Dior and I: Observations

The film shows Raf Simons joining Christian Dior as creative director and building up to his first women's couture show. He'd come from men's ready-to-wear at Jill Sander.

Like many I have my BS detector on when it comes to fashion. Zoolander and Brüno hilight the hubris and hype we so often sense. We read about rich fashion mavens' factories burning down, killing workers who'd been there in slave-like conditions. Fashion's reality can be far from the beauty they claim to honor. Dior fired their flambouyant creative director Galliano for making drunken anti-semetic slurs.

Raf wears reserved clothes. Shows restraint. I found him almost shockingly humble and quiet—much like many of the best designers I've had the pleasure of working with. Raf doesn't sketch but assembles immpeccably researched mood boards. His team sketches and Raf has insightful, decisive comments. Raf learned Dior's history inside out, pouring over the founder's collections, sketches and swatches. (That's primary ethnographic research folks!) He visits art museums, reads critical texts on contemporary art and has built great taste. The guy has genuine chops.

Raf found this painting by Sterling Ruby interesting. Back in the office he looked at all of Ruby's work and read several reviews. Later we see Raf's team using large-format prints on paper, holding them up against models to give him an impression of how they might sit. As a finished dress is revealed Raf keeps saying (without irony) "Sublime." 

Raf found this painting by Sterling Ruby interesting. Back in the office he looked at all of Ruby's work and read several reviews. Later we see Raf's team using large-format prints on paper, holding them up against models to give him an impression of how they might sit. As a finished dress is revealed Raf keeps saying (without irony) "Sublime." 

What I was most attracted to was the seemingly mundane details of how Raf manages his creative process. Physical mood boards are built. Physical sketches passed around and discussed.

  It's a beautiful drawing. Notice also that it's on their letterhead and stamped with what may be some kind of tracking information. I see what appears to be someone's sign off as well, much like a printer's proof. 

 

It's a beautiful drawing. Notice also that it's on their letterhead and stamped with what may be some kind of tracking information. I see what appears to be someone's sign off as well, much like a printer's proof. 

Though these approaches can be copied, Raf's amazing outcomes are there because of many other factors. His skilled atelier, proven track record, intellectual rigor, support network and so on. These things inform his intuition. The culture of the organization is perhaps the hardest thing of all to replicate. Many places inhibit their own success. (Witness the Uber redesign. The CEO hired great designers, then proceeds to micromanage them, designing everything himself. When lawyers say "the person who represents themself in court has a fool for a client," they're correct. The same is true in design.)

Does the X mean it's good or rejected? I'm not a fan of this yellow tie dye by the way. The other dress is starting to go somewhere though. 

Does the X mean it's good or rejected? I'm not a fan of this yellow tie dye by the way. The other dress is starting to go somewhere though. 

(Warning: Raf's results are not going to be replicated by unqualified people superficially copying the easiest method they see. Some clients for example might type a word into google image search, print out whatever comes up, stick it on a board and assume that represents some kind of creative process. It doesn't. There is no informed intuition in that.)

It's a pleasure to find affirmation for this kind of creative process from someone at the top of their game in another field. I've enjoyed using moodboards to help guide clients. Conversation and contemplation are key parts of any healthy relationship. It's affirming to know that Raf and I align on that.

Questions from a Student

From time to time I get questions from art and design students for their assignments. Benya Wutthipongchaikij—a Communication Design student at KMUTT in Bangkok, Thailand asks:

When did you make up your mind to work as an illustrator?

I always liked making artwork.

Most of my life I didn’t know what illustration was as a career. What made artwork interesting or boring? I couldn't have explained it. Even though I'd feel it. I loved books, comics, movies, cartoons. "Maybe I could have some part in helping make those." I thought. We went to a Disney animation studio, I'd read James Cameron screenplays.

So I my plan was to do classical animation followed by computer animation at Sheridan College. They've had many Oscar winning artists graduates. While I was in the foundation year at Sheridan, I saw the work the students in Illustration were doing. I began to prefer it over animation so took illustration instead. The thing that made it more appealing was that people were free to develop their own personal vision.

What happened then?

I worked hard for 4 years at Sheridan and another year doing a Master's Degree later. Understanding the craft within it’s larger business context took awhile after graduating. It's a way of helping people bring their stories to life. Even though that seems kind of mystical somehow, it’s actually empowering for people. People who make good quality things are rarely able to tell their story well in pictures.

There’s a misconception that great products and companies don’t have to sell. The idea is that great stuff sells on it's own. Sure it helps, but it's not entirely true. People can think "if you have to try to sell something, you’re dishonest." But that's not true. How will anyone really know about what you do if they don't hear about it from somewhere? It’s the responsibility of a good company to make sure everything they do is great.

Part of that means telling the truth. Artwork can be a tool to help. I see a lot of artists are confused about this kind of thing and so end up focusing on personal work. (Video game concepts or whatever they understand.) But corporations are just legal structures made of people. The best ones want to have honest connections with others.

Please summarize your design concept. What has contributed to your current style?

In school, I was encouraged to experiment and explore. We had great teachers who pushed us too. We learned what the difference is between an interesting, strong concept and the mundane. Striving for quality, detail, simplicity and beauty are my main ingredients. I believe they get attention and boost effectiveness.

Where do you usually find the inspirations for your works? In other words, what do you usually do in the stage of design?

Usually within the content itself, the client’s story, their audience’s aspirations or my own imagination. Of course I keep an eye on trends, but their influence is small. Sketching by hand on paper I find to be the best way to unearth ideas. It’s like there is a cool dinosaur skeleton buried and I just have to mine it out.

Describe the relationship between artistic value and commercial value of illustration?

That's a great question. It probably depends on context. Let’s say someone only wants to draw a specific kind of dog, but in a horrifying way. It’s difficult to find a market for that. (Horror movies? Heavy metal bands?) Let’s say someone else draws happy dogs beautifully. They could approach the dog food brands and their ad agencies and find work. They might have a solid commercial career doing only that. They’d probably be considered as a technician more than an artist, but that’s ok.

Some artists have interesting stories and characters inside them—they are real authors. It would be a tragedy if that kind of artist became a technician. Imagine if JK Rowling only wrote dog food packaging copy. Or if Quentin Blake only drew airbrushed fruit for juice ads. The world would be a poorer place. Rowling faced tons of rejection for Potter but persisted and did get a publisher. She has a deep understanding of myth too—so she had a solid foundation. It wasn’t just a narcissistic self assessment of her talents.

The commercial value of artwork is not always self evident. Designers often need to see something directly relevant to their needs. Some have a harder time imagining what could be. They look at portfolios like they’re a kind of style catalogue. Designers also for their own work often “mock it up” or show the work in as real a context as they can. A physical brochure is more impressive and “real” than a screen grab from a pdf.

There’s a book by Margaret Atwood on this topic called “Negotiating with the Dead.” it’s a series of lectures she gave on this topic at Cambridge. Though it’s literature, the principles are the same. Chekov, a brilliant playwright was motivated to work primarily to feed his family. Yet that humble motivation does not make his art less important. Atwood does a great job of killing a lot of the self imposed worry and stigma artists can place on themselves.

Have you found any conflict between drawing for your own fun and doing a commissioning work? How do you think the commercial operation has promoted this artistic creation?

They both have different purposes. I’m free do do my own thing whenever I want. But I prefer helping people solve a real problem. Sometimes I’ve used my private work as a kind of therapy. I made images for myself. I knew they were meaningful, even though it took a long time to understand what they meant. They helped me process a kind of chaos I’d encountered in my life.

The commercial challenges keep me sharp. At one point I bid on about 6 projects in a row and lost every one. I had to carefully reassess what perceptions I was creating for clients to not value my work. I adjusted some things. Exploring marketing in even greater depth. If everything feels easy always, you don’t grow.

Yet I also came to realize that I was expecting too high a closing ratio for myself. Even the firms I look up to might only "win" or take on one of ten incoming projects. So if I'd gotten one out of seven, that was not bad actually.

Nowadays, how can an illustrator be successful both in the artistic sense and the commercial sense? Do you have any experiences to share?

Just do the best you can. Work hard. Tell the truth. Know when to quit, be open to other stuff. Maybe I’ll go to silicon valley and end up working with VC backed startups for a season in my life.

The question could be asked also about work/life balance, family and so on. Be balanced. Be healthy in your attitudes and spirit. Rest. Recharge. Take time to “sharpen the saw,” so it doesn’t get dull.

As an illustrator, how do you interpret the role you are playing?

Helping guide someone over a creative chasm.

What’s your icon in the artistic arena? What is the ultimate artist ideal to you?

Courage, integrity, love, expertise, imagination.

Jesus. Ai Wei Wei. Marina Abramovic. Olafur Arnalds. Olafur Eliasson. Janet Cardiff. Frank Gehry. Pete Doctor. Winston Churchill. Alexander the Great. Lee Clow. Sarah Thornton. Dan Wieden. Wolf Olins. Madethought. Spin. Underline Studio. Gllbert Li. Howard Schultz. Elon Musk. Warren Buffett.

In what way do you think the illustration industry has changed? What do you think of the future trends in this industry?

Editorial continues to contract since it’s peak in the 1920’s. Social media works best when tied into old school physical meetups. People do more and last longer when they’re part of a healthy team than when they’re isolated. There is a huge amount of mystery in the universe which we have yet to begin learning about.

How to get the most value from us.

To help set you up for a fast response from us and the best possible outcome and process I thought I'd share some of how we look at incoming project requests. We're often quite busy so we hope you find this valuable to better understand how we select the projects to take on. If it's deeply meaningful for us and interesting things are being traded as part of the deal, those are factored in. Here's how we generally work.

We can only accept a few new clients per year. Not always do we accept projects from the highest bidder, we’ve turned down $10k projects as well as pro-bono work for non-profits. The kind of relationship we’re looking for is one where we’re treated as a partner rather than vendor. This means we care about you investing well and yielding strong returns. If it looks like you’re taking a dangerous risk, we’ll tell you. If it looks like your idea is a waste of money, we can suggest alternate approaches, or turn the project down.

This also means though that if you’re asking us to create assets for you that are intended to fuel tens of millions of dollars in sales—we’d be looking for a reasonable share of that. So like if you have revenues of billions of dollars and we're it increasing by 1 point, 1% growth on 2 Billion is $20 million. Please don't say that $1,000 is all you can afford. For 10% of that upside, many options become available to lower your risks and increase your growth potential long term. Even if you're smaller, these principles still apply.

Some days we get several requests for new projects. The ones we tend to prioritize tend to give us complete information about the project; usage, timing, business case, budget for exploration and so on. Usually there’s a very good designer attached to the project. Everyone we know of who is doing world-class work, we either have on our contact list already, or are one or two connections removed from. So it helps us make room for you in our schedule if you're as open as you can be. We're fine signing an NDA too.

But what if commissioning artwork is something new for you or you don’t have a designer? That’s ok. We can still work together in some cases. We would best start with a paid road-mapping session to learn about your business, how it works. I’d complete some work sessions with you to build, audit and strengthen your strategic foundation as required. For us it’s important to understand the underlying emotional, social and functional forces driving your project and audience. By taking those steps we help drastically reduce your risk while improving assurance your marketing tools are truly focused and effective. We hate wasting money on bad marketing too.

We do care about your net return on assets invested (RONA). Beauty and intelligence in everything you do is good storytelling. Quality products should be framed in a quality presentation. A great product presented in a slipshod manner is unlikely to be noticed. The hidden cost of cheap is often friction you don't realize hinders your success. So it helps to work together, having eyes on the problem paying attention to the right things and sharpening each other onwards.

Personas vs. Jobs To Be Done

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's Jobs To Be Done theory discards user personas. It instead focuses on the underlying social, emotional and functional needs resolvey by the product. A criticism against the theory is that there may be times when personas are helpful. 

I was drowning in user personas. As an illustrator, I've worked for a range of clients. SMBs, Academics, Fortune 500s, Non-profits, indie musicians, Design leaders. If I were to build marketing tools to reach each segment using personas, how would that work? It's not like I'm selling Huggies diapers to an easily generalized group. So this helpful tool, became a hindrance, a source of confusion—even paralysis. For me, there are too many meaningfully different categories.

Ok, so Jobs To Be Done is more about the human needs that are commonly shared. By focusing on that, I began to notice patterns more clearly. "My customers want to be inspired and to inspire," gives a meaty basis to structure what I can build. Marketing as a team of one depends on intuition and luck. But it makes me my own bottleneck. The need to scout, assemble, hire and direct teams becomes a market of increased sophistication. Teams need clear communication to succeed. 

The resources and time just aren't there to do full ethnographic digs into every world customers inhabit. Even if I could and uncovered great insights, I wouldn't have the capability to make 3+ versions of everything. It would feel Schizophrenic. So, I did informal research just asking people dumb questions—themes emerge. No need for personas. 

The amazing thing I find about JTBD is that it's abstract like philosophy. But putting broad parameters around how you understand your role, your perspective changes. Marketing can also be an improvement of the product. It can extend into research and development. Not just presentation. This is so much more freeing for me than the legalism of slicing people into false mono-cultures. Does every cat lady enjoy blue cheese in the moonlight? 

Designers are Gnomes

Someone is wandering in a sunny forest and some insignificant gnome comes along. He asks for some token of  humane treatment. The hero has to be paying attention to recognize the gnome and kindly respond. When the hero does, it doesn't take a lot to make gnomes happy. 

Some people don't care about the gnomes. We can assume that gnomes possess nothing of value. No beauty to draw us to them. The gnome likely doesn't have any special knowledge or abilities. The gnome is other. The gnome is small. And probably useless. These are the assumptions many of us make every day about real people. 

You see where this is going right? In another version of the story, the gnome is a mouse. A lion catches the mouse. The mouse begs for its life. The lion allows it to go free. The mouse says, "one day, I'll do something for you in return." The lion laughs, "What could you do to help me? I'm the king of the jungle." Yet later the lion finds himself in a trap all wrapped up in a net. The mouse comes along and has no trouble chewing through the ropes. The strong lion is free because of the weak gnome. 

I've seen billion dollar companies ignore the gnomes to various extents. And it always costs them in ways that they are not calculating. Former Harvard psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson says that what stands in for most people's morality is fear and inertia. People can lie to themselves, believe those lies and pretty soon they're living in a fantasy world. Is it possible to be strategic within a dream? 

So for me, I love noticing gnomes in the corner. So many times going over and saying hello reveals interesting, beautiful people. Not every designer is a gnome for real though many are. And there are gnomes worth meeting everywhere. 

Let me close with a real world example of this fairy tale. It's from a real life genius of a gnome. There's a guy who owns a restaurant. When people apply for work come to be interviewed, he has them wait for the interviewer while he pretends to be a regular employee. He serves them tea. During the interview, he just watches their body language from a distance.  He notices if there's a discrepancy between how the 'boss' is treated compared to the 'bum.'

That's the basis he uses to hire or reject the applicant. If you use that in a design firm context, let me know how it goes! For account people particularly it seems like it might be useful. And if it's ever used on us, I hope you and I, dear reader, remember the gnomes.