7 Of The Biggest Lies In Graphic Design

In Craig Ward’s "Popular Lies About Graphic Design," some of the most famous practitioners around debunk the greatest misconceptions plaguing the profession.

Even if you don’t know much about graphic design, you can probably throw out a few cocktail-party-worthy truisms: "Comic Sans is just the worst typeface ever." That statement is irrefutable, right? As unassailable as grass being green, Shakespeare was a genius, and Tina Fey is way funnier than Seth MacFarlane. If you want to come off as a typography dilettante, you might make some seemingly inoffensive remark like, "Well, you can’t go wrong with Helvetica." And if Craig Ward overheard you, he’d most likely shudder and take a subtle step toward the door. It’s hackneyed statements like these that he tries to dismantle in his pocket-size Popular Lies About Graphic Design.

According to Ward, a New York–based British designer, Comic Sans "is the typographic equivalent of an innocent man on death row." Sure, it’s ugly, he admits, but there are plenty of other bad handwriting fonts that don’t stir up nearly as much unfair bile and vitriol. And as far as Helvetica goes, it’s hardly the typographic corollary of the perfect black dress, suitable for any occasion. It may be "as ubiquitous a typeface as has ever existed," but don’t mistake ubiquity for neutrality; Helvetica, in fact, is an "authoritative typeface with a distinct tone of voice." If you’re looking for vanilla, you’d be well advised to look around for another font.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve adopted some arguments Ward might find specious; even professional designers lean on well-worn rules and generalities to help create guidelines, and others will argue against them. You, like Mies van der Rohe and Dieter Rams, may subscribe to the philosophy of "less is more." In Popular Lies, Milton Glaser says that maxim is patently false. Ward says that the book is meant to encourage designers to experiment, "examining other possibilities when it may be easier to side with something tried and tested."

Here are a some of the choice gems, from Ward and some of his famous-designer friends in response to the question: What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever been told about design?

1. Longer deadlines will lead to better work.

Craig Ward

My experience may be unique. But for my money, you rarely need more than a few weeks for most still image projects. Obviously, if you’re attempting something more ambitious, or time related, then you may need longer, but, really, three or four rounds of amends over the course of a couple of weeks is usually ample. Much more and you can end up wasting your time chasing unworkable ideas or losing focus, much less and you may feel under too much pressure to deliver and that, in itself can be equally stifling.

2. There’s no budget, but it’s a great opportunity.

Craig Ward

And that would be an opportunity for what exactly?

If you go your entire career without receiving this kind of a proposition, you’re doing either extremely well or extremely badly depending on your mindset. The idea that it’s okay for you to spend days of your time creating work for world-renowned clients who aren’t paying you a decent wage is pretty shameful—yet often unavoidable. Unless you set your stall out very early on and stick to your guns.

3. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

David Carson

If the designer has done their job, you should absolutely be able to do this.

4. The computer is just a tool.

Stefan Sagmeister

It is not. You are the tool.

5. Stay Small.

—Willy Wong

"Stay small" was a piece of advice I heard quite often when I began my career. Smaller studios and a small circle of clients—I was told—meant more control and thus (work of a) higher quality. In fact, go solo if you could.

Nowadays, I find that nothing happens in a silo and that everything is connected. If you’ve got sharp kerning skills, good intentions, and the ingenuity to spin gold out of thin air, why not add solid management skills to your belt and be able to kill it at scale? The world seems to need designers more than ever. What’s wrong with being part of a group, playing in a team, forming a league, building a community. Not everyone has the capacity to manage process, budgets, expectations, or personalities, but if you got ‘em, why not go for it? Balls out!

6. "We don’t have any money."

Craig Redman

It’s that whole tiresome act of the client pleading poor and screwing you down to the dollar. Then you find out later they paid a million bucks for some other component of the project.

7. People will want to buy your pin, badges, and T-shirt.

—Craig Ward

They probably won’t. Sorry.

Remember that even these so-called lies should be taken with a grain of salt; design is subjective, and you’re entitled to your own bloody opinions. As Ward writes in his introduction, "This is not a book full of facts. Nor is it a book full of advice. It’s a book full of opinions, and confusion between those three is how a lot of these problems begin." In other words, don’t feel you need to take other people’s espoused opinions as facts.

Buy the book here for $11.

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  • Clipping Path India

    That's like saying a hammer isn't a tool; you are the tool. Of course a computer is a tool. That doesn't make it any less helpful or important

  • Michael Hughes

    3. So any book with a great cover is so great book? Or is th implication that ethical graphic artists should design smutty covers for shifty books?

  • I agree with most of these, but I do feel compelled enough to disagree with "You are the tool" not the computer.

    I have to say I completely agree with Stefan in this case. I've taught students and watched them struggle as they perform iteration after iteration on the computer waiting for the computer to do the work. It's not going to do the work, it's just a tool. There is a process to be had in graphic design before one even reaches to their computer. The computer in this case is no more than your executing device. You as the human are the creator; the computer is your tool.

    You have taken this quote out of context and used it to your advantage. I agree with that in a certain perspective. humans can be a tool, but you have to look at the what Sagmeister is talking about. He is referring to process. Unfortunately this narrowed mindedness is what shies me away from reading your material past this article.

  • Rick352

    I don't know that I agree with "stay small" being a lie. It completely depends on the person. Many of the rest of these are right on the money. But staying small can offer a great deal of security. And in today's environment its very easy to stay small and constantly work in a team environment. There are co-working environments that are inexpensive to work within and the network of other talented self employed individuals is only growing.

    Meanwhile having employees has only gotten more expensive. A well networked self employed person in our area can make six figures with a lot less stress than if they had a handful of employees.

    Again, not saying its for everyone. But far from being a lie.

  • Ken Halstead

    I write and arrange a lot of music scores (mostly for jazz guitar) and often I try to make the sheet music look and feel like the song. Comic Sans is actually very good for use in jazz arrangements. Even though it lacks things like "real" flats (b) or deltas for major sevenths, it is a whole lot more pleasing to the eye than Jazz Text.

    I shudder when I have to read music that's surrounded by Times Roman.


  • Waqas

    pretty novel idea to write about and expressed in such a cool way! I am amazed someone dares to touch the untouchable topics.

  • Edwina@WINONAINC

    Why does Comic Sans get the beatdown from everybody? I use it and I like it. Don't understand all the hate.

  • Chris Henson

    I tend to look at my computer not as a tool, but as a studio. And to me, a studio needs to be a place that's as inspirational as it is functional. So, a hammer may be a tool, but what kind of workshop is it being used in? To me, hammer = mouse = tool. And workshop = computer = studio. 

    Then again, I'm kind of a tool.

  • Katelin

    That's like saying a hammer isn't a tool; you are the tool. Of course a computer is a tool. That doesn't make it any less helpful or important. I think Sagmeister's point is that the potential lies in the designer and to not just rely on the computer to solve your problems.

    Unless you're calling Sagmeister a tool in the derogatory sense. That is not okay.

  • Chris Henson

    I tend to look at my computer not as a tool, but as a studio. And to me, a studio needs to be a place that's as inspirational as it is functional. So, a hammer may be a tool, but what kind of workshop is it being used in? To me, hammer = mouse = tool. And workshop = computer = studio. 
    Then again, I'm kind of a tool.

  • Boxoyoyos

    “We don’t have any money.” This is often your employer telling you and every other employee this to keep you from asking for a living wage. Then you see them in new shiny top of the line cars. Or they head off to Vegas to go blow money they supposedly don't have.

  • Nospam

    umm... whatta totally misleading title for this article! Almost all of "the seven" would be applied to almost any another area of business, none of them is usable for actual graphic designing.
    Not mentioning that #3 is highly discutable and #4 is utter nonsense.
    Wouldbe "proffesional" introduction to seven points of bull.
    All in all, this is poor attempt to disguise advertisement as a proffesional article.

    *feel robbed of ten minutes of my life*

  • Anthony Wiktor

    This is a great book! I just read it... if you think these 7 are great! Wait until you read the others.