Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who's the Boss?

There's another rule in professional design. It's different from the rules I discussed last time, because it's not technical in nature.

Let me state right up front that there are exceptions to this rule — primarily that you should never do work for anything or anyone you find morally objectionable. Not that I expect there will ever be Nuremberg-style Trials for designers, but if there ever are, the excuse that you were just following orders shouldn't hold up there any more than it did in 1945 & '46. Wait … did I just Godwin's Law this article into pointlessness? Oh dear …

Anyway, here it is:
RULE: The customer has to like it.

It's important to remember: Art Is Subjective. There is room for divergence of opinion regarding what is good and what is bad. You can slave away on a layout, pulling out all the creative stops, riding one of those waves of genius that seem to hit all humans from time to time, only to have your labors rejected by your customer*. 

Make no mistake: this will happen to you.

If you want to be an independent artist, doing what pleases you, then do that. If you're a professional by day and use your own time for creative outlet, that's great, too. However when there is someone else to whom you are responsible, their word is final — especially if you want to keep working with them. 

If you produce great work but it doesn't fit with the customer's vision for the project, it will never be seen, and you'll likely never get paid for it. Commercial art is still art, but it's not necessarily yours. Sometimes you're the creative visionary, but sometimes you're just someone else's tool for achieving their goals. Always remember which place you're in on a given project.


It's important to remember: doing what your customer wants does not make you a "Sell-Out" or illegitimate as an artist. If you have a personal vision for your art, pursue that. If you just want to make commercial art, do that. There's no rule that says you can't do both, but it's going to be a rare situation where you can do both on the same project. Most projects will be one or the other.

Learn to let go.

This is a lesson that was difficult for me. In the past, I've had arguments with people over the dumbest things: The Oxford Comma, for example. I won't say which side I was on, because that's irrelevant. The point is, the company for which I was working had a style guide which stated one thing and I wanted another. Eventually the customer won out (of course) and I only succeeded in making an ass of myself. And don't even get me started on hyphenation in the word "e-mail" or capital letters in URLs!

The point is, the customer will have a way she wants it done, and it's their way or the highway. If you pitch a fit over every silly disagreement (most of which, let's face it, don't really even matter in the grand scheme of things), you will find yourself hard up for work very quickly, because one you get that reputation, very few people will want to work with you. 

So just learn to let it go, and get on with your work.

*I'm using the term "customer" here, but what I really mean is any person for whom you are working or to whom you are responsible, whether it be an actual client, your boss, a project lead, the Creative Director or the CEO of the company in which you work.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Design Philosophy

I thought it would be a good idea to establish my personal philosophy for putting together a file for professional print publication. This way you'll know right up front where I'm coming from.

These are not the rules for good design. You won't find anything here regarding color theory, use of space, font choices or any of that. You can learn that at any school of art & design — and you will pay a whole lot of money to get that kind of education, too. Of course, you can find opinions about those rules all over the place, too, so I won't bother re-stating them here.

I'm talking about my personal, practical rules for the process of building a file for eventual print publication. It boils down to two rules:

1. It has to output and print correctly.
2. It should be built so that it's very easy to edit in the future.

Now, these may seem simple — obvious even — but I'm still regularly surprised by how often these rules are ignored or abandoned by otherwise very good designers. You can create the most incredible piece - one that your friends and co-workers will call brilliant or moving or effective, or whatever ... but if these rules aren't followed, you limit your creation's potential to be seen by a wider audience.

So let's take a closer look at them:

It has to output and print correctly.

I cannot even begin to count the number of proofs I see that have strange process artifacts in them. Nor can I count the number of times I've seen RIP operators come back with a problem in a file that they simply can't fix from their end.

These problems usually result from a designer using improper methods for creating the file to begin with. Often they've used a software shortcut. (There's a whole future article regarding these.) Or, perhaps they've selected a non-compliant font. Sad to say, the most common reason for this is that the designer used the wrong tool for the job (i.e., they used Photoshop as a type tool, or they created an entire page layout in Illustrator rather than QuarkXPress or InDesign). 

Another common mistake is dropping layered Photoshop files directly into a layout document. Yes, Adobe will tell you that this should work fine, but I have news for all you youngsters: Adobe lies. Or, more precisely, Adobe's marketing copy implies a lot. Yes, you can, in fact drop a raw PSD file into an InDesign layout, and it will usually look just fine on screen. But when you send that file out, or when you create a final PDF for print, it won't always actually work. It's easier just to create all your files with this in mind rather than make a crapshoot out of it, because even though you'll come up sevens and elevens much of the time, when you do roll snake-eyes, it will inevitably happen at the worst possible time.

Design schools teach design. Unfortunately, they usually either neglect to teach the mechanics of turning the design into reality, or they teach the wrong methods.

As the project deadline approaches, it's easy to get in a hurry and just slap together something so that it looks OK. When the files come back to you because the printer or proofer can't get them to output correctly, or when the proofs come back looking all wrong, you'll find yourself frustrated at having to re-work files that were supposed to have been done. This also takes away valuable up-front time on whatever your new projects are.

It's always better (and usually easier) to build it right the first time.

It should be built so that it's very easy to edit in the future.

Whatever your project is — I don't care whether it's a huge self-mailer with all sorts of cool fold-outs or if it's as simple as a business card — there is a very good chance that you or someone else will need to edit or repurpose it in the future. To that end, it is vitally important that you do the technical layouts in a way that can be easily edited.

Easily editable means that if someone who has never worked with this file (or set of files) picks it up, they could easily change copy (both body copy and headlines), images and other design elements easily and without having to resort to rebuilding any of those elements or re-keying any of the copy from scratch.

There will be more detailed articles on this topic in the future, but I thought it would be a good idea to lay these concepts out up front. Whether I'm designing something new, re-purposing an old creative concept or simply preparing someone else's files for print, these are the things I keep in mind. Sure, you can sometimes get away with taking shortcuts, but if you make a habit of doing things correctly from the start (keeping these rules in mind) you'll save yourself a lot of headaches in the future.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Oh Boy.

Another blog ... this one's actually related to my profession, though, so that's different, at least.

More will come. Let's just say some things happened at work, and it gave me one of those these kids today moments regarding print design layouts, and so I decided I needed a place to vent about that sort of thing. Who knows? It might actually do someone else some good some day.

For now, I just wanted to get it started. In the meantime, I have work to do.