Understanding Patrick Clair

My new article for Motionographer about Patrick Clair is out, and people seem to be enjoying it. Gotta say, I'm quite relieved, because I struggled for months with it.

Being commissioned to write this piece was a huge deal for me, as I've been such a big fan of Patrick's work for many years. But it also meant that I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders to come up with something that could live up to the example set by his work.

This pressure I felt had some bad consequences. For one, I had horrible insomnia the night before the interview and wound up feeling kind of sluggish and dopey on the phone with Patrick. Not a great start. Also my little voice recorder thing pooped out unexpectedly at the last moment and I had to scramble to record the interview using a combination of Screenflow, speaker phone, and a USB microphone.

Even worse, I had a lot of trouble coming up with a compelling lede to the article. I must have written the opening paragraph fifty times before I found the one that I eventually went with. Here are a few examples of some of my rejected ledes:

"Patrick Clair is a man of many surprises, large and small."

Yuck! I'm not even sure what surprises I was thinking of. Plus, this is such a boring cliché. Yawn meets yuck.

"Patrick Clair calls himself a nerd a lot. According to him, he’s an architecture nerd, a politics nerd, and of course a design nerd. I was surprised by this at first, and then I realized that he’s a fucking smart guy."

This one's kind of funny, and it sort of humanizes him a little, but ... it doesn't make me want to read more. And while I don't think of Motionographer as a family blog or anything, dropping an F-bomb in the opening paragraph is a little much.

"I was hooked when I first saw Patrick Clair’s "Stuxnet" project. What a bold designer! I mean, who else would use so much hot pink in a piece about glitchy high-tech military futurism??"

Let's move on before I delete this entire post. 

The piece really came to life for me when let go of my hero worship of Mr Clair and instead tried to put myself into the shoes of a typical Motionographer reader. When I read an article about someone with a trove of amazing work I often think: what are they doing that I'm not? Put another way: Is it possible for me to make work as good as that person's, and if so -- how? 

I was pretty happy with the final opening I came up with:

"At the age of 21, Patrick Clair was absolutely nowhere. He was obsessed with motion graphics, but didn’t even own a computer. And yet somehow, eleven years later, he nabbed an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design for True Detective and became arguably the most famous motion designer in the world."

This made my day. Thanks for the compliment Ryan Summers, and also for the excellent use of curly brackets! 

This made my day. Thanks for the compliment Ryan Summers, and also for the excellent use of curly brackets! 

The only real bummer for me about this article is that I decided to go with no direct quotes, and therefore left a lot of amazing, inspirational things that Patrick said on the cutting room floor. In general I'm happy with this choice but feel like I deprived the community of some real gems. 

So here my Top Ten favorite quotes from the interview:

1. "When you’re figuring out what your voice is, consume everything voraciously across the broadest possible spectrum. And then once you’ve found it, focus on just what you do."

2. "There can be a little bit of a trend-churn in the industry, and if you’re going to do distinctive work you need to be really careful to get out of that trend-churn."

3. "If you find a way to do something efficiently -- basically cheaply -- than you’ll get more creative freedom."

4. "There certainly was a point where I stopped getting my inspiration from motion graphics. And I started getting it from anywhere but."

5. "Bookstores are my weakness, my Achilles heel. Bookstores are my crack. I’m just hopelessly addicted to bookstores. And have been for years."

6. "One of the hardest things with anyone’s career is that you tend to get pigeonholed. You tend to get more work like the work you got before. And that’s great because it tends to be what you’re good at. But it can also be frustrating. And you want to find those chances to just step forward."

7. "Yeah, I don’t know if I have necessarily a process. I read articles about people who seem to have these very set processes. And I feel a little jealous as my process is mainly “get a bunch of information and then just panic that I won’t be able to come up with an idea.” And that panic continues until delivery day."

8. "Certainly for me I came from a design and a hands-on background. And there’s something really satisfying about doing design hands-on. Truthfully, sometimes I find it’s easier to do yourself than to try and convey it to someone else. Not because you’re better at doing it, but because you don’t have to face the challenge of articulating it. You can just trust your hands."

9. "I don’t think you can do this job if you aren’t a design nerd. And being a design nerd is a really fun thing to be."

10. "I think the challenge in motion graphics -- and in all sort of design -- is to not let the aesthetics overwhelm the story and the meaning of things."

* * * * * * * *

Also I need to say thanks to a few people for their help with this. For starters Justin Cone, who introduced me to Patrick and trusted me to write the article in the first place. Also Joe Donaldson the editor of Motionographer, who formatted the piece for Wordpress and provided some key compliments at vulnerable moments. Without a doubt this article wouldn't have been nearly as good without the help of my wife Rebecca Klassen, who isn't that into motion design and might not have ever read the final piece, but who always knows just the right way to kick my ass when I feel cocky or overwhelmed. 

I'd also like to thank Patrick Clair's wife Bridget, who help me fact-check the article for inaccuracies. And a final huge thanks to Patrick himself, for being such a cool nerd, as well as a man of many surprises, large and small.