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Frank Chimero on design, personal crutches, and causing mischief

Brooklyn-based designer and writer Frank Chimero believes that design is what happens on the borderlands—the area carved out by “art versus commerce, material requirements versus creative idealism, screens versus print, audience needs versus client desires.”

His clients have included the New York Times, Nike, and Microsoft, and a few years ago, he wrote the book The Shape of Design, which he describes as “the little design handbook I wish I had at the start of my career.” We spoke to Frank at this year’s RGD Design Thinkers conference about the borderlands of design, and how you know it’s time to make your next move professionally.

What are the borderlands of design?

“Essentially, I’m talking about connection points. When you’re on the margin of two ideas or two practices or something like that, that’s where design lives. As a designer, do you work for your client or do you work for the audience? Is it art or is it commerce? Is it words or is it images? Is it criticism or is it practice? The work is figuring out a system that works for you and your particular talents and skills, that allows you to adapt to and bridge both.”

How Frank manages all his own different connecting points:

“I think it comes from having a consistent perspective; it’s not necessarily about having a ready style. It’s having a consistent vision or understanding about the world, and developing that, and expressing that in as many different ways as possible.

Initially, [what I thought design was] started out simply as decoration. And then it sort of developed into a manner of construction, where I cared about how things fit together and how they scaled. Now, I think of design as a process of articulation. Obviously all three of those aspects—decoration, construction, and articulation—are three really important things. But I think you can value certain ones over the others as a person and as a designer. ”

When you should move on professionally:

“[I know it’s time to change paths] when I get stodgy. That’s really what it’s all about. I get grumpy and I feel like I’m stuck or not making progress. And if I look at the work that I’m doing and it feels like I have some sort of crutch—either a crutch in the way that things look, or a crutch in the way that I’m thinking about something—it means I’m not actually doing the hard work of understanding the problem or allowing the project to dictate to me what it needs to be.

Taking shortcuts is good every once in awhile, because you’re human and you have to give yourself a break, but if it seems to be happening consistently, I get grumpy because I’m bored. And then it’s time for a change.”

Frank’s next steps with Habitat:

“I think the next thing [for me] is just a whole lot of mischief. I’m working with a whole bunch of really talented people, and we’re not sure yet what exactly we’re going to do together. We want to make work easier for folks, and I think a lot of that has to do with their tooling. Right now we’re just doing a lot of research looking at ourselves working, talking to other people and looking at their work.

We’re trying to be as self-aware as we possibly can. I mean, finally. I’ve been working alone for so many years, or with clients, so now working on a team is like this different thing where you can watch one another work in a different way, and talk about it, because you’re on the same side of the equation.

It’s a curious time for me; I can’t really say what is next. But you have to leave the door open to possibility. So that’s where we are. ”

Follow Frank on Twitter for more design insights.

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