.  On the other hand, though, it can feel paralyzing if you aren’t sure where to look next.  And the awareness that there is always something else to read on a given topic can be frustrating even on the best of days.

The answer to this problem is not, of course, that there should be less information.  When it comes to knowledge, more is more.  But we can still find wisdom in those words uttered by Mies.  After all, what he was really calling for was not destruction, but focus.  Simply having a few well devised lines of sight can do wonders when it’s time to stop searching for raw information and start fleshing out those good ideas.

Words Worth Repeating #4: Josef Albers

“If one says ‘Red’ - the name of the color - and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds.  And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.” - Josef Albers, German-born American artist This is not a post about diversity, multiculturalism, or any other such words that some of us are sick of hearing.  It’s about instincts.  Sometimes a good idea only becomes good after being knocked around a little.  For me, at least, Josef Albers’ work on the interaction of color from the 1960s conjures up the notion that nothing -- a color, an idea, or otherwise -- exists in isolation.  It’s all about how we bump up against one another and react to what happens next.  Instincts are a good thing, but sometimes they need a little help before they crystalize.  After all, what good is the idea of red if we don’t have other hues as points of comparison?


Over the weekend I was privy to the best work of college students from all over the country. For starters, I was honored to be a part of AIGA's annual student portfolio review here in Durham. I saw experimentation. I saw conceptual thinking and good execution. I saw (and heard) passion. It was really refreshing and promising. What I missed were the details. The little things. Some "junk" in the edges of an image. A conspicuous absence of business cards. And <gasp> questionable kerning.

Please don't get me wrong. As I mentioned, the work was really good. But I got the sense the students weren't being pushed to address the little things in order to make their work great.

Later on, I was just plain giddy to have the time to take in some of this year's amazing NCAA men's basketball tournament (the women's tournament has been full of drama as well).

With about 1 minute left in an Elite 8 matchup, the gritty Mountaineers of West Virginia led the storied Kentucky Wildcats by 7 points. At this point in the game, Kentucky had already missed 13 free throw attempts. 7 points turned out to be the final margin of victory for the 'neers.

In another matchup with a trip to the Final Four on the line, Michigan State's Raymar Morgan hit a single free throw with less than 2 seconds left to hold off a determined Tennessee team.

My take away? Kerning (and any other detail) is like shooting free throws.

+ It's totally up to you + People expect you to be proficient + You have to practice in order to be proficient + It's not glamorous + It's often the difference between winning and losing

So whether we're starting our fifth year of eligibility, our 20th year as a creative director or our first week as newly minted design professional, let's pay attention to the details, FTW.