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5 Things I Learned from James Victore

  How to Draw a Chicken , James Victore

How to Draw a Chicken, James Victore

I listen to podcasts all day long. In fact, my catch phrase has become, “I was listening to this podcast the other day….”

My most recent listen was an episode from the archives of Design Matters where Debbie Millman interviews James Victore. I’d never heard of James Victore (I’m still new to the world of famous designers – someone should invent designer trading cards) and I fell in love with his humour and humility.

After listening, I immediately bought his book: Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? The interview and book are lovely companions and I took away some valuable lessons from both.

1. There are designers that stand out and designers that blend in — and every so often there are designers that do both.

In the Introduction to Victore’s book, Michael Bierut explains that there are two kinds of designers.

“One kind sees each project as a an opportunity for self-expression, producing a body of work that bears an unmistakable mark…At its best, the output of this designer is personal and passionate; at worst, it’s repetitive and self-indulgent, the mark of an attention seeking diva. The other kind of designer attends first to the client, to the message, and to the audience. This graphic designer’s role is to be neutral and invisible, an efficient conduit between broadcaster and receiver. The best of this kind of work is devastatingly effective; the worst is anonymous and forgettable, the product of the kind of hack who gives design a bad name. James Victore is good because, amazingly, he combines the very best of both ways.”

He also provides a more colourful explanation, using Beatrice Ward’s wine glass metaphor from her essay The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible: The expressive designer makes an elaborate wine goblet with pattern and decoration, while the neutral designer makes a wine glass that’s crystal-clear, thin and transparent.

But Victore? “Victore does away with the goblets altogether. He simply wrenches the cork off the bottle and pours the stuff right down your throat.”

2. Your job as a designer is to hide your labour.

When I present an initial concept or draft to a client, my biggest fear is that they’ll say: “That’s all you did? I could do that.” Ever the diligent student, I want to show my work. I want to prove to them how much I labored over the final product. Sometimes I create work that’s too cluttered, too “designed” out of a fear of making something that looks too simple to be valued.

But simplicity is not lack of effort – quite the opposite. Victore explains that his goal with every project is to “make a page that may have taken hours to create look like it was created in an instant.”

3. You’ll always have to sing for your supper.

When Debbie Millman asked James Victore how he finds clients his answer was simple: cold calling. It was his strategy when he first started out and it remains his strategy today.

So many designers wait for the work to come to them rather than going out and finding it. They'd rather fantasize about that dream job or that dream client than knock on doors. But James Victore set aside his pride and pursued the people he wanted to work with. “By my late twenties I had compiled a list of rejection letters from some of the industry’s finest designers,” he explains in his book.

It’s easy as a freelancer to imagine a future where cold calling and putting myself out there is no longer necessary, a golden age where clients come to me. But this will never be a reality. Even established designers have to have to woo their prospects.  

4. We learn to eat shit a just little bit at a time.

The jacket of Victore’s book is quite remarkable. Quotes in large, bold helvetica are placed over a classic oil painting. (And If you take the jacket off the book, it unfolds into a large poster.) It’s the perfect example of Victore’s design style: modernism + expressionism with a dash of irreverence.

One of the quotes is by E.E. Cummings: “There is some shit I will not eat.” Debbie Millman probed Victore about this quote, asking what shit he wouldn’t eat. His response: we learn to eat shit just a little bit at a time. If we were forced to eat a bunch of it, we’d gag on the taste. But a little bit goes undetected.  

In other words, we lose our integrity, strength and confidence just a little bit at a time. We do things we’re not proud of because they feel inconsequential, isolated choices that will never be repeated. But slowly our standards slip, our resolve weakens and we acquire a taste for shit.

5. It is possible to inject your point of view in the work.

Victore has made his work personal and he’s sought out clients that want to do the same. His work is highly political, emotionally charged and, according to Michael Bierut, delivers “fierce and accurate punches.”

To create work like this, Victore has taken a lot of chances and scared away a lot of clients. He experimented, failed a lot and eventually found clients that share his passion for making meaningful work.

And the fight continues, the fight to make the things he wants to make, and the fight “to get the vision in [his] head onto the paper, to ensure that a finished piece carries the same energy as the preliminary sketch.”

Taylor MacLean