You know what I like best about graphic design? Before I get to that, you know how every new product seems to come with a promise of greater speed, less labor, more efficiency — but no matter how much time we save, there’s always more work to fill the extra? That’s because saving time isn’t one of life’s great goals. If it were, what with our supermarkets and washing machines and microwaves, we’d all be couched in front of the television, or out fishing. What we want isn’t less work, but rather freedom to do the work we want. To a designer this means the freedom to design. That’s what I like.
I don’t mean design, though, as in a job description, although it’s a fine one. I mean design as in art, beauty, visual richness, the kind of design that makes the world more pleasant to be in. The joy of the computer isn’t that it saves time but that it’s empowered us to make beautiful everything we touch, on a scale we never could before.
I call myself a designer because I make a living at it. But design doesn’t belong to a particular class of people. Beauty is one of life’s fundamentals, like love and laughter. It’s ours. We’re all attracted to beautiful things and repelled by ugly ones. And while we have our own artistic preferences — I like red, you like blue, and these preferences wax and wane over a lifetime — our sense of beauty is really quite common.
So is our need for it.
Our circulation manager once came to work in a pair of shoes that had me reaching for my sunglasses. Brilliant white, jet black, stripes all over — Nike, they said on the side. They outsell competitors that sell for half their price. Why? Design.
Arriving every day in our office mailbox is a stack of print advertising, which we sort over the wastebasket. Junk, junk, junk, maybe, junk, junk, and so on. How do we decide which to keep? Design.
A new car can cost a billion dollars to design.
Let that sink in.
Design has always been important, but today it is center stage. Its influence is impossible to overstate. It’s no longer enough to have a good product; it must be a good-looking product. It’s no longer enough to publish the news; it must be good-looking news. Good design brings to everything clarity, beauty, and strength. Good design moves hearts and minds and mountains.
What’s all this mean for us designers?
It means a lot of fun, that’s what. And because it’s more competitive, it means a lot of sweat.
What does it take to be a designer?
1) It starts with an interest. I was going to say it starts with a love of design, but I didn’t start by loving it; I started by being interested and began to love it after I . . .
2) began acquiring skills. Design can be a gratifying spectator sport, but if you’re going to make it happen you need to get your hands on it, you need to get involved, you need to work the tools.
This is what makes the computer exciting; it’s a store full of tools. With it you can set type, you can draw pictures, you can beautify photos. You can design every aspect of every page, upload it or print it, and have the results in seconds. In the old days, this took a big staff and special equipment and planning and coordination and expense. Today the whole show is in the box on your desk.
Design is a language like speech and music. To master it takes practice. Fun thing is, with our magic boxes we can practice a lot; we can now design everything.
To succeed as a designer, it’s important that you respect your need to learn. Give yourself room; there is a lot to know. I’m not telling you to stop short of the highest. But take pleasure in every small victory on the way up. Design is not a contest, and what I mean by that is you can’t lose, not as long as you keep at it. You may not get this job or that, but you’ll get better and better.
Give yourself room to be disappointed, too. An athlete doesn’t hurdle a seven-foot bar first try. He endures a lot of days on his back with that stupid bar on his chest.
Study. Look around. Keep at it.
I can tell you something. When I was a kid I thought there’d come a time when I would arrive. You know, be there. On top. And to my youthful mind this meant being done, on cruise control, no more work.
Shows what I knew.
Life, I’m happy to report, is too big to be done. Beauty forever beckons. That’s what I like best about graphic design.
This editorial, slightly modified, was originally published in Before & After issue 25.