I was recently invited, by the author, to participate in an upcoming book from the jolly group at HOW Books. “My name,” started the e-mail “is Ethan Bodnar, I am a graphic designer, blogger, and entrepreneur. My first book is being published by HOW Books and is a collaborative visual book.” I initially thought that, well, I just had never heard of this designer, blogger and entrepreneur, and how nice of HOW Books to be publishing his first book. Curious as a racoon, I visited his web site — a dapper-looking one at that — and after a few minutes of sniffing around I realized why I had never heard of Mr. Bodnar: He has not been around the profession too long… well, in fact, despite being a soon-to-be-published author with strong typographic inclinations, he is not a professional designer yet, not even a graphic design student, nope, he is an 18-year-old high school senior. This preceding sentence is in no way mocking, it’s authentic surprise and enthusiasm, even more so at Ethan’s preternatural conviction to become a graphic designer, which he expresses consistently and adamantly in his blog with joyful eloquence.
It’s hard not to think back to when I was 18… I was a lousy high school student and one of the strongest reasons why I went to study graphic design was because I assumed there would not be many written tests or things to memorize, not to mention that I had no idea what to do with typography, nor that it “existed”. In contrast, Ethan already has a reading list that rivals that of your typical designer, he can design and program a web site, he grasps the virtues of Helvetica flush left, curates a collection of design-related videos, and, as I mentioned, even has a book deal. (26-year-old Mike Perry eat your heart out!). Called the Grab Bag Book, Ethan’s project brings together designers and artists from around the world that are assigned a random project from an actual grab bag that Ethan delves into to determine whether you will be doing a comic book strip, a portrait, a collage, or a number of other activities that hinge on making you do something you would usually not do. I am doing a collage. I hate collages. But, first, I asked Ethan some questions.
Ethan Bodnar, hello.
Armin Vit: “I asked myself whether I truly wanted to become a graphic designer, and the answer was yes.” You posted this on your blog recently, it’s very rare to find someone so young that is so determined to be a graphic designer, how did you first develop an interest in graphic design?
Ethan Bodnar: I found graphic design through the internet a couple years ago. I started reading blogs and looking at many online design portfolios. The inspiration that the graphic design world provided to me was amazing.
Then I actually started practicing design, creating posters and websites and more. It just felt good to make something and then be moving throughout my daily environment and see what I designed hanging on the wall.
To create is in my nature.
Desk and desktop.
AV: With such an early commitment and passion to graphic design, does it worry you that once in school or after graduation it may not be all you had hoped it would? Sorry, I don’t mean to shatter your dreams!
EB: No not really. I have a pretty good idea of what the next four years in school are going to be like. Right now I am a self-taught designer and to be able to get in-depth and detailed education in graphic design for an extended period of time is very appealing.
As for after graduation, I look forward to being able to work in the industry and continue learning. My only concern is the constraints that working with clients have, but it would appear that by being talented you can still keep your creative freedom and choose what projects you want to work on. Right now I am confident that it will be all that I hope it will be.
Portfolio and academic application.
AV: Speaking of school, you were recently accepted to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York for undergraduate studies. What were some of your criteria when looking for a school to attend? What attracted you to SVA?
EB: Going to school for graphic design and art has a certain feeling about it. To know that I will be creating and learning at the same time is great. When looking for schools I kept in mind location, the amount of students, the faculty, the facilities, and the curriculum. The big question that I would always ask was whether it was a process (focuses on theory of design and how you go about design) or portfolio (focuses on having a book of work to get job placement) school. Process was the answer I was looking for, but still realizing that I need to have something to show for after my education to get a start in the working world.
I am still deciding where to attend next year. The School of Visual Arts was great because of its location in the city and because so many faculty are practicing designers. I was also accepted at Maine College of Art, Art Institute of Boston, Massachusetts College of Art, The Hartford Art School, Maryland Institute College of Art, Virginia Commonwealth University and several others.
AV: What do you think a design education must be for a student graduating in 2012?
EB: In a design education you must first have a solid grounding in process, understanding, and practice. But I think that we must take it further.
Students need to be educated in business so that they can work with clients and run their own design studios. We must be educated in the internet and shown what an amazing community of designers can do together. We must be educated in how to write about our own and others’ design work.
I think project based learning is important. I think that we must first work on paper before the digital technology comes into play. I think that, in the end, the most important part is to love design.
AV: Over the holidays you posted a photo of some design books you were ready to tackle… Including Debbie Millman’s How to Think like a Great Graphic Designer, John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity and, more recently, you acquired Paul Rand, Conversations with Students. That’s not light reading. What do you look for in a design book? And how do you learn about new or existing titles?
EB: In a design book I look for content that motivates my mind to think about design. I look for inspiration and new information. There is something special about books. We get so used to working and consuming design on the screen that it’s just good to feel the pages and flip through each spread. Someday I want to walk into the store and walk out with a huge stack of books and just go home and consume them. I also judge book by their covers, I have been told that it’s a bad habit but what are us designers supposed to do.
Lastly, those books were really great and you should consider reading them if you haven’t already. Debbie Millman has agreed to be in my book, John Maeda is now president at RISD, and I truly regret not ever meeting Paul Rand.
AV: One of the things that impressed me the most about your blog and your portfolio was how careful the typography was executed and treated, as if you had been doing this for quite a few years already. How did you learn to work with type?
EB: Thanks, well most of it comes from experimentation and figuring out what looked good. Then from there I started figuring out what was right and just not what looked good. I read Ellen Lupton’s book, Thinking With Type which I refer back to when I am designing.
My design seems to be based very much on clean typography right now and I want to start working more illustrative elements into my work. I use Helvetica, Rockwell, and Georgia too much. Typefaces are very expensive these days. Though recently Adobe and AIGA teamed together to offer a great set of faces to students for a very reasonable price, this is a great move and one that I think was needed.
Typography is all around and by just observing you can learn a good amount. Just make sure you are observing well executed typography.
AV: It must be too premature, but what kind of designer do you want to be? Is there a particular area in design you are gunning for? Like corporate identity, or packaging, or web design?
EB: Right now, I am not completely sure. Web design doesn’t seem as exciting as it did a couple years ago. I never like how they call it corporate identity. Most people who need identities designed are not “corporate” businesses. They are organizations, small businesses, schools, local brands, and initiatives. I think that I would like to work with designing promotional materials and branding for events, designing type, environmental design, book design, and packaging.
AV: Are you looking to work on your own or be part of a collaborative design firm?
EB: Once I graduate I would like to work as part of a collaborative design firm and continue my education by learning from others that I would work with. I have heard that it is not the best idea to start off on your own right away because there is still much to be learned by working with an established design business.
However, eventually I would like to work on starting my own collaborative design firm.
I don’t think I want to spend my whole life being your normal designer. I would like to take design thinking and apply it to other areas. I will use the power of creativity and design to have a positive impact on the world. Coming up with new ideas and new ways to solve issues and problems. It is my belief that creativity can solve anything.
One more poster.
AV: And, lastly, a more philosophical question. How do you perceive the influence of design around you, both as a young citizen and as a designer in the making?
EB: It is well known that design is all around us as we move through the everyday environments in which we work, play, and live.
However, I think that there is design behind the simplest interactions we have. Whether it be how the handle of you coffee mugs fits your hand, the paperclips on your desk, the piece of metal you hang your coat on, or the design of the chair you are sitting in as you read this. What message is portrayed through these everyday objects?
It is a sad realization when you figure out what you don’t see. Slow down as you move busily through life, there is much you are missing. Take a moment and observe what your senses are taking in and process it a little bit longer. Observe the well designed. Take note of the poorly designed. Have a look at the beauty and aesthetics that may hide below the surface.
Be sure to stop and smell the design. Chances are you may just like what you smell, or in this case, what you see.
AV: Thanks for your time Ethan, and good luck.