Success Ideas from Master Designer, Rick Valicenti

Success Secrets from Rick Valicenti:

  • If you do good work, challenging work, and work that is attentive to production values and craft, odds are you will continue to attract those kinds of projects.
  • You’re only given opportunities when you’re ready for them. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the learning.
  • Should you choose to hurry your life along or do it for the money, you’ll end up being pulled back, pulled aside or pulled into a place you don’t want to be.

Rick’s thoughts on patience when building and sustaining a career:

A lot of young people enter the profession with a great deal of promise, and exit shortly thereafter; wishing that the profession had fulfilled their promises. So, building and sustaining a career is an interesting question. I would say of the different qualities required, one of the most important is actually a simple one — as simple as patience. In other words, your portfolio won’t be complete after one year. It requires some patience. It also requires time, which is a bit different. Time allows you to discover who you are, how you see the world, and how you respond to opportunities. These qualities, combined with good people skills and interesting collaboration with other designers, clients and creative aptitudes that transcend the norm, can allow you to create a great life.

On getting good clients:

There are a couple of mantras that work and have proven themselves. One of them I learned from Michael Patrick Cronin, a designer in San Francisco. He said, “You get what you do.” If you do good work, challenging work, work that is attentive to production values and craft, work that is beautiful, poetic, sensual or compelling, odds are you will attract those kinds of projects when your work gets out to the world. People will ask, “Who did that?” The answer will lead back to you and other opportunities like those will follow. If the work you do is hurried, compromised, poorly crafted crap complete with messages of no value, odds are that’s what you get in return. And one day you will wake up and say, “How come am I getting such crap work?” It’s because that’s what you’re putting out there.

Rick’s thoughts on having faith in your creativity:

I think if you are patient and know that over time your work will be good, it will be. First, you must be true to yourself, true to the work you want to do, and to the level of care you want to devote to your work. Once you commit to that, I think that’s the biggest surrender you’ll have to make. It’s a big leap of faith because you are putting faith in your own ability. You’re putting faith in your own sensibilities and abilities to work with others to get the work done on time, and at the same time, make something of real value. It won’t be long before you’ll be rewarded with similar opportunities.

From what I have seen and experienced, every time I’ve chosen to hurry my life along or do it for the money, I’ve ended up being pulled back, pulled aside or pulled into a place I didn’t want to be. You can be proactive, but I think you have to be proactive in just making that leap of faith; that commitment to yourself; that commitment to the craft and to the continuum that we’re all in as we continue the trajectory and the tradition of the graphic design profession and art.

Thoughts on getting oriented to your location:

Before I became a graphic designer, I was a grad student of photography. I finished my graduate work at the University of Iowa. While there I took a letterpress class at the Writer’s Workshop. And, when I moved to Chicago, the photographic community seemed to be engaged in image making that I wasn’t either qualified for or interested in pursuing. It was very commercial work— hot dogs, corn flakes and beer. I’m sure there was better work going on in Chicago, but I really didn’t see it at first glance.

So, I decided maybe I needed to be on the other side. My other fascination was discovered in this letterpress class, and in some of my undergraduate work in design as a painting and drawing major. I went to various places only to discover I couldn’t get hired because I didn’t have a solid commercial background in design. However, I learned enough to generate a portfolio of magic marker renderings and key-line and paste up examples, which was enough to secure jobs that were production oriented and that fed me during my first two years in Chicago. And, with some good fortune, luck and a personal curiosity, I found myself at a design conference in 1978 and, finally, an opportunity to become an assistant to a very reputable designer here in Chicago who was in his late 50s, early 60s. His name was Bruce Beck. I stayed with Bruce for a little over three years, and when Bruce retired, I went out on my own.

Rick’s thoughts on getting started:

One of the first projects on my own was working as a freelancer of sorts. I wasn’t really working for other designers, but primarily as a textbook art director in a team of designers for a major Chicago textbook publisher. And, one thing lead to another. I started to secure lots of textbook work and work from smaller clients who needed identities, menus or what have you. Pretty soon I developed a reputation of being a good designer, easy to work with and reliable. And that’s what I’ve practiced ever since.

Working with Scitex:

The Scitex people actually wanted to start a school that taught people how to use Photoshop. They were looking at two designers in the final round. I remember one was April Greiman and the other was Thirst. As a fairly early adaptor to Photoshop, back in the days when there were no layers and only one undo, they gave us an opportunity to create magical images in a pretty straightforward piece. Now that was a fun project.

On the rewards of work:

Rewards for me come on a lot of levels. Looking back on all the work I’ve been involved with, whether it be individual or collaborative, I can’t say that this or that design has changed the complexion of contemporary society. There are very little examples of that kind of thing because the only one that comes to mind happened so long ago. I did that little ‘ear’ symbol in 1978. Maybe you’ve seen the little insignia at movie theatres or banks. It notifies/declares information access is available for the hearing impaired. Since then, the insignia has gone through all sorts of variations, as does any design over time. The original, however, was featured in I.D. Magazine and has become sort of a standard. That’s one little gem.

On icons and special projects:

Do I have an icon in my portfolio like Milton Glaser? Not yet. But, I do have work of mine in the Chicago community that is public and visible, and I think, it’s standing the test of time nicely, some better than others. We’re currently collaborating with an artist and group of architects on a 9/11 memorial for the victims from Hoboken, New Jersey. The memorial will be an island in the Hudson River. The island will be a kind of quiet destination, with very smart typographic narrative on the bridge. And, when you get there, each of the victims will be identified in a respectful way. This project continues to be a very good use of each of our gifts.

Rick’s thoughts on doing things differently:

Some have said that I should spell my name with an ‘s’ instead of a ‘c’ — Risk. But, I don’t feel that I take a lot of risks. It’s just been the natural way I’ve gone about doing things. And, I don’t know if I would do anything differently. Though, I would be curious to know, what would have happened if I would have landed in New York or London instead of Chicago?

On new business development:

Doing this interview is at the heart of my new business development program. I often tell my story to other people with the hope that they will pass it along. So far it’s worked. This year is the 20th anniversary of Thirst. At the end of 2007, we moved the studio back to the City proper which has brought us new energy and a reduced staff. The four of us in the studio now are planning to take a more aggressive and targeted stance toward business development which should be fun. All of us want to turn our direction to people, places, and things we’ve never explored.

Thoughts on the inspiration of attending workshops and seminars:

Absolutely I attend seminars and workshops. Having been a presenter or attendee at various conferences and workshops on four continents so far, has provided me with the opportunity to meet hundreds of designers, both in and outside of their environments.

Two years ago, I took Milton Glaser’s week-long course at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And, for the two summers prior, I attended the design inquiry at MCAD in Portland, Maine. The first year I enrolled as a participant; the second, I was invited to be a workshop leader. So, yes, I do try to stay fresh. By attending conferences one can become inspired. I also try to do as much creative work outside of the studio as I can; without the influence or permission of the client.

Giving back as a new business development strategy:

For the last 10 years, every five weeks or so I’ve traveled to a different university, college or AIGA chapter. That’s a lot of visitations, and for most, I don’t charge a fee. My reason for going is to share my work. I sit in on critiques and have assigned projects for the students to complete before I arrive. Then we review those projects while I’m there. It’s a good exchange of energy, I see the future generation of designers and get a lot of enjoyment out of doing it; hopefully the students do, too. Interestingly enough, over the years I’ve had the chance to continue to work with some of those people whom I’ve met. And occasionally designers I’ve met want to collaborate with me, or provide an opportunity, and it all works out.

Final thoughts for those just starting out:

I would just like to remind those who are just starting out that this is not an easy profession to stay completely excited with all the time. It is difficult, and it requires us to put ourselves out there. When we share an idea with someone, that idea comes under scrutiny. The scrutiny that it comes under often isn’t an endorsement of our idea. Sometimes it’s a harsh critique of our idea. And those ideas come from a special place within us. It hurts when your little baby of an idea gets kicked around. So the only message I can pass along is to enjoy the process; enjoy the learning. You are only given the opportunity when you are ready to take it. Find ways to conceal compromise. Reach out to other people. And, put some good things out into the world for us to see!

About Rick Valicenti of Thirst: A Design Collaborative

Rick forms relationships with his clients, and he earns their trust. What results is a personal conversation which draws on all of the clients’ experiences and fuses the boundaries between expression and promotion. While each individual piece may at times seem bizarre, slick, cold or inscrutable, the work as a whole has continuity, passion and depth. While Rick’s style has been emulated, the essence of his work is seldom recaptured.

Rick has juried countless design award competitions, including the Presidential Design Awards for the National Endowment for the Arts. His work is included in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the 2006 Triennial, Design Life Now, and has been featured, critiqued and lauded in design publications worldwide, and has garnered awards from AR100, Graphis, CA, Print, Step, New York Art Directors Club, ACD100, Tokyo Art Directors and I.D. Magazine, among others. He has lectured extensively and exhibited his work around the world. Rick is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), has served as president of the Society of Typographic Arts and was awarded the AIGA Chicago Fellow Award in 2004 for his steadfast commitment to the education of design’s future generations and the AIGA Medal in 2006, for his sustained contribution to design excellence and development of the profession. The Medal is the highest honor in the graphic design profession.

Rick Valicenti designs in collaboration with John Pobojewski, Bud Rodecker, Matt Daly, Tom Vack, Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang, and Janet Echleman.

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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