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Learning Curve

Back in the days of Ye Olde Graphic Design, designers were primarily visual message makers working with their hands. We would cut things up, wax and tape them down. We worked with mysterious materials like rubylith, linetape, Letraset and the exacto-knife almost never left our hands. Some even worked with lead (or wood) type; all were most adept at spec’ing—making detailed notes for typesetting, colour breaks and print production.

Of course, technology changed and our tools changed, but at the same time the average designer took on more responsibility in the process. And the advancement seems never ending.

It started with typesetting: computer compositing brought the actual setting of type into the lap of the designer (and put an entire industry nearly out of business in the process). Then it was prepress. QuarkXpress gave us the ability and soon the responsibility of preparing bleeds, trapping, spreading and overprinting (a responsibility I am pleased to say has been largely taken back by printers’ RIPs), and for a while there I, for one, experienced some anxiety over what type of dot shape was best to use.

With the advent of the web, many of us took that on too: becoming experts in web-safe colours, antialiasing, browser compatibility and HTML coding. The coding, thankfully, eventually became so complicated it spawned a whole new industry—one which we no longer have to know or do, but which we are expected to understand at least rudimentarily and manage under our increasing umbrella of services to the client.

As our technology becomes more sophisticated, we struggle to keep up, not just with the changes in software, but in this creeping advancement of responsibility. It is not inconceivable that in the future we’ll have small in-house presses—high speed inkjets that we use for small-run printing, and voilá, another industry will be absorbed under the umbrella of graphic design.

Now we all know that the term “graphic design” has become almost dirty. To call yourself merely a graphic designer is to relegate yourself to the status of a glorified collage artist. No, we do strategy and branding, communications integration, envisioning and storytelling. Visit the site of any design company to learn how much more than “graphic design” we actually do.

As was stated at the AIGA Power of Design conference last year, we should be sitting at the table with the CEO, helping them see the future of their company. No longer are our hands sticky with wax and our social skills underdeveloped—we leave our sleek workstations, don our pinstriped suits and snap open our aluminum briefcases. We are communications seers; we’re momentum enablers; we’re hyper-concentric, multi-level creative futurists!

Does it ever stop? Where do we go from here?

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.29.2004 BY marian bantjes
Matt’s comment is:

It's true. There's more "multitasking" than ever before. And while I enjoy new challenges and the ability to expand my own piece of the horizon, I must admit that, at times, I want to crawl back under my little Graphic Design rock and say "that's not MY job...".

Pointless, I know, but I definitely have moments when I just have no clue how I'm going to do what is being assumed that I will be able to do.

Of course, there's always alcohol!

On Jan.29.2004 at 01:13 PM
Armin’s comment is:

What I like about us having more responsibility along the way is that I have more control of a project from start to completion. I don't trust people to finish the job correctly until proven otherwise — I rarely give anybody the benefit of the doubt. I know, it sucks. I'd rather spend 10 (20, 30, as many as it takes) extra hours on the project and make sure that it gets done right. (Which is the reason why I wanted to learn to do web stuff so I wouldn't have to rely on programmers and their lame-ass excuses of why I can't have a border around a box of text).

Going back to my original point: with designers being in charge of more tasks there is less chance of people screwing up the project in the process — granted, we are the ones that can screw up, but when it comes to accountability I'd rather hold myself accountable, than somebody else. Of course I am aware of my limitations, I can't print a brochure myself because my wife wouldn't let me have a 6-color Heidelberg in the guest room… actually, she might like the idea… anyway, I do as much as I can for each project until I know that if I stay involved I will drive somebody crazy or fuck something up.

Hi, my name is Armin and I'm a control freak.

On Jan.29.2004 at 01:41 PM
Christopher Johnston’s comment is:

Does it ever stop? Where do we go from here?

I hope it stops sometime soon because it seems to be affecting my design in a detrimental way. I am all for being a Jack-of-all-Trades but there comes a time when my extraneous "trades" start to conflict with my original motivations.

Has anyone other then me become somewhat defeatist in their project conceptualization because you know that your ideas won't work in a different media form? In other words, do your web/prepress/video/multimedia/sales/branding capabilities get in the way of your raw creativity . If so, do you think this is a good or bad thing? Do you see it as becoming a more versatile designer or as becoming a more diluted designer?


On Jan.29.2004 at 01:43 PM
marian’s comment is:

I haven't become defeatist, but I do find it overwhelming. Sitting at the AIGA conference hearing all this talk of top-level strategizing, I couldn't help but think "But I don't want to sit at the table with the CEO." But if I don't, am I doomed?

In some ways I think we may be at a pinnacle of control. I wonder if the future doesn't hold an explosion of specialization. Already we see this in larger companies, because there's only so much one person can manage. Perhaps the profession of typesetter will reappear.

Trust is a huge issue. I tend to be like Armin, but only up to a point. If I can find a programmer/printer/production artist that I can trust, then I would be more than happy to divest myself of that responsibility. But good people are hard to find.

Chris, I'm leaning toward "more diluted," and that is worrisome.

On Jan.29.2004 at 02:09 PM
marian’s comment is:

BTW, the 2nd part of "Jack-of-all-trades," which most people tend to forget is "master at none."

On Jan.29.2004 at 02:10 PM
Christopher Johnston’s comment is:

BTW, the 2nd part of "Jack-of-all-trades," which most people tend to forget is "master at none."

Ohhh Marian, I was trying to leave that part out to keep up my guise of optimism. hehe

I am also on that bandwagon of "when it comes to having as much control as possible just call me Domina", yet don't you think that is a major part of our nature as designers? It seems that you need to be at least 10% anal to really make it as a creative in this business. The only problem I see is that I am trying to be anal over too many completely separate facets, and in many cases my creativity takes a backseat to scheduling, compatibility or workflow. It sucks but I guess that is the price to pay for versatility.


On Jan.29.2004 at 02:51 PM
eric’s comment is:

Hi, my name is Armin and I'm a control freak

welcome Armin. Admitting it is the first step. And how long has it been since your last proof?

On Jan.29.2004 at 03:29 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I'm with Armin - too many people on one project screws up the original artistic vision. That's why I quickly fell in love with web design as soon as I figured out how to do it. I can finally put the picture I have in my head on the screen, in it's final form.

On Jan.29.2004 at 03:35 PM
Ginny ’s comment is:

It's interesting that this thread has been posted, because I've been thinking alot about this same thing lately. Yes, I call myself a graphic designer, but truly I'm the art director and most times the creative director as well. I'm also the print production manager and client hand-holder.

I've also recently made the decision to take some web classes to learn how to program my own sites. Because like Armin (was), I too am frustrated with programmers telling me I cannot do certain things on the sites I design. They should not be dictating my design because they don't feel like doing/changing things. It's incredibly frustrating.

On Jan.29.2004 at 03:49 PM
marian’s comment is:

I can finally put the picture I have in my head on the screen, in it's final form

Really? Because between browser window sizes (and incompatibilities), Web-standards compliant issues, plugin issues, download times (still), and Jakob F'n Neilson acolytes, I find I can seldom put the image in my head on the screen.

Furthermore, most of the websites I've worked on in the past few years (aside from my own) have been database driven, and in terms of learning ColdFusion, PHP, Perl or whatever-th-f, that's just way more control than I have time to deal with. I learned the basics of CSS and even at that I was thinking "It's not fair! I don't have any more room in my head for this!"

And, at the risk of starting a massive sub-thread, designing for the web is a hugely different task than designing for print, drawing on all sorts of skills that are, again, new to the profession: and I'm not talking about Flash or programming, I'm talkingabout wayfinding, cataloguing, indexing, and psychology.

On Jan.29.2004 at 04:03 PM
Christopher Johnston’s comment is:

I'm not talking about Flash or programming, I'm talkingabout wayfinding, cataloguing, indexing, and psychology.

Ahhh Marian you are touching on what I've been speaking of. The frustration psychologically between your creative mind and your code logic. How can anyone be completely at ease in both worlds when they are so fundamentally different? Most times my logic subdues my creativity solely because I have to take it into account. I have learned to design within the constraints of the web but not without the sacrifice of my otherwise chaotic artistic method.


On Jan.29.2004 at 04:44 PM
Matt’s comment is:

I'm not talking about Flash or programming, I'm talkingabout wayfinding, cataloguing, indexing, and psychology.

...my head explodeth...

On Jan.29.2004 at 07:11 PM
Steven’s comment is:

M: I'm not talking about Flash or programming, I'm talkingabout wayfinding, cataloguing, indexing, and psychology.

C: Ahhh Marian you are touching on what I've been speaking of. The frustration psychologically between your creative mind and your code logic.

Ya know, I actually have felt this, as well, and I've written about it briefly. But I don't have any specific answer other than making a conscious effort to keep putting creativity at the fore. I also think it's important to find creative inspiration outside of the graphic design profession.

Like a number of people, I also have been learning basic Web stuff so that I have certain amount of creative control and can tell when someone is BSing me because they're too lazy or stubborn. But I really have no problem with letting Web-centric folk handle many of the details within that process. As has been said, there just so many complexities that it would be difficult to master all of them. I'm not going to waste my time learning the specifics of ColdFusion, PHP, Perl, or whatever. Let the programmers do their thing. I'll run the front of the house, they can run the back of the house. I believe in the WYSIWYG promise.

And as someone who started his career off back in the days of Rubylith, X-Acto blades, and one-coat, I must say that I have decided that it's better to have a limited range of things that I'm really good at, than to be too broad or too limited. And while I am definitely a picky-ass Virgo in many respects, I have learned to let go of certain things or aspects. In a way, it's a way of acknowledging and honoring the value of that function by allowing others more expert to create it.

Now on the other hand, I do feel compelled to learn new software. And in fact, I want to learn more. I'd like to try my hand with motion graphics and video, as well as learn more about certain specifics of Web dev. And then there's Reason, which completely blows my mind! Think of the power one would have! Mhuuaah-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaa!

On Jan.29.2004 at 10:09 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> And how long has it been since your last proof?

A month too long Eric… a month too long, but I'm taking it one day at a time.

On Jan.29.2004 at 11:43 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Marian's talking about owning a project from delivery to inception to execution, and even long after production for the right dollar amount. Design has always flowed with technology. In the 1950s photography took typography away from the job stick and into the dark room. We want control and will never stop. Maybe it's part of evolution, as described here by Gropius:

Proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination. Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist!
On Jan.29.2004 at 11:45 PM
marian’s comment is:

And then there's Reason,

What total insanity in me makes me actually want to learn this? Thanks Steven for bringing to my attention one more thing I'd like to do given infinite amounts of time and amphetamines.

Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist

See, I think that's what we haven't got. Whatever happened to "wrists"? No-one wants to be a wrist anymore--why not? The designer sits at the top of this pinnacle, taking on more and more responsibility because he can't trust anyone else to do the job right. No-one wants to be a typesetter, because that's lowly and "uncreative"; we absorb printing knowledge so that we can control the untrustworthy printers; designers and programmers battle for control of websites (each often seeing the other as a secondary partner--"Once I've finished the design you come in and make it happen the way I envisioned it," vs. "once we have the architecture and the functionality done, you come in and make it look good."); and we sit at the table with the CEO because we can't trust them to strategize their communications without us.

It's like world peace: why can't we just all get along?

On Jan.30.2004 at 12:24 AM
Steven’s comment is:


On Jan.30.2004 at 01:24 AM
mitch’s comment is:

I think it is a designers responsibilty to the profession and to themselves to be knowledgeable with current design technologies. I do not think they need to be proficient, nor even competent with it, but they need to know enough, so like Steven said, you know when a programmer geek is bullshitting you. Personally I know what can be done via [insert technology catchphrase here], but I do not neccesarily know how to do it myself. I also agree that the designer's role is probably more important than the average CEO realizes, but so goes the rocky road of producing design. The responsibility falls on us to present ourselves as a profession that provides services that are a core element of a successful business, not let design and branding become something that just has to get done last minute by the lowest bidder.

As far as the web goes, it has been my experience that anyone who claims to be skilled at both design AND code is either delusional or lying their ass off.

It seems that you need to be at least 10% anal to really make it as a creative in this business.

totally true. granted, i am 58% anal so I expect to be ridiculously successful.

On Jan.30.2004 at 01:53 AM
Mr. Jones’s comment is:

Great topic...I would have responded sooner but I was busy designing, writing, proofing, art directing, hand holding, selling, HTMLing, pre pressing, press checking a job that I am working on.

I too am cramming my already stuffed head with even more information. Web classes, flash, html, xhtml, etc. I do it because I have a desire to understand how everything works. How can you design for print if you don’t understand a press?

Design used to be an organic, creative, artsy, trendy, avant garde, alternative, kind of thing...have we all become a bunch of nerds with cool clothes? Have we had to sacrifice creativity for the sake of technology?

I don’t necessarily believe this is the case but it does pose an interesting question.

On Jan.30.2004 at 02:13 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Proficiency in a variety of skills is M.O. for us anymore. I think that the only way to become truly a designer is to understand completely what tools you are using, whether they be an exacto and a ruler, or Dreamweaver and Photoshop. They have to be an extension of your hands, so that when you create, you're not creating inside a set of pre-defined perameters (i.e. I only know how to do "A", so I'm only going to do "A"). If you have an idea that you don't know how to implement, LEARN. I don't really believe that there's a finite limit on what you can learn in a lifetime. But there is a limit on that time.

On Jan.30.2004 at 08:41 AM
Christopher Johnston’s comment is:

totally true. granted, i am 58% anal so I expect to be ridiculously successful.

haha! Nice Mitch. I see two years worth of OCD support group sessions and a Clio in your future.

On Jan.30.2004 at 08:54 AM
eric’s comment is:

With all due respect, Ms. Bantjes, but didn't you just beat me up last week about this:

No-one wants to be a wrist anymore--why not? The designer sits at the top of this pinnacle

in your 'non-illustration' thread.

On Jan.30.2004 at 09:50 AM
Jason’s comment is:

I add a new notch to my belt learning the latest software. I read the Wall Street Journal, Advertising Weekly, New York Times, and Forbes to stay ahead on the latest marketing and business news. The more punches I have in my ticket, the more I can distinguish myself from a competitor.

Sometimes, I feel like a jack of all trades, master of none. Then I tell myself that design is as much about process as result. Possessing the skills to work through the idea and into the outcome rewards me. Still, there are times when working with a team allows you to focus on a specialty, and not concern yourself with extracurricular details.

Whether its learning software, business strategy, or a new html protocol, since reading "The Attack of the Authorpreneur" by Steven Heller, this introduction has remained with me. I feel it strikes a chord with this thread.

Today there are two kinds of graphic designer: One is primarily production oriented, the other primarily idea oriented. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, one byproduct of the digital revolution is a clearer distinction between those with skill and those with imagination.

Neither one of these roles Heller qualifies is less important than the other. And he even continues, saying that you can be both idea maker and production guru, controlling production means, designers can be authors or entrepreneurs and make a "creative product." Sure we can author a creative product like a book or CD or website. What I'm wondering is what exactly are designers specialists of? We can also work service side and deliver communication solutions. Occasionally we're just problem solvers. There's all these things we claim to do, or are simply capable of doing.

Does the individual designer qualify their specialty? When will our list of capabilities end? Or is it up to the association of designers, with organizations like icograda, ATypI, AIGA, or the Art Directors Club to define and project our image? Maybe not, maybe we need to keep adding punches to our own tickets, because in the end its all about the votes.

On Jan.30.2004 at 10:45 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

As far as the web goes, it has been my experience that anyone who claims to be skilled at both design AND code is either delusional or lying their ass off.

I agree with Mitch. And it doesn't just apply to code: it applies to the "wayfinding, cataloguing, and indexing" that should really be a job in and of itself. I can think of a few editors and information architects who would rightly chafe at the notion of designers annexing their expertise.

On Jan.30.2004 at 10:52 AM
Gerardo Reyes Jr’s comment is:

How can you design for print if you don’t understand a press?

That pretty much sums up why I got into my current stint as a pressman. I think I'm taking away a lot more than my contemporaries who got design jobs right away can ever have.

I agree with Armin about learning how to code your own site. If you can, why not? One less thing to be trepidatious about.

If we have the time and opportunity to cease the tools and skills that have been democratized, I believe we will. And yes, the profession will just get bigger and people will have to become more specialized. The I want to do it all! (usually students' battle cry) will only be acheivable by our most knowledgable, flexible and creative people.

The market for designers might reach saturation, but I believe we are still a young profession that is maturing rapidly and it's up to us and our educational programs to create the best critical and sensitive designer-humans that must realize that their interpretations and work does ultimately have an effect on culture's landscape.

On Jan.30.2004 at 11:01 AM
krf’s comment is:

This reminds me of some of those job ads wanting a designer (or developer): must *know* Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere, Freehand, Quark, Flash, Fireworks, Dreamweaver, Acrobat, ... and SOAP, XML, HTML, XHTML, SQL, ColdFusion, ASP, Java, PHP... and can design in print, web, video, 3D and the list goes on. I'm not sure what kind of person they'll get with that, but if you find that person, I'm ready to go to Mars.

I've focused on a few areas, which I know I am or can be proficient in, but leave the rest to others. Like some of you, I already feel like I'm being asked to do, not necessarily too much, but to go into areas that I either don't like, or that I know I'm going to suck in, hence producing shoddy work.

We have a pretty good division of labor where I design at and most of us have slight overlap of knowledge into other areas, but know that we will be the "expert" in our fields.

On Jan.30.2004 at 11:31 AM
marian’s comment is:

didn't you just beat me up last week about this:

I don't know, Eric. I don't think we were communicating very well. But yes, in retrospect, this post shares a theme with that one.

For the record, I tend to be a control freak. But while I continue to take on more and more tasks (or draw the line and limit my toolbox) and acquire more knowledge, I DO feel overwhelmed, and I also feel that there could be a better way.

I have found some people I can rely on. I've got a good Flash connection, a good programming connection (now), and I used to work with a guy who knew so much more about type than I did, that I frequently leaned on him heavily for my type decisions (I miss that). When I did the Speak Up T-shirt, I submitted my file to Armin in an admittedly rough state (not knowing if it would win, I hadn't fussed with the curves), and took him up on his offer to fix the beziers for me. He did such a great job, I wished I could have someone to do my curves for me all the time.

I wish I could have a studio where we all did different, specialized things, and did them very well; and I would be happy to credit everything to Studio X, instead of to one head-honcho designer.

But the point is no-one wants to do just part of it. For reasons I can't explain, there are no production people -- or they're few and far between, and the ones I've come across weren't good enough. And I have done production: I did 10 years of book production, and in the past few years I did production on a few projects: where the design was good and the pay was good it was a completely enjoyable experience: all ego dissapeared, all the emotional involvement gone--just did the damned job, and did it well.

I think about my years in book typesetting, and how I used to get detailed drawings of the page layout. Designers would trace the lettering for chapter heads and subheads (what they were tracing I don't know) and mark it up. I would then follow those instructions to create the page, send it to them and they'd adjust, via markup, and send it back.

The change in technology made it possible for designers to do it themselves, and that was the beginning of this increasing burden of responsibility--and yes, this increasing freedom to express.

I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying I'm not convinced there isn't a better way.

On Jan.30.2004 at 11:38 AM
rebecca’s comment is:

Actually the more I think about it, the more it seems like this problem (of designers tacitly accepting more and more responsibilities outside of just design) is part of what's contributing to declining standards in certain areas of the field. I still spec type and send all my books to a typesetter. They do it a hundred times better than I can, even though books that I've typeset still look really good and get into shows and such. But if book designers suddenly started insisting that they typeset their own books in order to retain more control, typesetters will starve and a whole body of expertise will begin to go extinct. It's already happening. Bummer.

On Jan.30.2004 at 01:16 PM
marian’s comment is:

typesetters will starve and a whole body of expertise will begin to go extinct.

Hmm ... Rebecca, I thought they already had. I'm actually glad to hear the Olde Ways are still in existence somewhere.

On Jan.30.2004 at 01:21 PM
rebecca’s comment is:

They're starving for sure, but not dead yet. Take a look at the selection details for last year's AIGA 50 Books show: a handful of books were typeset by someone other than the designer. I was interested to see that it's not just the little guys deciding to job it out.

On Jan.30.2004 at 02:14 PM
Steven’s comment is:

One other point comes to mind (mentioned briefly by others). I do think that our profession is being affected by over-saturation. Back in ye olden days of hand-skills, graphic design was a fairly esoteric and specialized field. I remember having to explain to people what a graphic designer actually did. Now, through the advancement of computer power and the creation of robust and sophisticated design software, our profession has become a lot more accessable to the general public. All sorts of people can get into the design profession, not just those with a traditional design educational background. I think part of the effect of this phenomenon is to raise the bar of what is expected from us. With more people knowing the basics, to stay competitive, we each need to expand our abilities in any number of directions. It's a bit Darwinian. The most talented and proficient will thrive, while those with limited abilities and skills will tend to falter. I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing either. Competition is the antagonistic force that helps our profession evolve and grow. And in the dynamic context of Supply and Demand, there needs to be a certain amount of scarcity and attrition within our ranks in order to maintain our longtern viability.

Now having said that, I think it's important to have a range of distinctive competencies that differentiates each of us from the rest of the pack. So I think it's better to be an expert in certain spheres than to be mediocre in everything. Ideally, one can partner with others with different complementary abilities to make a significantly stronger team. I think this is what Marian was talking about. In this sense then, the ability to partner with other creatives is just as important, if not more, than being able to do many skills.

On Jan.30.2004 at 04:36 PM
Rebecca C.’s comment is:

Unfortunately, the "I can do it all" quickly becomes replaced by "why can't you do it all?" My experience has been that non-designer types will expect--nay, demand--that the designer do everything: copywriting, layout, proofing, Web, print, identity, art direction, client relations and press checks. Then show up at 8:00 a.m. the next day to take more with a smile. (Really, I'm not bitter.)

How do you fight the "you're a designer, why can't you do this?" battle when upper management won't hire specialized talent?

On Feb.02.2004 at 01:29 PM
Steven’s comment is:

Well, if you're working within an in-house corporate department, something that I know a little about, generally you can point out that it's outside of the skill-set detailed in your job description. Then you can offer to learn the required skill and complete the task, which might take a little longer than hiring an outside expert. This tactic either allows you to maybe get some training or extra time to study; or it points out that the process will be more timely and proficient handled by an outside contractor, and thus releaves you of that unwanted duty. You're still being cooperative, yet you're establishing some framework for expectations.

But if you're upper management isn't going hire outside talent, no matter what, then you're forced to struggle through the situation. If you have a manager that cares about you, generally they'll help you get through the situation. On the otherhand, if the manager doesn't care about you, then there's not much you can do. And it'll work out in some good or bad form that hopefully will allow you to at least learn something new (as you heal your wounds).

I'm not sure if what I've said is all that helpful. It basically boils down to managing the expectations of your manager, if that's possible.

I find this "why can't you do it all" attitude much more prevalent in working with clients.

On Feb.02.2004 at 07:08 PM
saxophonejones’s comment is:

Re: "the Olde Ways", check out www.isleofprinting.com

On Feb.05.2004 at 06:48 AM
mazzei’s comment is:

I work with some great production people I challenge them but they always impress me in the end. Being a control freak narrows vision, a team is a team and a good production person can make all the difference. Now if someone is “bad” at what they do that’s another story, but believing the worst or doubting people’s skills before they have a chance to “prove” themselves seems foolish to me, that’s not control its fear.

On Feb.05.2004 at 02:42 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> that’s not control its fear.

Fear? Of what?

On Feb.05.2004 at 04:51 PM
wun’s comment is:

fear of being threatened, fear of being proven wrong, fear of facing the reality, that the people of little design understanding can produce better work ( it does happen you know?).....

On Feb.08.2004 at 11:42 AM