In essence, I am an artist. Through my years—and even throughout the day—I wear a variety of artistic hats. A morning started as a graphic designer might morph into the afternoon of an illustrator, or the evening of a face painter. Over the weekend I might moonlight as a fine artist, makeup artist, creative writer, paper cutter, sculptor… My passion for art extends beyond medium and into the act of creation itself.
I have always been like that. Even when it comes to art I have always wanted, needed, to learn new things. And so, here we are.
Since one of the goals for this #LearnMeSomethingNew exercise is to develop my professional skills—you know, something practical to add to these hours chasing my new endeavor—I figured the best place to start would be the history of graphic design. I am an artist, yes, but let’s be honest and say that 90% of the art I am paid for is graphic design. It is my bread and butter, so why not learn more about how my profession came to be?
Graphic forms carry their history encoded as conventions, charged with cultural values—and loaded with social implications.
Okay, I am on page xxii and already this book (which I have read before, I swear) has blown my mind. I guess that’s the difference between reading for the grade and reading for pleasure. My mind didn’t see this tidbit as important the first time around—in 2012 when I was enrolled in Kerry Steinberg’s “History of Graphic Design” class at Otis—because it wasn’t a testable fact. When taking notes for future exams I breezed past this gem, turning it into white noise that wasn’t even worth of being copied into my notebook. Coming back to it now, after working as a freelance artist and graphic design professional currently reading a textbook for pleasure (yes, you read that right), those words hit me in a much different way. Yes, this concept might not be essay question #2 on the final exam, but it is still something important.
It is a spark.
Think about it. How much does design dictate the way you perceive information? Do you read a recipe the same way you read a receipt? A tabloid the way you read the bible? Does your PennySaver have as much authority as the LA Times? Even when looking at examples that share similar content—such as a Fleming’s menu versus the board at your local Domino’s—you still value them differently. Because the manner in which they are designed is a direct manifestation of the reputation they hold.
An official press release from the White House, publicized with hot pink, Comic Sans type and low resolution clipart would be unable to command respect. (Not that our current POTUS can command respect anyway, but that’s a different blog for a different time.) Even if you had two pages in your hand sharing the exact same information, the copy using an effecting grid featuring crisp, black Garamond* type with an official gold foil seal will always leave a greater impact. That is because “the authority of any particular text is often linked to the codes of its presentation.”
The concept is so simple. So straightforward. So everyday. And yet I have never thought about that before.
Do you know how shameful that is, as someone who designs for a living, to admit? But hey, like I said, it was a spark.
The spark started to die around Chapter 1, I’m afraid. I started to feel like I was in school again (not in a good way). My eyes kept glancing over words, zoning in and out of paragraphs so by the time I reached the end of the page I had no idea what I was reading. You know the feeling. I kept trying to read it, to get absorbed and involved and to learn me something new, but it just wasn’t working. I sighed, putting the book in my lap. I was letting myself down.
I’m doing this for me. For growth. For fun. If I didn’t want to read the first chapter, did I really have to? There’s no test at the end of this, no pop quiz, so why not do exactly what I felt like doing: just looking at the photos and skipping ahead to the good stuff?
Jeez, Kirby. Way to take things too seriously.
In the Middle Ages… publishing became an industry, serving specialized needs in medicine, law, and theology.
Hey, that’s me! Well, my career that is. We are in Chapter 3 now, learning about “Medieval Letterforms and Book Formats”, with the above quote grabbing my attention enough to make me finally settle down and read.
In the 5th through the 8th centuries, monasteries became the institutions most concerned with producing texts.
In the briefest of recaps, what we skipped in Chapters 1 and 2 was a discussion of how cave paintings and early mark-making developed into alphabets that eventually needed to be organized to best communicate their message. They needed graphic design. Chapter 3 covers the years 400-1450, beginning with an age where the codex was born (multiple pages bound together on one edge; basically, a book) and everything was handwritten by monks.
In the beginning, reading, writing, and publishing was for religion. With limited resources, only the word of God was deemed worthy enough to be recorded (nothing like today where anyone can publish their very own 140-character tweet, even our POTUS). The ability to write, and the tools to make it happen, was limited to a select few. This not only made the act of reading and writing seem both exclusive and extravagant, it also widened the separation between classes. The notion of teaching everyone to write was, as of yet, a preposterous idea.
Publication was done by hand, but works were produced in multiple copies.
Tangent here. Publication done by hand might look glamorous and sound amazing, but it’s not. Have you ever taken a Typography class at Pasadena City College? One that you think is going to be about how to lay type and design posters but turns into a grueling 3-month lesson on how to write type by hand? No? Well, let me tell you, it’s awful. Your hand hurts, your wrist cramps, you never figure out how to use a French curve, and it is just seriously awful. See that image below? That took me almost two months to create. No, that isn’t an exaggeration. And it wasn’t fun.
Back on track (and apparently completely forgetting what I just said above), this idea actually has some potential. Graphic design is crisp and clean, but the trends are slowly flowing into more organic territory. Typography and logotypes are embracing the idea of “open” and “friendly” design, steering away from strong, bold serifs that distance themselves from the viewer and instead favoring wider, more curved, lowercase versions of their ancestors.
In a world of sans-serif posters, wouldn’t something hand-drawn stand out? The spark is back.
Medieval lettering was linked to specific geographical locations… A number of monasteries established in Europe beginning in the fourth century would become renowned for their particular graphic styles.
Since writing was exclusive, lettering and the act of writing was taught to monks, by monks, at specific monasteries. The way you write is dictated by your teacher, not just the way you hold the pen, so essentially, each monastery developed its own style. Its own typeface.
Of course, none of them were perfect. (What, you thought all illuminated manuscripts looked like the perfect ones you see in museums? Goodness, no. Fun fact: most medieval text was ugly, covered in mistakes and notations. Only the beautiful pages were worth displaying today.) Over time, across multiple pages, a monk’s specific handwriting style began to shine though, known as his hand. Some were praised and adopted as the monastery’s specific style, but others were dismissed. “Although individual talent and skill were recognized, copying was the central feature of Medieval writing and art work. Originality was not prized as highly as virtuosity.” During this time, an exact replica was what was desired. They wanted a “competent imitation,” not an original flourish. Definitely different than the art world today, where copyright reigns supreme and even a daycare can be sued for having a mural of Mickey Mouse.
I wonder how many of today’s artists would have been able to survive during that time. How would I handle it, someone giving me something that I had to recreate perfectly? What if it was ugly? And I couldn’t make it pretty? Nope. Couldn’t do it. Fuck that.
*Fun fact: While a perfect copy was desired, forgery between sources was still an issue. When working with pivotal material, they would use chancery—“an elaborately elongated handwriting used for official documents”—to reduce the likelihood of a successful duplicate. Basically, they tried to one-up each other with fancy handwriting.
When scholarly study joined prayer… books acquired chapter headers and other navigational devices.
So, I reviewed this section a few times to try and find a rough timeline of when “scholarly study joined prayer,” and I’m sorry, but I have no idea. In the ninth century we built more churches; and because “books did not circulate,” it meant that books were placed in specific locations and scholars were forced to travel in order to read certain works. Then, in the eleventh century, literacy began to develop, leading to an increased need for written works, so… Somewhere between there? Yea, let’s go with that.
Anyway, while it was acceptable for the word of God to be read as a stream of consciousness, when scholars joined the mix things needed to get a little more organized. Think back to stone slabs. If you only had one foot of real estate, why wouldn’t you cover every inch of it with text? With minimal resources at your disposal, why waste any of it on headers or negative space? There was no grid to follow; your boundary lines were simply the edges of the surface you were working on.
But, once you had to relay specific, teachable information, that technique no longer worked. Think about how hard it would be to reference a specific fact in 200 pages of edge-to-edge, size 8, Calibri font. No paragraph delineations, no bold text, no alternate colors, just pure uniformity… And absolutely useless. Being different isn’t a bad thing; sometimes it’s important to stand out (especially when in a book).
And so they developed a basic grid. Columns, paragraph breaks, chapter titles, indices, and tables of contents were introduced to enhance legibility. We were slowly creating the basics of graphic design.
*Fun fact: Page numbers weren’t seen as a necessary element until the printing industry came to be. Since all books were bound together already, pages were never out of order until they had to be printed and assembled at an outside source.
**Not-so-fun fact: Yes, by now I realize that I have become a little overzealous in my blogging task and have written almost 2,000 words and probably lost the majority of you around the first 1,000… Seriously, is anyone still reading? I am loquacious. I am sorry.
As time went on, publishing advanced. Papyrus (too brittle) turned into parchment (too scarce, made of animal skins) which turned into paper around the ninth century (made of mulberry bark; thanks, China!), which was later made more affordable (made of linen fiber; thanks to the Arabs) and encouraged paper-making to spread to Spain (eleventh century) and Italy (thirteenth century).
*Fun fact: The Church frowned on paper, “because of its associated with Islamic culture.” While that is an embarrassing fact, it is an interesting note to realize that certain types of works were recognizable simply by the materials they were written on.
Mentioned earlier, in the eleventh century “written language became increasingly integrated into social and administrative functions in every area of cultural life.” Books were not just for monks anymore, and not even just for scholars; they were for the people. Everyday life now included the written word, meaning that people needed to see it, read it, and understand it, and we needed to mass produce it. With a wider audience, not only do you gain more eyes on the final product, you now have more requirements to consider. A monk’s needs are different than a scholar’s, which differ from a business’; and differences are not just about content, they are also about the context.
They are about the design.
It’s important to note that around this time illustrations became almost as important as text itself. Botanists could not teach a subject about specific herbs through a solo description. Mathematics and astronomy required charts and graphs. When beasts are described through words alone, you can end up at inaccurate conclusions like the painting below. Illustrations are important.
*Fun fact: This painting is from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Oudry, a fabulous artist and the main attraction for the Getty’s “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie” exhibit I visited in 2007. Unfortunately, while all of his paintings were realistic to a fault, the only animal he had never seen in person was a lion (hence the cartoonish quality of the lion’s face).
The addition of illustrations changed the essence of design, as well. Words and pictures began to interact with one another, playing off each other’s lines and boundaries, placing a distinction between them. And without the ability to simply erase one’s mistake, true writing (and illustration!) talent became even more highly valued. Flaws in maps, anatomical drawings, and star charts had larger consequences than a misspelled word, as any distorted information was then taught to the next audience, and corroded even further which each sequential copy. It was the worst game of telephone ever played, and “irregularities caused by artists of varying skill were an impediment to scientific knowledge that only the standardization brought by print technology in the fifteenth century could overcome.”
But alas, we are not there yet. We have only just reached the 14th century… So that is a story—or blog—for another time.
In the final lines of their copying, monks often commented on the tediousness of their work, on their cramped hands, aching necks, or weary eyes.
All too often your day-to-day routine becomes just that, a routine. You wake up in the morning, go to work, wait for the weekend so you can finally have a little time to relax, only to do it all again the next week. We get bogged down with deadlines and projects and errands and, well, life, to the point that when you finally take a moment to look up it’s December and exactly where did the year go? I am not one to tout spiritual awakenings—whether they be learning more about your personal energy via Chakras, transcending the Buddhist concept of I, or achieving the Hindu goal of Moksha—but they often have something in common: a sense of reflection. From learning more about yourself to attempting to realize your place in the world, no matter what belief system you follow, those concepts make sense. It’s all about trying to evolve as a human being.
I am a firm believer in the concept of learning something new every day. I am a constant student. A student of books, technology, life, everything—and if you’ve ever taken my Krav Maga class you would know this as each class I ask my students to tell me what they learned that day—so I am always searching for the next piece of information that will make my life better (or, at the very least, teach me something interesting).
Now, I don’t mind repeating myself here since I know for a fact that I could count the readers of Coastal Comments on one hand even if I had lost a few playing five finger fillet (and I’m betting none of you even realized that I quoted the above in my first blog post here, either). But I also don’t mind this bout of déjà vu because the above statement is still true. It was true when I was a child, complaining in my kindergarten class that my sisterwas assigned homework and how come I couldn’t get homework? It was true when I was a teenager, designing my own curriculum with multiple high school teachers since I had already taught myself what they were about to teach me and if I had already read those books couldn’t I just pick out my own books to read and report on those instead? It was true in my 20’s when I stayed in community college well past my limit because after I mastered Public Speaking then I really needed to learn more about Life Drawing and you never know when Geology could help you succeed in life and Cultural Anthropology is absolutely necessary for advancing in social situations… You get the gist.
The point is this: I really am a constant student. That wasn’t a convenient topic to write about when I had to get a blog post finished by the end of the day, that was truth. And it was a truth that weighed heavy on my mind for a few months afterward.
Because sometimes, when I get so bogged down with deadlines and projects and errands and life—sound familiar?—I feel like I’m not learning enough. Yes, I pick up tidbits here and there; in fact, just this morning I learned that the only two things that can break up scar tissue within the human body are light waves—laser treatment—or sound waves—ultrasound treatment. (Seeing as how I am currently going through physical therapy to correct a Krav injury I sustained about two years ago, this knowledge was apt.) I am always learning small things, everyone is if they simply take a moment to listen, but it’s not enough.
I thrived in school, where you had a minimum of seven different subjects to study each week inspiring hours of research and assignments, but once learning was no longer built into my schedule… It started to fall behind. Reading for pleasure was replaced with project deadlines. Online tutorials were taken over by meetings. Free time was filled in by the weight of being an adult, and what little I had left was immediately claimed by sleep. It really is amazing how much time being a responsible adult truly takes, between working full-time and running a household and trying to, I don’t know, not die. I was so focused on being successful, doing a good job, and paying all of my bills on time that I forgot to feed the part of me that was begging for nourishment.
A brain that is not challenged is nothing more than a clever AI program. Feed it a problem and it spits out a solution. No creativity. No inspiration. No soul. Sure, I was reading at least one book every few months. Yes, I was teaching myself new shortcut keys for my Adobe programs. Of course I was engaging in stimulating conversation and stretching my vocabulary along with my opinions. I wasn’t stagnant, but I was no longer the roaring rapids that I knew I could be. That I wanted to be.
When a beautiful mind begins to feel stupid, you know something needs to change.
And that’s exactly what happened. I felt slow and forgetful. I was losing my motivation at a startling pace at the ripe “old” age of 29. I was tired and my brain was dormant and that is very, very sad. But—as my family will happily tell you—I am incredibly stubborn. I picked at this problem in my brain for a long time, wondering what I could do to solve it. Should I get another degree? If I was going to I should definitely do it before I have kids, so now would be a good time. But Otis almost killed me last time, and that was only two years, and I really love my job at the Chamber so… That’s out. Should I start taking online classes? Sure, but that would dwindle both my cashflow and available free time. And what if I wanted to switch topics midway? I do tend to get distracted easily, even when learning, which is why having a full class load always worked in my favor. If I was only focusing on one class at a time… Nah. That’s not it.
Okay, let’s think about this again. What do I want to do? I want to learn. What do I want to learn? Anything interesting, but it gets double points if it is something that can help me succeed in life, personally/professionally. Who is going to teach me? I am, of course. So what is it time for?
It’s time to Learn Me Something New.
#LearnMeSomethingNew is the monthly endeavor of a constant student. Once a month, Kirby will teach herself a new skill or subject and document the process to teach you, the reader, something new.
Tune in next month for Learn Me Something New: Class 1.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog for the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce entitled “I am a Constant Student.” In this blog, I touted my zealous following of the philosophy behind learning something new every day. “I am a constant student,” I said. “A student of books, technology, life, everything. I am always searching for the next piece of information that will make my life better (or, at the very least, teach me something interesting).” Well, I learned something new today.
Writing your first blog is hard.
I started blogging for the chamber over a year ago, covering topics from beach clean-ups to Pokémon. I write posts for our coworking space. Articles for our annual magazine. I have written a 200-plus page book, for Christ’s sake. And yet I have been attempting for an entire month to write the inaugural blog for my own website as I officially launch the business I have been not-so-secretly running for the past three years… To no avail.
I can guarantee it isn’t due to an excess of shyness—anyone who has ever met me in person can tell within a twenty-second timeframe that that has never been my issue—rather, it’s almost as if facing the sudden freedom granted by doing something for myself, instead of a client, left me shell-shocked. I was given no parameters, no synopsis, no rough draft, nothing. It was a blank canvas, ready for me to paint whatever I wanted, and I realized: I have no idea what I want to do.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I know I want to introduce you to me (Hello, by the way. My name is Kirby.) and give you a little bit of my resume (to help convince you to hire me, of course), but I couldn’t think of a clever way to do it. Uploading my actual resume is pretty boring—and let’s be honest I haven’t updated it in a few years anyway—and I didn’t want to do the whole, “My name is Kirby Israelson. I graduated summa cum laude from Otis College of Art and Design in 2013 with a BA in Illustration and Creative Writing…”
That’s all true, yes, but it’s also very bland. And if that’s one takeaway you’re going to learn about me, whether it’s from shaking my hand or reading this blog, it’s that I’m anything but bland. So instead, let’s talk about something a little more interesting.
Kirby Fun Facts:
No, Kirby was not named after the video game character. The video game character was named after her. (sources not confirmed)
There are very few things on this planet that Kirby loves more than donuts, and she is often easily bribed by food.
If you can succeed in finding a horror movie that actual scares or disturbs her, you will be friends for life.
Kirby is always down for a little hand-to-hand combat; she loves Krav Maga almost as much as donuts.
She believes the world should never start before 10am as sleep is sacred.
One of her dream jobs—for she has many—would be to design the kid’s coloring menus at restaurants (because yes, she still asks for crayons at her meals).
Kirby is skilled in a variety of artistic mediums. From stone sculptures to papel picados, watercolor to face painting, graphic design to stained glass, websites to chalk art… She loves to learn new things (remember?) so she is always acquiring new skills. One thing she really wants to learn? Glass blowing.
To date, Kirby has written one interactive adventure novel (the first book of the future seven book series), one coloring book, and one graphic novel. Her novel is the project she is most proud of.
When Kirby graduated college, she swore she would never be self-employed. Currently, she is both self-employed and over-employed (but loving it).
She has managed to combine a strong work ethic, competitive streak, perfectionistic tendencies, endless amounts of creativity, and a splash of OCD into an efficient, butter coffee-fueled working machine.
Kirby is a firm believer in the oxford comma.
This list could continue forever, of course, but then it would ruin the element of surprise. And isn’t that one of the most fun parts of meeting someone new? Learning about their eccentricities? So instead, let’s end on a note of tentative friendship. By now, you have mentally conceded to the fact that I seem like an awesome person—oh, did I forget to also mention how humble I am?—and are interested in seeing exactly how I make things pretty. As for me, you’re reading this so I already think you’re swell. So, you’re going to write “Email Kirby” on your to-do list in a few moments and we can get this conversation started.