How To Become A Graphic Design Rockstar: Be Controversial

View Comments by Bianca Board on 29 September 2013

When I was researching inspirational quotes by designers I came across so many I loved and wanted to share with you.

There were so many quotes that really made me stop and think. But, there was one EXTRA special one that made me pause... and not because it was inspirational, but because it annoyed the hell out of me!

It was a completely self-obsessed and arrogant comment that reminded me of a few bad-egg designers who I’d worked with in the past... designers I didn’t want to work with again. 

Here’s the quote and you’ll see what I mean: 

"Good design is all about making other designers 
feel like idiots because that idea wasn't theirs."   -  Frank Chimero. 

I don’t know about you, but at first read, this Frank comes across like a bit of a dick. Oh really, so designing is about making your peers feel bad?? Who the hell is this person? That’s not how I want to motivate myself.

If I followed this advice then I’d never have created this blog to inspire other designers. I’d probably be drinking champagne somewhere (on Sydney yacht probably!) and rolling my eyes at all the newbie designers trying so desperately to make a name for themselves. But, it does beg the question… 

How does a young and talented designer stand out from their equally talented peers?

It got me thinking about the cult of personality. How exactly do you stand out on a planet of 7 billion people? As a junior graphic designer, how do you carve out a name for yourself and get the chance to work on great and inspirational projects? 


Does Being Controversial Make The Difference?

If you take the quote above, which has been shared all over the internet under ‘famous’ design quotes, you might say hyperbole and shock tactics work. It sure got me interested enough to research him. I wanted to know who the hell would say such a thing, and if it had really helped in his success.

Although to be fair, when I think about all the dicky or arrogant things I’ve said randomly over the years… If someone had recorded it all and chosen the worst of them then maybe you’d think I was a complete tool as well! So, with that in mind, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and I did a little more digging.

Aha, here’s the man behind ‘that’ quote.  


I’m not sure exactly when ol Franky boy made that comment, but I found out he’s only 29 (as of 2013) and a New Yorker at that, so I’m going to assume that he was expressing the exuberance and arrogance of youth… with a lot of testosterone thrown into the mix! 

Wait. Did I just use the age card? Argh, I hated that when I was a 20-something!! Sorry… but I digress.

So what else makes this guy a rockstar designer?

Easy. He does great design. In 2010 (at 26), he received the Art Directors Club Young Guns award and in the same year he was selected by Print Magazine to be one of the twenty visual artists to watch under the age of thirty. Pretty lofty stuff.

So, OK, maybe he has the chops to back up his arrogance.

I looked at his website, read some of his essays and then I found a recent interview he gave to an online journal, The Great Discontent. I must admit he said some pretty cool things that show a lot more depth than his first quote indicated. And I was pleased to see he admitted he’s mellowed from his early days when he was desperate to make a name for himself.

I particularly enjoyed this quote of his:


"Design is a vessel. There’s the whole Buddhist thing about the essence of a bowl being its emptiness—that’s why it’s useful… I guess that means design must talk about something else. If you make design about design, you’re just stacking bowls, and that’s not what bowls are for."  -  Frank Chimero.


Designers who can write stand out too...

One way to build yourself as an authority on design is writing a book or creating a blog like this one. You don't need to know it all, you just need to know something and then research the rest... and you need to have an opinion! 

Look at Frank, in 2011 he wrote a book about design and he funded it completely through Kickstarter. 

Source: Kickstarter.


So he’s not just a designer, but an author now too. That would stand out on anyone’s resume... and it seems he actually has something worthwhile to say. So, this guy’s not all hot air, he’s a serious thinker with serious opinions. And, of course, he’s done some great work to back it all up.

So success comes down to being a great designer?

Yes and no. In the case of Frank Chimero he’s talented, but he also admits he works hard. 

As a young designer he looked at the people doing things the ‘long, hard, stupid way’ and those doing things with optimum efficiency and then he realised he didn’t have a choice. To him great design only comes from working the long, hard, stupid way; for him, anything else creates sub-standard work.

Ahh, so hard work's the secret behind being successful?

Yes, mostly.

Personally, I think HOW much time goes into each design job is dependent on a lot of things. What kind of designer are you, what kind of design house you work for, if the deadline is really tight, etc. But everybody, EVERYBODY can do better work, and that means pushing past your first few ideas until something clicks. 

If you want to follow the ‘long, hard, stupid way’, it looks like this:

  • worrying;
  • toiling;
  • throwing out good ideas to look for better ones;
  • staying up late;
  • getting up early;
  • working until you find something that speaks to you.

Frank freely admits that his job as a designer is to make people want something, a product, a service, a lifestyle. That’s the nature of the beast, but he also creates his designs to have a value completely outside of commerce.

He wants all of his work to be a gift to the wider world, something that’s shared and enjoyed.

Maybe that’s how designers are asked to work for The New York Times and The Atlantic.

Do you care about everything you design?

Maybe it’s time you did! 

I’ve always gone above and beyond, but not for the sake of design.

I do it for the sake of my client because that’s who I really care about. That’s been the secret to my success: I'm all about relationships and results, always have been. But then again, maybe I’d change my tune if MY work had been in The New Yorker and The Atlantic! 


Source: The Atlantic Magaine, Illustrations by Frank Chimero

"But, what If I’m not as creative as my design peers?"

Honestly, that’s where putting in the extra time comes in. Who knows, maybe you need to UNtrain your brain to unlearn all the structured thinking that 12+ years of school forced into you. Or, maybe you really aren’t as creative and weird-cool as your designer buddies, but, so what? That won’t stop you from being a kick-arse designer with lots of work offers.

So, if you have a creative disability, accept it and move forward. You can still add something extra to your work that your super creative friends can’t... and that's you.

No one is you, you’ve got to realise that’s your voice, your vision is worth a lot. So think, have an opinion. Use what makes YOU unique and put that into your work.

"Your voice and your vision is worth a lot."

Always remember your work will be seen by many people, so don’t churn out a copy of someone else’s idea, show a piece of yourselves. Do that and anything you do will be worthwhile and you’ll stand out. I promise.


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When will you decide to be exceptional?

I think the moral of the story is that standing out, becoming a rockstar designer, is possible.

You need to work hard, zig when others zag, develop your personality and style.


Never accept the obvious answer to a design. And yes, you can be controversial if that works for you; but most importantly… just BE YOU!

These are all hallmarks of successful designers…. Although success doesn’t necessarily mean rich or even the ability to move out of your parent’s basement, but hey, that’s a story for another day!

Oh, one last thing, if you do decide to make controversial statements you better have the creative juice to back it all up, or you’ll just be a bratty design hack who no one wants to employ… least of all, me!

Here's to your controversial side,



P.S. Did you like this post? If you want me to talk about more ways you can stand out from the crowd, let me know. Maybe you want more tips on how to become super-employable either in a design studio or as a ‘gun for hire’ freelancer? Drop me a comment below, I’m here for you! 


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