Finding your own mediocrity

Find your mediocrity! Photo by Indy Kethdy at
Slightly different cliché motivational poster. Photo: Indy Kethdy @

A lot has been said about finding one’s own path and true calling in life. In fact, we’re bombarded by all kinds of advice, motivational posters, gifs, and whatnot, set against stock photo sunrises and featuring platitudes from people like Paulo Coelho. If you ask me, if you are in the middle of that search, it might be more important to find the wrong paths than the right ones. You need to discover your own mediocrity.

I have been mulling over this idea of accepting one’s mediocrity for more than ten years now – ever since design college. But I never got around to writing about it. By now you have probably read about the ‘CV of failures’ published by Johannes Haushofer. He got the idea from Melanie Stefan’s 2010 article in Nature, and it’s clear that there are many others who share their feelings. Their point is that coping with failure is an integral part of being an academic, even though most of us tend to hide our shortcomings. I think the same applies also to designers and, especially, design students. So now that the issue is topical it is the perfect time to add my two cents to the discussion.

It was one of those unremarkable days in college when I was studying graphic design. I was headed out to lunch together with my friend Marko and we started talking about our possible futures. It was our second or third year so we already had gained a relatively good understanding of the different paths a graphic designer could take.

I said that I had realised that I could never be a really good advertising graphic designer. I just couldn’t do that kind of cool, slightly arty design. Whereas it was clear that there were other people in our class, Marko included, who produced gorgeous commercial looking pieces. It also didn’t enjoy advertising related courses that much. I was much happier doing everything else. If I had to, I probably could make a career in advertising design. But I would never become one of the gurus. I could only be a mediocre designer in that field.

Admitting this was hard. When I entered the school, I thought that the advertising world was one of those key destinations for graphic designers. I feared that if I didn’t have what it took to work in advertising, I must be a failed graphic designer in some sense.

Of course, at this point, I had already worked in a newspaper as a layout compositor. So I knew there were definitely some paths I could take. But, I laughed a little nervously, I can say goodbye to the world of glamour and champagne at the office. Although it was just a joke, some part of me still believed advertising work to be more glamorous than other design jobs. (Shows how little students know about reality!)

We continued the discussion as we walked, commenting on areas where we excelled or fared less well. In the end we agreed that it didn’t really matter if we couldn’t do everything perfectly. After all, nobody really needs to master all the possible sub-areas of their field. Some designers become illustrators, some work in advertising, and others design books.

The important thing was to find the right specialisation. This meant that trying to master everything might actually be counterproductive. So instead of struggling with advertising, I should put my energy to better use.

But there was a catch. As a student or a fledgling designer it is not easy to recognise what that specialisation should be. So instead, the best thing for you may be to find what you aren’t good at. It might not show you your future path exactly, but at least it narrows down your options. It helps you focus your energies roughly in the right direction.

Therefore, we concluded, the really important thing for design students in their second or third year was to find their own mediocrity. They should look at their own work and experimentations in different sub-areas critically. And admit to themselves the areas they did less well in.

And then we had lunch.

I think that discussion helped me relax about my choices and the possible directions I might take. Of course, all of these worries went away as I grew more confident in my own skills and career. Only a couple of years later, I was comfortably working in the newspaper industry as a graphic journalist. I had no doubts about my specialism because by then I was, even if I say so myself, pretty damn good at my job.

Later I decided to switch to teaching and research, but that had nothing to do with doubts about my skills. I just realised I couldn’t imagine myself working in the newspaper industry until I retired. Whereas I enjoy teaching so much that I might end up doing it until I drop.

Today, I feel confident because I have had two good careers. I have no problem talking about my history in the design industry. I’m just trying to come up with more and more sarcastic replies to cliché comments like ‘those who can’t do, teach’.

And interestingly even advertising appeared back into my life despite my attempts to stay away from it. I never did become a graphic designer in advertising. But as I progressed into more and more theoretical areas in design, I ended up studying and writing about things like branding and corporate identities. Eventually I found myself teaching advertising – conceptually but not graphically. And I am completely comfortable with that. I find it interesting and I have the right kind of conceptually oriented brain for it.

But not everyone has been as lucky as me or Marko, who continues as a successful designer to this day. Some of my classmates and friends didn’t recognise possible dead ends until it was too late. After college they went on to work in fields where they did not succeed and possibly hated every minute of their work. Many got disillusioned, left the media industry altogether, and struggled to find something else. Some of them are still searching for the right path.

Of course, it’s not possible to foresee the future and avoid every bump in life. My life hasn’t been perfect either and I’m not saying I don’t have any regrets.

But I have decided that I will encourage my students to discover their own mediocrity and accept it. Even if they don’t find the perfect path for themselves, accepting problem areas might help them avoid some of the painful experiences in life. Maybe.

At least it can’t be any less helpful than staring at stock photo sunrises and quotes from Coelho.

Craft skills versus analytical minds

Kyle Hale @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)
Photo: Kyle Hale @ Flickr.

What is the single most important skill in producing graphic design or visual communication? The ability to draw? Jedi skill in Adobe CS? A good eye for colour? No. What matters most is having an analytical mindset. The ability to process information.

It is commonly understood that when a designer takes on a postgraduate degree or switches altogether to a teaching and/or research career, they need to embrace analytical thinking. Postgraduate courses often include sessions for developing ‘scientific thinking’, such as research methods, critical discussions and so on. But until then they are expected to focus on honing their practical skills.

Even outside the universities, producing visual design is often considered a fully practice based craft. Designers are the image makers, visualisers, illustrators. They are seen as the people who simply give a form to content, as if they were changing costumes on dolls.

Therefore – many argue – what they need most are craft skills. Today these skills can of course range from classical painting to 3D modelling and beyond. They are still all practical skills largely involving manual dexterity, coordination, and so on.

I do not agree with this line of thinking. In most cases, even the youngest designer has to produce something other than just images. They need to take into account factors such as their client’s wishes, their target audience, the competitive environment, and so on. The produced images, layouts, user interfaces, photographs have to be optimised compromises between all those factors.

This means that information processing is at the heart of the design process. Each assignment is a problem that needs to be solved first on a mental level before it can be given a visual form. Craft skills only come into play after the analysis has been done.

Of course, designers don’t have to be consciously aware of this process. They might alternate between thinking and doing and feel that the design solution simply ‘appears’ to them intuitively. They experience insight-moments, like Dr. House, when they are brushing their teeth or doing something else which has nothing to do with design work.

It is also possible to see differences between various areas of design. Perhaps in illustration sometimes the briefs can be so detailed that they leave only a little room for the designer’s decisions. Thus the illustrator has fewer things to process and instead they simply concentrate on producing the specified image relying on their craft skills. On the other hand in visual journalism and information design mental processing is emphasised.

People with different aptitudes probably instinctively drift towards either the intuitive or the rational end of the design work spectrum. I think one of the responsibilities of design schools is to allow students to naturally find their own strengths and allow that slow drifting.

So, designers need to be analytical. They need to have a problem solving mindset. This might be something similar to journalistic or engineering thinking, depending on the field of design they are in.

Can designers then forget the craft skills? No. Craft skills are especially vital for early-career designers, who populate the lowest rungs. People are usually not hired first as strategists but as something like PhotoShop wizards. But even there they should remain analytical and critical. If not for anything else, just simply to check that no major blunders and mistakes go through to the final product, no matter how absent minded the art director may be.

The old cliché is literally true in design: It is the thought that counts.