Above: Some James Victore wisdom, featured on his Instagram feed and website
Via online films, conferences, intimate dinner parties and corporate training sessions, New York-based James Victore is carving out a niche advisory service within the creative industries, sharing his experience and advice with those who are stuck in a rut, or struggling to get started.Are you a young designer in need of help to find your voice? Or a bored creative who feels trapped in a lacklustre job? Or maybe you’ve been successful but don’t know how to find your next challenge? Perhaps it’s time to call on James Victore….
It’s likely you’ll have heard of Victore through his own graphic design work. His style is distinctive – a mix of confrontation and wit, it features striking hand-written text and drawings. Alongside book cover designs and posters he has created branding work for Aveda, Adobe, Mailchimp and Yohji Yamamoto, among many others.
Victore has also had a long career in traditional teaching: having been a tutor at the School of Visual Arts in New York for two decades, he gave it up last year, feeling that it was delivering “diminishing returns”, and that there may be a better way of articulating his thoughts and ideas to people. “It just became a little frustrating and I became a little like ‘what the hell, I have something to say, and I got to get it out to the world and this is not it’.”
What has replaced university teaching is a more direct, hands-on engagement with those already in the creative industries, as well as students or young people who are trying to find a way in. Online, his audience is wider than would ever be possible at a university or college, and the dilemmas he comes up against more varied. In his ‘Burning Questions’ series – a set of short films hosted on YouTube, and the one free area of his teaching work – he invites queries about work and life and has answered everything from how to find your own unique style, to how to stay positive in a job you hate, to whether you should work for free. These are challenges that most creative people face – sometimes repeatedly – in their careers, but there are surprisingly few avenues of help available once you are out there in the big wide world. Whereas other areas of business are littered with training courses, creative jobs are rarely afforded such structured development or advice.
Victore first struck upon the notion of concentrating more fully on teaching when on a book tour to promote his monograph Victore or, Who died and made you boss?, which was published in 2010. At this stage he was teaching at SVA and also running short summer courses for students alongside designers Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker, but found, while travelling the world with his book, that he kept encountering frustrated creative people with the same problems, and wanted to look deeper into how he could help.
“I realised I’m a pretty good graphic designer, but I’m a much better teacher,” he says. “And I wanted to realise that role – especially at this point where I can see what’s going on professionally and how the business is changing.
“There was a victim-hood that I gathered from these people,” he continues. “They were all intelligent people, they’d gone to college, they’d gone to university, and gotten degrees, and they work hard, and they’re very frustrated with the level of creativity in their job. They would either complain about money or creativity and they were somewhat helpless about what to do about it. They’d gotten into this mentality where a job is something you suffer through until the weekend or until you turn 65. I hate that mentality.”
Victore recognised that the rise of the internet has proved empowering for many – “I’ve got these young, hotshot pals who are in their late 20s and early 30s and they are whipping it up!” he says – but has also caused recurring difficulties for those in design and other creative industries too.
“In the negative sense, there’s a lack of design history,” he says. “[But] the biggest one is actually the distraction element…. If I was 18 or 19 looking to get into a design business … there’s just an onslaught of so much stuff out there that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I would be so ready to jump on all these different trains. ‘Oh that looks nice, I’ll do that…. Oh that looks cool, I’ll do that’…. I think it’s hard to hear your own voice.”
Victore encourages his viewers to find something that they enjoy and are good at, and focus on this. “The first rule of business is fun,” he says. “Because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not committed to it and long hours are going to feel like long hours, and there’s no enthusiasm. It’s a perspective shift, but it’s really important.”
As well as help for those who are just starting out, Victore also provides advice and support to those at other stages in their career. This might be through his conference titled Take This Job And Love It, a series of one-day events that have so far taken place in New York, London and Brazil, which aim to help people “reclaim your creative freedom and access a higher level of bad-assdom”. Or it could be through Victory Labs, a set of workshops where Victore goes into ad agencies and studios 2 3 – and increasingly wider business organisations – and helps those within to “cultivate creative courage”. Then at the very top end of his offering is the Dinner Series, a four day-long programme “chock-full of creation, communion, deep thought and play”, where participants “question how we work and why we work”. Past dinner guests include significant names from the creative industries, including Stefan Sagmeister, Chip Kidd, Jessica Hische, and George Lois.
“The Dinner Series is basically our hardest week of the year but it’s the one that we get the most out of,” says Victore. “It’s partially because we spend so much time with individuals that we really get to affect their lives.
“We get a lot of mid-career people,” he continues, “they’ve gotten to a point where they’ve done a couple of things, they’ve maybe gotten married and had a kid and they’re getting to the point where they’re looking around and saying ‘is this all there is?’ So we get those people and then we’re lucky enough to bring in the chief editor of Esquire and have dinner with him and talk about bravery and stuff like that.
“It’s just dinner and conversation. I tell my guests to be ready and to have questions, but it’s just dinner – no work, no whipping out portfolios. There’s always some tears and that means we’re doing a good job. We don’t go out to try and make people cry but I’m kind of a crybaby to begin with, so that helps…. With 19 year-olds at SVA it was a little bit easier because they’re a little bit more used to that. Then you get these professionals who are used to holding their cards really close.”
Sitting across all the different offerings is Victore himself, and it is his personality, his unique sensibility, which unifies the advice he is giving and prevents it from becoming corporate, or appearing anything like ‘management training’, even if sometimes that’s what it might be. He is very open about his own experiences and takes a frank, occasionally parental, tone in sharing these with others. “I think it’s just who I am,” he says of this method. “I don’t know if it’s the correct approach or the professional approach, but I can’t concern myself with that. It seems to be what people enjoy as well, no-one’s saying ‘please stop’.”
In keeping with this honest approach, Victore is open about the fact that his teaching work – which seems to occupy his time more now than design work with clients – isn’t quite where he wants it to be yet, and is still a work-in-progress. He has recent hired someone to expand the scope of the Victory Labs and reach out to new audiences, and is actively working to expand the audience for Burning Questions. “We went back through the videos and saw which ones were the most highly viewed, and [it’s] ones about having a voice, because I think people are really trying to figure out how to have a voice, how do I get heard above the din,” he says. “Even with my stuff, we struggle with that.”
Victore is currently working on a new book based on his teaching experiences, which he describes as a version of Napoleon Hills’ 1930s self-help title Think and Grow Rich. “Teaching, if you do it well, is really a selfish occupation,” he says. “I get much more [out of it]. Even the people who write in for Burning Questions, the free thing…. I have to sit and really think about how am I going to be a service to this person…. All these things have helped me to the point where I have so much content that I’m trying to put the next book out.”
Some of his teaching has also fed into his design projects too. In 2012, Victore worked with Biber Architects to create new interior designs for the probation service in New York. As well as helping to create a more positive environment, Victore created a series of motivational posters to decorate the spaces. “We wrote them to be the voice of a very funny but stern father,” he says. “Because I felt that the client had not been spoken to honestly in a while, that’s why they keep showing up at the department of probation.” The posters have had a powerful effect on the probationers, with a number of them inspired to start a poetry club and write themselves.
While not every creative person might feel they need help, there is a dearth of useful information out there for people when they get stuck, or for those who feel they have lost track of why they entered the business in the first place. It is at this point that it is worth checking out Victore’s wares. “We’re all human beings and we’re in this creative business that ultimately is rarely that fulfilling creatively, and it’s really hard to make money,” he says. “These issues are things that keep coming back and we keep talking about it…. I’m sure there are highly successful people who have no need of James Victore, and that’s fine, but for the frustrated worker out there, I’m your man.”