I used to have several design heroes I looked up to. But when I changed from industrial design to digital design, I forgot about them. They were never really replaced.
And I’m okay with that!
The old heroes always keep up a façade of mysterious creative genius. They act more like artists than like collaborative professionals. Like there’s some magic needed for the type of work they do. Magic only they possess.
But design is not a solo activity. I believe that the shift of attention from individuals to brands (teams!) is a good thing for design culture. Good design is not about creative geniuses executing on their artistic vision. It’s about solving problems. Good design is not about loners doing what they believe is right, but about teams finding solutions that work for their users.
The old heroes were running studios called after themselves, so they were always busy acquiring new customers. But with designers moving from agencies to in-house, much of that type of design has disappeared. Nowadays there still are great hands-on designers who also manage to market their work successfully. You just don’t see them much, because they run product companies. When they use media exposure, it’s to promote their products instead of themselves.
And let’s be honest—an important source of my admiration for those old design heroes were the beautiful pictures of their work in design books. It wasn’t like (sidenote: I gotta mention though, I used to ride an Aprilia Moto 6.5. Because it was designed by Philippe Starck and it looked awesome on pictures. And I can’t deny that it felt glorious! But for practical reasons I traded it in for a BMW K1100LT (the type that was also used as a police cruiser—much more reliable and comfortable!). Later I got rid of fuel guzzlers altogether. ) their products or that there products were so successful.
And you can’t even put digital designs on a pedestal. Coffee table books aren’t very useful for showing them either. Using digital products, day in day out, is the only way to really feel what’s good about them. They can’t cheat by just looking good.
Today there are also these influencer-type people with big followings. Debbie Millman, Chris Coyier, Sara Souedian and Josh Comeau, just to name a few. And yes, I should add Tobias van Scheider, who recently asked ‘Where are our design heroes’, to that list too. They are not (only) famous for their designs. But they give me something more valuable! They show how they work and inspire me to use their techniques.
The skills and rewards for evangalizing and teaching design are quite different from designing itself. Even among my older heroes there are people like Victor Papanek and Donald Norman. Very influential, but I can’t recall a single thing they put on the market!
So my new heroes of design are bloggers, podcasters and some people on Twitter. Sometimes I disagree with them. I don’t even like some of their work. They’re not larger than life. And that’s a good thing! They share their work and make themselves vulnerable doing so. They don’t just make me feel like that perhaps one day I could do what do they do. They actually show me how, with a team!