Friday, April 11, 2008

I wish I was a graphic designer.

One of the more alluring parts of my job (and by alluring, I mean most enjoyable, quiet and creative) is designing stuff. Sure, I like the writing and also, sheepishly, the attention that can come with it. I do get e-mails from random fellow employees in the vein of "hey, nice story," or "you're a wonderful writer." That's gratifying, and it makes what can sometimes be a toil worthwhile. But there's something inherently satisfying about making things look a certain way.

I used to think that no matter what one reads, it's all about the words. But the deeper I got into my job, the more I started turning a critical eye toward other magazines. Since I write for two of them, it's logical that I've earned the right to be critical of them as a medium. By extension, I began to look at other media in a new light, silently (or volubly) critiquing their layout, the quality of the photography, the type of paper, etc. In many instances, I thought to myself, "hell, even *I* could do better than that, and I don't know what the hell I'm doing." So I started trying to figure out what I was doing. Luckily, I have two phenomenal and patient resources in the next room who usually wander in when I muse aloud about why I can't get something to work or when I ask for a critical (and trained) eye to look at my latest Frankenstein layout.

All of this has made me realize that the words are secondary. We eat with our eyes, and I don't only mean food. If something is unappealing to the eye, why pick it up to see if the words are any better? Consciously or not, this has always guided my department's mandate that everything that leaves our university goes through us first. We're getting better at working with people so that they don't feel as though we're lording over them, but it remains critically important that we maintain a certain elevated standard. Higher education is a competitive market. If your publications, your print materials and your advertising suck, so will your enrollment numbers. People choosing where to get their education are not unlike people choosing sex partners: does it look good on the outside and what does it feel like on the inside? Our job is to draw people in and then support that initial interest with a great all-around experience.

Perhaps this shift in perception has led me to think more like a designer than I ever felt capable of. I discovered that when I design stuff, I turn into a designer - I mostly ignore the copy (even if I wrote it) and concentrate on its place on the page (or card, or poster, or brochure), its adherence to "the grid" and so on. It's a transformative feeling and one that I hadn't expected. I don't know if being a writer makes me more attuned to design, or if I'm just one of those relentlessly creative types that's content to tinker with the look of everything he sees simply because I have very real obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

I mean, have you seen my desk?

1 comment:

David J. said...

If you were a graphic designer first, and a writer second, I think you'd have a hard time finding a job that pays a living wage. Most graphic designers I've met work for "For Rent" magazine or something. Most of the work is assembly-line jamming of content into a fixed format defined by an art director that you've never met.

Graphic designers also seldom get the resources they need, using computers from the late 1990's because the people in charge of the money think you're "just one of those artsy people" who doesn't care. "You want new font sets? Why can't you just use the fonts that come with Microsoft Word???"

That said, what you say about design is true. A well-written movie with poor production values is distracting. A magazine with good content but poor design looks half-assed.