I am still occasionally uncomfortable calling myself a designer. It’s a mantle I didn’t adopt until I was almost 30. For most of my life, I’ve thought of myself as an academic, someone whose trade was in words; more specifically, my interests revolved around story-telling, and the study of how and why people tell “the same” story in different ways, particularly when people use such stories to transmit complex religious and philosophical ideas.
This fascination with story runs deep in my consciousness. On one of my favorite podcasts, “Design Matters,” host Debbie Millman often asks her guests the question (which she admits to lifting form Milton Glaser): what is your first creative memory? If I ask myself this question, I find a neatly packaged origin story for my lifelong interest in narrative. As a young child in the heyday of Star Wars mania, I had dozens of the little plastic action figures (“They’re not dolls!” I insisted) based on the film, for which I would construct and act out elaborate stories that were grounded in the universe of the movies but taken in very different directions — I distinctly remember a visit by an Imperial Star Destroyer to a fast-food drive-through, for example. Often, I would play out these scenarios over and over, making tweaks to the storyline here and there, until I either got them just right or simply abandoned them in favor of a new idea.
From Star Wars I moved on to classical mythology, then Arthurian legend, Celtic myth and Joseph Campbell in high school. At Oberlin College, I created an individual major in Comparative Mythology. One of my advisors was an expert on the Ramayana, a Hindu religious epic that has been told and retold countless times over the last two millenia. In the last twenty years or so, the story has become embroiled in Indian political disputes due to its adoption by the Hindu right as a kind of acid test for determining the boundaries of the Indian nation; these political disputes were also closely linked to traditional and modern visual representations of the story. This interest launched me into graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I earned a master’s degree and put in an additional three years in the History of Religions Ph.D. program, studying the ways in which religion, the idea of the nation, and visual media overlap in South Asia.
In the meantime, I had become a designer almost by accident. Though I had grown up in a house full of art and interest in the visual — my mother was a landscaper and my stepfather an illustrator and graphic designer — I had never thought of myself as having much artistic talent. After all, I couldn’t draw or paint. In the year between my graduation from college and beginning grad school, however, I took a job as electronic projects intern in Oberlin’s Office of College Relations and discovered the power of computers for creating visual artifacts, as well as the unique challenges of information architecture for the emerging medium of the web. When I headed to grad school, I took a work-study position building websites and later designing print materials for an on-campus research center. I discovered to my delight that design was not all that different from the story-telling that I was studying in my academic life — at it’s core, all communication is about telling a story, but I was now telling stories with image and typography rather than words.
Eventually, I decided that I was enjoying doing the actual story-telling more than I was enjoying studying it, and in 2006 I decided to withdraw from school and devote myself full-time to design. Along with working full-time, I started taking on freelance projects, and in 2007 founded Design:Intelligent, a collective of Chicago freelance designers who share clients, knowledge, and resources. Still, though, I was uncertain about hanging out my shingle as a “designer.” There is an ongoing debate in the design community about the kinds of training one needs to be a good designer (see this, for an example), which often leads those who understandably wish to protect their professional standing to bewail a hypothetical mob of n00bs who think that learning Photoshop makes them designers. In the back of my mind, there was a little voice that asked: “Aren’t you just one of those n00bs?”
I’ve come to realize, however, that a designer is really a problem-solver. A degree in design is an excellent way to gain skills in solving problems of visual communication, but it’s not the only way. Since the day I decided this was going to be my career, I have immersed myself in books, discussion boards, mailing lists, conversations and podcasts devoted to design — I am constantly reading, listening, and observing the world through the lens of one who must help others communicate visually, learning through experience what works and what does not. Perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve ever received was from a designer friend, who said the best way to learn design was simply to “Look at everything.” And I’ve never looked at anything the same way since.