A Designer’s Manifesto Written by a Writer

What happens when a writer sets out into the world of design?

Leigh Fisher
Feb 10 · 10 min read
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Writing a designer’s manifesto turned out to be a surprisingly difficult challenge for me. In my first draft, I had nothing but bland platitudes. It sounded like a proposal for the blandest project you could imagine. I wrote things like relay information clearly, follow best practices, adhere to brand guidelines, and use visual assets to enhance communication or learning. While these are good principles, it wasn’t exactly what I felt like a designer’s manifesto should be like.

After reading pieces compiled The Typography Manifestos by Helen Armstrong, I felt like I could take a rather freeform approach. I felt like that gave me creative permission to say and something bold—if I could find the right words that weren’t just vague principles without a lot of heart behind them. Reading The Bauhaus Manifesto by Walter Gropius led me to debate if I should take a more practical road.

I’ve always been a writer first and foremost.

Even now, as a student studying Integrated Digital Media, I’m fascinated by digital and interactive storytelling. I’m still a writer at heart and a devout book lover, even if I spend more time creating social media content or doing design projects for my day job.

I realized early on in my youthful attempts at content creation that the written word alone often isn’t enough anymore. For me, becoming a designer has felt like something of a necessity. I started cobbling words together and calling it writing when I was a child of 10, but I didn’t attempt anything that could be called design until I was 19 or 20.

My designer’s manifesto needs to represent who I am. That led me to think about the greatest divide for me and my personal design practice. For me, that’s the cavernous divide between my optimistic ideals and my salty realistic goals. I settled on creating a manifesto that represented me, my goals as a designer, my origins as a writer, and the two sides of what I’m trying to achieve with these different skills.

Thus, I decided to do something truly strange—make my designer’s manifesto as a poem.

Designer’s Manifesto — The Optimist

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The Designer’s Manifesto — The Realist

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I’m a writer who learned graphic design out of necessity.

These pieces are two sides of the same coin. As a writer and a designer, my goal is to fuse the image and the written word. The optimist’s manifesto embodies everything that is hopeful and good about that goal. The realist’s manifesto takes all the frustration that served as the dark seed to this path and gives it a voice.

I’ve worked in some capacity of a designer in a lot of my jobs. The funniest part of this origin is that I was actually hired just to help professors with projectors and serve as a helping set of hands during events. However, I was chatting with my colleagues one day and everyone was talking about their hobbies. I mentioned how I liked to draw comics and cartoons for fun — nothing serious, not a career path I planned on chasing, but as a hobby. My boss at the time turned to me and her eyes lit up. “You mean you can use PhotoShop?

At the time, I was using an archaic copy of PhotoShop CS2.

“Well, a bit, yes! I usually use Paint Tool Sai though,” I remember saying, knowing full-well that almost no one outside of my nerdy online communities knew about that piece of niche software.

But that, as they say, was that. It started out humbly, back when I was a student worker, and started designing print flyers and social media posts for the satellite campus I worked at. Looking back on those designs, I can’t help but cringe a bit. It was better than Microsoft clip art, but I was very much a novice in the design world. That was my first tiny step toward working professionally as a graphic designer.

I did a poetic free writing exercise to create a rough draft of these pieces.

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I started out thinking about the optimist’s manifesto as everything aspirational about fusing writing and design. It’s completely rough—there’s no semblance of organization with thoughts or stanzas.

However, to really get the feeling behind the words, this felt like the best choice to get the honest ideas out there without having them slowed down by me trying to make something more polished.

I ended up trimming it down quite a bit for the final manifesto.

The realist’s manifesto taps into a lot of the doubts and frustrations I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

Though the beginning of my story as a designer sounds like a beautiful story of triumph and improvement, that’s just the polite version of the story.

The reality behind all that wasn’t so glamorous. I became estranged from my family and needed to start supporting myself without a penny of assistance from anyone. I had to leave my happy little part-time work-study job for a grueling full-time job doing tech support. It was a miserable job. When I moved to Maryland, it was because I was desperate to grasp at a job with some creative duties, before I completely lost my mind to being screamed at and cursed at by people who saw tech support technicians as less than human.

I worked obscenely hard during these years. I remember one particular semester where I was working 12-hour shifts most days of the week because I needed the overtime pay to afford my tuition bills — even though I wasn’t receiving any familial aid, I was only 21, so my parents’ income was counted with mine and I couldn’t get a cent of grant or scholarship funding anymore.

I had to teach myself to be a halfway competent designer. My writing career was going nowhere. I got some publications in meaninglessly tiny literary journals that I foolishly thought would get me into competitive PhD programs. Freelance writing wasn’t profitable enough to pay my bills, tech support was twisting the kindness and patience out of me, and design seemed like the best way to get a creative job I could enjoy.

At every turn of my career, there were crushing rent bills and tuition bills dictating my next step.

Photos by Author

That reality bleeds through in the first draft of the realist’s manifesto. It’s rough, it’s angry, it’s filled with self-doubt. The amount of refinement and revision that went into this manifesto was quite a bit more extensive.

I distinctly remember when the lease of my apartment was due to go up in November and I was so strapped for money that I wondered if I could sleep in my car for a few months to save money, but quickly realized it was going to be too cold at night then for that idea to work. I ended up paying a few months of rent on credit cards and frantically working overtime to pay it back.

My estranged family changed the locks on their doors and I knew I had no choice but work and earn money, no matter how clinically depressed I was getting. I had no safety net. I had no one to turn to for help. It was succeed and ascend or become homeless.

For about five years, my every professional move has been dictated by the need to have a place to live. It was always “it’s this or live in my car.” I never felt like I had a choice to do anything but sacrifice my physical and mental health for my career. I had no safety net to fall back on should my professional endeavors fall through. I didn’t have a home to go back to.

It’s hard for me to let all of that negativity go and focus on the creative, fun aspects of design that drew me to the discipline.

But as unpleasant as all of those experiences were, they’re part of my identity as a designer. They’ve impacted my goals and aspirations. I started out with a pure love for art and design that got twisted by making marketing materials for sociopaths and all sorts of other terrible things I needed to do to get by.

It’s only been in the last two years of my life that I was able to move my career in a positive direction, find a job I love, and finally pursue the graduate education I chased for years.

Instagram

As a writer today, it’s hard to get people to read if your words aren’t pretty.

I explored traditional publication for years and never made a penny before I decided to dive into the Instagram poetry community.

After a great deal of debate, I felt like the manifestos about the pressure put on writers to make their works more visual needed a life beyond the one they would live as a grad school class assignment.

Though they don’t embody the idea of a one-page manifesto very well, I decided to format these pieces to be an Instagram puzzle.

I’ve been experimenting with the puzzle format on Instagram for the past few months. While traditional photos of poems tend to perform better on the platform, the digital designs are more fun for me to work on.

Beyond that, they feel more personal to me. It’s something I can do as a graphic designer. If I stick with it and keep experimenting, I’m sure it’ll help me improve.

While these designs aren’t perfect, they are purposeful.

The final presentation of these manifestos will look a fair bit better once I’ve posted them. I set up the canvases to be 3000 x 1000, to split into three 1000 x 1000 squares. I set up guidelines in PhotoShop to keep an eye on where the cuts would be to give each piece a unique identity and design.

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For the optimist's manifesto, I picked a pale color scheme. For both manifestos, I decided to go with a design that I felt represented me best. I’ve always had a soft spot for gentle gradients and analogous palettes.

I challenged myself to write out the final version of this manifesto in a way where it could be read either left-to-write or right-to-left and still make sense. On top of that, I also set out to make each of the third work as a standalone piece or as a part of the full manifesto. This took an extra heavy bit of editing to still encompass the raw emotion in the rough draft but piece it out in a way that was flexible for the world of web content we live in today.

For the realist’s manifesto, many of the same design ideas carry over. It’s meant to be a darker inversion of the first. I wanted this final version to still hold some of the desperate spirit of the first draft, but I also wanted to show a bit of my journey with it.

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The rightmost poem, with the final stanza about drawing a safety net, is a loose poetic reference to how the pressure that came from having no family to turn to set me on this path of becoming a designer to diversify my job options and survive.

Last but not least, while I know it’s not a design best practice, I’ve always had a soft spot for PhotoShop brushes and communities online that make resources for other artists. The brush was made by an artist who goes by ObsessiveDezign online and posted this lovely moon and stars brush back in 2010. I chose this brush to compose this design as a nod to how I started out experimenting with graphic design—as a hobbyist drawing cartoons online.

I put together a folder with the higher resolution versions of these manifesto since Medium isn’t always thrilled when I put together such an image-heavy story. Once I’m adding these posts to my content calendar to share them on Instagram later this month.

Writing a designer’s manifesto turned out to be deeply introspective. It made me take a hard look at my history and my personal motivations. While it’s not all pretty, it’s who I am. I’m eager to keep learning, keep experimenting, and grow as both a writer and as a designer.

A Designer’s Diary

Digging into design best practices, theory, and improvement

Leigh Fisher

Written by

Writer and poet from Neptune. Instructional designer in NYC. Grad student at @NYUTandon studying Integrated Digital Media.

A Designer’s Diary

My name is Leigh and I’m a self-taught designer looking to formalize my design education.

Leigh Fisher

Written by

Writer and poet from Neptune. Instructional designer in NYC. Grad student at @NYUTandon studying Integrated Digital Media.

A Designer’s Diary

My name is Leigh and I’m a self-taught designer looking to formalize my design education.

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