Design Like Phelps

Author's Note: This article was originally published in 2008, right before Phelps was a household name.

You've heard of Glaser, Sagmeister, and Carson, but have you heard of Phelps? 

I'm talking about Michael Phelps, the olympic swimmer. In 2008 he won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and he currently holds thirty-eight world records. To top it off, he's only twenty-five. At first glance his tremendous success is intimidating, almost inhuman. At second glance ... well, not much changes. But at third glance (and if you elongate your glance into a gaze) we can take time to rationalize his success and learn from it.

Der Wunderschwimmer

Phelps is arguably the best swimmer on Earth. He's probably the nearest a human has come to experiencing life as a fish (SCUBA doesn't count). How is it possible that he can destroy the competition so completely, so definitely, that his success almost becomes guaranteed? It's an obvious answer. You may not like it (you probably won't), but here it is: Practice.

Seven days a week, multiple times a day, Michael Phelps practices. On most days he swims in the morning, works out in the afternoon, and swims again in the evening. In between workouts he eats monster meals that range from one to three thousand calories each. By the time he goes to bed he's eaten over ten thousand calories. (The average human being—read: you and I—eats around two-thousand calories a day.) Every facet of his existence is meticulously tuned for swimming.

Put on Your Design Swimsuit

Can you say that every facet of your day is precisely tuned for improvement? Forget that we're "Artists," because, let's be honest, we're sometimes not even sure what Art is, let alone what being an Artist is. Instead let's consider ourselves people who study technical skills: a technician, if you will.

Technicians hone their craft through years of study, just like athletes. Both have to chisel concepts into their minds and mannerisms into their bodies in order to perform tasks. Runners have to train their cardiovascular system, their muscles, perfect their breathing, but they also have to sharpen their mental awareness, understanding of the sport, methods for improving times, and so on. Painters have to study the interactivity of colors on canvas, learn how to draft, understand the material complexities of paint, but also have to learn how to physically control the brush and pencil, achieve careful precision, hold their arms up for extended periods (it's more difficult than it looks!), and so on.

All the training that Michael Phelps endures doesn't solely lie in the realm of athletics. Just like any other physical or mental endeavor, practice is paramount to advancement and success.  As a technician we have a responsibility to our craft (and to ourselves) to train every day.

Swim, Swam, Swum

Working out our Design muscles doesn't produce visible results like working out our physical muscles does. If that were the case then Milton Glaser and Steven Heller would look like Andre the Giant and Shaquille O'Neal. While we will never have a Schwarzenegger-like physique from designing, our works can be Titan in presence. To achieve Promethian stature we have to work our minds in two ways: conceptually and technically.

Technical muscle building is somewhat simple. There is knowledge about our trade that we either know or don't know. Take time every day to read a book or watch a tutorial. Make a goal to learn just one new bit of relevant information every day. Over time all the little bits add up to large chunks and before you know it you're stealing Fire from the gods.

Conceptual muscle building is more abstract. It's thinking with a purpose. Every time we face a new challenge it's up to our creative thinking to come up with a solution. If we don't practice being creative problem solvers on a regular basis then it becomes harder for us to come to the podium when we need to. Instead of waiting until problems are presented begin solving daily design challenges. For example, if you like coffee, come up with a coffee logo every morning—while you drink coffee no less! 

[Insert/Imagine Sound of Gunshot/Whistle]

Michael Phelps isn't straining himself any more than the other swimmers in the pool. Sit on that thought for a moment. If everyone in the pool is pushing themselves 100% why does he keep winning? Because every day he physically and mentally pushes himself further than his competition. His wins aren't earned during the race, they're earned before it.

Like swimming, good designs aren't islands of effective effort—they're the culmination of technical and conceptual practice derived from experience. So if we want to design like Phelps then we need to eat monster meals of design deliciousness and perform hundreds of creative laps. Every day.