Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Learning things you don’t really need to know

As I’ve alluded to on more than one occasion, I make the bulk of my income by doing graphic design, sadly. The way I got into that biz was rather circuitous, and the fact that my life has changed to this place never ceases to astonish me.

I grew up in a household of two artist-parents. Neither made their livings from art, but both were very talented and would rather have spent their days on this passion than what they wound up doing: homemaking/secretarial and running a photo engraving business. (I’ll let you guess who did which.) What happened, though, to my brother, sister and me was we absorbed my parent’s artistic ethic. My sister is a talented artist, my brother an excellent draftsman, and me? Well, let’s just say I have a keen appreciation of art and a bit of knowledge, but I can’t draw anything more advanced than stick figures. I became a musician, and still harbour a real envy of people who have the ability to draw.

So, based on that, how and why did I get to graphic design? Let’s just say that it was a circuitous route, led by my dissatisfaction with teaching instrumental music. After 23 years of it, I decided that I was no longer able to give my best to my students (the reasons were wide and varied), and it was time to get out. Unless I got really lucky, writing wouldn’t pay my way, so I was keeping my eyes opened for something else I could do.

Since I’d grown up in a photo engraving plant, I had unknowingly absorbed a lot of knowledge about what the graphic arts are and how they worked. I was helping with my dad’s hand proof press (when there was a need of such things), when I could barely turn the crank to make the bed travel down the press. When most kids were still struggling with long division, I knew how to break down an image into 4-colour process negatives, and the basics of setting type (still mostly by hand at that point).

But I became a musician and music teacher. When a life-change was needed, I got offered a job, based on my printing knowledge and skill with computers, plus my organizational ability learned as a classroom teacher, to work in a small design studio. My two bosses (I was the only employee) set about giving me on-the-job training in graphic design. Fortunately, they were very patient with me and good at explaining things, but often felt completely at sea in the early days.

Curiously (and surprisingly), knowledge I had acquired by osmosis when I was a kid became a valuable commodity. At the same time, I made it my business to learn the graphic arts requirements for good book design: covers and interior, since that’s where my interests lay. Maybe I inherited some of my parents’ artistic talents after all. I only needed a computer to help me realize it.

In the end, another thing I didn’t really set out to learn has come to be very valuable. My current publisher’s design department probably finds me rather annoying. I can look at a cover proposal and fire back detailed notes about all the little things that need work to help pull the design ideas together. I bit my tongue with my next book’s interior design, but the cover is far too important not to say something if I can help make it better, so I spoke up. There was the expected push back, but in the end, they did most of what I wanted since my points were very valid. The cover is pretty snappy now, but most wouldn’t be able to say why because the changes were tiny and subtle, but they do work.

How does all this fit into my topic today? (Or, how in heaven’s name is he going to wrap all this up?)

One thing I dislike designing are websites. A web designer must assemble a huge amount of arcane knowledge to work in this field, a world filled with acronyms and formulae that would make the average person’s head spin. I had learned enough of it to be dangerous.

But currently, I have to redesign my wife’s flute school’s website. Biting the bullet, I’m learning a new website compiling program. The for it manual is 1200 pages thick. I barely have a handle on things, but I’m trying to cobble together enough skills to do the job right. Pretty far from writing crime fiction, eh?

Not really. Last night I was adding a div to surround the outer container of my web template (told you it was arcane, didn’t I?), when a plot point in the novel I’m currently working on suddenly occurred to me. I could wrap this point around another point and add a whole new layer to the story, one that could be quite breathtaking at the novel’s end when All Is Revealed.

I wouldn’t have come up with this excellent idea if I hadn’t spent the whole day dabbling in HTML divs, CSS and PHP.

And so for this week, I’ll say TTFN.


Hannah Dennison said...

Isn't it strange what we end up doing unintentionally? I swore I would never ever be a "secretary" - now called Executive Assistants. I have been one for 13 years now - and oddly enough, the ongoing dramas at The Office (think of TV's Mad Men but a 100 times more exciting) - gives me no end of ideas for my books ... and a steady, stable income.

Rick Blechta said...

“In the end, it's all about income, isn't it?” he sniveled.

I had ZERO idea I would wind up being a graphic designer. I was going to be a famous rock star and be living off my back catalog by this time. Ah, to be 15 years old again!

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