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.

Good time for design education and research

Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii System @ Flickr.
Innovative classroom at the University of Hawaii. Photo: University of Hawaii @ Flickr.

In 2014 I played a small part in helping a Finnish design university launch their masters programs. This made me think about the current state of design education and research. I must say that we are living in very interesting times.

During the last couple of decades design education has grown immensely around the world. At the same time we have experienced a media revolution with the rise of the internet and various digital platforms. These have changed the nature of design work but also encouraged a general interest in areas like visual communication and usability.

The changes have brought new challenges and also a lot of fresh energy into design. The new media landscape demands a different focus from education as well. While there will always be a need for basic illustrators and image makers, today’s designers often do everything but create images. They create experiences, interfaces, and innovations.

We are now seeing old teaching paradigms giving way. More and more design schools are emphasising information and interface design, service design, digital environments, and other areas instead of classical craft based skills. The schools have realised that designers need analytical minds and research skills in addition to drawing. Students cannot be educated into preset professions like in the past. They need to learn a range of skills and have the flexibility to adapt to whatever changes come next.

The new approaches are not without their challenges. Schools might emphasise conceptuality too much and produce designers without sufficient basic skills. Fresh graduates might find getting employment hard or they might be disappointed when their first job isn’t as a highly conceptual project leader. But in a way, even struggling schools only add to the excitement. We might see established institutions getting left behind while newcomers attempt to become world leaders.

The increase in design education is showing through in design research as well. Around Europe, universities are setting up professorships and other new posts, some of them concentrating purely on theory. There are more postgraduate programs available, with new ones launched every now and then. Also more students progress to PhD level than before.

At the same time with expanding design research, there is a growing interest in visual communication in other disciplines. People in humanities and social sciences are examining both digital and print products with theories like multimodality. While I may not personally agree with all the approaches, it still means there are more people interested in similar topics. This opens up possibilities for discussion and perhaps even collaboration.

Design research and education forms just a narrow branch in the whole tree of academia. But that branch has been growing steadily and is now able to carry more fruit than ever. Spring is in the air!


This article was originally published on page 233 in Kudrnovská, L (ed.) 365typo, vol 1. Paris: Étapes: editions; 2015.

Telling news with graphics and extending your shelf-life as a graphic journalist

It’s a bad time to work in newspapers. Papers are downsizing and lots of people are either being kicked out or opting to leave of their own accord. Design departments have been hit especially hard. Designers should consider positioning themselves so that they are less expendable. They should also keep in mind that their work is journalism and has to adhere to the same journalistic principles as written stories. There is no warranty though! So don’t come back complaining to me if – and when – you’re made redundant.

A short version of this article was presented at the QVED/QVIG conference in Munich on 27 February 2016. The event was part of the larger Munich Creative Business Week 2016 (MCBW)


First of all, I have to mention that this article was inspired by Francesco Franchi’s presentation at the QVED conference on 25 February. He talked about how this is a good time to work in magazines, infographics, and visualisation. I am sure this is true, but from the perspective of a traditional newspaper graphic journalist the situation looks completely different.

It is a very bad time to work in newspapers. Print paper readership continues to plummet in the Western countries. The online versions are doing better and better, but they still struggle to make up for the print losses. Many newspaper editors and executives seem to think that graphics are less important in the online world. So when papers downsize the designers are at the top of the list for cuts.

Of course, graphics can be used in many different ways to tell stories and visualise news. One approach is where whole pages or spreads are turned into beautiful visual landscapes, as in the works of Franchi. This might work for magazines or weekly supplements but is less feasible for daily editions where time and space are always limited. Nothing prevents one from trying something similar there too, but often the feasible option is the traditional text + graphics approach.

However, graphics in news stories should not simply repeat information which is already told in the text. Instead the text and graphics should work together to tell the story. Fine. This has been stated many times in several books already, but how do you do this in practice?

qvig-pres02bOne way is to use graphics to explain some of the key facts of the story. Basic news stories are trying to explain ‘what happened’ and journalists are trained to do this with the 5 Ws and 1 H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?1 Instead of using text, these crucial facts can also be explained with graphics. For example, ‘where’ can be answered with a map, and ‘how’ is often actually more easily shown with a illustration or diagram than described with text.

qvig-pres03Basic news stories often employ the inverted pyramid model.2 This means that the most important facts of the story, like the answers to the 5Ws and 1H, are dealt with in the very beginning of the story. This is then followed by important but less crucial information. The end of the story contains information that is interesting and adds depth to the story but can also be cut out in editing if there is, for example, not enough space on the page. If the graphics takes on the role of explaining some of the 5Ws and 1H the text is then freed to pursue other areas. Like the emotional and human interest aspects. As journalists often enjoy writing about these things, instead of just reporting dry facts, this solution might win them to your side. At the same time, this way the graphics are not just disposable add-ons, but an essential part of the journalistic core of the story.

So one of the key things is to make sure the graphics are meaningful to the story. You should remember that not all things can or should be told with graphics. As Nigel Holmes explained in his opening presentation at the QVIG 2016, this is sometimes forgotten in today’s world where it has become fashionable to create visualisations out of big data sets. While the results can be aesthetically pleasing, many of them lack the editing needed to make them truly meaningful. ‘We should not be dazzled by data’, as Nigel put it.3

qvig-pres04Just because you have data which you can shape into a graphic does not guarantee meaning. The result can be information, in the technical sense of the word, but that is different from information which is meaningful to human readers and adds value to the news story. Many graphic forms are good at telling about change over time. But using a graph to show that there has not been much change does not really make sense. Unfortunately, every now and then you see this type of meaningless graphs published in news stories. The slide shows my own drawing, but is based on an actual graph used in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat a few years ago. In this type of case it might have been better to just use text to describe things. If you want an extra element on the page, you can always use a factbox.4

It can be hard to imagine how the graph will look from just looking at the number data. This means that sometimes you have to create the graph first and only then decide what to do. You have to be prepared to scrap your own work sometimes, regardless of how many hours you have put into it. Those hours do not add any value to the reader. Instead of thinking about your wasted hours, think about how having meaningless graphs in the news will simply remind the chief editor and executives about how sacking you will not really hurt the stories anyway.

Sometimes the problem is that a writer demands a relatively meaningless graphic. And when they realise this, that is when things can truly get ugly. Here is an example based on my own work history.

qvig-pres05The polling figures of political parties or candidates can sometimes be very close to each other. So much so, that the differences hardly go beyond the margin of error.5 When there finally is a slightly bigger change the writers, who have been following the campaign for months, might start going all mad.6 They want you to show the amazing new developments in a full page graph which also shows the past six months so the readers will see how momentous this is. And then you do the graph and… it does not really look like much. Again it is the case of graphics being better at showing change.

This is when the reporter will turn to you and ask that ‘can you… somehow… jazz it up… like make the last jump in the graph look bigger?’ This is when you need to stand your ground. Because now the question is no longer about a harmless boring graphic but about your journalistic integrity. If the situation escalates into a shouting match, you might be able to draw upon guidelines for journalists, which are usually formulated by the local journalist association or union. For example, the Finnish Guidelines for journalists state that:

The journalist is entitled to refuse assignments that conflict with the law, his/her personal convictions or good journalistic practice.

qvig-pres08So you need to adopt a journalistic mindset if you do not already have one. That means always keeping in mind questions of objectivity, non-partisanship, etc. in your graphic work. This can be a problem especially for people coming from design schools, where journalism usually is not included in the curricula. They might have read something like Bertin’s famous book7 where he argues that graphics are monosemic, in other words, having only one meaning. As design theory teaching is sometimes patchy, the designers might have missed the texts arguing the opposite8 and continue believing in Bertin. As Barnhurst writes, Bertin is mistaken:

His semiotics seems to embrace the fallacy that because numbers are monosemic, their two-dimensional or visual display must also be so.9

Graphics are not monosemic. They always have a rhetorical quality in addition to their basic information content. Kostelnick argues that it is only because we have grown so familiar with the basic graphs that we do not recognise their rhetorical qualities.10 Even the most mundane weather map can be seen as perpetuating an artificial political entity such as the nation state. Weather maps can be seen rhetorically similar to how regional journalism – especially when dealing with sports – has a tendency to root for the ‘local heroes’.

In many cases there is not much the designer can do about the rhetorical qualities of graphics. But the issue should be acknowledged and kept in mind. The same affects all journalism, where it has long been accepted that true objectivity is an unreachable ideal.11 But whereas writers continue to debate objectivity, designers often seem to be naively oblivious to the the whole issue. Engaging in debates about what journalism and objectivity is might also help to legitimise designers as ‘proper journalists’ in the eyes of their writer colleagues and editors.

qvig-pres09Creators of graphics should position themselves primarily as journalists and not as designers. This is why many of us (like myself) prefer terms such as graphic journalist. This should also be reflected in the work. Graphic journalists should participate in the complete journalistic process from the beginning to end. I have borrowed and adapted a slide from Franchi who showed us a process where a writer is engaged in the beginning of the work and then an illustrator finishes the job. He also mentioned that in his work it is only the information designer whose role lasts through the whole process. Here is an important point from the perspective of career stability. As the illustrator is only the final ‘tool’ that produces the visuals they can be relatively easily replaced with another illustrator. Perhaps with someone cheaper. Perhaps their role can even outsourced. So, in brief, do not be just an illustrator. Be someone who cannot be so easily outsourced.

qvig-pres10So what should a graphic journalist be then? We can speak of information designers as Franchi did. I personally prefer to use the term transformer. This comes from the Isotype movement and has been explained well by Macdonald-Ross & Waller.12 Basically, a transformer is a person who takes complex information and makes it accessible to the audience. A writer asks ‘how do I best present this with text’. A designer or illustrator asks ‘how do I best present this with graphics’. But a transformer asks ‘what is the best way to present this’, always choosing the best possible format for each type of information, and thus making it easily understandable. And that is the core of all journalism. Not writing, not drawing, not photographing. It is about explaining things to the audience.

  1. McKane, A. (2006) News Writing. Sage, London. []
  2. McKane, A. (2006) News Writing. Sage, London. []
  3. paraphrased []
  4. For example, if you want to add more ‘visual energy’ to the page. See my thesis: Clothing the paper : On the state of newspaper design, redesigns, and art directors’ perspectives in contemporary quality and popular newspapers. University of Reading, 2015. []
  5. A related and even bigger problem is when writers make major stories about change in polling numbers even when the differences are within the margin of error. But I will leave that topic for another time. []
  6. Finnish journalists joke about reporters being ‘in heat’ or having the ‘newsheat’. []
  7. Bertin, J. (1983) Semiology of Graphics. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. []
  8. E.g. Kinross, R. (1985) The rhetoric of neutrality. Design Issues, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 18–30; Kostelnick, C. & Hassett, M. (2003) Shaping Information : The rhetoric of visual conventions. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. []
  9. Barnhurst, K.G. (1994) Seeing the Newspaper. St. Martins Press, New York, p. 66. []
  10. Kostelnick, C. (2004) Melting-Pot Ideology, Modernist Aesthetics, and the Emergence of Graphical Conventions: The statistical atlases of the United States, 1874–1925. In Defining Visual Rhetorics, (Eds. Hill, C.A. & Helmers, M.), Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, New Jersey, pp. 215–242. []
  11. E.g. Allan, S. (2010/1999) News Culture. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill & Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 27–47. []
  12. Macdonald-Ross, M. & Waller, R. (1976) The transformer. Penrose Annual, vol. 69, no. 1. Reprinted with a modifications as Macdonald-Ross, M. & Waller, R. (2000) The transformer revisited. Information Design Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 177–193. []