Style is Gone

I’m from an era well before the advent of the computer. When I entered the “field” (as we used to call it), my portfolio had everything in it, at least everything that I wanted to do going forward. But twenty-or-so years later, the art and design business had transformed itself.

I first came into the business as a designer/illustrator. One of my mentors, a guy by the name of Fred Coe, had told me early on that my portfolio had too much in it, or not enough, depending on what art directors wanted to see. Half of the bag was illustration and half was design work, of which he told me to choose only one to promote. “They won’t know where to put you,” he said.

At first, I was lucky. I’d found a place in Cincinnati that hired me to do both disciplines. But a few years later when I moved to a bigger market—Chicago—I found I had to specialize. My design half was ignored while my illustration half was drawing the attention, and so I became a full-fledged illustrator.

Doing that work came easy for me, my style being photo-realistic. And because Chicago was—and still is—a big market in the ad business, my future looked bright as long as advertising illustration was paying my way. This was in the 1970s and 1980s, and newspapers and magazines became the showcase for my work as well as many friends and acquaintances who did similar work. With ad agencies galore and several independent art “studios” as sources, a freelance illustrator could make a lot of money.

What made it fun and interesting for all concerned was that each of us—the illustrators—had a different working style. We drew the line work differently from each other, we applied the paint or watercolor (with a brush and/or airbrush) differently from each other. Overall, we thought the art process through in our own unique way, and that thought process was what made the end results appear so different. Our work was as independently unique as much as each individual appeared standing before you. That’s what made the work so personal.

Then “progress” came along in the late stages of that latter decade. Computers were making inroads into the business, and catalogs for stock illustration began to appear. Because it all seemed to happen within a few years, ad agencies were letting art directors go. Illustrators weren’t getting the assignments as before and soon photographers were suffering the same plight. Type houses started disappearing. Stock photography was showing up. The business was changing, and it was changing rapidly. I bought up cameras and lights and a bunch of stands and booms, making my own backdrops. I needed to diversify, reinvent myself.

With commercial illustration vanishing, I found getting back into design work difficult. My contacts knew me as an illustrator, not as one who could actually do design work. But that’s another story.

When Macs made the biggest splash with system 7.1 around 1994, I bought into it. I learned Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, QuarkXpress, and a few other applications quickly to bring myself up to snuff. I found the medium to be a great tool for processing artwork. What I did not like, however—and still don’t—was creating artwork with it. It isn’t natural.

I find it confining. The art one can do on a computer screen looks and feels mechanical, like drawing with a compass and plastic drawing aids like Alvin templates, drafting tools from an earlier age. Painter, a Corel application, tries hard to make painting as natural and fluid as it can on the screen, but falls way short. The only real advantage one can say about creating illustrations on computer is the undo feature.

What the computer did was homogenize the entire advertising industry. Since individualized illustration and much of photography were sitting in virtual purgatory, the rest of the designed imagery was being done by young “graphic designers” (then a new term) who were schooled in a new mindset of using the computer, not as a tool, but as a machine that everything was created with, like a food processor that already had all the ingredients and recipes in it. This new method of designing directly on the monitor, from scratch, was foreign to anyone like myself. These new graphic designers did not use pencil and paper—ever—to even visualize potential layouts (thumbnails) of magazine pages or of ads for products. The very thought process was short circuited.

And why would these young souls bother to actually design something? They already had templates to follow for that. And worse, this homogenization was extending across the industry. Specializing in one area—like the rest of my breed—was now a bad thing. You were expected to become adept at everything, including website design and HTML. This automaton mentality feeds the “team” process that exists everywhere, and now all members of that are interchangeable—and replaceable.

The end result of all this is the total abandonment of style. And one large elephantine reason to perpetuate this new process of non-thinking is speed. Do it quickly. Get it done now. If you take too long to actually design something new, you’re on the outs. They have templates for everything. And they have budgets for everything, too. I once lost a freelance assignment doing logos for a generic soft drink. They wanted twenty designs in two days. After three hours, the art director saw my process of initial designs on paper and handed the assignment to another, younger person, telling me I was too slow and that “there are templates you could’ve used.”

How is that different? Where is the style, the individuality? It’s gone. Everything is standardized. You take a photo of something (top left) and there are filters to change it into artwork (top right). With so many plugins and filters and morphs, a sameness in everything prevails. Even in the movies, the animated 3D cartoon you take your children (or grandchildren) to see looks the same as the next, because the software the studios use is the same.

I’ll stay with what I do as far as illustration goes. It’s watercolor. It’s natural. And it’s only me doing it.

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What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

(This column originally ran in March of this year. Dan Blanchette is on vacation.)

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

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