I started my career as a finished artist and retoucher, as the hands for ad agency art directors, who often couldn’t or didn’t want to use computers (I know, right?!).

The long hours and repetitious work was a grind, but I was fortunate enough to spend time with, and learn from, some very talented people.

I teamed up with one particular art director quite a bit. An older guy, who seemed to stumble though his work. He wasn’t like the other art directors. He never seemed confident. He’d always ask others for their opinion. He’d ask for my opinion.

I’d protest.

“I’m just here to build this thing for you. You should be telling me what to do.”

To me, he didn’t appear to know what he was doing. He’d fumble around, eventually landing on something that may or may not be final. It was ok, but not great. Then he’d ask for more changes. Changes that were obviously bad.

Many other finished artists didn’t want to work with him. I didn’t blame them — it felt like he was taking a scenic route where a more direct path could have been travelled, saving hours of work.

“Stop it. Stop making changes. You’re the art director, and you know what looks good, let’s just do that!”

Then it clicked.

He’d intentionally try different and crazy things, knowing that most wouldn’t work. He didn’t care. He didn’t care and it didn’t matter — we’d end up in places we never would have if we over thought the layout. The question wasn’t “what is the best way?”, but “what are the many ways?”, deferring judgement until the last possible moment. Judgement may feel good, but it has no value. The value is in the outcome.

And the outcome was often solid, stunning designs that were unconventional. Non-obvious solutions. From the outside and to other art directors, it appeared magical. But, from within the process, far less nuanced and intentional.

It was also playful — the exploration was fun. Quickly throwing many alternatives together established a rhythm. It meant no one was invested in any particular direction. It also meant we never had designer’s block, because we allowed ourselves to create bad layouts, knowing it may be a bridge to a better solution. I still use the same approach today, and I place a lot of value in not being prematurely critical, especially for work that isn’t considered final.

I’d misjudged this stumbling madman. He’s a genius. The sobering moment that finally clicked will be with me forever.

Thank you David, you were a great mentor.

Published 30 April 2014.