Logos and Life

Recently, I had the kind of down time that so many of us busy people crave: vast amounts of it spent somewhere without cell-phone service or an internet connection. Hours would pass without my knowledge; days morphed from one into the next. Observation is one of the great gifts of being a visual communicator and, in the absence of normal “connectivity,” I lived primarily through my eyes. What I became preternaturally sensitive to—it became a game of sorts as I mentally cataloged each specimen—were the unsolicited stream of logos, signage, way-finding devices, packaging, analog and digital instructions that came, and went, in this temporary environment.

As a veteran graphic designer, I have created and overseen the production of everything from print collateral to packaging and websites. As a contemporary design practitioner and teacher, I have become aware of the power we as a consolidated profession wield in everyday life. It is rare, however, to observe design in a place where it becomes so critical, and life itself luxury.

My husband fell ill on January 14 and passed away on March 18 of this year. I spent much of this time shuttling back and forth between our home in south Louisiana and the amazing sci-fi/hi-tech medical center at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. I made many trips back and forth, for what I wanted—and more than anything else, it was the wish of my husband, John, for me—was to keep teaching graphic design at Louisiana State University (I teach two beginning courses, traditional and digital design).

Heart graph monitor by rami_ba (iStockphoto.com)

Heart graph monitor (iStockphoto rami_ba).

Sometimes John would be in a hospital intensive care private room that had internet and Wi-Fi connections. AT&T is not supported in the Houston Medical Center, a huge facility consisting of 49 not-for-profit institutions. Although, according to its website, it is “31 million gross square feet of patient care, education and research space, equivalent to the 12th largest business district in the United States” and services “6 million” patients annually, my cell phone was practically useless.

I taught online whenever, and wherever, possible. One day I had meticulously planned an online conference with my traditional design class so we could have a virtual formal critique of their analog, very hands-on projects. I set myself up in the visitors' room, usually a quiet place with flawless, zippy internet connection. We were well into a great critique and the students were responding just as we do in class, when the hospital maintenance crew brought in loud equipment, cordoned off half of the room, and commenced refinishing the floor. Moving would have disrupted the tender thread that live (or virtually live) contact affords, and I would have risked losing any connection at all. So we muddled through, while I held the MacBook Pro screen almost directly to my face so I could hear them, and them me, above the din.

I am fond of saying that, these days, to be a designer all one needs is a laptop and an iPhone. Many times during the endless hours spent beside my husband in the hospital, the internet was totally inaccessible or was horribly slow and I found myself just staring at the Apple icon on my screen (or the AT&T next to no bars on my iPhone), waiting for something to happen.

One day, to occupy the time, I counted seven monitors on the crazy equipment that my husband was hooked up to. On this machinery were moving graphs and charts, levels and numerals, complex equations quantifying life or the closest numeric equivalents to it.

John's sister, Mary, and I stayed three blocks away so we could walk to the hospital. Our room overlooked the new hotel sign being erected. The quirky old Holiday Inn logo, reminiscent of a slower time, was being replaced as part of a major corporate rebranding. Sometimes I would stare out at the “modernization” in progress and think how much I enjoyed the nostalgic old one because it was friendly and the new one so cold and unapproachable.

Walking to and from visits to the hospital over this two-month period, I tried to amuse myself by identifying companies by brand: Burger King, Pizza Hut, Capital One, Chase. I learned to recognize even the many hospital logos. While eating I'd ponder the Land O'Lakes ladies scantily dressed on butter pats and the Starbucks mermaids (is that what she is?) on my coffee cups. And always, there were pro and college sports team marks everywhere, nearly ubiquitous decoration on people's caps and clothing. I stared at older signage towering atop tall buildings across the way and miniscule company names on elevators, bathroom fixtures and paper products—even logos tiny enough for screw-heads on moveable partitions. These icons did not so much comfort as beguile me: What did they say, anyway, about the life we lead or how or when we die?

John died a little bit before his 59th birthday. For those two months in Houston, he had extraordinarily superb medical care, for which I am very grateful. However, in the end, not even the most advanced monitors and fancy gadgets with user-tested logos could save him.

As designers, it is in our power to control what we offer our clients and the public at large; let's become better squires of that which we create and the responsibilities we accept along the way. Meanwhile, if called upon to assist in some other, more profound design—such as the helpless process of watching a loved one pass away—I wish us all the grace of compassion, the patience to see one moment from the next and the ability to cherish each thing we can observe, every hand we hold and each kiss goodbye.

Walker Evans, the great American photographer, is attributed as having said, “It's the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”