In his talk, Ten Things I Have Learned, Milton Glaser hands down a list of axioms he earned through an amazing, life-long career in design. I recently rediscovered this document after it sat in a folder marked “save” for a few years. Instead of leaving it there, I thought I’d share these “ten things” and a comment or two.
This axiom is peculiar to me because of the language Milton uses. It really feels like the language of another generation. I love the short monologue in the middle, his distaste for being labeled a “creative.” I can hear him go off this rant, his voice turning slightly more annoyed, almost grumpy.
I got to see Milton give a lecture once and about halfway through you could tell something was off. It turned out that his assistant had loaded the wrong presentation on his laptop. He said as much as he switched from speaker mode to a casual, “what the hell is going on” mode. After examining the deck in front of us, he recalibrated, shifted his posture, and went back to his previous form. I was in awe of how he didn’t let a problem get in the way of doing his job. I learned a lot from that moment and remember it more than the actual talk he gave that morning.
04 — Professionalism Is Not Enough or Good Is The Enemy Of The Great
Early in my career, I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything—not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past. Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative—I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative?—Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. after all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.
“Continuous transgression” is certainly an interesting way to say push the boundaries, but he’s right. Leaders have a rabid desire for new ideas but are too cautious to stray too far from what is already known and accepted—what works. Conversely, designers hesitate to fully adopt and use design systems. Believing the system will constrain their creativity when in fact it has the potential to free up time to explore more interesting problems.
The reality is that new ideas can only come from new thinking which requires curious exploration. And the only way to explore curiously is to prioritize your time and focus.
So, we’re left with a real Catch 22 situation that is at the heart of problems seen in design programs around the world. Leaders avoid pushing boundaries too far while designers fear not pushing boundaries far enough. I’ve run up against this everywhere I’ve worked.
The lesson I take away from Milton is that designers—creatives—need to be constantly curious and willing to take risks. It's a lot cheaper for us to fail through our work than it is with, say, engineers or lawyers. We need to push boundaries in one form or another because that’s part of our role to play on this planet, and it will help save our jobs. More on that last bit later.