In the last week or so, I blew through 2 design books – one called How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul and the other called Thinking with Type. The former I borrowed from my co-worker, a fresh-out-of-college designer like me who, unlike me, has a traditional design education tucked away in her brain. The latter I had bought ages ago, but decided to re-read because said co-worker named it as one of her pivotal textbooks in school. The former summarized the business and ethical dilemmas often encountered by a working designer, the latter the basics of typography.
Reading these books was spurred, in large part, by a growing unease that I never learned design the “real” way. The merits of feeling this are up for debate (yes I am aware there are plenty of untrained, successful designers out there) but I still can’t help but feel that way.
What makes a great designer? How does she get there? What is her education like? These are things I’ve pondered a lot, ever since I’ve begun to have ample time for such ponderings (i.e. when I am at work, being an HTML and CSS monkey).
I think I’m fairly lucky to have what many people might call an unorthodox design education (but it’s actually a fairly orthodox liberal arts education in disguise). I barreled through Tufts and the Museum School in the most haphazard way possible, on the way engaging in copious amounts of theory and experimentation, and sticking my toe in everything from anthropology to metalworking to architectural drafting to programming. This has given me access to and an elementary understanding of a fairly large number of viewpoints and interpretations, and it has always taught me to question, to never take popular assumptions or trends without a grain of salt. Furthermore, it has made me insatiably crave knowledge and alternative perspectives.
So far so good. There is a downside, though (there always is). Because of this, I’m not really ever sure of how to judge my own design work, whether it is acceptable/effective/beautiful or not. The mainstream design world has some very basic rubrics against which to evaluate design. The problem is, I was never exposed to those rubrics in any definite sort of way. I’ve never had a typography teacher yell at me for kerning a word wrong or creating a horrific color combination. For people who’ve gone to the Museum School, it can even seem downright unbelievable that anyone actually teaches any creative field like that anymore. The SMFA mindset believes in the potentiality of rule-breaking, not the sanctity of rules. And because they’ve had a long long time to indoctrinate me, I have come to hold this to be true.
But sometimes you just plain need a few guidelines. As I said, I have no idea how to judge my own work. And not knowing how to judge, I can only guess how far I’ve improved by sort of comparing my work to my peers’ work, or by staring at the work for a long time until my eyes melt. Learning through guessing is friggin’ hard, and sometimes it feels downright impossible.
I have good intuition, and I am good at interpreting what people mean when they talk about design, which is how I manage to somehow remain effective at work and in personal projects. I’m also slowly becoming fantastically great at copying or expanding upon a “style” or “look” that someone else has invented. But is that all there is? Am I to spend the rest of my life being great at cosmetic pastiche? It’s true that there’s no such thing as originality because culture builds on culture. But there are varying levels of that, with cosmetic pastiche at what must be close to the very bottom. I dearly hope that I don’t spend my whole life there, on that bottom rung of the profession. I wouldn’t want to stay there, even if it makes all the clients in the world happy.
Not to be impatient, but the awareness that there are tons of designers out there like me, young and idealistic and ambitious, who nevertheless end up doing solid but unremarkable work for the rest of their lives… that gives me the chills, and fuels my anxiousness to learn faster and more effectively. I guess my goal then would be to put the best of what I got out of college to good use: I have to figure out how to learn design myself. I can perhaps begin by ending this blog entry right now and training my SMFA-wrought freewheelingness to have a little RISD-esque discipline.
With a grain of salt, of course.