Designers from my generation and before didn’t come directly to design. We started somewhere else (music, drawing, architecture) and tripped over the field in pursuit of something else. This story is common enough, but if a new designer is investigating how older designers wind up where they are, the trail goes cold after the initial trip-up. If you achieve success, these years are eclipsed and forgotten. Still, a young one must wonder what other happenstance discoveries come further along.
Our industry (culture?) does a terrible job of describing those middle parts. I see two reasons. First, during that time, you still make the mistakes of inexperience, but lose the excuse of youth, so best to conceal those years. Second, you spend the rest of your career testing and building upon the insights of your late-early career. These insights are the second trip-up.
A young designer is beaten over the head with typefaces, grids, and rules—and rightfully so—but typography can act as a smoke screen. There is so much to learn about the letters that it’s easy to forget about the words. Once a designer has the typographic skills in their pocket, anyone with their head on straight realizes ugly words in beautiful typefaces are still pretty dumb. I tripped over this observation while struggling to make good designs and clear illustrations for idiotic articles and muddled ideas. I then fell into something I’m still attempting to understand: words are the most explicit example of clear thinking. This is the second most important realization I’ve had in my career, surpassed only by the time I was told design was a professional field.
I was a late-bloomer—I didn’t read or write much until I was 24. An inquisitiveness about the work led me here. Thanks to design, I have Montaigne and Márquez, Lydia Davis, Joan Didion, and E.B. White. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say that design can lead you to words, so I’m putting the fact here to register it as a possibility for others.
The common story says a career narrows as it continues. It simply isn’t so. A delta can spring up anywhere.