It is hard to read one of the countless design articles without seeing a certain string of names mentioned. Within those names, you’re bound to see Jason Santa Maria. To be honest, I know very little about Jason. I know of him, his work, and a few articles, but I don’t know him. Most of you reading don’t know him either. In fact, Jason Santa Maria, probably doesn’t even know that version of himself. Because that version of him doesn’t exist.
So before we go on, let me apologize up front. This is not a story about the real Jason Santa Maria. This is really about you.
The Jason I am referring to is the personification of the designer, creative, and coder, which all of us strive to be. It could be that voice in our heads critiquing our work. It could be that person we admire who makes us wish we could create something as beautiful as them. Any way you cut it, Jason is a driving force for what we do. It is much easier to say, “Someday, I’d like to be like Jason,” than to say, “Someday, I’d like to be like me… except much better.” We don’t know what a “much better” version of us really means. It is very difficult to articulate.
Designerus Admira Influenza
Have you ever seen someone else’s work and it makes you sick to your core? The sort of sick feeling that feels like you don’t even have it in you to ever be that good? Well I certainly have, and still do to this day. If you say you’ve never had that feeling then you my friend are lying to yourself (Also see: Dunning-Kruger Effect). Anyone who knows enough to know that they suck at something has had this feeling. Even our manifestation of Jason who we personally admire and regard as the best has had those moments. If Jason didn’t have that moment, then how could he ever be any good? If he thought, “I frigging rule, and no one can touch me,” why would he ever need or want to improve?
Think about where you are right now with your skills just for a moment. Now look at the gap between your work and Jason’s. Is it far? Is it close? So if I were to say that at one point in his life, Jason sucked at design, would that be a surprise? It shouldn’t be. Because he did. We all start from the same place, and that is at ground sucking zero.
When I started my career I had this idea I would end up at one of the big name agencies. In fact, nothing less would have been acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for yourself. The problem is that I thought the only way I could do great work, or to feel accomplished was to be able to say that I worked at “Rockstar Agency.” I also thought that the only work that was ever any good was the work that came out of places like those. I imagined that only people that were already like Jason, or would be as good, went to work there. So if I added it all up, it was a must to get a job there. If I didn’t, I would have failed miserably in my career.
I struggled to get into those places. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t good enough. I failed.
When I found work at the local agency I was happy to have a job, but dreamed of the other places. I soon started to accept the fact that I wasn’t meant to be Jason. I was meant to be crappy old me. I couldn’t see a future version of myself that was any good at design. I could only see Jason, sitting there in his sweet office with a view, drinking Starbucks, and designing cool shit for Nike on his brand new Mac.
A project came along a while later. It was starting a brand from the ground up. It sounded like a lot of fun. The client then proceeded to pull out work from another agency. It was god-awful. It looked like my little cousin had created it with his bootleg copy of Photoshop. What agency had done this? I thought it had to be one of the places down the street. The client then said the words I will never forget: “Rockstar Agency.”
The client had taken the project to a big Chicago agency. One I would have given anything to work at. They had not been able to provide them with the results they needed. So, they came to us. We ended up being able to provide them with the solutions they were expecting and required. Crappy old me, had done the work that the so-called Jason had failed at. Maybe Jason didn’t listen to them. Maybe this client was too small to care about spending time on. Whatever the reason, it changed my perception. Great work didn’t just come from big agencies with Jason’s working there. Great work came from people who cared about doing good stuff; wherever they worked.
The Transparent Dangling Carrot
I remember hearing an interview with Alanis Morissette where she was asked about the meaning of the lyrics in one of her songs: “How bout them transparent dangling carrots…” Alanis answered that (paraphrasing what I remember) it was about how she thought fame and “making it big” was this goal of hers and when she got there, she realized it really wasn’t anything meaningful. The problems that she had before in things like relationships were still there. The happiness that she thought she would find there really didn’t arrive with meeting that goal.
The people I have worked with have come from many different backgrounds and experiences. Some have been horrible, selfish, and egocentric people. Others were intelligent, caring, and willing to guide me. No matter what their demeanor I have learned from each and every one of them. I have learned to peel away the layer of judgment that I once had thinking if someone didn’t have a name in the industry, or had worked for big name clients or agencies, they couldn’t be that good. It is so far from the truth. The peers and mentors that I have had taught me so much about design… and life. I couldn’t have asked for more. I still meet with my mentor from time to time, and he still offers me a lot of wisdom.
I think that having someone you aspire to be like is a normal part of life. The thing is that there are also people around you right now that have a lot to offer. If I find myself in a difficult spot asking: “What would Jason do?” I realize I don’t really have to ask that so much anymore. You could say that Jason was one of the people sitting right next to me the entire time, and I wasn’t wise enough to realize it.
I hope that now I am.