“Grandpa, tell me about design in the pre-internet days.”
OK, I’m not a grandpa. In fact I work for a major tech company but in a sector dominated by billionaire teenagers, my age could probably qualify me as a grandfather. More so because I actually did experience life before the internet.
My first job was in an architecture firm at a time before CAD was common. I spent many long nights hunched over one of those tilted large drafting tables, drawing hundreds of pages of floor plans, cross sections, perspectives, elevations, you name it. There was no online resources, no fancy blogs or CAD data to copy from. Everything had to be drawn and each part had to make sense to support the bigger idea. It was a training in conceptual thinking. I just didn’t realize it then.
At nights and weekends, I moonlighted as a graphic designer, designing business cards, wedding invitations and posters. All of them were low budget. Again, there was no Flickr or Google images to grab references from. No blogs with free vector files or latest fonts to download from. You wanted cool, organic-looking fonts? You made it yourself. In my case, by hands. And then you scanned it. And you played with the scanning process to get different effects. Wasn’t there Photoshop? Well, yes, Photoshop 1.0.
When I interviewed for a job or pitched for a project, I had to spend serious money printing my work in 24" x 18" format, mounted them on black boards and stacked them inside one of those heavy, large, black portfolio case. There was no Squarespace or Keynote.
Why am I talking like an old man on a rocking chair? Do I miss the old days? Hell, no. I’m forever grateful the internet came along and begat a bunch of new, innovative things that made lives that much better and easier. But the internet seems to also have the unwanted effect of dumbing down the thinking, encouraging short cuts and empowering mediocrity.
Let me elaborate. At 24" x 18", you really have to pay attention to details. The kerning can’t be off. The image must have the right resolution. Know your CMYK so green comes out green and black doesn’t come out charcoal. Most importantly the idea and the design have to be tight. You take your time and think things through. Otherwise you’re stuck with a 24" x 18" eyesore. There’s no UNDO button.
And then there’s the vision thing. The ability to articulate and draw your own vision to save your ass, especially in front of clients. If my clients couldn’t envision the Greek column I proposed in the elevation, I had to show them by drawing the perspective right there in front of them. Bring the vision to life to convince them that even a humble strip mall populated with pedicure salons could use a touch of Corinthian on the facade. After all, Corinthian was used to adorn temples and strip malls are temples of consumerism and commercialism.
Cut to today. How many times have you encountered art students or juniors who can’t draw and who suddenly don’t know how to explain their visions and ideas if the 4G on their tablets slows down?
The point of all this is the internet and what comes with it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to slack off on the fundamentals. There is so much crap, especially on mobile space today. I repeat, crap, because of the availability of bad templates and the wild wild west nature of digital space. There’s a paradigm shift from making things for permanence to making things to be deleted and replaced with new posts. The culture of bite-size content, unfortunately, takes thoughtfulness, depth, craft and eloquence out of the equation.
Don’t go back to the past but learn the fundamentals. Understand the essence, the why. Equip yourself with the knowledge to differentiate the duds from the truly worthy gems — which the internet has played a major role in unearthing. At least that’s what I’m going to tell my grandchildren one day, if I ever become a grandfather. And if our future robot overlords allow me to live that long.
Rudi Anggono is Head of Creative at Google. He lives in New York City with his wife and two small boys.