Frankly, I always thought I would end up a rocket surgeon.
The direction of my educational life changed one brisk fall day in Kalamazoo Michigan. The leaves were turning their golds and reds and preparing to fall from the trees. But the leaves weren’t the only things falling, my interest my coursework was too. The same cool breeze bringing a change in the weather brought a change in my scholastic direction.
An elm branch was blown against the single window of my classroom awakening me from a daze. Looking up I found that I was in the middle of a differential equations test, and instead of having solved anything, I had drawn the slang title for the class in huge three-dimensional letters. DIFF E.Q. was scrawled out across the page with a large drop shadow covering problem four (where a damped oscillation formula should have been solved instead). I couldn’t take it anymore! I was through with dark laboratories and classrooms lit only by lasers, oscilloscopes and overhead projectors—I was moving to the fine-art building. They had windows, fourteen types of pencils, even fun!
My father and uncle are both physicists. My uncle has a PhD from MIT in Nuclear Physics, and my dad builds vacuum sputtering machinery to make fancy glass for plasma TVs and modernist all-glass buildings. This, combined with advising from my high school guidance counselor, meant that I was focusing all my energy on the pursuit of science! despite a huge interest in the arts.
Before high school I took many painting and drawing classes and for a couple of years I even had a summer art tutor. However, when I began ninth grade my guidance counselor intervened. According to Mrs. Wiertsama-Miller, to get into a good college I needed to take “real” classes and say goodbye to the painting studio and darkroom. For the next four years I loaded up on all the language, math and science classes I could fit into my schedule. Both the art department and the vocational wing (where the few design related courses existed) were off limits. No one taking A.P. French and Analytical Geometry was ever allowed to get anywhere near the wood and metal shops—that’s where the kids without “futures” were. My evolution to designer may have been hastened if only the social caste system had not been so rigidly enforced at Northfield High School.
Upon arriving at college I dove into advanced calculus, electromagnetics, optics, and linear algebra without considering any alternatives. While capable with calculus and a calculator, I never got that excited to solve equations of any assorted Newtonian nonsense. Sure I could integrate and differentiate with the best of them, but I saw no emotional reward.
A discussion with professors, the shifting of a few credits, and a term abroad in France was all it took—I had jumped from Physics to Fine Art. The rest of my undergraduate hours were spent in a halcyon daze amongst paint cans, sharpie markers and an odorless—yet no less toxic—turpentine substitute. But the disparity between my two directions occasionally troubled me. Afterall, science seemed concrete, art was so ethereal. What was hard, especially once out of school, was figuring out what to do next as an “artist.” I also had to find a way to make some money—painting Warholian mash-ups of presidents and superheroes didn’t seem like it would pay the bills.
So there I was, used to having to solve problems, hypothesize solutions and results, but not of my own making. My dad, in his role as an engineer, had clients, he would devise solutions to other people’s problems—maybe I could find something like that. Artists occasionally have patrons, but it isn’t quite the same thing. I had to find something that combined my creative impulses, the reward of visual representation, a (semi-)scientific approach, and people bringing you their problems. The intersection of all those things, at least for me, was Graphic Design.
The logic of mathematics and physical principles meets creative impulses in this thing we call graphic design. There is math involved, complex systems needing resolution, the perfect grid… these are all elements that seem perfectly related to the world of physics I had known so well before. Of course I also got to pick the perfect color, balance a composition… Elements perfectly tooled to my painting and photography training.
For me, design is the place
The story of why I “graphic design” is mostly the story of why I am not something else.