Working out the material, practicing in public, and embracing the process
I’m currently working my way through Sick in the Head, the book of interviews with comedians, filmmakers, and writers by comedy writer/director/producer Judd Apatow. I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest Judd Apatow fan but I picked it because I like reading about comedy and find the creative process for comedians fascinating.1
What I didn’t expect in reading it though was how much it would make me feel like I’m not working hard enough, lighting a fire under my ass. Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes for at least two hours every morning. Steve Martin, when he was doing standup, thought through every single detail of his set and refined it every single day even as he moved up to filling arenas. Comedians go out, night after night, to work the clubs, not always because they like it but because that’s the only way you get better. The thing about standup comedy is that you have to do it in public — you have to get out into the clubs and work it out in front of people to know what’s working and what isn’t. Sure, you and can write the jokes alone, sitting at your desk, but the refinement has to happen on stage. It’s rare for a comedian to come out of the gate polished and ready. It takes time. It takes work.
I don’t do that. I don’t work on my craft everyday, day after day, whether I want to or not. The whole book is making me feel so lazy. So I’ve started to wonder what this would look like in design?
First, some thoughts on practice.
I refer to my work as my ‘practice’ but, really, what does it mean to practice graphic design? The word practice — just like the word design — can be both a noun and a verb. A practice, when used as a noun, is the exercise of professional activity, like when we talk about a medical practice or a law practice. For many of us, this is the definition we are using when we refer to our work as a design practice2. But practice, when used as a verb, is about repeating actions to get better. When I was in seventh grade, I took piano lessons and I practiced for a half hour everyday to become proficient. It worked for a while, but it eventually dropped off and now I can’t play a single note. That’s the kind of practice I want to get better at. How does one practice design the way my seventh grade self practiced piano or the way a stand up comedian performs the same joke night after night?3
To practice, of course, is to perform an activity repeatedly, attempting to improve proficiency. To practice is to iterate, to refine, to redesign. To practice is to continually improve the craft. And craft, here, could mean many things — it’s the art of writing a joke and performing it on stage or working through the construction of a page layout or formal exercise. But practice isn’t just about form, it’s also about ideas and questions and voice — now just how you tell the joke but what the joke says, not just what the work looks like but you are saying through it.
This happens on individual projects but there is also the iterating, refining, and redesigning that takes place over the arc of a career. I think about Martin Venezky who keeps drawing and painting every day or how Daniel Eatock has drawn literally thousands of free-hand circles in an attempt to make a perfect circle. You see artists who paint the same person over and over; photographers who return to the same locations, the same themes. Sculptors who use the same material. Here practice is only partially about proficiency. It’s also about working through ideas with the material.
This is the process of the standup comic, but they do it in public, in front of people. What’s the analogy to design? Posting on Instagram? (And btw, isn’t that what blogs were for ten years ago: a way of working through ideas in public?)
Anyway. I’m writing this for myself; as a reminder to embrace the grind, to enjoy the process and the failures and the ever-so-slowly getting better. To remember to revel in the practice as much as the performance. And maybe most importantly: to find ways to make those one in the same.
And because I was curious to see how the book was structured and the interviews edited as I begin thinking about some sort of book collecting Scratching the Surface interviews. ↩
In an academic environment practice is often pitted against — either as the opposite of or as the result of — theory. Theory and practice. Practice – or praxis, in this instance, is the application of theory in a material setting. ↩
I think a lot about something Peter Mendelsund wrote in his 2014 monograph, Cover, where he reflects on his mid-life career change from concert pianist to book cover design: “Design is not performed. It is, rather, endlessly rehearsed. Designing is like practicing: one iterates; makes amendments; tries new avenues…” he writes, “Practicing is a snap, as one is allowed, expected even, to make mistakes. Practicing is a judgement-free zone. Mistakes are not allowed in concert halls.” ↩