If you’ve ever met James Victore—or studied his design, heard one of his talks, read his books—you know, quite simply, there’s no one like him.
It starts from the moment you see him, his devilish mustache and goatee giving way to his razor-edged turns of phrase and a design style that pummels you with the force of a barroom brawler, leaving you dazed, yet thankful for the bout, perhaps for the sense that has been knocked into you or the style with which it was delivered. Aptly described as part Darth Vader and part Yoda, he is, unabashedly and brashly, himself.
As Victore has observed, “People have lived these lives before and left us some directions—their quotes are our access points.”
And thus to ring in the latest episode of Design Matters, here are 28 of his own.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“I learned to design the same way I learned to swear: I had to pick it up in the street.”
“I was born to do this job. I was born to be a graphic designer. As a kid, I drew and made wordplay constantly. Malcolm Gladwell has this idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at something. My 10,000 hours started when I was 5.”
“I spent a little bit of time in design school and I felt that we all went in with this empty shoe box and we were handed out these particular tools and these particular answers, and as soon as we got out of school, we would be a success if we looked alike and acted alike. I thought that was the job. I think you could work in New York city and be very successful doing that, having no opinion, having no look, just melding to the client. It’s just not something that I can personally do.”
“From Paul [Bacon] I learned to how to throw your shoe at talk radio programs. I learned about wine. I learned about cars and auto racing. But mostly I learned about jazz. I learned how to use my ears. I learned why Fats Waller is relevant. I learned how good Jelly Roll Morton really is. And also how to listen to Philip Glass, James Brown and rap. In other words, he taught me everything I needed to be a designer.”
“Most people start by stopping. An utterly genius idea pops into your head—start a business, write a story, quit your crappy job—and you let it die a death of inertia. You fail to start. This makes complete sense; as Newton’s first law tells us, an object at rest—like your ass—tends to stay at rest. For any creation, any new project or new move in your life, starting is the hardest part. Too many of us are waiting to start. But while you are waiting, others are already living the life you want—the only difference between them and you is that they started.”
“I don’t think there’s a point in my life that I’ve ever decided not to take a risk. For better or worse, safety and comfort don’t interest me. To me, risk means feeling and being alive.”
“We do advertising, we do posters, we do all these things; we’re doing product design and customizing stuff—it’s all the same to me. I don’t really want any one discipline. There’s this wonderful line about being a samurai: A samurai doesn’t have one favorite tool.”
“I hand-pick my clients, that way I can fire them. Clients need to be educated to what we can, and can’t, do for them. This takes a lot of work. Talking the talk, as they say. Not all of us are good at it or even interested in it. Rarely does a good one just walk in the door. We have to make them. I also pick and find clients that I am interested in. I can't work for Campbell’s soup. Campbell’s soup does not give me an erection.”
“Part of the problem these days is there’s so much choice. At some point, someone just has to say: We’re going to do it like this because I want to do it this way. Because, if you don’t, you’re going to be churning out oatmeal. You look at some graphic design today, and you can tell that nobody is in charge.”
“No amount of fame feeds this thing. It has to come from the inside. I don’t work for money. I’ve never worked for money. Don’t chase money because then you get so caught up in what shit costs, and what we don’t realize is that shuts the rest of our lives down. If you’re a graphic designer who wants to make a lot of money and do good work, there’s a good chance that you won’t do either of those things.”
“The larger audience out there responds to work when they can see that a real human being made it. So much of the work today just looks as though it was spit out by a computer. It doesn’t have any fingerprints or cat hair on it.”
“When we see freedom in someone’s work, it frees us up; when we see intelligence in someone’s work, it makes us smarter; and when we see vulnerability in the work, we feel closer, more human.”
“I’m doing a job right now for Bobbi Brown cosmetics, and using a Sumi-e brush with India ink precisely because I suck at it. It’s so much more interesting than being good at something—I like the idea of chance and mistakes. I can’t wait until I’m 80 and have that shaky old-man handwriting.”
“Our industry changes all the time, and keeping up with it is like chasing a bus cross-country. We also change. The motives that drove us to become creative at 21 now have grown, developed and want more, different and uncharted. If I never changed careers, I’d still be doing book jackets for books I don’t care about with budgets fit for 10-year olds. I’m almost forced to seek more beauty and wealth and horizons.”
“Part of the teaching thing is to give back. That was the original intent: to give back. The other thing is, if you do a really good job of teaching, it’s a selfish occupation—I get so much more out of these guys than they get. And the third thing is I have a history of hotheads and grassfires that I want to be associated with.”
“This is a radical idea I’ve been developing over the last few years: When you see your work as a gift, your goal is no longer to satisfy a boss or client—or even to gain a paycheck. It changes how you think about work, why you do it, what you make and who you work for. You work to make yourself happy, and in turn speak directly to your audience. Because you now give them something of value—a piece of yourself.”
“Weird is good; it’s an anomaly and it’s unique. I teach on the simple premise that the things that made you weird as a kid make you great as an adult—but only if you pay attention to them. If you look at any ‘successful’ person, they are probably being paid to play out the goofiness or athleticism or nerdiness or curiosity they already possessed as a child. Unfortunately for most people, somewhere along the road their weirdness was taught out of them or, worse, shamed out of them. Crushed by the need to ‘fit in,’ they left their quirks and special powers behind. But it is our flaws that make us interesting. We need to not only hang on to them, but hone them.”
“Many of my peers see this as dangerous—I am the fox in Pinocchio, leading the good little boys and girls off to a life in the circus. ‘But however will they find a job?!’ they ask. When pushed to invite danger into their work, my students find something much better than a job—they learn to create their own place in this world.”
“Often I am told by young designers that they wish to ‘someday’ be as brave and as opinionated in their work as I am. I have to ask them why they are waiting.”
“Designers possess such amazing powers through words and imagery, it boggles my mind why we don’t wield it.”
“‘Mr Victore,’ he said, ‘I hear what you mean about taking risks in your career … but I’ve got rent to pay.’ …
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Thomas,’ he said.
‘Thomas, here’s your headstone: Here lies Thomas. He would have done great work, but he had to pay the rent.’”
“Looking back is a trap. I could say that I wish I had a million dollars, but the amount of shit I would have to swim through for that wouldn’t come near the reward.”
“Wall Street is run by fear and greed. Social media is fueled by fear and ego—I know this because my ego is in charge of my Instagram account. From the outside everything looks easy and has a nice soundtrack, but the truth is we are all just making it up and trying to attract more attention as we go. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s Instagram account.”
“Whenever I’m at a loss for ideas I go for a run or to a bar. We’re all guilty of sitting at our desks, forcing meat through a grinder and hoping for excellence to gracefully emerge from the other end. Get out of the studio, wander, play, take a nap. Only when you step outside of your daily habits will chaos, madness and life-changing opportunities find you.”
“The world is brimming with would-be authors, dancers and entrepreneurs full of bright and innovative ideas, holding the future of creativity inside them. Most of their ideas will never make it to market and their talents will remain silenced. The biggest reason for this is too much thinking and not enough doing, too much worry and not enough action. Success goes to those who are moving. … You can’t be a mover and a shaker if you’re standing still.”
“I feel like a smoker who has just quit and can finally smell dinner. I am just realizing the full potential of my work and I now want to wield it like a large club with nails in it.”
“Bring the fire. Bring the fire that, quite frankly, god gave you.”
“Learn everything. Then forget it. THEN design.”
James Victore: Look at yourself, and evaluate yourself, and say, listen, these are the things that I don't wanna live with. People have to understand that whatever they're feeling, there's always a way out.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters, with Debbie Millman, from designobserver.com. For 14 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about and working on. On this episode, designer James Victore talks about leading a creative life.
James: If we look at our childhood, we've done the work already. We're born wildly creative, we don't need to develop it, we don't need to. We just need to recall it.
Debbie Millman: The things that made you weird as a kid make you great today. You become who you pretend to be. Freedom is something you take. Kill your phone. Stop deprecating all over yourself. Love something other than your selfie. No, that's not your id talking, that's James Victore. Actually, those are the titles of just a few of the subchapters in Victore's new book, Feck Perfuction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life. James first got famous for his in your face, politically arresting design work. Now, he's out to shock us with in your face talk, about our creative lives. James Victore, welcome back to Design Matters.
James: Darling, it is great to be here.
Debbie: This is the third time you've been on Design Matters. We had a full on interview in 2010, and you were part of one of the, I think, original Bad Boys of Design series that I did in Design Matters 1.0. Do you remember that?
James: Wow, yeah, well now that you say it, yes I do.
Debbie: So thank you for coming back to talk about your new book-
James: And I've just gotten badder, so it's great.
Debbie: So I found something that astonished me. You made your debut as a fashion icon in the men's style section of the New York Times in 1989.
James: Wow, you did homework.
Debbie: You were photographed with your Yamaha in an article about professionals who ride motorcycles to their offices in Manhattan.
Debbie: I had no idea you were such a fashionista back then.
James: Yes, I remember that. That was very serendipitous, I just pulled up to my parking spot at Columbus Circle, and there was a photographer there, and they said, "Hey, may we take your picture?" And I was like, "Sure."
Debbie: And was the man wearing a blue jacket?
James: No, it was not Bill. I wish. I wish it was Bill, I knew Bill at the time.
Debbie: Bill Cunningham.
James: Bill Cunningham was a ... the studio I worked at, I was in Paul Bacon's studio, and it was on the 11th floor of Carnegie Hall, which is where Bill came out of, yes. But yeah, that was a wild little thing.
Debbie: You were born in 1962, in Mountain Home, Idaho, but you grew up in upstate New York. When and why did your family leave Idaho?
James: Idaho ... we were there because it was a military base. My father was in the military, a lifelong military. By the time I was five, I'd lived in five different places, and on my fifth birthday, literally, we moved to Plattsburgh, New York, 'cause my father was stationed there. And just before that, my mother, to tell you where I come from, my mother in a Dodge Dart station wagon, moved three kids across the country, twice. 'Cause she was a military wife, and that's what you did. My father was, until I was 11 years old, my father was basically stationed six months, nine months at a time, some place.
Debbie: What did he do in the military?
James: He was a boom operator for a KC 125 refueling airplane. So he flew over Vietnam, and refueled fighter jets.
Debbie: Another interesting tidbit that I discovered about you, James, is it true that your middle name is Brain?
James: It is true that my middle name is Brain. My father wanted my first name to be James, and my mother wanted my first name to be Brian. My mother is a good Irish Catholic, and my father was Italian. But the military hospital in Mountain Home, Idaho was not as hip as possibly some others, and it was basically a typo. So my middle name is Brain. And you know what? It makes sense.
Debbie: Absolutely. Absolutely. So have you ever used the correct spelling, or do you just go by James Brain Victore?
James: Yeah, unfortunately legally have to use the correct one, 'cause nobody would really ... you know, I'm just not interested. I get frisked enough at airports and looked at enough that I don't need that extra ...
Debbie: Yeah. Absolutely.
Debbie: Reflecting on your teaching practice today, you've said, "I want people to be like five year olds, and ask why, why, why. Because that's important." Were you, as a five year old, constantly asking why?
James: You bring up something really interesting. Yes. And as a five year old, I was creative. And one of my memories is that I was always asking why, I was always making up song lyrics, and puns, and full of jokes, and drawing on everything, and I was called creative. And I knew at the time that it was not a compliment.
James: 'Cause creativity disrupts. Right? Creativity, our job is to question, is to ask why. Why does it have to be like that, why can't we turn it upside down? Why does it have to be blue? Why does it ... you know. So as a child, that's the process, and the first line of the new book says, "We are all born wildly creative, but some of us just forgot," and the reason we forget is 'cause it's really difficult to carry that why through life. It's difficult to be the disruptor, it's difficult to ask the questions all the time, 'cause, you know, you'll more often than not, you'll get shot down.
Debbie: Did you feel that there was any sense at that time of your life to discourage your creativity?
James: Oh, heck yeah.
Debbie: In what way?
James: In that my creativity wasn't condoned at home or school. And I think, you know, when I talk about this with other people, they kind of just roll their eyes and go, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. 'Cause they totally remember being called weird, being odd because they liked to dress a certain way, or, you know, I think between five and seven is when it starts. When kids notice differences in other kids. To be weird and to be creative, it can be a target, if you're not in the right atmosphere.
Debbie: But yet you persevered.
James: But yet it was a drum that was so goddamn loud that I just couldn't walk away from it, I couldn't not listen to it. And it wasn't like, you know, part of it was growing up on the military base. Because we all knew that ... I mean there are two things that I've learned in the military, and I've said this more than once. Two things that I love, that I learned in the military. And one is great posture, right. Shoulders back, chest out, chin up. The other thing is to question authority.
Debbie: I'm surprised at the second one.
James: Oh, no, no, no. If you were what we call a military brat, you know, a kid growing up on a ... especially during Vietnam, you learned to question authority. And that was the small bit of juvenile anarchy that I was raised in. And I hold it dear, it's important to me.
Debbie: But you were shy growing up, I understand. You were also an altar boy.
James: I was an altar boy. Well, you know-
Debbie: A shy altar boy is not how I would have envisioned your childhood, James.
James: But listen to this. Listen to this, where these come from. The shyness is because I was told I was shy.
James: I was told I was shy by authority. My father used to introduce me as that. I'm the youngest of three, I have two older sisters, I'm the youngest of three. I was introduced as, "This is Jimmy, he's my shy one." And I'm like, in my gut I'm like, "I'm not fucking shy, who's shy, wait, who's he talking about?" But-
Debbie: And when did you go from Jimmy to James? I've never called you Jimmy, and I've known you for 20 years.
James: When I moved to New York, I became James.
James: When I was 19 I became James, I was like, bonk. No Jim, no Jimmy. Yeah. And the altar boy was being brought up in a, you know, Catholic upbringing, and doing everything right. So it was altar boy, it was Catholic school, it was, you know, Catholic school all the way through. And just doing ... toeing the line, doing what I was supposed to do.
Debbie: You talk a lot about the notion of the things that made you weird as a kid make you great as an adult. You have a really wonderful poster with that statement on it. What made you weird as a kid? Was it just being a shy, creative, youngest child?
James: It was the youngest child, the youngest child of two older sisters was great, because I was left alone a lot. You know, my sisters didn't really wanna, you know, mess with me. So my mom, even today, she says, she would come home. Because my parents both worked, and they were both basically gone a lot. So I raised myself, and I was left alone a lot, so I have a wonderful grasp of solitude. I've never been much of a team player, but my mother would come home from work, and she would think I have two other friends with me upstairs, 'cause of all the voices and all the playing, and all the ...
James: So I really learned to entertain myself. And that, you know, that's basically what I do as a creative professional now. All those, the puns, the ... you mentioned some of the titles, when we were talking, or the titles of the chapters. I read through the chapters, the titles, and I go, "That's some funny shit. That's pretty good, I gotta say."
Debbie: Good thing you've gotta appreciate your own work. Yeah.
James: It's pretty good. Just, you know. So those are the things that, you know, just that simple play. And I think, you know, when I push others they can look back at their lives and see the things that they did, whether it was ... Let's take my beautiful wife Laura, for example. For a living right now, what she does is she runs a workshop every week where she teaches women to dance, teaches women to be comfortable basically dancing in their underwear. In order to own their sexuality and own who they are, and to open their bodies-
Debbie: I need to take that class.
James: And open their hearts. And when pressed, I say, "Laura, so what'd you do when you were a kid, and what did ... And she'll list a bunch of things, but she said, "You know what I really remember? I loved dancing in my underwear." And that's just, you know, that's how it works. I mean if you take any professional actor, or athlete, or chef, or whatever, and you bring them back to their origin story, they'll say, when I was a kid, my father and I, in the backyard, until the lights went out, like, throwing the ball, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
James: One of my mentors is a guy named Gary Danko. And Gary Danko, when I was 19 he was the chef at a restaurant that I was a waiter at. And I'd been, I was fired twice from this ... I was in upstate New York, and you know, I was angry and I didn't know what to do. And Gary was the one who said, "Jimmy," again. He said, "Go to New York." And Gary is now, Gary Danko, it's a two star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco. You know, one of these places you can't get into. And Gary's origin story's hilarious, Gary ... he said when he was a kid, his mom woke up one night and there was all this noise in the kitchen, and she goes down, and he's rifling through, he's like seven, six. And he's rifling through all the pots and the pans, and he's naked, except he has her apron on.
James: And she said, "Gary, what are you doing?" And he said, "I'm making a cake, Mommy." And Gary says, at that moment my mother knew two things about me.
Debbie: What were they?
James: That he was going to be a chef, and that he was wildly gay, you know. And he's amazed, he is the most amazing man I've ... you know, he's still a creative mentor of mine, and he's a delight and a charm, and super smart, and I owe a huge part of my career to him.
Debbie: You said that in your hometown there were two stable occupations, nurse and prison guard, but I understand that when you were a kid it was apparent very early on that you were either going to be a graphic designer or a cross-dresser. So I was wondering if you could elaborate on both of those?
James: Yes. When I was a kid, my mother used to take me shopping, and I was ... again, I was six, or seven, and I was small enough that when we'd go into the dress stores that I could walk underneath all the dresses. Underneath all the racks. And what I would do, is, I would collect the tags. I'd just pull the tags off of the clothes, and we would be leaving the store, and my mother would look down and I would have a handful of tags in my paw, right, and she'd look down and she'd go, "Oh, Jimmy."
James: But that is the beginning of, you know, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours. My 10,000 hours started when I was five, baby, I've done more than. You know? And we all have, we've all put in that time if we look back, if we look at our childhood, you've done the work already. You know? We're born wildly creative, we don't need to develop it, we don't need to ... We just need to recall it. You know, what I do now is I tell people, listen, I'm not here to tell you anything. I'm here to remind you that that's who you are. So that like, this whole kind of thing about like, women's clothing and women's dresses, and those tags and things, it kind of has a deep, instilled memory in me, and it's really important.
Debbie: You took Gary's advice, you ended up going to New York, you moved to New York with $300 in your pocket, but prior to that, you did have a brief college experience in your hometown.
Debbie: Wherein you were asked to leave the school.
Debbie: So, leave the school, or thrown out of the school?
James: I was thrown out, I got a 0.04 CUM. Here's a funny thing that no one knows. Coming straight out of high school, you know you finish high school and there's a little celebration where they tout everybody up on stage, and they give 'em their diploma, and they pat you on the back, and I worked hard to get into the military academy. And I was an alternate for the air force academy, but it didn't come through, and I didn't apply to other schools.
James: So when it came time for that little celebration, that little ceremony, I didn't want a blank next to my name, 'cause all my friends were going to Dartmouth and West Point, you know, like I was with some fancy guys, right. I didn't want a blank. So it literally said, Jim Victore is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian.
Debbie: Wow. How serendipitous.
James: And oddly enough, to a certain degree that's what I do for a living.
James: So what was the question?
Debbie: Essentially, what ... how were you asked to leave but that was the question-
James: Well, I, yeah, so I didn't get into the air force academy, but I could get into the state university in my hometown, late. There was one class about Shakespeare that just moved me, and I was just like ... We did an entire semester on Hamlet and an entire semester on Romeo and Juliet. It was so brilliant. But after the year, I was waiting tables with Gary, at Gary's place. I was working as a ski patrol during the weekends, and I was basically super unhappy at university, and sleeping and crying in my car between classes. 'Cause I just didn't know ...
Debbie: You were living in your car at that point?
James: Pretty much. And I just didn't know kind of where to go. I didn't know ... I knew I was extra furniture at home, you know. 18 years old, kinda clumsy and just wanted to, you know, chase a skirt and be out late. So I was super lost, and it was a ... I think a lot of people have that kind of painful point, where they're like, I don't know what to do. And that's when Gary said, you know, go to New York. And I think right after he said it I think I left immediately. But the school, yes, the school basically helped, because they gave me a super low grade and I'm out of there.
Debbie: You've said that you did design the easy way. You came to New York, if you were really good you could do it from wherever.
James: Yeah, I think so.
Debbie: You still think that?
James: I think that. Well, I think that more, now.
Debbie: Why is that?
James: With the internet, more now, because you can get seen. Yeah, I mean New York is where the stuff is man, New York's where it's happening, it's like, you know. It's like, you know, Bruce Springsteen had to, you know, he couldn't stay in New Jersey and become a musician, he had to come to New York. That's where the action was, or go to LA, right. It's just how it works. But I thought at that time, and I think more so now ... And I think one of the reasons why I say that is because I want to help those people who can't get to ... You know, I think there's amazing talent all over the world, and it's not just here. And you don't have to be here, but what you have to do is be brave enough to get it out into the world. In any way possible.
Debbie: You then enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, where you would ironically later teach, and when I first interviewed you, the very first interview, you recalled being told by your professor that you should either be a ski instructor or an accountant, instead of a designer or an artist. And I still cannot believe, all these years later, I still cannot believe a teacher would say something like that to anyone, let alone you.
James: Well, yeah. I was a-
Debbie: Even if you were talentless.
James: I was talentless. I had ... it was in me, but I didn't know how to get it. I didn't know what it was.
Debbie: But that's his job, to help you find it, not discourage you and ...
James: Not this guy. Yeah, it was ... And again, Debbie, I want to write a book about failure, because my life is full of it. I think anybody's life is full of it, but it all happened at the right time, and for the right reason. Because he asked me to leave, because I was a crappy student, I really was. And you know, you've said I taught, I taught at SVA for almost 20 years, and I wanted to be the teacher that people came to. I wanna be the teacher that I needed at the time, the guy who set fires in class. Literally set fires in class.
James: And when I-
Debbie: Wait, wait when you say literally ...
James: Literally, like fires, like firecrackers, like yes.
James: Yeah. Yeah.
Debbie: I didn't know that SVA condoned that kind of thing there.
James: They certainly do not. I found out later. But even then, Richard Wild had to say, "Listen, you know, to get you to teach I had to show your record, and it took three tries." 'Cause, you know.
Debbie: You got thrown out of SVA eventually.
James: The boss was like, what, no, we can't let him teach here. He's ... he doesn't have the grades, right.
Debbie: So did you fail out of SVA?
James: Richard Wild, who's a genius and a dear pal of mine, gave me a C. So that was pretty bad. And he's generous. So fail out, I don't know, but you know, this one guy asked me to ... suggested I do some other career, and I just took his advice and left. And it was funny because I called my dad, and I said, "Hey, so like, by the way ..."
Debbie: You know nothing good comes after that. Ever.
James: Yeah. I said, "You know, by the way I'm gonna drop out of my school." And my father said, "But I thought you wanted to be a fancy Art Director with your name on the door," and I said, "Oh, no, no, no, no. No, I'm gonna have that. I'm just not gonna finish school."
Debbie: So the day after you were asked to leave art school you started your career, you're 21 years old, and you stated that you were ill equipped, unqualified, and unsure of yourself.
James: Great place to be.
Debbie: You weren't ready but you moved forward anyway.
James: Great place to be.
Debbie: What gave you the courage back then? I can see you now looking back on that and saying, "Great place to be," but what gave you the sense, with all of this rejection and failure, that you knew you wanted to do it anyway?
Debbie: That's always such a good motivator.
James: It's a great motivator. Fire under your ass. Desperation and I was born for this job. Literally. And I've just done a very good job at trying to pay attention. I get derailed sometimes, I become unconscious sometimes, but I was born to do this, and my career path has always been fairly clear. It's ... like anybody else, it's difficult to listen to that. It's difficult to listen when a change is gonna come, and you're like wait, but what, huh? You know? And I wanted it. You know, and when I was a student at SVA, people who I was, you know, classmates, were interning at Milton Glaser's or at ... with Ivan Chermayeff for something.
James: I didn't even know how to pronounce those guys' names. I thought, I am in deep. But what I had over those guys is I just, I wanted it. I wanted it so much more than they did.
Debbie: You eventually got an apprenticeship with the legendary Paul Bacon, who you dubbed your other father, and you've said that he taught you everything from art to dirty jokes, and left you with a thirst for the craft. He passed away in 2015, and looking back in retrospect, what was the greatest lesson he left you with?
James: You know, I learned the good and the bad from Paul. I learned ... the bad being, you know, how not to do your business. The good was ... so he was a jazz aficionado, and he was in a jazz band, and he loved music, and he loved art and photography, and he was just a wealth of information on a number of sources. Auto racing, and wine.
James: And all of those were part and parcel of his work. I mean, they all played a role in his life and in his work, and I thought, "Oh, that's interesting, I don't have to just become myopic and learn everything about, you know, grids and color theory, and the Bauhaus, and Herbert Mayer, and you know," to become a designer. There were other things that made you interesting. Other things that made you creative, other things that add a spice, or a flavor, to your work.
Debbie: What are a few of those things?
James: Jazz, and music, and ... for me, it's like, rubber tires. Anything that races, you know, I put it in the work. And here's a funny thing about something else I learned from Paul Bacon. So, Paul, if no one knows Paul, he did basically all of Joseph Heller's covers, and all of Kurt Vonnegut covers, and all of James Glover, and all of Robert Ludlum, and ... And he's working on Robert Ludlum, you know, one of the Bourne things, and it's big title, big author, and in the middle is a little three inch circle. In all of 'em, just had a little three inch circle.
James: And on that circle is the White House, and the lawn, and there's helicopters in the air, and there's a little guy running across it and he's carrying a rifle. All done, with gouache, and a brush that's got like three hairs on it. Just exquisite. He never had a spot of paint on him, completely impeccable, amazing, amazing guy. The phone call comes from the editor of that book, and says, "Paul, what you've got there is the little guy looks like he has a gerund. And in the book, technically it's an AK, and can you fix it." Which meant he had to redo the entire thing.
James: And I, at that moment, never wanted that criticism in my life, and at that moment I became an abstract expressionist. I never wanted to do something so realistic that someone could pick on that little detail and make me go backwards and have to redraw it.
Debbie: Yeah, that's so interesting. I had a very similar conversation about things like that with Barry Blitt, and Christoph Niemann, who do so many really detailed things. I remember Christoph was talking about how he would provide as close to a realistic sketch as possible, because if he doesn't and it ends up getting approved with a not-so detailed sketch, he's wasted all that time.
James: Yes, and Paul-
Debbie: So you have that ... there's that's sort of balance in between.
James: And Paul Sayer does the opposite, he sends the most loose thing in possible, you know, that just with a basically one line ... It's a melting doctor, underneath, you know, it's like ... and so he doesn't have to, the low expectation, and then he delivers high, and it's great.
Debbie: Now, when you were working with Paul, you designed your fair share of book covers, and you also launched James Victore Inc., and you wanted to make work that was, "Dangerous," but you were at that time stuck making book jackets that you described as, "Not terrible dangerous."
Debbie: So how did you get to the dangerous work?
James: I woke up one day, and I realized that my portfolio was full of Paul Bacon. And that's how it happens. I mean, you know, you work with somebody, when you start out at someone's knee, literally, you emulate. So I had a portfolio full of Paul Bacon. But, I was also making major coin. I bought my first motorcycle cash, I was wearing silk suits, I, you know, I was making some money.
James: Yeah. And that cockiness led me to say, "Hey, wait a minute, I have my own sense of color, my own sense of humor, my own sense of timing, my own sense of proportion and shape, and you know, I don't wanna do the Paul Bacon thing, I wanna do, you know ... I gotta be me," right? So I started putting that in my work, and woo, baby. Kill fee city.
Debbie: Oh, really?
James: Yeah, I started living on kill fees. One time I had this amazing, my very, very first boss, creative director who I work with super regularly. He was my pimp, he was an amazing guy, and I love him dearly, his name is Joe [Annabello 00:29:18], over at Harper Collins or Harper Roe, I forget what it used to be. But he literally got so tired of me bringing things that were just like, what? Right. The last time we worked together, he said, "James, if you don't bring me something that goes through, I will never work with you again."
James: Yeah. But Debbie, what that did for me was it said, "I've gotta go find my clients, that's obviously not my client."
Debbie: So in 1992 you read an article about the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America, it prompted you to design your first poster, titled Celebrate Columbus, reflecting on the death and destruction Columbus brought to the American Indians, and today that poster is in the Museum of Modern Art. At the time you said you had no idea what you were getting into when you used your rent money to print up and put up 1500 of these posters around New York City.
Debbie: And as you've written, "The one story I have never told about this period of my life was the eviction notices. Every few months the doorbell would ring, and waiting downstairs was a man in a suit. "You are served," was his only line as he handed me an eviction notice." These legal notices were proof of your conviction, and the price you had to pay to make the posters. That takes balls.
James: It's just the price you gotta pay. You know, if you wanna be a ... I'm a fight fan. I like boxing, you know, I like MMA stuff ...
James: I don't know.
Debbie: I have a really hard time with violence.
James: Yeah, well I do now. We can talk about that later.
Debbie: We'll get to that. Yes we will.
James: But ... And you know, I watched these things, and I realized that I know the money they make, which isn't great until you get to the top. And I'm like, wow. That's a heavy price. And everything has a price. Everything has a price, and my creativity had a price, and it was that. And you know what, it wasn't like the mafia was coming to kill me, it was like I was getting some papers that said I owed money. You know, so what. So what, you know, debt somehow ... it gets paid off. Everybody got paid off somehow, it worked. I'm not, you know.
James: And again, that was part and parcel of this dangerous thing that I didn't know I was doing, or didn't know I was living, it was just like, part and parcel of the game. These are the things I was gonna do, ain't nobody asking me to do it, just gonna do it.
Debbie: Discussing your Columbus Day poster, you've said, "For better or for worse, years ago, I kind of professionally shot myself in the foot in doing this poster with a dead Indian on it. I've said this before, that because of that poster, and subsequent work, I'd gained a certain reputation." So James, tell us about that reputation, and also why, "For better or worse,"?" Why the worse?
James: For better or worse. For worse, let's start with that. For worse is that I was a commercial designer. And commercially there ain't nobody out there interested in my opinion. You know, you wanna be a successful, commercial graphic designer, shut up and don't have an opinion, right. You don't put your political, social, cultural opinion into the work. There are very few clients that want that, or will invite that. Completely understandable, right? So that's the worse
James: For better is that, I now found a purpose, and that's important. And it wasn't a ... what was not important was how much I got paid for that purpose. What was not important was that that purpose was gonna pay my rent. I-
Debbie: What do you consider this purpose to be?
James: To create strong political statements. To create strong, social, cultural work. Work that had meaning to people. The book jackets that I had done previously, and the record, CD covers, nobody gives a rat's ass about. But these things, it has meaning for people still, has meaning for me still. And I wanted to hold onto that, that was important. It was what I'd moved to New York ... I literally moved to New York to be a poster designer, and it took me a couple of years to kind of get there, but when I got it I was like ...
James: And you know, for young designers, and what we try to do when we have, you know, mid-career and we have workshops and stuff, is we wanna give 'em a taste of what they're capable of. And once you get a taste of what your creativity can do, and the power of your voice, you don't wanna let go.
Debbie: Here's a little known fact, and I actually, this is so little known it might not actually be ...
James: Be true!
Debbie: Well, it might not be you, if there's another James Victore out there, which I don't know that there is, but did you win an Emmy in 1992?
Debbie: Ah! You did, you won an Emmy.
Debbie: It was for the Hartford, Connecticut Channel 30's Holiday-related Station Identification Spot.
Debbie: What was the spot? And why don't you ever say anything, the Emmy winning ...
James: Well, 'cause it's not like I was, you know, doing daytime TV. It was a regional-
Debbie: It still counts-
James: It's a-
Debbie: It still counts!
James: Hey, you know what, it's the same trophy.
Debbie: Hey, if I had an Emmy it would be the first thing anybody knew about me. The Emmy Award-winning Debbie Millman, that would be it.
James: It's the same trophy, I'll tell you what, it's that, you know, Nike throwing a basketball.
Debbie: That's amazing.
James: Yeah. Yeah.
Debbie: So tell me about ... so 1992 was a big year. I mean talk about Sublime and their ridiculous-
James: Oh, yeah, no. When I was-
Debbie: You did the Indian poster, and you win an Emmy.
James: Yeah, when I was 30 it was hot. It was the ... things were popping and I was super hungry and horny, and yeah, doing a lot of stuff. And I had a pal, who ran that, who was a creative director at that television station, and he was in town. And he and his wife would come and stay with me, and you know, we'd go out hooching in New York, and we'd sit at a bar and I would be doodling. And he would say, "Oh, that's pretty funny. That would make a good station identification." I'm like, "Can we do it?" He says, "Yeah."
James: So we just went, cell animation, you know, one after another, we did two. I think a Halloween and a Christmas, and they were delightful, and they ran them, and badda-bing, badda-boom, you know.
Debbie: You got the statue.
James: And you know, I think that's how really good work works, when it's not serious. When you go, you know ... The process for me, still, is like, it goes like this. Hmm, you know what would be really funny. And then whatever you say next just do it, 'cause it's gonna be really funny, and it's gonna have meaning. So that's how that one worked.
Debbie: Now was there a time in the 90s where you were switching your focus to commercial work to try to make money, or-
Debbie: Okay, so tell me about what happened then?
Debbie: So, elaborate. Just give me a little bit more than that this.
James: I totally, I ... You know, it was like all of a sudden I was in a relationship and I needed to make ends meet, and I needed to be more ... I don't know, I think the call of security. And it's an interesting time and an interesting question, and what happened was, I needed to, I thought I needed to kind of carry my financial weight a little bit more, and not be such a ... perhaps a dilettante, or, I don't know, an anarchist? I don't know. And I needed to, you know, take care of things.
Debbie: How'd that work out for you?
James: Not well. You know, ultimately what I ended up with was D-I-V-O-R-C-E, right. So, not well. Because you know, and I've realized that you can't do things for other people. Even that.
Debbie: You said that following the money almost always leads you to poor work.
James: For me. For me, it has.
Debbie: From 1994 to 2014, you taught at the School of Visual Arts, which had previously, the same school that had asked you to leave. Then in 2016, you fully moved from New York City to 49 acres of land in the small town of Georgetown, Texas. And you said this about the decision, "It was a decision made like all my professional decisions. For LIFE, and not money." What, James, in life, was calling you to Texas?
James: A couple of things. First, love. I ... So let's go a little bit backwards. I moved to New York when I was 19, and I had a couple dollars in my pocket, and I had this work ethic from my dad so I just kind of made shit happen. And the first thing I could buy for myself, that was more than food, was a pair of cowboy boots.
James: And then on down the road, I needed a vehicle and I bought a four wheel drive, F150 pickup truck, and I have cowboy hats, and I listen to country western music, or, you know, growing up. So-
Debbie: And you've liked cowboys growing up, too.
James: Yeah, I like cowboys. And I have a gunslinger mustache, so I, you know. So there was that, and I've always had an affinity. And one of my dearest friends is this amazing illustrator, he was Texas illustrator of the Year a number of years ago, his name is Mark Burckhardt. And we met when we were young hoodlums right out of school, and he was originally from Waco, and his wife was from Corpus. And they moved back to Austin early, and I started visiting them every year, so I've been going to Austin for 25 years. And then I met my wife now, who was from Austin, and by 2014 we'd had a baby, and it was ... it just made sense. It just felt that it was time to kind of, one that the in-laws were close by so that, you know.
James: So family, and life, and love. And here's the other thing, here's what I found was the more important thing, to go back to dangerous. I am always willing to put myself in a corner. I am always willing to like, try something new and change. And I knew that moving to Texas was not .... I didn't move to Austin, people were like hey, how do you like Austin, I'm like, I'm not in Austin. I'm on rural ... I mean, we're seven miles to the closest bar, you know, which is weird for me. Can't write in a bar.
Debbie: [crosstalk 00:39:57].
James: So, what I did, and what my wife did essentially as well, was, we forced ourselves to figure out how to make a living by our creativity. You know, when you move out of the city, clients think that you're dead, or not interested, or too expensive, or this or that, right. So commercially I have a few clients who I hold onto, but financially everything else is me, as the client, and me trying to figure out how to get paid for my creativity.
Debbie: That's incredible. I mean you are on Patreon, you have subscribers, and they get things like your Dangerous Ideas Video Series, your own podcast, advance articles and book excerpts, sketches, a monthly life Q&A series. I mean it's incredible that you've created this empire.
James: And all of it is just things that I enjoy doing. And you know the funny thing is I keep getting asked like, oh my god, you're, you know, why is your audience so small? And I'm like, you know what, I don't even think about it.
Debbie: But they're rabid.
James: Oh, no. They're amazing. And you know what, and they're the people who want change. They're the people who want change in their life, and that's important.
Debbie: In 2010, you released your first book, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss.
James: Good book.
Debbie: Which has been ... and yes, and gorgeously designed by Paul Sayer.
James: Mr. Sayer.
Debbie: It has been aptly described as both a monograph and a manifesto, and we discussed it extensively in 2010, but I'd like to mention a couple of books that followed. There was the parody, In And Out With Dick and Jane, which you made with Ross McDonald, introducing an alternate world for Dick and Jane, laden with sex, drugs, and all the other spoils of the modern world.
James: Yeah, that's funny stuff. Funny stuff.
Debbie: There was also your book Lust: A Traveling Art Journal of Graphic Design, which examined what designers would make given complete freedom. Now I'd like to talk with you about your brand new book, Feck Perfuction.
James: Craziest title in the world. Worst title in the world. Hard to say, hard to write. Every time I type it, I type it wrong. But, again, these are the places I'm willing to go.
Debbie: You describe the book in the introduction, you say, "Feck Perfuction is a collection of the lessons you've learned, developed, and followed throughout your career. They come from psychology, sociology, philosophy, and the crazy things your mom said that have all turned out to be true." And you go on to say that it is not your intention to be inspirational, or make you feel good, but to challenge.
Debbie: And I was really interested when you first asked me to read the book. I was a little bit worried, because I thought, James is not like, a motivational do-gooder. So it is a bit of a challenge, but it also ... it doesn't make you feel bad. So how did you do that, how did you create that sort of sense of urgency with also a sense of possibility?
James: I don't believe that I was born to be an optimist. I'm not. I want to be. I'm not the happy go lucky go that I wish I was. It takes a lot to float my boat, and these are things that ... these are lessons that I need to remind myself of constantly. One of the alternate titles for this book was Resolutely Difficult Advice, because it is difficult advice, because it's super hard to follow, you know.
Debbie: It feels a bit high altitude, I don't know if I could really do this, I don't know how somebody can actually do this, but yet it seems doable, because you're doing it.
James: Yeah, and I think there's a level of levity and elbow room that we throw in there as well, and say ... You know, Maimonides, for example.
Debbie: Where I was born. That hospital.
James: The hospital. Well I'm talking about the philosopher. So, you know, he wrote the Talmudic Laws for the Jews, for the the Jewish faith, and there's a wonderful story where some farmer comes to Maimonides and says, "Listen, I've got family, I've got this, I'm like ... I can't. I can't follow all these." And Maimonides says, "Pick five. Pick three. But just do it. Just follow it." So you know, it's not about being perfect, or perfuced, or whatever. It's not about being perfect, it's about being conscious of your actions, and being conscious of these default habits.
James: Because I see them. I saw them especially teaching, you know, in SVA. And I see them in me as a parent when I fall into that, when I become weak, and I'm like, ah-ha-ha, James, that's, you know.
Debbie: How do you define weak?
James: When you become ... you know, the easiest thing is when you become tired, or hungry, and all of a sudden you just revert to be, you know, you're infantile. You know, Baby James.
James: Yeah. Yeah, that's a default.
Debbie: You write that we all have dragons that need to be faced to get to the creative rewards, and that every morning, yours curls around your neck and whispers, "Failure, failure, failure," in your ear. Were you merely illustrating a point in the book, or is that really true? Do you really have that dragon on your shoulder?
James: I wake up very early, I wake up like 4:30, 5:00 every morning, and it's just because my body does it, like I always have. And I think it's because my dad always woke up very early. And I've found that if I don't get up out of bed and start moving, if I'm laying there, all of a sudden all my list, my to-do, and my oh my god, that's late, and oh my god this, and then ... you know, financial. So yeah. I just start thinking too much, all these things come.
Debbie: What do you do with all that fear?
James: I take a deep breath, and I put my shoulders back, and I get to work. Get to work. You know, and it's funny 'cause in writing this book, my process was 4:30, out on the porch, with a quilt on my lap and the light of the laptop, and I had a little camping coffee maker so I didn't disturb anybody in the house. And I'm writing these stories, and trying to tell these truths about myself, and oh my gosh, Debbie, the voices. The voices in my head, you know. Really? You're gonna write about that? Or the designers that I look up to, like, hey, this isn't a design book, right? Like the criticism about James Victore being a designer and here he is, he's not making a design book. It's real.
Debbie: Most life lessons that help you design a life ...
James: About living a creative life, yes. And about how hard it is, because I know how hard it is to live a creative life. I mean that's the gist of the whole book, it's like, yes, the things that made you weird, but how do you hold onto those?
Debbie: I want to talk with you about success, because despite all the fears, despite all the rejection and failure, you're been very successful. But you state the following about success: "Success goes to those who keep moving. To those who can practice, make mistakes, fail, and still progress. Like exercise for muscles, the more you learn, the more you develop, and the stronger your skills become. Success is about action. Action beats worry, action beats thinking, action always wins."
Debbie: Do you feel successful?
James: You know, I don't like that question because I don't ... I don't have a rate, a scale ...
Debbie: A benchmark?
James: Of success? I am successful in that, for example, I'm here, with you. I'm successful in that, you know, that I ... that people follow me, that I have a wonderful wife and a happy marriage. But what I basically always say, when people say, hey, you're successful. I say, listen, the only rate that I know of success is that I think I'm a good dad, and that's kind of important to me.
James: If you rate me by money, or by that kind of stuff, you know. Don't even.
Debbie: In my interview with Beth Comstock last year, she stated, "If failure is not an option, then neither is success," and I thought you'd like that.
James: That's groovy, yeah.
Debbie: Let's talk about what happened at the very end of 2018. December 14th you were riding your motor ... your mountain bike, you were a couple miles from home, you ended up having quite a terrible accident.
Debbie: Tell us a little bit about what happened?
James: Yeah, I have two motorcycles, and I love anything with rubber tires and engines, and so I was out on one of them, a trials bike, which is a funny looking bike that doesn't have a seat, and you stand up, and you basically use these lighter vehicles with super torque, and you ride up and over things that you're not supposed to be able to ride up and over.
James: And there's an area on the property that has a little stream running through it, and it's rocky, and wet, and it goes up and down, and it's a skill developer. And I was out late December, and riding on this thing, and I don't know what happened. I think I blipped, which is when you hit the throttle a little bit much, and this particular bike was an electric bike, so it doesn't have a clutch to grab onto. I think I blipped, and I think the bike jumped out from under ... you know, I was going uphill, and it jumped out from underneath me, and there was nothing for my feet to connect with behind, and I fell down onto what I think of as my right side into the bottom of this rocky ravine.
James: And I, the only thing I remember was this loud crack, of like if you took a bunch of celery in your hand and just went, crack. And I don't know if I blacked out or not, but I kind of like, like just out of the movies, like woke up, and I was in this ravine, and the pain rushed through my body, and I realized I had some breakage. And I realized I didn't have my phone, and I realized I had to walk all the way back to the house, and there was nobody at the house, so I had to call, you know, call my wife and the EMT. And realized when we got to the ICU, I was in the ICU for a couple days, and it was 10 broken ribs, broken collarbone, and a partially dislodged lung.
James: So I basically busted, you know, half of my upper body. And as I see it now, it's just like everything else, it happened at the right time and for the right reason. And as my wife says, we had come to a point in our lives, in our professional experiences, where she says, "Listen, your heart needed to grow, and your body needed to make way." And I totally believe that.
James: And what I do is now, is I'm writing on this because I'm going to be speaking a lot in 2019, I'm going to be speaking about this book, and this is what I'm gonna talk about. The pain. 'Cause the massive amount of pain I had, and what I call cruising pain, now. You know, I have, I carry pain all the time right now. And I'm in rehab, you know, I'm taking of it, and it's gonna be fine, but what it makes me realize is that if I don't take care of this pain, if I don't grow from this process, and become bigger and stronger because of it, then I'm an idiot, and then the pain was, is, just hurt.
James: And for my audience, I have to point out that they are carrying cruising pain. They have, you know, everything from my book. They have an inability to ask for what they're worth, they're possibly in a relationship that chafes. They're possibly in a body that they didn't plan for, they're possibly in a job that, where they feel they're kind of stuck, right. If I don't take care of my physical pain, I will end up bent, with less flexibility in my life, and I will become professionally and personally less dangerous, and more fearful, and my life will get smaller and smaller. Every day, or every year.
James: And if my audience doesn't understand that this pain that they're carrying, if they do not do the same, and take care of it, they will be bent, and become more fearful. And their life will get smaller, and smaller. It's just the work, and it's just the ability to kind of look at yourself, and evaluate yourself and say, "Listen, these are the things that I don't want to live with. And this is the way that I can get out of it. There is always a ... you know, in the fight game, there's always an exit. No matter what hold you're in, there's always a way out.
James: And the same thing for this, it's like ... people have to understand that whatever they're feeling, there's always a way out.
Debbie: I wanna ask you one more question, and it comes from knowing about this horrific accident, and now watching you through the aftermath as you launch on a book tour for a remarkable book. You write in the book that your purpose on this planet isn't to become a millionaire, to build a 401K, or even get a good job. Your purpose is to figure out who, or what, you are. And so James, how would you describe who you are now, and where do you anticipate ... given everything that's happened, especially in the last half year ... where you'll go next?
James: That's an excellent question, and one I've been thinking about a lot, because it's, you know, there's a chapter in this book called I'm A Fake.
Debbie: I know.
James: And this charlatanism-
Debbie: That's the one I read first.
James: Yeah, this charlatanism ... Of course.
Debbie: Phew, he feels that way too.
James: This charlatanism, this feeling of being a fake affects me often, 'cause it's like, I have a reputation as a commercial designer. And I'm a pretty good one, meaning I can get into the Museum of Modern Art, and the Stedelijk Museum, and the Louvre, and all these other places. But I realized I'm a much better teacher. And my purpose now is to serve others, 'cause that's the greatest goal you can have as a human being is to serve others.
James: I have had a wonderful career, and a relatively happy career, and I've been able to see the power of my voice, and see what happens when I get really, my work, out there unadulterated. And I want others to have that, because I know how difficult it is to be creative, and I talk to mid-career people who, you know, have everything going for them. They got the job, and the 401K, and the family, and the this ... And they literally say, "Why do I cry in my car on the way home?" And it's that cruising pain, it's that thing.
James: So I want to serve others. I thought of this thing the other day, I was talking to my wife the other day, and I said, "You know what? I wanna be Moses for creative people. I wanna set them free, I like this." And I don't give a fuck what that sounds like to people, I don't care. That's my purpose now is to help others, and if I get to make groovy stuff in the process, then so much the better.
Debbie: James, thank you so much for joining me again today on Design Matters, and thanking you for bringing your dangerous ideas to life. Your remarkable new book is called Feck Perfuction: Dangerous Ideas on the Business of Life. You can find out more about the book at FeckPerfucktion.com. This is the 15th year I have been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.
Debbie: I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.
James: Darling, I love you.
Debbie: I love you too, James.