steal with both hands

Menu Interior: Los Fuegos, Miami

Very early in my graphic design career, I was between gigs, shopping my little portfolio in earnest around San Antonio and Austin, Texas design studios and agencies. There was a decent amount of work in my book, some brands you might recognize, some posters, a little web design, a little illustration, even some school projects I was proud of, from the local community college where I took a couple night classes in design basics. I pounded the pavement and cold called dozens of shops in South Texas, but most places politely said “no thanks” and I trudged along, trying to figure out my next move.

I was particularly surprised when one creative director I admired in San Antonio actually invited me in to his office and offered to look at my work. I was shocked but naively optimistic. When I arrived at his office, Rolando was warm and welcoming, easy to talk to, and very generous with his time and attention. Before looking at any of my work, the creative director talked a good deal about creative philosophy and design as a craft and discipline. He was thoughtful when speaking about design, passionate about poring over details, authenticity and digging deeper to uncover the very best solution to any real design challenge. I briefly compared his thinking to my own approach, represented in the modest portfolio sitting between us. It was then that I realized how shitty this interview was going to be…

It didn’t take long for him to size me up, as I sat sheepishly in his office. He flipped through a few pages, poked and prodded at all my bad decisions and weak rationale, mostly by just asking “why?” as in “why did you go this direction? Why did you make this choice? Why did you use this color, this typeface, this image?”

I scrambled to keep up, having a hard time standing up for a lot of my design work, because I knew I hadn’t thought too much into it. Many of the decisions reflected in my work were overly stylistic, contrived flourishes and ornamental, lacking true meaning and purpose. Lazy and uninspired, my portfolio was filled with bad copies of stuff that I admired and tried earnestly (and unsuccessfully) to recreate on my own. Sure, this was over 8 years ago, and I’d like to believe I’ve improved a bit since then, but damn. I never felt more like a fraud than in that moment… Until he flipped to the next page in my book, a somewhat terrible visual concept for a website featuring a local craft brewery.

Oh boy. I had simulated some kind of fake “hand-drawn style” of block lettering typeface cheesily overlayed on stock images of rough papery background textures (painful sounding, I know… but it was a phase). Rolando paused on this piece in particular and just stared at it for a moment. Then looked up at me, like a wounded animal. He made a comment that went something like this:

“You’ve got a camera, right? Why do you need stock images, why don’t you just go down to one of those warehouses by the brewery and shoot a background photo? You’ve got markers, and you can obviously draw, why don’t you draw up the letters yourself? You don’t need this crap. I see what you are trying to do, it looks like it’s supposed to be hand made, but it’s not. It’s a shortcut. Why half-ass it like this? Man, if you’re going to steal, do it with both hands.”

In the middle of getting dressed down by this creative director who clearly had 20+ years of creative muscle on me, peeling away layers upon layers of my bullshit rationale and hanging it out to dry, this guy is actually leaving me pearls in his wake. I sat stunned for a moment, then feverishly wrote his advice down in my notebook; of course the interview concluded soon after. I walked out of the office only marginally humiliated, with a goofy determined grin on my face, resolved to go home and immediately tighten up my book and rethink my approach to the work.

A good creative director can do that to you… show you exactly how terrible your work is, shove your nose in it and force you to look your fears, shortcuts and weak rationale in the eye, then make you want to improve yourself relentlessly for the next decade of your life.

Naturally, I didn’t get the job at his firm, but that one nugget of wisdom has stuck with me my entire career, pointing me away from potential disasters in design execution, so yeah, maybe it is even more valuable. To this day, when talking to junior designers about how to refine their craft or when their work is missing a heavy dose of authenticity, I go back and steal his advice and use it for my own nefarious purposes. Every time.

Thanks, Rolando.

Credit: I’m not sure if Murillo Design is still active or if they merged with another firm at some point, but for many many years they were widely regarded as the best branding and identity firm in SA. You’ve seen Rolando’s work in Logo Lounge (multiple volumes). I haven’t kept in touch, but I know he is still out there doing great work in South Texas, teaching and nurturing the next generation of visual communication designers on how to suck less and be more awesome. Salud.