The Writing Life: I’m in ‘Communications’ by Jim Gray

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When my son, Charley, first asked me what my job was, I turned away from my dual-screen iMac and told him I was a graphic designer. He stood silent, face blank. Unless you’re a fireman or assemble the burritos at Chipotle, however, telling a five year old what you do for a living requires explanation. Even adults who ask me the so-what-do-you-do question often conjure a vague image that’s part Mike Brady, part website maverick. What I design, though, are print publications.

“You see,” I said to my son, “I take stories and news articles, find photos and drawings to go with them, then make the words and images look good together.” I pointed to my monitors and the chaos of a magazine spread in mid-design—repeated words in all sizes and fonts, photos overlapping columns of text, rules and grid lines crossing through everything. “Here,” I said. I pulled a magazine from the stacks of paper on my desk and handed it to him.

“So you wrote this?” he said. I told him no. He turned over the pages with a great show of concentration. “Then did you take these pictures?“ Again, I said no.

“I put the pages together electronically on my computer and a printer prints it.”

“OK,” he said, then scampered back to his Legos, the magazine left staring up at me from the floor. I don’t think he got it.

In explaining to my son, I’d reduced graphic design to its basic tasks but glossed over its key function: communication. I communicate. Visually. I employ Adobe’s Creative Suite to compose the written word into layouts, to highlight the essence and make it compelling for the reader. On good days I accomplish this. On the far-too-frequent bad days, like yesterday, I flounder.

I should make the headline larger. No, smaller, and stack the words. Overlap the letters. Try another font. Yes! Use the full-page image of the fish instead of the landscape. Or maybe both. Set off the intro paragraph. No, emphasize the article’s subhead. Does the type treatment work with the image? I don’t know.

I had an idea for laying out the article and a type treatment I thought clever, but it wasn’t coming together as a whole. I spent hours pushing the pieces around in endless variation, hoping for magic. I was too close to it. I needed another’s eyes.

“Can you give me a jiffy-crit?” I wrote in an email to a fellow designer, Simone. When she or I get stuck with a layout, we’ll send each other PDFs of our work-in-progress for review. It’s immensely helpful. She agreed to look over the half-dozen variations of the spread I was wrestling with, and I decided to take a break from the world of design, to clear my head and revisit an essay I’d been working on.

I need to reword that transition. Make this sentence into two and move them to the end of the paragraph. Or maybe introduce the thought earlier? What’s a better word for quandary? That’s it. No, that doesn’t read better. Shit.  

An hour into revision I’d tackled one paragraph. Poorly. I was tweaking and shuffling and expecting a transformation, just as I’d been doing earlier, only this time with words. Just words. “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” I heard in my head.

Sometimes, when designing a magazine spread, I’ll know when the layout works. An article’s identity comes alive on the pages. And though this can happen quickly, there’s usually a period of struggle as I try to distinguish between what is and isn’t working. I get bogged down by details, not knowing when to stick with a design approach or rethink its direction. Self-doubt settles in and gets comfy. I thought writing would divert me from my latest graphic roadblock, but it only broadened my definition of inarticulate. I was ready to get back to design.

“I can tell that you really like your headline arrangement in versions 1-4,” Simone replied in her critique. She addressed a typographic treatment I’d felt inventive, and I was embarrassed by my obvious attachment. “You might want to scrap it,” she continued. “It just isn’t working for you.”  She was right. I took her advice and killed my graphic-design darling.

Unfortunately, the similarities between the designing and writing process can be disheartening. I need a break from this, I’m always thinking. Maybe Sudoku would be a better hobby than personal essays. But whether it’s through inspired typography or an apt metaphor, the juxtaposition of images on the page or a telling detail in a paragraph, the opportunity to express myself lies within both my job and my avocation. To communicate in a way that’s my own. Getting there may involve the help of others but the satisfaction is distinctly personal. It convinces me too—for brief, intoxicating moments—that my efforts are worthwhile, that I enjoy what I do.

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  2 comments for “The Writing Life: I’m in ‘Communications’ by Jim Gray

  1. I love how you convey the struggle so well here — that moment when you think you’ve got it perfect . . . and then it falls apart. But we keep at it, right? Great to read your work, as always.

  2. I too have felt a link between visual and language arts. They both involve a single organ–in visual art it is the eye, in language art it is the tongue. They both make use of imagery. Yet the human organism is multi-sensual. And somehow art involving a single sense can somehow evoke and stimulate all the other senses as well. Who can look at a Gauguin painting from his Tahiti period and not feel the tropical heat, smell the fecundity of jungle, hear the breakers roll onto the shore? Who can listen to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” without sensing renewal and beginning, the unquenchable life forces stirring, rising up onto the shore of winter like a strong tide pulled by the moon’s gravity? I envy your being able to work in two media. I worked in photography for a while, but now only writing. Yes, we’re all in “communications,” we artists, no matter the media in which we communicate.

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