3 Big Lessons from Documentary Films

Sometimes things get a little bumpy. You might hit a dead end during the design process, finding yourself plagued with self-doubt, or worse yet, a creative block. Clients can come and go, and when most of them go, what do you need to do to make ends meet?

Three very different documentary films I’ve watched over the past few years touch on process and purpose, as well as resilience: Comedian, Starring Adam West, and Spielberg. The challenges the individuals faced in these films may be very similar to some of the hurdles you encounter on a routine basis as a designer, illustrator, developer or artist. They’re a reminder that you need to know your purpose as a designer, always keep your head in the game, and surround yourself with trustworthy comrades to give you sage advice. Here are the three big lessons I’ve picked up from some of these documentary films.

image from Getty | CSA Images

1. Find Your Purpose

Are you still in a position where your parents don’t necessarily understand what exactly it is that you do as an artist, designer or illustrator? You’re not alone. But if you find yourself struggling to justify what you do and why you do it—for yourself or for others—there’s only one thing you have to do: get over it and just do you. In Comedian (2002), one of the world’s most popular stand-up comedians—who also had a television show you might have heard of—takes a close look at the life of a stand-up comic.

Seinfeld gives an in-depth look at what it’s like to be a comedian, from being on stage to coping with self-doubt, crafting your jokes and creating sets, all the way to craving fame and fortune. Over the years, I’ve met designers who are also hungry for fame and fortune, but I find myself wondering “Why?” Seinfeld has wise words for comedians who pursue fame and fortune, and everybody should build it into their philosophy and process. Seinfeld has a process that works for him, from the way he creates his jokes, to the way he treats the audience. But his process is his process and it might not work for everyone. And even though he found fame and fortune—take note: it isn’t always about landing a big break or making it big. The work is what matters most. Seinfeld calls stand-up comedy “a special thing” and truth be told, so is design. Enjoy what you do and enjoy the process.

2. Staying in the Game

Speaking of fame and fortune—and making it big—Adam West was big. How big? He starred as Batman! He made the cover of Life magazine. And yet, he didn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Worse yet, he hit a lull early in his career that would have made most people give up their life’s work entirely. Director James E. Tooley launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and create the Starring Adam West (2013), about an iconic performer who never gave up, despite the many hardships he faced.

Like West, you may have had ups and downs. Clients come and go. You might find yourself taking on jobs just to help pay the bills. Or worse yet, you’re stuck in a situation where the work you do isn’t your idea of a dream job. It can be hard to get the work you want. Despite being Batman—or perhaps because of it—West found difficulty landing roles once his run on the Batman television show came to an end in 1968. West, who died in June 2017 at age 88, was humble and self-deprecating throughout his career. He took on both small and large projects, as well as projects that some actors might arrogantly frown upon. His career arc is a lesson in resilience and tenacity—two qualities a designer or non-designer should possess. Even when you’re down, you’re not out, and you’ve got to keep going, keep moving, keep working. If you lose a job or a client, tackle that passion project you’ve always dreamed of. Strengthen your portfolio. Be thankful for the work you have, and the work you can find. And if you want something more, keep moving forward and stay in the game.

3. Finding Camaraderie

Steven Spielberg‘s 1975 movie Jaws is considered by many to be the first ever “summer blockbuster.” But the film’s production was plagued by problems, many of which caused Spielberg to wallow in self-doubt. But he didn’t give up. And why would he? The man had been making movies since he was a child. The HBO documentary Spielberg (2017) takes a close look at the man, his craft, and the people who helped him along the way.

Love him or hate him, Spielberg has made a lot of movies: producing 162 and directing 55, according to IMDb. But even though he’s amassed a large body of work—and plenty of accolades—he’s always been critical of himself and his work. The community of filmmakers he surrounded himself with during his early and later years is a testament to the power of discourse, and the importance of sharing your work with others who will give you honest, constructive criticism. Freelance designers and illustrators would benefit from doing the same, with trustworthy and talented people providing you routine input. Even if it’s through social media or email, getting feedback when you’re stuck on a problem can help you get out of a rut, or see things from a fresh perspective. Communication is a big part of what we do, so don’t get trapped in your own shell.

On the Watch

Have other documentary films inspired you? Shown you how to work better, work more confidently? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter using #nondesigndocfilms. And if you need more movie recommendations, check out “5 Must-See Movies for Designers.”

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