I have a confession to make. I am not a good designer.
Let me qualify that. I could be a good graphic designer. Oh, I suppose I have raw talent, waiting to be harnessed. I would not have been able to earn a paycheck as a designer for almost five years on personality alone.
I struggle with things that ought to come easily for a person with five years of experience. One of my good friends teaches a design class at a local university, and he was proudly telling the story of one of his students last week. For the entire semester, this student's work has been really bad. On Tuesday, one class before the final, her logo was still looking bad. By Thursday, this student walked into class with an absolute knockout logo, the best in the class by far. His comment was that "The Light came on for her between Tuesday and Thursday".
I realized as I listened to this that I have never had such a seminal moment. There are days when I see work people I know have done and I say, I don't think I could ever do that. Technically, sure. Conceptually, no way. I would never have an idea that good.
Most Graphic Designers have wanted to do this their whole lives. You listen to them talk, and they all invaribly have the same story: I was born to do this. My story could not be further from that. I decided to go into graphic design because I liked screwing around in Photoshop, and people said I was good at it, I should do that for a living.
I'm like that project player you often see in the NBA, the 7 foot 9 center that's lanky as sin with no jump shot. The guy gets drafted, sits the bench, and makes a bunch of money while learning the game. His team does all this because he has "tremendous upside"; if he ever can get it together, they'll really have something, and other teams will wonder how they passed on the newest all-star.
I'm Shawn Bradley. I'm Darko. I'm Adonal Foyle.
Coming out of college, I was a project, the designer with no portfolio and no discernable polished skills, just raw talent. I got hired, was thrust into the starting lineup, and made a bunch of money while learning the game. They took a chance on me because I had "tremendous upside"; a degree from Creighton and enough talent that with a lot of coaching, could become something.
When I was growing up, my teachers would always note that my strongest subjects were english and art. Math & science, not so much. I always figured I would be a writer of some sort. I was always winning awards for creative writing. I have a whole shelf of awards from middle school and high school for writing. I'm not sure if this is still happening, but when I was in fifth grade, the best young writers from each school were chosen to go to Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls for the Iowa Young Writer's Workshop. I went to this thing and easily had some of the best work of anyone there.
But at the same time, I was doing graphic design, very poorly. I would create my own newspapers and magazines, writing all the articles, drawing pictures, laying out pages, the whole deal. From the time I was 8 years old I did this.
In middle school, I continued to excel at writing. But my art teachers couldn't understand why I didn't spend time becoming more proficient at that. They claimed I had talent that was unpolished; with some work I could become pretty good. In eighth grade, my illustration of the Minnesota Twins slugger Chili Davis had won a blue ribbon at the Webster County Fair, and when they sent it on to the Iowa State Fair, I took home a Purple Ribbon -- the top prize in illustration for my age group.
But in High School I focused on writing. I was one of the first freshman in the history of my high school to get an article published in the Little Dodger, our school paper. The bylaws said only Juniors & Seniors could be on the staff as writers; the faculty advisor was so impressed by my work that she pushed for an exemption. It was denied, so I would have to wait until my junior year to join the staff as reporter.
At the same time, the art jones was calling me again. I always pushed it aside; art people are just a step up from band geeks, I thought at the time. That line of thinking pushed me to a strange place: not in the cool clique, but not hated by them either; and not in with the other crowd. I had no crowd. I had me. I spent much time writing work that I would never publish, and my skills as a writer improved greatly as a result.
By the time my junior year rolled around, I joined the staff of the paper, as a beat reporter in charge of the Intramural Sports beat. Eventually I would be promoted and given a weekly column. I played the success of that first foray into expressing my opinion in print into the Co-Editor position my senior year.
We stirred up some big controversy that semester I was in charge. Oddly enough, it was an article about a trip to Omaha to see then-unknown 311 in concert that triggered the backlash. Something about drinking and driving and being underage and all. Yeah, maybe I shouldn't have let that sneak thru. The scathing letters were sometimes pretty personal; one attack caused our teacher to break down in tears. That's leadership, ain't it?
Amazingly enough, I got a second chance and was handed the reins of another newspaper. At the second largest community college in the state, no less. I had intended to go away to school, but when you get a full ride scholarship to be Executive Editor of a college paper as a freshman, you take it. Full Ride Scholarship. Private Office. Complete Editorial Control. Read that again.
So of course, controversy soon followed. I was behind a scathing investigative report on the laziness of some of the faculty advisors. The gist of it was, I needed my advisor to sign off on my schedule before I could finalize my classes for the second term. She was never in her office, I couldn't get my classes, and I was furious. Don't piss off the Editor.
The President of the university called my mom to "chat". I was asked to write a statement taking back the stuff I had written. I stood my ground. Magically, the paperwork for my scholarship got "misplaced"; no one mentioned anything, so the bill became past due. Do you know what its like to get pulled out of class by security? I do. I made the Deans List with a nearly perfect 3.9 GPA, and was not invited to the big awards ceremony. It was ugly. (Years later, when the President was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for falsifying entrance exams for athletes, and faced hard time in prison, I laughed so hard I nearly coughed up an organ or two.)
I was hushed. And I was disillusioned with the journalism world. The college and myself parted ways amicably in the spring. They were hoping their little shenanigans would scare off any decent school from admitting me. Seeing as that's illegal, they wisely played it on the up and up. You should have seen the look on their faces when I told them I was transferring to Creighton. Not exactly a step back, you know. More like 10 steps forward. That pisspot university to the #1 rated university in the midwest? You bet.
I still wanted to write for a living in some manner. My first advisor at Creighton talked me into taking a 300-level (Junior) Creative Writing class -- I was technically still a freshman because my old school kicked me in the ass on the way out, and a lot of my classes didn't transfer. If I thought that the old school kicked me, the Creative Writing class really kicked my ass. I had lost my voice somewhere along the line, and I was having trouble finding it.
By the end of the semester, I had decided writing was not for me. The art jones was beckoning again. This time I finally listened.
I officially declared my major as "Graphic Design" in the spring of 1999, becoming like the 6th person in that major at Creighton. There was only one full-time professor, and a collection of adjuncts that had no real presence on campus to keep the lights on between classes. I still remember my first design class -- I did some real crap work in there. But it was less crappy than the other students, so I got an "A"; Cathy, my professor, wrote on the final evaluation that my work was "outstanding...approaching the level needed to design professionally".
I had not chosen Creighton because the Graphic Design department was great, because obviously it was not. I went there intending to go into journalism; that school is fantastic. Once I decided to go another route, my choices were: Transfer to a third school, or stay at a college I really loved. I stayed at Creighton, and I've never regretted that decision for an instant.
Those first few of us in the design department were like a family. We were the pioneers, and classes were created for us, based often on our suggestions. A full-time professor to head the department up was hired in the summer of '99.
I wish I could go there now. They start the way it should be taught: typography first, then basic design, and everything else builds on that foundation, including web and multimedia.
I was not a good designer when I left there. I had sloppy habits, no idea how to brainstorm for ideas, and a poor idea of what the world expected from designers. I was a product of a work-in-progress department, and it was a thrilling experience I wouldn't trade for the world. But I didn't learn as much about design as I should have.
I got an internship for one of the largest distributors of construction and packaging supplies to the professional contractor, doing web design. The first day, they said, make us a web site. No boundaries, no restrictions. I was so far in over my head, I didn't even know how to ask for help.
I was a project; this company had me on the cheap as an intern, and hoped with some seasoning, I could become a star. When it came time for me to graduate and be a "free agent", they instead threw a ridiculous sum of money at me to keep the project they'd started to groom from leaving. Like Jim McIlvane taking that $50 million contract from the SuperSonics in the mid-nineties, I took the money.
Creighton got me in the door; my personality kept me afloat from there. It certainly wasn't my design, because I sucked.
Miraculously, they saw enough improvement to hire me full-time at the end of the internship for a position that had never before existed. I wrote my own Job Description, for chrissakes. While that freedom is great, it didn't help me become anything more than a mediocre designer.
My personality had landed me a spot on the Board of Directors of AIGA, the Nebraska chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. This allowed me to surround myself with people who I respected as designers, and I kept my mouth shut around them to try and learn as much as possible about their process, their methods, their secrets. In the three-and-a-half years since I graduated, I have taken full advantage of this free education.
Now, I notice when things are sloppily designed. I can tell when someone doesn't know what they're doing. I know what leading and kerning are now, if not how to properly use them.
By the time I turn 30, my goal is to be a decent enough designer that my colleagues won't have to wonder when I'll cease to be a "project" and become a player. Personality and a knack for joking around got me this far. If I can ever get "The light to come on", I just might be dangerous. No, check that, dangeresque.