10,000 hours of graphic design?

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Having pored over Malcolm Gladwell’s first two books (The Tipping Point and Blink) I’d eagerly bought his newest, Outliers, in hardback. But several reviewers chipped away at it, and its central premise, namely that genius isn’t necessarily born, but cultivated by circumstance, luck and good old-fashioned hard graft. So I delayed reading it, until last week and of course the reviewers are wrong – Gladwell has delivered again.

The most memorable of his memes this time around is a recurring stat in the background of the world’s most successful people. It’s a simple one: the 10,000 hour rule.

Bill Gates put in thousands of hours as a teenager learning to code on huge university machines. The Beatles spent years in Hamburg playing eight hour gigs and came back to England perfectly formed. Away from Gladwell but still relevant, jazz is crammed with examples of virtuoso guitarists and saxophonists who honed natural promise with years and years of relentless practice. Even modern day musicians admit that they learned their craft the hard way: Rage against the Machine’s Tom Morello was at Harvard by day but spent 8 hours every night learning how to play in his own unique style.

But what about designers? As I read Gladwell’s thesis, I kept wondering whether Gladwell’s theories carry over. Do designer’s emerge fully formed out of college with 10,000 hours under their belt, geniuses in waiting?

Well, let’s think – a student in the UK might devote 10 weeks to graphics at foundation, and then in theory, 90 weeks in a three year course. How many hours a week? Let’s make our average student quite conscientious and make them work an 8 hour day. That’s 4,000 hours in total. So if they’ve been a normal, fairly dutiful student for 4 years (but still taken holidays and put their feet up at Easter and Xmas) they’d come out of college having only just scratched the surface of the necessary 10,000.

This quick bit of maths obviously doesn’t cater for the keen-beans who then go on and do an MA. Imagine a design-boffin who works 6 days a week, 9 hours a day and only takes 4 weeks off the whole year, and keeps that up for five years? Number of hours = 12,960. Phew, instant genius (and that’s not even counting their foundation course). But does every graduate of every MA design course go on to become the next Jonathan Ive or Neville Brody? Probably not – there must be other factors at hand.

Gladwell points out some of these, like lucky breaks and being in the right place at the right time. Bill Gates gained access to computers before many others, but was also born at a time when opportunities opened up for him alone in his late-teens.

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In graphic design, Alan Fletcher, Colin Birdsall and Bob Gill set up their company in early sixties London when there were virtually no other ideas-based design companies in existence. Wolff and Olins met a few years later and immediately realised no-one in the UK could offer their combination of business thought and creative insight. Why Not Associates met at the RCA, absorbed Gert Dumbar’s teaching and graduated fully-formed in the late eighties, their signature style differentiating them almost immediately from London’s dull ‘˜corporate’ designers of the day. The recession of the early nineties claimed many victims in the design business, so when the now world-beating Turner Duckworth set up in 1992, they were virtually the only start-up that year.

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Whilst every few years, a fully formed design group emerges from courses like the RCA, for most of Britain’s designers a different set of rules seem to apply in design. Although a deeply unfashionable doctrine, it still seems to hold that a good four or five years after graduation is needed for a designer to begin to find their feet (usually by their late-twenties).

Designer Siobhan Keaney once said to me that ‘˜designers learn in their twenties, make their mark in their thirties, and consolidate in their forties’. When she said this, I was in my twenties and of course firmly believed that everything I produced was the best thing since sliced bread. In retrospect, there are about 2 and bit projects from my twenties that I would even consider showing anyone and the rest should be left to grow mould in the metaphorical bin. It became clear that some serious work at the design coalface was needed before standing any chance of creating anything genuinely new (and get anywhere near those 10,000 hours).

Students reading this might be appalled that they might not get really into their stride for another decade. But consider this – Alan Fletcher was in his thirties when he set up FFG, and was forty when he co-started Pentagram. Hardly a spring chicken. As for what happens after your forties, Weiden + Kennedy London partner Tony Davidson offered this thought: ‘˜It’s hard when you get older. Your energy levels go down.Β  You refer back to what you know. You become less of a dreamer and more of a realist. My favourite creative folks are the ones who have the ability to keep their minds young and continue to challenge themselves late into their careers.’

But returning to the original thesis – are great designers born or nurtured? Michael Wolff had these observations. ‘˜We’re the sum of our genetics and also how we choose to interpret the influences of our environment – who we meet, or love, or want to be like, or envy. Like chimps, we’re insatiable mimics and like human beings we crave approval and admiration. If we’re lucky enough to envy the most relevant and effective people on our journeys, our influences and inspirations work well for us. And if we’re lucky with our DNA that’s helpful too. Not sure where or how creativity that’s innately our own gets developed, or if time does make much difference other than to reveal what we think of as embarrassments and mistakes that we choose not to repeat’.

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Alan Dye, of London’s NB Studio, feels that ‘˜anyone with 10,000 hours of practice would be good at anything, but I truly believe you can’t make a great designer, it has to part of you, run in your blood. You need the spark, the intuition and the rest of the cliches.’

One thing is common to the designers who break through – a determination and willingness to keep trying, day after day, to find something new. As Jessica Helfand remarked to me, ‘˜strength of personality is huge’ – as she pointed out the sheer doggedness of the handful of designers I’d asked for their opinion on this.

And it’s still true, I think, that anyone can break into this business, if you’re determined enough. But Gladwell’s right: it doesn’t happen overnight and short-circuiting the process rarely works. Those 10,000 hours have to happen and are embedded in the foundations of most of the best designer’s careers. As for the lucky breaks along the way (or how to create your own luck), well perhaps that’s the subject of his next book.

By Michael Johnson

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell is available here in hardback. The author discusses the book itself here.