Agency Confidential

Steve St. Pierre
Mar 1, 2015 · 6 min read

Let me begin by stating that I really phoned in that title, and I apologize. But how else could I draw a direct comparison between Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all book of his (mis)adventures in the culinary underbelly and what we do as graphic designers?

After combing through all 362 pages of Kitchen Confidential, I realized it was the best book on graphic design that I’ve ever read. Through every page, I realized that even though he was speaking to the rough and tumble kitchen crowd, he could also be speaking to the tight-jean-war-time-era-haircuts of the graphic design world.

It was the ‘So you want to be a chef?’ chapter that really slapped my skull. He offered up a list of do’s and don’ts as a commencement address, and I couldn’t help but draw the lines between the lessons he’s learned over the years, and the one’s I’m slowly figuring out on our side of the pitch.

So, you want to be a graphic designer? Let’s take Bourdain’s tips and turn them toward design.


Be fully committed. Don’t be a fence-sitter, says Bourdain. In order to fully succeed in this career, you’ve got to tug those floaties onto your measley biceps and wade right out to the deep end (just a heads up, those floaties’ll deflate right quick). But dig in and do so with a depth you’ve never dug before. Buy the books and read ‘em when you can. Watch the lectures. Understand that the good comes with the bad. The web banners and the logos are equally as important. You will make no money. You will make decent money. You will make better-than decent money — but only if you’ve handcuffed yourself to the cause.

Learn Spanish. Well, I don’t know how important this one is. Bourdain’s obviously referring to the diversity that exists within the kitchen. But to give this a spin that makes sense for this little thinkpiece, let’s roll with it. Learn the language of design. Pantones and bleeds and crop marks and ligatures and copy and DPI and PPI and ROI. Learn account speak. Learn production speak. And obviously, learn design speak. You need to be able to articulate yourself, both to your internal team and externally to clients. Can’t talk game? You stay on the bench.

Don’t steal. This is a given. From your peers or employers. From your peers, you can treat them as sources of inspiration. I spend a good chunk of time on Brand New, BP&O, Designspiration. I soak it in via osmosis and just let it settle, and those influences’ll slowly work their way out through my mouse finger. But don’t steal, you asshole. This community is tiny. We’re all working our asses off. And lord knows yours will be handed to you by the social media army if you decide to nip another’s piece. I speak from experience (from the good side, obviously).

And what I mean by don’t steal from your employers relates back to the first point. Be fully committed. I know YouTube is awesome. And sure, it’s great to see what your pals are up to on Facebook while you’re toiling through version 27 of a PowerPoint template. But don’t steal time. You are at work. Bill. Bill until you can’t bill no more. And then, you know what? You should probably keep billing after that. Put the hours in, be valuable. Don’t steal.

Always be on time. Bourdain says this is a given, and I’ll agree. To note: being on time means being early. You have deadlines. Meet them, and do so early if at all possible. I know, everything is always due yesterday, but prioritize, divide and conquer. You’ll come off looking great, the agency’ll come off looking great, the client will come off looking great to her/his boss, and that shit goes a long way.

Never make excuses or blame others. This is your job. You fuck up, put your hand up, accept responsibility, and make sure you learn.

Never call in sick. This is where some of the men/boy separation happens. Bury Granny on your day off, he says. Now, I’ve got a heart buried somewhere in the depths of my thin frame (probably under a pizza slice), so don’t get me wrong. Shit happens. And we could all use a little more balance — I’ve been known for working through exhaustion which leads to overwhelming burn-out. But the beauty of our industry is the ability work from anywhere. You have a laptop? Send emails in between sips of NeoCitran while you’re cold-sweating through the quilt your aunt made for you. Again — be on time. The deadlines won’t shift because you’ve got the sniffles.

Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad. Work hard, have clean files, and be efficient. Don’t make the developers sift through 100 layers to find an unnamed smart object. You will be labelled as a piece of shit and will feel the wrath that only developers can truly dish out. It’s not pretty. And neither are they (sorry guys, love you).

Be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice. The design world is filled with incest, favourtism, and dumb luck. Be prepared to slalom your way through the shit to get to the finish line. People will always make more money than you, get better opportunities, and get the last bit of chicken pad thai on free lunch day. Smile, take it on the chin (hopefully not literally) and keep doing your job. Good things will come to those who work their ass off.

Assume the worst. About everybody. I’ll direct this one moreso to the client side. I’ve had clients Jekyl and Hyde me to my face. I’ve had drop-the-mic moments that quickly turned into ‘Pick that thing up and don’t be a dick’ moments. Clients are tough. Go into every meeting like it’s first round and be prepared to go the full 12.

Try not to lie. This industry is small, no matter what city you exist in. Word gets around real quick. Years ago I adopted the phrase ‘work honest’ as a bit of a motivational poster mantra for myself, and I still white knuckle it to this day. If shit goes sideways, remember that there are worse things in the world, own up to any mistakes, move on, and learn.

Avoid restaurants where the owner’s name is above the door. I will keep my opinion mostly to myself on this one as I’m currently happily employed at an agency that takes it’s owners name (really happily, elated even — oh god, don’t fire me). But I will say be wary of agencies where the owner is also the creative director. They tend to swing their dick around like it’s an olympic sport, and nobody should have to deal with that.

Think about that resumé. I can speak from personal experience on this one. How will it look if you only exist at an agency for eight months? For four months? What happened in between August and December back in 2007? Now, I’ve lilly-padded my way through some agencies and thankfully landed where I’m at now, but I will say that my dues are pretty well paid at this point (don’t worry, I will continue to chuck money into the pot). You really should dig in to wherever it is you land and try and stick it out for a couple years. Then sure, move on to other opportunities. You will learn what you like and don’t like in a workplace, and more importantly, you’ll learn about what type of work you really want to be doing.

Read! This is what got me into this mess of an article in first place. Here are a couple of my favourite design books (they are now dog-eared to death and reek of desperation and Diet Pepsi):

Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design / Michael Bierut
Symbol /Angus Hyland
How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul / Adrian Shaughnessy
How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer / Debbie Millman

Read the trade magazines like How and Offscreen and the Great Discontent. Stay on top of trends. Check out the blogs, the articles, the tweets and hell, try and be a part of your local design community and discuss the blogs, the articles and the asinine 140 characters.

But more importantly than all of that is to reach beyond the design industry. Fall in love with art as a whole. Architecture and furniture design and fashion. Read the classics and devour the New York Times Magazine. Sift for gold outside of our industry. That’s where the good shit exists.


Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential after toiling away in a hot mess of kitchens for 25 years. I’ve barely hit a decade in a world that can barely compare (they slice off a finger and keep working — I recently tweeted about a paper cut). But that said, better to learn now than later. Thanks for the lessons, Tony.

My only question: when does my cocaine addiction start?

    Steve St. Pierre

    Written by

    Brand Strategist @ Stiff.