What I like best about graphic design

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.


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24 Responses to What I like best about graphic design

  1. mary ramirez says:

    John, your insightful words are at once comforting and cautionary. It’s 99% in the presentation, whether it’s dinner on the table or the $3000 print job. I see design all around me: I marvel at the design of nature; I appreciate the tools I have to manipulate my own design ideas. Sometimes the challenge is to discover the design tastes of those around us and blend them with our own.

    p.s. More Design Talk, please!

  2. Amber says:

    Beautifully written — I agree wholeheartedly.

    I now realize that I was a “designer” long before I made a living at it. I had a different career but was designing nonetheless, learning to use all those tools and achieving fluency in the language of design.

    I think it’s great that design has become center stage in our culture (and not just because it brings me more freelance clients!). What you say, no matter how important or well-said, is going to be more effective with good design. As a designer, I love that I get to help people tell their stories.

  3. Joe Panella says:

    Well said my friend! I remember starting art school thinking I was going to be a photo retoucher. That’s all I wanted to do; I wanted to sit at a big table with my airbrush, inks, dyes, masks etc., and make a good photo look fabulous! Then in my senior year I was introduced to the Mac, and my whole outlook on life changed. I realized that graphic design was my future. From that moment on, everything I looked at I analyzed to see how it could look better. I’ve been a designer for over twenty years, and I still get excited at the opportunity to create a new or improve upon an existing design. How awesome is that!

  4. Mike says:

    Design is a language like speech and music. To master it takes practice . . .

    I would modify this to say design is like learning a new language. One is forever learning — the target language is not a fixed quantity but an ever-moving, living thing. One is never truly fluent as a native speaker in most languages. It takes commitment, perseverance and dedication to continue learning and evolving one’s sense of communication.

    I look at design in the same way. One never arrives at the destination. You have to continue on the journey or else get stuck in a period, a snapshot of design ethic that is not moving forward.

    Which is one reason I have enjoyed BAM and other resources. And the Web. It has enabled one to more broadly learn the why certain designers did to arrive with the finished piece.

    Take care, Mike

    • John McWade says:

      You have to continue on the journey or else get stuck in a period, a snapshot of design ethic that is not moving forward. — Really well put, thanks.

  5. Shane Wilson says:

    “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.” — Poetry, my friend!

  6. John says:

    Beautifully expressed, and encouraging words! Thank you! Design, as in any field or endeavor, is filled with challenges. Challenges to grow. Challenges to simply endure. There are places of rest, a rock to hold onto, a bar to grasp, a place to gather strength to continue the journey onward. Challenges aren’t our enemy, but our friend. The resistance of the wind makes the tree stronger. If we think we no longer need to be challenged and that we have arrived, we will stagnate while others pass us by. Having not yet attained, I press onward.

  7. David says:

    Just today got a reminder of the somethng similar, from Eckhart Tolle, seems fitting for your great dialog:

    “When you get there, there’s no there there”. This applies not only to location in space, but also to time: when you get to the future, you find yourself in the present moment. So the future never comes. Don’t let the thought of future (or past) obscure the preciousness of the present moment.

  8. Beautiful post!

    Isn’t this a wonderful thing. When I’m creating on my computer is when time ceases to exist for me. No wonder they have to tell us designers to double our estimates of how long we think something will take us to do!

  9. Randy Martin says:

    When I was 18, I got a free ride to Northwestern to study Civil Engineering. After 6 weeks, I dropped all my CE classes. I had come to realize that even though I was capable of understanding the chemistry and physics of engineering, what I really wanted to do was design good-looking bridges. I was, at heart, designer.

    Today, when I get back from a week’s vacation, the first thing I want to do is sit down at my computer and design something. So that’s what I do. Even if it’s not something I have to work on.

    Thanks for making me think.

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  11. Jared says:

    How timely! Just yesterday I’d had one extremely frustrating day attempting to work on a design for a project. It happens to be a yearly project I do for a particular client, so the pressure to outdo myself every year is rather high (maybe not for my client, but certainly from my own perspective since I’ve only been doing design for a few years and most of what I know is self-taught). I’d been up too late spending a lot of time getting nowhere, and finally I had to force myself to go to bed and get some rest. Today, not only did I have some new ideas but I came across this post, and more than anything else it was very encouraging. It’s so true. It may get frustrated at times but I really do love what I do. Thanks for this post … I’ll likely come back to it often.

  12. Aaron says:

    What a positive, hopeful and generous piece. Thanks!

  13. My family was in the living room watching TV — I was in my room drawing pictures. Eventually I joined the Navy and hunted submarines from an airplane for a living. I was good enough at it to eventually teach others. The lesson materials were poorly designed, the materials (overhead transparencies and chalk boards) were antiquated and inefficient. I created my own — with PowerPoint — and was recognized for it. After the Navy what would I do? Hunting submarines was not marketable. PowerPoint launched my career — working for a bank.

    Many think of it as drawing, but it is much more than that — and how many of us graphic designers have been asked to help rearrange a room or have an opinion on the lighting in a restaurant? It is the creating part that I enjoy — and I suspect few thrive in this business without a desire to create. Good design is more than creating — it is in essence “design.” Design is not organic, it is on purpose. It brings order and coherence to convey complex ideas in a deceptively simple-to-understand-and-absorb thought. Good design takes something hard and makes it simple — that is what attracts even non-designers to it. In many ways, a good designer is a good teacher.

    To me it has always been two parts that I enjoy — creating and designing.

  14. Thuddwin says:

    Nothing to add . . . that was wisdom, articulation, and poetry in a perfect blend!

  15. Ryan says:

    Really love this! So well put. Sometimes I compare myself to everything else out there and am disappointed with where I am. I feel like I should be better by now. But it is a continuous process. I just gotta keep striving. Thanks for the encouragement!

  16. Laura says:

    “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.”

    Up until fairly recently this is how I felt. I thought once I finished university I would know everything there is to know about design and it would just come naturally to me. Like I would walk through the doors at graduation and suddenly become an untouchable design guru. I soon discovered this wasn’t the case. And in hindsight, I’m glad!

    I’ve come to realise that one of my favourite things is learning. It’s exciting to think that there is always something new to discover and practice and become good at. Being a graphic designer wouldn’t be half as fun if we all switched on the cruise control button.

  17. I feel a lot like Ryan. I sometimes wonder if I should just give up as I don’t seem to be getting very far, despite all my reading and learning. On the other hand, I feel so passionate about the need for good design, for all the reasons that you have articulated so beautifully, that I just can’t help coming back for more. I am really encouraged by your post to just keep on keeping on. I figure I must be improving my skills, even if only incrementally.

  18. John says:

    Getting your client to share in your passion for design, and to see how design can influence their bottom line, can be a daunting task. For many, design is nothing more than just “making it look pretty.” Encountering such clients, or even an employer, frequently can douse flames on your passion. The good thing about design is that, like art, it is subjective and everyone has an opinion. The bad thing about design is that, like art, it is subjective and everyone has an opinion.

    When a client makes design decisions without consulting you, or has you make changes or take the design in a different direction from what is outlined in your original meetings or even a formal creative brief, it can be most frustrating. Especially when the reasons for such changes are nothing more than “jus’ cuz.” Some designers, such as myself, are locked into situations where they can only offer advice, but ultimately have to follow the client’s wishes, though they may be the worst possible design decisions.

    I encourage you not to give up, but to keep on keeping on. The clients we will encounter in the future who appreciate our art and its effect are worth the struggles we may have today.

  19. Linda S. says:

    There is a concept in the Jewish tradition called “hiddur mitzvah” — beautification of a commandment. It refers to the enhancement of a ritual, religious practice or sacred object by giving it a beautiful design, thus elevating it to an even higher level of meaning and sanctity. A beautifully designed goblet befits the blessing over the Sabbath wine so much more than a paper cup; a decoratively crafted wedding canopy is so much more beautiful than a bed sheet. While they may fulfill the same function, the spiritual connection is so much greater with an object of beauty crafted with thoughtful intent. It’s that effort to beautify, to create meaningful design, that can raise the mundane to heights approaching holiness.

    Not every piece of design work achieves such levels — but the potential is always there. Treasure it, strive for it. Never sell short the importance of good design.

  20. MIKO says:

    I applaud your personal efforts and for sharing some keen insights. Design, though, I submit, is about more than beauty. To me, design includes function at all levels and at all intersections with the world. An item of beauty that is out of place by location, or scale, or function, becomes something other than what the designer intended, and therefore it becomes a poor design.

    I think that the dependence on designing from, with, and within the computer, rather than using it as a tool for presenting the final design, has been partner in the decline of “mastery”.

    Consider this: The Chevy 350 cu.in. motor is so pervasive that parts for it come in every shape, color, and size, yet parts for a Ford 289 are rare. Even though the 289 outperforms the 350 at every task (especially in fuel economy), it is not as pervasive as its larger cousin. The reason is because Chevy decided in the late 70s put a huge amount of capital into making stock and modified aftermarket parts. Motorheads soon realized that it took only two weeks to rebuild a 350 with any assortment of add-ons, because the stores had the whole gamut IN STOCK, while those modifying other motors would wait two weeks just to get a reply of availability from the manufacturer! Chevy soon dominated the market. The early bird got the worm, so to speak.

    A long way to say, by analogy, that what people are presented with by today’s designers isn’t necessarily a superior or even a good product, but it is what they are used to seeing and what they expect to see in terms of its look.

    Finally, the Parthenon was designed on sheepskin with ink and took many years to create. It is a tourist attraction and a design icon. I challenge the design community to create something that has the same draw, the same influence, and the same effect, and to do it with a computer. I will say that it can’t be done, because when the computer is the chosen design tool, too much of the human soul is ransomed in order to achieve one of the limited “effects” or “looks” from its limited palette.

    Try playing an entire symphony on a kazoo. If people want to hear kazoos, why not? I think the effect will be greatly reduced.

    Thanks for the forum and the thoughts!


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