Why I’m a Designer Part 1: A Timeline

This post is part 1 of a series. You can read Part 1.5Part 2 and Part 3 if you’d like.

1979 – 1991

Me at Sea World before we knew it was evil
Me at Sea World before we knew it was evil

I was an “Arty Kid.” I have no idea whether this is because my genes conspired to make art a thing I could do or if I simply had enough people tell me I had artisitc ability so I internalized it as best I could, but either way my childhood included an awful lot of drawing. The neighborhood recreation center was where my brother played basketball games, but I remember it as where I attended my first art class at 7 years old.

Art taught me how to create a space in my brain to play with a visual idea, and how to make that idea happen on paper. It also taught me how to learn from a failed experiment and try again on a new piece of paper. I often used my worksheets for this instead doing of the boring work that I already understood on the front, to many of my early schoolteachers’ chagrin.

I was also a “Computery Kid” but I don’t remember anyone telling me I was a Computery Kid because computers weren’t readily available until I was about 7. Once I started using them, I never wanted to stop and I was comfortable enough with computers that by the 3rd grade, when our classroom received an Apple ][ that none of the adults knew how to hook up, I could look at the wires and see where each one fit. By just trying them out I got it working, and I think that was probably the first time I was called computery.

When the Macintosh came out, my first exposure to graphic design was alongide my cousins as we used MacPaint to print out 10-page-long banners connected with that special dot-matrixy paper. As we spent hours designing Happy Birthday banners, I’m sure we used tons of my uncle’s paper but he never seemed to mind. I loved computers when I was a kid: they were clearly tools for making art.

1991 – 1994

For junior high (grades 7–9), I attended a computer-math-science magnet school that bussed kids in from all over San Diego. Each year, along with our intensive math and science classes, we also attended programming classes. I took my first coding class at a public school when I was 12 years old in the early 90s, something I could never have appreciated the rarity of back then, but now I know that access to educational programs like this is an opportunity not afforded to many young kids.

Bell Hr. High
Bell Junior High School, San Diego, California, 1993. Taking Instagrams before it was cool.

We didn’t have enough machines in the labs for each student, so we were paired up and wrote our code as a team for each project. The first team project in 7th grade was to create a frame-by-frame animation in BASIC by coding each individual frame’s pixel’s placement on an 80×80 grid, wiping the grid, and drawing the next frame. My partner Quentin and I coded a windmill that had two frames so that when it looped, it looked like the windmill’s blades were spinning. I like to think we were making 8-bit animated GIFs before browsers were invented.

While it’s true that this was my first exposure to coding, it was conveniently also a visual task: I was making art with computers. For all I knew, all of programming was about putting cool stuff on a screen for people to see.

hypercard_help
Help screen for creating a button with HyperCard

In the 8th grade, we learned about scanners and my partner Kenny and I used HyperCard to make an interactive Myst-like game, introducing me to my first onMouseUp event, a concept I had no idea I’d implement over and over again during my adult years.

Freshman year was where things got harder: our code was now to take a user’s input, use functions to perform math on that data and return the result to the screen. As we coded Pascal-powered forms to tell us how many cords of firewood we’d get from a theoretical tree, I again focused on the way data looked as it was displayed on the screen. My partner Lauren had a much stronger grasp on the math and data-processing side of the language and without her as a partner I doubt any of my projects would have gotten completed.

What I learned that semester, at Lauren’s expense, was that when the code had to start doing things that strayed too far away from a visual result, there were other people in the world who took to those kinds of hard jobs better than myself. My skills came into play when something needed to happen on the screen. As I later learned ActionScript and JavaScript, I had clear recollections of Lauren’s patient tutoring on how to use closing curly brackets.

What I was beginning to experience in school was an environment I’d essentially continue to search for my entire career: a smart, diverse group of collboratively-focused and really smart people working together to make digital art.

1994 – 1997

As my time at Alexander Graham Bell Junior High came to a close, the gap between my art and use of computers started to widen. Now attending a much more tradtional high school in Colorado, my access to technology in creative capacity was very limited for my sophomore and junior years. The ironically much better-equipped computer labs at my new school appeared to be used entirely for things like Excel spreadsheets and Word documents: the kinds of things that made me want to bang my head against the keyboard and start drawing on the margins of the page again.

My move to a suburban school in Colorado also came with a huge cultural shift for me. Saying I didn’t fit into my new school is an understatement as there were particular groups who actively and at some points violently rejected weird people like me. I turned to artistic pursuits to make it through this time and reconnected with the self-expression and healing that art could provide.

Making drawings, writing angsty poetry and playing my guitar filled my afternoons and weekends. This technical and cultural dark age was crucial to me finding the self-validation that art could provide and it gave me the time to get better at it. As long as I was expressing my emotions with art that improved in quality over time, I could deal with anything the lacrosse players wanted to call me in the hallway.

As senior year came into view, things started looking up. I had found a large group of outcast and cynical people at school like me and it was with this re-found confidence that I joined the school newspaper staff as an elective and found myself once again staring at a computer that expected me to make something with it. My first year on newspaper staff as graphic artist and music columnist also marks the first time a high school newspaper was 100% digitally-produced in Colorado. Every other high school here was still mocking up their pages with printouts and glue and tape, sending camera-ready art to the printer instead of digital files.

Macintosh Performa 5200 LC
Macintosh Performa 5200 LC, only available to education markets. My music column was called Cognitive Dissonance, I shit you not.

While the writers on staff used the 9-inch black and white Macintosh Classics along the edge of the room, I was allowed to use a much larger PowerMac 5200 LC that had a scanner attached to it and Photoshop 3.0 installed.

I felt home again.

I made graphics for the newspaper during school hours, but after class I’d hang out, scan my drawings and edit them in Photoshop. I’d go on the weekends and take photos downtown, then I’d scan the prints so that I could blend them into weird images to print and hang in my locker. I still wasn’t sure what the words “graphic design” meant but when my newspaper teacher suggested I do an independent study on it for the second semester, I jumped at the chance. Overseen by both the newspaper teacher and the director of the art department, I was allowed to investigate what graphic design was, produce pieces that no one had assigned to me, and get ready for college: a graphic design program at art school.

I simply cannot overstate the importance of a few key teachers in my life as well as the technology available at school and in my extended family’s homes during my childhood. I can’t imagine who or where I’d be without them.

1997 – 1999

I worked through college doing digital pre-press 3 blocks away from campus, spending my working hours pre-flighting and printing many of my fellow students’ work. I’d punch out and stay after countless evening shifts to continue printing and mounting my own work, supplies for which were available to me at a steep discount from my employer. I was spending 10-12 hours a day thinking about and producing design work.

I spent so many hours staring at this thing, hoping it would do what it was supposed to
I spent so many hours staring at this thing, hoping it would do what it was supposed to do

But something about the print world didn’t feel quite right. The amount of work that went into taking a QuarkXpress file from someone’s Zip disk and getting it to print correctly from our digital printers was obscene. There were crucial details that could be easily overlooked by the customer, rendering their prints completely useless. As school got closer and closer to completion, classes started leaning heavily on the student’s ability to go and get offset prints produced: an expensive task that I had zero interest in learning how to do.

The web was an obvious alternative as I could start going behind the scenes on the computer-side again. Instead of using someone else’s interface to create art, I was back to writing the code for a UI itself, a task I’d been introduced to with HyperCard stacks 6 years earlier.

The web was also a weird choice for a designer to make at that time. I’d be giving up fine typography control, throwing any semblance of faithful color reproduction out the window, and embracing lower resolution over higher. And I did this willfully and aggressively because I could make something, and I could make it fast, and people could see it anywhere in the world in seconds. Why on earth would I care about printing things?

As my formal design education was nearing its end, I landed my first salaried web design job in 1999 without a resume at a company that wasn’t hiring a designer. I simply emailed them a link to a portfolio I designed and built in Flash. Within a week I had an interview and I started work less than a week after that. I could now call myself a professional designer.

Up Next: Why I’m a Designer Part 2: View Source