Thursday, September 27, 2012

It's hard to be a team player if there's no team!

As you might guess from the name of this blog, I've been at this design-thing for a long time. I've seen the industry go through a lot of changes. When I got my first gig as a staff artist at an ad agency, I worked with a whole team of other professionals, including customer reps, photographers, copywriters, typesetters, lithographers, color photo scanner/separators... all specialists in their fields. My job as a designer was to develop the idea and design, acquire the right team for the job and coordinate their work to get a final piece produced. If we'd been making a movie, I would have been the producer/director, working with a writer, staging and lighting staff, actors and the rest, then supervising the editor, and delivering the final work for distribution. Quite enough to keep one person busy.

The early 90s saw new computer tools being developed for design and production. By the mid 90s, I was concerned about being able to keep working; I knew the industry was headed toward being completely handled by computer and that all my hard-won skills with Rapidograph pens and T-squares and triangles were about to be rendered moot. I hunted for ways to learn the new skills I would need. Fortunately the place I was working at the time decided to make the jump from traditional production to digital production without ditching its current art staff, and we were all pretty much in the same boat: we all needed to learn EVERYTHING. Most of us had some geek-tendencies and started picking the skills up quickly. There was one guy who just wasn't getting it though -- he was great with the Xacto blade but not with the mouse. He didn't last very long, and I missed him. First member of my team gone.

As expected, more and more tasks were completed by the designers with our Macs. We set our own type -- goodbye to the professional typesetters. Good news: lots of flexibility, and no more waiting a day to get a strip of type back. Bad news: rather than using that saved time to shorten our workload, we started doing half a dozen variations to see what they looked like, and our clientele learned (and then demanded) that they could get those half a dozen alterations within hours instead of weeks. We got scanners, and started doing scans of logos and black and white photos, moving eventually to doing our own color scanning, which meant goodbye to the professional color separator. Good news: lots more flexibility with resizing, where before once we'd ordered the separations we were locked into that size. Bad news: we lost the years of expertise and access to super-high quality color scanning, and had to take on responsibility for color correction ourselves. We started embedding the scans into our text document so that the entire job could be completed on one work station, ready to send to the printer, which meant goodbye to the lithographer. Same sort of good news/bad news... production time compressed (not shortened, just packed more full of stuff), years of expertise lost. Then came the stock photos, and goodbye to the photographers. The copywriters had been blown off long ago; why pay another person? Anybody can write. (Gawd.)

By the turn of the century, a designer had become a composite of all of those lost professionals (while not acquiring the combined paychecks of the whole team, mind you!). The tools all became more powerful, and soon anybody with a computer and enough dough to buy the software could be a designer. There were fine-tuning tools in the software for beautiful kerning, delicate color adjustments, accurate trapping, and conversion from rgb to cmyk profiles. Not that the "just buy the software and start passing out business cards" designers (coff, coff) had a clue what any of that meant. Printers' nightmares increased with more and more frequent submission of completely unusable digital files (I noticed that early on, InDesign changed the color name in the Swatches palette from "white" to "paper." Gee, I wonder why...). And the designers were more and more required to be a one-person art and production department, isolated and dumped upon.

(Yes, I'm whining. I've been at this long enough to have earned the right, thank you.)

Another shift has happened, every bit as rattling as the transition from traditional to digital production, and it's not just in the design industry. Publishing, retail sales, document delivery, and so much more have been turned inside out by the transition from traditional media to online media. Newspapers can only carry yesterday's news. Retail shops can only carry limited stock, and can only drop their sale price so far. Document couriers? Who needs 'em? Good news: fast, fast, fast, fast. Lots and lots of options, and immediate comparisons. Bad news? Somebody's got to be able to create the applications that will get the message online -- fast and accurate, and a new challenge: hacker-proof -- and that's not going to be your friendly neighborhood designer.

Now personally, I really like programmers. I like their geeky creativity, their offbeat humor, their ability to make magic happen behind the scenes... and the fact that they can do so much that I can't. I like working alongside a programmer -- I like designing and organizing a layout, knowing that the programmer can write the code that will make those blank cells fill up with good stuff from a database, or create a usable document of answers to the questions in the form I've designed... "here's what I want to happen; what do you need from me?" That's what I used to do with the lithographer back in the 80s. We'd figure it out as a team. It was fun, it was challenging, and I got darned good at my job because I learned so much from those experienced professionals.

Sounds great, right?


It's all supposed to be one person again. So goodbye designer, hello programmer. It's your turn to learn everything that I know because you need to "handle the web site." Job descriptions that come up with a search for "graphic designer" require a list of skills including php, javascript, jQuery... apparently there's really no more call for just a designer.  Where the transition was a matter of learning to use tools to manipulate a layout, now it's wandering off into a completely different and weaker part of the designer's brains. Same problem if it's the programmer being asked to also be the designer. The idea that this whole desperately complex job can be handled by a single individual is ludicrous.

Yes, I'm stating my opinion as if it were fact. It's my blog, deal with it.

I'm currently taking classes to upgrade my skill set, and have tried my hand at developing sites from the ground up, but they are, to date, pretty basic in their functionality. I can design it, but I still need help with the programming. I am absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I still have to learn, if I'm going to remain viable as a professional designer. I would so much rather play to my strengths.

There are PSD-to-HTML services out there (the designer supplies a Photoshop layout, they chew it up into code), but I haven't tried them out yet. Maybe that's the solution. But I so so, so, so miss having a team to work with, someone I can sit across a table from, making notes on a sketch pad. Guess that's all handled online now too. It's as if we've all been asked to sit quietly in our own little isolation tanks and not interact with anyone anymore. Hey, just get out your smartphone and text. Keep your head down and walk right into a tree. (Or trip into a fountain at the mall.)

I miss my team.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Exodus

Fall of 2011, and Facebook is rolling out a real-time ticker and their Timeline. And people are freaking out. I was all set to play with the timeline thing; thought it might be kind of cool, but... there's something else... FB follows me around the web, wherever I go, taking notes and reporting back to the rest of the FB world what I am up to. I don't even have to hit a "like" button or a "share on Facebook" link; it just knows where I went. 

Hmph. I don't even like someone following me around a store... much less around the web. 

FB is starting to feel like one of those flying bugs that won't leave me alone. It's annoying. And... it's invasive. I don't really WANT everything I do broadcast to the world, thank you... Seems that a lot of my friends feel the same way. A lot of them are cancelling their Facebook accounts (or planning to -- I'm curious about whether that's an easy process or a difficult one). A lot of them are porting over to Google+, which is finally becoming active instead of a silent wasteland. Myself, I pulled Facebook off of my main browser (Firefox), and launched Safari for the first time on this machine (which meant it was a browser with no preferences or cookies or history), and quarantined Facebook over there. If it's not going to play nicely with my other browsing, I just have to separate it. 

Bad social network. No cookies.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To DIY or Not To DIY, that is the question.

My sister Nancy makes a valid point in her comment to my last post ... it's not appropriate to restrict graphic software to use only by industry professionals. Not in this day and age of do-it-yourself everything. I have mixed thoughts about this trend.

I like very much that there are tools available independent artists like Felicia Day and Projected Twin to bypass the big studio entertainment business blockades. They can create and distribute their own creative work, gather their own audience, and stay in direct contact with them at the same time. The tools are getting more sophisticated, and while "The Guild" may never have the special effects of a Speilberg blockbuster... it doesn't need to. It's great and it's out there, and it's not by Paramount or 20th Century Fox or Tristar. Yay all over that.

On a smaller scale, there's a self-checkout at the library, and at the grocery store, and of course the gas station... do your own taxes online... ok, still good...

How about going to WebMD to self-diagnose? How about going to one of these online trading sites to pick some investments? There are lines drawn for things that can affect your health, like purchasing certain medications, but there are many other things that you get to do all by your own little ole self, whether you are able to make wise and informed choices or not. Granted, you're not going to lose your savings or your health if you choose to create a jpg when you really need a gif; I'm just wondering at what point it becomes more problematic than convenient to do it all yourself?

Yes, this is an extremely silly comparison. I bring it up as two points on a wider scale. Maybe there should be a scale of 1 to 10, where sewing on your own button is a 1 and doing your own appendectomy is a 10.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Acronym Soup

I've learned to dread the phrase "Can you send me my logo?" Years ago, that just meant sending a sheet printed logos in different sizes. Easy. Now it's this whole ordeal requiring a full-blown inquisition... what format do you want? ("Oh, I don't know...") OK, how will it be used? Is it being printed? Digital or offset? ("huh?") Somehow I have to extract a bunch of technical info from a non-technical person in order to know whether to make an rgb.jpg or a cmyk.pdf or a spot color .ai or an indexed .gif. If I just send them whatever I have on file, I inevitably get the phone call saying that wasn't what they needed... can I send it another way.... no, that wasn't it... could I just talk directly to their printer/web designer/engraver/sign maker and see what it is they need...

My opinion: The proliferation of desktop publishing software to the general public has been a wretched development. I almost think you should have to be licensed before you are allowed to handle these bytes of data. And Word should have some kind of a warning label. "You probably can't use this software for what you are planning to do."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hello, new Mac

My trusty old Powerbook G4 finally passed into silicon oblivion... I took it to the nearest Mac shop for responsible recycling. Seems strange to think that it's not here anymore, even though I haven't been able to use it for a while (the graphics card sputtered out after a long illness). That little machine had become a part of my home. I was all moved into it and had it all set up, and could generally find whatever I needed even through the digital clutter. I must admit, it had become a pretty fair reflection of how I live in the real world -- too many notes-to-self on the desktop, too many old and unused applications still loaded, too many long-completed projects left on the hard drive, too many started but not finished projects left to keep the finished ones company.

And now here I have a brand spanking new one! It's spiffy, it's speedy, it's minty-fresh and has scads of available disk space. And no clutter at all! How long can I keep it organized? I wonder, if I can get a handle on keeping this little digital lap warmer clean, will it motivate me to keep the rest of my home clutter-free?

Probably not. But for right now... hello, zen. This is nice.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Slash and Churn!

I have a guest rant today! This all started with a question I fired off to a friend and fellow geek (ok, actually I'm seriously out-geeked here). Our exchange follows--used with permission, but my Guest Ranter requested anonymity "as it's probably half wrong, but it's the mostly-right part that counts." (Note... you have to get past a couple of exchanges of fairly dry Geekish before the Silly starts!)

Me: "Random question, what's the difference to a computer between a forward slash and a back slash? Don't they both just indicate directory structure?"

GR: "MS-DOS, Windows, and variants use the backslash "\" for folder structure. UNIX, Linux, and most all other operating systems use the forward slash "/". Windows systems running IIS for serving websites use the forward slash for folder structure on the front-end of the website. Clear as mud?"

Me: "The only thing I didn't follow was "IIS" -- is that a system, or a flavor of a system,...? Weird that they'd change from one style of slash to another from the computer system to the web server. Wonder if there was a reason for that. (Or if it was like a NASA thing; one side uses metric and one side doesn't and let's explode something...) "

GR: "IIS is Internet Information Services, Microsoft's suite of site-hosting services for "serving up" WWW, FTP, etc. sites. Similar to Apache web server for Linux.

The internet (and later, the WWW) was around long before Microsoft and Windows existed. It was a happy place, full of unicorns and rainbows and peace-loving beings from all walks of life. The earliest (and still dominant) infrastructure for the internet was built on mainframes and minis running VAX, VMS, AIX, or other UNIX-like systems, so the WWW and the rest of what we collectively refer to as "the internet" sort of inherited that style of folder structure. And then, along came Microsoft.

When Microsoft came on the scene with DOS, and later, Windows, and started making their Operating Systems more network (and thus, internet) capable, by necessity they had to adopt the existing nomenclature for folder structure, especially for running servers. Otherwise, while the rest of the world is linking to, if Microsoft had it their way, sites running on Windows would be http:\\\folder\file.html and you'd have broken links all over the place.

On the "back end", the nuts-and-bolts part of the server where it does its dirty work, Windows servers still handle folders as drive\folder\file.html but automatically translates that to drive/folder/file.html when the file is being publicly served.

It gets really frustrating when lazy web developers use old and broken versions of MS's Front Page suite, which never did correct the / vs \ behavior, and you'd wind up with a link like "\windows\driver.exe" --see the switch halfway through? This is still such a widespread problem (solely created by Microsoft's unwillingness to conform to perfectly acceptable standards), there is a plugin for Firefox called "slashy" which automatically corrects "broken" slashes. Of course, IE automagically fixes this bad behavior, but no standards-compliant browsers like Firefox, Opera, or Konqueror automatically fix this behavior, because technically speaking, it shouldn't be there in the first place!"

There's supposed to be a fun little end-rant-tag here but I've yet to figure how to get this site to stop stripping it out...

This makes me think of the scene in Zoolander, with Fabio accepting a "Slashy" award: "This means you see me as Best Model-Slash-Actor... and not the other way around." [smirk]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An existing and proven business model?

I think I'll set up a design business like an insurance company. My customers will have to pay me a monthly retainer to do nothing. If they DO have a project come up, I will raise the rates and make them pay a certain amount of it up front, no matter how many months worth of retainer fees they have already paid. If they have any existing bad design, I will refuse to do any new design work to improve it. And if they ever try to do something on their own that I deem dangerous to good design, I will drop them as a client.

Should work, don't you think?