Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Imaginary Interview: Graphic Design

—. . .

—Did I ever want to run away and join the circus? No, I wanted to run away and join NASA. To be part of someone walking on the moon, to be either an astronaut or one of the guys who built the rockets. Rockets, you see, aren't very complicated. They are engineering problems easily solved, in terms of physics and mathematics. The hardest part of building a rocket is the materials science: balancing weight against strength, finding the right materials that allow it to fly without blowing up. It has a lot of little parts, to be sure, but none of them are that complicated.

—. . .

—No, my first job right out of music school, which I achieved within a month or two of graduation, was in publishing and graphic design. It was at Mathematical Reviews, in the library department, which catalogued and prepared all the articles and books to be sent to the reviewers. I stayed there for a few years, eventually becoming the editor and photographer for the in-house staff magazine, and also reviving the humor/satire rag Math Refuse, which was tremendous fun to put together with photocopiers and printers.

I first learned how to set type and design printed materials at MR, using Donald Knuth's powerful math typesetting language TeX. It was the very first generation of desktop publishing. The Apple Mac wasn't out for another couple of years, but we were already working on laserprinters using the very first iteration of the PostScript printing language, which was and is the language that printers use to convert a computer file into printed dots on the page.

—. . .

—Yes, we were the ground zero for the desktop publishing revolution. We had the tools that hadn't even been publicly released yet, to produce MR, a monthly review journal of all printed materials mathematical and physical published worldwide, approximately 40K reviews per month. The whole thing was done on the AMS mainframes using TeX.

I taught myself how to program in TeX, and a little bit in PostScript. These days only academics and hardcore Adobe programmers do that anymore. That was the complete extent of my training in programming: one class in college using an archaic programming language and punch-cards, and a lot of self-teaching at MR.

But it opened the door to a career, after getting my degree in music, in graphic design, typography, and their related skills.

—. . .

—No, no one knew at the time where it was going to go technologically, only that we were on the bleeding edge of desktop publishing. Because I had that head start, I stayed on the bleeding edge for a long time. It was as I said a bit of a career.

—. . .

—I still have a design and typography portfolio, yes. I've designed several typefaces, as well as lots of printed pieces, and a fair bit of Web design, too. It's a diverse portfolio, and pretty wide-ranging.

—. . .

—I guess I'm proudest of some of the CDs I designed and illustrated, and other projects like that in the service of creative groups. Music, dance, photography, etc.

—. . .

—A few typefaces have been used in national level publications, yes, but mostly stuff you've never heard of.

—. . .

—Well, I seemed for awhile to have developed a reputation for doing type design for foreign languages. Converting English language fonts to be used in other languages by adding special characters, diacritical marks, and so forth. I did a fair bit of that for the Native American languages department at the University of Minnesota, which still pleases and somewhat amazes me.

—. . .

—Mostly for Lakota and Dakota language projects. The Hopi font idea never get off the ground. It might have been fun, though.

—. . .

—Well, one thing I like about graphic design is coming up with creative ways of conveying information. You end up working with a diverse range of clients on a diverse array of projects. I've done several books, magazines, and marketing pieces ranging in size from business cards to billboards. Designing a coherent identity system is always fun; it's conceptually rather like fractal design, conveying the same concept on several different scales with slight variations.

—. . .

—I know a lot of graphic designers who think about their work talk about that. I think it's bollocks.

—. . .

—Well, because when you think about design in terms of it being a "solution" to a "problem," you end up with a lot of stale engineering diagrams. Graphic design is not engineering. It's not fine art either for that matter. A lot of the problem/solution thinking comes from the early history design in the 20th C. when designers were trying to make their profession into a rational, logical profession. Some of that is respect for the training and innate good sense it takes to achieve a good design. But some of it was also insecurity. Designers were trying to get the world to take their profession seriously. I have several books of design theory that I enjoy reading from time to time. Most of that takes itself far too seriously, and is completely wrongheaded.

And there's one other major problem with the problem/solution paradigm: It tends to lock you into the same mindset used in classroom exercises.

—. . .

—Well, think about it. The teacher presents a problem for the students to solve. Maybe they need to be creative to solve it, or to think outside the box, be intuitive, be playful. But how do we rate a successful solution? Commercial success? Artistic success? Fame? Meeting the teacher's unspoken expectations?

It must always be remembered that design is an external operation performed on texts and images to make pleasing relationships and connections between in the service of communication. But most design is commercial in the end, and "success" is usually measured by the standards of marketing and advertising, not the standards of fine art. (Or of engineering: the well-made thing.) If graphic design is purely communication, it's the phone book. If it's purely art, then the content is lost, and nothing is conveyed. Neither of these pure poles of the spectrum are considered good design. You have to at least make the phone book look good, easy to use, and inviting to read. Otherwise no one will bother.

—. . .

—Because graphic design is based fundamentally on typography. It uses words. It communicates using words. Even when an image, or a logo, is so striking that it can stand on its own as, say, a one-page ad in a magazine, the logo or image has to evoke the name of the product or brand or concept. It has to make you hear the word in your head, even if it's not on the page.

—. . .

—No, most writers and even publishers have no clue about good design. it's a skill that takes time to learn, just like any other. You might write your novel over a period of years, and it's a great novel, but the book design is the presentation, or performance, that connects your words to the reader. A bad design is going to kill the joy in reading your words, and no one will finish the book.

I know lots of writers who believe unquestioningly in the supremacy of words. Because their first response to life is to put it into words, they tend to assume that words are the highest form of art. And they tend to deny that there are some places where words utterly fail, where they are completely useless. And many of these same writers, with their bias towards the word, are completely hopeless about how the word looks on the page. Sure, Courier is a legible typewriter-style font. But using Courier makes your sheaf of poems look amateurish before it's even been read. Remember, printing is a performance.

Just as with those many poets who read their poems in a shoe-gazing monotone, many poets' ideas about typesetting are also bland and monotonous. I've noticed more than once that writers who are clueless about how to read their work in public are equally clueless about its visual presentation. To them all that matters is the words; yet they complain when nobody likes their words as much as they do, never realizing that the way they presented their lovely words was entirely self-defeating.

That's why writers needs designers.

One of the profound lessons we can learn from graphic design is that communication can be entirely wordless, yet incredibly powerful.

—. . .

—It's easy to say what bad design is.

Bad design is simply those choices that get in the way of the experience. They get between the content and the reader or viewer. Things that detract from rather than enhance or support the content. Things that keep you from reading the content. Things that stop you when instead they should keep you moving forward.

Of course the whole grunge typography period in the late 80s and early 90s turned these assumptions about content being blocked on their heads, making illegibility into a positive value. It might better have been called punk than grunge, but I digress. The classic example was David Carson's designs for skater and music magazines, for example Ray Gun. (I still own most of the original run of Ray Gun issues in a box in my basement. They're collector's items now.)

—. . .

—Well, because, once again, the idea that an interview with a band in a music magazine, or a poster advertising a painter's retrospective show, is a problem to be solved is absurd. There's no problem at all. There's the search for a memorable and interesting and exciting way to present those things, so that the reader or viewer gets excited about them, and remembers them. There are lots of ways you can do that, of course. Lots of design ideas, and a whole history of design ideas to draw upon. But where's the problem that needs to be solved? There's no problem.

Making the memorable and exciting poster is what some designers will argue is the solution to the problem. They define the problem as how best to present the content. But there are usually several ways to do that. That's where creativity comes in.

—. . .

—No, designers aren't artists. Not even the famous name-recognition designers. Of course there's overlap in terms of technical skills, and some artists have designed books or magazines, etc. Some designers have also been artists. But the mindset is different. I've heard it described as the difference between the externals (design) and the internals (creative art) of any given artwork or object.

—. . .

—Well, of course there's great design, and bad design, and there's kitsch, and unholy kitsch.

Whenever I'm in a thrift store, passing by racks of really ugly, kitschy little objects, I think to myself, "You know, someone designed that. And they probably got paid to design it." That's food for thought. I wonder if it wouldn't be wise, sort of as a professional inoculation, to require all grad students in design to spend some time in thrift stores reminding them that, you know, that ugly piece of useless material was designed by someone very much like the students in question. It might keep the profession as a whole more properly humble.

On the other hand, now I wish I'd bought those two bronze lobsters. I've already thought of a dozen ways to use them to make new art, or surrealist visual joke photos, and so forth. But I let them get away, one of the few times I've ever regretted not buying something at a thrift store.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I agree with you completely when it comes to the visual presentation of poems. I think it’s something very few poets, at least online poets, appear to think about. It’s why I objected to the poems you posted recently as blocks of text. Content aside they looked as if no thought had gone into them. Because of the nature of my writing these days form comes naturally to me but when I look back at some of my earlier poems I wonder just what I was thinking about. When I print out a hardcopy of my poems these days I always pick a font appropriate to the poem. It’s just for me – when the poem gets published it’s with whatever font the magazine uses – but it pleases me.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The difference that, because I do know what I'm doing, you can assume that when I format a piece of writing in a certain way, in was intentional, and not thoughtless. That the formatting was natural and came to me out of the poem. That it wasn't a mistake.

I've run into this before. Not too long ago, on another venue, when I posted a long prose-poem, some readers assumed I'd made a mistake in the formatting. One reader actually said, You're too good a writer to have made a mistake like that. You can't possibly have intended to format the piece like that. When I replied that indeed that was the way the piece was intended to be formatted, that it was not some kind of accident, he got all huffy and accused me of trying to make it harder to read, and said that he refused to read it. I replied, not quite as huffy, and said, well, that's your choice, and I'm sorry you feel that way. I suppose you've never heard of stream-of-consciousness writing? (Which is what that piece was.) He made some kind of further huffy remark, demanded that all my writings in future should be easy for him to read, gave me the finger, and disappeared. And that was the end of that acquaintanceship.

I find it funny that no one bitches that Geoffrey Hill is difficult, or that Eliot was difficult. In fact, with them it's praised as a positive value. I admit I find Hill to be highly over-praised, almost by rote in many cases. Is that because he's "difficult"? It seems to be.

I'm not going to dumb down my writing for anyone, or format it in any way other than in the form the poem naturally emerges in. If that prevents some from reading it, they're welcome not to. I'm tired of being told "I can't read this" because it's slightly more difficult than what they're used to reading, or longer, or whatever.

I'm tired of people telling me that I don't know what I'm doing when in fact I probably know what I'm doing, even when following the brush, better than any four others of them combined.

So, if I format a poem a certain way, you don't have to read it, you don't have to like it, feel free to skip over it. But don't assume it was thoughtless or a mistake.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Love the thrift store photos.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. I love the thrill of surprise in thrift stores.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I fine Eliot difficult – I have no idea why people get so excited by him – and I have no idea who Hill is. You do whatever you feel comfortable with and I’ll tell you how I feel about it. I’m not saying you should change it to suit me but if you’re putting a poem out there for the public to read it’s only fair to listen to what they have to say. The key word in my last comment was ‘looked’. I have no doubt that the piece looked exactly as you intended it to – or decided that ‘look’ was neither here nor there, artificial, whatever – and that’s fine. I never said it was thoughtless. I often have problems with long blocks of text especially online and I quite often paste a text into Word so that I can reformat it to suit me. I do it with Dave King’s poems on a regular basis. I tell you when I like something and I tell you when I don’t. I actually use a program called ‘Readability’ to reformat most blogs I read.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim Murdoch posted this today, and for some reason Blogger didn't pass it through. So, copied from the notification email:

I fine Eliot difficult – I have no idea why people get so excited by him – and I have no idea who Hill is. You do whatever you feel comfortable with and I’ll tell you how I feel about it. I’m not saying you should change it to suit me but if you’re putting a poem out there for the public to read it’s only fair to listen to what they have to say. The key word in my last comment was ‘looked’. I have no doubt that the piece looked exactly as you intended it to – or decided that ‘look’ was neither here nor there, artificial, whatever – and that’s fine. I never said it was thoughtless. I often have problems with long blocks of text especially online and I quite often paste a text into Word so that I can reformat it to suit me. I do it with Dave King’s poems on a regular basis. I tell you when I like something and I tell you when I don’t. I actually use a program called ‘Readability’ to reformat most blogs I read.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The point, Jim, is that if we agree that the format of a poem emerges (naturally, organically) from within the poem, as the poem is being written, then we have to allow that to happen. If natural emergent form is really a value, than the poem has to be allowed to be what it is. Then the poem has to be read, warts and all, as intended. And I don't really feel that that has to be a "problem." The whole nature and point of the poem might be relevant to its ease of reading.

So if people have a problem with the way poem ended up being formatted, I don't feel any need to change it, OR to apologize for it. If it's difficult, it's difficult. Which is what people keep saying about Hill while demanding a double standard of easy readability for other poets; which I why I mentioned Eliot and Hill, because there's a double standard in play. "Famous poets" are allowed to get away with being difficult, but no one else is, or so it often seems.

I am sympathetic, way beyond what you can imagine, to people who have difficult reading small or badly-set type. I have worked for ages with people with impaired vision, and I am one myself.

But, again, legibility and readability are not the same thing.

Amazingly enough, even 4-pt. type, if it is set properly, with proper spacing, and in a clear and beautiful typeface on good paper, is quite legible. That's what people miss: they don't think there's any but one way for type to be easy to read. Not so. This is one task that graphic designers do: find other ways to do just that.

5:55 PM  

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