Saul Bass on struggling

“One of the difficulties that students and young designers have to deal with is a perceptual issue. They look at the exceptional work that’s being done. What they see is the end product. They are not privy to the process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have at it…They redo…It gets better…It slips…It gets worse…It comes back…It comes together.

And maybe it’s something that’s pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, “gee, it comes hard and it’s so difficult. Am I really suited for this?”

There are certain characteristics in the work they admire, that feed this point of view. One is that a really good solution looks “inevitable.” The other is that in doing, the designer frequently has very carefully papered over all of the edges and the cracks. It may have developed, for instance, as a series of discrete pieces, elements, and ideas, which have been pushed together, squeezed and compressed, and painted and lacquered and sanded, and what you have is this beautiful impervious monolithic glowing sphere, which looks like it emerged in that pristine state in the moment of birth. The fact of the matter is that everybody works at it. Works very hard at it. And process, for the experienced designers, is the same as process for beginning designers. Everybody’s working in the quarry.

The only difference is, the experienced designer has been around awhile and has an experiential track record. There’s less anxiety about the process because you know eventually you’re going to get there. You’re also a little more sinewy. You’ve been working out a little more. But the process is the same.

Also designers tend to feed those misperceptions. They say things like “well, I was in a restaurant and I scribbled it on the napkin” …or “I was shaving” …”I was on the plane” …”I was in the taxi” …or whatever. It’s not malevolent. It’s just that they really would like to believe that’s the way it happened. It’s a comfort to us to think that it could happen that way. And sometimes it does. But usually it doesn’t. So, the good news for students is, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all experiencing the same thing. The bad news is, it isn’t going to get any better. So hang in!

We have to be very careful in looking at what we do and not pump it up. It’s useful and interesting, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it livens up our environment, livens up your lives. And while it can occasionally provide an insight about ourselves and our culture, it doesn’t make a profound contribution to humanity.

Our absorption in what we do tempts us to enlarge the societal values we ascribe to our activity. We have a role. A modest role. And, of course, we want to play that out as best we can. What is, however, really important about design is that it makes many of us feel good, and it happens to be our lives!”

— Saul Bass