Adrian Shaughnessy on what makes a great designer

  • Adrian Shaughnessy

Designer, RCA visiting professor, writer and all-round design legend Adrian Shaughnessy runs Shaughnessy Works and is a founding partner of Unit Editions. He writes for a number of publications, including Design Week and Creative Review, and has also written and art-directed several books, including the best-selling How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, which was reprinted in 2010 in a new edition. Here, he answers some of our questions about how designers - and others - can balance practical and creative considerations while building a career.

If you're planning to follow in Adrian's footsteps by looking for a job as a designer after graduation, you'll find our event on 30 May very useful – You're Hired! will cover CV writing, job applications and how to create your perfect job. Bookings open next week 

What if anything do successful designers have in common, in your experience?

I see different qualities in different people, but there are three attributes that all successful designers seem to have. The first is tenacity; this is the ability to keep working at a task until it is right rather than settling for the first idea that appears. The second is boldness, or a willingness to risk failure. And finally, cussedness. This sounds paradoxical because most design tasks require empathy and objectivity, but no great design comes without a dollop of selfishness and bloody-mindedness.

Based on your own experiences, what are the most important things that designers should think about when first beginning their careers?

I always tell young designers that there is no such thing as a bad job in your first few years as a designer. But such is the nature of today’s design profession, with its abundance of design stars and superabundance of great work, many people enter the profession expecting to be doing exactly the sort of work they want to do. This is sometimes possible – but mostly designers have to do work that they regard as ‘beneath them’ in order to climb the ladder of success. My own experience is that that I learned more from bad jobs and bad employers than I did from good ones. 

How do you see design and design education faring in an era of global economic austerity? Does this present new challenges to emerging designers? 

We are entering a difficult phase for education – one that might end in the reinvention of the design school model. There are already a few worthwhile alternatives to three or four years of traditional undergraduate study in a conventional design school. Increasingly, conventions such as the academic year and artificial grades that have no relevance to professions life will be called into question. There are already schools offering a design education that challenges the traditional model – Hyper Island, for example, which has no tutors and students learn only by doing. 

Perhaps you can give our readers some of your thoughts on the interaction between designer and client - is it always about shaking hands with the devil, or are there other ways to negotiate this relationship? 

Having extolled the virtues of cussedness and selfishness, I must stress that you will only get away with these approaches if you have a good relationship with your clients. I’ve always maintained that there is no such thing as a bad client, only bad designers. I say this with my tongue slightly in my cheek – but I’m making a serious point. Of course there are bad clients, but they are rarer than designers think, and most of the time, when a relationship between designer and client breaks down, it is as likely to be the designer’s fault as the client’s. What I’m saying is that we have to work as hard on our client relationships as we do on our creative work. We need clients for most of what we do, so why would we not want to be good with clients? 

Fuel RCA is focused on helping students and alumni acquire skills and insights to help them with the practicalities of working life - financial issues, logistics, interpersonal concerns like confidence and negotiation, and so on. How do you navigate these issues, in your teaching and in your own practice? 

I quickly discovered that finance was not my strong suit, and had no desire to learn how to be good at it. But I also recognised its importance, so my solution was to go into partnership with someone who had financial skills. I was lucky; my business partner for 15 years of professional studio life was a brilliant woman who understood (and liked) financial planning – but also respected (and liked) design. So my advice would be – don’t go into business only with other designers; make sure there is a financial person in the mix. As regards ‘soft’ skills such as client relationships, presentations, etc - I was sick with nerves when I first had to make presentations, but I wanted to do it well, and so over time I learned to be good.

How can designers balance pragmatism with the other demands of their work?

Balancing competing forces is one of the single most difficult things a designer has to learn. Without an ability to be pragmatic, for example, your career will never take off. This extends to all aspects of design: budgetary constraints versus reluctance to compromise on quality; the restrictions of deadlines versus the need to find time to experiment; client expectations versus personal ambition. How we synthesize these often-conflicting demands determines what sort of designer we become. 

For more advice from Adrian Shaughnessy, you can buy his well known book, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul or borrow it from Fuel at the library