A second or third draft - I forget which - of an article/essay I’ve been working on about how stupid graphic designers can be…
“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others 1: American Essays 1931-1935
Sitting in one of the computer rooms towards the end of my semester, putting together some of my submissions, I was engaged in a sort of conversation with a classmate of mine who had, without my knowledge or permission, taken one of the booklets I had put together. “Did you print this on silk paper,” he asked while violently flicking through it. I told him no. (Silk paper is a type of matt paper; it’s the type of matt paper idiots use just so they can say “silk” instead of “matt”). “Oh, you should’ve printed it on silk paper, it’s good, I printed my stuff on silk paper,” he continued. I am not a man of short patience, so I told him bluntly but politely how there was no need to print a booklet like that on silk paper, it is above its requirements. “It doesn’t matter,” he responded. “It’s good, you should have printed it on silk paper. I printed mine on silk paper. It’s good.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, he thought silk paper was really a rather good thing. That was as far as the conversation went. It didn’t matter what I thought, this chap had a thing for this silk paper and he wasn’t about to stop admonishing me for not printing on it just because it wasn’t necessary – it was what he thought, and that’s what mattered.
This is one of the many recent brushes with arrogance I’ve had in being a Design student. It’s a feature of the profession; a bad smell that refuses to go away. And, in a sense, it has its place, because I must immediately make a distinction. There is a difference between arrogance and backbone, between hubris and drive. Graphic Design is a ruthless profession and you can take an awful lot of shit from clients who don’t understand what it is you’re doing. And if you don’t have the backbone to stand up for and justify your own work, you’re not going to get very far at all.
This comes from an ability to rationally examine your own work with a fair critical eye. You also have to be able to take risks and have enough confidence in yourself to believe you can pull it off. In sport – yes, I, the un-sportiest of all people, am using the phrase “in sport” – this is called “wanting the ball”, you have to have enough confidence in your ability to believe you can take that catch or hit that ball when the pressure’s really on. But there is a difference between confidence and arrogance. It is, perhaps, subtle, but it’s there. It is also important to recognise that not all that speak out are arrogant and that not all that are quiet and meek are humble.
“A lot of people are afraid to tell the truth, to say no. That’s where toughness comes into play. Toughness is not being a bully. It’s having backbone.” – Robert Kiyosaki
You see, there is a culture of arrogance in Graphic Design. Like most arrogance, it stems from insecurity and ineptitude. It is, really, I suppose, just being insecure to a fault. The arrogant are marked by their inability to understand this. They will endeavour to show off their work at every opportunity – not for critical feedback, but out of the expectation of cheers and possibly even applause, out of wanting some validation. But, they are quick to anger at someone disliking their work, dismissing it as ignorance or not understanding, they are quick to flippantly and aggressively defend their work without real thought or consideration. Too many times have I ventured an opinion on a piece of egotistical work only to receive a reply akin to “you think so? I don’t think so.” In short, these people are hard work.
It isn’t that their work isn’t “good”. The principles are there, everything they have been taught has been, in one way or another, put into practice. It’s just that they lack scope, perception, and, above all, imagination. All creative processes require a certain amount of imagination. It sometimes feels like Graphic Design is the sell-out older brother of Art that’s gone and got a stable job while Art’s still playing punk gigs in its garage. Most designers will try and argue that Graphic Design is cooler than Art, but the truth that we must all start to accept, across all art courses, is that none of us are cool. But it seems that you can make it through design with all the knowledge and none of the imagination unlike other art-driven pursuits, and, apparently, this is what most students intend to do.
The result, however, is boring work. There is much call for boring work, don’t get me wrong; boring work makes up the bulk of the design industry. But there has to be something else there in order to make good design. Now, these designers will make up the bulk of the Graphic Design Industry, the proletariat; the lab rats. At some point they may be put in charge of a small group of other lab rats, able to lord their lifeless ideas over others’ lifeless ideas. Given a swanky new title that has the word “consultant” in it. But this is an empty moniker, akin to calling a cashier a “retail consultant”, it’s a meaningless euphemism designed to make you feel more special than you actually are.
But perhaps it is the fault also of the quieter, less brash students for empowering such attitudes and behaviour. Because for every egotistical, cocksure student there is there’s another unwilling to be honest or form an opinion of their own, instead they will just utter weakly “that’s nice, I like it” at everything they are shown. Critiques are frustrating in this way, they are awash with egos that rise higher and higher on every weak compliment. It is not a comment on their work, as far as they are concerned, these compliments – weak and meaningless though they may be – are compliments on their character and person. The hollow “that’s nice, that’s great, I like it” are heard as “you’re great” – and lo, “Yes,” the ego cries. “Feed me, feed me!”
You see, that’s the thing with an ego, its hunger can never be slaked. It’s like a fat child eating an Indian takeaway, there’s always room for one more bite.
That is the sad truth about the nature of open group critiques. You are not judging someone’s work. You are judging a person using their work as a convenient avenue. As a result, the egos get stronger, but the anti-egos just feel more exposed and helpless, even when, for the most part, their work is significantly better than that of the egos. This is wrong: it is unfair to look at someone’s clean and rational work and judge them as clean and rational; and it is unfair to look at someone’s “good”, rule-abiding work and presume they are good and follow the rules. You wouldn’t judge a tree by the idiot hugging it, so you shouldn’t judge a person by the work that is attached to them. There are exceptions, naturally, but these are just coincidence. I have among my esteemed peers a student who is cold, arrogant, and soulless and their work is thus – it is a complete and perfect representation of their personality. But I would never think to judge them as so because of their work, I took time to get to know them before I accepted that they are an idiot.
“Arrogance diminishes wisdom” – Arabian Proverb
Arrogance has led to a lack of ingenuity and an unwillingness to take risks in design students. People have been happy enough with their boring work, praised for it, and now they don’t see a point in deviating from that boring stance on their work out of fear of not being adequate. They don’t want the ball. They think they are good, but they don’t want to have to prove it by having to take a catch, they’re content to stand and tell everyone they could take it but someone else should instead.
This is their prerogative, and fortunately it is, fundamentally, only themselves they are holding back. Or is it?
There’s this thing about Graphic Designers. We’re really bad at stuff. On the whole, we can’t draw, we can’t make websites, we can’t Photoshop things particularly impressively (I’d say we can’t take photographs either, but everyone can take photographs). This means that, in the business, we have to bring people in to do this for us. And this gives us a sense that we’re in charge. So keen are designers to hide their inability, that they will hide their ineptitude behind a sense of “employing” others to do what we can’t. This, as it happens, has dripped through into education, with some of our designers declaring things like “illustrators don’t like us because they know they’ll be working for us one day”. Which is unfair to designers, but also the illustrators who do really cool, original things without a graphic designer telling them to.
Some of us accept that sometimes we’re going to have to ask for help with these things, or we’re going to have to do things for ourselves that we’re not used to. For people like me, someone with other skills, this is okay – when there is copywriting needed, I can do this for myself. Otherwise, I’m just as lost as everyone else and will need to ask an illustrator or Photoshop monkey to help me out. However, the ego will tell you “someone should do this for me”.
And this presents another concern: it’s a sense of entitlement some seem to feel towards their tools as well as the people around them. Only a few days ago I was stuck in an exchange with one of my course mates. She was insistent that InDesign should be able to set up a running head that changes on every other page, which it probably can, even though it would be simpler to just add the text manually on those pages if you don’t know how to otherwise. When I said this, she insisted it was unfair and stupid that she would have to do this herself. It is not, mind, it is normal.
But this is all too prevalent, as our tools progress, our expectation increases. Whether it be simple functions, or functions that aren’t the program’s responsibility, the egos will find a way to complain. For instance, that InDesign doesn’t add a default bleed, when something like that should never be under anyone’s control but the user’s. Most people just get on with this, accept that we need to do these things, accept that technology is fundamentally flawed (and that this is probably a fortunate thing), and go about our business like adults. Egos do not, egos demand an immediate technological solution.
It seems, that if these people had their way, all our decisions would be taken from us. That we would simply speak an idea and our programs would create it for us. This would be ideal for them as they lack any personal flair to their work, they produce robotic solutions, so why not have a robot do it for them? But, if you enter into that reality, where is the personality and the style? Perhaps most designers aren’t keen to reveal this, but some of the best parts of a design – those that add the flair and a unique slide – are accidents: a slip of a hand here, the wrong colour there, a point size off on the grid. Little anomalies that end up looking slightly better than the original concept. Human error. Accidents and mistakes are important in adding something else to a design that you couldn’t think of otherwise. If you make a machine do your work with algorithms that allow it to do everything precisely and without mischief, then how do you create anything that isn’t just dead and cold and boring?
“Let’s face it; God has a big ego problem. Why do we always have to worship him?” – Bill Maher
It is a difficult attitude to deal with, and even harder to get on board with. It’s not something I am capable of because I am fundamentally broken, but I have seen others try and ruin themselves in doing so. And it is sad. Moreover, it is a massive distraction. It doesn’t matter what you do, imagine you are hard at work and suddenly you are interrupted by someone trying to show you their work, and they won’t leave you alone, whether you lie and tell them it’s okay or not. It’s a nightmare. It is also the point where those with egos start holding everyone else back. Which is selfish, and wrong, and apparently unavoidable.
Maher’s quote is a sentient one, why do these people need to be worshipped just to validate themselves? If they can’t validate themselves, then no amount of empty compliments on their bad work is going to change that, and in making themselves so narcissistic they have made themselves unapproachable. So why can’t we leave them to it, and they leave us alone?
I am moved to wonder whether I am complaining about those with ego or just those without imagination – or whether these are generally the same thing. It doesn’t take an ego to lack an imagination, most of those meek characters who are lorded over by the egos lack it also. And worse, for everyone, it’s those people that allow the egos to prosper, they give their time to them and flatter them – I am guilty also, I must admit, to the former, as I do give too much of my time to other people – and as the ever erudite Gordon Ramsay said (that’s right, I’m going to quote Gordon Ramsay): “The minute you start compromising for the sake of massaging somebody’s ego, that’s it, game over.”
In this regard I must raise another example. Not of arrogance, but of imagination held back. There is a girl I know, one of my classmates, who is at the other end of the spectrum of insecurity. Instead of compensating with too much confidence, she allows herself none. This is, really, unfair of her to herself, she is beautiful and occasionally intelligent – if a bit volatile – but, more importantly, she has the most vivid of imaginations. She comes up with the sweetest and most original ideas, ideas that deserve consistent exploration. She is capable of thinking outside the box without just looking at the box and making a box. But despite this, she holds herself back and those ideas never reach fruition, out of a lack of confidence to see things through, but also through a consistent need to fit in. This leads to indulging egos, and this leads to her losing confidence in herself and her work because she believes it when they tell her they’re better than her. But they’re not. And I wish she would realise just how good she is and could be if she let herself and applied herself, but she doesn’t, she is affected by those around her. And that’s where the arrogance issue creeps in further, in that the egos don’t just hold themselves back and flood the industry with dead boring work, but that they inspire that work in those vulnerable to them.
So what’s to be done? Is it game over? Well, no. You see, for all the arrogance that pervades these people, as most Greek tragedies teach us, hubris only leads to a great fall. Those that prefer to be right than compassionate will suffer their fall and ultimately not get anywhere at all. Unless, that is, they manage to get out of the trap, to recognise, as Watts puts it, that “The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.” That’s the funny, pleasant way the world works, you see, the bad always get a comeuppance in some way, even if it is just a subtle cosmic one that none of us can notice. And until then, I guess those of us actually capable of free thought will just have to imagine a world without arrogance; without the smell.