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.

Inspiration

When I was in high school, I ran on the cross country team in the fall and on the track team in the spring. Cross country was simple (though not easy). Everyone on my team ran 3.1 miles against everyone on the other team. The fastest runners won. I enjoyed cross country and wanted desperately to succeed, but I was not good at it. I was not a fast distance runner.

In track, there were multiple events, from short sprints to two-mile distance events, not to mention field events like shot put and pole vault. As a self-imagined distance runner, I practiced with the distance runners, ran distance events during meets, and made fun of the sprinters for their wussy practices.

Then one day, one of our top sprinters was injured, and because I never placed in any distance event, the coaches pulled me out of the mile and two-mile runs and placed me in the 100-meter dash. To my chagrin, I placed first. Before I knew it, I was the lead sprinter (on a very bad track team, mind you) in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and the anchor of the 400- and 800-meter relay teams. During practice, I would watch the distance runners as they glided around the track, knowing they were scoffing at my wussy sprint drills. I eventually accepted and enjoyed sprinting, but in the fall, I would always go back to the cross country team with the idea that my body might yet morph from that of a stocky sprinter to a lanky distance runner.

As a graduate student in visual communications at Virginia Commonwealth University about a decade ago, my fellow students were supremely talented graphic designers, each with a particular talent or knack that defined them in my mind. Five of them in particular really made an impression on me. Sandie Maxa had an amazing skill for working with color; Mark Sanders used his background in architecture to establish a unique and appealing visual voice; Grace Marraccini applied an elegant and sophisticated touch to everything she produced; Kristy Pennino had a flair for combining her own intricate photographs with simple but expressive type; and Guido Alvarez had a way of thinking about design (and the world) that made me shake my head, smile, and say, “Wow.”

guido_ceroI admired the work of all of these classmates then and still do today. Sometimes I’ll get something as simple as a greeting card from one of them or see something they’ve posted on Facebook and it reminds of the sort of work I imagined I would do some day. (Pictured here is one of my favorites from Guido, a poster for an international film festival that envisions a theater experience that goes beyond popcorn and candy.)

Let me be clear: I love my job. I love that I get to work in a variety of media (print, web, logos, and sometimes video), and I love that I work for an organization filled with great people and whose goals and mission I believe in. But when I started grad school, I thought I’d end up as a poster designer in some European city where I would go out at 5:00 in the morning with a bucket of glue and a paint roller to place edgy posters that I had designed among all the other edgy posters that other designers had designed. (Also, I would own an airplane and not be so tubby.)

Of course, the area where I had the most success in grad school was not where I wanted to succeed but something else altogether: Information design. The best group critique I experienced in six semesters as a graphic design student was for a project in which we were asked to redesign food nutrition labels. In order to break free of this—to explore and embrace a world of rough edges and imperfection—I did my entire thesis project on what graphic designers can learn from yard sale signs.

Guido used to torment me during critiques (I seem to invite that sort of thing), but the most penetrating comment he ever made was, “Your work can be so obvious.” I earned a Master of Fine Arts in 2001, all the while feeling like a distance runner in a sprinter’s body.

Last week, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about graphic design resolutions for the new decade. It was all about detail-type things (using em-dashes instead of two hyphens, not using globes in logos, etc.). It was not about how to think about graphic design.

This week, my real resolution is to visit with my former classmates and other designers online and in person as much as possible (starting with this post), to try to continue to grow and learn as a designer, to focus on the process of graphic design rather than the end result, to identify and break out of boxes, to strive to become a graphic design distance runner.

As a runner, I was constrained by my body type (you don’t see a lot of marathoners with short, thick legs) and I’m not sure that all of the hard work in the world would have made a big difference. But as a designer, I feel I can build on what I perceive as my strengths (organization, information, clarity) and work toward a more expressive and unique visual voice.

Note: You can find Sandie and Mark’s design firm, Q Collective, at www.upwithq.com. Kristy now teaches and posts her students’ work on Flickr. Guido and the weird stuff he does is at www.hyperscholar.com.