The Bridge Metaphor

You find yourself about to cross a bridge. The bridge spans a deep canyon. A sign on the approach to the bridge informs you that the architect was as little concerned with, engineering as a great many designers are with sound document creation . . . Will you cross the bridge? It looks like a bridge, after all. But what will happen if the architect felt that precise dimensions were not his responsibility? The bridge ends might not meet in the middle. For that matter, what if the architect was not all that interested in materials and figured that cardboard and hemp would do just as well as, say, reinforced concrete and structural steel? It indeed looks very like a bridge – a beautiful, arching, graceful bridge, in a very interesting colour. It is, however, starting to rain and the cardboard looks to be getting wet.

When I started working about twenty years ago, the technology that is used in graphic design studios today was in its infancy. This technology changed almost every aspect of workflow, which became as unlike that of a pre-computer studio as it could be. This presented problems.

The technical experience and customary working process of many senior people who had been in traditional studios for decades became irrelevant. Their aesthetic skills may have been intact, but they no longer understood how their concept would or could be realized. The stat-camera they were so familiar with was gone. There were no rough paste-ups, galleys, marker renderings or comped type. They did not have the skills or working vocabulary to do or to direct computer work, so their ability to interact with projects was significantly compromised. They could jump on the learning curve, and many did. However, many more blundered ahead and produced work that required extensive alteration and correction to be useful.

Junior designers, entering the field with computer skills, were often saddled with this task, pigeonholed in a way that was very difficult to escape. Juniors who a decade before would have been mentored by more experienced designers found themselves explaining why the direction they were being given was inappropriate. They found themselves instructing the very people they should have been learning their trade from. How could resentment not arise from such a situation?

Where once there was a ladder of junior, intermediate and senior designers, everyone ascending according to talents and ambition, there appeared a two-class system of creative and technical people. The former were seemingly above technical considerations in their stratosphere of ideas, and the latter were not taken seriously for their creative abilities because, by definition, anyone who had technical skills could not be creative. This is where my bridge metaphor comes from. It was like choosing an architect with no technical appreciation over one with extensive engineering skill precisely because the former didn’t know what he was doing.

Add to this that many people entered “desktop publishing” with no design skill set whatever. Companies that decided the operation of a machine was a menial task would grab a handful of their clerical staff and send them on a ten-week course to become desktop publishers. These people were particularly ineffective at dragging studios into the 21st century. Senior designers who lacked the technical vocabulary to do or direct computerized design were directing DTPs who may themselves have understood the basics of operating Quark XPress, but lacked the design skills to understand what they were being directed to do.

In these circumstances, what passed for design or art direction usually resolved a minimum of the design requirements. And what happened in production amounted to what carpenters call back-framing: trying to make a comprehensive design based on the existing pseudo-design. Since the artists doing this were either junior designers or not designers at all, and since neither was benefiting from effective guidance, the quality of their work largely depended on what they could figure out for themselves.

This situation produced a lot of problematic work. For years, much of what film houses and printers did was to correct and adjust artwork in client files just to make it possible to RIP the jobs.

Computerization revolutionized graphic design, and revolutions are messy. And yet, a messy transition period between an old order and a new should come to a conclusion. Two decades later, some of the most fundamentally awful design and production documents I have ever worked with were recent. Why?

There has never been a “clean start” since the introduction of computerized design and production. Designers drag along work practices and bad habits acquired years ago. They have all evolved their own standards, giving rise to the notion, excusing inconsistency, that “everyone has their own way of doing things.” No surprise, then, when it is difficult to prescribe sound work practices or distinguish bad ones. And yet we should.

When we do not produce sound comprehensive designs and documents that are easy to work with, there is a toll in time, money and peace of mind. No one wants to be the architect of little disasters, and we can do better.

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Dave

I am an experienced freelance graphic artist and sometime canoeist. I feel strongly about the quality of professional work and like sitting by a remote lake on a sun-warmed rock.

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