Designing for the physical world

Dear student: Success in this industry doesn't mean you have to work exclusively in pixels

Published September 28, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Student:

ImprintAs a new school year is upon you, you're probably entering your junior or senior year at a design college somewhere. You've talked with your peers, consulted your advisors and finally picked the right design classes for yourself. Some of you may have recently graduated and are currently looking for a job. Either way, this is a pivotal time for you, and lots of questions and concerns are probably rolling around in your head: money, bills, getting a good job, doing work you're proud of and, perhaps most important, figuring out what part of the industry you belong in. And design schools like my alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, are constantly staying up to speed with the trends and needs of the industry in order to prepare you for the world that awaits.

Lately, there has been an onslaught of graphic designers who have expressed their thoughts on where the industry is heading. Many feel that we need to learn how to design for the Web. It has been discussed here by Patric King, eloquently written here by Frank Chimero, and powerfully stated here by Ben Pieratt. They're encouraging us, and rightfully so, to transform our current skills and services in ways that will undoubtedly be more beneficial as the industry continues to evolve toward the Web.


As someone who's had a hand in design, branding, three-dimensional experiences, and advertising in a short period of time since graduating, I realize the Web is something I haven't touched very much of. Not because I haven't wanted to, but because I've been busy -- outside of my day job -- working on my steeze in other areas of interest, such as quasi-illustration and writing. As August Heffner recently mentioned, I've learned a lot by working with my hands, and I get satisfaction in being able to do so. And as I am currently preparing myself for a couple of interactive projects, and finishing my new portfolio site (HTML with elements of HTML 5 and CSS to implement some of the more responsive features) with these awesome people, I want to highlight the other side of the coin that isn't being heard as much.

While it's important that you consider your work in a Web-based context, it's also important to know that there are young, successful designers out there who are holding on to the guts of graphic design -- far away from coding, being a Web "nerd," pimping on Twitter, or building a career that just involves talking and writing about a bunch of stuff. I'm speaking about the young designers who are consistently creating handmade or illustrative imagery that is memorable, iconic and fearless.

When I was a kid, I was proud to have bruises and scars on my body after playing outside. Having bruises and scars meant I was having fun. It seems so many designers forgot how to get dirty, mechanically following the fear that's being pumped into the industry, and abandoning the fundamental desire to make tangible, satisfying work. The fear that tells me to design for the Web -- or rather, the feeling I have inside that tells me I'm an idiot to miss out on this immeasurable opportunity of unlimited resources -- is nothing but a ploy to keep me away from doing something I may really want to do.

speak and love

American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell talked a lot about the idea of "following your bliss." He tells a story of a family sitting next to him in a restaurant one day. The father was upset that his little boy wouldn't eat all his dinner. The boy's mother says to the father, "Just let him do what he wants." The father, greatly annoyed at this, responds back, "If he does what he wants then he'll get the wrong idea, and he'll never understand. I've never done anything I truly wanted to do in my life!"

Too many of us are desperately focusing on pushing code and pixels, simply doing what others have suggested, never finding our own voice, forgetting why we set out on this journey in the first place. Do you remember why you entered the design field? What your dreams were? Can you remember the first life drawing class you had? Do you remember the first lecture you went to? The sensations? The butterflies? I would imagine that it had nothing to do with the Web.


All you need to do is pick up a New York Times, or a book jacket, and you'll see the conviction of young designers like Matt Dorfman and Chris Brand. All you have to do is check out the work of Paulina Reyes, Friends of Type or Elle Kim to find young designers who seem to have their heads down, steadily pounding out bold, handmade imagery. I'm envious of and inspired by their tenacity and humbleness.

If you're passionate about something and you work extremely hard to do it well, there will always be a place for you and your talent in whatever realm of design you're in. Don't believe the hype. The time you're spending frantically learning Web tutorials, or trying to come up with grand interactive ideas, could be time spent learning how to draw better, or learning how to write better. We definitely need more young graphic designers who are working on building a unique and articulate voice within the industry. And even more so, we need articulate young designers to be actively doing great work, too.

It's very important to recognize the capacity of this arena; hone your craft, but don't ignore the possibilities of the Web. Ben Barry is a good example of a young designer at the cross-section of both the interactive world and the world of craft. Designing for the Web is a huge part of where the industry is heading, and I'm personally excited about it. However, don't forget that the work you ought to be doing is the work you should be doing. If you think that you should be designing for the Web, then you will undoubtedly make that happen and that's a wonderful thing. But, it's not the same story for everyone, and it certainly isn't a blanket recipe for success in this industry.

As you enter this profession, nervously trying to get a job under the pressure of the industry, please do not defeat that small voice inside that may be telling you something. And in this age of the Web, it's more important than ever that we celebrate those young designers who are making electric imagery with their hands, for clients, in the name of graphic design.

With luck,



Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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By Timothy Goodman

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