The Complicated Business of Cross Disciplines in Commercial Arts

A few months ago I made this blog post on the font site about what my philosophy has been in selling fonts. In the last 10 months of selling type, my philosophy has evolved quite a bit. Each situation that presents itself makes my position a little more difficult, and my ethics a little more complicated.

I recently got an email from a college student who said that, “money is currently an issue,” and that his, “commercial font selection is very limited.” Precisely the audience I’ve been looking for! He then went on to ask if I could do him a favor by expanding his font selection.

After I got over the initial appeal of how gutsy he was for asking for free tools, I wondered what made him think the exchange he offered was advantageous to either of us. Here are a portion of my thoughts, that I sent to him as my reply.

I’ve been a student before, so I know where you’re coming from. If getting better fonts is your solution for having a better portfolio, perhaps this will be a worthwhile learning experience for you. [I couldn’t afford] any typefaces by H&FJ, House Industries, […] or any of the big names in type design—but boy did I want to. So I stole them (pirated), thinking that it would improve my portfolio.

To make a long story short, it didn’t make me a better designer, it made me a lazy designer. I guess, here’s what I’m trying to say: take advantage of the time you have without great tools. Use the ones you have, recognize their weaknesses, and learn to adapt. Learn to hand letter, study what makes a great typeface—and then buy a few mediocre ones to get you started. There are some very affordable, versatile font families out there (Gibson, for example,

The issue is pretty complicated. Digital type has given young designers the opportunity to look like they know more than they do. It’s a big boost, but it’s an artificial one at best. It’s one that’s plaguing an industry and giving outsiders the idea that all it takes to be a great designer is a great set of tools. Own the Creative Suite and the right fonts and you’re just as good as anybody else. It cuts out the complicated middlemen named: time, study, and failure.

I’m a huge proponent of type, and I have no problem with a high price being set on a high quality tool. Digital type is going to restore the beautiful alphabets that were lost during the transition from sign painters to digital publishers. Nor do I have a problem with well developed programs (not really talking about Adobe here). They’re not the problem—the culture is. Type designers and graphic designers alike need to begin crediting each other where credit is due. We’re not in competition; our relationship is symbiotic.

Our talk is often critical of one another rather than educational. The forum for discussion is not open, causing confusion and misunderstanding to abound. Can we work on this? Look at your position in the commercial arts and ask yourself, “is my dissidence with the artists of other disciplines making the world a less beautiful place?”

What 13-year-olds Taught Me About Being an Adult

I’ve certainly learned more during my time at Mountain Ridge Jr. High than I’ve taught. By the end of it I’ve realized that it wasn’t my college degree, nor my age, nor my lower voice that separated me from them, but simpler things. Some of them are cliche, or ego-ethics, but I think they’re important.

Here are some of my favorites:

  1. You have always been a snot nosed kid, and you will continue to be a snot nosed kid. Learning strategies like blowing your nose in a bathroom stall, or picking your nose during your 30 minute commute, will come with time.
  2. You become an adult when you learn how to frame your hair against your face. Catch me right after I roll out of bed and you’ll agree that I don’t look that different from many Jr. High students.
  3. Forget about respecting your mentors, begin to respect your peers. Those you look up to will forgive you for your disrespect—that’s why you started looking up to them in the first place. Someone who is truly an adult will take the time to respect those that are easy to look down on.
  4. Creativity is not a genetic trait. We are only as predisposed to a talent as we choose to be.
  5. Sometimes you need a pat on the back, sometimes you need a rebuke, most adults need both. 13-year-olds needs as many hugs as 18-year-olds need slaps. As adults, we assume that it’s all slaps from 18 on. Many of the largest critiques of Dribbble is its cultural inability to critique—as if respectable adults don’t support and comfort each other. A healthy adult will seek to stroke their ego just as often as they’ll seek to critique their ego.

Simplicity Demands Expanse

I guess it’s not a new law, but it’s a new thought to me. Last year in an intro to stats class I took, the thought was planted in my head that you needed a large sample in order to come to the most correct conclusion. So, in other words: you needed to do a lot of work to come up with a simple answer. Sometimes, even an obvious answer.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sketched out a logo and thought, “bam, it’s done,” and then spent hours fine tuning the smallest details—often never getting close to the appeal of the original sketch.

I redesigned my site last week because it wasn’t simple enough. I used analytics to determine the things people weren’t looking for and then cut those things. And, I gotta say: the new site was effective. I was getting way more job contacts direct from the site than ever before.

The Redesigned Menu

The year of freelancing under the old site taught me what was necessary to simplify the site to one page. Had I not put up a complex site, I wouldn’t have known what a simple site would look like. But I had overlooked a key piece of data that the analytics couldn’t have picked up on: my rates.

The Re-redesigned Menu

Yes, I was getting contacts, but from clients who were being filtered by my price. Suddenly I was getting contacts about t-shirt designs and vectorizing projects. $30 jobs that I hadn’t been asked about in a long time. It wasn’t until I saw how expansive the clientverse can be that I knew what I needed to refine the content down to.

Seeing big to see small. What a strange thing it is.

Timeless Design is a Lie

Timeless design. Who started this lie? I want to find someone to blame. Timeless design is a candy bar wrapped in a banana peel: you’re going to need to examine the evidence before you give full credit to the surface and become convinced of its health. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as people (designers, mostly) have scrutinized the new American Airlines identity.

“The object of a design is to create an image that the public will remember and associate with the company or product. It should have a lifespan of fifteen to twenty years or more; it is costly to introduce a new logo.” – Doyald Young Dangerous Curves

Now that’s more like it, Doyald. Like any good piece of art, a well designed thing is composed of mostly tradition, partially trend. Trend will bring both striking beauty and mortality to any piece just like eggs will do to rice. Rice will last longer, uncooked, and on its own. But any taste test with fried rice vs. plain rice will yield a predictable winner.

It’s kind of a silly, and flimsy, lie when you think about it. What design has lasted beyond two hundred years, let alone all of time? Elements maybe, but not pieces. And I’m not going to argue against any evangelical traditions concerning a God achieving long lasting beauty through the creation of plants, animals, and the universe—because, well, it makes things too complicated. Not to mention, conceiving that a perfect God would create a timeless design is one that both seems obvious and is incomprehensible.

This is a lie that bleeds into daily living. We’re obsessed with viewing timelessness as a possibility. We want to get to the point where every interaction is a kind one, or that if we take good enough care of our vehicles they will never break down, or that if we practice enough we will make perfect. Whatever “making perfect” means.

I’m sure I’ll rant on this more, later. But for now this satisfies what irks me.

Design: The Illusion of Drama

My new mantra for design is this: the sum of all parts must assume the appearance of drama, but each individual part must itself remain aloof from said drama. As I’ve discussed this with friends and other designers/artists, it seems to pass the must-align-with-other-rules-of-art law pretty respectably.

For the sake of your brain (while reading this rant), drama is anything overboard, trendy, saturated—or whatever else you’d like to call it.

Lone Rider

Earlier this year, I wrapped up a freelance job for local startup Lone Rider. I had a sit down with Veldon (the founder) where he expressed that he wanted a detailed motorcycle, some tough looking text, and the ability to scale it down onto a business card. My initial reaction was: tell him it can’t be done. But then I thought: good design is problem solving. Veldon had a problem, and he was asking me to fix it. So I decided to give it a try.

One of the first thumbnails that impressed me kinda looked like an eyeball. As I tried to recreate it as a vector I realized that I could pull off the illusion of those dramatic eyeball slopes without actually having such dramatic curves.

By the end of the project, I had still retained that curve (as you can see), but at a much more gentle slope. I didn’t need that kind of drama to be placed on the word “lone”. Enough emphasis (drama) was showing through size, proximity, and texture.

This is the primary difference between decorative typefaces like Buttermilk, and classic typefaces like Gotham. I’m not going to be so subjective as to say that one is better than the other, but that one represents drama in each letterform, and one represents drama within an entire body of text. Each has the capacity to work, beautifully, in the proper context. Alone, maybe “lone” would have needed some more curves. But in context even the most gentle changes can drive the whole piece overboard.

A Question of Emphasis

Sometimes the issue is simply lack of training. Simple design is not the product of a simple design process or a simple state of mind. Take emphasis, for example. Emphasis is a crucial principle in well constructed art, with many complex elements available to form it. Had I not been forced to memorize the eleven forms of emphasis in a 2-D Design class, I would probably still be using color or clarity as they are the most easily understood of the elements. This lack of education is illustrated well in amateur photography/post-processing.

Take, for example, these two (dissimilar) photos. The first one taken by a professional (Trevor Christensen), and the second one obtained by searching “blue eyes” on a Google image search.

What many of you would simply call bad photography, is actually a sound principle of emphasis used in the wrong place. Both photographers used emphasis, but chose varying techniques to accomplish it. The photographer/post-processor for “blue eyes” was trying (the best way he/she knew how) to draw emphasis on the model’s eyes. Color was the tool he/she used to get it done. He/she forced drama onto an item within the photo in order to produce drama as a whole. Trevor Christensen’s photo didn’t use this technique, but still managed to provide emphasis. He allowed for each item within his photo to remain aloof from drama, while still producing the appearance of drama.

More Than Just Art

This doesn’t just apply to work, but to all aspects of life. I often find myself staying up through the night, using those perishable, intermittent, creative juices that just decided to show up that will surely not be there in the morning. This type of dramatic thought is not as different as the kind we irresistibly and wrongfully put into our art.

Saying that a wild creative mind can’t be tamed sounds romantic, but romanticism will serve you better in your actual products than in your schedule.” Marli Mesibov

Or, in other words: quit wasting your time with all that dramatic scheduling, creative juice, not feeling creative right now, and waiting for inspiration type talk and get to work. Don’t waste your day away, waiting for something to hit you. Carve that drama out of your speech and lifestyle so that simplicity can abound. Treat your profession and your person the same way you should your art.


I’ll say again, simple design is not the product of a simple design process. It’s not easy to produce a piece that is striking, interesting, entertaining, or breathtaking and still remain free of producing a design that is trendy. This is true in all walks of life. Work takes work—and the reward for staying free of trends or drama is certainly worth it. So, get to work.