Committed: A Job in the Arts (or “Comics are actually really easy if you’re willing to work your balls off.”)
It has only recently become obvious to me that designing for comic books has absolutely changed my life in a number of unexpected ways. While I always hoped the work would be enjoyable, I didn’t expect to find out so much about my own taste and style. I’d always thought of myself as a cautious, rule-driven designer, somewhat trapped by my visually obsessive tendencies, in fact I once met a famous graphic designer who admired tremendously, but when I showed him my sketchbook he couldn’t stop laughing. “Everything you do is in a grid, even your rough sketches. You’ve got to loosen up!” he exclaimed. It wasn’t intentional, I just couldn’t bring myself to break the grid back then…
Life is a tricky thing, it is so easy to fall into a certain way of living that we hardly need to make any choices to do so. Even the tiniest action can result in a huge life shift. In tidying up my email recently, I discovered a hidden inbox of messages from a comic book company who had offered me a job 8 years ago. I’d completely forgotten about it, but at the time I nearly took a job doing production design (i.e. I would have been designing titles, ad copy, and sound effect too). At the time I was offered a job earning twice as much in a sports and commerce advertising agency, and I elected to take that one. My logic was that graphic design was graphic design, and it didn’t really matter where I was designing, so I might as well take the job which would make me more money. Now here I am, 8 years later, happily taking on comic book graphic design work because it is infinitely more fun for me. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening years, and for all I know, the job in the comic book company might not have been much fun… Back then I didn’t know what it would be like and how it would impact my own feelings about the world. But 8 years later I can say that for me, personally, I am a much better designer in this field than I was able to be in ad agencies, and when I do create advertising designs for my clients, I am far more excited and driven, because it isn’t what I do all day, ever day. The variety of working with comic book designs has revitalized and renewed my love of design.
It is pretty standard for people who want to be graphic designers to find themselves working in advertising. It is an industry where large companies employ many different types of graphic designers to convey a broad variety of messages about their products. From a designers point of view, it is nice to walk into a career where the work is relatively consistent in quantity and pay, and since graphic design is essentially deemed to be a commercial career choice, advertising makes sense.
From early childhood I dreamt of becoming a great fine artist, producing works which would last long after me to convey great, primal emotional truths. However, once I finally found myself in art school it was startlingly clear that my skills and temperament were far better suited to graphic design. I seemed to have a natural inclination towards order and patterns, and a natural desire to work collaboratively and to please my clients. Moreover, I found great satisfaction in the type of problem-solving involved in the design process, finding out what the client wants to communicate and then finding a way to visually communicate that message for them.
My dreams about art informed a lot of my life, the way abstract expressionists force me to re-examine every disposable aspect of my life, or how great painters have been able to infuse their work with a personal intensity while depicting the world at large. Art can alter my world view, making me appreciate my surroundings and raising my awareness of random beauty in my environment. Working in advertising, I did my best to sell things in the least visually offensive way possible. I suppose my design ethos was to just do no visual harm, and at best to try to make the world just a little more pleasant.
Last week I met some young, London-based, graphic designers. As I used to, they all work in advertising agencies and they were curious about the kind of work I do now. I described some of the comic books which I’ve designed logos for, and then talked about the more comprehensive design work I do on books like Sex and The Bounce. As I described the emotional journeys of the protagonists of these books, and the ways in which I try to mirror those experiences in the book design, they became confused and asked “But why make them at all!?” I was non-plussed by this question until I remembered that these are people who have only ever worked in advertising design, and all of their designs exist only in order to sell, they no longer design simply to communicate, there is no space for art in their careers.
When I began designing for comic books I treated it like any other design job, but inevitably design work on comic books is more creative than in advertising, (not because of a lack of commitment or creativity on commercial advertising design, but a simple facet of the requirements of the job). While all design is about communication to a certain extent, larger-budget advertising design is usually required to communicate a lot of very specific ideas about an existing brand. First, consistency demands that any designs conform to the brand, which has usually been well-established by other designs in previous years. Then there is the consideration of creating advertising which is familiar to consumers, and which they will automatically see as being part of whatever industry the product is in. So there are understandable restrictions on the freedom of an advertising designer and while all of these considerations are useful to keep in mind while designing anything, in comic book design they are not necessary to adhere to. The freedom this engenders leaves space for a lot of unconventional thinking and can lead to a pretty exciting day-to-day work process.
The word “process” is key. While I might have created advertising which was beautiful, cool, or exciting, the actual day-to-day process of designing for comic books is so far outside of advertising’s practical consideration that it just makes for a more enjoyable process. And that’s where we live, in the actual process of creating the work, not in the end result. Working to create, for the pure joy of it, to communicate an idea which may or may not mean anything to anyone but a small group of comic book readers is some of the most satisfying and inspiring work I have ever done. Like any design job, it is collaborative and involves working closely with the writer, artist, and letterer. Like any art project, it exists simply to share an idea and provoke a reaction in the reader. It has the potential to be the perfect synthesis of art work and design work, just as the end result is potentially the perfect synthesis of visual art and literature. I always knew that I loved comic books, I just didn’t know that I loved working with them too.
*My alternate title at top comes from a tweet Tom Scioli posted on Monday. He’s one of the craziest, most high-energy people I’ve met in comic books so far and if you can find a book of his to read, I would. His enthusiasm is infectious.