drawing, Rants

Rant #7

With the beginning of the new academic year, I am lucky enough to re-acquaint myself with the basic building blocks of graphic design. I didn’t always think like this – it can get mind-numbing returning to ground zero every year, so I try to make new connections with everything for each new cohort. Sometimes it’s digital, sometimes not, sometimes it’s practical and sometimes theoretical. I don’t plan it, but allow myself to become drawn into a particular area.

I will admit that I am a little old-fashioned about design education. No, I don’t believe that everything was better back in the day, far from it – what we can do with the tools we have at our disposal constantly amazes me, but I genuinely believe that the technology we employ these days makes us lazy.

Let me explain further. Many people are exposed to image editing software at a young age and have grown up with powerful technology built into ordinary objects and fail to recognise the implications or the significance – we expect our mobiles phones to have internet access, GPS sat nav, news updates, entertainment and a fairly decent digital camera as standard these days. They are common, everyday things to many, and some people believe that it is their right to use that technology whenever they want for whatever they like. Like in college. In the library. In a lecture. In a tutorial. During a conversation. “What? I was just answering my phone!”

No, this isn’t rant about mobile phone etiquette either, I’ll save that for another day. I guess I’m surprised at how ordinary this fantastic technology has become and how much it’s taken for granted.

Every year around this time, during the first few weeks of systematic exploration of PhotoShop, Illustrator and InDesign, I hear comments like “it won’t do what I want it to” and “it isn’t very accurate” and questions like “why doesn’t it just select what I want it to?” and “isn’t there a button I can just press to do this?” (Takes a deep breath. Counts to ten)

So it’s come to this; tasks that were once physically executed by many highly trained, skilled craftsmen, already reduced to a series of barely perceptible wrist movements and a couple of clicks, presenting too much of a challenge to those who now wish to go into the business. The labour, tools and time-consuming mechanical, chemical or physical processes that once dominated the design industry all now sit in a magic box on your desk. 

What once may have taken a week or two of frantic toiling by many specialists, involving countless miles of travel, meetings, samples and proofs to bring to a finished project to fruition can now be executed in a couple of days. Hours even. Without leaving your desk or cleaning your tools. An amazing technological revolution on a par with anything that happened during the industrial revolution but in a fraction of the time. All we really need to do these days is learn how to use these tools. This is why I get peeved about the comments and questions I just mentioned.

Take a look at this:


Click on the thumbnails so see the details. Go on, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Impressive, eh? Hand painted and airbrushed in gouache by a true master craftsman.  (Not me though – I only claim copyright of the images and not the work. Unfortunately) This is how it used to be done. Acute observation, meticulous preparation, total control of media, and lots and lots of patience. This is an original illustration made for Robinson’s fruit drinks from the late eighties/early nineties. No photos. No PhotoShop. Just skill. For the record, it measures about A3 in size.

I get a big kick out of seeing work like this, and work that has clearly been the result of labour, patience and skill, and think that these types of visual have qualities that just aren’t achievable with digital technology – that something is lost somewhere in the translation from idea to end result. Perhaps the medium is affecting the outcome?

The software and hardware we have is beyond the comprehension of many of those designers from the second half of the twentieth century that we hold in high regard. It didn’t stop them from producing work that still looks good today. They utilised the most appropriate technology available and relied on the quality of ideas and execution. Just that.  Anyone who has a copy of an Alan Fletcher book will know what I’m talking about. The recent exhibition of Kenneth Grange’s work demonstrated this point physically, with parts of the exhibition showing sketches in biro and wooden maquettes alongside the finished production items. I once got to ask Wim Crouwel (shameful namedropping I know!) if he used computers these days and he replied “No. I draw everything out by hand and give it to my sons to produce on computer. I am too old to start again.” This is a designer whose work during the 1960’s and 70’s still looks fresh fifty years on.

The thing is, our expectations of technology often exceed their capabilities – PhotoShop has got the potential to do more things to an image than we can think of – but it can’t see or make intuitive or skillful judgements about what is happening to the image. That’s our job. These are the skills we bring to the table. Any fool can learn how to push the buttons. It’s those who push the right buttons, at the right times, for the right reasons  – and know when to stop – who are the real designers.

This post was not intended to be about technology, or education for that matter. I really wanted to share my thoughts about using and developing those skills which have largely fallen by the wayside. Drawing in particular. Drawing of all kinds too, not just technical drawings or well observed life drawing, but the act of recording manually on paper in general. Drawings don’t have to be exquisitely detailed to convey lots of visual information – you only need to see the original drawings by Frank Gehry of the Guggenheim Bilbao to make that judgement:

There are a growing body of like-minded people across the globe who draw their parts of the world and generously share them with us on the web – urban sketchers – and whilst I enjoy those that are well-observed and detailed, I really get a kick from the looser approach.

I think that it is the dedication that I am attracted to here; people who draw for the love of it, and see it as a good way to build and develop their observation and rendering skills. I sadly lack the self-discipline for this. I frequently visit the website of Wil Freeborn (whom I have mentioned here before) just to eyeball his sketchbooks.

And my copy of Ingo Giezendanners Urban Recordings has become a bit dog-eared too…

I also have copies of Graphic. Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers by Steven Heller & Lita Talarico and Architects’ Sketchbooks Edited by Will Jones, both excellent compendia of drawing styles, observational insights and a wealth of inspiration. And others.

So what of my own drawing skills? I post compilations of my drawings every now and again, and also include them in posts that record the origins of a design project, and continually sketch out my ideas, advice and recommendations to students as I talk (it is always good to hear “can I keep that?” afterwards.) Many of my students have probably been frustrated to hear “if you can’t draw well on paper then you can’t draw well on screen” when I have encouraged them to abandon several hours worth of fruitless pissing about in Adobe Illustrator, and I still make students learn how to use a ruling pen and lay down controlled, flat gouache. Not because they will need to use those antiquated relics of my youth, but to instill a sense of  patience and control, forcing them into situations where they have to really toil to achieve simple but perfect results, without the ctrl+z safety net – just start over.

For some (many?) this is a new experience, especially after years of schooling where the bare minimum is always acceptable, and the easiest route to the end result is the preferred one. Probably one of the most disheartening questions I am asked, particularly at this time of year is “is that enough?” – a phrase used so often through school to establish the base level of quantity or quality that a teacher will accept.

My response of “If you have to ask then you already know the answer” never goes down well at first, but I believe that many do eventually catch on, and learn the personal value of a job well done. It’s amazing just how much of that patience, preparation and control of media can affect how you approach working on the computer, but how unpalatable the process seems when it is proscribed.

I carry sketchbooks and notepads everywhere and will happily fill a page or three to pass the time. I don’t draw pictures though. It’s usually bits of typographic playfulness, asemic explorations and the emergence of half-thought out ideas. Much of it is unpublishable nonsense, but it serves its purpose as a vehicle for me to exercise my grey matter. I enjoy it too, more so now than I have in many years, and I have been enjoying revisiting my drawing skills with students this year. I will be posting my efforts here for your perusal, and those of my students on our course blog and hope to encourage others to put down their shiny electronic tools and rediscover the simple but valuable pleasures of drawing.

Apologies to Charles M Schultz.