Famous Designer 

Designer Presentation

Tonight, I went to a presentation given by a famous designer about her work. You might be able to tell from the image who it was, especially if you're familiar with the work she's displaying, but then again, you might not. I am not going to say who it was just because this is my personal blog, and I wouldn't want keyword searches on her name directing people here. I am still not sure if I care if that happens or not. Whatever. For the time being, in my uncertainty, she'll remain a mystery (unless you already know.)

So, at the beginning of school term, the instructor in my layout class mentioned that the famous designer you see in my photo here would be appearing in our state in two places: one place in the state's biggest city, and one at the state university about forty minutes away from where I live. I'm intrigued by successful people, so I knew that I wanted to go, and the state university one sounded like my best option.

Normally, I have another class that meets at the time when I should be getting in my increasingly elderly car to drive the forty minutes to this presentation. And this other class is about forty minutes in the totally other direction. It seemed crazy to drive forty minutes to class only to spend a half hour there before having to leave to go to the presentation that would now be eighty minutes away. Staying home from school seemed like the only sane choice.

In my typical fashion, I wasn't sure where I needed to go, so at the last minute, I called this other school's library. A student worker answered the phone and introduced her self with an unusual name. Although I had already thought about the question I had planned to ask her, I was thrown off. My question came out in chunks, and finally I stopped in mid-sentence. I stammered, "excuse, me. I am sorry. What is your name?" She repeated it, and I replied in what I hope was a friendly tone, "wow, that's an interesting name." It was very stupid thing for me to say because I should have said "nice" or "beautiful name" because interesting is what people say to be polite when they actually hate something. Of course, I didn't hate her name, I was genuinely impressed by it. It was totally out of my character to ask people personal questions like these, but for some reason, I did it. She was very friendly and answered the questions I needed to ask.

Even though I had planned to leave much earlier that I did and visit the art gallery, I only managed to get out of town with just enough time to get to the presentation a few minutes late. My first problem was that I took too much time getting dressed, and my second problem was the unexpected difficulties with parking. The school was packed with cars, and navigating on these gigantic campuses are always trouble merely for the sheer amount of student pedestrians and cyclists milling around and in the streets.

The venue in which the famous designer was presenting was entirely inappropriate for her for the simple fact that the room could not hold everyone who wanted to attend. I had overheard from another person that she was visiting from yet a third college. There must have been many other people, like me, who had come in from other places. I stood in the hallway in the back and strained to hear what the famous designer was saying. It seemed like she was presenting her works and talking about the concepts that they represented.

I had hoped that she would have talked about her background and creative process much more, rather than her somewhat mechanical cataloging of her work. While it was interesting to hear her representation of the subjects of her work and what she intended their thematic meanings to be, it wasn't as insightful as I had hoped.

The thing about works of art, any work of art, is that interpretation is such a personal thing that anyone can come to their own conclusions fairly easily (if they are thoughtful and rigorous thinkers.) The work, to each of us in its own way, speaks for itself.

As a student of design, it would have been more helpful to hear about her approaches to her subjects, how she tackles the visual problems and themes she encounters, or how she solves the problem of typography in her work. I felt that her presentation was essentially like looking at the vacation photos of another family. Yes, I am sure it was a nice trip, but can you give me any advice about how to go on my own adventure?

After the last slide, the lights in the room came on, and a representative of the college, a balding professorial man in an argyle sweater, announced that there were refreshments in the lobby and that the famous designer would be signing copies of her portfolio. The portfolio cost fifteen dollars more than I had with me, and I did not have a checkbook. Nevertheless, I intended to stick around and ask her a question or two if I could. I met up with some of my fellow students in the lobby who, like me, had driven from far away to get there. I was surprised to see one of the students who had graduated from the program a year earlier there. I nodded hello to him, and while standing behind a crush of people milling around both the designer and the snack table, we made polite conversation.

I was confused about whether or not he was going to this state college or had graduated from it years earlier. I tried to ask him about it, and he said yes to something, but I wasn't sure what he was referring to.

Moments before I had gone over to talk to him, he asked the famous designer if she could sign one of her posters with a phrase to the effect of "Go [College Mascot]!" It was silly request, and the designer expressed her reluctance to sign the silly phrase on the poster he chosen, one supposed to raise consciousness about the horror of war. He told her he had chosen it because it had the school's colors. I was little shocked at the frivolity and audaciousness of the request, but then again, that was his personality all over. She had told him that she would "think about it," and suggested that he stick around. I think her artistic sensibility was offended. I imagined someone during the renaissance asking DaVinci to sign the Mona Lisa with the phrase "Hot Chicks Rule!" Wasn't this the same thing?

While he was waiting for her to agree to his silly request, I chatted him up about his life after the school's program. He said that he was freelancing and earning enough money to pay his bills, something I found impressive. He said that he was steadily building up a group of clients. Laughing, he explained that he begins his first client meeting by quoting them a fee for work that is hugely exorbitant. But, as a special favor for them, he would make it cost only a third of that. It was an ingenious way of disarming client's objections about costs before they could even have them. The fact that he had clients with which to pay his bills only a few months after college actually made sense to me because he has an approachable personality that makes it easy for him to talk to anyone about almost anything. He puts people immediately to ease with his disarming, if frivolous, manner. If anyone ever could get the famous designer to compromise her artistic integrity and sign the poster with his silly phrase, it would be him.

We chatted for a handful of minutes more before I noticed that the line to talk to the famous designer had gotten rather short. I excused myself to stand in line. The woman ahead of me was asking the famous designer what software she used to lay out her type on the computer. "Adobe's InDesign" was the answer of course, and again, I was a little shocked. It would be like asking Herman Melville what type of pen he wrote with, hoping if one bought that same type of pen, they'd be able to write a famous novel too. Aside from the fact that any first year design student already knows that InDesign is pretty much the industry standard for this sort of thing, the question is so absurd as to be entirely beside the point. And yet, the famous designer was patiently and politely answering the question, appearing very professorial in her own right. I could imagine her teaching a freshman design course and having to say essentially the same things over and over again.

Then it was my turn. I always feel awkward in moments like these, partly because I feel that my odd appearance puts some people off. I am a bit of weirdo with an awkward manner, almost the complete opposite of the student who I had just been talking to a few moments before. And yet, I didn't feel my question itself was stupid. I first thanked the famous designer for an excellent talk, and then asked "what is your basic approach to typography?" She answered that, for her, she does a lot of hand rendering, something that was already apparent from even a casual review of her work. She also explained that she prefers type to communicate simply and be readable, too many fancy tricks are unnecessary at best and can ruin your work at worst.

I was a little unsatisfied with the answer even as I nodded obsequiously in an effort to appear graciously understanding. I consciously was trying to play the role of earnest student. Her answer was essentially the "text-book" answer I could literally find in most books about typography. Maybe she assumed I was just another idiot asking a stupid question. I had not yet figured out that I wanted to ask about her process.

I quickly followed up by asking what was the one thing, the one "bottom-line" thing, that she thought design students should know about typogrpahy. I said I wanted to know if she had any gems of wisdom about type and type design. She answered that it was important to work with it for a long time. She compared type to jewelry on your dress, the jewelry has to be the perfect complement. On a similar token, a bad piece of jewelry can ruin the whole outfit. It was at this point, I noted that the remaining stragglers in the room with us had stopped talking among themselves and were listening intently. As she explained her answer more fully, she began to address her comments to them as much as me.

At this point, I felt that asking any more questions would have been impertinent and excessive, so after she finished talking, I again thanked her for her answer and talk as a whole, and moved on. After getting a little lemonade from the snack table, I told the other students goodbye and walked out into the dark with them towards the parking lot. That one guy was still hanging around trying to get her to sign his silly phrase one his poster about war.

I had had a serious sense of deja-vu when I first drove on to campus. It made walking around in the dark after the presentation feel exotic and strange. I had a sense of wistfulness about my lost graduate school career in English literature, but I also remembered that the money I had spent chasing after it was looming ahead of me threatening financial disaster for years to come. I could not afford any more second chances.

Of course, there was the parking ticket pinned to my windshield that I half expected to see on my car when I got back. The talk went longer than the hour I put in the meter, and I did not want to leave to fill it up again and miss something important.

Fifteen bucks.

I could barely afford it, but it seemed somewhat reasonable for all of this. I imagined that if I had to pay for the famous designer's talk at the big city tomorrow, fifteen bucks would be a reasonable admission. After stopping at Burger King for the fattening burgers that I seemed to be eating too much of these days, I drove back home into to the dark, listening to the radio.

At some point, I need to take serious inventory of my life and get everything in order. If I try to look at myself from an outward perspective, it seems to me my life is in a mess. Thanks to medication, my emotions are not mired in the big blue trenches of depression as much as they used to be. Still, while my internal thoughts are not as oppressive as they were a few months ago, my outward circumstances are still in as big mess as they ever were. I suppose it is time I start trying to sort that all out.

21 October 2009
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