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What young designers need to learn

Learning to fly

Life has a way of kicking you in the butt when you need it most. The painless transition between design school and the workforce that I was confident of didn’t happen and, looking back, I deserved it. I had ranked highly in the Student Designer of the Year nominations and was a finalist in a lighting design award so I expected to waltz into top-tier employment – my first mistake. At interviews, some very good practitioners listened to my aspirations but, as the weeks turned to months, it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t as attractive a proposition as I imagined. (It’s not the only time I experienced such emotions in those youthful years!).

Now that I’ve spent 17 years working in London, Shanghai and Auckland, I have a better sense of perspective. Some surprises still undoubtedly lurk around the corner but my highlight reel, the things that taught me to be a pro, includes: 

Cut the attitude
If only we could turn a mirror on our own naivety. In my formative years at Artillery A+D in London I was only interested in the creative exploits of design and didn’t really give a toss about hierarchical systems. I was a real prima donna and wanted everything there and then! What I know now is that talent, divorced from the everyday reality of company structure, and without collaboration, will get you nowhere. It is only useful if it can be harnessed as part of a much broader skill set. Hard work and a keenness to learn will serve you better until you have experience on your side. That’s when talent comes back to the fore. It took me a while to click on to this: I was focussed on my future greatness rather than doing any work of meaning. Karl Taylor, Artillery director at the time, indulged me when everyone else rebuked my petulance.

Don’t just draw – design

I see a lot of glossy visuals in portfolios these days and very little else.

Design is communication and our media is imagery. If you cannot draw, your pursuit of this profession will be limited. But creating pretty pictures is one thing, designing is another. I learned to sketch at secondary school; by college these sketches became a visualisation technique that, supported by model making, allowed me to focus on crafting solutions. Computer aided design has made this skill more accessible, 3D modelling is as fluid as any hand process and these days Trimble sketch-up is my chosen media. The point of ‘drawing’, though, is in the doing, not the output. To draw is to three dimensionally resolve or allude to the resolution of a problem. An orthographic projection is a drawing of worth, as is isometric view or sketch. Why? They all consider every facet of the design problem and address it in a way that a plan or elevation alone cannot. It differentiates ‘a design’ from ‘an image’.

God of small things
At BDG A+D, I delivered some big-name fit-outs (such as advertising agency Grey London). It was here that I tuned into being productive and my output was prolific. It was also the first time that I was exposed to every facet of the process.

To be a designer of worth, you must be across everything. As one of my colleagues would say, only partly in jest, ‘all designers are megalomaniacs!’ This isn’t a licence to become an unbearable smart arse. It is only when you are respectful enough of the multiple consultants in the room that you can truly realise a project’s potential.

The upside was that, by absorbing the full quantum of the designer’s role, I began to really enjoy myself. The downside was that, with client interaction, I also felt first-hand the pain of losing out on pitches, revisiting designs and the responsibility to deliver on a budget.

I finally got my ‘name in lights’ and soon discovered that, once your name is attached to something, everything that goes right – or wrong – with a project comes with it. So your decision making needs to be based on robust, tested processes lest those lights fizzle out. That’s one pragmatic reason that a ‘house’ style develops. Certain design elements are born out of risk adversity; details are successfully executed on every project because they work. BDG had banquette seating; my current practice Warren and Mahoney has the battened ceiling.

Drive it like you stole it
Imagine being given the keys to the company Aston and then encouraged to drive the fastest lap you can! Brinkworth in London was such a place. Directors Adam Brinkworth and Kevin Brennan have a stand-out design pedigree. They work hard, but play harder. Much harder.

The unspoken truth is that, just by being employed at Brinkworth you are already recognised as good enough. With the right application, you will do great things, since the leadership, mentoring and fellow talent will enable that. It’s a given. But being good at something means nothing if you can’t learn to enjoy the success. I struggled with this at first. I couldn’t fully relax until I had proved myself. I missed the point. The key is to express yourself by being as natural as possible. Your identity matters. Whether like Adam you are a skateboarding fan, or like Kevin, a devoted football supporter, or like me a music buff, the deal is to become comfortable enough with yourself and others to share your enthusiasm.  

Such uninhibited sharing propels creativity to another level. When you lose your work inhibitions, you don’t become unprofessional – you just get better at collaborating and solving problems.

There is more to life than work, but if you love what you do and who you do it with, special things happen.

Scott Compton is a principal at Warren and Mahoney architects and an award-winning interior designer based in the practice’s Auckland studio. Recent projects include the refurbishment of the offices of legal firm Russell McVeagh, and the upgrade of the six-storey TVNZ headquarters.
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