The intersection of time, money, and thought (and Stefan Sagmeister)

Whether or not an onlooker would feel likewise, I’ve come to a point in my career where I feel comfortable with the amount and quality of clients but I am still struggling with the art of asking. I find real, personal value in my process of creating a design and that value is coming up short with some of my interactions. I’m coming to this point where I want to be more than a number per time.

On Wednesday I finally got to see Stefan Sagmeister, a lecture you know I have been looking forward to for a month. Unfortunately, because of an extremely harried project I’m working on with an agency, I ended up being 30 minutes late. When I got there I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear, I was so mortified. But I also couldn’t miss it so I forced myself to do the walk of shame and tip-toed to a seat* in the front (the only ones left) while Stefan was already in the groove of his talk, Happiness?. Although Stefan is a graphic designer, his talk was really centered around his research into happiness and his work on his upcoming documentary called The Happy Film. It was interesting, Stefan was engaging, and I wish it was about 4 hours longer. He offered a lot of research and statistics about happiness and recommended we all read The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathn Haidt if we wanted the most comprehensive book he’s read. I really want to now.

At one point, he talked about the favorite parts of his job and gave a brief example of each:

  1. Think freely and openly with a deadline far away
  2. Traveling
  3. Using a wide variety of tools & techniques
  4. Working on projects that matter
  5. Having things come back from the printer done well (a very specifically designer experience)
  6. Designing a project that feels partly brand new and a partly familiar
  7. Working with out interruption on a single project
  8. Getting feedback from people who see your work

I really liked this list—or the idea of this list. I was a very honest list that was personal to Stefan, not just an abstract, semi-idealist and semi-inspirational encouragement list that has been such a trend right now. It made me want to make a list too.

Since moving to New York I’ve been in contact with new people thanks to my generous clients who have put me in contact with their friends in the area. We meet and then there’s this unspoken tango of us needing something from each other. It’s gone well for the most part because there is a trust. However, every now and then there is the outlier who looks for the designer who is, metaphorically, on sale. During these interactions and even within my work, I feel like there is a tension between where the value lies.

Even though I’ve only been here for three months, I’ve gotten to work for (or interview at) a solid number of places and it has given me a better idea of where I want to work and what I want to be doing more than my whole year-and-a-half in Denver. I want to work on projects that I can spend time & thought on and get compensated fairly for it. That would make me happy and give me a sense of purpose. Parts of this post has been in queue for a couple of weeks and  going to Stefan’s lecture rekindled this feeling of seeking happiness in your work. He’s doing it and I can do. We have to ask for the things we want. Even if it’s hard and makes us feel awkward because I know we’re thinking about it must more than the other person. What is is it worth to you? 

Personally, I hate making estimates. Especially time estimates and I’m trying to move towards a project price. I want that freedom to work longer  if necessary to make something I’m really proud of and am happy to present. I cringe when a client tells me that “this is a quick project. It should only take an hour.” You want and hour’s worth of work, so you don’t want me to put any thought into it? I understand where they’re coming from, and there are times when I know what they mean or have done it myself, but there are other times when I just feel like slighted by it.

On the other hand, I have been so busy trying to do 10 million things and my work for many clients suffers because I don’t have the time to properly dedicate my attention to them. I really want to do almost every project I’m asked to because they all interest me, but I have to be more realistic with my time. No one wins when I’m overworking myself. Don’t get me wrong, I work really well under stress, I do. I love it, in fact. But there’s something different from the stress of wanting to do well within a deadline versus being asked to do something fast just because they don’t want to pay for it. Thoughtfulness has a value too. You’re not just paying for my technical skills, your paying for the creativity that I try to put into each project I tackle.

So here are the parts of my job that I like the most:

  1. I get to try new things all the time. Learning from other people, the previous designer, or by trail-and-error as attempt this or that design style.
  2. Making people happy. When I see a client really excited about something I’ve made.
  3. When I make something with really fantastic typography.
  4. Creating graphics from scratch. A lot of time’s I get addicted to making details and they usually end up making me really happy.
  5. Big projects, with distant deadlines paired with the freedom to think and explore different concepts.
  6. A good color palette.
  7. Working with people who are passionate about what they do. Excitement is contagious.
  8. Holding something you’ve made in your hands. It’s just so much more special than when you see it on the screen.
  9. Meaningful work.

What are your favorite things about what you do? Think about it.

The Happy Film Titles from {group theory} on Vimeo.

*I say “seat” and I know you’re imagining a chair. But the lecture was held in a design gallery so they were actually giant cloth, snake-like cylinders that were lined up parallel across the floor with two more cylinder cushions laid perpendicularly at each end so they didn’t roll away. Don’t understand? I don’t either. Just know that many people were actually straddling their cylinder cushions like a horse in order to face the front. Awkward but great. 

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