On David Carson and finding the sweet spot

I loved this video on David Carson. I found it very inspiring, both on the intuitive nature of his design work and how long he’s been doing it. It’s great to see an older guy, who’s been in the industry for decades, still looking forward to producing his best work yet. What’s also refreshing is that he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. There’s a sense of humour, a playfulness, and he seems to enjoy other stuff just as much. Like surfing. In short, he seems to have stayed fresh in his love for design without it consuming his identity.

And that I think is key. Whatever it is you do, love it, be passionate about it, but don’t let it engulf your sense of who you are. Life is bigger than work.

The second thing that struck me was the combination of giftings Carson’s got. A very good surfer and a very good designer. You’re pretty lucky to have just one thing that puts you on the world stage. Carson had two, completely unrelated talents, that he was world-class at. Almost eerie. Naturally he joined the dots between the two and did some pretty cool stuff.

From the Christian worldview we naturally come back to this: the body has many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). We were all designed by God to be good at different things, to compliment one another and work together.

As Carson says “for some reason I know that this looks better than that”. His lack of design training and knowledge of the ‘rules’ help you appreciate that what he has is a real gift.

On a slightly speculative level, stuff like this makes me think that God not only gives us a specific blend of gifts, but that he measures them out in set portions, each with their own bounds and limits. We’re not all going to be the world’s most famous graphic designer. But neither were we meant to be. We all find ourselves placed in different layers of society, at different locations, mixing with different types of people. And that I would say is all part of God’s design.

Acts 17 seems to support this idea, describing us as being individually placed in time and space, while Romans 9 and Isaiah 64 illustrate that God has different purposes for each one of us. He is the potter, we are the clay.

With this in mind it puts a bit of a different spin on things. Secular culture celebrates those that have become the best-of-the-best, often bouncing around a myth that you can be anything you want to be if only you work hard enough. But the Christian has a different concept of success. We know we come from design and our goal is to be faithful in the work God has given us, with the gifts he’s given. However grand or obscure, and in whatever measure.

I listened to an interesting podcast by R.C. Sproul a few years ago where he touched on the theme of accessing your own abilities. The basic premise was that all of your abilities fall into one of four categories:

Motivated abilities
Non-motivated abilities
Motivated non-abilities
Unmotivated non-abilities

The titles themselves are quite self explanatory. Motivated abilities are the things you’re naturally good at and want to keep pursing. Non-motivated abilities are the things we’re actually good at, but for some reason dislike or have little desire to follow through. Sproul sites one example:

I know of one young woman who in her early teenage years attracted national attention because of her proficiency at the game of golf. While still a teenager, she won a national tournament. Yet when the time came for girls her age to turn professional, she chose a different vocation, not out of a higher calling to seek a more spiritual enterprise than professional athletics, but because she had found the game of golf to be very unpleasant. Her displeasure came as the result of fierce pressure her father had placed upon her in pushing her to become a proficient golfer at a young age. When she became of age and was out from under parental authority, she decided to do something else. She had the ability to become a professional golfer, but lacked the motivation.

We might ask, “But how could she have become so proficient in the first place if she had not been motivated to perform well in golf?” We have to realize that she had been motivated to become proficient, but the motivation was largely based on fear of her father’s wrath. In order to please him, she disciplined herself to acquire a skill that she would never have pursued on her own. Once free from the driving force of his authority, she turned her vocational pursuits in another direction. The moral to the story is obvious. The person who gives his full measure of time and energy to a nonmotivated ability is a walking pressure cooker of frustration.

Taken from www.ligonier.org/blog/gods-will-and-your-job-pt-2/

Perhaps the most interesting and amusing of the four points is the ‘motivated non-abilities’ category. These are all the hilarious but painfully bad auditions on week one of the X-Factor. People who really want to make it as a singer but lack any sort of talent or self-awareness. Where it becomes more a bit sobering is that you can usually see reflections of yourself in them. We all have stuff we wish we were good at but lack the natural talent.

Even within the micro-climate of creative design, this is true. There have been times when I’ve wished I was good at hand-drawn illustration or highly conceptual design work, but those are definitely lesser talents for me. It’s like whatever sections of your brain those things require, they’re missing from mine.

But where I tend to excel are the areas that require both creative and technical skill. I love the visual arts, but I also love maths. It was one of my favourite subjects at school. I once did an IQ test that summarised my strength as being able to apply maths to an image — I was pretty pleased with that! So things like web design, photography, filming and editing play to my strengths. In contrast I tend to struggle with things that are almost completely artistic or technical in nature. I’m probably not the best at designing album covers (although I wish I was), and neither would I be the best developer.

What I’ve realised over the years, through experimentation, are the types of design skills that come naturally to me, and those which are more illusive. If you’re able to focus on developing the skills which you’re actually good at (as opposed to the ones you wished you were), you’ll hit a sweet spot. You might get really good and find your place where you most excel.

And where you freely invest your time, energy and talents you tend to love more and more.

To bring it back to where we started, I found this online: a Ted talk by David Carson from 2003 on intuitive design. A few years old but still fantastic, and touches on an aspect of design you don’t often get taught at university (well at least I didn’t):

It’s all in the edit

On a separate point one thing to notice is how the man presented in the two videos comes across quite differently. All for a few good waves portrays a laid back, free spirited and slightly quirky American who lives to surf. The Ted talk presents a very intelligent, thoughtful and gifted designer. They contrast quite heavily, almost to the point where it feels like you’re watching two different people.

For me this highlights the influence of video. The Vimeo snapshot is story based: carefully edited monologue set at a specific pace, flavoured with music. There’s no back-and-fourth dialogue with the camera man, no interview footage. Every frame counts in video — where you choose to cut your footage changes your perception of the subject. Leaving space in the edit after Carson delivers his lines makes it feel like there’s no one there with him; no one responding, no conversation. So it feels quite fly-on-the-wall, watching a man talk to himself, which adds a sense of quirkiness.

It’s still a beautifully shot video — those drone shots are amazing — but it does illustrate that the way you present a person or a subject is all in the edit.

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