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.[content block=”jim-gray”]