What kind of graphic designer are you?

As with any profession, it’s important for graphic designers to be introspective. I have experienced life as a graphic designer in multiple stages: with no actual training in the field (1996–1998), as a graduate student in visual communications (1999–2001), and as a professional designer (2002 to present). I have witnessed all of the below subspecies of graphic designer (and I have been or continue to be one or more of them myself). Thinking about where you fall in these categories can help you understand your work and why some people look at you that way.

Uber Conceptualist
This designer says things like, “The single straight black line in a field of white represents human kind’s unwillingness to recognize its own shortcomings.” Then when his client says, “Yes, but we asked you to design a logo for the county fair,” he sighs and walks away. It’s important for design decisions to have meaning, but when the meaning is so abstract it has to be explained to everyone who sees it, graphic design crosses over into fine art—a different field altogether.

Hack
This person uses Comic Sans and starbursts. Also clip art.

Prima Donna
This person hates you. How dare you question his design decisions? If you don’t like it—or don’t get it—it’s because you’re too dumb. And who needs you anyway? Also, every other designer who has ever created anything is just so corporate. Bunch of sellouts. Especially Paul Rand.

People Pleaser
The yin to the Prima Donna’s yang, the People Pleaser takes any suggestion that comes along. Bold this? Yes. Add 17 photos to page three? You’re the boss!

Tech Guy
One of the great things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Conversely, one of the terrible things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. The Tech Guy designer can tell you everything you would ever want to know (and usually much, much more) about all of the advanced functions in Adobe Photoshop, then uses the software to create fliers for book sales that look like laundry that got washed with Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Old Timer
The Old Timer has been setting metal type by hand since you were wetting your diaper, and doesn’t need any of these newfangled devices to help him.

Of course, these are gross exaggerations, and every good designer has at least some of the above in him. It’s important to balance the Prima Donna with the People Pleaser—to have confidence in your abilities and your decisions, but to be able to hear criticism with an open mind. It’s valuable to let your inner Uber Conceptualist battle it out with the Hack—to think in deeper meanings but to make your work accessible. And every designer should be able to make the best use of his tools—à la the Tech Guy—but to understand the origins of the principles of graphic design the way only the Old Timer can.

And while every designer should have a little of each of the above, maybe you lean a little too far in one of the above directions. And that’s why people look at you like that.

Uber Conceptualist photo by Fausto Giliberti. Old Timer photo by Leroy Skalstad.

Why Clip Art is Evil

Author’s note: One of the first pieces I ever wrote for NAI was a commentary in the July/August 2003 Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” For a long time, much as I am the guy who hates Comic Sans now, I was known as the guy who hates clip art. Not long ago, I received an email from Friend of IBD William Bevil, who said, “In much the same way that you tackle Comic Sans, I think it’s time to talk about the perils of clip art. I don’t think you guys have posted on this before?”

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything about clip art on this blog yet, so I thought I should. Then I thought, rather than try to recreate all those same arguments from 2003, I’d just share that article with you. You’ll see antiquated references to things like “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” CDs, and New Jersey, but the points remain. So with that, I give you this article from 2003:

Why Clip Art is Evil
I long for the days when an image was worth a thousand words. Now, with the advent of what is generously referred to as clip art, many pictures are barely worth the words it takes to name the digital files that describe them on the free CDs that show up every time you try to order an inkjet printer. In a world where there are synthetic, mass-produced solutions to nearly every question—from “What’s for dinner?” to “Who let the dogs out?”—it seems only natural that our options for visual expression are limited to a pre-established set of generic, soulless pseudo-cartoons.

Now, it’s important that I differentiate between clip art and illustration. Illustrators are talented, purposeful people who create artwork intended to speak to a specific audience. Frequently, illustrators specialize in a specific area of interest, a comforting notion to interpreters who rely on the accuracy of the information they put forward. Many of NAI’s members are illustrators, and not only is their artwork expertly produced, but its focus on specific subject areas (animals, plants, etc.) makes it meaningful.

Clip art, on the other hand, magically appears in the middle of a stack of CDs that you thought contained only software for the computer you threw away last year and, possibly, your missing “Best of Van Halen.” Your clip art CD proclaims—usually with several exclamation points—that it contains “over 3,000 images,” each evoking exactly the same emotive response: This image is free! It doesn’t have to be meaningful! This is how interpreters—people who devote their lives to conveying unique, relevant messages—end up creating newsletters and brochures peppered with cartoons created by robots in a New Jersey warehouse. (To be fair, no one actually knows where clip art comes from.)

Most interpretive sites do not enjoy the luxury of a budget that allows for paying illustrators or photographers. However, alternatives to clip art are not as elusive as one might think. First, many people do not consider themselves to be illustrators. But even a person with no artistic skill at all (if such a person truly exists) stands a better chance of effectively conveying the sense of a message or the attitude of an organization than does clip art.

Clip art appears everywhere. It was designed to be ambiguous and personality-free so that it might accidentally suit a wide range of unforeseen purposes. Those individuals who venture to create their own illustrations will find that not only do they have access to any image they want (after a couple minutes with a pen and paper), but that their illustrations take on a certain style, giving their publications a personality that is unique.

Take, for example, the case of the disgruntled elf. In my search for artwork to accompany this article, I stumbled across “Elf–Disgruntled.EPS,” and placed him in my document. I then placed “Balloon07.EPS” right next to him and sat back to enjoy my creation. Then—perhaps after one too many Dr. Peppers—I wondered what NAI’s staff members might come up with if I asked each to draw a disgruntled elf. Several had actual work to do and declined, but to those who agreed, I stipulated that each artist should spend five minutes on his or her drawing. Five minutes later, I found myself in the possession of images that had personality, and more importantly, would never coincidentally show up in some other interpretive association’s magazine.

Note from 2011: Of the four NAIers who drew elves for this study, I am the only one still employed by NAI. That's likely not a coincidence.

In addition to having unique illustrations at my disposal, I discovered other possible resources. One staff member told me that both of her sons are terrific artists and would love to have work published. Another staff member once drew a weekly cartoon for a college newspaper, and assorted staff family members include two college art majors, an interior designer, and a high school art teacher. A simple decision to find an alternative to clip art turned up a variety of sources for free, high-quality artwork with a relative minimum of effort—all of this in an office of six full-time employees.

Because clip art appears everywhere—and because anyone who has ever been in a room that had a computer in it knows that it’s not that hard to place a clip-art file in a word processing document—it has the opposite effect of sprucing up a document. The only story it tells is that of someone who needs to get a newsletter to the printer sitting at a computer and scrolling through a list of 3,000(!) images, looking for the one that comes the closest to saying what he or she wants it to say.

Non-personal interpretive media frequently serve as the first contact a member of the public has with a site. If brochures, web sites, or magazine advertisements don’t effectively convey the mission of a site—or do so in a unique, creative manner—then the personal interpreters at the same site may never get the chance to tell their story. A good interpreter makes the most of the resources available to him or her, be it in person or through non-personal media. A good interpreter would not settle for a generic message created by someone who knew nothing about his or her site.

There is interesting, expressive artwork out there, and it’s not hard to find. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might surprise yourself when you sit down with a pen and paper. And if you don’t, someone else at your site surely will. So put the clip art CD back in the stack of old printer drivers and “Hits of the ’80s” and break out a pen. You’ll be glad you did.

The Good, the Bald, and the Ugly

I’ve had a week or so to reflect upon the NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas. And when I say reflect upon, I’m referring to the glare emanating from our newly bald heads. In a week that was full of highlights, a few moments stood out.

IBD Preworkshop
Before it was a blog, a book, or irritable bowel disease, IBD was a concurrent session at the 2003 NAI National Workshop in Reno. We’ve presented at every NAI Workshop since then, this year in the form of an all-day preworkshop with 30 terrific participants.

Meeting IBDers
As a member of the National Association for Interpretation staff, I’ve always loved the annual opportunity to meet and reconnect with the people I truly work for—the NAI members. (The people who I officially report to and who sign my paychecks are out of the country at the moment, and also do not read this blog, so I can get away with temporarily redefining who I work for.)

Since we’ve started writing this blog, Shea and I have particularly enjoyed getting to meet in person the people who contribute regularly through comments. Pictured here are prolific contributors Canadian Joan, Uber Jeff, and Ranger Amy, who just all happened to be in the exhibit hall at the same time.

Wait Wait..Don’t Tell Me!
If you’re a nerd—and you are a nerd if you’re reading this blog—then you likely are a fan of NPR’s weekly news quiz, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! I certainly am. It was an amazing confluence of luck that the show was being taped at the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas the week of the Workshop, that the taping took place the one night of the week that I was not obligated to be at a Workshop function (though I was sorry to miss seeing Friend of IBD Kelly Farrell receive her NAI Master Interpretive Manager award that evening), that Nemesis of IBD Phil Broder thought to write to NPR to ask for free tickets, that he got those tickets, and that he offered them to us.

There’s certainly nothing Phil could do to end this new era of good will.

The Comic Sans Bus
This thing tormented me the whole week. Every time I went out on the Strip, there it was, in all its outlined Comic Sans glory. Also, with those American flags, it looks like someone used a heavy dose of the Emotionator that came free with their Make My Logo Bigger cream.

Students Berating Me
As much as I like reconnecting with longtime friends at the Workshop, I try to meet as many new folks as possible. We had the opportunity to sit with a lively and fun group of students from Humboldt State University during the closing banquet. I knew right away that this would be no ordinary conversation when it started with, “Are you the guy who does Legacy? We have some ideas for you….”

Splitting 8s
There’s nothing better than splitting 8s against a dealer’s 7 and winning both hands when the next three cards shown are face cards. Am I right? Well, this did not happen to me.

Phil Broder Sticks it to Shea
When we were asked to participate in the annual scholarship auction as auctioneers, we jumped at the opportunity. We thought, we’ll have a microphone and a captive audience, what could go wrong? Then we thought, we’re going to have to do something really different, and by different we mean stupid.

So then we had the perfect idea: We’ll have a competition to raise money and the loser gets his head shaved. I can’t possibly lose! (Keep in mind, we’re both thinking this.) So we should have known that when the final results of the competition were announced (I forget what the final verdict was, it was so long ago), Nemesis of IBD Phil Broder would come storming to the front of the room with a fistful of cash yelling, “Whatever the difference is, I have enough here to make it a tie!” So much for the era of good will.

And we should have known, too, when we auctioned off the right to actually shave our heads, it would be the fine people at the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, who brought us to Los Angeles this past summer to present a two-day workshop, who would pony up the cash to do so.

Sarena Gill to the Rescue
And finally, in a display of the human kindness that makes interpretation so great, that last day of the Workshop and my first day of baldness, Sarena Gill showed up at the registration desk with argyle beanies for Shea and me to help keep us warm. And, of course, it was Phil Broder, moments later, who said, “I didn’t pay $69 and change to see you two wearing hats!”

Comic Sans saves the day

Yes, we’re hard on Comic Sans here at IBD. In fact, a month or two ago, I wrote that using it makes a designer look like a hack. So rather than kick a typeface when it’s down, I thought we’d give it its due. The above video, called “Font Conference,” presents Comic Sans in a new light.

Regarding my own interest in this video, there are two possibilities (perhaps not mutually exclusive):

1. It’s a funny way to anthropomorphize some of the common typefaces we’ve all come to know and recognize.

2. I am a bigger nerd than I thought I was. I am aware as I watch it that I am laughing out loud at jokes about typefaces, but I can’t help myself.

Regardless, there are a number of funny, quotable lines (“Pencil, telephone, hourglass! Diamonds, candle, candle, flag!”), but the top honor, in my opinion, goes to when the font Ransom, holding Courier and Curlz MT hostage, demands placement in a variety of media, including Microsoft Works. Times New Roman responds, “You’re insane. Nobody uses Microsoft Works!”

Inspired by Pie

Pie 1I love living in the south. I love visiting other places but there is something about the south that makes it home to me. The pace and culture of small southern communities is the heart and soul of America. It is also the location of great homemade pies. Several weeks ago I mentioned pie in my post on Text as Art. I am no less obsessed with pie than Paul is with the use of Comic Sans. So why not combine pie and design.

The Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama represents the best of the south and southern ingenuity. Located in Hale County, one of the poorest in the country, the lab was created to be the conduit for creativity and design. With collaboration efforts between Project M (Community design firm) and HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) the end product should be positive change. According to their website, “Pie Lab creates the opportunity for participants of Project M to meet and collaborate with the community, while enjoying a slice of pie—because who doesn’t love pie?” This is a great question, because everyone loves pie.

Pie 2Graphic designers and interpreters should think more often, not about pie, but about how the decisions that they make and products they create impact the communities or resources that they reside in. Designers, in general, have been forced to come up with creative ways to engage and evaluate places where their products will be placed. As an interpreter I have been guilty of not fully considering the community or resource itself in the creation of a new program or non-personal interpretive product. Through the years I have learned that the most successful programs, products and events come from grassroot-type approaches such as the one in Greensboro. The Pie Lab will hopefully lead to product and projects that will be fully adopted by residents of Hale County, Alabama. I can’t wait to see what comes from their efforts. At the very least the sugar from the pie will stimulate new ideas.

Next week you will have the unique opportunity to take part in the much anticipated social experiment of the summer (also known as IBD-Live in Chicago). This experiment, while we are on vacation, may be the first and last time it takes place. Based on comments from our wives, who are not necessary looking forward to listening to long conversations between Paul and me (on Adobe updates, wearing Crocs in public, use of color, NL vs. AL, and obsessive-compulsive type disorder), while our children are screaming for our attention. We are also planning some live updates from Wrigley Field and video blogs from Paul’s iPhone. We will attempt to limit images of us in poolside attire. So check in each day next week for posts on whatever strikes our fancy in the Windy City. We’ll see you in Chicago August 10-14.