Design Humility

A recovering perfectionist embraces chance and vulnerability, to great effect. The substantive results serve as a basis for a call for design humility within the community.

I went on a mushroom walk recently.

It was part of a tour of the old Black Mountain College campus, near Asheville, North Carolina. This is where some of the American avant-garde converged for a few hot moments in the early 1950s, and I wanted to taste some of that. The mushrooms themselves didn’t draw me there. I wasn’t one of those children who grew up near wild raspberry bushes, marking the seasons by what was pickled and preserved. I grew up playing on the lawns of suburban Long Island, unable to identify a weed from a salad, or a Judd from a Lewitt, for that matter. Instead, I was genuinely curious about what kind of insight into Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Albers might come from walking in these same woods and looking for their ghosts among the mushrooms.

This wasn’t an unfounded curiosity; the artist John Cage was an amateur mycologist. In 1958 he won an Italian television quiz show by answering questions about mushrooms, and he taught mushroom identification at the New School in the 1960s. I hoped I’d discover a good reason why the man who had famously given us chance operations and 4′33″ was fascinated by spore-bearing things that grow deep in the forest.

Our guide didn’t mention him at all. She was a chatty Brit with a beautiful basket and a wide-brimmed hat, the perfect combination of whimsy and nerd and charm. We were in good hands.

Not that much happened. We walked around Lake Eden, and into the woods a bit, and by the side of the road. We wandered together, and at times one or two of us would fall back, or stray closer to the water or to a particular tree. Frankly I don’t remember anything she said. We weren’t really doing anything. Except observing. I found myself walking slow but looking hard—at tree trunks, along the bottoms of bushes, within patches of grass, at the edges of things. There was intention, and a focused observation, but still—we were wandering. A focused wander.

There was a joy in this looking around, and I was rewarded a few times with my own discoveries. Things I might normally have missed. A purple mushroom first, and then a white one that had already decayed, leaving behind what we were told was a “mushroom print”—a faint, white shape flat against the dark dirt, like a negative shadow. And just as we started out around the lake, not thirty seconds on the path, someone pointed to what looked like ten pounds of oyster mushrooms clinging to a rotten stump at the water’s edge. “Dinner!” our guide merrily proclaimed.


Cage would flip three coins six times to draw I-Ching hexagrams, yielding random numbers between one and sixty-four. He used the numbers to make decisions in his music, his visual work, and even in his writing. Later in life he was given a rudimentary computer program that generated the numbers for him. He explained chance operations this way: “I gave up making choices. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.”1 He would devise methodologies that used chance operations for determining how long a musical piece should be, or how long to hold a note, or where to locate an element on a page—all of the creative decision-making in his work.

By embracing chance rather than choice, Cage tried to remove his own judgment—the artist’s ego—from the artistic process. One result was an opening up to all of the ways in which art imitates nature. “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”1 Chance frees us from the constraints of our own likes and dislikes. Chance reveals nature. For Cage, taste (and along with it, history and tradition) was irrelevant.

I’m interested in this idea: that beyond our own personal tastes, all sounds (or colors, or shapes) have equal value. Using chance-determined results to break free from predetermined choices in order to realize something new. This requires a kind of humility, a giving over to nature. The yin to this yang, of course, is absolute certainty, always lurking just ahead of indeterminacy. A commitment to the answers. An understanding that three coins tossed six times doesn’t simply yield any number. It yields a specific number, and this specificity can be heavy.

And so it is in mushroom hunting. The undirected, yet deliberate wander through the woods, fully engaged but not knowing what will come into play. Open to surprise. Unsure even if anything will be found. And understanding that when a mushroom is discovered, all uncertainty must be left behind. Identifying the fungus before ingestion puts us face to face with the greatest of certainties, a matter of life and death. Perhaps this play between the freely focused wander and the gravity of the tangible discovery—of what nature gives us—is what appealed to Cage.

I did an experiment recently. I used Cage’s very analog coin-toss method for yielding numbers to create a process for selecting colors—pairs of 6-bit web colors. I did this once a day for a few days, and to ritualize it I formally posted the chance-determined results on my website. The very first time that the color pair was revealed to me was thrilling. I can honestly say that this was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in my creative career. Every formalized decision-making process that I had been taught vanished at the moment that I looked at those colors on my screen. All rationalization and careful justification that I had taught my clients—everything that allows me to be considered an “expert” in design—became irrelevant as I accepted these colors into my life.

A few days later I expanded the experiment to 24-bit colors. I was now asking for pairs of chance-determined colors from 16.7 million possibilities. The first time that this process yielded two colors that I would never have selected myself—what I would normally reject as an ugly pair—I felt resistance. Using randomness as a tool to open oneself up to what lies beyond good taste goes against the very basis of design expertise. Cage said that “the highest discipline is the discipline of chance operations, because chance operations have absolutely nothing to do with one’s likes or dislikes. The person is being disciplined, not the work.”1

I just sat and stared at the screen, absolutely astonished that I could feel so light and free, and at the same time so serious, about a pair of colors. Like a gift.

But I also felt anxiety.

Anxiety because I was posting the results, no matter how ugly, to my website. For me, this was a key part of the process. It’s one thing to conduct an experiment in the privacy of one’s own studio; it’s another to publish the results to an audience, in real time. To a waiting design community poised to judge. For a recovering perfectionist like me, “amplified vulnerability” is frightening. I wanted to move, once and for all, beyond any sort of fear of judgment—not by becoming arrogant but by embracing humility.


I built my website exactly ten years ago to show finished work. It was a static design portfolio site and it served me well for several years. I updated it with new projects from time to time and kept the client list current. Eventually, I shifted over to a blog format and started adding other kinds of content. Design-related ephemera, inspiration, and the occasional process shot from the studio were mixed in with finished work, and started to open up. I was getting more attention and a more diverse audience.

And then, a bigger change happened. I had closed my office and was about to take off for Europe to do non-client work for an extended period. Just before leaving, I relaunched the site and called it a “design journal.” Soulellis Studio simply became Soulellis, without a physical place, and I started to use the website as a virtual studio. An organic space to post work as it developed, not just when it was finished. In fact, I was less interested in the completed projects and much more curious about how the work (and I) would evolve emotionally along the way as it was publicly exposed on the site. Posting my work to the blog felt a bit like a slow walk in the woods—wandering but deliberate, private but exposed.

Soulellis became more than an archive. It was a journal and an active work area and a place for critique—I would come back to it repeatedly after posting, to re-look, re-evaluate and refine.

Using the designer’s website as a public window into the creative process, instead of as a closed portfolio box, introduces a new kind of risk. The uncertainty becomes part of the work, and the designer exposes ugly dead ends and nonlinear thinking in full (or mostly full) view of the audience. This requires exposure and vulnerability, but the potential reward can be a rich, amplified growth that only comes from feedback loops that aren’t possible in more private realms. Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Dribbble, and other social venues are performative spaces for exposing in-progress work, but they favor the polished and trendy. Maybe we need to demand more from our audiences—a slower read, a wider view. This suggests longer-form platforms, like the personal blog, where exposure of works in progress can appear with all their emotion, authenticity, and even messiness, intact.

Uncertainty runs counter to how we’re trained to articulate our design values. We’re taught to express clearly and certainly, and to manifest our beliefs within a system—a framework of standards and ideals (think minimalism). Consistency, wholeness, and ease of understanding are rewarded; ambiguity and periphery and doubt are not. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this assertiveness is the design manifesto (think F.T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto,” Walter Gropius’s “Bauhaus Manifesto,” or Dieter Rams’s “Ten Principles for Good Design”).


We’re drawn to manifestos but oftentimes there’s a blurry line between spirited conviction and presumptuous command. A design legend proclaims that only a half-dozen or dozen typefaces are necessary to do good work; this kind of limited view is a shutting down of possibilities, an exaggeration of ego that only exposes the designer’s limits. This faux-masterful display is a kind of design arrogance.

I hear a tone in the design community today that stops short of design arrogance but flirts with self-importance and conceit. It’s a kind of firm-footed stance—a self-reliant projection of confidence and certainty that’s become the de facto voice of Twitter and many design blogs. Rather than the focused drift of foraging in the woods, design bravado is more like a golf course strategy—the swing, the swagger, the show of conquering the landscape.

Designers with an open view to the future and a firm connection to the digital are fond of this declarative voice. Sweeping pronouncements about industry turbulence (“the end of print,” “the death of the logo,” etc.) or one’s rank (“I have developed quite an antenna for people talking design without showing design in the past few years”—the kind of tweet that simply leaves me speechless) are sticky with conviction and puff.

But with so much uncertainty in the design world, an expansive projection of confidence can take on charismatic appeal. Entire industries (publishing, branding, design, web), disciplines (art vs. design), and our own “likability” in the world (friends, fans, and followers) are under constant scrutiny and threat. It makes sense that design bravado might be so popular at a time when all of the traditional assumptions about how we work are being questioned.

Yet, design bravado can be a valuable tactic for rallying and creating momentum, and some designers have translated this machismo into a never-before-seen kind of thriving entrepreneurship. Notebooks, posters, and apps—even tattoos—shift the designer from service provider to sleek thing-maker (for an audience comprised mostly of our own peers). This has its merits; design bravado is sexy, good for the career, and good for business.


What happens when one sets design bravado aside and looks the other way?

After the web color experiment, I designed a 294-page book using chance operations. I wanted to discover just how far I could remove my own ego from the process, so I generated lists of random numbers with Like Cage, I devised simple methodologies to use the numbers to manipulate content and make decisions about book structure, page size, grid, layout, and typography. I relinquished many of my trusted techniques for decision making in design and gave myself over to chance operations. This work was unlike any design project I’d created before, but it was firmly grounded in an art tradition (the book was created for a gallery environment).

I love this book, but it has left me with more questions than answers. I’m thankful for that.

And I question just how far over into design I could take this—if there’s any place for chance operations in the client relationship or in real-world problem-solving.

Whether or not chance operations has agency applications, I suspect the design community at large has much to gain by more openly confronting ambiguity, self-doubt, and complexity in our relationships and in our selves. I’d like to counter the celebratory stance of the moment—design bravado—with a more humbled position. A slow ramble: sensing, collecting, and being fully present to changes in light, weather, and sound. Searching, discovering, and acknowledging one’s own presence in the environment but without placing our selves at the center. A non-judging acceptance of all that nature delivers. The value in the focused wander is tremendous.

Perhaps it’s the courage to confront self-doubt that empowers us.

Let’s call it design humility—a vulnerable, observant posture. Fully engaged and open to risk. It’s difficult to articulate it, but I know design humility when I see it. I see it when Milton Glaser talks about failure. “The only way to confront the realization that we’re not as good as we think we are”—that the master is not the genius that everyone expects him to be—“is to embrace failure.”2

I see it in Kate Bingaman Burt’s inspiring talk for Portland Creative Mornings. “You should start projects because you feel like you’re going to explode, or vomit, or both.”

I see it in Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”: “Allow events to change you…forget about good…capture accidents…drift…”3

I see it when designers and performers speak passionately at an Occupy Wall Street rally about artists using their work to enable change in the world.

I see it in the tweets of John Maeda, who says that humility is “a leader’s greatest strength.”

I want to see more design humility in our conversations. I suspect our work will take on thicker value if we start to openly acknowledge the full range of emotions we invest in our careers—from insecurity to courage. The rewards might be richer, and the conversations more interesting, if we freely expose ourselves in real time to our peers as emotional beings who are sometimes afraid, sometimes gutsy, but always human.

  1. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, (Routledge, New York, 2003). 2 3

  2. Milton Glaser, “On the Fear of Failure,” (Berghs Exhibition, 2011).

  3. Bruce Mau, “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth,” (Blog, Bruce Mau Design, 1998-2011).

Paul soulellis

Paul Soulellis is an artist and creative director, maintaining his studio in New York. He founded his research-based graphic design and publishing studio Counterpractice in 2014, and he teaches at Rhode Island School of Design. He has produced award-winning work for clients including Cornell University, TED, Waterworks, Esri, and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Read Next: Paul Soulellis’ Lesson

Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti · Portrait by Luke Pearson