Weapons Declassified: Alex Cornell
Written & Designed by: Raji Purcell
Edited by: Jon Savage
Alex Cornell is a man after my own heart, and one I look up to. A young, modern, renaissance man whose creative branches reach not only to design but to film, photography, writing, music, and entrepreneurship. Alex’s work has an incredible level of cohesiveness that spreads through every medium he touches. His success made all the more sense after listening to his talk, and the great amount of wisdom he had to share.
Heres what happened:
When introducing himself, Alex told the audience he used to be a psychologist with the goal of becoming a very famous musician. And as many other designers do, he found his way to design through music and bands. He spent a lot of time trying to become a famous musician, and did a lot of design work along the way. In San Francisco he met Scott Hansen and began writing for his design blog ISO50, helping run his studio, and starting a print shop together.
After discussing his history and showing us his work, Alex started his talk by comparing our lives as creatives to being in an adventure video game named Kings Quest 6. Along your journey you constantly find things that you put into an infinite backpack of storage. Maybe some you don’t need now, but look like they might come in handy later.
This acts as a very good metaphor for Alex’s theory of storing “kernels of advice”. You may know that it resonates with you now, but may not know how to use it yet. However you can go back and use it in the future. With this in mind Alex planned to share with us the things he’d found through this theory.
The first kernel of advice Alex shared with us was one given to him by Chuck Klosterman, a pop culture author Alex admires. While Alex was attending his talk at Duke, an audience member asked Klosterman how he reached where he is now. Alex was surprised at his almost annoyed response, when Klosterman said “That’s the wrong question to ask. I can tell you how I got here, I can tell you exactly what I did step-by-step. I can write a book about it, I can tell you every single thing that you need to do, if you want to do what I did. But it’d be futile because it’d be impossible to replicate some of the serendipitous moments that happened to me along the way”.
Instead, his advice was just two words: “Be Ready”. This may seem really basic, but it’s of the utmost importance. At any point in your career you need to be ready to show your stuff. If you’re a musician you’d want to have original songs recorded and ready to let someone listen to. You never know who you might meet thats a fellow musician or has big connections.
Being ready will allow you to seize any opportunity that arises. Alex thought to himself “I’ll have my portfolio, I’ll have my online presence, I’ll have all of that ready to go. I’ll have my business card in case I meet somebody. If one of those crazy things happens I’ll always be ready to take advantage of it”. Feeling that was really important. Alex took it to heart and feels that it’s helped him out often throughout his career.
The Ever-Illusive Mentor Relationship:
For Alex his mentor was Scott Hansen at ISO50, whom he felt taught him more than school ever did. However Alex says that this desired mentor relationship is a hard thing to come by because its a mutual relationship. Scott Hansen is a successful musician and designer and Alex wanted to be the same, so the only way he could think of to do that was to work with him.
“For young designers especially, [a mentor] is a great thing to look out for, and if you’re already an experienced designer, its the kind of thing where you should be aware you really could make a difference in someone’s career by participating in that way.”
In school, everyone can be really nice; people can be almost too nice. Alex experienced this when he began design school. This was an experience I could relate to when I went to a smaller college, and that radically changed when I started attending art school.
“It drove me crazy, because I would come in having no idea what I was doing. I put a piece of work up, and I knew it was terrible. I could look at it and tell you it was horrible, because I either hadn’t spent a lot of time on it, or it was the first thing I’d ever done. And people would look at it and say ‘Yeah looks good. I like the color blue, that’s awesome’. I’d be so frustrated because I was trying to learn and the critique I was getting was so timid and so nice. And while that felt good, I wasn’t learning at all. So I said ‘how can I fix this?’ I will try to critique as I would like to be critiqued. So I started saying ‘Wow that sucks a lot. That’s terrible’. Then suddenly I’m the asshole. Everyone says ‘Woah, woah, calm down! What’s your problem?’. Then I say ‘No no no, it’s bad because that color doesn’t go with this color, and that typeface is Papyrus’.”
It’s more important to be more helpful to be more forward and more honest because it’s just going to help.
The Taste & Ability Gap (Doing More Work)
In art school Alex spent a lot of time doing personal projects. A practice passionately backed by every speaker at Weapons of Mass Creation. Even if you have a 9-5 job your hours spent after work or school can be extremely valuable for doing personal projects.
“When I say personal projects I don’t just mean freelancing, I mean using the time that you have to do something completely insane. I mean that in the truest possible way; something completely fucking crazy. Because that’s what gets noticed. That’s what I want to write about when I’m looking for work to put on the blog. I will say, that I spend a lot of time these days scanning those portfolios and looking online. And I’ll spend sometimes hours looking for someone to write about. It’s not that easy anymore to find, and it’s because not that many people I think take advantage of having the time to do something completely nuts.”
Alex gave a piece of advice that hit home, as I’m a design student and someone who is going to be looking for a job soon. In school, it is important to benchmark yourself outside of your school’s community. For the people that have a job, they should benchmark themselves outside of their office walls. You should really be benchmarking yourself against is the work of the people you respect, and yourself — A sentiment I can agree with fully.
Your school is such a small microcosm of the design world, it’s rather short sighted to care about being as good as people there. In the arena of design education you see a lot of students only caring about their grades. This makes sense in any academic environment, you want good grades, and maybe your parents that put you through college want that, too. And it’s hard to separate yourself from the mentality that having an A means your work is better than someone who got a B. However in design school grades really don’t matter. Alex attested “I’ve been to a lot of interviews and I’ve interviewed a lot of people where the last thing on earth thats ever looked at is their grades. The title MFA, or the title BFA, GPA, any of that stuff, doesn’t matter in design at all. It’s all about your work and portfolio”.
Alex told us his favorite piece of advice he’s ever heard that came from Ira Glass (This American Life). Summing up Ira Glass’ advice; when you start out a creative field you’re probably doing so because your taste is pretty good; however, your ability to make things that match up to your taste falls short. This can be very frustrating because your work usually wont be very good when you start. This can be very discouraging, however the most important thing to remember is that this happens to everyone. At least for a couple of years, maybe even longer. The only way to rectify the taste and ability gap is to just do a lot of work. It’s important to realize the gap exists and to figure out what you can do to fix it.
Alex gave an anecdote about his process of creating:
“These days when I like something I’ll usually like it for probably about two weeks. I have, kind of like a decreasing return on how much I like my work. The longer I like it the better I think it was. Some things I’ll say ‘wow that’s amazing’ then I’ll come back two hours later and actually it’s terrible.”
He further gave the advice that if you become really specific and dissect what isn’t working about what you’re not satisfied with, and if you find out what it is that you really like about work that you admire, you can improve your work significantly.
A great set of three kernels of advice. Ones that I kept with me ever since leaving Alex’s talk.
There are some great questions and answers at the end of the bootleg recording that get a bit too wordy to transcribe. Give it a listen, download at the link below.
Listen to the Talk
As I watched every talk, I kept Garage Band open on my MacBook and recorded everything I could. The quality of the mp3 below may not be the best, but you can get an idea of what it was like from my perspective in the front row. Bootleg version!