Justin Childress
Designer & Creative Director



September 9th, 2016

A Series of Punctuated Thoughts

This bit of something-or-other was originally composed as a series of tweets, but as the length of it grew I decided that I would spare my followers the pain of a 20-odd tweet storm. I think that this format ultimately makes more sense, though the intended staccato rhythm has been maintained. It is conceptually related to this post from last week.

Ok, I’m about to get unsatisfyingly pragmatic about something, and you know how much I hate being pragmatic.

I have a very general observation about (some) of the fresh(er)-out-of-school designers whose portfolios I have perused recently:

Lots of cool thinking, lots of brave attempts at critical theory,

…lots of bad typography and lack of demonstrated understanding re: basic principles of form.

Lots of talk of “pushing the field.”

I love seeing a dedication to “pushing the field,” but you can’t plant that flag if normal person clients don’t want to pay for your work.

I have been reading a lot of essays lately, many of them decrying the “old guard” of graphic design,

many of them expressing how we need more “critical practice” in design.

Yes, of course we do. 100% believe that. Super big no brainer. BUT

…it’s well and good to decry the old guard, but you’re unqualified to do that if your understanding of popular cultural aesthetics is garbage.

I declare that it is not allowed. Once again, don’t mistake personal frustration at the taste of others for critical analysis.

A unique “process of inquiry” is not an excuse for ignoring your technical development as a designer. You can’t reject formalism until you understand how form works.

We can’t all design to our taste. My personal taste in graphic design is decidedly inaccessible, and weirdly, clients won’t pay me to make that stuff  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Too bad, so sad.

Or as my daughter likes to say, “so sorry, congratulations!”

That doesn’t mean I don’t explore that stuff on my own, but it diverges from my client work. That’s fine and healthy.

Critical practice can (and should) happen, but it’s a personal/ insular pursuit that provokes growth.

It’s a conversation you have with your peers, (probably, unless your situation is very unusual) not your clients.

I can say this as a (technically) professional academic who reads critical theory on his lunch break (oh god he’s so annoying):

All that stuff coming out of Yale, CCA, et. al? Love it. Right up my alley. I devour it. I wanna make it. However, it’s designed into a mirror.

As designers we must be willing to understand that we must ride that middle line between our subculture and the Everyman,

…and if we drift too far into either, we’re doing no one a service.

Explore? Yes, do it! Be progressive! Don’t be boring! But a huge part of our job is understanding how to use the common vernacular.

If you can’t speak to the Everyman, if you can’t operate in the present, then you’re unequipped to communicate where you live,

…and if you can’t communicate where you live, then what’s the point? You’re in danger of becoming a speculative expressionist.

(Which sounds cool and is fine, but doesn’t really give you room to complain about the state of commercial graphic design. It becomes an academic question.)

Don’t design down, design across, and don’t mistake your critical inquiry into your discipline for what clients inerrantly need. Most people don’t live in the mirror.

And keep practicing your typography, please and thank you. Experiment within your expertise. That’s secretly what I’ve been getting at this whole time.


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