Editor’s note: We’ve asked a handful of design leaders to respond to prompts each week. This week’s prompt was “What’s the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?” Check out Michael McWatters’ answer below, and submit your own response to our Medium publication.
My first professional design gig was a bit unusual: I worked for one of the original laser light companies. We worked on everything from concerts to movies, theme parks to public celebrations, raves to galas.
The work was eclectic, challenging, and a blast. On any given day, I’d find myself creating laser light animations, filming stop-motion movies, developing architectural lighting mockups, selecting tracks for sound design, sketching storyboards, working on marketing collateral, etc.
While there, I worked for an art director who, after all these years, remains one of the most creative and intelligent people I’ve had the good fortune to work with. No matter how challenging the project, he never ran short of ideas or energy. More striking than that, though, was the fact that he possessed both an insatiable curiosity and a seemingly endless breadth of knowledge spanning almost any subject matter imaginable. I fancied myself a well-rounded individual, but I was completely 2-dimensional compared to him. (And, frankly, I wasn’t all that much younger.)
There was never a single moment or conversation where he imparted his wisdom on me. Instead, I learned from his example: at the start of any project, he’d immerse himself in the subject matter, devouring all the background material possible.
“Do your homework, ask questions, and look for inspiration in unexpected places.”
When we did a project celebrating the NBA, for example, our first stop was the public library where we grabbed stacks of books for research. We went to a sporting goods store to look at equipment. We visited a court to watch some talented local players. We found film footage and radio broadcasts of historic games. All of this happened before our first brainstorm sessions, let alone our first sketch sessions. We went into our work well-informed.
When we worked on a space-themed spectacular for an amusement park in South Korea, we learned about the people who would be visiting the park. We also studied Korean mythology, watched a space opera, looked at pulp sci-fi cover art, and gathered swipe of retro-imaginary spacecraft. It was like this for all of our projects.
What I learned from this art director back then—and what has been reinforced repeatedly throughout my career—is the value of being a curious, smart, purpose-driven designer. I learned to do my homework, to ask questions, to look for inspiration and insights in unexpected places.
I learned that the best design work doesn’t come from some mythical creative spark, but from research and knowledge acquired before ever beginning the formal design process.
Read more responses to this prompt
- Andy Budd: What’s the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?
- Nick Schaden: On designer self-awareness