Marcel Duchamp wrote, “as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter,” the idea being that one should look outside of one’s creative profession for inspiration to avoid direct emulation. It is in this spirit that I enjoy considering the practice of graphic design through the lenses of other creative practices, in particular the craft of writing.
We are fans of Roald Dahl in the Fox & Wang abode, and have read a number of his books to our (collective) three children. Not long ago we read Dahl’s 1977 memoir Lucky Break—How I Became a Writer for the first time. On the second page he offers seven tips to would-be fiction writers that, perhaps not surprisingly, are relevant to would-be graphic designers.
Number one on that list: You should have a lively imagination.
One immediately thinks: Isn’t this obvious, for fiction writers as well as graphic designers? (Perhaps Dahl thought so, because this is the only piece of advice he doesn’t elaborate on.) After a moment, though, I have to ask: What does it mean to “have a lively imagination,” anyway?
Marcel Proust observed that “The essence of the writer’s task is the perception of connections among unlike things.” Whether writing or designing, I believe it is through seeing, through forming surprising or illuminating linkages, that one puts a lively imagination to work. It is being, in a word, playful.
A later book-length piece of advice, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) contains a number of insightful suggestions for graphic designers thinly veiled as advice to writers. In the chapters “Shitty First Drafts” and “Perfectionism,” Lamott explores the messy process of writing and the creative dangers of not allowing that process to be messy. She warns that “Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness.” And: “Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing [read: design] needs to breathe and move.”
It is interesting to weigh Lamott’s point of view against Roald Dahl’s, especially because his fourth tip—You must be a perfectionist—appears antithetical to hers. In truth, though, I think this particular issue is more about timing, about when to seek perfection in one’s craft rather than whether to seek it at all. Lamott allows for more detours along the way, I suspect, but both she and Dahl are intent on arriving at the same destination sooner or later.