Success Ideas from Master Designer/Illustrator, Ivan Chermayeff

Ivan Chermayeff

Success Secrets from Ivan Chermayeff:

  • Being an independent design office is the only way to control the work done.
  • The key to success is having good ideas, not doing what you’re told, but instead fighting for and doing what you believe.
  • When we present a few alternative ideas to a client, for a symbol or other design problem, we believe that any one of the alternatives would be a valid solution.


Thoughts on building and sustaining a career:

First of all, to be a success, you have to be good at your craft, and you have to work very hard. Design is now a very competitive territory and the only way to make a career out of it is to keep working at it, developing your own style, improving, and building a portfolio that gets you new work. It’s not easy.

On going into business for himself:

I determined almost from the very beginning that I wanted to work for myself. But I chose to go into business with partners, Tom Geismar (for 50 years), both of us with Robert Brownjohn (for a short time at the very beginning), and staff so I wouldn’t have to work all alone. Being on your own is a way to control the work you do and take responsibility for it. It’s also a way to control what clients you have, and choose what you take on. We’re now a small enough firm to do that.


On uncreative hours:

One of the problems of design, especially if you’re successful at it, is that it’s very easy to get involved with time-consuming work that demands more plain slogging than creativity. It is profitable to do things which are 90% follow-through and 10% creative, but it is sure as hell not as much fun, and it can be very boring. That’s one reason to be on your own: control of your own destiny. It only demands attention to what you’re doing.

On working hard:

I don’t know if working hard and putting in the hours is exactly the key. The key is having good ideas, and not doing what you are told, but doing what you believe. I don’t do what I’m told. If my clients know what to do, then why don’t they do it and leave me alone?

You have to find ways of being creative. Having ideas is what It’s all about. Working hard at it because it’s not that easy. Ideas don’t come that automatically. It’s obviously a combination of things, and you have to be convincing about what you do. Not only do you have to have ideas, but they have to be good, and they have to be appropriate. Good ideas are not necessarily appropriate under all circumstances.


On looking backward:

Basically I always think about what’s going on, and what’s to come. I am not one to look too far back. About a month is my limit. Undoubtedly, there are things I would do differently, but I don’t know what there are. Because you learn not to make the same mistakes. Also, I’m much more efficient after all these years. Doing things in an efficient way is much more sensible if you can do it.

On creative solutions:

There is no one answer to any given problem, but that doesn’t mean that if you have three or four good ones that it’s enough. I see no reason to do more than that in order to make the client the one who decides. They can decide from a few good answers, and not dozens. People who plaster endless numbers of alternatives up on the wall, half of which are worthless, are crazy. Today, we don’t give people more alternatives than we believe are valid. When we present alternatives to a client for a symbol, for example, we believe that any one of them would be good. You don’t present one good one and three bad ones.


On new business development:

Everything is on the Internet these days. That’s where we get a lot of work from the rest of the world, from people we’ve never heard of who hire us because we are on the web. I think that’s the way it works now. Paper and print, and mailing things out, is a waste of time. So, we’ve given up on making mailers. I’ve noticed, for instance, that because of the web I’ve gotten fewer Christmas cards for the last five years. And now, I’ve hardly gotten any. Dozens, not hundreds. People have stopped mailing things. Postages is expensive. Printing is expensive. Paper is expensive. It’s not just the money, it’s that you just don’t think about doing it. It’s a waste.

Obviously, it’s not going to break anybody’s back to print Christmas cards and promotional mailers. People just don’t do it any more.


On computers:

Computers have changed the design world. I don’t love them. But we’ve got to use them because it’s the only way to be efficient. I don’t like computers. I don’t even use one, personally.

First of all, computers are very slow, no matter how fast they are, even if they’ve been updated with the latest software and memory. I know how to use them. Everybody else in the office has one. I know how to tell people what I want done, but I don’t personally do it, because I like drawing and cutting things out of paper, and sketching and all that. For me that’s a lot faster.

On consultants and representatives:

We tried to use them, and we had people representing us. We came to the conclusion very rapidly that it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because when you have a client, you need to talk with them face to face. Half the time, ideas come from talking with the people in a direct fashion. Every time we get a brief from somebody, a corporation for example, about doing a project, because it’s competitive they send it out to a half dozen people and sometimes more. They’re pretty inadequate. And the more complicated the brief and the more thorough the brief, usually the worse it is. It’s the opposite of what it should be. The people who are writing those briefs are writing them for the wrong reasons. Not to solve the problem, but to even out a competitive situation that they’ve established. People don’t just look around and find out who’s good, talk with them, see if they can get on with them, and then hire them or not hire them. They send those briefs to five or six firms to do the same thing. Sometimes everybody’s paid a little bit. But it’s usual that you’re responding and trying to get on a short list. It’s not very satisfactory.


On staying focused and in balance:

I make collages. Personal art. All the time, for as much of the time that I have. Evenings, weekends. I love making art, which I call experimenting with visual connections.

On learning about design:

Work hard. And, do a lot of looking. I think it is very important to see what others have done. Not just what is now, what’s going on, but what design has been. An awful lot of young designers don’t know a goddamn thing about the history of their own craft. And they should, because there’s a lot to learn, just to learn what you like and what you don’t like. You don’t have to have mentors, but you sure as hell need to know what you think communicates well within your own level of comfort. You know, it’s about approaching problems, and paying attention of what others have done in the past. It doesn’t mean the current thing of the AIGA and the Art Directors Club, and the annuals from CA and Graphis. I’m talking about the history of the profession. People need a much longer view than only what’s current.


About Ivan Chermayeff:

Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar initially formed their partnership in the late 1950s with the idea of working collaboratively and in a wide range of disciplines. Over the ensuing years, their work has remained consistent not in style but in its approach to design. Accepting the Modernist ideal that design is a problem-solving discipline, they have sought to humanize that ideal through humor, artistic invention, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Their firm has evolved over the past fifty years. Since the departure of Robert Brownjohn in 1960, they have operated under the Chermayeff & Geismar name. Many exceptionally talented partners and associates have contributed greatly to the projects undertaken.

This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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