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1000 Black Lines

:: digital coffee stains on the paper of the blogosphere ::

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So You Think You're A Designer?

I've been invited to host a lecture on graphic design. But I'm not sure where to start. I guess I'll start at the beginning…

What makes a graphic designer a designer? Is it the computer (MAC of course)? Is it the software (Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator & QuarkXpress)? Is it the black turtleneck? It's really none of these. They're all tools (except the turtleneck -- that's purely fashion).

The next generation of graphic designers assumes that to be real designers you need to be an excellent pixel painter. In a way, the technology has advanced to the point that these tools (hardware and software) keep you competitive in an aggressive market. However, ask a twenty-something designer how one might use rubylith to create a photo-ready four-color brochure and you'll get a blank stare. Another common sign of a young designer is the confusion as to why a print vendor won't print his RGB files.

Am I speaking over your head? If so, it's probably because you don't speak Designese, the language of graphic designers and print vendors. Designese actually has two dialects: one for the designer and the other for the printer. A good print production manager knows both dialects fluently. It used to be that graphic designers knew both dialects well. But somewhere along the way a new breed of designers creates print projects with no complete understanding of the intricate process in taking a job from concept to completion.

Young designers have a technically savvy that is admirable, but lack ingenuity if their software tends not to perform the way they planned. For example, new designers tend to over use Photoshop filters to create 3D shadows or embossed images -- yet their art still has a "flat" artificial quality to it. It is because they only think in relation to the computer monitor. Designers who have been working since the late 80s or early 90s were used to manipulating rubylith layers to overprint certain colors. They had the end product in mind because they understood the process. In other words, older designers understood the idea of consequences for their creative ideas. For example, to obtain a "rich" black in a photo you could include a percentage of cyan, magenta and yellow (depending on what paper your printing upon). They could create the illusion of depth to a photo because they knew that there was depth to the ink that is printed on the paper.

Hm, (pause)… this isn't intended to be a rant against the new school of graphic designers. It's just my observations that a lot of designed pieces these days are rather flat. Maybe it's the education style that teaches the who, what, when and where but forgets the why. (sigh)…There's so much ground to cover – where should I start?

  1. Blogger Jonathan | 7:18 PM, November 24, 2004 |  

    Design education is at fault, but the profession shares the blame too. It promotes itself as a surface profession, giving the impression that style and decoration are greater than effect, and idolising a tiny number of heroes who are hardly representative of the vast majority of designers.
    Designers shouldn't be going in to universities to talk about their work, they should be going in to schools. (And universities of course!) I find a lot of students come to uni with a misconception of what design is and it's not their fault.

    I wouldn't worry too much about the rubylith thing, though - tools go in and out of fashion. When I started designing (at the dawn of the Mac revolution) the generation before were bemoaning the demise of cow gum, spray mount and scalpels. For what it's worth, here in the UK there's a new interest in 'hand made' design.

    The rich black tip is a good one, though - I teach private clients from industry sometimes and alway mention that. Small bit of advice, important effect on the vibrancy of design. But it's the sort of thing, like so much, you pick up on the job. As a university lecturer I don't see it as my job to tick off a long list of little things all designers should know. I'll teach the context, the effects, the implications of design and leave it to employers to do the 'training'. Every job is different, every company has its own methods and preferences, it's pointless trying to cover all bases because no one will ever be happy and will always ask 'what are they teaching them these days?'

    Take a look at my blog: http://jonathanbaldwin.blogspot.com and the two articles listed at the top of the right hand column. You may agree or disagree... ;-)

  2. Blogger 1000 black lines | 10:38 PM, November 29, 2004 |  

    In my observations, graphic design education does share half the blame because the university I attended held most of the classes in the "Fine Arts" building. However, I know of a couple other professional designers (graduating from different universities) who understood their focus was visual communications and thus most of their classes were in the "Communications" wing of the building.

    The graphic design industry doesn't help much either with magazines like HOW and PRINT perpetuating a mythological view of the art director/graphic design universe. The graphic design industry could more accurately be labeled a "creative" sweatshop for skilled employees. The irony is that unskilled factory workers make more money than the average skilled graphic designer. Most factory workers have the protection of the unions where graphic designers are "salaried employees" (meaning over-time expected with no financial reimbursement).

    I don't know if that's the same scenario in the UK, but that's the view from the cubicles outside New York City (NYC is where graphic design "heroes" live -- or so the industry would lead you to believe).

    Thanks for the link. I've read your article (actually a few of them). You've given me much to think about.

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