Serious vs Solemn Design – Or What I Learned From Paula Scher

I found this video quite a while ago while perusing the TED archives, and  had planned to write a post about it back in March. However, with a draining 9-6 job and contract clients on top, I never quite got a round to it. Since I recently stopped working and am flush with time now,  I went combing through my posts to see what I had really done over the last year (not much.) That’s when I  found the draft. All it contained was a link to the video, and a basic title so that I’d remember what I had planned to say about it. Since I never even took the time to watch the whole video, I decided now was as a good a time as any. About three minutes in I  realized now was probably the perfect time to be watching this video. I wondered if maybe divine inspiration had lead me to this forgotten draft. I think that’s probably the case.

If you have kept up with this blog (which I realize is not hard to do considering it is rarely updated — or maybe that makes it more difficult?), then you know that I was all set and ready to be on my way to a Graphic Design Masters program this January. I had quit my job, I had planned my first trip home to Texas since I got married in July 2011, and I was giddy with the prospect of getting back to being a student (because I LOVE school, and learning, and almost everything about academia).  What I didn’t expect ( I suppose because I was just a little too sure of myself, and riding too high full of the praises I had been receiving from those close to me) was that I would not get in to this program.

I was crushed, to say the least. I was embarrassed for having been so sure of myself – to think that I would quit my job before really knowing I was in! I was embarrassed that I had not gotten in, but  more than that I was mortified that this would be the second time I had told the world I was going to get a masters, and it would be the second time that I would have to say to everyone, “I’m not going after all. “(The first time I applied, got in, blah blah blah to a couple of schools in England. I  made my decision and then was told there wouldn’t be any financial aid for international students, surprise! This was in mid 2010).

So, there I was, up the creek without a paddle. I had left myself with no plan B. On top of it all I felt like their rejection was confirmation of a pretty deep seated fear of mine – that I wasn’t a good designer. Then I found this video, buried in the drafts of my blog posts.

Paula Scher – the genius behind the Citi logo, Bloomberg’s environmental signage, and the public theater’s identity – had something to say to me. The even deeper layer of my fear that I wasn’t a good designer was actually that I wasn’t creative, or that I wasn’t an artist. When I started listening to what she had to say I realized part of that was because I hadn’t let myself experience serious design – or play – in a very very long time. Everything I was doing was solemn. It was a formula I pulled from designs I had done before, only they had been serious at some point. I think the point of the whole video was that, while solemn design is still good, and it’s what puts food on the table, it’s wellspring is serious design. In other words when you play you are doing what makes you happy, it’s the expression part of designing. However, at some point you wear that play out and it becomes solemn. That’s when it’s time to look for something else to play with, something else that excites, inspires, and motivates you.

It’s a lot harder to find play when you are down, but if I don’t do it, I’ll probably give up. So I’m looking.  I’m trying to do something just for the sake of doing it. Just to do what I want to do. I don’t know what my next step is right now, and I don’t have tons of time to figure it out, but I think I’m headed in the right direction at least. I’ve burned myself down, so I guess there’s nothing left to do, but rise from the ashes.