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10 Principles That Might Make Your Work Better or May Make It Worse

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Illus­tra­tions by Frank Chimero

I hate the word “tip.” It implies that there’s some­thing that you don’t know. Some secret lit­tle gem that, when sprin­kled on your work, your cre­ative process, your diet, or your sex life will mag­i­cally make it all bet­ter. They promise to make all of it effer­ves­cent, and float above every­thing, defy­ing grav­ity above all those poor folks who didn’t hap­pen to stum­ble upon Dumbo’s magic feather like you did.

Tips are easy. And shal­low. Prin­ci­ples, though, now that’s some­thing worth talk­ing about. If tips are pud­dles, prin­ci­ples can be oceans. They can be deep enough to hold intre­pid adven­tures, yet tame enough to pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant bounty to nour­ish a cre­ative life. They can serve as a north star and a ral­ly­ing point. More than any­thing, they can be an inspi­ra­tion. Sailors will always sing about the sea.

Anto­nio asked me to map my own ocean and to doc­u­ment a few of my guid­ing prin­ci­ples. They may be of assis­tance to you. They may not. But then again, it’d be a shame if we were all work­ing off the same map, look­ing for the same treasure.

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1. Be honest.

Be hon­est to your audi­ence. An open path of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is built upon trust. This idea is rel­e­vant to every other form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and I think it applies to visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Hon­esty isn’t just about audi­ence. Be hon­est to your­self as well. Do the things you’re pas­sion­ate about. Avoid the things that you hate, if you can.

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2. Consistent voice is more important than consistent style.

Voice is about what you say. It’s con­tent. Style is about what you’re wear­ing. It’s aes­thet­ics. The prior informs the lat­ter, not the other way around. Clothes don’t make the man. They don’t make your work either.

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3. Does it have heart?

If it does, make it. If it doesn’t, why spend the time on some­thing that doesn’t have spirit?

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4. Have modest expectations.

Spend a lot of time choos­ing that one thing that a piece of design or an illus­tra­tion should try to do. Then, work your ass off try­ing to fig­ure out the absolute best way to do that one thing.

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5. Don't be scared of your tools.

Use them, don’t fear them. For instance, while sketch­ing, I rec­om­mend using cheap paper. If the paper’s cheap, you won’t feel bad doc­u­ment­ing your bad ideas. Get­ting the first, awful ideas out of the way is cru­cial: very rarely does any one hit it out of the park on the first try. If I had a sketch­book filled with nice, expen­sive paper, I’d feel oblig­ated to make the first idea I sketched bril­liant. That pres­sure would par­a­lyze me. Tools should be enablers, not dis­ablers. If some­thing is more intru­sive or intim­i­dat­ing than it is use­ful, get rid of it. It’s not a tool, it’s a toy. Or worse, a cre­ative boo­gie man that you’re invit­ing through your front door.

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6. Embrace the subconscious.

In the stu­dio, I have a sofa for naps with a cou­ple pil­lows. The pil­low is kind of com­fort­able, but mostly not. Just soft enough to relax you. But, just stiff enough to keep you from falling fully asleep. Right before you fall fully asleep, your brain is mak­ing all sorts of con­nec­tions between all of the unre­lated thoughts in your brain. There’s no fil­ter from your con­scious mind say­ing “This makes sense. This other idea doesn’t.” With­out that fil­ter, you can con­sider more pos­si­bil­i­ties. So, grab some­thing to write with, fill your head to the brim with research and what you already know. Then, take an almost-nap and get ready to doc­u­ment the ideas that find you.

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7. Edit.

Delete unim­por­tant things. Even if you love them. If it isn’t spec­tac­u­lar, it gets cut. Kill your dar­lings. Be a cold-blooded killer. Ruth­less. Delete. Refine. Improve.

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8. Being too comfortable is dangerous.

Most crea­tures die in their sleep. Keep mov­ing, or get eaten. The only things you should be absolutely com­fort­able with in your cre­ative process are your tools.

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9. There is nothing keeping you from doing the sort of work that you wish.

What do you want? It’s a hard, yet cru­cial ques­tion. We all do cre­ative work to get happy. It’s why we let it beat us up, and it’s why we keep crawl­ing back to it. Fig­ure out pre­cisely what you want, and real­ize that if no one will pay you to make it, you can still make it for your­self. And you still win, because you’re happy.

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10. Execute.

An idea on the page is worth 100x more than an idea in the mind. You can only judge and be judged by work that’s exe­cuted. Even­tu­ally, we all real­ize that most of the ideas that look great in our mind look dumb once they’re real. But, at least you now know.

Frank Chimero is an illus­tra­tor, graphic designer and writer based in Spring­field, Mis­souri.
       

28 Comments on "10 Principles That Might Make Your Work Better or May Make It Worse"

  • 11. Lis­ten to Frank.

    Great stuff Frank! Once again, a tidy edit of the vari­ables in the ever-changing ocean of the cre­ative indus­try. Thanks for sharing.

  • An amaz­ing post! Thanks for the wis­dom Frank…these lessons are impor­tant for all design­ers, whether still in school or an expe­ri­enced veteran.

  • Chris / Future Büro says

    No mat­ter how much expe­ri­ence one has you can never get enough of this type of infor­ma­tion. Paul Arden books leave me feel­ing the same way. Inspired.

  • Even if you already know this stuff, It’s still nice to hear/read
    excel­lent post

  • This is pretty great infor­ma­tion to have. It’s really inspir­ing me to get up and do the things I’ve always wanted to do, but never actu­ally have.

    Really great post.

  • MP says

    “An idea on the page is worth 100x more than an idea in the mind.”

    I love it! Thanks Frank for serv­ing up another good piece of design lit­er­a­ture. Thanks Anto­nio for giv­ing the venue.

    –MP

  • I’m glad every­one is enjoy­ing the arti­cle. A big thanks to Frank for writ­ing this won­der­ful arti­cle. Very inspi­ra­tional and moti­vat­ing. Look for more arti­cles from Frank, and hope­fully Duane King, in the very near future.

  • Merilyn says

    I def­i­nitely need these as reminders from time to time. #5. Don’t be scared of your tools — this is so so true. Thank you Frank!

  • Frank– these are 10 great prin­ci­ples to live by. I totally agree with your prin­ci­ples. I feel like this applies not just to design­ers but every­one. P.S.
    l really like your post-it illustrations.

  • Thank you for these gems.….
    With­out clear prin­ci­ples one is in a rud­der­less ship.

  • Ryan says

    I’m a lit­tle late to the party, but this is a great arti­cle. Thanks for invit­ing Frank to share his approach, Anto­nio. And thanks for the words of wis­dom Frank, love your work… it all makes sense now why you’re so good!

  • Many, many thanks to all of you for the kind com­ments. Truly incen­tive to con­tinue along this path.

    Also, mucho thanks to Anto­nio for pro­vid­ing the forum for the article.

  • janet marie says

    absolutely fan­tas­tic.
    thank you.

  • Dope list.

  • thanks Frank…for being frank, can­did and true to the point. Love the part about doing work with ‘heart’.

  • Thank you Frank, now it’s all up to us, how we choose to com­ply with these principles

  • Great prin­ci­ples to work by.…really insight­ful. Thanks for shar­ing. An hon­est reminder to be true to our­selves as designers.

  • Great stuff Frank! If you don’t mind, I’d love to post this to the DSVC stu­dent show blog.

  • The more I read your posts the more I real­ize how much of the good stuff is still deep inside. Even after all these years. Thanks again.

  • Fan­tas­tic post! Thanks so much for shar­ing these super inspir­ing tips.

  • Every­time I read this piece on Frank’s web­site I tweet it…Great list — every designer should swear by these principles.

    Thank you!

  • Lou says

    Where’s the “Tweet This” button?

    Ahh,…the power of naps! Agreed.

  • Very great arti­cle Frank. Sim­ple yet per­fectly said. Thank you for sharing!

  • mikxel says

    haha… num­ber 5 is right on… I can’t bring myself to brain­storm in a sketch­pad. It’s like try­ing to do a wood carv­ing on a dia­mond.
    I have to use the cheap­est copy paper I can find.

  • A3000 says

    Really great post!

    When I read posts like this it reminds me of why I do what I do.
    BECAUSE I LOVE IT!

    Being hon­est in your work is key, if you are not it will make you unhappy.
    Hon­esty is the only way to achieve some­thing that is sustainable.

    I am going to print this list out and hang it up next to my workspace!

    Thanks :)

  • Wow — thanks for the great insight Frank, exactly what I needed today — a reminder!

    Espe­cially #‘s 9and 10!

  • Pretty ele­ment of con­tent. I just stum­bled upon your weblog and in acces­sion cap­i­tal
    to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your blog posts.
    Any way I will be sub­scrib­ing for your feeds or even
    I ful­fill­ment you get entry to per­sis­tently rapidly.

  • You made some really good points there. I looked
    on the net to learn more about the issue and found most peo­ple will go along with your views on this
    website.