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Designer, curator?

2013 May 28

I spent the run-up to Memorial Day on a business trip back to Iowa, followed by some family time from which I returned with all kinds of junk that I will share in the days ahead. While on the business trip, I did a good deal of thinking as well as some talking about graphic design. Naturally enough, as I was not only meeting with clients and a fellow designer but also doing some graphic design from the College of Design Building at dear auld ISU for the first time in 13 years. (Yeah, that was kind of interesting.) While there I picked up their current Graphic Design program brochure, which I’ve not looked at but will probably skim through at some point here just to see what wooly ideas they’re filling prospective students’ heads with these days…

As regards my own professional practice, though, one of the subjects I’ve given occasional thought for some years now is exactly what I do. It’s partly navel-gazing, certainly, but also I believe a legitimate and even significant question, particularly now that I’m self-employed; I no longer have a “boss” or a “job description” to rely on and so an understanding of exactly what value I’m really providing seems worthwhile to consider.

One example is book cover design; I concluded some years ago that designing print artwork for the outside of a physical book is only a limited part of what I’m providing publishing clients, even within just the realm of graphic design. I’m really designing a marketing image that will appear in a great number of media and contexts, many of them electronic. This came up Thursday night, in fact, while discussing with a colleague concerned about his future as a print designer; I explained how I don’t really see myself as exactly a “print designer” any more so much as a graphic designer whose work is sometimes printed but often not. (His work is much like my own, and he found this idea somewhat reassuring.)

Since then, I’ve also been giving thought to the idea that a good deal of my work is not so much designing as it is curating.

The idea that I’m doing a good deal of work that isn’t design is not new (or unique to me; some people may indeed spend most of their work time performing the specific role suggested by their professional identity, but I suspect few of them are independent creative professionals). For some time now I’ve recognized that a lot of what I do is arguably “customer service” or client management, i.e. keeping everyone comfortable and informed more than keeping them dazzled with creative innovation.

While working on the road, though (I had this idea that things would probably get slow in the run-up to a holiday weekend, no-ooo no no, not so much), it occurred to me how a lot of what I do can also be compared to the role of a curator or librarian. It was probably having to deal with being away from my usual desk set-up that prompted this. Here at my iMac, where I work most of the time, I’m familiar with where everything is and it’s all ready at-hand and interconnected up with every relevant resource. On the road, by contrast, even though I had copies of all my files, I had to do a lot of rooting around for things and re-connecting them. (Think linked files as the most obvious and direct example, but also fonts and other more subtle things.)

And it occurred to me that, in a sense, a significant part of what some clients (particularly my largest one or two clients) pay me to do is manage a sub-section of their enormous rubbish-heap of graphics, styles, files, protocols, archives, etc., etc., etc.

After all, much of the time I’m essentially just moving things around; there’s usually an element of this in graphic design, of course, but it’s especially obvious on many corporate projects. The color palettes, photos, logos, typographic styles, etc., are mostly already extant and in use in other projects; my overt task is basically to select from and arrange them nicely… but in order to do this with any degree of efficiency I have to keep track of all the scattered and continually evolving pieces on an ongoing basis.

So in a way it seems like I’m kind of curator or librarian as much as visual artist; like the two former professions I’m responsible for assembling and keeping track of a collection, and for facilitating connections between a user base and relevant pieces of the collection. And the parallel probably extends both ways, really; the role of curator or librarian certainly involves some measure of designing arrangements of material that are useful and probably also visually pleasing to some extent. One wonders if there may not be scope for some cross-disciplinary study at the schools, along these lines…

Meanwhile, this is also arguably just another way of examining graphic design within the “knowledge worker” concept; the phrase “data processing” is mostly associated with relatively entry-level work, but a broader interpretation of the words’ real meaning encompasses a lot, perhaps a majority, of modern work, certainly within the urban industrialized “first world.” We acquire information in some way, make selections from it and arrange them in some kind of organized form, then transmit the information to others, much of this done and even more of it possible to do electronically. Which almost inevitably raises questions about how long it will be necessary for us or any human being to perform our work, and what will happen afterward…

Though at this point, I’m not that worried simply because I think it’s increasingly difficult to identify which “horses” will be overtaken first in the “race against the machines.” Sure, Google and its efforts to “organize the world’s information” through automation might threaten some of what I do, and various software might threaten other parts of it, but what is really “safe” for any kind of long or even medium term? Just about any “knowledge work” seems potentially vulnerable, even for a broad definition of “knowledge work.” Google also has driving its sights, after all. And one hears of software in the works to compose news stories… meanwhile, physical labor hardly seems more “safe.” If an algorithm to replace me is on the horizon, why should a robot to replace a short-order cook or even an expert plumber be that much further off? Human hands are pretty amazing but at this point it’s far from inconceivable that machinery will be able to match or even surpass them, for not only specific tasks but, soon, even as general-purpose tools… And what’s left, then? Jobs like yoga teacher or home-care aide which are presumed proof against automation because consumers simply want a real person performing them…? I could make many points here but will go with the fact that consumers probably want a real person answering the phone, too, which has for a number of reasons not blocked automated voice systems…

Meanwhile, though I am certainly not advocating total flippancy about these issues—by no means do I believe that it will all “work out” just fine—I feel like the idea of trying to judge long-term viability of any particular work is just such a crap shoot that it isn’t worth bothering. The event horizon is just too near. We can only feel our way forward and do our best to evaluate the situation on an ongoing basis. Today, curating seems like it’s a significant part of what I need to provide clients; 10 years from now…? Twenty?


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