Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What aren't you doing?

The following, while rather long, is a column I've saved in my files for 25 years because it speaks to me. It was written by Mark Seymour, a columnist for Graphics Journal. It was published in February of 1985 and I read it first while working as a typesetter for a Portland printing company:

I made a wrong turn somewhere along the way. It had a lot to do with not recognizing the kind of work I do in my head, as opposed to the kind I do in the world.

Most of us, I think, make assumptions about what we're going to be when we grow up. Those of us who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties had to consider the assumption we weren't going to grow up at all, that squat, black mushroom clouds would decide our future for us. But many of our ideas were based on what we thought we should be doing. For white, suburban middleclass kids like me, the future was college, and then a nice white collar job pushing papers around.

That construct, of the office job, got ground in pretty deep in my case. Both my father and his father had management jobs in engineering industries. So that vision was, perforce, the way a man made his living. My mother's father, on the other hand, was a self-employed cabinetmaker; it was never stated that this was an occupation somehow beneath me, but the message was delivered none the less. My memories of his shop, of the smells of the planed lumber, and the sounds of nails and pegs being driven home, are some of the best of my childhood. [Even more pungent, there was an actual, working icehouse next door to his shop. To find out that you had to make ice, not just pop it out of the refrigerator, was fascinating.]

So, what the hell does a cabinet shop and an icehouse have to do with graphic design? Not much. What they are, and I think each of us has some memories like them lurking in the back of our heads, are indicators to what I really am. And that tites into a lot of the things I've been complaining about in this column: the loss of tradecraft, and the evolution of printing into an electronic experience.

The situation is, unfortunately, that I'm a dirty hands guy in a clean hands job. And it's only going to get worse from here.

I was having lunch the other day with Janaia Donaldson, who teaches design for the UC Santa Cruz extension program. We were discussing the latest attempts at computer graphics, and fantasizing about the wonders of a mouse- or graphics tablet-driven machine similar to the Scitex, where you have the capability to zoom in on a single dot and modify its density and color. What a notion: dot by dot drawing at 300 lines to the inch.

But at the same time, what a loss. I've talked before about a generation of designers coming along who'll never know what rubber cement thinner smells like. Now, what about an entire generation who won't know what paint smells like. Or know how to handle a brush, or pencils, or even a felt pen. Just crank up the cursor, put the dots where you want them, and print it.

Somehow, that sensory deprivation, losing that sensual part of the process, is what we're faced with. Rapidly I'd resigned to it, but I don't have to like it.

What should I have done? What turn did I miss? Probably several, along the way. Most of us perform sort of an amoeboid dance with life; lurching along from one stimulus to another, seeking the path of least resistance. The driving force is usually that terrible insistance that I have to have a job. Which really means you have to have money. Now, I'm certainly in favor of having money. As much as possible. I've always said that I'd like nothing better than to have them back up the armored car and dump the sacks of hundreds on the porch. But, somehow, they never seem to get around to it.

So, that nasty requirement for things like the rent, and food, and some new books occasionally, keeps us moving when, perhaps, a little reflection might send us in an entirely different direction. I had a moment like that, fifteen years ago, and I missed it. What did I want to do? Print books. Not publishing, like I do now, but actually print them. By hand. Lead type, handset, handmade paper, hand binding. The works. A nice, dirty hands, sixteenth century job. I always was slower than the other children.

What happened? I got scared, like we all do. I would have had to find one of the handful of men in the country, in the world, who actually make their living doing it. I would have had to commit four, five, ten years to learning the craft. And, even then, who knew whether I would ever be able to earn my living that way.

I chickened out. I went to design school, got a job in an advertising agency, became a freelance designer, worked for various publishing companies, and now force you to read diatribeslike this. Was that a better course? Maybe. I ate pretty regularly, the last fifteen years. I did some interesting work, even one or two things I'm rather proud of. But was it really better?

The point of all this is to rattle your assumptions a little bit. I know too many people who are doing things they think they have to do, rather than what they want to do. Typesetters who should be painters, circulation chiefs who should be sailing the Caribbean, designers who should be trapping beaver in the 1800s, and illustrators who should be living in a Zen monastery.

What aren't you doing?

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