Saul, David, and Paula

April 6, 2024 • Louie Mantia

Every now and again, I rewatch these very specific moments from three people I deeply admire.

I want to share them with you.

Saul Bass

The American commerce that you deal with are companies that don’t deal with aesthetics, you see. What I’m saying is—I’m not dealing with money yet. I’m dealing with what a designer has to be concerned about. What I’m saying is that aesthetics are your problem and mine, nobody else’s.

This is something I always try to keep in mind. As a designer, aesthetics are my job.

The fact of the matter is: I want everything we do—that I do personally, that our office does—to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that a client thinks that it’s worth anything, or that it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.

I frequently struggle with this. No one will say they don’t care about beauty, but I often feel alone in the pursuit of beauty when I work with clients. In addition to the objective goal that a client has, I have a subjective one too.

Now sometimes, you can’t make everything beautiful, but—you know—that’s my intent. And I’m willing to pay for that. Now that’s where money comes in. Because you can get much more quickly to an answer if you don’t worry about those things. It costs every designer money to make it beautiful. Because it means you have to spend more time, you have to futz with it, you have to noodle, you have to push, you have to pull, you have to try, you have to do—and that’s all money. You’re eating up your budget. But that’s a commitment that you either make or you don’t make.

I feel this deep in my bones. It’s not just accomplishing the objective task at hand, it’s spending the time the client doesn’t need me to spend just to satisfy my own aesthetic requirements. That’s not what they’re paying for, but it’s what I’m paying for.

Now there’s a lot of firms—a lot of designers—who just do the work and get paid, and make a buck, and are happy. And there are many, many designers—I would suspect more—that really do care about those things. But I think it’s very important for us to not be under the illusion that anybody else cares.

Watching Saul say this really helps me feel not alone. I’m not the only one who cares. This is a burden shared by many designers. But we also all have our unique aesthetic tastes.

David Bowie

Never play to the gallery. But you never learn that until much later on, I think. But never work for other people at what you do. Always… always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.

At first, this sounds in contrast to what Saul said above, but Saul is more of a designer and David is more of an artist. It’s David’s impulse to express himself. Designers’ work—similar as it may be to artists’ work—is done for others, rather than for yourself.

Saul makes the commitment to spend additional time on aesthetics, in addition to the time all designers spend working toward the objective goal. David is the reverse of the latter. He’s not interested in the objective goal, and he’s not interested in the balance Saul seeks. He’s only interested in the artistic self-expression and what that reveals about himself. Sometimes I too feel that way.

And I— ...I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that.

The moment David breathes a heavy sigh after “And I.”

This is so difficult. As a commercial artist, I feel that my best work is often the work I do unrestrained. I really do love constraints and I love a challenge, but when I feel I’m no longer driving, I can see the soul of a project drift away.

Paula Scher

I operate very strongly with my instincts, and if I don’t get it in the first crack, I get it in the second. And if I don’t get it in the second, I almost never get it. It’s a very intuitive kind of process for me. I’ve never been a refiner. My best work are kind of big, bold strokes that came very quickly.

Paula says what I’ve never heard anyone else say before. Often with the work I do, the strongest version of anything is my very first sketch or something very close to it. Some time ago, I used to offer “options” to clients to choose from. But whenever I sketched more ideas (just for the purpose of filling out a sheet), I have never found something better than the first “option.”

And it’s problematic because my clients like to buy process and they think they’re not getting their money’s worth, like I solved it too fast. “How can it be that you talk to somebody and it’s done in a second?” But it is done in a second! It’s done in a second and thirty-four years. You know? It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing of my life that’s in my head.

In just about every job I’ve had, this comes up. I work quickly both in ideation and technical drawing. It’s hard for clients to understand how I could feel so confidently about the first thing I draw, but every subsequent idea feels like it gets further away from the purpose.

Saul said designers have to spend time making it beautiful. And it’s true, but a lot of that is happening up top, in my head only. It rarely happens on the screen in front of me.

I am absorbing everything constantly, so I relate to Paula’s notion that the ability to solve things quickly is due to soaking up the world around you. To me, making good icons and logos quickly is a skill. It’s from understanding how to effectively communicate an idea, which you can train yourself to do over the course of your entire life.

These videos from these people are so special to me because they show me that the people I admire most have struggled in exactly the same ways I do.

And maybe those struggles won’t ever go away. They are just part of the process.

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