Why I’ll Never Sell Out

Because nobody’s buying my shit. Har har.

Seriously though, the term “Selling Out” has been abused by hipsters and douchebags for so long, using it now flags you as one, like the words “sky wizard” or “crotch spawn” or “sheeple.” Yet while trying to figure out that point where something you like becomes a souless mockery of itself, I found no other term as useful, so let’s unpack its baggage, shall we?

The term Sell Out has been characterized to mean the following:

  • “When everybody else jumped on the bandwagon and now I can’t get a good seat anymore. Boohoohoo.”
  • “When my favorite band stopped making music I like in favor of literally anything else. Damn them for trying to stretch their creative horizons. I wanted the same old graunchy shit again and again!”
  • “When my favorite thing appeared in an advertisement. How dare they use their IP to shill products of any kind. All money is poison!”

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So What Makes Great Design?

Last week I tackled the question, “What makes good design?” to spell out the rules of basic competency. But knowing all the rules and putting them into practice doesn’t necessarily make someone a great designer. Mastering the art requires a more – that “more” requires intuition and the ability to recognize what’s needed on a project by project basis. This is where things get tricky and require tons of practice. Here’s the more difficult rules I’ve discovered. Also, many of them work for every art, including writing.


Your imagery has to communicate as much as the type.


Sometimes the imagery is the type, if you’re doing funky things like making letters morph into horses, but when you do make sure people can see the horses. I know from experience how working on a design can give you tunnel vision, making you imagine you’re communicating a whole lot more than you actually are. You can spend hours arranging a bunch of swoopy lines into the shape of a cowboy, only to have the first person you show cock their head, decide they have the right-side-up image upside down, and turn it over saying, “Is it supposed to be an elephant?”

This also goes into what I was saying about symbolism a few weeks ago. People, designers and clients alike, can get way too caught up in the significance of their chosen imagery when it doesn’t communicate squat to anyone outside their circle. You can’t think like a Freemason when you’re trying to bring people in, not exclude them.


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What Makes Good Design?

The simple answer to this question is: whatever looks good and does the job. But that’s hard to quantify, so let’s break it down. Here are the basic rules to making yours designs not look like crap:


The information is readable.


Believe me, I’ve seen people screw up this basic requirement. Back in art college, I and a couple other students were tasked with making a poster for our art show, and I actually got into an argument with them over some stupid font they thought looked cool, but was totally illegible. They wanted to use it for where the show took place, when it was, and all the other important information people needed to know to go see the fucking thing.

To make extra-sure what you’ve done is readable, take a step back and look at it from a few feet away. Then look at it again sized down to a thumbnail. Is the most essential information still readable at a distance or tiny?

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Your Generic-Ass Cover Makes Me Think There’s a Generic-Ass Book Inside

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Screw that. We all do, which is why you need to get your cover right. It’s the first thing people see. Before they figure out what your book is about, the cover has already made an impression. If that impression is boring, I don’t even let the title sink in. I’ve already gone on scanning, for a book that stands out and looks sexy.

So what makes a book cover uninteresting? How about rows and rows of samey shit. I don’t care if it’s as slick as a movie poster. If your cover is some Photoshopped stock model jobby with a dude on a horse, or a leather chick in the boob-butt pose, or some corseted lady swooning in Fabio’s arms, all your cover says to me is: “This is a McDonalds burger, just like every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever eaten.”

This is all some people want. I get that. I’m not here to denigrate that choice (much). I’m writing this for the authors who want to find success by standing out, not blending in. If you haven’t written the literary equivalent of a McDonalds burger, then holy crap do not package your book like a McDonalds burger. Avoid slick movie-poster covers, because everyone has one. Everyone but the trad pubs…

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