Elsewhere in these pages (in this space?) Steve Heller laments his discovery that, after a lifetime as a print
designer, he is unable to speak the language of the web. Can I, he
asks plaintively, learn it at this stage? The revelation was
shocking because until now I had regarded him as at least a
semi-geek. His complaint is not unique. When I first knew Ivan
Chermayeff he was considered the enfant terrible of graphic
design. By the time he had become an éminence grise the
internet was in sight and we were both board members of an
organization that was considering the desirability of opening a
website. As the putative communication specialists on the board,
Ivan and I were jointly assigned the responsibility of
investigating the matter and reporting back at the next meeting. I
don't remember that we investigated anything, but at the end of the
meeting Ivan took me aside and said, “Ralph, do we know what a
website is?” I assumed he was joking, but I really didn't.
Responses to Heller's plight range from encouraging offers to
teach him, to tips about the attitude requisite to learning web
intricacies, to assurances that he'll never get good at it.
Although on a far more primitive plane, I have a comparable lament
of my own. After writing all my life, I discover that my facility
with words is limited by my inability to understand the instruments
most commonly used for processing them.
Typing machines over time (from left): Olympia SG-1 (c. 1960)
and IBM Correcting Selectric III (c. 1980) typewriters (images:
Typewriter Museum); Apple iMac desktop computer (2006).
I was once ahead of the game in the use of sophisticated
equipment. Bypassing penmanship, I had a portable typewriter in
junior high, although I did no homework on it, or on anything else.
During my early adult years I worked on a succession of portables
until I acquired a sturdy Olympia office manual, eschewing
electrics because they hummed while you were trying to think.
Finally, I did get a Selectric and used it until my neighborhood
repair shop stopped servicing typewriters. My first computer
experience was at long distance, dictating a book by phone into a
tape recorder. The tapes were retrieved by a circle of women in the
Midwest who had been a company typing pool and were now the word
processing staff. The idea that words are things to be “processed”
was jarring and still is, but I got back neatly typed pages of
manuscript that I then un-neatened with corrections. Dictating came
surprisingly easy to me, and I continued the practice at home,
dictating to an assistant who entered my words into a PC that I
didn't dare touch. For years now I have been working on a PC of my
own, still fearful but more or less functional. That machine is
ready for retirement, and I have just bought a Mac.
I have been there before, but not for long. Actually, my last
book was written in Quark, under the supervision of the graphic
designer/book packager who lent me the Mac I used. I had once
bought one of my own, but sold it in less than a week, offended by
what I then regarded as its patronizing interface. I didn't want to
be welcomed by my computer, I don't like smiley faces in any
medium, and if I wanted to get rid of a document I'd rather hit a
delete button than drag the image of a folder into the image of a
trash can. When I replaced it with a PC, however, I found that
Windows had copied everything that had made me resent the Mac, and
was loaded with cumbersome baggage of its own.
I've been fighting with my computer ever since. When it tells me
that my browser has committed an illegal action, I ask
sarcastically, “Am I my browser's keeper?” When it scolds me for
making error 529, I know it will decline to say what that is or how
to correct it. When I send e-mail attachments, either they arrive
garbled or the recipients tell me that their system has detected a
virus and quarantined my messages.
But I have stayed with it, believing that the difference was
generational. A Mac, I have been told, is a young person's machine,
perfectly well suited to what Marc Prensky calls “digital natives,”
those who have never known another time—unlike the rest of us who
are “digital immigrants.” My children all have Macs, except those
who work for companies that supply them with PCs. My son actually
quit a job because the magazine he worked for had been bought by a
corporation that had replaced its Macs with PCs. As for me, I feel
like an illegal digital immigrant, living in constant fear that the
authorities will find that my green card has expired and I don't
remember my password or web key.
In the field of design, virtually everyone I do business with
uses a Mac and has wondered why I didn't too. When I teach I am
painfully aware that the assignments my students turn in look more
elegant, both in print and electronically, than the assignments I
gave them. My friend George Covington, who is legally blind, is a
long-time Apple buff,
relying on digital photography to show him the faces that he
cannot otherwise see. Covington lives in Alpine, Texas, where he
writes a column for the Alpine Avalanche as
“The Blind Bard of the Big Bend.” One of his columns last year
harshly compared the character and intelligence of Mac users with
that of PC users, and salted the wound by comparing the Mac's
operating system to Windows and, even worse, to Windows with Vista.
George's savage mockery didn't goad me into getting a Mac—Randy
Pausch did that. He was the charismatic professor of computer
science at Carnegie Mellon who, learning that his death from
pancreatic cancer was imminent, electrified first his class, then
the world at large, with his famous “Last Lecture.” In what was
apparently an inside joke, Pausch told his students they would be
pleased to know that he had made a deathbed conversion to a
Well, I am willing. But am I ready or able? I approach the Mac
with trepidation comparable to Heller's claimed approach to the
web. I am not and have never been a Luddite. But I am a klutz. Like
all klutzes, I blame my tools, and the computer is one of them.
I've accused my computer of needing an exorcist—but what if I'm the
one who needs an exorcist? Now that I have a Mac, will I fight with
it as I always have with its predecessor? I try to think of things
I had no aptitude for that I nevertheless managed to learn in my
lifetime. There are a few: sending and receiving 20 words per
minute in Morse code; doing the yogic headstand and peacock
posture; performing three tricks—two sleight-of-hand and one
memory; and playing “Oh! Susanna” on the harmonica. I cannot do any
of them today.
So I am not exactly confident, but there is no more effective
booster of confidence than an Apple Store. At a time when retailers
are universally in despair, Apple has staffed its stores with a
plentitude of alert, helpful and knowledgeable young people who
clearly love what they're doing. Their T-shirts proclaim, “I could
talk about this stuff all day,” which does not seem to be an
exaggeration. They know what they're talking about. Problem is,
they think that I do too.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
The annual Winterhouse Awards seek to recognize new voices demonstrating exceptional talent in design writing and criticism.
Section: Inspiration -
awards, design educators, students
Is it ever too late for a print designer to learn the language of the web? Heller hopes not. Calling all tutors!
Section: Inspiration -
web design, personal essay, Voice, design educators, students
The designer and editor of Communication Arts sees
each day as an opportunity to be a cultural sponge.
Section: Inspiration -
graphic design, print design, personal essay, mentoring, students
What makes a graphic designer successful? Lupton gives currency to design’s social impact as the true measure, not just the icing on the cake.
Two tech-savvy baby boomers contemplate one age-old question: are we experiencing a new generation gap?
Section: Inspiration -
Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar, recipients of the 1979 AIGA Medal, are recognized for the clarity and organization of their graphics systems, and for their pursuit of consistent details that work at every size and scale to solve the problems of multilingual programs.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, graphic design, diversity, students
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