Your Work Is a Gift: An Evening with James Victore

By Mac Fowler

James Victore


I went to see James Victore when he came to town for the Austin Initiative for Graphic Awesomeness the other night. I went, in part, because Adonit sponsored the event. It’s nice to talk with people in the creative community and introduce them to our product. But I didn’t just go because Adonit paid for my ticket. I also went because I genuinely enjoy hearing other designers/artists/engineers/musicians talk about themselves and their work. So Wednesday night was, as they say, a win-win.

Victore is a polarizing figure in the design community. I’m not sure why, exactly. He uses the word “motherfucker” a lot. That could be it. He also doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for grids or typefaces or all those other things most designers hold sacred. I guess that’s what it is. He’s a punk, he’s a rebel and he’s got a lot to say. That makes some people pretty uncomfortable. 

James Victore

He began the night by sharing the philosophy with which he approaches work: In the particular is the universal. It’s a mindset that grounds his work in authenticity. If you can find a small, individual truth, it’ll resonate with everybody. He mentioned that that’s the reason we all like Louis CK’s ramblings so much. There’s truth in good work that makes it appealing. 

Victore’s early work was very much led by his desire and drive to comment on current events, social injustice and society. Starting out as a young designer, he didn’t have a lot of choices. He could’ve bought a pair of khakis and given up on his dreams to be a poster designer. Instead, he just made his own posters, paid for them with his rent money and put them up around New York City by himself. Yep, instead of paying rent. 

James 6

I guess somehow he figured out how to do both because he’s a famous designer now and not a homeless person. 

But that was his whole point. If you want to do something, find a way. Take a leap of faith, ask people for help and make your work authentic. 

He talked through his work, calling himself blessed to have been able to pick and choose. When a client told him he trusted him and would take whatever work Victore did, it made him work harder. James Victore’s work for the Department of Probations is a great example of a concept that comes from truth. Not only do they fill the need for inspiration and art that the office’s visitors need, but as VIctore points out, they’re based on things he’d say to his own children. He pointed out that designers’ work is intellectual first. The colors, fonts and composition, he says, “are the icing on the cake.” He encouraged us to spend less time on that and more time on the concept behind the work. 


 Victore also has a pretty good idea of how to develop a career. He was a designer, then he became a household name, then a teacher, then a head of a design studio. If it seems like these choices came easy to him, it’s because they did. Or, as he puts it, “it’s easier to ride a horse in the direction it’s going.” The man just knows when to bow out. And he did, after about an hour and a half and a whole bunch of lessons worth writing down.

There was one overarching message from Victore that night, and it was a positive one: Your work is a gift. If you approach it that way every day, you will be more inspired, dedicated and productive. I came out of the lecture feeling refreshed and ready to make work that matters to me and hopefully will to others.