Saturday, July 17, 2010

Deadlines and Closet Space

Anyone getting into Graphic Design and Illustration must be aware that they are entering a deadline driven businesses. Unlike the stereotype of the artist who works at their own pace when the mood strikes, commercial artists must always be aware of time. Newspaper ads must be submitted on Wednesday by noon in order to run in the Saturday paper. The September issue of a magazine is being put together in June. And Christmas cards that will be signed, sealed and delivered in December are due to the printer in April. When digital print-on-demand came along in the 1990s, designers didn’t need as much lead-time, but deadlines still loom on a daily basis.

Clock watching isn’t confined to the final hours of a project. Most designers must keep a daily log of time spent on every job. Timesheets are used to record hours worked down to the quarter-hour. A work log will show that from 9:00 to 9:45 the artist answered email and checked online networking sites, from 9:45 until 10:30 they were occupied with a meeting with an art director, and from 10:30 until 12:15 they flowed and formatted fonts in a brochure. It is essential that these records are accurate so that the design firm or agency knows how much to charge their client for services. It is critical for freelancers to know how much time they spend on a project in order estimate accurate quotes for future jobs.

With printed work, deadlines are rarely flexible. If the files don’t get to the printer on time, it just doesn’t get printed. A newspaper are especially strict — if an advertiser reserves space and doesn’t deliver the material to fill that space, that company may be billed for that ad space anyway. Seeing a big, white block where your ad should have been is not what the designer has in mind when they think of white space.

With web projects, deadlines may bend more easily. Once the work is approved it literally only takes seconds to upload files to the Web. But this can create another sort of problem — the never-ending project. There are horror stories of websites taking three years to complete! In that time design styles and technology has changed so much that the site is no longer cutting edge, but more cutting room floor.

Time is like moving into a new house with a lot of closet space. Delighted to be out of a cramped space, you might think, “I’ll never fill all these cupboards!” But of course in a matter of just a few months, you find your storage stuffed. The project will expand to fill the allotted time. Like a woman dressing to go out for the evening, she may start getting ready hours in advance but will still be fixing her hair when her date arrives.

Without a deadline there is no incentive to complete a project. Other things will take precedent, and suddenly you find yourself re-grouting the bathtub instead of working on that layout.

For many designers and illustrators, the deadline won’t stick if it is self-imposed. This is why a personal goal to get a portfolio website launched by June 1 fails. But meet an art director who wants to see samples of recent illustrations for a potential job, and that site suddenly becomes a priority.

The first thing to do with any project is to set a firm date for completing. Select a date that is far enough in the future that it will give enough time to complete the work. Twelve to sixteen weeks is ideal. Any longer and you end up thinking you have plenty of time, you put it off and put it off only to wake up one day and realize the due date is tomorrow.

Many designers enjoy the thrill of working under time pressures. There is an undeniable adrenaline rush that comes with racing the clock to get a project completed at the last minute. However this constant stress can also causes early burn-out in a career. To prevent procrastination and the pressure of trying to finish a project at the last minute, one final deadline isn’t sufficient. Having interim dates for various steps helps the designer to stay on track along the way.

Rewards and punishment are great incentives. Money is a powerful enticement to stay on track. Some contracts go so far as to state that if the work is not completed by a certain day the client doesn’t have to make the final installment or gets a price reduction. A promise to clean the office refrigerator if you don’t get the job done on time is a great motivator, but may have your coworkers secretly hoping you can’t meet your deadline. However, be careful of punishments that force you to do something that will only lead you to more procrastination.

State Highway Commissions offer incentives road construction bids: if a project is completed before the deadline, contractors get a bonus for every day the project comes in advance. Offering a bonus to a writer or programmer to deliver early may help you get work done faster. There is the danger of poor quality in the rush to get the biggest bonus possible, so use this with subcontractor you know do good work to get your project pushed forward on their agenda.

Self-promotional work is especially prone to the deadline-lacking death. Many people need an external motivator — someone else to hold you accountable to getting the work done. Ask someone to nag you. This could be a coworker or big sister who will ride your tail. Give them permission to call you weekly and demand a report on your progress.

For illustrators, critique groups can be useful. Not only do your peers offer great advice on you work, you will be pushed to get something done to show at the next group meeting.

Finally, plan a celebration for when the job is done. Reward yourself with some time off when you get a big project done, but don’t forget to schedule time for cleaning the fridge when you get back!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Grade Inflation and Art Assessment

I was recently speaking with a colleague who is an instructor at a prestigious art school in New York. “If a student gripes about their grade, I ask them what grade they want and give it to them,” he said. “No one looks at transcripts when they hire a designer anyway, it’s all about what’s in their ‘book’ (portfolio).” This attitude about grade inflation reveals a great deal.

It is true in some fields that grades are not considered in hiring. The work in a portfolio will clearly display if the person possesses skill. It can be assumed that a candidate who exhibits outstanding samples will have grades that reflect their hard work and dedication to cultivating their talent.

Evaluating art, music, writing, and other liberal studies, can be highly subjective. Even with the use of a rubric to set criteria for objective evaluation, in questions of aesthetics, it comes down to personal opinion about the work. A student might disagree with a professor’s assessment, but should keep in mind that it is a very educated, experienced opinion based on standards of excellence in the field. When students are overly concerned with the grade they take constructive criticism as a personal affront and become defensive. They miss the point of the critiquing process; to learn from your mistakes.

My associate’s experiences are typical. Faculty members are pressured to give better grades and some give in. It may be in an effort to keep students from giving negative feedback on end of semester evaluations or on teacher-rating websites that let users post malicious comments anonymously. One disgruntled student’s remarks about their grade may not impact an instructor’s credibility with the administration or fellow faculty, but a very vocal student can sway other students away from enrolling in a course. Rather than encouraging friends to take-on a challenging course, bad mouthing the professor for strict grading policies can cause a course to be canceled due to low enrollment. This affects not just the teacher, but students who signed up for that class as well.

Students, as well as faculty, undoubtedly feel pressure from parents, employers and graduate schools. But students who receive inflated grades are being done a disservice. They either develop a distorted view of their abilities, bordering on delusions of grandeur, or live with the guilty knowledge that they did not deserve their marks and constant fear of being discovered as a fraud.

Another long-term problem with grade inflation is that it lowers the perceived quality of the education at the institution. This can happen if recent graduates with transcripts showing a high GPA are then found by their employers not to be of the caliber that their records would indicate. Over time the entire University is thought of as having low standards.

Just as a “party school” can get its reputation from the public revelry of a small percentage of the student body, if a college has a reputation for grade inflation, even excellent students who truly deserved excellent scores will be thought to be overrated.

There is one certain solution to preventing grade inflation: Faculty should never give A’s. Students should earn them.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Graduate Degrees in Visual Art

Spring is coming, and all young people’s thoughts turn to… “I graduate in 3 months – NOW WHAT!”

For ARTISTS thinking of Graduate School be forewarned that grad school might make the last 4 years seem like a walk-in-the-park. You will likely not only be expected to create high quality professional artwork (and a lot of it), but at this point your will also likely be working to support your self, as well as potential working as a teaching assistant.

If you are certain you have the passion and fortitude for another round in your education (and let’s face it, the financial aid!), clearly define your career goals before applying for that new string of letters after your name.

There are several advanced degrees in the creative art to consider. You are advised to fully research differing requirements at school to which you apply. If any academic administrators find errors or omissions in this information, please let me know so that I can make corrections.

Here is a brief overview of graduate level degrees in the Visual Arts.

MA (Master of Arts) — Approx 36 credits.
Portfolio required for admissions.
The MA is for the student who wants to improve in the practice and making of their art with a focus on historical and theoretical studies. In most cases public school art teachers who already have an art education teaching degree need to get an MA in order to keep their certification, as required by their school board.
Show of artwork may or may not be required. Thesis may or may not be required.

MFA (Master of Fine Arts)Approx 60 credits.
Portfolio required for admissions.
The MFA is currently a "terminal" degree in the USA. An MFA is required in order to teach at the college or university level. The MFA is a practicing degree for artists who want to improve their skills in art making and teach creative arts in higher education.
Thesis and show of artwork required.

SHAMELESS PLUG for my graduate alma mater, Marywood University in Scranton, PA:
Marywood offers an MFA in Graphic Design and/or Illustration. This low residency program is a 3-year program. For 4-summers you will spend 2-grueling weeks on campus in classes. Several independent art projects are required yearly, along with a historic thesis on the topic of the student’s choosing. (I wrote about how the advertising industry targeted agricultural markets). For 1 week every April and again in November, the students go on study tours – usually in New York and other major cities - to visit the offices and studios or renowned designers, illustrators and agencies. Significant Coursework included: Histories of Graphic Design & Illustration, Children’s Book Illustration and Marketing Your Art. Visiting instructors included Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Guy Billout, Ed Benquiat, Louise Fili, Lisa Cyr, Alexander Gelman, Christoph Neiman, Paul Sahre, Rafal Olbinski, Ed Sorel, and Ted Lewin. Manhattan Study Tours included: AIGA, Barron’s Magazine, Penguin Books, RGA, Saatchi & Saatchi, Society of Illustrators and Vibe Magazine.

The Marywood Creative Professionals MFA program is not for the faint of heart. It is very rigorous, but provides an education of the highest caliber. For me the additional reward of the wonderful friendships that I made with other artists is beyond compare. And now when I watch The Office, and Michael wants to go to Coopers, I can say – “I’ve been there!”

PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy)Approx 60 credits
Portfolio not required for admissions. An MA is required to apply.
This degree does not involve the making of art. PhD's can be earned in Art History, Art Education, and Art Therapy. Visual Culture or Visual Rhetoric, Media Communications and Popular Culture programs are appealing to Graphic Designers. This degree is for those who want to write about art intensively, work at art museums and teach art history in higher education. They may also be school administrators.
Dissertation required. Art show not required.

EdD (Doctorate in Education)Approx 45 credits beyond an MA.
Portfolio not required for admissions.
This degree is for those who already have a master's degree and want to teach in public schools and/or become educational administrators. EdD may be earned in Art Education.
Comprehensive exam and dissertation required.

DFA (Doctorate in Fine Arts)Credits undetermined
Portfolio required for admissions. An MA may be required to apply.
This degree is not well known in the USA, but has been established as the terminal degree in arts in Europe. There are few schools offering this degree in the USA, and those that do exist were established within the last 5 years. There has been a recent push among colleges and universities to require faculty to have a DFA. This requirement has come under considerable controversy since The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article "How Educated Must an Artist Be?" in 2007. Just be aware that changes are a brewin’.

For High School students - In a future entry I will write about the differences, advantages & disadvantages of attending an Art School vs a Liberal Arts College.

It is recommend that you look at schools that best suit your interests and offers the degree that will best meet your long term goals.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Redundancy of Design Goals

Less than 2 weeks into the New Year, and already many resolutions have been broken, but as any good consultant or coach will tell you, a resolution is not a goal.
Consider this anecdote: “In 1953, researchers studying goal setting surveyed the graduating seniors from Yale University on their goals and aspirations for the future. They discovered only 3% of the graduating class had specific, written goals and objectives.

20 years later, when they tracked down the same graduates, the researchers were astounded by the results. They discovered that the same 3% who engaged in goal setting activity and had clearly written goals when they graduated in 1953 were more successful, and worth more in terms of wealth than the other 97% put together. The same 3% also tend to have better health and relationships than the other 97%.”
(Guide to Self-Help Techniques)

FastCompany verified that the famous Yale Study of Goals is an Urban Legend. It’s unfortunate that it never actually happened, because it is such a inspiring story. But that doesn’t mean goal setting doesn’t work. As a compulsive goal setter and educator I encourage students to set goals. Their teachers, too.

From Zig Ziglar to Tony Robbins, all motivational gurus stress that successful a goal must have a several definite components. Most critical, a goal must be achievable, specific, and have a deadline. There are many sites that offer great information on goal setting. The Affluent Artist is especially good for anyone in creative fields.

The first lecture I give to students in my Intro to Digital Design course is about the meaning of design. Looking at the definition of design, it means “intentional planning.” It has nothing to do with Macs or Adobe. It’s about the thought process behind something.

Because I have a nerdish interest in etymology, here is the definition of DESIGN (Oxford English Dictionary)

• verb
1 conceive and produce a design for.
2 plan or intend for a purpose.
— ORIGIN from Latin designare ‘mark out, designate’.

The Visual Thesaurus created this beautiful word map of the word DESIGN. In addition to creating these incredibly useful maps for only $20 a year (buy the software for $40) the images are beautifully designed, as is the elegant functionality of the interface itself. What more could a logophilactic designer want?

So here is the redundancy...

To be a designer is a to be a goal setter.
Or at least someone who aspires to be a good designer must become a goal setter.