5 Career Tips from Famous Graphic Designers

If you read up on the most famous graphic designers of the modern era you'll obviously learn a lot about the creative process. But you'll discover many career management strategies worth emulating, too.

Researching and writing my book Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, which profiles industry pioneers from the early 1900s to today, taught me so much about design. But I also learned many valuable lessons about working that apply to all creative professionals. 

Career Wisdom from Famous Graphic Designers

1. Cipe Pineles: Be Persistent

Today, women make up around half of the graphic design profession. But when Cipe Pineles was looking for her first design job in the 1930s, prospective employers were interested in her portfolio ­– until they learned that the unusual first name belonged to a woman.

She kept trying, though, and eventually became an assistant to Condé Nast's art director Mehemed Fehmy Agha in 1932, expanding her role there over the next 15 years. She became art director at Glamour in 1942, the first female to hold that position at a major American magazine. She moved on to Seventeen, and in 1950, Pineles became art director at Charm, a magazine targeting a new demographic: working women. Pineles was also the first woman inducted into the New York Art Directors Club, and the first female elected to its Hall of Fame. During a career of many firsts, Cipe Pineles led with her work and she led by example. And she never gave up.

2. Paul Rand: Guide Your Clients Through the Design Process 

Sometimes a client isn't ready for the creative leap you envision. One of Paul Rand's most famous logos was for IBM – a project that began as a collaboration with architect Eliot Noyes in 1956 and unfolded over more than 20 years. Rand knew the conservative company needed to be guided through a design progression. His first step was to tweak IBM's existing slab serif typeface, but it wasn't until 1972 that he incorporated the still-familiar horizontal stripes to better unify the three letters. In addition to the logo, he designed IBM's packaging, marketing materials, and annual reports. 

Design wasn't Rand's only talent. Perhaps more important: his skill in convincing corporate executives that design has value, and that it should evolve as companies grow and develop.

3. Edward Fella: Try Something New 

"Do something you haven't done before," Ed Fella would tell his students. It's great advice for expanding one's horizons. It also describes Fella's career.

For almost 30 years, Fella worked in commercial design in Detroit, growing frustrated all the while by the lack of personal expression in his work. At age 47, he quit and went to graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Katherine and Michael McCoy's innovative design program enabled him to explore and ask questions without real-world limitations.

Fella then moved west to teach at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and his design work has been anything but commercial. He collages pieces of found imagery and his own photos with hand-drawn type, creating designs influenced by Dada and Surrealism. And in an age of computer-generated design, Fella works entirely by hand.

4. Alvin Lustig: Diversify Your Skills

Magazines, interiors, book jackets, packaging, fabrics, hotels, mall signage, the opening credits of the cartoon Mr. Magoo ­– even a helicopter ­– Alvin Lustig designed all of them. He always felt the title "graphic designer" was too limiting, and it's clear why: He designed everything. And he did it all before dying at the young age of 40.

Lustig started designing interiors while working for Look magazine in the 1940s. Work like this inspired him to design the total package for his clients, from corporate identity to office environments. Though he is best known for his book covers, his experience among many disciplines gave him more freedom and opportunities.

5. Stefan Sagmeister: Learn to Sell Your Ideas

Stefan Sagmeister joined Tibor Kalman's legendary M&Co in New York in 1993. Although Sagmeister's tenure there was brief, his boss taught him to take risks and to explore different design disciplines. But, Sagmeister recalls, "It was, more than anything else, his incredible salesmanship that set his studio apart from all the others. There were probably a number of people around who were as smart as Tibor ­–­ and there were certainly a lot who were better at designing ­– but nobody else could sell these concepts without any changes, get those ideas with almost no alterations out into the hands of the public. Nobody else was as passionate."

Although I didn't include it in the book, Sagmeister also offered this suggestion when I interviewed him: "Work your ass off." Great career advice we should all take to heart.

Portions of this post excerpted from Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design by John Clifford. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press. Clifford is an award-winning graphic designer/creative director at Think Studio

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