Over the years I’ve answered a ton of questions for students who interviewed me for assignments, or who just wanted to know things. I’ve put together a little “Best Of” collection for you here. I hope you’ll find it interesting and maybe even helpful.

What advice do you have for getting into design field after college? Link to this question

My husband and I want to move to wherever the best job takes us to get our feet wet—but we also want to freelance on the side, and eventually turn that into our own design studio.

Pick a city you like. If you move just to take a job, I guarantee you that you’ll regret it, and that your work will suffer. Here’s the long and short of it, as far as finding a job is concerned: To get a junior position your portfolio has to demonstrate one of two things:

1. You can do something that nobody else at the company can do.
2. You can do what they can do, but you can do it faster or cheaper.

Is there a part of your work that’s non-negotiable to you? Do you have an artistic mission? If so, you’ll have to find a company that either wants to expand into your aesthetic territory, or they’re already there and need you to complement their existing staff. Either way, your portfolio has to offer proof that you can deliver the goods.

That’s really all there is to it. Beyond that it boils down to personal compatibility. I.e. they would like to have you around the office or not. For all those reasons, your book should always reflect your personality and your interests, so don’t get too strategic about it all. Keep those two criteria in mind and you’ll find work.

Question by Johanna Richards

Is it difficult for a young graduate to get a career in print design? Link to this question

I don’t think it’s more difficult than it would be in any other arena. If you’ve invested all your energy into being great at what you do, you’ll do fine whatever your field may be. Sounds like a platitude, I know, but it’s true. The proof is always, always in the pudding.

—Question by Simon Ford

What would make you sit back and be amazed in a graduate’s portfolio? Link to this question

For me to be amazed, I need to see something that I couldn’t do—wouldn’t even know how to do. Excellent humor is a good way to amaze me, because funny equals clear communication with a surprising insight.

Incredible craft and illustration skills also amaze and delight me.

I absolutely must see immaculate typography, and I almost never do. Typography is the big shortfall in 99.9% of the portfolios I see. Great typography will always make you stand out.

—Question by Simon Ford

What is your process as you tackle a design? Link to this question

Images always come when I need them to. It’s simply a matter of forcing myself to focus on the assignment, instead of doing anything and everything to escape from an inevitable deadline. The answers are always in the material. As soon as I start working, the ideas present themselves.

—Question by Jennifer Hufford

What makes you passionate about design? Link to this question

I get to shape a tiny piece of the world as I think it should be.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Who do you look up to the most? Link to this question

You know… it’s hard to pick one person. there are some teachers I still adore, illustrators and artists I admire, some that I look up to specifically for how they’ve handled their careers. I look up to writers and musicians that can express themselves beautifully. I think the people I look up to are the people that make me laugh, because it means that they surprise me.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What are some of the ethical concerns of graphic design? Link to this question

Don’t promote anything that you consider evil. Obviously, that will encompass different things for different people, but before you can wear a white hat in public you’ve got to put it on at home. I’m an agnostic—an optimistic atheist. A few years ago, I was offered a very healthy chunk of money to design a CD package for a Christian rock band. I told the label that I was booked. It wasn’t a situation where I wanted to take a stand against Christian rock or Christians or anything. Not at all. I just felt that it would’ve been hypocritical of me to make money dealing in religious iconography that I don’t believe in.

Years and years ago, I was asked to illustrate characters for a board game called “Keep O.J. out of jail.” It was supposed to be a novelty game to cash in on his trial, which was just getting started at the time. I was a student and so excited about getting any kind of job that I did a bunch of sketches. It occurred to me that I was trying to make money off of the murder of two people. Luckily, the whole thing fell through. Looking back, I hope that I would’ve made the right decision to withdraw from the project, but I’m not at all sure of that. “If I don’t do it, somebody else will” is a powerful rationalization.

Just don’t be a hypocrite. Draw your own moral boundaries and stick to them. Don’t put your skills in the service of people that increase misery or suffering in the world.

Question by Heather McCoy

Who are your typical clients? Link to this question

As you can see from looking through the site, my typical clients are a strange bunch: Art galleries, film directors, magazines, record companies, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Blue Man Group. Looking at the list, I guess the unifying element is that all my clients come from the cultural and creative end of the spectrum.

Every once in a while, I do some work for giant accounts through their ad agencies—Apple, Toyota, Honda, Motorola. But those aren’t really my clients. The agencies hire me, and I’m more of an advisor or a ghostwriter in those cases.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Do you live a busy life or do you get a good amount of down time? Link to this question

Down what? Occasionally, there are slow periods where I get to relax a bit. I think the last one was in 2003. I hope I’ll get another one soon.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Do you have a title (acquired or self-given) in your position at 344? Link to this question

Nah. I’m just me. If I have to give a title, it’s designer / illustrator / writer. That covers a lot of what I do, but I hate dumb titles. I’m not the Chief Fun Officer or the Director of Awesome. Or a communication strategist or an experience engineer for that matter. I hate that shit. Don’t worry about the title, worry about the work you do. (Sorry. It’s a pet peeve that survives from the late 90s when everybody went crazy with the goofy titles.)

Question by Mindi Haas

Have you made any mistakes that had huge impacts on your life? Link to this question

When I took my first job at the ad agency, I was guided by fear that I wouldn’t find any other work, and by the glow in all my friends’ eyes. They were so excited that I got the chance to work at a place they all wanted to work for. So instead of taking a few days to listen to my gut and work up the courage to say “No, this isn’t right for me.” I took the easy way and said “OK. Sure. I guess that’ll work out.”

Mind you, I met some great friends at the agency that would later have a great positive impact on my career, but it also brought me to the verge of despair a number of times.

In the long run, it all worked out for the best, but in retrospect, I think I might have been better off if I hadn’t taken that job. It really took a lot out of me and it took me years to recover. In some ways, I’m still dealing with the experience. But I learned my lesson.

There are also girls I wish I had kissed. I remember those missed moments much more than any job I didn’t take, or a printing error that screwed up my week, or some money that I didn’t make. One of my favorite sayings is, “Failure is never as frightening as regret.”

I wish I’d been more courageous growing up. And not in a stupid stunt way. Courage is trying your hand at something that you’re scared of—where there’s a real possibility of failure. It’s going where you want to go vs. where you think it’s safe to go. In that sense, I wish that I was a little more courageous now. I’m working on that, but it’s hard.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What part of design is your absolute favorite? Link to this question

As far as design is concerned, finishing a piece and seeing it in print is still my absolute favorite part. All the decisions are made, all the production problems are resolved, and I have another little object that looks like it’s supposed to look.

When it comes to illustration, I love drawing creatures and having them look back at me. When the eyes are right, the little things get their soul and come to life on the page.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Where did the bubble map idea in your STEP column come from? Link to this question

A friend of a friend invited me to silk screen posters at Cal Arts and I had to design something printable overnight. That’s how the cow poster came to pass. I always thought that cows have a rich inner life that we just don’t see, because cows have us fooled. I thought, well, their thoughts probably look just like mine. So the bubble map came out very naturally in a few minutes.

A 344 fan later e-mailed me and said that she had printed out a copy of the cow poster, laminated it, and had her kids use it to figure out their homework on it with dry erase markers. What a brilliant idea, right? So that led directly to all the later bubble maps.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What was your favorite part of writing your books? Link to this question

My favorite part is picking up a book a few years after it came out and thinking, “Huh. That’s actually not so bad after all.” Making them is a really painful process for me. I hate writing, and I always feel that I either overdesign the stuff, or leave it half-baked because I’m not strong or fast enough as a designer to make it better in the time I have.

But the books do get done, and they give some permanence to the ideas I had on that particular subject at the time. And then I can move on. Which is much better than filing away at the stuff for years and years to reach a state of perfection. I’ve tried that, too, and it’s counterproductive. The work ends up too smooth.

—Question by Mindi Haas

Where did you grow up? Link to this question

I grew up in a small town outside of Hannover in northern Germany.

Question by Amanda Sprague

What colleges did you attend? Link to this question

I attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA from January 1993 until December 1996. I graduated with distinction, holding a BFA in advertising.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What subjects did you study and which one did you most enjoy? Link to this question

I studied advertising, as you may know by now. I also took a lot of typography classes, which I loved, and lots of drawing classes, which I loved, too. If I had to pick one favorite class, though, it was probably “Intro to Desktop Design” in 2nd term.

I learned Photoshop 2.5.1, Illustrator 3 and Quark Xpress all in a three month period. I had never had a computer before, and it was a revelation! Photoshop alone was a dream come true! Finally! Perfectly flat colors and even gradations (which I had never been able to do with a pen). The airbrush tool! The clone stamp!!! Finally a machine that did all the things I always tried to do by hand, but could never pull off! Plus, I was 21 and my teacher was 24 and I had a huge crush on her. What more can you ask from a single class?

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Where do you get your inspiration? Link to this question

I absorb. I read, I watch a lot of TV, I listen to NPR, I listen to a ton of music, and for better or for worse, I have to listen to myself think all day. When it comes time to do something, the trick is to get past my (substantial) fear of the white page and sit myself down. As soon as I start making something, inspiration flows through my hands as much as it comes from my head. Sometimes it’s helpful to trust the motion of the pen.

I recently read a little bit about the process of writing a book. The writer said that you have to shape clay into a rough lump first before you refine it into a sculpture. The first draft creates the lumpy clay. Then you work on it until it’s beautiful. You have to recognize that it’s a process and that it’s perfectly OK (if not downright desirable) for the first draft to look lumpy and grotesque.

I understand what he’s saying, but it’s still hard for me to start a piece and have it enter an ugly phase along the way. It scares me. I’m not good at surrendering control. But that’s what made the monsters so much fun to do: It was all about choosing to surrender control, in this case to the random ink blots. Surrendering control is much, much different than losing it, but you have to learn to get past the fear.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What advice would you give to an employee that you just hired? Link to this question

As a designer, as a human being, no matter what age you are, you have to do two things:


That’s all there is to it.

I know this answer is shorter than the others, but if you remember anything I talked about, this is the one to tattoo onto yourself where you can easily see it. If you follow these two directions, you’ll never be hungry or alone.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

If you could work with anyone in this world who would it be and why? Link to this question

Right now, today, hm… There are a lot of people that I’d like to work with on a project. Jon Stewart, Aaron Sorkin, Ira Glass, Chris Ware, Bert Ruttan, the guys at CERN, Al Gore, Martin Scorsese, Ralph Steadman, Randy Newman, Joe Jackson, Paul McCartney, Steve Martin, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Terry Gilliam, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ricky Gervais, Michael Chabon, Brad Bird, John Lasseter, Richard Serra, David Bowie…

I did work with David Hockney and that was pretty damn cool. (Well, I did a catalog for him, and I got to spend two and a half hours talking with him. He gave me a lecture on optics in art history. That was a seriously great day!)

If I had to narrow it down to one and one only, I’d like to work with Richard Branson. Music! Airlines! Space travel! But I really can’t narrow it down. There are so many interesting people doing fascinating things!

—Question by Amanda Sprague

What are your strong likes and dislikes about design? Link to this question

I like everything about design, but I dislike that it’s put me into a state where I want to tweak and retouch everything I look at.

Graphic design is a brilliant home base for a life in the arts. You’re be surrounded by a community of genuinely nice and supportive people. You get to make things look pretty for a living, which is fun. And the boundaries of the field are morphing daily, so you can make your life into whatever you want it to be. You can’t say that about most jobs.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Have you always put 100% effort into your work even though you may have totally hated the project? How did you push yourself to do it? Link to this question

I always put 100% effort into the projects I work on, because my off-switch is broken. I don’t know how to just let things go. Something in my brain is pushing non-stop.

It helps that I’m at a point right now where the projects that find me are genuinely cool, loveable projects. I’m getting better at sniffing out projects and clients that don’t work for me. By keeping my lifestyle humble, I have the luxury of telling them “No, thank you.”

In the few situations in the past when I’ve totally hated a project, I still put in all of my effort. In fact, I may have worked harder, because they always started out sounding cool and I thought it was somehow my fault that things weren’t working out.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

Is it really important, especially for a young designer, to be unique? Link to this question

It’s absolutely not necessary for you to be unique to be successful. If you can be my 100% Reliable Swiss Modernism Peter Saville Clone Plug-In, you’ll be very useful to me.

There are two ways designers get hired: You can either do what everybody can do, but cheaper (faster), or you can do something nobody else can do. The former makes you a replaceable element, the latter gives you job security.

—Question by Simon Ford

In contemporary print, is design taking priority over the concept? Link to this question

Well, sometimes design is the concept. I’ll take a fantastic execution over a half-baked concept with shoddy type any day. I never quite know what people mean when they talk about “concept.” I fear that it often refers to some lame joke that is barely funny to the person making it. To me a concept is the thing that fills the client’s need. First I build a boat that doesn’t sink. Then I carve some oars and make a sail. Only then do I worry about adding a sexy figurehead.

My only imperative is this: DON’T BORE ME!

I don’t care if you keep me interested with the beauty of your execution, or with your brilliant and coherent thought process or with your meticulous attention to language and storytelling, or with photos of naked girls. I just don’t want to be bored.

—Question by Simon Ford

Within print design, what excites you most? Link to this question

Seeing my design come off the press. That’s the Big High. Ink on paper! Especially when it’s a case-bound book, because it feels so wonderfully REAL and important.

—Question by Simon Ford

How do you feel about the use of grids in design? Are they a helpful tool to make the design process easier, or are they a restrictive hindrance? Link to this question

Some projects require the organization of great amounts of information into recognizably structured blocks. Think of art catalogs, for example: each page may have a painting, information about the painting, as well as a comment from the painter. Multiply times 40. Grids are great for jobs like that. Grids add structure and efficiency to the design. They also make it easy for the reader to retrieve information quickly.

Most of my work allows me to be a bit more adventurous. Every design job (and every art piece) starts with a data set—information that needs to be given a shape within a certain space. Each data set carries within it the natural shape it wants to assume. My job is to find that shape.

Whenever I’ve fought that natural, inherent shape, I’ve ended up with a bloody nose. But once I find the shape of the data, everything starts making sense. Everything feels loose, elegant, and beautiful—like a great song performed with confidence and ease. You look at it and say “Yes! This is how it looks. It has always looked like this. It couldn’t be any other way.”

—Question by Heather McCoy

Would you rather employ someone who could follow the rules of design perfectly, or a designer who breaks the rules with exciting work? Link to this question

That’s not a leading question is it? NO. Surely not.

The latter doesn’t work without the former. Few and far between are designers that can skip learning the rules and go straight to some sort of brilliant new discovery. So far, I’ve not met any. You have to, have to, have to learn to play your instrument until it becomes like breathing. Then you can start improvising. I’m not there yet, either.

—Question by Simon Ford

Is there such a thing as the perfect design? Link to this question

Absolutely. If a piece brings me surprise and delight, then it’s the perfect design.

—Question by Simon Ford

How would you compare your work now to during school? Link to this question

During school everything took ten times longer and felt ten times more important. Now it’s all a bit lighter, which makes the work more fun to look at in the end. My colors are much, much better now. I was still quite black and white in school. I’ve been rediscovering some tricks I used to do in high school, combining them with what I’ve learned since then.

—Question by Jennifer Hufford

What is your process at tackling a design, and what design has been in your eyes your biggest success? Link to this question

Images always come when I need them to. It’s simply a matter of forcing myself to focus on the assignment (instead of doing anything and everything to escape from an inevitable deadline). As soon as I get to work, my hands have a mind of their own.

The Daily Monsters have been my biggest success so far, because they’ve been fun to do—which was a first. As a rule, I never enjoy working. I enjoy finishing a project, balancing all the elements, tweaking the details. But the monsters came without a struggle. They had energy. They were fun to discover. They felt alive and loose and fun. I hope that I get to do more work like that.

—Question by Jennifer Hufford

With the constant shortening of attention spans, how do you make an audience focus on your design long enough to digest the information? Link to this question

First, I do it by putting a lot of information into the piece. I think attention spans are so short, because a lot of the content provided is so devoid of… you know… content. I’m as scattered as the next person, but I’ll sit through a three hour movie with glee if it’s any good. Or read a 40,000 word article on the American freight industry if it’s well written.

Second, I do structure my pieces in a way that allows for different points of access. You can look at the posters, for example, and get the top note idea in seconds. You can delve in and read the whole thing in one sitting and get really involved. Or you can read little chunks here and there, find something new every time and smile.

Third, I try to put in enough layers that let you come back to a piece again and again over time and still have new things to discover. The writers of The Simpsons put funny little details in their show that you can only see if you freeze the picture. They call it “Thank you for paying attention!” That’s my philosophy. I try to honor anybody who is willing to spend more than 10 seconds on my work.

—Question by Heather McCoy

Thinking as an entrepreneur, what value have you created from your work, and who benefits from this? Link to this question

The ultimate purpose of my work is entertainment—mine in the making, and yours in the using. If my work achieves that I think that’s pretty good. An important secondary benefit is that the past work will lead to new projects for me, so that I can keep making things.

—Question by Jaz Gibson

Could you briefly explain your greatest achievements? Link to this question

My greatest achievement is that I’ve been self-sustaining since the day I graduated from college. I’ve never had to take out a business loan, I’ve never had to ask my friends or family for money. Maybe there are other things that I’ve done that involved greater effort or had higher stakes, but that’s the thing that gives me the most pride.

—Question by Jaz Gibson

Why did you choose graphic design as a career? Link to this question

Well, I didn’t really choose graphic design as a career. Let me start at the beginning: I’ve always drawn. At age 12 I got my first drawing published in a German fanzine and I was hooked. From then on I kept looking for opportunities to put my work in print and that continues today.

After that first drawing, I gradually took over that fanzine one column at a time. I was on my way to becoming an illustrator. At age 16 I had a falling out with some of the the editors. That suddenly left me without a way to get my stuff seen. I had to find a new way to get my regular ink fix.

I took the ugliest ads in the local paper and redrew them—to the same specs, with the same basic information—and went to see the various store owners. I offered them a new and improved version of their ad at bargain basement prices—usually around $50, though I later went up to a whopping $250. After a while I had quite a few regular clients around town. I even figured out how easy it was to get flat artwork made into slides to run at the local movie theater. I was a mini ad agency.

After I graduated from high school I wanted to study in Los Angeles and chose Art Center. The hard working “I’ll smack your fingers with a ruler if you don’t do it right” vibe felt very comfortable to me, and I loved the shiny black building.

I wanted to be an illustration major at first, but was intimidated by one of the paintings in the catalog—a photorealistic self-portrait by a first term student. “I can’t compete with that!” I thought. Had I done my research, I’d have found out that that student had a prior degree from another college and was also a bit psycho. But I didn’t look into it and decided to go into advertising instead. I thought “Well, I’ve already produced all kinds of ads. I know how this works. This way I get to write, design, draw, and take pictures.”

Which isn’t really what it turned out to be. Advertising is very conservative and narrow in its thinking. It’s all very segmented. After four terms I decided to switch to Graphic Design, but the financial rules at the school made that impossible. So I stayed an ad major. I just took all kinds of graphic design electives.

After graduation, I was recruited as an art director at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland. Working on Microsoft. I thought “Maybe advertising will be fun again if I go to one of the top creative agencies.” I went against my instincts and I paid the price. They’re an amazing group of people, but it wasn’t the right fit. They needed things from me I couldn’t deliver, and they didn’t have what I needed, either. As hard as we tried to make it work, I had a miserable (and thoroughly soggy) year. After that it was finally clear that I needed to be a graphic designer. That was back in 1997.

Today I’m moving away from being solely a graphic designer, and back toward being an illustrator once again. But even that is only a temporary stop-over on my way to being a full time maker of things—kind of like being an artist that doesn’t make paintings or sculptures, but books and posters, and little movies and toys, and whatever else I can think of.

—Question by Amanda Sprague

From the start, what were your goals and what helped you achieve them? Link to this question

It’s not yet clear to me what my goal is. I know I’m chasing something, and I know I’m dying to reach it, but I don’t quite know what it actually is. That vague but intense desire takes different forms—getting published, getting awards, having a TV show for the Monsters, being famous, finding love—but I think it’s all about feeling comfortable with who I am when I sit still. (You can see how working constantly and creating more and more activities for myself is a great strategy for achieving comfort in stillness. I’m not saying I’m anywhere close to figuring this out.)

—Question by Jaz Gibson

If you’re so big on typography, what’s with all the orphans on this site? Link to this question

Yeah, I know. It drives me crazy. This is one of the reasons why I hardly ever do web design jobs. I’ve spent many, many hours rewriting the text of this site to minimize orphans, and to keep lines from ending with a lonely I. You can’t force line breaks, because what works on my large monitor will look horribly chopped up on a tablet or a phone—or if you change the type size in your browser.

On my previous site I laid out all the type in Photoshop and baked it into the images. That approach had a lot of aesthetic advantages, but also made the site pretty much useless on anything but a regular monitor or a large laptop. The site you see before you is the best compromise of aesthetic control and wide usability my friend Simon and I could come up with. Rest assured that I wince at each unavoidable typographic error, too.

—Question by Nafets G. Rechub

What are some common design mistakes made by beginners? Link to this question

From day to day I keep going back and forth between thinking I’m a loser to thinking that I’m the Sun King. But over the years the pendulum has stopped swinging as wildly as before, or as far out to the sides. Young designers I’ve observed still experience the full back and forth. They can be depressingly submissive or annoyingly convinced of their greatness in the absence of any evidence. Success through hard work lets you gain confidence and temper it with humility at the same time. Skill paired with good humor is very sexy.

On a more brass tacks level. you’ll get work in one of two ways: You can either do something your client can already do, but you do it faster and cheaper. Or you can do something your client can’t do without you.

Make yourself as useful as possible. Be helpful and try to reduce stress for those around you rather than adding to it.

Don’t use the Live Trace tool in Illustrator. Everybody else is doing it and the results always look like bad student work. Take drawing classes, learn how to make a smooth Bezier curve and go from there. Your design will be much better for it.

Take as many typography classes as you can. I’m talking about classical typesetting. You have to know and understand the rules before you can play around with them. Bad typography is the one, big, huge shortfall of 99 of every 100 junior portfolios I see. The one person who gets it right almost always succeeds in our business in a big way.

Don’t get tangled up in research. You’re a designer. Research is supposed to get you designing. Many, many students and junior designers use it merely to procrastinate. Because “I’m doing research” sounds so much more responsible than “I haven’t started that design yet.”

If you must do a lot of research, don’t forget to move from research to analysis and insight at some point. Many students have tried to dazzle me with lots of googled factoids, but couldn’t answer the most basic analytical questions. I live by the rule of Three Whys. Any element on the page needs to withstand the three Whys: Why is this here? Oh, I see. In that case, why is it blue? In that case, why is it seen backwards? In other words, every question needs to be answered and survive two follow up questions. In life it’s OK—-if not downright wise—to say “I don’t know.” If you say it in answer to a question about your work it usually shows that you don’t know, because you’ve never considered the question. And that’s embarrassing. And it makes me mad to hear it. It’s your job to know your own work inside and out.

Always be a step ahead.

I meet so many cool and engaged students and junior designers that are working their ass off to do great work. They’re humble about their quest and genuinely passionate about learning. I think great things are coming, and we’re lucky to be here to make them happen!

—Question by Heather McCoy