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Ego and the Devil are ready to contemplate the designer’s project of self-definition.
Ego is eager to note that this project of defining oneself is not the
exclusive domain of the self-taught. Every designer enjoys this
opportunity, even if the designer’s choice is to decline to engage the
project willfully, but instead, to let circumstance control. A designer,
for example, may specialize according to her desire, and this would
require rejecting certain kinds of work, whatever their pay scale, in
favor of other kinds, whatever their future viability. Another designer
may simply stick it out indefinitely, wherever “it” happens to be,
accepting without complaint the ebbs and flows of a working life defined
by others. The former defines herself as, say, an expert in
multicultural branding; the latter shrugs at the half-finished logo on
his monitor. In either event, the project is as open, or closed, as any
designer, self-taught or otherwise, wishes to make it.
In defense, the Devil says his intent is not to claim territory for the
exclusive enjoyment of the self-taught but only to explore the point of
view of one type of inhabitant, one with which the Devil happens to be
familiar: the self-taught.
But their discussion is interrupted. A figure emerges from stage right.
He flips open a ringing cell phone. Ego and the Devil eye him
suspiciously. Bald, the stranger wears a purple scarf, cashmere tank top
and jeans. Inky letters squirm on the toes of his spiffy designer
bowling shoes. On the left toe is scrawled Thought; and on the right,
Trouble. The stranger speaks.
Bump: You two are going to be taking calls.
Devil: Who are you?
Bump: I’m Bump.
Ego: As in the Bump in our night?
Bump: As in the Bump on your head.
Ego: What’s with the words on your shoes, Thought and Trouble?
Bump: One always leads to the other, and I need them both to get anywhere.
Ego: So where are we going?
Bump: Talking about self-definition is fine, but we
need a few selves who’ve done some defining. I’ll be cold-calling
self-taught designers to hear what these real folks have to say. First
up is Bri Tucker of Breez Graphic Design Studio in San Marcos, Texas.
Devil in the red T-shirt: you’re up.
Devil: I think being self-taught matters most to those who are
self-taught, and not as a source of shame or a point of pride but as a
simple—or complicated—fact. How do you feel about your experience?
Bri Tucker: Being self-taught felt giddy at first because it
was new and fraught with danger for a 21-year-old who was steeped in
academics and clutching a newly minted degree in a completely unrelated
field. It was a sudden decision to start my own design studio,
simultaneously learning graphics software and the complexities of
running a business (for which I had no natural aptitude). Pride in being
self-taught and self-employed is completely justified. Pridefulness,
however, is not. Instead, I have humble gratitude that I live in
America, where we have the freedom to reinvent our lives, the technology
to reach out as far as the imagination can take us and the luxury of
Devil: The canyons of my ignorance will need to be bridged
somehow, and I think the educational experience provides a safe bubble
in which, free from the usual daily pressures, you can learn the history
of the discipline, the tools of the trade and the skills of the craft.
But I don’t want to eat my knees at a tiny desk, to be the slow kid in
school. But maybe I’ll get over this and take some classes. What about
you? Will you ever return to school? How do you feel about it?
Bri Tucker: I will never return to school—not for graphic
design. I acknowledge that I am missing valuable exposure to the
history, theory, tools and skills of our industry; I am simply burned
out on the demands of academic achievement. I am very good at what I do,
and yet without continuing education, I will inevitably fall behind my
potential. But, while my dedication and joy for making my clients happy
is undiminished, I have developed other interests. My curiosity and
passion are now directed toward organic horticulture and ecology. That’s
right. If I’m ever caught in a class or seminar, or even searching
Google, I’ll likely be researching plants, birds or bugs.
Bump: Thank you, Ms. Tucker. Ego in the tie: comments?
Ego: Individuals regard design as only one part of
their lives, as some subplot of their larger life story, whereas I as a
critic tend to look at individuals as playing some small role in
Design’s larger story. The eccentric unpredictable details of any
designer’s life complicate my wish to present a coherent narrative. I
want Design to have a story. Designers want to have lives.
Devil: The issue of being self-taught may not matter to Design,
but it matters to those who are self-taught. It influences their
specific relationship to their work, the way it might for artists and
writers and any craftsperson you might name. I’m not talking portfolios,
job titles or industry trends. I’m talking about the personality of the
worker, the way a person crafts an identity through her work.
Bump: The next identity on the line is Brad Jamison of Snavely Associates in State College, Pa.
Devil: Brad, you’re a self-taught graphic designer who started
out working for a Pennsylvania ad firm. How did you overcome the
presumption of ignorance during the interview and hiring process? Was it
a smashing portfolio, a willingness to be paid peanuts or a relative
who put in a good word?
Brad Jamison: Definitely a willingness to be paid peanuts. My
first interview was for a production “artist” job at a publication known
for its high turnover and low wages. Ignorance during the interview was
probably more obvious than I recall, but whatever I did worked because I
landed the job. Maybe I was the only applicant? My portfolio was
nothing special. I majored in Communications in college and had a few
projects to show from my one required graphic-design class. Other than
that, I guess it was just good fortune.
Devil: How did you think of yourself and your work as
you presumably struggled to learn and advance in your craft? For
example, you might have been insecure as a self-taught designer, and so,
unwilling to advertise your ignorance of certain matters, you had to
learn in secret.
Brad Jamison: I definitely felt insecure. However, I wasn’t
afraid to ask questions. I’m sure I asked things that made people think,
“What an idiot,” before I finished my sentence. Even so, my goal was to
learn as much as I could as fast as I could. My work at first, being
primarily small publication ads, required little design. So I really
didn’t experience design insecurity until I started working for the
company I’m with today. That’s when it began, that feeling of “What did I
get myself into?” It took a long time and a number of projects to
Devil: You were promoted to senior designer at this
firm. I imagine you kept your eyes open, learned whenever you could,
worked hard and moved up. But this is true of many designers,
self-taught and otherwise. A meritocratic working environment is ideal
but rare. You had to be confident in your abilities to design as well as
manage other people. A degree and some education are often an Ego
boost, inspiring self-confidence. You lacked that. You also had to
perform, which means you had to deploy acquired skills. How did you do
Brad Jamison: An eyes-open, learn-from-others, sponge-like
existence was a big part of how I grew. Getting things done obviously
helped too. My real break was having an environment that allowed me to
grow. We’re a group of 15 people doing a tremendous amount of work.
Everyone wears many hats. My confidence grew slowly out of this
environment. A good job here, a happy client there. Acquiring skills was
a little different. My creative director mentions often that having an
eye for design is not something you easily learn; it’s more something
that you possess. I spent a tremendous amount of time drawing as a
child. I think that a lot of my understanding of basic design principles
started with these projects. Software skills came from spending lots of
time in front of the screen, reading plenty of tech literature and not
being afraid of trying something new. My company has also provided
training opportunities as well.
Devil: I can imagine many self-taught designers working in
print, crafting logos and brochures, booklets and business cards. But
you style yourself “an interactive media expert.” This is quite a broad
and ambitious bit of self-definition. I am overwhelmed by the Teahupoo
waves of media software. I have no idea where to even start. How did you
start, and how did you develop your skills to the point where you can
bravely stake a claim as an expert?
Brad Jamison: You are a Devil, aren’t you? My brave claim comes
from our copywriter having a little fun with our website bios. I’ve
learned quite a lot about the, as you say, “Teahupoo waves” of media
software primarily though good old-fashioned trial and error. But
something too many people lose sight of is that it all boils down to
concept and message. I don’t know every piece of software on the market.
It’s not my job to. If I don’t know it, I find someone who does. Or I
bury my nose in another book, message board or whatever, and solve the
problem. So am I “an interactive media expert”? You make the call.
Bump: Actually, I’ll make the call. Thank you, Mr. Jamison. Next up, Chuck Anderson of No Pattern.
Devil: I’ve read some interviews with you in which your
interviewer introduces you as young and self-taught, both of which seem
to highlight the fact of your achievements. Identifying you as
self-taught implies a certain kind of biography: you’re either the
intuitive creator, born with a gleam in your eye but no guidebook in
your hand; or else you’re the heroic loner working hard into the night
to learn what you know. What's the more complicated truth?
Chuck Anderson: I was born with a gleam in my eye and a
passion in my heart to create. I've really never “learned” anything
about art from any teacher or stayed up late at night practicing things.
I have always been extremely independent, and in school I think I was a
bit of a loner. I would say I am an intuitive creator who likes to
laugh in the face of guidebooks. I’d like to think I’m more of one of
the guidebook’s authors.
Devil: One of the myths of being self-taught, in any
discipline, is that you lack the capacity to self-correct. You don’t
understand enough about the history or the craft itself to recognize
when you’re unintentionally referencing the style of Stalin-era
propaganda, rehashing the mannerisms of Modernism or just plain making
every color theorist cringe in agony. To create, you have to be
reckless, but to review your work, to develop it during the process of
creation, you have to criticize it. You have to self-correct. What
criteria do you draw on to evaluate and develop your work?
Chuck Anderson: Making color theorists cringe in agony is
probably the last thing in the world I have any worry about. That’s not
to say I have the world’s best eye for colors, but it is to say I could
care less what they’d think about my work if I’m happy and getting
paid. My self-correction comes when I sit back and go, “Wow, I am burnt
out.” Self-correction for me is just stopping, getting out of the
office and the house, and spending time with my girlfriend or my friends
or my family. I don’t sit around all day worrying about why the
composition on a certain piece didn’t turn out right or what I could
have done differently with the colors. If I'm not happy with a piece of
work I’ve created, I finish it and say, “Well, that sucked. I guess
I’ll start over or just try something different.”
Bump: Start over and try something different? Don’t mind if I
do. Ego and the Devil? Sit down and shut up. For next month’s fourth and
final chapter in this ongoing conversation, I’m going to wash my mouth
out with fire. I’m both a self-taught amateur and a pro with a degree,
and I know in my heart that graphic design is for happy servants, the
gullible and glib, the literal and cynical. Smart people get bored by
it. Smart people move on. Already, Ego squirms with outrage, and the
Devil lusts for revenge. Ultimately, they will join forces in battle
against me. Don’t myth it.
To celebrate the AIGA Centennial in 2014, we asked AIGA Medalists, Fellows, and national and chapter presidents from across the United States to select one year and design a social, political or cultural statement.
Section: Inspiration -
Benjamin Dauer is a Senior Product Designer at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and was recently the Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud in Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
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