On Designers, Poets and Pole Vaulters

Elevating Craft to Art

Lee Gordon
May 12 · 3 min read

I think writing is just another word for designing. Let me explain: designers take a cache of symbols: type faces, graphics, animations, whatever, and arrange them in a particular way to create meaning. Their relationship with one another, from positioning to the space they inhabit, are all aspects of that meaning. A poet does the same thing, but their symbols are type, line break, syntax, and distance between ideas. Poetry and design both solve a communication problem. They do it by mastering visual and literary vocabularies.

A long time ago, while trying to spark a career in design, I fancied myself a poet. I studied and practiced poetry for almost 10 years under a teacher named Larry Fagin. He once told me, “writing poetry is the most difficult thing in the world to do, besides pole vaulting.” Why pole vaulting in particular? I think I know the answer: To concede to create poetry, or any art for that matter, is to concede to know everything. We need to know, not only the subject at hand, but also all things that subject involves. We must then take those things and arrange them into form that resonates. It’s a daunting task. Still, we vault our minds into the craft. We rely on what we know, what we feel and our muscle memory to (hopefully) clear the obstacle and stick the landing.

Great art is authentic communication, and it’s nearly impossible to capture. We can, however, move the bar by expanding our frame of reference and learning to articulate succinctly. Succinct articulation equals a poem, a design… a pole vault. The greater our cache of symbols, the more choice we have when when practicing our craft. With enough practice, we might even elevate our craft to art.

To close an especially abstract post, I thought I’d share an equally abstract prose poem I “designed” when ruminating on the above themes:

STOP STEALING SHEEP

Less here meets the eye. Words are not things. They are pictures of things. Here is a body, toes, fingers and hair. The cap height is great. But the narrow counter can still appear solid at the baseline. There are no unnecessary serifs or kerns. Ascender, descender, you rise and fall so gracefully. Color, you are so deceitful. I cannot pray to you any longer. From now on, I will write only in red. I will write about people, human beings and us doing things with our toes and fingers. You think with your head, so show me. I am waiting. Someone will come through the door as Bauhaus or Futura. Too bad, it’s Univers, so boring. But beautiful, yes, very simple. So I will take this piece of wood and bend it into a single ribbon. I like those letters and their spacing. They are breezy from the beach. With its flotsam I will make a chair and table. I will sit across from Univers. We will eat. Then I will laugh all silly-like. Didot-schmancy will come through the door and ROFL until our bitmaps burst. “Anyone who would letterspace lowercase would steal sheep.” It’s just that simple.