Graphic Design has not changed over the past 40 years. At least not for me. Most of my designs start out as a pencil sketch. Pencil to paper. Sometimes on a napkin. But the way things are created has changed drastically. When I first graduated from Kutztown State College, (now Kutztown University) one of my professors said our first job at a NY ad agency would probably be sharpening pencils. All the interns were sharpening pencils while they learned the craft from their superiors, because the Mac hadn’t been released to the market yet. I was prepared to do magic marker comps to sell an idea. To develop the film from the camera, after bracketing the shots to make sure we got the right exposure. Airbrushing the skin of the model and removing the car in the street to make the photo balanced. Counting the word characters to mark up the copy for the typesetter to make them fit line by line. Drawing the nuts and bolts for a catalog of a company that sold nuts and bolts. Actually measuring the parts and drawing them to scale.
Here is a video from Adobe that shows some of the old tools the creative graphic designers used.
Now I can draw using my Waccom tablet, or on my phone or iPad if I don’t have paper handy. Sketch a layout, quickly make a change to colors or shapes in the blink of an eye. Part of the design method is still a craft. The other part is all technology, code and the designers experience.
After more than three decades of technological evolution, creativity isn’t what it used to be. I don’t mean that the pool of creative advertising talent is shrinking; I mean the way creative people go about creating is different. It’s more than trading typewriters for computers or Rapidograph pens and art tables for graphic design programs; it’s a complete 360° shift in the creative design process.
It started when IBM introduced the first affordable desktop personal computer. With a monochrome screen, no hard drive and an unbelievably slow microprocessor, it proved that a computer could be an office accessory. As desktop units became more accepted in the workplace, other computer manufacturers began churning out armies of clones, with prices always falling and quality always rising.
After years of fearing new technology, at last it was OK to have a computer. Though most people didn’t understand computers or feel comfortable with them because they were built by technophiles for left-brained people. Creative designers just couldn’t relate to this and stuck to their trusty pencils, pens and X-ACTO knives.
Then in 1984, (after I graduated college) Apple introduced the Macintosh. It happened during the Super Bowl on Jan. 22 with an epic commercial, directed by Ridley Scott (the guy who directed the movie “Alien”), in which a young lady lobs a hammer at a giant screen image of Big Brother, a la George Orwell’s “1984.” As one industry guru put it, “The commercial changed advertising; the product changed the ad business; the technology changed the world.” I don’t know how much this commercial changed advertising, but the product did change the advertising business. And the technology changed the world, and the way we create the graphics and ads.
Suddenly, it was not only OK to have a computer in the office, it was a necessity. Though the original Mac was clunky compared to today, it offered a new way to think about computers. For the first time, here was a technology devise built for the right-brained people. Visual thinking was implemented, with friendly on-screen icons like folders and trashcans and a mouse to move the cursor around your screen. And with the introduction of graphic software and Apple’s laser printer, ad agencies and in-house design departments finally could produce quality work without outside vendors. Plus, you didn’t have to be an “artist” to become a graphic designer. That’s where I see a downfall.
Since then, the wave of changing technology has washed over us again and again. But the really interesting thing isn’t how technology has changed but how technology has changed all of us in the design business. Not only are we working more creatively, the way we work at creating is different. Look at how writing has changed. Writing once was a linear process. You sat down at a typewriter and tapped out a first draft, edited it, then retyped it. No matter how many drafts you went through, you always ended up with a fixed manuscript that looked and felt official and unchangeable.
With computers, it’s different. It’s more than just typing on a computer screen. You are free from linear thinking. Copy can grow naturally from any starting point. If you get stuck, just write the next few paragraphs and bridge the gap later. If you make a mistake, just delete and write it again. Writing and editing, once two separate stages, are now one and the same. You don’t even have to type if you don’t want to with voice recognition software, you can dictate your words to your computer.
Graphic designers have gone through this experience, with the fixed progression from thumbnail to full layout giving way to a constantly evolving on-screen design. The printout of a design at any given stage is just a copy of the growing “ideal” design inside the computer. A design never reaches a truly final stage; it’s always open for improvement and adjustments.
Is this good? I think so. Technology often is criticized for taking us further from the natural order of things. But in my experience, technology brings us closer. Today, creating advertising can be more organic and free flowing than it ever was with typewriters or paintbrushes. With such a low barrier to entry, there’s more bad advertising than ever. But there’s also more good advertising than ever.
And the technology that has been created for us is also hard at work creating us. We have become like our design work, ever changing and evolving. Where will it end? It won’t. I just keep changing with the times. I graduated from college learning things and tools I won’t use again, but I am not a design-a-saurous. I won’t be extinct, because I can adapt and deliver creative, well designed and thought provoking ideas for my clients. The end result remains the same. Show off your clients goods and services to their customers so their sales will continue to grow.