Despite his status as a design inspiration to many, Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh spent the first decade of his career searching for his own creative heroes.
Realizing his struggle was one lots of other designers faced, he decided to write How They Got There: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers. In it, he dives deep into the stories behind some of the biggest names in design today, capturing their struggles, triumphs, and often meandering paths to design success.
It’s a book he wishes had been around when he was just starting out—and something he hopes helps others navigate their own careers, whether they’re fresh to the discipline, looking to make a change, or trying to break into the next level.
In sitting down with his own design heroes—who boast a diverse cross section of experience, from boutique to agency to startup and beyond—Vinh found a familiar story: most didn’t “plan” their design careers, but rather experienced some serendipitous series of events that led them to it. Quite a few, it seemed, majored in “not design,” yet found their way to it through other creative means.
“Very few of us are able to graduate design school and have an immediate road map for our career,” Vinh says. “We often don’t get a good idea of ‘what design is’ in college or earlier. A lot of us have gone through a lot of arts- and design-related fields where design might not be the primary focus, but design plays an important role in that experience.”
For interview subject Dan Cederholm, co-founder of Dribbble, music was the conduit to design. He started out as a musician, and through happenstance became the go-to person for cover design, gig posters, and more. Eventually he crafted a website for his band and ultimately became fully submerged in design.
That self-taught theme was another common thread Vinh found through his interviews. Alex Cornell of Firespotter Labs (now a product designer at Facebook) taught himself by studying typography, photography, and web design.
“The nature of looking at design that you love and respect intensely, and examining it, and then remaking it in your brain and at home, will teach you the patterns that successful designers use,” Cornell says in the book.
Vinh agreed. He spent hours pouring over famous collections of work—Neville Brody being a favorite—studying them and reading the commentary about what went into it. As web design emerged, he took what he learned and tackled the challenge of applying it to a new medium. As a result, he discovered new insights.
“If you study the work that’s come before, but you apply it to your own work by really respecting the problem and the medium, I don’t think it’s imitation,” he says. “I think it’s more accurately described, at that point, as tribute.”
The scene is always changing, Vinh said, and as careers in design continue to shift thanks to an ever-changing business and technological landscape, Vinh hopes his book helps others chart their own path with help from those who came before.
“It’s a great book for people anywhere in their career who are currently looking to make a meaningful change,” he says.
Just for the InVision community: save $10 on Khoi Vinh’s book when you enter the code INVISION at checkout.