Design drives changes in society. How do designers seize that power? Dharma Pachner, Founder and Creative Director of the Contrast & Co. agency, spelled it out at an event called Inside the Minds of Brilliant Designers.
His talk was part of a monthly series by the global learning community General Assembly. Brockett Horne, Chair of Graphic Design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, moderates the series.
Dharma showed us how to achieve design mastery but didn’t stop there. He stressed that even the best designers bump up against limits, but communicators have no limits. The upshot: If you have both qualities, your career will skyrocket.
At age 25, Dharma first discovered and became obsessed with graphic design. He saw it as a way to solve problems and create opportunities; his explorations ranged from the intricacy of a flower to the details of a building. Instinctively, he saw redesign opportunities everywhere: “At the gas station, I look at why the ‘No’ button is the same size as the ‘Yes’ button.”
He reveled in design’s innate alchemy. For instance, he loved Under Armour’s I Will What I Want campaign because “you can’t create that concept from a spreadsheet. They came up with stuff you couldn’t get just from the data.”
His career blossomed despite his frequent feeling that he was an impostor posing as a designer. Yet “the best designers I’ve worked with have a little self-doubt,” so he felt comfortable with it.
Dharma was the Creative Director and one of the founding partners of CHIEF, then became VP + Creative Director at HZDG. After those stints, he felt the urge to break free and start his own agency. The moment of truth came when he was frantically eating in the car on his way home, “driving on the most miserable stretch of road in DC—Rhode Island Avenue. I thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
That dark day spurred him to create Contrast & Co. Why the name? “I named my company after something I had been running away from my entire life.”
Choosing a strength
Despite Dharma’s background in UX and UI, he didn’t want to focus on them at his new agency. He was concerned that those areas were becoming commoditized. But you can’t do that with branding, he said, since it requires serious client discussions and true listening before you can develop “an overarching idea—a unique brand expression that’s the peak of a stable pyramid. Everything else is unified under it.” Brand strategy became the agency’s heart.
Now all he had to do was attract clients. “When we started out, it was scary,” Dharma said. “My wife Carin handled finances and I worked nonstop.” Now, two years later, Contrast & Co. has an environment where creativity flourishes and a strong team that’s determined to do creative work at the level of any top New York agency.
Learning by doing
One approach that sparks his team’s constant improvement: Keep making mistakes and learn from them. “If you don’t fail, you lose opportunities to do things differently,” said Dharma. “I fail all the time, over and over again. Punches in the face I didn’t think I could recover from. Thank God for them. The lessons pay off exponentially.”
He points to this lesson from the book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking:
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: On the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scale and weigh the work of the quantity group: 50 pound of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an A.
“Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: The works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity … While that group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
Sketching above all
Since fast-paced iterations are vital, he emphasizes sketching as an exercise in understanding. Touching pen to paper is an organic way to try many freeform ideas, far better than sitting at a computer whose screen instantly imposes grids and other constraints on your imagination. “It’s good not to be locked in too early. Get your comfortable ideas out first, then do more,” said Dharma. “Just get the concepts down to see, ‘Is this as strong on paper as it is in my head?’” Horne echoed this praise for the looseness of sketching, calling it a way “to work in a bigger idea space than tool space. With a little fire and motivation, you can achieve clarity—an idea articulated with precision.”
Once you do move to the screen, keep up your speed. “One of the biggest assets you have in creativity is momentum. The more efficient you are, the more creative you can be,” said Dharma. “If you can design quickly, you don’t get attached to it. That’s why keyboard shortcuts make you a better, more limber designer—learn that finger dance!” He recommends the transformative book The Power of Habit, which shows how consistency and repetition lead to true mastery.
The best possible result? “When we present work to our clients and they tell us we nailed it. I want our work to seem inevitable.”
Dharma shared these additional lessons:
- Reinvent yourself constantly. If you’re not learning every day, you’re falling behind.
- The rules that apply today won’t be around tomorrow.
- Shift your perspective.
- The “discovery” meeting with the client is critical. We ask a lot of questions and take diligent notes. Almost always, a client says something in the first five minutes that sparks the ultimate idea—we use their words as our guides.
- We don’t present a lot of choices. Clients don’t want choice as much as influence. We find three characteristics for each brand, try out ideas and the best direction wins.
- The best feedback is from account executives and product managers. They live with the product and hear customers’ reactions.
- Surround yourself with people who are better than you are. It’s liberating! Add those dimensions and all of a sudden you can grow.
- No bloat! Smaller teams drive the best work.
- As a client or designer, the more credibility you have, the more empowered you are. Learn the vocabulary from The Non-Designers Design Book if necessary. Read Fast Company to understand how organizations think, as well as design-centered magazines (Communication Arts, HOW, Print, and Computer Arts).
- Always sell your thinking, not your work. In our presentations, we sell clients on our methods by starting with 5-6 slides that recap the problem. This primes their decision process.
The importance of this last point can’t be overstated. Communicating effectively is how you sell your design internally and to any client, and is the key to any leader’s success. If you know how to get your message across, you’ll have no limits.
Zohar Rom edits this blog and is a writer and project manager. He drives brand success for clients and adores new challenges. Zohar is also a filmmaker; he earned the first-ever Best in Show at the Cable Advertising Awards and is directing Entitlement, a short film set in a future where sexual choices are sharply curtailed.