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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How Does a Thought Become an Idea?

How does a thought become an idea? No, they’re not the same thing, not in design. A thought is just a few passing synapses in the brain, whereas an idea, a real process in which we apply a thought to a solution, now that’s something else.

Each of us has a mind and we all have thoughts running through our brains every day, all day long. And those thoughts are an amalgam, a mixture, of our experiences tinged with an imagination. The imagination here is what begins to separate one person with design capability from the rest of us, in various degrees. A designer can harness that imagination and channel it to see into the realm of design solutions. So the real difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer can control that product of experience and imagination and make a thought come alive graphically.

All of us have heard the expression, “I can’t draw a straight line.” Most designers can’t either, but what they can do is convey a graphic idea, a plan to map out a graphic solution. I’ve known many art directors who can’t draw, but what makes them valuable is that they see the possibilities in their mind and can speak to those who can draw, or otherwise make the solutions come to life.

And there are as many ideas out there as are designers, packed with the experiences of life—their environments, their passages in growing up, their friends and acquaintances, things they’ve done, places they’ve visited, personal interests, their education. Like painters, they each have a way of seeing the world through the lens of their experiences. There are countless paintings out there in the world done by countless painters, and each canvas is literally a depiction of what that painter sees. Sure, each exhibits a style, a technique in application of the paint, but it’s all flavored with that painter’s way of seeing.

And designers are no different. Here the differences among designers may be more subtle, but the differences are there nonetheless. The thing is, each designer is constrained only by the limits of his/her imagination. The more experience a designer can bring to the fore, the more imagination he/she can use to bring about successful designs.

The above examples show differences in design solutions. Each shows a container with a built-in handle to make the container easier to use. But other than the additional fact that both have a cap that doubles as a measuring device, the similarities really begin to fall away. The colors, bottle shape and contour, the label—all are different. Both are successful solutions: they convey the idea of cleaning and freshness, otherwise abstract concepts.

Note that in neither example does the label read that it’s laundry detergent, however. Maybe the designs themselves are good enough visually to say it.

 

 

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