Sunday, February 6, 2011

Preparing before the big layoff

It seems that everyone knows somebody (or IS that somebody) who has been laid off.

Rumor has it that when a company starts losing money, the first thing to get cut is advertising. Is that a scary wives tale to keep the designers in line? I dunno, but it's worth being prepared for the worst.

As a graphic designer, are you ready to simply pick up and go at the first sign of the pink slip? My guess is that most of us are not. We get comfortable in our positions and we slack when it comes to our portfolio. I know I do.

When I give semi-careful thought to my work and my personal standing as a pro designer, I realize that:

- My raw files are not only disorganized, they are scattered. Yes, I have the finished product, but what if I need to clean it up, add to, or make it better? What about the work process? I must organize my files and name my freaking Illustrator and Photoshop layers...for God's sake, name the layers!!

- My resume has not been updated in five and a half years. That sucks, especially when...

- professional identity system has not even been looked at for the same amount of time. Can I still sell myself on what I slopped together a half decade ago? Eh. Probably not.

I've progressed, changed, grew, learned, and worked hard as a designer and it should show to potential employers. However, do I even have a concept for my identity piece? Do I have one of those clever "leave behinds" so the interviewer at my next sure-to-get job will put it on his desk and marvel (with a smile) at my brilliance?


So I am behind in my responsibilities as both a pro designer and a family man. If I get tossed out on my ear tomorrow, I'll have to spend many hours of unemployed time working on my identity system, organizing files, and updating the portfolio and resume instead of looking for a job. If my portfolio is all ready to go, any extra time I have off the job hunting trail could be better spent doing freelance work or watching cartoons. With my kid, I mean.

Crap. I guess I'll get started naming my layers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good and bad design? Good and bad critiques.

I spoke with a group of design students at a local community college this past weekend. At the end of the lecture, I talked through a bit of my work which includes a couple slide of which I am not particularly proud.

Basically I mix a bit of bad with all my best work so I can talk about "bad design" - something I learned from a past lecture.

I put the terms "bad design" in quotes because of the ridiculously subjective nature of what constitutes a bad piece of design. And it's frustrating as hell, man!

So during my walk-through, one of my rather unhealthy pieces appeared on the big screen and I began to speak about why the piece does not work. I started into my little diddy about the fine difference between subtlety and hammering one over the head with your message.

In the middle of my rant, the instructor for the class raised her hand, pointed to the screen and said, "I like it."

The students, who were all attempting to digest my thoughts on my very own bad design work, were blindsided by a lone compliment from their fearless leader. Well, thanks for the kudos, but now I have an auditorium of students staring back at me with a giant collective question mark hoovering over their heads (which puts a question mark and exclamation point above my head as well since I am a novice lecture-giver).

I turn to the class thinking, "Hello, beginning design students! Welcome to the Dadaism of what is design critique. Confused as to what is considered good and bad design? Yes, that feeling will never go away."

I didn't say that, though. I was able to use the instructor's kind words to segueway into a conversation about how design is subjective. I told them that as they progress through the curriculum, they will experience critique after critique, and usually no two people will be of the same opinion (unless it counts for a grade).

Don't get me wrong. I think debates and critiques are healthy. I firmly believe there are solid benefits to a good design critique of one's work, but the idea of how some people could be right on the money while others are pulling stuff out of the proverbial ass used to elude and annoy me. Heck, just read the comments over at Ads of the World.

As a budding design student, I remember sitting in my layout class during a critique. In this class, you always wanted to be the first one up on the chopping block because the class has not yet warmed up, see?

However, after critiquing a few measly design pieces, the students begin showing their teeth and they are out for blood. Piece after piece would become a victim of classmates looking to toss in their two cents, with pessimism on full display masquerading as deep intellectual thought and sophistication.

Some pieces deserved it, some did not. Some absolutely did not!

I remember looking at some of the design pieces that were getting kicked violently around the room, all the while thinking, "This piece works, dammit! Would I have done it the exact same way? No, but it communicates its purpose clearly. Thumbs up."

I came to the conclusion that if I took a professionally designed cereal box or candy bar wrapper or whatever, and hung it up on the classroom wall, it would still get torn to shreds by these students.

That bummed me out as a student because, in my mind, a cereal box from Kellog's or a candy bar wrapper from Mars were done by real professional designers with professional art directors with professional production teams who, for all intensive purposes, know their STUFF.

Me, I was just a student, green in design principles and Photoshop, who was not in the same league as a designer at Kellog's, yet the cereal guy would still get his ass chewed by a bunch of peeps with my same experience (which was next to nothing).

It wasn't until a few years later when I discovered the difference between a true critique and self-satisfying verbal garbage. A true critique is about design quality while the other is solely about personal preference.

Another individual's personal preference in how they would have designed your piece is good to hear sometimes, if only for a bit of food for thought (and usually, that food only contains nourishment if offered by another professional - i.e. someone how knows what they are talking about. Usually).

Actual in-depth criticism on how a design piece communicates successfully or unsuccessfully based on principles of grid use, eye flow, information hierarchy, usage of color, white space, etc. can be invaluable in making a stronger piece.

However, back during my time in design school, it seemed that students would rely on personal preference instead of design quality while judging others' work, and even if I didn't fully understand it all at the time, it still rubbed me the wrong way.

But they were students, right? Still wet behind the ears. Once they get out in the real world and gain a few years of experience, that will all change in how they critique (or worse, direct) design work.


Nope. Well, sometimes.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Cleaning the house and blue cans

I am at a stopping point in my bathroom remodeling venture. It will resume once our relatives vacate the premises.

I put my Bob Villa skills to the test and it is coming out rather well. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as long as the grout holds the freaking tiles together, I don't care.

I hate to say it, but as my wife and I fumbled around the mess I created, we let the rest of the house go to shambles. Dishes piled and laundry scattered about, the house looked like my old apartment dwellings during my pizza slinging days.

As I mentioned, we have relatives staying with us for a couple weeks, so we had to get the house back in shape, with or without a completed upstairs bathroom. After all, my wife's relatives are Brazilian, and to them your only as good as how clean your house is. We don't want them to label our house a "favela" as her brother has done in the past.

As my wife and I were getting things in order, she asked me to make a quick sweep of the rooms with the disinfectant spray. It's not that our house was filthy to warrant an emergency disinfecting, it's just that we genuinely like the scent (and the disinfecting is a nice bonus).

Needless to say, between the remodeling and work, I was tired and useless when it came to deep cleaning, but I could manage spraying down the rooms, right?

I made my pass over the furniture, the hallway, the curtains, and the stairs. Afterward, I returned to the kitchen to begin washing the mountain of dirty dishes.

My wife came up from the basement and asked, "What did you spray?"

"Disinfectant," I said.

"No," she said, sticking her nose in the air for a few full sniff of air. "No, that's Pledge. You sprayed Pledge polish all over the house!"

I scoffed. No, I used the generic brand of disinfectant. The blue can. There's no way I would mistake the blue disinfectant can with a can of Pledge which is...

Yeah, I soaked our stuff in Pledge wood polish.

I looked over at the disinfectant, and while the color of the can is indeed blue, the label looks absolutely nothing like the Pledge can.

Later, this incident got me to thinking about how we use color for communication in our design work. The green coffee can is decaff, the cherry flavored candy is red, and pastel pink or blue on a cereal box is most likely a vanilla nut healthy cereal aimed at women.

In my case with the disinfectant, I simply remembered that can's color is blue. When asked to use it, I reached for the blue can. I ended up polishing our carpet and curtains in the process.

I looked both of the blue cans over and discovered that they are both a pleasant "outdoors" scent. Two different companies use the color blue to say "outdoors". Interesting.

Along the same line, my toothpaste is a cool mint flavor and my hemorrhoid cream offers a cooling sensation. Is there a color to represent "cool" because I sure as hell don't want to mix the two up.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short post: New post coming soon after I clean up this mess


I am in the middle of remodeling the upstairs bathroom. I admit that this is my first big renovation project and I thank God that my brother (who has extensive experience in doing this crapola) is helping me out.

I've learned many things while taking this wonderful journey. The main thing is that if you have eczema, wear gloves while handling hardibacker board. My hands look like those of a dried-up zombie.

Anyway, once I get done with this mess, I'll have a few posts ready. Until then, have fun and happy designing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why employers are beating down the dude's door

A good friend of mine is beating the odds against a sucky economy. Without actively pursuing employment, he's had three (3) design firms personally approach him, offering him a job.

Many people are having a tough time jumping out of the unemployment line and this happily employed dude gets three (3) out-of-the-blue job offers. How? Lucky streak? Good karma?

Well, I don't believe in luck or karma, but I can tell you what this dude** does posses that turns him into someone who is sought after by rabid employers. Rabid, I say.

1. I don't mean to insult your intelligence with the obvious, but what the hell: The dude knows his craft.

"Well, duh," you say. "So do I!"

Sure you do. You and a thousand million billion other designers out there. Even if the work varies from weak to excellent, any graphic designer (or copywriter, art director, pool cleaner, etc) worth their saltines knows his or her craft.

While knowing what the hell you're doing within your particular profession is extremely important to getting the job done, that is only a small portion as to what would make an employer kick in your door.

2. The dude has a killer work ethic.

When someone is early to work, eager to work, likes his work, and cranks out work that is of a high quality, then such dazzling work practices get noticed. The dude has made plenty of connections through his freelance jobs. As word about his honesty and integrity in his work spread, so did his job offers.

3. The dude is not arrogant about his work.

Some may think, "People mistake arrogance for confidence." Yeah, only arrogant people say that.

When someone is arrogant, it's hard for them to see their mistakes, although it seems to heighten one's abilities to see the mistakes in others' work (usually to try and cover insecurities in their own work). Because of that, people will not really want to come to them for advice on…well, anything. Arrogance is the cock block of teamwork, and if you're not a team player*, employers don't have much use for you.

4. The dude's helpful.

Simple, right? If someone has a question and he has the answer, he'll help out. You would be surprised at how many peers enjoy watching others sink or swim - especially if they sink.

Another friend of mine writes code at a local web/design firm. We'll call her Sally. When a new employee came into the office for orientation, Sally thought it would be nice to write out a few things to help the newbie get situated. Why? Because my friend had an absolute hellish first month when she started at the company. While her manager at the time was very accommodating, her peers were not only unhelpful with any questions or problems she faced as a new employee, they were downright mean.

Sally wanted to help out, not to brown nose the boss (because she didn't blab and blab and blab to her boss and the rest of the office about how she is taking it upon her fragile shoulders to help the poor new employee), but just to be team player* and to genuinely help someone avoid some of the pitfalls she experienced.

5. The dude is nice.

This appears to be an add-on to #4 since "helpful" and "nice" seem to go hand in hand, but you don't necessarily have to be nice to be helpful. You could be a world-class asshat of a mechanic and still help people to get their cars working.

What I mean is this: Have you ever worked with a peer whose attitude was so piss poor that they made everyone else in the office uncomfortable? The angry grumbler who surrounds him or herself with the eggshells upon which you must carefully tread?

Some people are so full of suck that no one in the office wants to work with them. Which, by default, places them in the "difficult" and "not a team player*" corner.

6. The dude is not a freaking drama queen.

Bringing personal problems to work, constantly panicking about every little thing, crying, pouting, and being the personification of a sore that itches does not make others want to work with or around a co-worker. Giant freak-outs about a moved deadline or a typo are not warranted.

Put dramatic spasms into perspective: Cancer is serious. Car wrecks are serious. Getting mugged is serious. A color change on a proof is not.

At least not enough to wave the arms all around and scream throughout the office like a crazed banshee, making both peers and boss sick to death of the dramatic crapola.


7. He owns up to his mistakes.

Yep. Anyone who will throw others under the bus in order to cover his or her mistakes is someone NEVER to be trusted. Why? Because when someone makes a mistake at his or her job and doesn't come clean about it, they are essentially lying.

Owning up and willing to correct work-related mistakes shows character-built integrity and honesty. If all someone can do is find ways to cover their tracks and point fingers at others who have nothing to do with the problem, then word will spread fast enough to brand the person completely worthless and untrustworthy in their job.

Although such a person deserves to have their freaking teeth knocked out, doing so would brand you as a rash and violent person. So don't go around knocking people's teeth out no matter how much they have it coming. Be a team player* and do your job well, knowing that the moron must learn not be such a lying clown shoe or they could be bounced out of a job.

*Let me end here and explain what I mean by "team player".

A team player is not necessarily someone supportive of design-by-committee or to bend over backwards for the detrimental-to-your-work benefit of the group. It's not about group brain storming or sheep-like group think.

A team player simply recognizes that they work for a company with a group of other individuals, all of whom should be treated with professional respect. No more, no less. They have a job to do, you have a job to do, and you are all (ideally) on the same team.

Employers like to see this dynamic work, and if you are the one pissing all over it, then don't expect anyone to do you any favors.

** No relation to Lebowski.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Esther Aarts: the Old-School iPad

Allan Peters turned me on to Esther Aarts' killer illustration work.

According to the Esther Aarts blog, all the "marker doodles" are done on the iPad. :D

My first job: Shocked, I was.

My first real job was a marketing/graphic design intern position with a local construction company.

Like many growing companies, these guys were sick of paying the relatively high prices to outsource their design work. They would spend a pretty penny having someone else put together their project books and print ads.

So they decided to bring all their marketing and design in-house...and I was it. Design department? Marketing? Me. The intern who was still in school.

Wet behind the ears is understating the cliche. I was soaked from head to toe, but it was exciting and now as I look back, I couldn't have started my career at a better place.

You see, I came into this internship from a job where I answered phones and figuratively changed the diapers of those attempting to fill out their college financial aid forms online. Out of all the jobs I've had, the freaking phone-answering job had to be the craziest and most stressful.

If I had to go to the bathroom, I had to "punch out" of my phone so that management knew I was not available, and I had TWO (2) minutes to get to the bathroom and get back or I was in trouble. It didn't matter if I had to go number 1 or number 2, I had to push fast and sit my half-wiped ass back down to answer the phones.

I worked at this place full time to get me through design school. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of an internship doing design work for a construction company, I jumped at it. I was overjoyed that it was a paying gig and I could quit my hectic job with Big Brother.

Imagine my shock as I left a job where I didn't have time to piss to a place where they sat me at my own desk to perform a couple week's worth of...web browsing.

They wanted me to design a new web site for the company and they wanted me to take a look at other construction companies' sites to see what I thought worked.

I was shell-shocked because after the first couple of full days, I had sketches and notes up the wazoo for a new web site. The rest of the week was just cruising the net. They didn't have anything else for me to do just yet, so I was to simply sit tight.

Well, I at least wanted to get started building the site, even if they didn't have all the information I needed ready to go.

Since I knew both diddly and squat about coding, I told them I needed...haha...I told them that for me...hee hee...for me to build the web site, I would need...I would need...hahaha...Microsoft FRONTPAGE....


Yeah. Intern.

Anyway, after my first week there of noodling around on the internet and eating candy, I started to feel guilty about getting paid to do this "job". I mean, after almost two years of getting hammered day in and day out on the phones by people who didn't know how to clear their browser cookies, I felt like I was stealing from my new employers.

I told my brother, who works as a web programmer, about my feelings. He laughed and told me to chill and soak it up because the slow pace will come and go, and when it goes, I'll understand why the company hired me.

He was right. The slow couple of weeks came to an end and suddenly I had a ton of construction project books to design, as well as the site, print ads, newsletters, and press releases.

Then a couple more slow weeks. More internet noodling and candy.

I was sad to leave that company (although the money I was to make at my new job would cheer me up considerably) because it was a great first job that yielded much time for me to learn my craft.

One last thing. Those of you who are starting late in the design profession, or it is taking longer than usual to finally get through school, know that when I accepted my internship, I was 30 years-old.

Yep, a 30 year-old intern working in FrontPage. Don't let that image make you sad because I am now onto better things in my career. If I can do it, anyone can. Trust me.