The Measure of a Designer

I stand two feet from my husband, John, and hear a tick tick tick that runs with the precision of a Swiss watch. (Is that expression used anymore? Are Swiss watches still made with the noteworthy precision that they once were?) I wonder about the mechanism making that telltale sound, the new valve in his heart. Does it come with a battery? Do I have to change it? No, John is the battery, and his heart's natural blood-flow through the valve is what makes it “tick.”

The valve I imagine is exquisitely simple, an elegant gizmo made from new-fangled synthetics—no whalebone or catgut here—engineered with the latest polymers to high-tech manufacturing standards to, say, thousandths of a millimeter (or even smaller). The exactness flips out my mind. Or does it? As a designer, I understand basic engineering, too.

Illustration of a heart from Grey's Anatomy and illustration of Shiley's valve

From left: Illustrations of the human heart from Gray's Anatomy (1918) and the Bjork-Shiley valve of the 1970s (source: Wikimedia Commons).

In the 1980s, I worked with a printing rep who promised to introduce me to a company in New Jersey that manufactured replacement parts for humans: man-made sockets and hips and other joints. The rep showed me photographs of some of these devices, and they were beautiful, looking more like miniature pure-white Henry Moore sculptures than prosthetic devices. Nothing ever came of this project, but the images have stayed with me and I recall their beauty whenever I think of John's repaired heart.

Designers help make stuff. Some of this is junk that litters the world, making it an overcrowded place to live—too many consumer products provide no enhanced quality of life. One of the most vivid memories I have from when my mother, who was a master of tidiness and organization, was critically ill, is of the “stuff” that would just accumulate on her hospital bed tray—you know, that nasty, ill-functioning 1 x 3 ft. table that is supposed to go up and down so you can perform normal functions like eat while reclining in bed. Imagine that while you doze, strange, unwanted objects appear but rarely disappear from this space in front of you: cups, wiping clothes, containers, literature, the general detritus of medical care (yuck!). You have no control over the way this space looks or how these objects are arranged because you are too weak to do anything about it. My mom found that tray to be viscerally annoying. As often as possible, I would throw unnecessary items away and arrange what was left in sensible order. Every time I would do it, my mom would visibly relax and become more coherent.

One thing we can all do as professional designers is to help give order and meaning to everyday existence by being good organizers, critical thinkers and aesthetes. As a designer, I have learned to do this for a living. Putting things in order is a trait I inherited from my mom and is reinforced by my husband.

A heart and peace symbol adorn a Valentine's Day card by Nancy Sharon Collins

Valentine's Day card design by Nancy Sharon Collins for Jeff Mckay, Inc., NYC and Miami.

As a designer, I aspire to work on projects as important as improving the human experience, but content myself with exacting my craft on behalf of my clients. Each year I design a Valentine's Day card for an old client, always using a unique manufacturing process. Paper, scoring, cutting and trapping specifications go into the one-thousandths of an inch. I revel in discussions with the die cutter about where to place the artwork on what portion of the spine of a fold-over card. I can “see” what he is advising me—the art has to “wrap” enough into the spine so it “appears” to stop on the front of the card and not bleed to the back. This is why magnifying in the thousands is so useful in programs such as Adobe Illustrator. Eyeballing is crucial. Being able to see when proportions and individual pieces work together, and when they need improvement, is a gift—this acuity is engineering in consort with aesthetics.

(To the consternation of the rest of my family, my mother could tell if a picture was hung crookedly on a wall by a 16th of an inch, it was an innate ability. While a picture on a wall is non-crucial, if the fix in my husband's heart had been off that much, he would be dead.)

In autumn of 2000, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. After six months of intensive chemo and several more surgical procedures to finish my new set of breasts, it was time to make the nipples.

From my mother, I learned perfect composition and can identify incorrect measurements down to a 64th of an inch with my naked eye. In the cold O.R. at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, the Park Avenue plastic surgeon was chagrined when I said I wanted to tell them where I wanted the two new concentric circles that would be my nipples and areola to be placed. We argued—the surgeon's assistant wanted to measure and I said, no, this has to be done optically. Thus I stood buck-naked before a mirror and the 12-member surgical team, with a Sharpie marker in my hand. To my satisfaction, when the surgeon's assistant measured my work with his millimeter ruler, it was quantifiably perfect.

I teach my students that researching a design problem is at least half of discovering the solution. Prior to my surgeries I studied shapes and dispositions of height, angle and stress pertaining to my favorite breast shapes. When it came time for the “mark-up,” my trained eye was understandably accurate.

Currently, I am documenting oral histories from southern Louisiana graphic artists to make public the rich design legacy of our region. As we wrapped-up an interview with Kathy Cain and Paulette Hurdlik, principle and principle emerita of Zehno Cross Media Communications, the first “girl” design shop in New Orleans, they talked about how they process prospective employees. A deal breaker is when they ask, by what percent does the candidate more enjoy design: the artistic part or the engineering part? If the engineering attraction is not at least 50 percent, the applicant is immediately disqualified.

I agree with Kathy and Paulette—making things pleasing to look at is half function and half aesthetics. No brush with mortality or major health “event” is welcome, but it does afford a lot of valuable time in intimate proximity to hospitals, doctors, nursing and all of those industrial decisions that end up as protocols and products for something called “quality of life.” This reminds me that our job as thoughtful, accomplished designers is to use our abilities wisely, with sensitivity to others and the world's needs.