Many years ago at one of my first jobs selling art supplies, I once spent the better part of two hours mining little nuggets of wisdom and advice from an old photo-retoucher. We talked about airbrushes and airbrush technique and the business of photo-retouching (this was in the olden days, before PhotoShop). After purchasing a few items he turned back and said “Oh, and one more thing: Never take anyone’s advice.”
In her 1997 Chicago Tribune article “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young”, Mary Schmich states that “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth. “ (Baz Luhrmann fans will recognize this quote right away.) However, she does back this up with the idea that wearing sunscreen is a bit more than advice, as it’s “benefits have been proved by scientists.”
After 30 years working in the arts, and especially the graphic arts, I have two pieces of advice that are bit more proved than nostalgic — even though scientists weren’t officially involved. I freely dispense these tidbits on a regular basis to young minds looking to enter the art or design fields whenever I get the chance.
The first piece of advice is directly from design icon Saul Bass, who put it best when he was asked “So what is your advice to [design] students, Saul?”
“LEARN TO DRAW!” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to live your life getting around that and trying to compensate for that.”
Drawing efficiently distills and isolates ideas into visual language. It defines the idea you need to communicate separately from its background. Unlike writing, drawing is a direct, selective communication. In writing, we translate ideas into words, parsing those words into sounds, then those sounds into symbols. In reading, we reverse the process, translating the letters back into ideas. With drawing, the meaning is immediately recognizable, generally without education at all. And the form of the idea is communicated directly in great detail.
If I have the time I expand on this idea and tell folks "Learn to draw the human form." Because, while the twentieth century gave us a lot of great art, it failed us in some areas.
After the Second World War, art education in particular went through a huge upheaval. In the painting courses at art schools during the height of Abstract Expressionism, some teachers took points off if a student’s work actually looked too much like a picture of something. Life drawing and classical draftsmanship went out the window. The human form was not studied in many fine art programs for another three decades.
Symptomatic of this, were the comments of animator Richard Williams (author of The Animator's Survival Kit and Director of Animation on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”). During a panel discussion at a conference of deans of American art colleges in the mid-eighties, Williams railed at the deans that he was having immense difficulty in finding “trained, disciplined artists to hire.” Most of the graduates he interviewed couldn’t even be trained to animate.
In my own experience, I have met so many art directors and graphic designers who couldn’t draw a stick figure to save their own lives. Their careers survive on good taste alone. They often do good work – some are excellent – but designers that can actually draw people stand out. It’s not even that they can draw people well, it’s merely the fact that they have taken the time to study the mechanics and the form of moving, living things. Their work is alive. It flows well. It’s balanced. It has a sympathetic vibration with the eye. And their rough sketches communicate an idea more directly and immediately than those that cannot draw their own story boards.
The tide is turning a little, though. Ironically the computer has played a major role in this, as the demands of computer animation have forced artists to learn how gravity affects a body as it moves through space. Life drawing is re-emerging in college curriculums. Art as a whole has made a move back towards the figurative.
I have drawn all my life, but the knowledge I received in life drawing and anatomy classes improved my work more than in any other course of instruction.
So, take a life drawing class. If you can draw a decent person, then you can draw anything.
My second piece of advice is this: LEARN TO MEASURE.
I once had a designer give me an InDesign layout of a wallet card they needed me to prepare for press. As part of the quality control process I printed the file and made a comprehensive dummy of it. When I handed it to him he said “I had no idea it would be so small!”
I had no response.
It was a wallet card. He designed it! He laid it out to size!! Yet he had no real concept of what it would look like in the real world even though he knew.. It had to fit... Inside.... A wallet!!!
I get print requests all the time from various professionals, and size is often the last thing they've considered. “What size would you like it?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know, poster size?” they might say. Poster size is not a fixed size. And when that kind of response comes from an art director, it immediately tells me where their design skills fall short.
If you want to design something well, develop an innate sense of dimension. And don’t just learn to measure in inches. Learn the metric system, too. The vast majority of nations on the Earth use the Metric System. We work with computers these days. We can make a layout in fractional inches, decimal inches, centimeters, millimeters, pixels, picas, agates, ciceros and more. The computer can work with the numbers no matter which system we choose. But if you're designing something for the real world, it's a good idea to know what those numbers mean.
I once received some weird billboard specifications that read something like 18.0446 feet wide by 13.1234 feet high. It was an ad for an airshow in Germany. I went to the Production Manager and said “Are the original specifications in metric?” She nodded, proud that she was able to translate them into American numbers. I then patiently explained that she shouldn’t do that because when the layout gets back to Germany they’ll have to convert them back to meters and, because the two systems do not match exactly, there will be an exponential error from the two translations and the ad will not be the right size.
These are the kind of errors that have the potential to cost lives, millions of dollars, or lose spaceships in real-life outer space. Please visit Typeset In the Future for a fantastic explanation of the demise of the Mars Climate Orbiter.
So, take my advice: Learn to draw, and learn to measure. Not because it’s my advice. Learn to draw and learn to measure because they’re fundamental to design.
To understand drawing is to be able to efficiently communicate ideas.
To understand dimension is to give those ideas concrete form.
Communicating ideas and giving them form IS design.