Since becoming a design instructor, I have become a better designer. And amidst all of this, I have become a much better artist. I am incredibly lucky to be caught in this particular upward spiral, and I hope to help others find their own cycle of growth through teaching and writing.
I started out as a fine artist, specifically a printmaker. My work was diaristic in nature, a lot of pictorial navel-gazing. Nothing much remarkable happened until I got to grad school and switched unexpectedly (involuntarily, even) to graphic design. All of a sudden, I had to confront and examine all these presuppositions I held about the act of cultural production.
Here are a few I have successfully unraveled:
- You have to be obscure to have street cred
I had always seen myself operating on the fringes of society, speaking to a select few. In the graphic design department at school, the designers were all striving to reach entire strata of the general population. Speaking to the mainstream in any way seemed like an immediate loss of credibility to me. It took a while for me to finally see that the point of creating work should be inclusiveness. I had this moment of revelation when I realized I could strive to bring the very best work to as many people as possible and still be a relevant creator. I’d been an elitist snob for years and hadn’t even known it.
- Graphic designers are sell-outs
I thought that graphic designers were all sell-outs, using their creative powers only for monetary gain. This was a hard idea to unlearn–there is no denying that designers work for clients a lot of the time, and sometimes for unsavory ones. Such is the nature of making a living: you occasionally have to do something unpleasant or even counter to your ideals. I just had to do a little growing up to start to see how wrong this idea really was, there was no short way around it. Graphic designers (including myself) are here to help clients formulate and broadcast their message to select audiences with panache and circumspection.
If a client wants to lie or cheat his audience through your work, you can turn him down or walk away. If you can’t get away immediately, start looking for a new job with a better agency. No matter your situation, your ethics can guide you in making the best work you can. Certainly, I have done my share of unsavory bread-and-butter work, but over the years I have structured my life so I can curate the jobs I take carefully.
- It’s fame or failure
I assumed I’d either become famous or die trying for a very long time. I assumed there was no point to being an artist unless you were showing in MOMA. I secretly dreamed of becoming the next art rock star, taking the Whitney Biennial by storm. I had no real conception of what making a living as an artist really meant. I got a pretty clear picture once I moved to Brooklyn and tried to keep my art practice alive amidst all the jobs I had to work to keep food on the table. I eventually had to choose between art materials and rent, and I chose to keep the roof over my head. Once this happened, I felt like a failure and my art practice ground to a halt.
What came to the rescue? Graphic Design! It was how I was able to get on my feet financially. It taught me how to work consistently and finish projects. It taught me how to ideate well past the clichés. It taught me how to use a computer, how to build a website, how to break down a project into manageable chunks. In essence, it kept my creativity alive for the years in the wilderness, when I thought all was lost from an artistic point of view. It was also the context in which I became a full-fledged adult, and as such I am eternally grateful to the entire discipline.
- Typography is easy
Holy cow, did this belief have to go. I thought there was nothing to it, you just grab whatever font is on the computer and have at it. It didn’t take long for my fellow designers to point out that my work was nearly unreadable. Luckily, I had learned about letterpress typesetting while I was training as a printmaker. I dug up my notes and started to realize that setting type is this lovely artform, and it can be performed with compassion and grace. I love type, I love letterforms, and now I can safely say I love typography. I view the act of setting type well as activism: facilitating the transmission of a message to audiences with the finesse it needs to ring brightly is a task to be performed with honor.
All in all, I have learned a great deal from Graphic Design and its practitioners over the last 12 years. I now proudly count myself as a designer myself, one who can constantly improve if I keep an open mind. That has been the biggest gift of all from Design: I am now aware of and responsible for my own perspective. It is up to me to get off my ass, own my real motives, and finally to assess the situation with a little wisdom. You know what taught me that? The design process. Working with clients. Taking a problem apart and finding out what possible solutions exist.
I mentioned earlier that I am grateful, and I’d like to end on that note as well. My life is enormously improved, my career is taking off, and my artwork is bubbling happily along, all because I stumbled into a profession upon which I once looked down. I feel very, very lucky that I ended up where I did all those years ago.