Hillman Curtis, you will be missed.

In other words, you experience something, and it speaks to you. In the best of cases, it moves us to respond creatively. We want to add to or continue the idea.

– Hillman Curtis, MTIV, p.104

I will always maintain that I became a designer at a really strange time. I’m sure all designers feel that way – and I’m sure it’s not just limited to our field, either. Anyone whose career revolves around technology is in an interesting position. It’s not enough that we sit at a desk and do what we were trained to do every day, we’re also constantly learning, constantly seeking out information. As we all grow and create, the situation is only going to get denser and denser. I’m always both surprised and excited when I hear about a design firm that actively encourages their employees to spend X hours per day, week or month researching something new.

My claim about coming into design at a strange time is mostly rooted in technology, I suppose. I attended design school from 2003-2008. My major was “digital design”, and it hadn’t been around very long. Our college was largely rooted in traditional Swiss design, with a graphic design faculty that was on average twice the age of the digital design professors. The duality between the programs was, frankly, ridiculous. All the claims about the failings of both programs were absolutely true. Digital design students didn’t know a thing about typography, while the graphic design program largely wanted to ignore things like “the internet”. The two programs have merged now, which makes a considerable amount of sense and is certainly indicative of where design is headed.

I read MTIV very early in my career, back in the days where “new media design” was still used to distinguish things that happened on a screen from things that happened in your hands. It was smarter than anything we were learning in school. It was the first exposure I had to what design meant in a non-academic capacity, and the first time it occurred to me that inspiration was something you found all around you.

It seems like a simple concept now, right? Any designer that’s asked “what inspires you?” is supposed to give a holistic response, something about how there’s inspiration everywhere and you have to look to unconventional sources to find it. But at the time, it was beyond me. If I was designing a website for a specific product, I’d look at other websites for similar products. That’s how my inspiration worked. It was too simple, and it showed in my work. I was a young designer taking the easy way out not because I wanted to, but because it just hadn’t occurred to me to do anything else.

MTIV was the first thing that clicked for me. I doubt that young designers would get as much out of it now as I did then. It’s divided into three sections – process, inspiration and practice. Most of it’s pretty outdated these days, which is to be expected about a new media book from a decade ago. But today, if you’ve got a copy, you should pull it out and flip through the section on inspiration. I am amazed to see how much of it echoes how I feel about my career in 2012.

Once I’ve gotten past the self-doubt and all its trappings of self-consciousness, I can begin looking at the work that surrounds me – even if it’s so good I can’t help but feel threatened or is of a different medium than anything I’d use – and see the potential inspiration in it.

Hillman Curtis saw the world then in a better way than I’m even capable of now, and he never stopped. His career was centered not even around just making himself a better designer, but around making design better. He spoke of the value in sharing inspiration and adding your unique point of view. Taking everything that’s been done and figuring out how to make it better; learning the rules so that you know how to justify ignoring them.

My years in design school were often spent wondering why this mattered. Agonizing over a Flash project and getting lost in the details, forgetting the larger picture, not being able to see the forest for the trees. When I was at my worst, I’d pull my copy of MTIV out and flip right to the first page of the inspiration section. (My well-worn copy flips open to the above quote automatically.) I haven’t looked at it in years, but as soon as I heard the news today that Hillman Curtis had passed on, I pulled it off the bookshelf and was overcome by remembering all of those times when I wasn’t sure I was cut out for this. I never had an opportunity to meet the man or hear him speak, but his words have stuck with me for the last decade.

I feel so overwhelmed, sometimes, by all the inspiration that’s out there. I’m so grateful for all the people who came before me and figured out so many of the big things so I could obsess over the little ones. Hillman Curtis was an inspiration to all of us not just through his work, but through the humble way he was willing to discuss his passion for design. His words and ideas continue to inspire me a decade into my career, and for that, I am thankful. Rest in peace, friend. You will be missed.

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