And Just What the Hell Do You Do?

During those social occasions when we meet people for the first time, the question of “what do you do?” inevitably comes up. For many, merely mentioning their job titles answers the question. Firefighter. Astronaut. Ballerina. Supreme Overlord of Beta Sector Three. But when I respond with “graphic designer,” very often the follow-up is: “What’s that?”

“What’s that?” A question that always leaves me a little flatfooted. How do I explain succinctly what I do without making it sound boring or technical? It’s a big problem, because (a) graphic design is not boring, and, (b) although designers need to be proficient in an array of computer programs and skilled at production, at its very essence, graphic design is not technical, it’s more artistic and intuitive.

The dictionary says “the art or skill of combining text and pictures in advertisements, magazines, or books.” That’s pretty good, but a little like saying rocket science is “the science of making a tube propel itself.” A bit scanty, not quite selling the thing. I sometimes respond to this question by saying, “a graphic designer designs anything containing words that you see in print or on the internet. Catalogs, brochures, advertisements, websites, posters — like that one, over there, for instance.” I usually don’t have to go any further because, by then, my new friend isn’t looking to where I’m pointing but has instead moved on to talk to somebody else.

One of my favorite movies, Heat, involves a fledging graphic designer. When the Robert DeNiro character asks her what she wants to do instead of working at a bookstore and she says “graphic design,” he innocently asks, “Do you have to go to school for that?” That’s a question I actually haven’t heard, but won’t be surprised if I do someday.

And, in case you’re wondering, you do have to go to school for that. I was a fine arts major at Framingham State University. The art department back then offered only one course in graphic design (hardly the case nowadays), and of all the people who took the class with me, I think I was the only one who chose graphic design as a career. Let me tell you something about art majors, or at least the art majors I knew. They think art is some kind of religion, mystical and ethereal and wholly the province of the Muses, a transcendent something-or-other from another dimension that reveals itself only to a select few, and the real hardcore cases believe art is worth suffering all sorts of privations to protect its purity. Doubtless these hardcore cases held fast to that belief right through graduation and up until when their parents told them to get a job. I wonder what they thought when they found out how much a lonely garret rents for in the city.

Anyways, the graphic design teacher, a precise, bespectacled man who actually wore a pocket protector, taught us some basic drafting skills and introduced us to Rapidiographs, stat cameras, mechanicals, overlays, typography, the Pantone Matching System, manipulating images and so on. The other students resolutely kept their lofty ideals and hurried back to their canvases and clay when the class ended, but I thought this was an occupation within the art world that could earn me a steady paycheck.

I think one of the toughest questions to answer is “what is art?” Picasso, when asked, reportedly replied, “What is not art?” Good one, Pablo. I don’t think I can adequately define art, but deep down in my bones I know graphic design is art because, at its best, it offers me fulfillment and demands creativity. I love working up brochure cover concepts and logos and dreaming up visual marketing campaigns. It is also a job, one that I relish. There is an aspect of my line of work called “production,” really kind of the nitty-gritty side of graphic design, when all the creative stuff is essentially settled and now it’s time to spin off the products associated with a given campaign: the twelve-pagers, the brochures, kit folders, mailers, postcards, giveaways, posters, T-shirts, stickers, buttons, and so on. While production also requires creativity and artistic talent, it demands technical expertise and organization. This I excel at and I receive enormous satisfaction from doing that kind of work.

So what is graphic design? It’s art, it’s evolution, it’s hard work . . . and it’s the only thing I can see myself doing.

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