Six packs and bad backs

Looking good is not the aim of design. It is a by-product. If you design something to work well, it will look good. Designing something to look good doesn’t mean it will work well.

In that respect it is much like physical fitness. You can exercise so you look good, or you can exercise so you’re healthy. If you’re healthy you will look good, but looking good doesn’t mean you’re healthy.

I once spoke with a fitness instructor who told me his gym was full of members who spend too many hours honing their washboard stomachs without paying any attention to back muscles. This is apparently unwise as the resulting imbalance around the lower torso leads to back problems. As he told me this, he displayed a level of exasperation I know well from looking out across the design world.

Why do you exercise? To be healthy, or to look good naked?

Why do you design? To make things work well, or to make them pretty?

Content Without Context

I won’t be heard lamenting the recently announced demise of Google Reader. I’ve never liked the idea of RSS feeds. I don’t use the service myself, and you might notice I don’t make any particular attempts to get people to subscribe to mine. There are two reasons why I’ve shied away from them like your gran did with direct debits.

1. A few years ago when I first learnt of their existence, RSS feeds were introduced to me as a feature that would ‘change the way I used the internet’. I was informed that it would make the internet come to me, where before I’d had to go to it. That’s where the alarm bells started ringing.

To me, the internet is a place I go. That’s why it’s amazing. It’s an infinitely huge library around which I can browse at my leisure. I can go there looking for a specific book and generally I’ll find it, or I can go there with no specific idea of what I want to read and come away with a stack of books under my arm that look interesting.

I always feared that if I turned the internet into a service I had sent to me, I’d have to make the decision up front about what bits I want to cherry pick. I can’t get the entire library in my house, so I have to choose what specific genres of book I might be interested in. I have to pick a couple of shelves to focus on, and know I’ll be sent the content from only those shelves as and when they are stocked.

I never liked that idea. If that’s the way I interact with the internet, how will I ever stumble across something I didn’t previously know I’d love? I don’t want the internet to feel like something that is built around me. I don’t want the internet to focus only on my interests. I want my interests to be expanded by the internet.

2. RSS feeds give you all the content, but they strip away the context. That context can be a valuable part of what’s on offer. For the blogger the words are of primary importance, but those words can benefit from a backdrop or environment setting the tone. When the words are sucked clean off the page and fired through a hose pipe along with all the other words everyone wrote that day, you strip away that tone. The context is gone, and the content is left to fend for itself. Marketing types have been claiming for some time now that ‘content is king’. They’re right, it is, but a king without a crown is just a bloke.

When I visit a website, I want it to feel like I’ve stepped into another little world for the duration. I’m stepping out of my world and into a place where somebody else is calling the shots. When I subscribe to a feed, I take and consume their content without having to enter their world. The resulting experience feels somehow a little emptier, a little poorer.

Content without context feels to me somehow as if it breaks the bond between reader and writer, between consumer and creator, and that bond is important if there is to be the basis of mutual respect necessary for considered creation and considered consumption.

Designing Like a Spanner

I didn’t buy my Bahco 8071 adjustable spanner. I found it languishing in a damp corner of the cellar, buried at the bottom of an old inherited toolbox where my industrial fabricator grandfather last laid it perhaps 25 years ago. It’s nothing special – new ones are about £18 – but it felt like a crime not to rescue such a nice tool. It was covered in surface rust and the mechanism was seized solid, but a strip, wire brush, oil and rebuild brought it back to perfect operational status. It’s now one of the tools I most reach for in my toolbox, performing today as perfectly as it ever did.

Occasionally though, it comes out of the toolbox just to be looked at. I feel it and adjust it and just consider it. It may initially be considered a cold and industrial item only because it takes some consideration to see beyond one’s preconceived notions of a spanner’s cold and industrial function. Yet doing so allows focus to fall purely on the aesthetic, where hide flowing compound curves like those on a Coke bottle or 1960s Jaguar sports car, intersecting perfect machined edges of a precision reminiscent of lead crystal glassware.

It is an item of exact quality. It is easily user serviceable. It is useful. It is versatile. It is comfortable to use. It is well made. It is solid and long lasting. It is affordable. It is efficient. It is empowering. It is timeless. It is elegant. It represents such perfect harmony of utility and elegance that it exemplifies the inherent beauty of pure and necessary function.

These are the qualities I believe all designs should have. Whether you’re designing a logo, a layout, a piece of software, an item of clothing, furniture, transportation, an entire city or whatever else you might care to imagine, the qualities of this Bahco 8071 adjustable spanner are those I think we all should be striving towards.

Postmodernism

Saturday sees the opening of the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1979-1990 exhibition. I won’t be making it down there as my London return ticket quota for this year has unfortunately been met, but as is the case with the internet buzz surrounding any major design or cultural exhibition, I’ll no doubt be reading a fair bit about the subject over the next few weeks.

I’m a bit contrary when it comes to blogging. I tend to avoid talking about the same stuff that everyone else is discussing in the belief that it’s unlikely I could bring anything particularly fresh to the table. It’s why my Kenneth Grange post currently sits in the drafts folder, unfinished and unpublished while I await the last few dregs of interest to die off and I can start enthusing about him safe in the knowledge that nobody is bothered anymore. But with the postmodernism thing I thought I’d get in a few days early before we’re all hashtagged into a trending stupor of opinion overload.

So here I am, up fairly early on a frosty morning, enjoying the low, bright sun, sharing knowing, friendly nods with just a few other early risers milling around taking in the calm before the masses have risen, then I’m suddenly and helplessly compelled, before I’m even finished, to tear apart my own metaphor for the timeline that is the internet trending of postmodernism by making light of the doing of it in the sentence you’re currently reading.

Because the thing I find most ridiculous about postmodernism is that I absolutely hate everything about it, whilst simultaneously accepting that I can live no other way and therefore can only allow it to define everything about me. My relationship with postmodernism is itself annoyingly postmodernist because I’m a product of it.

If the V&As take on the era is to be accepted (and who am I to argue? Did the late, great Alan Fletcher design for me a logo that became the most frequently used example of his mastery of ‘sleight of hand’? No.) I was born three years into the age of postmodernism. It is therefore, along with its spawn post-postmodernism, the only cultural movement I’ve ever really known.

Orchard Square

In my home city of Sheffield the shining beacon of postmodernism that springs instantly to mind is Orchard Square. Even as a young kid I found the place eerily odd without ever really knowing why. I now realise it’s because it belongs to no one time or place. It’s detached from reality, dishonest. I can remember it being new, and it looked as wrong then as it does now. Even the way it references the old cutlery works on which it was built seems ironic and sneering with its eye-stingingly twee and inexplicably absurd animatronic buffer girl cuckoo clock swivelling into view every fifteen minutes.

Clock Tower, Orchard Square

Previously, Sheffield had been famous for embracing modernism in a big way. For years our built environment was dominated - whether you were looking up at the huge concrete monoliths of Kelvin and Park Hill or down into the subterranean world of the Hole in the Road - by brutal, logic driven, unsympathetically modernist architecture. Stuff that was mostly being pulled down (or filled in) during my childhood.

With our fingers burnt and our confidence knocked, and with the city’s outlook turning from industry to commerce it seems we limp wristedly flopped ourselves into postmodernism. Perhaps we did so in the hope that its noncommittal vapidity might at least water down any negative effects in equal proportion to any positive ones.

But it’s not just the architecture of the time that illustrates the legacy of postmodernism. In music Nirvana came along and overnight hair metal was killed stone dead. No longer could you just get dressed up like a peacock and enjoy yourself. The rock idol no longer died of drug overdoses or generally having too good a time. Now he had to put a shotgun to his own head in a sea of misery and mental torment.

The comedy I grew up with and still most adore was pedalled by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Ironically scheduled in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, it was knowing, self referential and self loathing. It tied itself in endless knots of complicated in jokes, with threads running long enough that they would transform beyond all recognition. “Or Queen.”

I’m a product of this era. The era that never knew what to do with itself, that never knew quite what it wanted, where it was going or how it could help itself. It was sure of nothing except its own existence. How could we possibly move forward from that? How do you leap from a surface that has no substance?

Well I’ve never known a time or situation where it was acceptable to just ‘be’, to simply indulge something without having an ironic sense of ones self doing it. I’ve lived my life with an extra pair of eyes watching its events unfold in the third person, because not doing that would seem somehow naive and foolish.

Conversation amongst mates can’t (and nor would I want it any other way) be conducted without more references to other things, including ourselves, than the thing we’re trying to discuss. We all seem to live our lives with the knowledge that we are lost, ridiculous and pointless, that we’ve never really belonged. There’s never been any culture that we can really call our own. We’re postcultural.

Or perhaps, conversely but just as tragically, we belong to every culture – perhaps we’re hypercultural. We buy modern rehashes of old products to try and capture the spirit of a bygone time, but we do it knowingly. We know purchases can’t make us happy, but we buy anyway. We know our systems don’t work, but we prop them up regardless. Anything we do find for ourselves, we immediately package up and sell on because we know of no alternative. As Irvine Welsh was quoted in King Adz’ excellent book ‘Street Knowledge’:

“It’s quite sad that street culture has become so global with the net that it doesn’t get the same chance to stay in the underground before it’s relentlessly sold back to kids”

It’s true, we’re all fully aware this happens, and we hate it. But we still go along with it. The world briefly found something valid in the work of Banksy, so he was turned into a commodity and now we all hate him. Next thing please.

We’re all so well aware of the realities of things, so defined are we by our own irony that sometimes it would just be nice to switch off and calm down. But as a product of postmodernism you can’t because there’s nowhere to calm down to.

As a designer you certainly can’t. We designers have to be aware of everything that has gone before, we have to know our cultural references, we have to be aware of ourselves as we work. We have to be able to tear ourselves and our output apart, reduce it to nothing and always look with fresh eyes and be critical of the world and our place in it. It’s our job to accept nothing at face value. Otherwise we’re no good to anyone.

It sounds like I hate this post-postmodern world, this post/hypercultural world, but if you take a look at my flickr stream or scan back through this blog you’ll see how much of my personal output fully and quite merrily indulges it. From customer ejecting kebab shops to pot washing computer games to hip hop infographics. Even my previous post on a running passion project of mine is littered with self amused shame. I can’t stop, even when I’m being completely positive.

As I’ve said on these pages before, I’d love to have been working in a time where culture wasn’t trapped in a cycle of self loathing. I’d love to be designing in the age of hope and ambition, with the belief that a better world can and will be built. The great pioneers, the old masters of our profession might have been ploughing a fresh furrow into the unknown, but part of me wonders if that’s perhaps quite a bit easier than trying to push forward a world that believes it has nowhere left to go.

We’re stuck in an era of remakes, reboots, rehashes, reimaginings, reworkings. Let’s clad that tower block, let’s update that classic car, let’s cover that song, let’s open a vintage store. Let’s wear daft sunglasses and deck shoes with tight white jeans in an attempt to be unfashionable enough that we go back round into being fashionable. Yes, I know over a half decade has passed since Nathan Barley but what’s happened since? Nothing, yeah?

This post has already shown me to be a fan of the preposterous metaphor so I’m going to use one to describe how popular culture in 2011 appears to me. It’s as if time is a torrent of water flooding down the side of a road in a heavy storm, and culture is a ping-pong ball that has been caught in the flood and carried downstream. Of course a ping-pong ball is too big to fit through the slots of the drain through which the water is all eventually flowing, so it can only helplessly and endlessly bob around, unable to follow that which has so far carried it.

But perhaps that metaphor can tell us something else. Perhaps the fact that we control culture is why we subconsciously hold it back. Do we put the grate there because we fear what’s down the drain? I don’t know.

Either way, it goes some way to explaining what I think has been the legacy of postmodernism. Or perhaps I’ve just suggested a ridiculous concept that has no validity whatsoever, and perhaps I only said it to lampoon myself and therefore you, the reader. Of course actually saying which of the two it is would undermine my point, so I’ll leave it hanging and hide behind the fact that I’m actually letting you draw your own conclusion that is or isn’t related to what you’ve just read.

I’m like that first picture of Orchard Square above. I know I’m crap and noncommittal, and in order to try and disguise it I’ve added a few supposedly modern frosted glass panels on extruded aluminium frames, even though I know they’re just as crap as the rest of it and it makes no difference. I’m fooling nobody. But nobody cares, so it’s fine.

Help me.

Don’t.

Design Research Unit

Before I start this post I must point out that I’m not going to pander to acronym fans by opening with the perfectly accurate sentence “I took a DMU from SHF to LIV to see the DRU exhibition at LJMU”, just as I’m not going to pander to fans of self amused, post-ironic literary knot tying, beyond having done just the both.

It was with mixed emotions that I left the Design Research Unit (DRU) exhibition at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) this week. There’s nothing I can say about the history of the now effectively defunct DRU that hasn’t already been said online by more knowledgeable and articulate people than I, so if you’re interested in reading further may I refer you to Google’s handy and increasingly popular search facility.

The thing that struck me most about the body of work on show was the sense of excitement wrapped up in the time. With my nose pressed unselfconsciously against the perspex display cases I peered at the print, the photos and artifacts laid out before me, and I felt excited. I imagined what it must have been like for those post war design pioneers shaking off the shackles of the past and forging a new path to which a brighter future would conform. It was a national spring clean, a cathartic experience on a huge scale. The shape of the nation was ripe for streamlining, with design guiding the way, playing a fundamental role in a time of social mobility, economic and social growth. How I’d love to be plying my trade in such a time.

But I’m not. And that’s why the exhibition also made me feel disappointed. I look around at the world I live in and feel a sense of frustration that we’re in the same mess again. The spring clean wasn’t successful, our cupboards are still full of irrelevant crap. There are a good few bin bags full of stuff still to turf out, a few more car trips to the tip are needed, but it doesn’t happen. Because we remain a nation immovably untrusting of the modern, terrified to move beyond our comfort zone.

It’s as if we’ve decided things weren’t entirely terrible the way they were, so let’s leave it there. Yet the very past so frequently the target of our rose tinted reminiscing was one shaped by feudal regime, horribly unjust and thankfully completely irrelevant in 2011. Our architecture was shaped by the requirements of a family unit and class system that no longer exists, of heating and domestic requirements long since dismissed as vintage and laughably outdated. Why then do modern houses echo architectural styles founded centuries ago?  Why do our cars still have walnut dashboards? Why does innovation get so frequently quashed? Why are our ideas of luxury so Victorian? Why are we so obsessed with period dramas?

We appear not to realise that we hark back to a time when the majority of us would most likely be penniless, malnourished peasants with no hope of escape. How can we have such romantic views of ‘glory days’ we watch through a forty inch plasma? As industrial designer Karim Rashid points out in Gary Hustwit’s wonderful documentary film Objectified; we live in a technical revolution, yet we still sit on wood spindled chairs. What are we doing? The biggest move forward I can think of in recent years that has actually enjoyed universal acclaim is little more than a set of industrial air knives shoehorned into a grey and yellow box by James Dyson. Drying our hands in ten seconds certainly captures the imagination where building a more appropriate world doesn’t.

As it happened, through the window of the gallery I could see across the road a row of fairly modern houses, a product I’d guess of the late 90s. They were modern in age, yet in style they were anything but. With their little pitched roofs, wood panelled doors and mock Georgian sash windows, their little grass gardens skirted by iron railings, each post topped by an ineffectual but ornate spike, they just scream of a population scared to look forward.

We should have shook such nonsense off years ago. The ridiculous aristocratic rule of old has thankfully been (mostly) crushed and we’re free to shape our surrounding as it suits us. Come on people, stop focussing on the past, let’s look forward. Okay, Le Corbusier’s cities in the sky might well have failed, but don’t fear modernism itself, it can’t shoulder all the blame. Let’s see what we can do now, moving forward. Let’s not just run away with our fingers burned – nothing good comes without a little work.

I’ve moaned about this before, I know. But I’m a designer, and a designer is defined by his or her endless desire to improve the surroundings in which they find themselves. From the printed page to the built environment, from a turn of phrase to the systems in place, if there’s scope for improvement it’s where the designer’s mind lives. We’re the people who instinctively ask why things are the way they are. Blindly accepting the status quo isn’t in the nature, nor the remit of a designer.

So as I look at the work of the DRU I’m filled with excitement that they existed to build a better, more relevant and dynamic country. And saddened that, as I look around decades later it’s clear it didn’t much work. I look at my fellow Brits while they endlessly reminisce, and I can only reminisce about a time when people reminisced less.

Despite the amount of work on display, the thing I found most compelling was a photo of the DRU’s premises on Aybrook Street in Paddington, a typical four story London office block, to which in 1972 they added a rooftop extension. Due to the fading of the photos I couldn’t tell if it was orange or yellow, but it was a wonderfully modern steel or aluminium construction featuring long horizontal windows with radiused corners. Inside was one huge open plan studio space, well lit and airy. Ignoring the conservative style of the building on which it sat, the extension took the form (and probably borrowed the technology) of a somewhat squat aircraft fuselage.

It was architecture serving as a wonderful statement for an organisation involved in taking the design world forward, upward. Building and improving upon the existing infrastructure with a clean and fresh approach chosen to serve the contemporary needs of contemporary people. It illustrated for me, above every other exhibit on display, the defining essence of the DRU.

When I got home I immediately clicked online and located the premises on Google Street View to get a look at the rooftop extension as it appears today, to see how this 1970s vision of modernity looks in the cold, cynical light of 2011.

It’s gone. In its place sits a new fifth floor extension. New. One with a pitched, tiled roof and little dormer windows. It doesn’t look like an extension at all. It looks like it has been in place as long as the building itself.

Many thanks to Paul Robert Lloyd for making his photos from the exhibition available under a creative commons licence.

Opinions on opinions

The above image is a screenshot of the waste bin on my old work machine. One of the final tasks during the notice period of my previous job as a computer game UI artist was to empty the hard drive of all the old and unnecessary stuff filling it. It was to help the IT guys clean up my machine ready for the arrival of my replacement.

Each file visible in that folder is a preview of a jpeg submission created by us, the six strong 2D art team, to be sent up the ladder to our game designers, producers, directors and beyond to the publishers from around the world who had ultimately commissioned the game. Though they might look alike, in fact no two are identical. Each one represents a tweak to the design, a little extra development, a tiny refinement that was submitted to our seniors for approval.

I remember that project well. The title dates from about three or four years ago, and the visuals you’re looking at are of the top level of the game’s main menu; the first thing the end user sees when they insert the disc and the game loads. It is just one of the many, many layers of menu in the game’s rather huge and complicated front end.

Just look at the amount of iterations that one screen went through. Each and every version has some minor change suggested by someone who’s opinion was sought, each development satisfying the request of somebody paid to make decisions.

And yet placed in the grid of my wastebin above, it’s hard to pick out any differences between the whole lot. That’s the amazing thing. After endless tweaking across hundreds of versions of the same design, we’d eventually manage to silence every level of criticism, yet the product we’d have would be almost identical to the one we had first offered months before.

I spent quite a lot of time, while we tweaked the vectors of curves, altered type by a few point sizes or nudged RGB colour sliders around imperceptibly, wondering how many iterations would have been necessary if the wages of the creatives paid to design everything were high enough to grant them the authority to also make decisions.

Because the more you earn, the more valid your opinion. That’s how it works, right?

____________________

Recently I was doing a bit of pro bono editorial design for a local organisation. The initial design concepts had been approved with ease as the look and feel, the typefaces and colour choices were predetermined by the organisation’s existing corporate style. Everything was fine, the job done, the final print proposals submitted. Then came the request:

“It’s great, I really like it, but just one small thing…”
What’s that?

“Can we have it pink”
You want it pink?

“Yeah, I’d like it pink”
Well, erm, it won’t match the grey of your corporate style.

“I don’t mind, I just want it pink. Can you do that?”
Well yeah, that’s no problem, it’s a five second job. But why pink?

“It’s my favourite colour.”
Oh. Okay. Just to be sure then, you’re definitely not bothered about it being grey like everything else?

“Yeah, pink’s fine, can you do that?”
I certainly can.

I opened the doc, changed the approved Pantone colour in the swatch pallette to 100% Magenta, the pinkest my sensibilities could allow, and sent it back. Appeased, the client signed it off and to the printer it was sent.

Years of design training, professional experience and any level of design flair will never be a match for someone’s opinion. It’s one of the hardest facts the professional creative must come to terms with. For all but the most influential and authoritative designer the customer is always right, even when they’re so very wrong. Learning how not to be crushed by that thought is a difficult process. Knowing which battles to fight and which to concede, knowing when to stand up for good design practice and when to roll over and do as you’re told against all your better judgement is even harder.

When deciding, it’s always worth considering that the line between professional and personal is a blurry one. Those very personal opinions of your clients must be handled very professionally if you want repeat business. However irrelevant and capricious they might be.

____________________

In my wardrobe there is a rack of T-shirts that form the bulk of my weekly dress. I bought them all on the same day, from the same shelf in the same shop last year. They’re therefore all the exact same cut, fit, material and age, and differ in only one way – colour. Even then, they’re all fairly similar dark hues. I promise I’m more adventurous in other aspects of my life; with a similarly unvaried diet I’d probably have rickets. But when it comes to clothes, I see little beyond the practical aspects. They keep us warm, decent, and give us pockets in which to carry our stuff.

So all my T shirts are 90% identical to one another, and that’s the way I like it. It means I can get up in the morning, throw one on and not worry about colour clashes and fashion faux pas of the kinds I don’t understand. Which is great, because time stood at the wardrobe in a morning is time not spent eating breakfast, an activity clearly of more importance. Unadventurous clothing might make you look a bit plain, but unadventurous eating might give you bowed legs, and I know which affliction I’d rather dedicate my mornings to combatting.

However, there is one T-shirt in my collection that I hate. In the artificial light hanging from the bedroom ceiling I can often pull it over my head without realising what I’m doing. Only when I walk out into daylight am I faced with the crushing realisation that I’m wearing the brown one. Ugh, I hate the brown one. Brown has never been my colour – wearing it makes me feel like a social outcast. It’s fine on other people, and as a colour itself I’m fine with it. UPS has one of my favourite corporate identities (well, it used to) and that’s famously brown. But on me? Absolutely not. Horrendous.

I’m wearing the brown one today, and it makes me thankful for the fact that I’ve nothing planned for the day. It means nobody will see just what an unspeakable, disgusting mess I look in this, my most repugnant of plain coloured T-shirts. I didn’t choose to wear to it of course – it just did its usual trick of looking like the dark grey one when I grabbed it from the hanger.

Yes, you’re reading that right. I despise a garment that I most often can’t differentiate from the ones I like. While wearing it I feel ridiculous, out of character and plain wrong while to everyone else I appear exactly the same as I always do. There’s no logic to it. I just don’t like wearing brown.

Isn’t opinion a funny thing.

Professionalism

This one really isn’t much about design. It’s about work in general, but as I’ve only ever had design jobs I suppose it is about design a bit. But not really. I like to think of it more as an ill conceived rant.

Last night a friend and I ate at an Italian restaurant. It was early on in the evening and we were the first customers through the door, so we sat in the deserted room scanning the underwhelming menu until the waitress came over to take our drinks order. I asked what bottled lagers were available. There were two, she informed us in a thick Sheffield accent; “Peroni and Ass… Azzu-somat, I dunno how to pronounce it”. We laughed at her open and blatant unprofessionalism and she replied “Well! What’s wrong with Carlsberg?”, rolling her eyes at the ridiculous concept of pronouncing the Italian name of one of the two Italian beers they offered in the Italian restaurant employing her as a waitress of Italian beer and food.

I asked for the one she could pronounce, my friend the one she couldn’t, and she disappeared off to the bar to fetch them. We laughed again and remarked on her unprofessionalism, but neither of us were offended by it. In fact it was rather refreshing, down to earth. I’m sure had we been a table full of wealthy, well-to-do middle aged diners her attitude might have been a little different but here she had two local lads in goretex coats and jeans sat in an otherwise empty establishment and decided she could drop the facade.

And fair enough. I’ve always wondered why Italian restaurants tend to have a slightly more serious and grown-up attitude to dining than your average Chinese or Indian equivalent. I’ve no idea why; the bills are generally no larger and you’re only eating pasta or pizza, but for some reason visits to Italians always feel a little more ‘premium’. Maybe it’s the way the menus read. ‘Tagliatelle Portofino’ just sounds more elegant than ‘Sweet and Sour Pork with Special Fried Rice’ or ‘Balti Palak Aloo & Mushrooms’. Or perhaps the image of Italian cuisine has yet to be cheapened by a thousand nasty neon-lit local takeaways. Whatever the reason, there’s always a slightly snooty attitude hovering around in Italian restaurants that can make me feel a bit of a scrubber as I dig into my ‘bowl of pasta with tomatoey, garlicy sauce on’.

Thankfully our waitress last night was one of us. She wasn’t pretending to be anything else, she was just a local girl working a normal job in an unremarkable local Italian. How refreshing. Yet it made me feel slightly uneasy. I had no problems with it personally, but I wondered if her manager knew how she went about her job. I wondered if she was worried about her informal work ethic being overheard by the head chef, and I didn’t want her to get into trouble. Her demeanour made me cringe slightly, not because I personally found it offensive, rather I worried that she should assume I would.

That’s professionalism. She lacked it, she should have it, and that’s that. She didn’t need to be professional, there was no requirement for it. We didn’t mind. Like I said, we both found it refreshing, and yet I was still left thinking “blimey, she was a bit unprofessional”. How utterly ridiculous.

Professionalism remains a bit of a mystery to me. It’s an unwritten code we all have to somehow learn and maintain throughout our working lives. Nobody teaches it, it’s never on any curriculum so new recruits can’t ever be prepared for the politics, knowing what to say, what not to say; the whole host of rules we need to adhere to if we are to progress through our careers the way we wish. Yet when we really examine it, it’s really a rather big load of utter bollocks.

I’m one of those annoying self righteous types who speaks his mind. I say things as they are and like to be quite down to earth. I firmly believe that for about 95 percent of situations we all find ourselves in, brutal and unflinching honesty is the best course of action in the long run. We can all tiptoe around difficult or awkward situations, bury our heads in the sand and hope they all go away without too much of a fuss, or we can stop being a bunch of poofs and verbally smash it into the ground, tear it apart, sort it out right now and resume normality as soon as possible.

I’ve been in many a ‘creative’ meeting where discussions about the actual task in hand get utterly ignored in favour of an completely anodyne and therefore ineffectual ‘project action plan’, ‘five point attack protocol’ or ‘pre-production process postmortem examination’. Throughout these multiplayer games of verbal bullshit table tennis I generally find myself sitting absolutely uninterested, numb. The reason for this is purely that I’m unable to get involved, because the only way I would be able to contribute is to announce that “this is all utter bollocks, we’ll have left this meeting room having achieved nothing except a few wasted hours of our employment”. Basically, I’d tell the truth.

But nobody wants to hear it. The middle manager who spent 3 weeks putting the powerpoint together will get offended by the very thought. The manager who allowed him to spend 3 weeks on a powerpoint will be annoyed that you’re questioning the validity of the decision. The manager above them will be put out by the suggestion that his department could possibly waste so much time, and your immediate line manager will be annoyed that a member of his team could be so insolent to the very people he’s hoping to be promoted by.

I’ve done it more than a few times, pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation groups of grown and decently paid professionals can get themselves into. It achieves only one thing – a firm guarantee that you’ll be getting no pay rise come review time. So now I sit there quietly and accept the party line. If it means I redesign 6 week’s worth of work when I know we’ll just be scrapping it and going back to the original before the deadline comes, so be it. If it’s going to cost the company thousands and thousands, destroy staff moral and generally be a mistake that pisses everyone off in the long run, so be it. So long as right now, nobody gets offended or has their nose put out of joint, everything will remain both hunky and dory. So smile nicely, sit quietly, tow the line and all will be well. Try to make a change, to actually improve things? That’ll get you nowhere, me’laddo.

Real overall progress will always take a backseat to individual progress in a world where personal greed, high status and selfishness is encouraged. When I look at it like that, it’s hard not to think that the constant and unnecessary facade of professionalism is a bit of a disease suffered by many of our industries (and indeed all of our government).

I know, there are of course many exceptions. Bedside manner by those in the health professions is of utmost importance. Airline pilots shouldn’t really be the practical joking sort. Bra fitters should probably resist mentioning words like ‘saggy‘ or ‘pendulous‘, and the woman behind the counter of a backstreet adult video shop should probably remain emotionless while dealing with a customer’s copy of ‘Hairy Hermaphrodite Lute Humpers Monthly’. But does the waitress at an Italian restaurant really need to maintain an air of dignity and grace? Does she really need to learn the pronunciations of all the Italian beers? Should any customer really care? They’re only going out to eat boiled pasta or dough with cheese on top, when all said and done. Why the facade?

It’s in our offices though that I must assume it’s at its worst. Professionalism and the ability of one to perform their job are so often unrelated, yet the former more frequently dictates one’s success. The most tragic irony is that so called professionalism so often actually serves only to tiptoe around people’s feelings, egos and most annoyingly, rank and status. Professional it very much isn’t. Personal it very much is. And it has become nothing more than a game played by the weak seeking to be strong.

If you want to get anywhere you’d better learn the rules as you go and join in as quickly as possible. It’ll make you a vapid, soulless yes-man, but that career ladder won’t climb itself, and god damn those new Porsches are nice aren’t they.

Celebrity Designers

Back in my student days I once got talking to a girl in a pub who worked for a prestigious car dealership specialising in expensive Italian exotica. Her immaculate manicure suggested little time spent under bonnets, and she was too genuine to be a saleswoman, so I assumed she had some sort of admin or reception role. Being both a car anorak and useless at talking to women, I asked what sort of stuff they had in stock but she replied with a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. My useless bank of chat up lines now exhausted I readied myself for a rapid dismissal, but it didn’t happen. Instead she moved forward in her seat, leant over the table and conspiratorially beckoned me towards her, scanning her surroundings while reaching into her handbag. My mind started racing. Had my knowledge of performance cars finally impressed a female? Is she going to give me her number? Or am I about to be jabbed with a sedative and stuffed in the back of a van for interrogation by the KGB? She looked me in the eye and instructed me that I wasn’t to ever share what she was about to show me, before producing a small strip of paper from her handbag. “Check this out”, she said.

It was a compliment slip. A badly designed compliment slip. The logo looked like it was for a spa resort in Hampshire. Wherever it was, it was called ‘The Beckhams’. I looked back up at her expectant, excited face, clearly ignorant to the significance of the slip. “The Beckhams!”, she reinforced, impatiently and insistently shaking the slip in front of me to drill the point home. I was none the wiser. “As in David and Victoria!”. The penny dropped. Oh, I see. I asked why she had it. “They bought a car from us, and this is their compliment slip! How cool is that?!”

While my design student mind had immediately focussed on the bad typography and awkward composition of the two colour plus foil block on one-third A4 in heavy, off-white stock, I’d overlooked the real magnificence of the item. It was something from The Beckhams. The Beckhams! As in David and Victoria, the footballist and the Spice Girl! Oh em eff gee! She slipped it back in her bag and I remained baffled at its inclusion in proceedings until conversation waned and she disappeared into the night to find more interesting people to talk to; fashionable people I imagine more easily impressed by stationery items from couplings of stars sport and pop.

For the first time the reality of celebrity obsession had hit me. I knew newspapers and magazines were always rabbiting on about celebrity weddings and the lives of the rich and famous, and I’d seen the endless photos of minor royals and soap stars falling out of taxis in front of nightclubs. I’d just assumed it was irrelevant to most people, mere editorial white noise the media used to fill empty column space and airtime. After all, nobody I knew seemed to care in the slightest about any of it. Here though, for the first time in my life, I had been sat at a table with a real person who actually and very openly cared about celebrities. I was genuinely shocked by the excitement that small piece of office stationery appeared to induce in her – the thought stayed with me all night, and remained with me long enough for me to break my promise of secrecy and write about it almost a decade later.

Nowadays of course I’m well aware of celebrity obsession, as we all are. I’m still occasionally shocked when I realise seemingly sensible and respectable people read Heat Magazine, but I shouldn’t be. It’s part of British culture. So many of us aspire to live in big houses and be rich and famous for doing very little, and reading about them allows us to fantasise. It takes us into their world. It’s about aspiration. It’s utterly pathetic but worryingly, as time goes on I’m beginning to understand it myself.

As a graphic designer, I follow what’s going on in the industry. I check the design blogs and feeds, read what’s happening out there, what’s new. I read updates on the careers of successful designers and agencies, about the talented and admired pushing forward the boundaries of creativity. I take an interest from a professional point of view, but also from a personal one. I read the Johnson Banks blog, for instance, because I’m interested in the work they’re doing, but also because I aspire to be a part of it. I want to be in their world.

Do you know how it makes me feel? Well, it inspires me, but often it makes me jealous. It tugs on my aspiration strings. I imagine myself doing that sort of work, being in that world, the world I’ve wanted to join since I filled in my college application form. I look at the work of the creative elite and follow the output of gifted newcomers, all the time wishing I was there alongside them, wishing I was one of those being read about, being given awards and recording interviews for the magazines. Because I’m not in that world, because I’m just an everyday chap doing average work in a humdrum provincial town, it makes me feel inadequate. Jealous. I read what happens at the sharp edge to feel like I’m in the loop, to feel like I’m a part of the proper design world before I return to whatever normal, unremarkable job currently pays the bills.

For us designers it’s not Cheryl Tweedy we care about but Michael Johnson and his peers. The design elite are our celebrities, our heroes, our idols. While the rest of the population obsess over the holiday snaps and love affairs of pop stars, we obsess over the portfolios and career arcs of top designers, longing to live the lives they do. Longing for that same respect, that same positive feedback on our existence, the affirmation that we’re a valid part of the creative world. We look at them and we think they have it all, they are how we aspire to be. As the make-up caked teenage girl on the street dreams of being a footballers wife, we dream of running our own internationally renowned studio, its shelves bowing under the weight of yellow pencils and prestigious client lists.

On face value it sounds like a daft comparison to make. It’s a theory that I’ve had for a while and to be honest I just assumed it said more about my own professional insecurities than it does anything else. Only recently I’ve noticed something which has started to back it up.

Whenever a design website features a write-up on some new and interesting project, a review of a new design retrospective, key note speech or anything of any creative value, the reader comments sections that follow always seem to consist of aggressive and angry fault-finding. Comment after comment tears strips off the subject, the people involved are slammed and the work dismissed in all manner of harsh ways. The comments always seem to be dominated by negative feelings, by an audience seemingly baying for blood. As it happens, Johnson Banks don’t have the facility for reader commenting and there’s really no wonder. It’s as if the everyday graphic designer is hunting for a slight chink in the armour of those at the top of the tree so they can exploit it and bring them down, even if only for a moment. If only to provide a brief moment of superiority for an audience who otherwise feel helplessly inferior.

It all seems very similar to those readers of Heat magazine and other such tabloid trash; those who take great pleasure in pouring scorn over a multi-millionaire celebrity whose flabby inner thigh has been caught in the paparazzi’s telephoto. It’s jealousy.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

For the current crop of graphic design students preparing to enter the industry, there has never been a harder time to graduate. It was the same when I graduated almost a decade ago, and no doubt it will still be the same in another ten years.

Yesterday I found myself mildly irritated by this website, featuring a downloadable iPhone app allowing visitors to rate the cliches so often trotted out at design degree shows.

Well isn’t that just lovely.

Hey kids, you’re just about to enter the big wide world of graphic design, the one you’ve decided to dedicate your life to, and you’re currently in the process of displaying the very best you’ve had to offer over the last three years. Let us point out how crap it all is. What fun!

That’s right, fellow designers. From the safety of our nice jobs in the industry, let us pour scorn on the poor saps trying to grab the bottom rung of the ladder we’re constantly and relentlessly pulling up. After all, there’s nothing more confidence-destroying than having your very best efforts laughed at by those you’re trying to impress before you even get a word in. Ha ha, he he.

Come on people. I know anybody working in the creative industries is going to have to get used to soul destroying dismissals every day of their working life, but surely this is too much, too soon? What’s more, none of it is any different to your show – your student work was just the same. It’s the way of the world, an annually recurring event and the very thing you’re pointing out.

Thinking back to my time as a student, I remember always being just outside my comfort zone. I was so desperate not to just do the same work as everyone else, so desperate to hold my head above the rest that I constantly pushed myself beyond my abilities. For four years I punched above my weight and the results were, well, most often fairly abysmal.

It was hard. And that was a decade ago, when the internet wasn’t so much a daily part of our lives. Nowadays students aren’t just comparing themselves to their fellow course mates, but the rest of the world. Everything they see on the design blogs, Creative Review feeds, Flickr and the chat forums are full of creative output. Everybody is at it, all the time comparing and sharing, and to stick your head above that is nigh on impossible. No matter how good you are there will always be another better than you, and that’s a rule you can apply to every single person in the world apart from one.

Design education is supposed to be time you spend studying, experimenting and developing your talent. The time when you merrily trot your way through the same cliches everyone does, visiting those places everyone has to visit before being able to move on. You study the great masters, the contemporary heroes, the cutting edge developments, developing trends, and you experiment for yourself, you find your style, what you like and what works for you.

Graphic design is, like any creative industry, a total nightmare because an idea is only of any value the first time it’s seen. After that point it becomes instantly hackneyed. As a fresh faced graduate you’re at the bottom of the pile, right in the middle of a creative minefield. There are many decades worth of ideas out there that you must avoid copying. New is good, new new new. That’s what we want. More more more, new new new. Now please. No, I’ve already seen that in Word magazine 15 years ago when you were a toddler. Get out of my sight, you’re blocking my potential view of something new.

When I look at the work of the old masters (those designers about whom there are large and expensive coffee table books) I often find myself surprised by how naive it can seem viewed through modern cynical eyes. Famous pieces of work taking pride of place on a gallery wall for us to gush over – once so cutting edge and groundbreaking – would now be unacceptable. If you pulled something like that out of the bag today you’d get dismissed, because it’s old, it’s been done. Doesn’t matter if it’s great, it only works first time around.

Us creatives aren’t happy to settle for anything. We want our minds blown every single day by fresh and exciting new ideas, to live in a world full of that which has not gone before. But it’s an impossible wish. For every person at the cutting edge there must be a huge wake consisting of everyone else playing catch up. That person up at the sharp end, the one with the yellow pencils and job offers galore might set the trend, but you’re not allowed to do anything similar as that’s just derivative and hackneyed. Move on granddad, we only want new. If you’re not at your own sharp end, you’re nothing. Thats the world the modern design student comes into.

Alan Fletcher designed the above Pirelli advert in 1961. It’s great, but it’s the sort of idea that the student me would have sketched briefly and then dismissed as not enough, too basic, already done. It’s wonderful, ground breaking, hugely skillful (no object > envelope distort clickery in the 60s…) and I love it, but it just won’t fly today. That’s the difference. Fletcher got to experiment in public for years. He moved the game on, invented so much that we take for granted today and deserves every ounce of respect he gained, but though you’ll not hear anything other than awe come from my direction, I have to point out that we’re not allowed to do the same. We don’t get that same chance. Because it’s been done as early as 50 years ago and the cynical audience of today knows that. Fletcher, and others of his generation and stature were so often on the frontier, so of course every idea they had was new and exciting. They were big fish in a small pond.

Nowadays that pond has grown into an ocean, and it’s regularly topped up with ever more fish. We all operate in a post-post-post-post-modern world, and in order to make a name for yourself you’ve got to just be ace from day one. Hitting the ground running isn’t really enough – sprinting past Usain Bolt might get noticed, but only if people appreciate your gait. You have to have taken into consideration the life’s work of every great master, industry elder and post-modern hipster to have gone before, and accept that your starting point is where they finished. And unlike in other industries where you can build on what has gone before, we designers aren’t really at much of a liberty do so, or at least admit that we do so. Building on somebody else’s idea is, well, sort of copying. It’s certainly not new. The only way that’s achievable is to start with a totally clean sheet and hope you don’t tread on somebody’s toes along the way. But there’s a lot of toes to tread on, and if you trip up and fail to provide new or fresh, you can quickly find your work considered worthless, and we’ll make apps so we can have fun quantifying that worthlessness with our iPhones.

We all have to go through it. Every professional designer has been there. But the curve of diminishing returns is flatter now than it was when we came in. It’s harder now and it will be every year, so try to be a bit more understanding. The point made by the cliche-spotting app isn’t wrong, I agree with the sentiment. It’s all true, well observed and actually quite funny. But I’m far from comfortable with the delivery.

There were, after all, no such thing as iPhone apps for sneering, self-satisfied know-it-alls to take the piss out of your show. It might seem like harmless fun but back at my graduation show, I can guarantee seeing that app would have secretly brought me close to tears. Certainly it would have made it very hard for me to stand proudly in front of my work, to maintain a slight bit of self esteem and sense of dignity while entering the battle to get a foot in the miniscule crack in the barely open door of the industry, armed only with a student portfolio.

I wonder how you’d have felt.

Asbestos Sandwich, Anyone?

This advertisement, taken from a 1951 issue of the New Yorker, recently featured among others on the rather wonderful Lestaret blog.

I’m a sucker for old adverts – I can’t get enough of them. Whatever the product, I always find myself falling for the undeniable charm stemming from their naive simplicity. When you compare such designs with the modern output of the contemporary advertising industry – an industry so desperately seeking new ways to grab the attention of the increasingly cynical monster of an audience it’s created that it’s been tying itself in knots of tangled post-modernism and irony for about a decade – the simple, straightforward delivery of old is refreshing.

Today, with a saturated market comprising multiple versions of identical none-essential products and consumers inundated with potential reasons to buy them all, and where brand executives and advertising agencies have to resort to imaginary pseudo-science and other such nonsense to desperately appeal to the lifestyle aspirations of our wallets, the clarity of vintage advertising stands out. There’s a certain modest confidence in the conviction, the delivery is straightforward. No L. casei Immunitas, no Pro Retinol A (or even Neo Contact and Stetsoned cowboys), just a straightforward message, clearly made.

At this point though, I suppose the obvious needs stating. The ‘My baby loves daddy’s smoking, yours will too’ bit needs mentioning doesn’t it. Have you ever seen an advert so screaming in its ignorance? We all know it’s wrong and terrible and disgraceful and all of that, it goes without saying. But can we really get angry about it? It’s a travesty no doubt, you’re darn tootin’ it’s a travesty. But who knew? Back then who knew just what damage tobacco was doing to the populace? Who knew that in a few short years their advertising campaign would cause shock and disgust among the same audience it once appealed to? Short of consulting the agency’s crystal ball, how would the ad men have known what lay ahead?  How would they be aware of the key part they were playing in such an evil scheme? From a modern perspective it’s almost beyond belief that we could get it so wrong, but it’s easy to say that now. Everything is easy with hindsight.

I’m not annoyed at the advert. Annoyed at the stupidity of mankind of course, as goes without saying. But I’m scared. I’m scared because it provides an example of how we can get something so obviously and laughably wrong, and how we could so easily do it again.

Do we really know the long term effects of so many of the things we consume in 2010? Of course we don’t. Existing with mobile phones welded to our ears, laptops on our knees, bathing ourselves in near permanent wifi, breathing air filled with the fumes of a million cars, eating microwaved meals filled with additives or vegetables dripping with pesticides, we have no idea where it will lead us.

Yet again, hindsight will provide us with the first signs of irreparable damage. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. I don’t see Marlboro’s smoke baby as an example of a lesson that needs to be learnt, but as an example of a lesson we’re currently ignoring. It’s ironic that in such a risk-averse society, the potential for chronic damage will always be overlooked if there’s a few (billion) quid to be made from it. We will only ever choose to learn from our mistakes when we’re forced to, and up until that point we’ll cash in, thank you very much. It might kill us, but right now we can’t prove it either way so let’s sell it to everybody, everywhere. Stop focussing on the tumours and think of all the sweet, sweet beautiful money.

That Marlboro advert is almost 60 years old, but no doubt the advertising execs and designers responsible will have been around for the later revelations relating to smoke and its resulting devastation. Heck, some of them could still be around now. I wonder how it feels to look back and know you played a key part in such a terrible global mistake?

It’s unlikely I’ll ever get to ask them, but I’ve no need to think about it too hard. No doubt my fellow designers and I will find out for ourselves in the future.

Switched Off

Graphic designers need to be switched on. They have to be inquisitive, with sponge-like brains soaking up the ever changing culture surrounding us. Their sights have to be set wide, so they’re available for and capable of tackling a creative brief on any subject you could care to pluck from thin air. A job about fashion could follow a job about antiques which could lead onto a job about music which is followed by a job on the double glazing requirements of llama farms.

So it helps to be switched on all the time, scanning the horizon for oncoming things of note. You can’t exist in a bubble and then be capable of pulling some clever, appropriate, witty, none-hackneyed piece of design out of the bag. In our ever changing world, most graphic designers are forced to ply their trade just behind the leading edge of popular culture, reacting to it’s whims at every turn.

I try my best. But I must admit recently to being rather shocked by how switched off I allowed myself to become during a period a couple of years ago.

Recently I became a Mac. Or rather I re-became a Mac. Various and unfortunate work commitments over the past few years have forced me to spend my professional life wading through the murky depths of beige plastic and tangled wires in PC land, and only recently have I been able to escape for the far greener brushed aluminium and white plastic pastures of Mac land.

During an intital few days spent fudging key commands and familiarising my Microsoft addled brain with Expose, Hot Corners, Widgets and the like, I developed a few queries and so toddled off to Google for the answers. Standing out among the many hits provided was an old Charlie Brooker column on the subject of Apple. Being somewhat keen on his work I followed the link with intrigue, keen to know what he had to say about my new machine. I was shocked by the opening sentence:

“Unless you have been walking around with your eyes closed, and your head encased in a block of concrete, with a blindfold tied round it, in the dark – unless you have been doing that, you surely can’t have failed to notice the current Apple Macintosh campaign starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb, which has taken over magazines, newspapers and the internet in a series of brutal coordinated attacks aimed at causing massive loss of resistance.”

Bloody hell. I don’t remember walking around with my eyes closed, my head encased in a block of concrete with a blindfold tied around it in the dark, yet I actually did honestly fail to notice the whole thing.

In fact the very first time I heard the phrase “I am a Mac” was second hand. I was watching a Youtube video of Lee and Herring’s Tedstock appearance, and the moment the act began I was immediately horrified that I didn’t have a clue what my comedy heroes were referring to. You are a mac? Eh?! What’s a mac? What do you mean? Why are you a mac? And why are you a PC? What do you mean ‘that could have been you’? I don’t get it. Pause video, pause video, I need the assistance of Google…

Three clicks later, I was introduced to the I Am A Mac campaign, feeling like a squinty eyed, blinking caveman being shown Times Square for the first time. Okay… Now I got it. It’s an Apple campaign. Right. Good. I’m up to speed. Nobody seemed to notice. That’s good. Continue with video.

With my recent return to Mac providing a reminder of this earlier period of ignorance I sent an email to a friend, explaining how I’d completely missed the whole campaign, and asking if I was alone. His shock was clear from the reply:

“Oh my god! How could you miss that? It was literally frikking everywhere, you couldn’t move without seeing those ads – thats ridiculous!!”

I felt immediate embarrassment. How could I possibly miss what was obviously a widespread campaign? I try to stay pretty aware after all. It’s my job. And yet there it was, I’d been oblivious to something quite clearly massive. It was scary. I’m even the very cliche of Apple’s target demographic but somehow, despite assistance from the occasionally sublime Mitchell and Webb, the whole thing had completely failed to get through to me.

This can’t have been their fault, surely. It must just be simple testament to the fact that I conduct my daily life behind a filter so fine that very little can penetrate it. I think that’s the most likely explanation, and would place a bet that I’m not alone. We’re all bombarded left right and centre by advertising. It’s everywhere we look. Whatever we do, wherever we go, we’re more than likely facing a sales pitch. At some point in the past and completely without noticing, I reached the point where I don’t see it anymore. It’s like white noise my brain subconsciously filters out. Like the ticking of a wall clock that drills into your very soul at first but after a while you can’t even force yourself to hear. Like conversations about football or Celebrity Big Brother, I’ve stopped hearing them. Advertising has reached that same saturation point, so it no longer gets in. It just streams over my head.

It makes me think. Graphic designers spend their working lives contributing thoughts to marketing ideas and advertising campaigns while they themselves are just as saturated by advertising and branding as everyone else. And I’ll bet there’s more than a few of them, like myself, that began unconsciously filtering it out long ago. It’s hard not to. And it raises the question; can anyone really consider themselves capable of doing such work, contributing to a culture they’re slowly losing the ability to pay attention to? Can you compete in a world where you’ve lost the ability to even recognise your competition?

Or do you have an edge? An edge that is knowing what it will take to get through. I haven’t a clue, but either way I’m slightly disturbed.

Situation Vacant: Moon on a Stick

Are there such things as graphic design jobs anymore? I ask because it seems nine time out of ten that these days, in the context of a situation vacant advert heading, the words “Graphic” and  “Designer” cannot exist without being followed immediately by “/ Web Developer”.

Is it just me, or is that a bit like advertsing for a Head Chef / Fork Lift Truck Mechanic, or perhaps an Opthamologist / Chimney Sweep?

Graphic designer stroke bloody web developer. Time and time again it seems to be the case. And yet when I look down the jobs page I don’t notice it happening in any other industry. When they’re looking for an Opthamologist, they ask for an Opthamologist. Rightfully, the applicant’s chimney sweeping skills are ignored, for they are irrelevant. Likewise, when the Hospitality and Catering section features a Head Chef post, the likely candidate isn’t required to also have the wherewithal to successfully fix the clutch on a ’03 Jungheinrich.

Yet in the case of us graphic designers, it would appear we are unqualified to do our own jobs because we don’t carry a completely extra set of skills unrelated to the ones we have already dedicated our professional lives to.

To the untrained observer, my hypothetical comparisons above may seem a little too far fetched to be taken seriously. Of course there is little common ground between a forklift driver and a head chef, in much the same way that there is little skill overlap between opthamology and chimney sweepery. So to bring some credability to my point of view, how about this one: Architectural Technician / Plant Operator.

That’s a bit more like it. On one hand we’re looking for someone to design buildings or aspects thereof, whilst also being handy in the cab of a JCB. Mornings in a suit spent at the drawing board and computer, afternoons spent in hardhat and hi-vis at the levers of the excavator. Does that sound unreasonable? I mean, come on, you need both jobs doing if you’re going to build a house. Surely it’s the same thing?

Well no, of bloody course it isn’t. Whilst those skills do indeed both play an equally vital role in the construction of a new building, you would never expect it all to be done by one bloke would you. You’d never see an advert asking for “a fully qualified and experienced creative individual with a flair and passion for architecture and full knowledge of the intricate workings of hydraulically operated heavy machinery”.

No. that would be ridiculous. They may well play roles in the same end product, but they’re unrelated in terms of skill. But yet a quick look over the jobs available in the graphic design industry shows that ridiculous expectation is par for the course. “We are currently seeking a fully qualified and experienced creative person with a flair and passion for design and full knowledge of the intricate workings of print, Flash, HTML, CSS, JavaScript and XML”.

Well of course you are. Why just pay for a graphic designer when you can get a web developer chucked in for free? Well I’ll tell you why. Because they are two seperate jobs requiring totally different skillsets. Expecting a graphic designer to be great at web coding, or vice versa, really is as daft as expecting an architect to be good with the heavy plant, or paying a chimney sweep to fix your detatched retina.

If you want both of those jobs doing, pay two seperate and specialist people to do them. The term “jack of all trades, master of none” was designed for this. The skills required to truly master either graphic design or web development are far more involved than anyone seems to think. And maybe I’m alone in this belief, but I’m also of the opinion that they can often be mutually exclusive.

I work with lots of computer programmers. They are the sort of people who make Sonic’s hedgehog spikes wobble just the right amount depending on the wind, speed of run, length of gait and other such factors. They’re the people who make the racing cars handle just like the real thing, or tennis balls bounce in the right direction when hit with a Wii racket. They are people who spend all day staring at a screen of numbers and code and manage to output things that leave me in awe by the way they come to life.

These people are great at what they do, they really are. But ask them to knock up a bit of stationery, or maybe a series of magazine ads or any visually creative piece of work for that matter and watch them flounder in a mess of Comic Sans, red-green gradient fills and drop shadows. Creative flair isn’t high up on their list of priorities on a day-to-day basis.

And likewise, flip the situation around and watch my fellow art collegues and I collapse to the ground in a dribbling heap of information overload when we are faced with a bit of obscure mathematics in the form of computer code.

So unless you are very lucky and dealing with a rare genius, a mind that can truly embrace either task is always going to be comprimised in the other. And that won’t do. Nobody seems to employ such a seemingly comprimised mind, as they only meet half the job criteria.

So the person who finds employment is the person who’s ‘okayish’ at both. Like the architect who gets his staircases to fit the stairwell ‘most of the time’ and only clobbers the site portaloo with the backhoe ‘occassionally’. Or the opthamologist who only accidently pokes out an eye ‘every few weeks’ and can get ‘at least half’ of your chimney unblocked. Or the chef who can ‘have a good go’ at a Risotto, and who’s handywork on forklifts ‘doesn’t normally’ cause horrendous warehouse-staff group-decapitations.

Please – employers – take note. The people you are advertising for don’t really exist. We designers and web coders can both ‘have a go’ at each other’s professions, but we’ll never excel. We’ll only ever be pretending to be competent, blagging our way through, worrying that we might one day get found out for the fraudsters we are.

Do you want that?

Eh? What do you mean ‘that’s what everyone does’?