escape velocity

An awful lot of very good graphic designers celebrate their success in the profession by leaving it. Is this because they cannot wait to get away from design? Surely not…

A recent blog post by Steven Heller concerned one Kent Hunter, a gifted designer I met briefly in the 80s whilst working for a transatlantic corporate graphics concern. Kent is a very talented chap indeed who amongst other things I remember art directed some ground-breaking annual report work for Time-Warner. Having had a very successful career with Franfurt Balkind, Kent and his partner have now opened an antique store in Millerton, NY.

Around the same time, in our London office Suzi Godson was a highly talented, clear-thinking designer I enjoyed working with. She bailed out of a very promising design career to become a successful Author and Times Columnist.

John Larkin was co-founder (with Tim May) of Design House Consultants, which was (and still is as far as I know) a very successful business, although John has long since departed both design and the UK to St Tropez for a new life as a hotelier.

There are plenty of other and higher-profile Poachers-turned-Gamekeeper: For Ben Schott (of Original Miscellany fame) and Dave Eggers (of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What, McSweeney’s and-much-more fame), graphic design activity was just step on the road to greater things.

What makes these escapees so keen to leave design? A desperate desire to never work for the man again? (understandable); a fundamental hatred of hard work? (not likely); A sudden need to assume a new identity for tax purposes? (possibly)…

It does seem to be a bit of a designer thing. I don’t believe there too are many physicists gazing out of the windows (if there are any) at CERN dreaming wistfully of running a B&B in the Peak District, or sculptors just longing to hang up their chisels & welding gear to run a nail bar, say.

We all have some sympathy with the idea of escape. Just occasionally, after a long day wrestling with the umpteenth iteration of a zombie project that has long ceased to be the game-changing design opportunity I’d hoped for, I might dream of creating that up-market stationery / hardware emporium in Rome, that cut-price space-tourism business, the organic ferret-farm. But then: another day, another project, another set of possibilities… Why be shackled to only one?

Design is a uniquely mobile profession, in which we are often temporarily in the privileged position of observer / researcher in all kinds of organisations. One of the attractions is this peeking into different worlds, seeing how they work and what roles individuals play in them. We gather broad knowledge over and above that required for projects and sometimes like what we see – some fancy a go. This ‘freedom of information’ may account for designers’ readiness to build new worlds for themselves…

Success will create better chances and open other doors too. I don’t think such escape is about the money and while I may not be able to actually afford to stay in Mr Larkin’s St Tropez hotel, I admire the idea of creating not just a communication, but a whole business, an activity designed below the surface to good design’s exacting standards. This is only taking design just another level further – design in 4D. Design training and practise develops an eye for quality and a methodical, detail-oriented approach. Both are transferable skills in short supply in business, giving our escapees an edge in their new universes.




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