is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
There’s a good interview with Erik Spiekermann over at the design blog Ideas on Ideas. Spiekermann, the famous designer, typographer, co-founder of Meta Design and now principal of Spiekermann Partners always has something interesting — often divisive, frequently inspiring — to say about our profession.
There’s one quote from the interview that caught my attention: “I have a bad history of neglecting my private life. One of the main reasons my first wife divorced me was the fact that business always took precedence over anything else. I have often had to leave her and my son in the middle of a vacation and go to see a client.”
Personal v. Professional
After I read that I thought to myself, that’s horrible! And then I wondered, is that what it takes to become as internationally renowned as Erik Spiekermann? Does it really require an almost maniacal and certainly self-destructive impulse that prioritizes commerce over intimacy at all times?
I don’t write about my personal life a heck of a lot here at Subtraction.com, nor do I talk about it when discussing design in general. But I do contend that it is important to maintain a satisfying, diverse personal life alongside a satisfying, challenging professional life. For me, anyway, these two elements are dependent upon one another; I couldn’t do my day job without regularly spending time close to the ones I care about. I’d break down and cease to function creatively if I didn’t have some kind of release for all the frustration that also accompanies the rewards of professional work.
Admittedly, I take on a fair amount of extra-curricular work, whether it’s this blog, events for AIGA New York, or miscellaneous other design projects I cook up from time to time. My policy on that, if you’re interested, is to commit only to work that can be easily set aside for personal matters given a reasonable amount of notice, and to take on only as much work as will still allow me to waste an afternoon on something completely unproductive, if I so desire — all without guilt. As a rule, I also don’t take on freelance work. The last thing I want when I get home from the office is to have another boss pulling my financial strings.
In no way am I suggesting that I’ve achieved the ideal balance between the personal and professional. I’ll admit, things skew a bit towards the professional in my life right now. If anything, though, I’m aiming to tip the scales towards the personal, especially going forward. I’m better at achieving this balance today than I was ten years ago, and I certainly hope to be better at it in ten years than I am now. I don’t want to find myself, in a decade, running out of a family vacation to make a business meeting. Even more to the point, I don’t want to find myself still working at the office at 6:30p when my children are growing up without me.
Secrets to Success
Still, what are the costs of this approach? Spiekermann’s quote comes tinged with regret, but there’s no denying that he’s scaled to the very top of his profession as a result of that otherwise ill-advised habit of personal sacrifice. Over the past few decades, it seems as if design has become increasingly more labor intensive — or time intensive, anyway. Young designers are typically working fifty hours a week or more in all corners of the globe. Is that what it takes to achieve success in this field?
Looking back, I certainly paid my dues with overtime, and there’s an argument to be made that that’s part of the reason why I’ve made whatever modest progress I have. But I wonder too if I’m effectively arresting further career advancement through my unwillingness to continuing living the ascetic design life. Does major, sustained success in this field really require an obstinate, selfish disregard for the people who matter to you most — or even a continual deferral of personal priorities? It would be depressing if that’s the case.+