Thank you Dave Hopkins for the pleasant design interview (lucky 13)!
When other people recognize your work, it is a great compliment. They may recognize your humorous attitude coming through the work or see a visual treatment that you have brought to many of your solutions in the past. These distinguishing characteristics reflect your style, which can come through you unconsciously. In fact, your style is you.
The places we’ve been and things we’ve seen, felt or heard all broaden our vision as designers. They also define us. For example, a trip to Vermont to see the foliage could add to your color pallet; an unfortunate visit to a hospital’s emergency room could shock you into realizing how efficient people can be under pressure. In either case, both experiences will be internalized: you will realize that a recent design has a color you never thought about using before, or it has an energized immediacy about it. These influences can come from everywhere. Can you trace them back? The fact that someplace or thing might feed your work is, in effect, acknowledging connections with your larger culture, community, and environment. A good example of this dynamic is a visual series on the impact of the Iraq war by Maria Uroos. She grew up in the Middle East and felt a need to create a visual dialogue about the changes in life, culture, and religion that she saw there. Her tools include text and image, metaphors and analogies, elements, and principles. All convey thoughts about the region where she lived, fleshed out into a form that is meant to extend conversations. Each piece begins with her.
In a design experiment by Janet Lee, whose family is in retail fashion, two activities are merged into one composition. She created a montage of typography with a dress form, color chips with fabric swatches, and single-edge cutting blades with scissors. The art historian E. H. Gombrich (1909–2001) wrote, “Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there.” The connection this designer makes to retail fashion isn’t necessarily there either, but is more a myth that forges a connection to something more personal and perhaps more meaningful to her. She uses that same ability to tell stories and making connections when creating works for her clients.
In another piece, Rick Valicenti examines his own future role as a graphic designer. The poster’s purpose is to announce a design lecture in Vancouver, Canada, and the character pictured—a jester that is full of remorse—is a portrait of Valicenti himself. Hanging off his hat is a flickering sign that reads “HUGE.” The ghostlike, wispy image of an old man beside his own face hints at his later life. Together, the images make a social comment about whether this effort is all there is in Valicenti’s future, and for that matter, in the profession as a whole. In other words, designers can be practical problem-solvers (such as finding a way to announce an event), but also passionate artists whose work also matters in terms of making a positive difference in the world.
Also posted on LinkedIn:
My young son once asked, ‘Why are we here?’, writes Scott W. Santoro. When the question was flipped back to him, ‘Why do you think we are here, Ellis?’, he responded, ‘To learn stuff!’
Ellis was right. If for no other reason, we’re here to learn stuff, and graphic design makes it easy. Our field is so rife with varied subjects that we can’t help ourselves – it is almost forced upon us.
When Pearson Education asked me to produce a graphic design textbook five years ago, I went through everything I know about the subject, and learned a lot more in the process.
An embarrassing moment as a graphic design teacher came when I made a comment to a student whose work was static; dead. I wanted her to find a way to liven up her designs and told her she needed to “break out of the box.” Looking for inspiration, I asked what her parents did for a living and she replied, “They own a funeral home, they’re undertakers.”
I don’t think she was being a smart-aleck and I really did have good intentions—it’s just part of the way I teach, to probe a little. The belief is that by looking into past experiences and family histories designers can expand their visual vocabulary and learn to make meaningful connections. I’ve been practicing this myself since 1988, from my days as a Cranbrook student. It was there, in the midst of Deconstruction theory, that I decided to have a personal investment in my method of production.
Plumbing was “it” for me—generations of my family all directing fluids. The metaphor was satisfying, a blue-collar contrast to my white-collar profession. Systems behind the walls became analogous to systems in the mind; tools and processes I knew so well were now consciously massaged, as a layer, into a tough, everyday aesthetic. In the spirit of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe,” the surrealism of word and image became a looking-glass to “see” graphic design better.
Teaching this approach is another matter. It’s hard to get design students to mythologize their lives. And yet, as a teacher, I know that the more input, the richer the output. Ultimately, if I can get design to begin to mean something to them personally, I’ve done my job.
When it works
An undergrad student of mine, Chakaras, had served in the military and had a strong sense of discipline and authority. He allowed his experience to translate beautifully into an investigation of badge-like iconography, and grid systems countered with a kind of typographically distressed snafu—an acronym used by soldiers to mean (s)ituation (n)ormal (a)ll (f)ucked (u)p. The visual metaphor of the military also came out in his research and play with camouflage and gestalt theory. His study opened up an ongoing layer underneath his commercial, problem-solving, graphic design.
When it doesn’t work
The choice not to include one’s past might occur when others expect clichés. No one necessarily wants to be bound by where they’re from or what they did before. Being from India could involve designs that are colorful and ornate, or not; a family of accountants might not offer any exploitable formulas, especially if you hate math; a love for hip-hop doesn’t have to mean that layouts include graffiti—but maybe.
When it’s challenging
Ali showed me his portfolio full of images of human body organs. Short of thinking that pornographic gore was his obsession, I finally had to ask, “where was this all coming from?” Did I even want to know? It turns out that both of Ali’s parents are doctors, and he was on a medical track until graphic design came calling. The imagery found its way in and brought shocking, yet beautiful, mechanisms to his layouts.
Another student, Mike, explained that the metaphor he had found in grad school was none other than Mr. T of The A-Team fame. What’s incredible was how he was able to use this character to drive an examination of pop culture, hero-worship, and celebrity-ism. Eventually, Mike became the persona of Mr. T, including himself, literally, in many of his designs.
The fact that someplace or something might feed your work is, in effect, acknowledging connections with larger systems—culture, community, and environment. The art historian, E.H. Gombrich, who made analytical studies between art and the psychology of perception, wrote, “Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there.”
In a sense, connections between personal histories and graphic design aren’t really there either. The value of a link is only made real by believing in it. Not being afraid of seeing yourself in your work is the first step.
Originally published in “The Education of a Graphic Designer” edited by Steven Heller, Allworth Press, 2005