Tag Archives: ancient history

You Will Fight The Way You Train


Game face courtesy of Glenn Mitchell, summer 2004.

There’s an anedote I keep coming back to.

I had a prof in design school named Larry Simpson. A real hard-ass. Larry, wherever you are, I hope you are as core as you were back in the day. He told me an important story, which I’ll get to eventually.

The sophomore undergrads typically hated Simpson. Too hard. Not nice. Translated: not indulgent of whatever solipsism was current.

First assignment was given out on a warm September Monday morning. A week later, there were a class of spanked poodles. Everyone’s first efforts had been x-rayed and found completely wanting. I was right in the first rank of the Newly Chastened.

We quickly found out that illustration is a serious business. You rendered it right the first time. White-out was cake-frosting, a scorn magnet. As the class worked through the assignments, it began to lose the flab. People’s work started getting more muscular.

He threw different techniques at us: pencil, markers, color, stipple, pen and ink, the works.

Assignment concepts were a mind-benders. His favorite was Erotica. He showed us some of his stuff—think Helmut Newton with a very sharp 2B pencil. Sultry, icy long-legged, high-heeled vixens in garter belts squatting precariously over sharp pyramids while SS guards restrained snarling Dobermans. The paper was immaculately white, shadows were black, and there were no smudges anywhere.

The class was stunned into a deeper silence than normal. He reminded us that the assignment was full color, and coolly suggested that Hallmark Card soft-focus was for losers. But if you had to…whatever. Class dismissed.

I staggered out thinking “Now what?” What did I directly knew about erotica?

“Isolde burst into the stable, her dark hair disheveled from her sprint. The sudden arrival startled Obelisk, the prize stallion cross-tied in the aisle. Rugbert had his back turned to the doors whilst brushing him down. Isolde’s perfumes wafted across the stallion’s nostrils, and he reared up on his massive hind legs, eyes flashing and trumpeting his surprise. His mane caught in a gust, rippling in the afternoon light, echoed the snorting and trumpeting ringing from the rafters”

Ask a hungry man who’s only read cookbooks to describe eating a roast goose. My experience inventory was slight. This called for flat-out comedy.

So I went home and started a woodblock print on a scrap of 1 x 12 x 13″ softwood board. I lived in a continual construction project as my dad and his wife built their dream house and horse barn. And since I lived at home, that was free, in a manner of speaking.

I sketched out a comic scene: a shaggy satyr, mincing on an Arcadian meadow. In the background was a Greek column, with cypress trees. The satyr had a loopy toothy grin, beefy muscular arms, two limp wrists, and a raging phallus. And directly in front of the raging phallus was a panicked chicken, flapping its wings for dear life, tail-feathers fluttering in the air.

Monday morning all of our work was up on the crit rail. Everybody was awkward and oblique. This was a sore and tender nerve being plucked.

Larry walked in, and began to survey the work. He examined all of the pieces, matted to varying degrees of competence. He stops in front of my piece, studies it and then turns and faces me.

“…This is…obscene!

I’m stunned. Obscene? Him? Me?

“Uh, Larry…you’re the one who’s got naked chicks squatting on pyramids!”

The class guffaws.

“You got the assignment, but you forgot this was to be in full color! I’m dinging a grade level for that!”

Damn. Guess I could’ve hand-tinted it. I got tunnel-vision on that one—not the first or last time. So I got a “B”. And I loved him for it.


Much later he told me the story I mentioned earlier.

He had a prof at the Art Institute of Chicago. Old-school man in his sixties, VanDyke beard, Mr Punctual. All work was to be on the crit rails by o755. He came in at 0800, locked the door behind him. Woe to you if you were late.

He’d light a cheroot, and silently begin at one end of the class. He’d examine each of the works until he reached the end. Then he’d turn around, and begin to flick the works he didn’t want to look at on the floor. Silently. Then at the end, he’d turn around and begin to critique the ones that were left. And flick cigar ash on the floor.

When Larry finished, I found myself wishing there were about ten more of him in the Department. But I didn’t know why for many years. This bygone prof was cueing his students that art school was also a vocational school. And they were going into a harsh business. He was doing them a favor.

Now What?

I think about that a lot when I go into various shops. Or have a squalling can of worms blow up in my face. There have been times when it all was going to hell and the only thing that saved me was the harsh experience I’d had earlier where I’d learned that I could get it done. It’s an inescapable part of the business. Most of it cannot be taught, only learned. And Larry’s prof was a lonely exception.

BillyWare’s Twin Monsters


The Ghost Is The Machine

Edward Tuffte and Peter Norvig have done brilliant dissections on PowerPoint with all its attendant content distortions. David Byrne has also taken a chilly look at it, and found it appropriately ironic. I find no irony in PowerPoint. Only a burning, passionate hatred.

I reserve a lesser dislike for MS Word. Its shortcomings are misdemeanors to PowerPoint’s felonies. In the production realm, most matters of content have already been adjudicated. So I’ll confine myself to the below-the-decks, boiler-room procedural dynamics of working with these blighted text-shapers.

The Greater Evil

PowerPoint is a digital Fisher-Price tool kit turned loose on a construction site. It has a cute yellow saw, with 4 round friendly teeth. It also has a cute red hammer. However the saw don’t cut, the hammer don’t drive. But it replicates itself with ease, pages and slides that bludgeon all in its path to moronic stupidity—kinda like Barney.

After 16 years of Quark, I knew too much. I had to take retardo pills to bring me back to the basic level of design & conceptual incompetence to work the PowerPoint levers. Like other incarnations of BillyWare®™ (with the possible exception of Excel), it begs to be noticed. In addition, it has a pre-fab, pre-chewed, clunkiness about it.

That is merely the application aspect.

A PowerPoint doc arrives into your workspace, borne by the account guy/gal who will want it imported into a document/leave-behind/chart. The designer or art director groans, and they’re backing away as fast as possible from this happy-footed tar-baby that has wandered into their midst.

The account people are puzzled/miffed and profoundly indifferent to your suffering. Just—Make—It—Work. Exit, stage right, with their “Triple Westside White Girl” No-Foam Drive-Thru Coffee beverage.

Thanks. Deadlines loom.

The first order of business is to get with the art director/designer to divine the intentions and manifestations of the originator. Extracting content is not a simple question of cut-n-paste. If it was, like transit-mixed concrete, the first plop out of the chute would be identical to the last splat.

How much of this weird formatting is really necessary? Are all these bullet points necessary? Why do sentences get chopped up?

When these questions are posed to the document donors, most of them shrug, say “…oh” and are generally stuck for an answer. Here’s a hint: they don’t know either. Its like drinking Cosmos. You kinda know its bad for you, but it goes down so easy. Watch them at the next office party.

When all else fails, appeal to the intellectual vanity of the author, and subtly suggest that their brilliance is not being well served. Occasionally, it works. And everybody is somewhat happier. This way a lot of stylistic cheez can be ditched so it won’t taint the overall presentation. After all, the agency is trying on some level to present a shaped view.

Nothing Except The Words.

I have a similar skepticism about MS Word. It’s a word-shaper, not a design/layout program. In my jaundiced opinion, it should have 2 fonts, in three iterations (roman, bold and ital), in one point size. No boxes. No columns. Period.

And once upon a time, it used to be that way. It came from an IBM Selectric II.

Another Ancient History Diorama

Perhaps some of you saw this at the Renaissance Fair in a re-enactment. Bear with me.

During the Last Golden Age Of Advertising, a copy deck would show up on the designer/art director’s desk. This was also the time when phones rang, there was linoleum in the hallways, and people smoked in their offices. And more than a few had bottles tucked away in desk drawers.

The lucky designer or art director would get out the copy-casting ruler, and go to work. Mark up the text, send it out, and then the type house would get it back to you in 12 hours or so. Look at the galley tissues, make edits, and then go to final. Or roll the dice, get lucky, and slap down the repro galleys on boards, and hope nobody screwed up.

Funny thing, though. Nobody really read type until money had been spent. I noticed this across the board—from small type houses to the big leagues. And it wasn’t cheap.

I knew a guy in 1978 who quit being a production artist, and went to work for a very prominent type house here in Los Angeles. Within six months he was off salary and living quite nicely on the commission. His golden route was the Miracle Mile on Wilshire Blvd, where most of the groovy and lush ad agencies were located.

Being a type salesman was a good way to get yourself into a Porsche 911 and an expanding waistline with the expense account lunches. Another type salesman I knew was dismayed when he found out that the Warner Brothers account we bought type for was being absorbed into the larger corporate portfolio. He wailed “I just closed on a new Carerra!”

Never mind that my partner and I were looking unemployment in the face. It was a harsh lesson on priorities.

Not everybody played ball though. I knew an art director who loved nothing more than to take the obligatory expense-account luncheoneer to La Luz De Dia over in East Los Angeles. La Luz was a 3-stool daytime taqueria with a day-laborer local vibe. The type salesman would be making sure the rojo or verde didn’t splat his tie while keeping an eye on the 911.

These good times came to a crashing halt by 1992. The major type houses here in Los Angeles either folded or reinvented themselves as service bureaus. And this is how you became a typesetter. Which brings us back to MS Word and Powerpoint.

Returning Again To His Dork Matter

Word and PowerPoint have “design” features to enable the design-illiterate to make presentations look cooler. Nothing helps a bad idea better than a gaudy effect. Often-times an alert production person can make sense of nonsense that has passed through the agency process unchallenged.

Its harder to think clearly than to just press “Print”.