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.

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!”

Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.