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

Text and 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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • 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.

    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!

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  • 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