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January 2009

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  • Graphic Design
    Wombat Droppings
    by Ursula Vernon

    So I'm designing a new website.

    Don't ask me all the technical details, because bugger if I know 'em. I just figure out what I want it to look like and hand it over to my web guy aka boyfriend, who makes it happen, or tells me why it is unlikely to happen, and does it with a speed that occasionally blows my mind.

    Thing was, in order to get to the stage where I figured out what it should look like -- where I did my little mock-up in Photoshop with the logo and the bars and the clicky buttons so that I had a page that I could hand off and say "There. Do that." -- I had to engage in graphic design.

    I’m dreadful at graphic design.

    As artists go, I'm not bad. Nobody's ever going to confuse me with an Old Master, but if you want a chicken with a ray gun, I can produce a drawing that is recognizably a chicken with a ray gun. Art directors have been known to hire me more than once. People have tattooed my drawings on their bodies, often without any alcohol being involved.

    But I cannot do graphic design.

    There's a lot of argument and grief and internet flamewars expended over the subject of whether or not graphic design is art. I would like to weigh in on this topic.

    Graphic design is not art. For one thing, it's a helluva lot harder.

    I look at really GOOD design -- collections of WWII propaganda posters, for example, should you ever discover such a collection, are frequently absolutely amazing -- and I might as well be a yak wandering around the Louvre. I got nuthin'. I go "That's really neat. Wow. That's awesome. Dude. Wow," and if I do it for too long, I get a vague desire to join the Russian army, but I have absolutely no idea WHY something works or why that bit there is awesome and why that bit stands out. I mean, I can go "Okay, that works because all the lines lead to that point, and that bit works because of the colors and the repetition of the design," but I can't DO it. I also have a reasonably good idea of how the plumbing works, but you will not see me laying pipe any time soon, and if the septic system explodes, my name usually does not come up.

    At best, I can copy a design that already exists. Badly. I can't sit down and make design happen. I don't even know where to start. The bones of a drawing I understand, but I don't have the faintest idea what the bones of a good graphic design look like. Blobs? Boxes? Fonts? The few times I've managed to piece together a label design that works, I re-use it a hundred times, just changing out the art, because I can do a hundred paintings in the time it takes me to put together a workable design.

    There are people who are Very Good graphic designers. I know several of them. I would love to be able to do that, because they make some seriously fabulous compositions and I would be a much better artist if I could do what they do.

    I took a class on it back in college. It was a very nice class in many regards. I learned to play with fonts and I made a very short, very bad comic book. I learned a lot about what made bad graphic design bad, but nothing at all about how to make it good, or how to make it at all. I was an illustrator. I attacked everything like an illustrator -- i.e. I made a little painting about it. I had no idea how to do anything else.

    Come to think of it, I still don't.

    In order to design this website, I spent days looking at galleries of ostensibly "good" graphic design, some of which made my eyes bleed and some of which was neat to look at once, but which I knew in my heart of hearts would make a viewer positively psychotic if they returned to my gallery repeatedly, which I kinda want them to do. I looked at stuff that was "clean" and "grungy" and "dark" and "commercial" until my eyes twirled in my head and I found myself wanting to make my entire art gallery solid black with a single white pixel in the middle that said something obscene if you clicked on it.

    At the end of the day, I did about the only thing I could think of. I picked a website design I liked, ripped out all the bits that struck me as excessive or annoying to view repeatedly, laid down big blocks of color in a vague approximation of said design, and started plopping text and buttons onto it and shoving things around and making them neat colors. It wasn't half as good as the websites put together by actual designer people, but I've seen much worse, and at least the top graphic bit didn't take up two-thirds of the page and make you scroll down every time you visit.

    Finally, I showed it to my web guy. "Does this look okay?"

    He looked at it, and said "It looks like it was designed by an artist."

    Sigh.

    Ursula Vernon
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