Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pots and Kettles of Equal Hue, But Whatever. Not Everyone is a Graphic Designer. Not Even Me. And I Paid to Go to School for it.

Give someone a sweet SLR camera and they’ll fancy themselves a photographer. Give someone a copy of Adobe Creative Suite and they’ll fancy themselves a graphic designer.

Do you want to know what the biggest pet peeve of (real) graphic designers is? Besides the very existence and unfortunate prevalence of Comic Sans? People with zero training who run around calling themselves designers.

For every hack designer out there who churns out cringe-worthy “work,” it devalues the entire design industry. It’s already a struggle. Quality designers have a hard time getting the monetary compensation they deserve because someone’s neighbor’s cousin’s sister’s daughter has a copy of Photoshop and will do it for twenty bucks.

You get what you pay for, people.

I’ve crawled out of my hermit-cave recently and have managed to reconnect with some of my designer friends. I had dinner recently with two of my friends-slash-fellow-design school alums, and it was kind of surreal listening to them talk about the trade. I have never worked professionally as a designer – once I graduated, I ended up pursuing other things. My design degree was a foot in the door, nothing more. (I still have mixed feelings about this, but that’s for later.) Yet I still work in the industry, around the industry, and I work with designers every single day. Calee recently attended the HOW design conference in Boston, and I think it was an especially interesting experience to her to mingle with the variety of professionals and so-called professionals in the industry.

One of her biggest peeves was the people who went around saying that their job was to "make things pretty.”

This fueled a large rant between her and our friend Steph, about the very nature of design and how it’s not supposed to be “pretty.”

Anyone who’s been formally trained knows that. Anyone who hasn’t been formally trained but who works as a designer should know that.

I’m not so far removed myself that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned. Design isn’t about making things “pretty.” Design is about communication. Design is about function. “Pretty” isn’t the point. “Pretty” is missing the point. Design is effective communication, the end. Sure, aesthetics are important… so long as they tell the message they were sent to tell.

Design is nuanced, it always means something, it WILL tell people something. You need to be in control of it (the design) enough to make sure it’s conveying the right message, the intended message, on both the conscious and subconscious levels. It’s kind of like a belligerent child, in that sense. You don’t want it swearing in front of the grandparents when you meant for it to politely ask for a cookie.

“But I’m an artist!” You complain. Yeah, sure, great. Artists don’t necessarily make pretty things, either. They are also communicators, though in less obvious means. They tell truths, the way they see and interpret it. I’ve seen some paintings that were ugly as sin, that were disturbing and unsettling. But it was great art. You know why? The artist was telling an ugly truth, and it was undoubtedly masterfully done. But it wasn’t pretty. A lot of things in life aren’t pretty.

Art isn’t necessarily pretty. Design isn’t necessarily pretty. It needs to convey a message, or it’s shit.

Does that offend you? Good. That means you need to take a step back and re-evaluate. It also means you didn’t have much if any formal training, and that’s what makes the majority of graphic designers cranky at you.  Design school? Not a cake walk. Not an easy stroll through the park. It’s hard work. It’s blood (literally – have you ever used an Xacto knife at 3am? Keep bandages nearby), sweat, and tears. So many tears. I can’t tell you how many near-meltdowns (and actual meltdowns) I had. I almost quit and changed majors the summer before my senior year because my internship made me so miserable. Fortunately the professor in charge of advising all of us interns talked me off the ledge, but it left me questioning a lot of things. Namely, what the hell I was going to do with myself that following May, because I had no idea what was going to make me happy anymore.

I realize that a lot of designers are self-taught, and many of them are very good. I realize that a lot of designers that have formal training are terrible. I probably fall somewhere in between the two, and that’s probably because I’ve spent the last five years working on the account side of things rather than the creative side of things. If we want to get into how much that makes my heart hurt some days, we can. I didn’t think I’d miss it, at first. My meticulous, anal-retentive attention to detail made me a fantastic project manager and my ability to speak the language of the designers made me a useful liaison. Having taken classes that focused on print production threw me way ahead of the learning curve in a company that also houses a commercial printing facility. Even that soul-crushing internship was useful, because my parent company also does apparel – screenprinting, embroidery and the like. My main job, more or less, revolves around apparel. If you would have told me that five, six years ago, I would have laughed at you, because I never would have guessed myself to be trendy or fashion-conscious, but you’d be amazed what can happen when you mash a bunch of your skill sets together. I have Frankensteined together what is pretty damn near my ideal job outside of writing/designing.

I’m not a shining example of a graphic designer, despite the fact that I am severely mired in student loan debt from obtaining a fancy BFA from an accredited design program that had a pretty cut-throat admission process. (At the end of our freshman year, we have to apply to get into the actual professional program. They only take 60 people. Which really isn’t that many, if you knew how many people applied every year.) I spent the next three years in a caffeine-fueled haze, my eyes glazing over as the hour went from “late” to “early” and I found myself still staring at a computer screen. I waited in lines at midnight to print my projects the night before they were due, forced to pay the ridiculous prices that were being charged because I had no choice. (To say nothing of the painstaking process of actually getting my pieces ready to present. Craft counts, and it’s really easy to mess that up when all you really want to be doing is sleeping.) We spent years being told that we were inferior, our work was only slightly better than garbage – only to have all the professors be all “LOL J/K” at the end of our senior year, when they reviewed our final portfolios and reminded us that our alma mater sent out some of the best-trained, most desirable designers in the field. We just stared at them blankly.

“You mean to tell us that we don’t, in fact, suck?”

It’s really unfortunate that I ingrained that sensibility into my brain, because if I’d had a smidgeon of confidence left when I graduated, I might actually be working as a designer right now.

I’ve done little bits of freelance here and there. I refuse to take payment unless the other party insists, because I don’t feel right charging for what I feel is subpar work. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder, because everyone always seems to love what I end up doing, but I’ve SEEN great design, and baby, mine ain’t it.

I’ve obviously digressed. What’s my point? I don’t remember. I guess my point is that you have to have a point. You can’t just run around calling yourself a designer because you can apply fancy filters to photographs and throw some typography over top. Until you’ve been forced to slog through “Making and Breaking the Grid” and other such riveting tomes, until you can tell me who Milton Glaser and Saul Bass and Paul Rand and David Carson and Chip Kidd are, until you can tell me what the difference between coated and uncoated paper is, until you can tell me what a pica is, until you can tell me what kerning and tracking and leading mean, until you can define “x-height” and ramble on about ascenders and descenders and loops and bowls, until you can explain why Univers is a superior typeface and why Helvetica sucks (ha! Trick question. Helvetica’s okay. It’s just never been my personal favorite), until you can laugh hysterically at people that try to print with RGB files, until you know why the Pantone Color Bridge is basically a small swatchy Bible, until you’ve been stomped on and critiqued and spent countless hours obsessing over your portfolio and critiqued some more and have shed tears even though you’ve been told repeatedly it’s not personal (it’s always personal) (except it’s really, really not), then don’t claim to be some fancy-ass designer. Go take a damn design class. Hell, take two. You’re embarrassing everyone else in the field and you’re the reason that nobody is making any fucking money. Designers and copywriters are the building blocks of corporate America, they are behind the scenes of every single damn thing in this country. They are what make brands fail or succeed, what makes any sort of marketing possible, what separate us from the wolves. I mean, that and opposable thumbs. But you get the idea. If I had a business, that's not something I'd trust to my cousin's hairdresser's nephew. I'd want a professional. Because that's what designers are: professionals.Designers are the unsung hero of every success story, of anyone who’s ever made any money, and they get zero credit and have to fight to prove why they deserve every penny they ask for.


This post is a Condescending Wonka meme waiting to happen, but it’s 7am right now and for whatever ungodly reason, I am awake and typing, and the fact that there are even full sentences coming from my fingers is something resembling a small miracle.

[Actually, wait... I just remembered I've been featured in not one, not two, but three design publications with some of my student work. I'm a rock star, y'all. BOW DOWN TO MY AUTHORITY. J/K. But seriously. I'm legit. Legit enough to make this rant, anyway.]


Jenn said...

I have to use adobe indesign for work ALL THE TIME, and a little bit of photoshop, and then also the dreaded powerpoint, and i can't even tell you how many times someone in my office has sent me a shitty powerpoint on a blank template and been all "Make this pretty!"

Fuck. You. Dude.

I'm definitely not a designer but I've been forced to learn basic layout and design standards for my company and while I love it, I definitely don't have the desire to learn how to use illustrator or any other crazy logo type shit. Nor do I have the desire to call myself a designer because all I can really do is some color blocking and good font selection :)

I think a lot of professions have the same frustrations as you do - web designers, writers, etc. Just because you know *how* to do something, doesn't mean you're *good* at it type thing.

chimes said...

HOLY SHIT I CAN'T EVEN DESCRIBE HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS. I'm sharing this. Alllllll over the internet.

And I'm stealing for a guest post. Thank YOU!

chimes said...

P to the S — I have yet to be published, but I'm guessing that's from lack of trying. I never wanted to spend $ on that because I thought good work should speak for itself, but in competing with the ever-expanding-universe of non-designers calling themselves designers, I am going to have to if I ever want to get freelance work.

Jaci said...

As a recovering design student I must say "AMEN!" Yes, I don't work in the profession, but that's more out of personal choice than anything (being told you're a piece of shit everyday wasn't for me). The "Make It Pretty" process pisses me off. If you want to make that a personal philosophy for life, whatever, but don't push that onto your client for cripes sakes!

Now, going into the profession of librarianship, I could extend a lot of to my profession (the volunteers who put the books away are not librarians people!) and could probably be extended to many professions.

We should start a Meet-up group called "People undervalue my profession/professional training and I want to bitch about it" or something.

Steph A said...

Oh man. That big fourth-to-last paragraph is wonderful. :D I've wanted to say similar things to photographers who have never stepped foot in a darkroom and don't have a clue who Ansel Adams is. And i'd love to see a rant at people who hire/employ designers, too. 'Cause all they really want is someone who can wield Photoshop, which is why those non-designers are able to make money. Designers are treated like hair stylists—"i want this cut and this color!"—rather than actual DESIGNERS. Drives me damn crazy, and that's why i'll probably never go back to design. Not that being a web developer is much different.

Mindy said...

Wow. I feel I should make a similar rant about people that use Turbo Tax and QuickBooks and call themselves Accountants. :)