August 18th, 2008

Sans Plans

By Frank Chimero

This article was originally written for Sarah Coffman’s Chucked, a series of personal stories about how life has or hasn’t panned out since design school. A collection of writings about what people thought they’d be doing vs. what they are doing vs. what they want to do. It’s about the non-traditional approach to life and what happens when you don’t follow the prescribed plan.

Damn it. It never works out. No matter how hard I try, no matter how diligent I am, life always sabotages my plans. It’s like life picks up the sheet of paper that I’ve covered with the flow chart describing my projected future, reads it, and mutters “That’s all you’ve got?”

Then, life pulls out that big damn red marker, makes a few marks, strikes a few words, shifts A to B and B to Z, and presto! I’m back where I usually find myself: in some new unchartered territory, not having any clue what the hell I’m doing. It’s a lot of fun.

I’ve never been one for planning my life out too much. And it usually works out. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that I’m only good at two things: making things and making things up as I go along.

There’s some people out there that can’t fathom a life without plans. I’ll usually rattle off something like “If you plan too much, you’ll plan yourself out of opportunity.” Then they pretend like they understand a little bit, while they check their Blackberry for any appointments they can scurry off to, to end our awkward conversation. What I don’t tell them is that the real reason I don’t plan is because those plans usually don’t happen. Maybe I’m just bad at it.

I didn’t have a solid plan after I graduated. (Surprise!) There were lots of options, but options have a tendency to paralyze me. I saw myself working at a good studio, doing good work for good people. I always thought I’d eventually work on my own, it just happened a lot sooner than I expected. Long story short: I got tired of looking for a job after graduation (that whole paralysis thing), and starting paying the bills through freelance work. The work snowballed into something I could eek by on, and viola! I’m a professional!

I’ve been out of school for about two and a half years now, and that bit of distance has helped me see how wrong I was about certain things. Primarily, I was dead wrong about what sort of role design would have in my life. While I was in school, design defined who I was, and I thought that the edges of that definition would keep moving further out. Now, the older that I get, I find myself trying to keep it’s growth in check. I’ve shocked myself by realizing I’m interested in things other than design. Besides, I’d rather have words like “Friend” and “Enthusiastic” and “Optimistic” be above “Designer” on the “List of Words to Describe Frank.”

I’d like to file design under “Pretty Important” rather than “Paramount.” For me, trying to find deep fulfillment in design has been a fruitless search. And because of that, I’ve had a recent, magical realization that’s made me the happiest I’ve been in a long while: what you do for a living doesn’t define who you are. Who you are should inform what you do for a living.

It was my first big “Aha” moment that lead to several more. After I thought that magical, obvious thought for the first time, I had to say it to myself to believe it. And then I said it again, but louder. “Design doesn’t define who I am.”

I want to be detail-oriented and critical, but I want to curb those traits so that the criticalness doesn’t spoil the joy and wonder of the world around me. I want to be happy, conversational and full of delight, and I want those traits to show up in my work. More than anything, I just want to say things that are worth listening to. At least that’s my plan. I think I’ll be sticking to this one.