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That Turtleneck is Choking You

How pretending to be a designer is killing your career. 

That Turtleneck is Choking You

How pretending to be a designer is killing your career. 


Let’s get something out of the way, this article isn’t about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was a mastermind, visionary, or, in the words of Cards Against Humanity, a “Mother Fucking Sorcerer.” No one would dare call Jobs a fake. This article is about YOU and the ways you’re killing your career by pretending to be a designer.

If you want a short version, and are trying to avoid the harsh undoing of your professional soul, then here it is:

  1. Turtlenecks. A Jobsian metaphor for faking a career as a designer. In other words: You talk the talk, dress the part, and spend a lot of time copying other people.
  2. You don’t produce enough design work. The time you spend reading blogs (like this one), trolling twitter, and discovering the latest flat-ui-kit is time you should have spent designing.

Over the last two months I’ve reviewed over 200 portfolios from job applicants at Radius, and it’s been a depressing process. Much of the work I’ve seen is hopeless. There are occasional glimmers of hope in the form of decent work, but that work is overshadowed by homogeny. I look at one portfolio and then another, seemingly identical, and wonder, “Which one isn’t an asshole?” or “Who is going to cost less?”

These aren’t the questions a Creative Director wants to ask. Nor would I have to if you spent more time focused on your work and less time imagining what you would look like in an Apple commercial.


Wolfgang Weingart said “Electronic equipment replaces neither Eyes, Hands, nor Heart.” One might also say, “Turtlenecks replace neither Eyes, Hands, nor Heart.” You’re spending too much time figuring out how to look like a designer, make work like a designer, and talk like a designer. Instead, you should be using your own eyes, hands, and heart to make good work.

I’ve met dozens of you who think you have a personal design philosophy, but the reality is that you haven’t worked long enough to have a design philosophy. You’ve had one or two jobs as a designer, while also kicking the tires as a freelancer, and you wax on like Jony Fucking Ive about design. How is that even possible? It’s possible because you’re copying Jony Ive. Maybe it’s not a turtleneck, maybe it’s v-neck like Jony, or you have trendy glasses and a DDC cap. It doesn’t matter, you need to face the music. You’re in a cover band.

On top of all the pretending, you don’t produce enough work. Riding that fixie has tricked you into thinking you can get where you want to be in your career by faking it. As a result, you’ve stopped working, and all of your energy is spent keeping up the facade. At some point you knew what designers did, and it’s likely the reason you fell in love with design. So let me remind you what real designers do.

Designers solve problems. They create objects that people can touch, click, build on, admire, and even fall in love with. Designers fix things that are broken, build things that are new, and create systems for people to use.

Instead of working, you’re likely wasting your time surfing the internet. This affects your entire life; sleeping habits, social activity, cleaning your dirty apartment, and of course work habits — 0.27 minutes of work for each minute spent surfing the internet to be exact. That’s a lot of wasted time.

“Wait a minute…” you say, “I’m learning about design, not just playing Facebook games. Hell man, I’m reading YOUR blog post on the trendiest time waster around!” Oh the irony. Just remember, every minute you spend watching conference videos, reading design pattern handbooks, and checking Sidebar is time you’ve NOT been designing.

The Italian Art Historian Giulio Carlo Argan said “Anyone who doesn’t design, accepts to be designed.” At the end of the day if you can’t point to something you’ve made, you’re not designing, you’re being designed. In fact, you should be making stacks and volumes of work (especially if you’re young). Instead you “follow” design trends, but all the dribbling, pinning, and tweeting makes you at best, a person with good taste.


If emulating some aspect of design isn’t going to make you a better designer, what will? That’s another raging post in the making, but in the mean time here are a few simple ideas for how to be a better designer.

  1. The next time you start a project, turn off your wifi immediately, and work for 4 hours straight. I bet you go crazy in less than 20 minutes.
  2. Block out your internet surfing time on a calendar like you would a meeting. Put that “research” time in whatever trendy calendar app that you spent hours trying to find and stick to it.
  3. Read more design history*. It’s amazing how many of you think design history started with Frank Chimero, and have never heard of Eliot Noyes, The Shakers, or Louise Fili. No offense Frank; keep up the strong work.
  4. Draw and sketch more. If there is a sketched logo in your folio, but you don’t have the other 30 sketches for the ideas you claim to have had, I assume you traced the mark after you made it on the computer.
  5. Stop trying to find the perfect design process. There isn’t one. Every project is different; therefore every project requires a different approach, which means you need a different set of questions, tools, and people to solve the problem.

*Edit: A few people have asked for book recommendations in the notes and on twitter. Here are a few:

Broad History:

  1. Graphic Design: A New History
  2. Graphic Design Time Line: A Century of Design Milestones
  3. Graphic Design A Concise History

Some Favorites:

  1. The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate DesignHistory of the Poster
  2. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
  3. Design Writing Research
  4. The Story of Graphic Design: From the Invention of Writing to the Birth of Digital Design
  5. The Bauhaus Ideal: Then and Now
  6. No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism
  7. Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century
  8. Emigre “issues” 64-69