Do You REALLY Want to be a Design “Rock Star?”

11.24.2010 / Author: Speider Schneider

Speaking on a panel discussion at the recent and fantastic Phoenix Design Week, the subject was on how Phoenix could grow to become the “Design Capital.” When the organizers wrote me to ask if I would be on the panel, I gladly agreed, but I had to shake my head and laugh. I have heard every design organization, in every city, ask the same question. From experience, I knew the answer was that it would never happen.

It’s not that there isn’t great talent spread through every city, because there is. When FedEx started overnight deliveries, many creatives I knew in New York City realized they could work from a home elsewhere, enjoying a simpler life than being crammed into an expensive apartment in Manhattan or the other boroughs, just a quick subway ride away from a client. FedEx proved to be faster than most subway lines.

With that and the eventual explosion of digital choices, talent spread out across the globe, to every small town and thatched roof hut that had electricity and wifi. The world became a “design capital.”

As I started to point out that no city was known as the “graphic design capital,” several people pointed out that New York City was known as the “design capital.”

“Not for graphic design,” I quickly pointed out. “The cities that have been anointed with such a title are known for architecture, fashion, interior design, but not for graphic design.”

The audience fell into a silent zombie state. People are exposed to graphic design all around them; web sites, signs, brochures, CD covers, coffee cups with huge logos, soda bottles and packaging. So much so, that it has no special impact in their minds, so it is invisible, hiding in plan sight. The best demonstration of the importance of design, is to let people live without design for a day. Everything blank, doorways that lead nowhere and toilets that are ten feet off the floor. Design is everything.

“People worship strange things, but not artists . . . while they’re alive, that is!”

If you ask a person on the street who (insert name of “famous” graphic designer here) is, they will search their minds for a television or movie actor. The people we read about and yearn to meet are only known to us and the pages of design sites and magazines. They are the smartest kids on the “short bus” (for non-Americans, the “short bus is a school bus, built smaller to accommodate a few students with learning disabilities and emotional problems, transporting them to a “special” school). The short bus comment got a few tweets from those in attendance, so it was a popular revelation.

We all are guilty of wanting to be famous. We crave the attention and hope the notoriety will raise our rates and make our peers love us unconditionally. For some, it’s a chance for revenge on art school classmates and a chance to look down our noses at our peers. Basically, there is one good reason to gain notoriety; money. The other reasons are self-seeking and petty. There are, of course, those out there who thrive on such pettiness.

Famous = $$$$$?

There was a time when the well-known designers raked in huge fees. My teachers in art school were all working professionals and I admit to choosing many classes for the teacher and the chance to “get in good” with them. Listening to many of them flaunt what they spent the clients money on, it became clear that most of them were jerks. Plain and simple. It also became clear that their staff of designers would do all the work and the “famous” boss was merely throwing opinions out as a client would at an approval meeting. Those opinions did not change the fact that the design was not done by them and a few suggestions did not take over the credit for the design. In many cases, they shot out the basic idea and let others be their hands.

“Billy masqueraded as a ‘famous designer’ and enjoyed the perks heaped upon him by an unwitting public!”

The attitude was the most disturbing thing. Apparently fame often replaces civility and manners. There were many a time I threatened a punch in the nose to a well-known designer who had given me a passive-aggressive reaction to the horrid, intrusive and well-mannered greeting I would give them when introduced, holding my hand out in the normal gesture of civility. This was always met with them getting not only nervous at the realization they were about to feel intense pain, but that someone would dare challenge their lofty position. We all bleed red. Some need to provide more of it through their noses.

The position of “rock star designer” is elevated more by those in the industry than consumers or clients. Why do we put fellow designers on a pedestal?

But What Have You Done Lately?

Think hard about your favorite designer. What is it they have done to earn your admiration? Usually it’s one piece or a series of similar pieces that got you to say, WOW!”

Now think hard about how many pieces over their career that also “WOWED!” you. Chances are they did one thing that received a lot of public relations and garnered widespread exposure. Too many designers play off that one success for their entire career.

“How designers handled competition in the olden days.”

While in a group of designers at an industry event in New York, one chatted about his famous piece and how much he made from it. Almost innocently…with malice aforethought, I admit, I pointed out he had done that project twenty years ago and what had he done lately. He couldn’t bring up anything nearly as impressive. I also had to bring up that he was vacating his long time office for a smaller place. He was shocked I knew about it, as he didn’t want people to think he wasn’t doing well. He wasn’t and his fall from the top was bone crushing…to his ego.

Most of us have a one-shot project that is a huge payday, spreads fame and gives our name and work exposure. Some of us move on and some of us use that for all the exposure we can but never seem to move past it. The busiest designers I know, who are enjoying each and every assignment, are also the most humble. They are fulfilled with their work and don’t need “fame” to race their emotions, so screwed up in many humans, to make them feel better about themselves.

Will Living in a “Famous Design City” Elevate Anything?

No. Yes. Maybe. Certainly living in a large city offers more possibilities. My peers know me for my personality, more than my work I think, but having lived in N.Y. C. all my life, it allowed me to work for the biggest clients as if they were the mom and pop store down the block. It’s more proximity and, admittedly, enough talent to keep them happy. I refer to myself as the “Forrest Gump” of the design world. Being in the right place at the right time, with whom I know, rather than what I know, was a big part of it. Having talent allowed me to hold those positions and clients. Still, I’m no different from thousands of creatives in thousands of cities across the world.

“Design talent can reside anywhere…like a lunatic asylum!”

Brian Singer, creative director and founder of Altitude Associates, a San Francisco based creative agency and the creator of The 1000 Journals Project, a global art experiment where journals are passed from hand to hand, was also on the Phoenix Design Week panel and made a statement about a design community and the ability to elevate it to epic proportions;

“The way you get ahead in design…is by lifting up those around you.”

Obviously these are the words of a maniac…or someone who is comfortable with his career and life. The consensus of the panel was that it was all up to having a tight, collaborative creative community. Phoenix has a great design community. Probably the tightest collection of talent I’ve seen in any city – they just don’t know it, because “success” is a difficult concept. Paparazzi will never crowd around a graphic designer to get up skirt shots as we get out of our limo. Good thing, too, because I rarely wear underwear and when I do it’s usually something exotic.

What is “Success?”

Success is a pain in the brain. There are two places one ends up with success; a place of corrupting power, cruelty, favoritism and ego. The other place is filled with everyone doing anything they can to grab your attention. No paparazzi, but an endless stream of requests and hurt feelings. The aggravation will either send you screaming into the night or move you to the corrupt side. I didn’t understand the audacity of the aforementioned side until I suffered the latter. When you are in a position to make careers or dash hopes and dreams, people can get VERY nasty! Thanks to the internet, one’s reputation can be hurt by one simple, nasty post or Photoshopped image with a goat.

With no disrespect to Mr. Singer, not everyone can lift those around them and some people can just never be lifted. Some people, in fact, need to be lowered. ..into a shallow grave. At every art school I’ve appeared at, I always mention a quote attributed to Jackie Gleason;

“Be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because you’ll meet them on the way down.”

That’s why people called him “The Great One.” Be humble. If you don’t know how, just watch episodes of the 1970s Kung Fu show. The Shaolin monks have some great advice…just before disemboweling someone using an eyelash.

When I was just starting out in the field, I got the chance to speak with some well-known creatives as they welcomed me into the circle of friendly conversation at a cocktail mixer for some awards ceremony. They were being very open with each other on rates and clients as I observed quietly and I finally asked why they all seemed so open happy together but at my level, everyone was nasty and secretive.

“There is all the room at the top and precious little room at the bottom,” said one of the designers. It was true and still is.


I laugh now about the attempts made to get work from me when I was at MAD Magazine. Unlike other art directors, who had “portfolio drop off days,” I actually had a day each month I would personally see people. It didn’t take long for me to understand the drop off policy. Working for MAD was the dream of so many illustrators – some a lifelong dream. Turning someone down was an emotional chore.

I made it a habit to answer my phone when sitting right next to it, which is rare among art directors, as many callers commented. Most of the external calls were weird, abusive and otherwise unprofessional. I can only remember being curt with one caller who later wrote me and I answered in a mean-spirited, sarcastic tone. I apologize if you are reading this. You were being a jerk but I shouldn’t have used my position to rudely crush your hopes. I remember that one because it was my only fall from the grace of being professional in that position. Some will argue that statement. I was nice but they heard me swearing I killed babies and drank their blood. Only half of that lie is true.

In that position, I got to meet a lot of art directors I had tried to see when I was freelancing. They were unavailable, curt, and rude and would slip form letters in my portfolio but obviously hadn’t opened it. Now they wanted to buddy up to me. None knew my name as a freelancer who tried to reach out to them for years. Their position held nothing personal against me. I would soon find out that their “rudeness” was more defense mechanism against the nuts in the industry, and there were plenty.

Although I had the greatest ratio of new contributors under my watch, there were people who just didn’t have what the magazine needed. It wasn’t personal but people took it that way. I was ending their dream. I was a moron. I had to be punished in every chat room to which they belonged. Burned bridges leave black smoke and a bad smell in the air.

Buy Success!

How Magazine is holding yet another endless call for $100 entries to their “this-means-nothing-in-the-light-of-day competitions.” The average creative may send one to three pieces and the financial sting will hurt if none get chosen. Bigger design firms will budget several thousand dollars to send multiple pieces. More pieces, more winners. Ever wonder why the big studios have several pieces in competitions? It’s paid advertising costs. I’ve been a juror on too many competitions to think they truly spotlight the best talent out there. Usually just the biggest advertising budgets. And who is the final audience of these masterworks? Other designers. Time, effort and money to say, “look at me!” HOW? It should be “WHY?”

“Daddy said we could afford more ‘happy juice’ if he no longer paid for stupid design contests!”

Perhaps the message I received informing me that the deadline for entries has been extended tells of smaller advertising/competition budgets? Perhaps the ads for space rental at the bigger studios tells of layoffs and smaller earnings? Like a headline in a supermarket tabloid, the message should be pretty clear.

Certainly a good PR agent can also put your name in the paper every time you fart. It still smells bad in print.

How do YOU Put on Your Pants?

I get nervous when someone beams about my accomplishments and how they can’t believe I treat them like a friend. “I put my pants on the same way everyone else does…over my head!”

“Sally found a great way to make money in the produce business AND slip up other designers!”

The humor puts them at ease. I have no special powers. I’m talented but so are so many others. Not better, not worse—different. The stay-at-home-parent who solely designs the fliers for their child’s school is creative. The person who redesigns the AT&T logo is creative. One might be better than the other one. So who is it? It’s the person who designs something that pleases the end consumer target and not other designers. This explains the liberal use of glitter type and prancing unicorns on many web sites. At least I hope it is.

  • Ask yourself what’s important in your career. You’ll probably say it’s making a living doing what you love. Ask yourself what you do to achieve that. Do you:
  • Spend time dreaming about awards and kudos from peers, including designers you don’t know?
  • Do you elevate peers in your mind for their work or their clients?
  • Do you have anxiety over something you’ve designed, wondering what other designers will think?
  • Did you design your personal web site to accommodate clients or impress other designers?
  • Do you lie about other designers to cut them down and build yourself up?
  • Are you spending more time and effort on your business or on getting the attention of other designers?

If you answered yes to at least one of these, you are human and in good company with the rest of us. If you answered no, then you are letting go of the pettiness that holds many creatives down.

What Makes YOU Happy?

Does chasing after the approval of other designers make you happy? I’ve never met anyone who enjoys it. The chase drives them insane.

I knew a designer who serviced the template filling needs of local real estate agents. He was always busy and made a lot of money from it. He was always worried that other designers were looking down on him and it eventually caused him emotional and physical problems from all the anxiety.

He covered his family expenses, they enjoyed a very good life but he was looking for some acknowledgement from his peers. He was a nice guy, good father and husband and had talent. He was more focused on something that would forward none of the happiness he or his family needed…if that something was truly there and could be gained.

“Someone actually designed this and people bought it—success!”

Perhaps it has been some hard breaks in my personal life over the past few years that helped me focus on what is important. Watching loved ones die, friends lose jobs and their homes and confess to me their suicidal thoughts really snapped me into the reality that there is so much that can go wrong in our lives—so much we can’t control. So much we shouldn’t care about controlling.

If it helps you to let go, remember that the “famous” designers are people, too and several of them make a yearly pilgrimage to Bangkok in search of under age prostitutes. I won’t tell you who, so next time you attend a conference and are listening to a “famous” designer speaking, fight the urge to make a face as if you just tasted something really awful and mumbling, “EWWWW!” really loudly.

If you do, then welcome to the brighter side of life.

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding). You can reach him through his blog or on Twitter.

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15 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. Bill

    Hey Speider, nice article. Agree with a lot that was said. Although I’d never claim the title of Graphic Designer I’ve seen for myself the ego’s of some who desperately strive for that recognition. I’ve seen the lengths they’ll go and the people they step on to get there. A designer capital is probably like the mythical “Shangri-la” from story “Lost Horizon” where you can only stumble upon it in a snow storm. But like you said the visit is usually short because there’s always another snow storm somewhere else these days. The best we can hope for is to at least stumble across it once in our lives. I think they’d be far better off being recognized as a city that cultivates a great creative community. Sounds all touchy feely but a creative community that can provide the exposure and access of artisans will always stand out. Which is why NYC is touted as the place to be. It contains a lot of these elements and inspires the people living in and around it.

  2. 11.24.2010

    Thanks, Bill! I spent most of my life in NYC, before moving around like a gypsy (please, no angry letters from gypsies – my great grandmother was a Romanian gypsy) from city to city and while NYC has a huge creative community, Phoenix was the only city to impress me with the tight-knit and very open creative community. As Brian Singer said, the elevation of those around you is what makes for better design, ergo (I love when I can use that word), higher rates and a transparency that puts fellow creatives on firmer ground for those fees and rights.

    The average person just doesn’t understand graphic and web design, so there is no “rock star” status. It’s a waste of time and energy. It only creates egos and, in the long run, makes either the status seeker and those that worship him/her look ridiculous.

  3. cre8ivetype

    when are they giving you a weekly column here? i’ve got you on google alerts to catch all the amazing articles you write !

    • 11.25.2010

      I write weekly…very “weakly!” 😉 Thanks for the kudos but I spread my articles all over the web so editors don’t get too sick of me.

      My blog is the center for all articles on design and other rants and silliness. The RSS from there will give you all the latest.

  4. 11.25.2010

    when a design ‘rockstar’ does Coke, do they choose diet, cafeeine free, or live on the edge with regular?

    if a design ‘rockstar’ is dating a female design ‘rockstar,’ does that mean he’s doing heroine?

    Is a design ‘rockstar’ with 20 gigs to fill a triple entendré?

    Actually, if anyone who is NOT a rockstar attends a gathering WITH rockstars, that makes them a default ‘special guest!’ ok, not bad.

    If I’m a paid designer that is NOT a rockstar, does that make me indie?

    If I attend an event with design ‘rockstars’, does that make me a groupie?

    Do graphic design ‘rockstars’ trash hotel rooms after designing brochures?

    Graphic design is to ‘rockstar’ what a dictionary is to street-cred.

    • 11.26.2010

      HA! Good one, Jeremie. The term was poking fun at a magazine in Arizona (named Process, oddly enough) that kept tweeting, “design rock star, so and so, will be speaking at Phoenix Design Week…) It was laughably lame (the term, not Phoenix Design Week).

  5. 11.29.2010

    “The position of “rock star designer” is elevated more by those in the industry than consumers or clients.” SO true, thank you. Excellent article!

    “A desire for bigness has hurt many folks. Putting oneself in the limelight at the expense of others is a wrong idea of greatness. The secret of greatness rather than bigness is to acclimate oneself to one’s place of service and be true to one’s own convictions. A life of this kind of service will forever remain the measure of one’s true greatness.” — Richard W. Shelly, Jr.

    • 11.29.2010

      You…he…can say that again! 😉

  6. 01.03.2011

    It’s much the same situation in the art world in general. Hard to get your foot in the door, or get noticed. You must believe in yourself, not NEED approval, and produce work on your own. Self-motivation is one of the key ingredients of success. I might be the best unknown artist you met today, but it doesn’t mean I don’t sell or enjoy some measure of success. For most of us, the creative life is a roller coaster, but a ride we wouldn’t miss for anything.

  7. 04.28.2011

    Way late to the party, I just found this post and blog. I think the truth in Singer’s statement is obvious when one realizes how the opposite is true: that artists can lower their lot and the lot of all artists by their actions. Just think how crowd sourcing, spec work, and contests, as well as jobs boards that encourage artists to leap frog each other in reverse to work for the cheapest rates. It keeps lowering the lowest common denominator. And lest you think I’m only talking about money, I mean that all this goes to teach artists who don’t know better that their efforts aren’t worth squat.

    • 08.05.2011

      Very true, Stephen! Ergo, other articles of mine ripping on those points.

      BTW… better late to the party than being a no-show! 😉

  8. crea8ivetype

    love it
    love it
    love it


    love it

    • 08.05.2011

      Don’t hold back. How do you feel about it?

  9. Lucinda Moore

    As usual, a great article.

    • 08.25.2011

      It’s the images that really make it! 😉