The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given

Bob Gill | Image: Phaidon Press

If I told you that by the end of this article you’d be a better designer would you believe me? It’s a bold statement, but I want to share with you something that totally changed my approach to design.

Recently I was asked to deliver a talk on the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. Thankfully, this is one of my favorite things to talk about since the experience really did change my life. In fact, I’d go as far to say you can pretty much divide my career into two halves around this piece of advice — it really was that important.

I was in my second year of college when I stumbled across a book written by the legendary designer Bob Gill.

Gill’s book “Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design, Including the Ones in this Book” literally hit me in the face as I careered into the library’s bookshelf. Picking it off the floor I was immediately grabbed by the book’s bizarre cover. Intrigued, I sat down there and then in the library aisle and read it cover to cover.

Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design, Including the Ones in this Book | Image: Bob Gill

The book’s opening chapter hit me like a sucker punch to the stomach, with one line in particular that took my breath away:

“Unless you can begin with an interesting problem, it is unlikely you will end up with an interesting solution.”

Bob Gill

On reading that sentence I suddenly realised how to be a designer. As ridiculous as it sounds, the closest I’d come to designing anything at that point was to simply copy something I liked. Gill’s book taught me that to design something is to identify and solve the right problem.

The rest of “Forget All the Rules…” is devoted to examples of Gill’s problem solving. Revisiting his book I think his RentaNooYawka logotype is one of his most memorable solutions. Not only does it perfectly illustrate Gill’s attitude to problem solving, but it appeals to my love of language. Bob Gill explains:

“I had a client who supplied guides to tourists, they were called ‘Rent a New Yorker’ and that was the problem. Well, I’m sure every third year design student would immediately do a logo with the skyline of New York with some contemporary typeface underneath it saying ‘Rent a New Yorker’. To me that’s pretty boring. So the first thing I had to do was to try and convert this problem, which is a very conventional one, into an interesting one. I decided the most interesting statement I could make, the most interesting problem to give myself was to say that ‘our guides are authentic New Yorkers, they’ll really show you New York!’

Well, how do you communicate that a guide is an authentic New Yorker? Well, eventually I came to the conclusion that if I could give their logo a New York accent that might in some way communicate that these are real New Yorkers. So I suggested to the client that they could spell their name in a New York accent: ‘RentaNooYawka’. Well, they loved it, but that’s an example of making what is essentially a conventional problem into an interesting one.”

Bob Gill

All designers need to be problem solvers, and Gill reminds us that great design is more likely to happen when designers focus on answering the right problem.

So when searching for a solution, forget what your design is meant to look like and concentrate on redefining the problem — you’ll get through a lot of notebooks but the results will be worth it.

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