Words that Cling: Deconstructing Love, Language & Graphic Design
I am not a designer who also writes. I am not a writer who also designs.
I approach research, concept development, and design through writing. I am a graphic designer whose visuals are the translation of concepts derived from a development process that is almost entirely based in language and writing.
Regardless of the hat we are wearing at any given moment, we are perpetually remaking and rewriting ourselves through our experiences; but despite our best efforts, we can never escape the skins we are in. Traces will always remain, traces that will inevitably interact with and affect the new layers of self-writing and interpretation. We all have words that cling.
The traces of our experiences — emotional, sensual or linguistic — are a major component in our creation of constructs, those tidy little bundles of complex, abstract ideas like love, poverty, and gender that help us make meaning of our lives. As social beings, that construction of meaning tends to be a group effort defined by common language — both verbal and visual. While we are constantly tweaking our constructs as we acquire new information and experiences, we often continue to use the same language we have always used to describe them. Attendant to this idea is the Structuralist theory that we don’t use language to describe an objective reality but rather, through our use of language, we effectively create our reality. If you’ve ever had an argument about whether “khaki” is brown or green or gray, you are aware of how slippery this slope can be. And is it any wonder that the entire modern music industry can survive on songs about the miscommunication of “love”?
When we consider that much of our communication, visual as well as verbal, is based on these abstract constructs, it is little wonder that using these languages to exteriorize our interior experience is an inherently faulty system. The intention of our communication is sometimes held captive by our systems of communication — personally idiosyncratic systems of which we are often unaware.
An awareness of this deceptively unstable “common” ground is vital for graphic designers who act as the conduit and translator of ideas between clients and audiences. It is a critical awareness for educators as well. Broad life experiences, professional experiences, and open worldviews help reveal the amorphous nature of our constructs and the limitations of our communication systems, but extra-personal awareness requires active and often intentional pursuit.
Deconstruction is a philosophical and critical movement that suggests a reader must actively approach and dismantle a text with the intention of eliminating any metaphysical or ethnocentric assumptions and finding new, more objective language with which to construct meaning. Deconstruction also has a definition in the material world where it is defined as the selective dismantling of building components, specifically for re-use, repurposing, recycling, and waste management. What possibilities could a hybrid definition of deconstruction present? What can be learned and revealed from UNmaking?
I would answer that physical, material, text-based deconstruction can be a method of facilitating intellectual deconstruction and the increased awareness of personal, social, and cultural constructs. If we deconstruct something, effectively objectifying all the pieces and parts and inner workings, it is possible to see the effects of their interactions more clearly. In theory, any meaning embedded in subsequent creative efforts is responsively more informed and considered as a result of this self-aware deconstruction.
As designers, we have adopted visual mediums for this fool-hardy undertaking of communication. For most students and young designers in particular, visual fluency is still in the developmental stage. Concepts, not to mention creative, ego-risky, self-generated content, get short shrift in the pursuit of idealized visuals which are frequently frustratingly, distractingly out of reach. Words and language and writing are often a more familiar, if not necessarily favored, medium for exteriorizing their ideas.
As such, I see an opportunity for writing as a bridging design activity, as an exploratory arena in which to both create and deconstruct, to engage with the idea of themselves as content creators, and an opportunity to reveal the construct-imposed limitations — as well as the possibilities and connections — that emerge in the ideation phase of design without the pressures of visual production.
I believe the intentional deconstruction of ideas and concepts through writing and language-centric processes helps dismantle our pre-conceived notions and lays the groundwork for more meaningful communication. In the current educational environment in which students feel a desperate need to produce THE “right” answer, the use of writing and deconstruction as processes for defamiliarizing their visual communication expectations can help them uncover their own restrictive constructs and open up greater fields of creative exploration. It allows more questions to be asked without the fear of commitment to a particular answer in the form of a visual or information structure or “appropriate” style. Rather than “What color should it be?,” the questions could include “What of my experience is informing my concept? Are my experiences and understanding the same or different from other people’s? What then, do I need to consider in regard to images, text, color? Am I communicating an idea or just decorating it?
It may seem odd to include a teaching section in my design portfolio site, but it is an absolutely integral part of who I am as a designer as well as a person. Teaching undergraduate design students has forced me to think deeply about my fundamental skills as well as my core values as a designer. Teaching is a dialogue and I have learned as much, if not more, from my students over the last few years than they may have from me!
I also had the unique pleasure of teaching K-12 art for a year at a small international school in Xi'an, China. I've included some of their work here, too, because planning these projects was an intense learning process for me. I had to integrate grade-level appropriate teaching/learning objectives into interesting projects all while acquiring the materials in China.
I sometimes describe myself as a designer on the outside and a writer on the inside. As such, books, magazines, calendars, annual reports, brochures and so on feel like my sweet spot. On more than one occasion, clients have told me how much they appreciate the fact that I actually read and process the content of what I am designing. In our Pinterest-obsessed world, it is easy to forget that good design isn't just about decorating, it's about communicating clearly and effectively.
As the trend in web design continues to move toward cleaner and more consistently templatized layouts, the opportunities to "splash out" visually have become fewer. Content has rightfully become more important than container. I started my web design career building HTML sites from scratch. I had a brief and unfortunate fling with Flash. And I had an early introduction to WordPress by way of customized CMS in Joomla.
Sevenly was founded in 2011 with the mission of leading a generation toward generosity. Based on a simple, core belief that ‘People Matter,’ the Sevenly team activated the now global ‘cause art’ movement and started creating 7-day cause campaigns, inviting customers to purchase “advocacy art, apparel and accessories” that donate to non-profits. Each campaign and every product would also create conversations. Now widely recognized as one of the world's leading 'social good' companies, Sevenly activates its signature 7-Day Campaigns and curates ongoing, cause-themed Collections created to change lives by raising funding, awareness and followers for the world’s greatest causes.
Part of my job as Creative Director was to create new art for the shirts and accessories. These are some of my favorites!
NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED - Honoring Strong Women
These two reviews from happy Sevenly customers pretty much sum it up: Love it! Three strangers stopped to tell me they liked it on the first day I wore it! Solidarity with other persistent humans! My 75-year-old Mom is Rocking this Shirt! I kind of procrastinated on her birthday in April ... and Mother's Day in May ... then I saw this. She flew down to meet me in DC in January for the Women's March and we had a blast. I had to buy this for her. I didn't tell her it was coming. I got THE most excited phone call from her a week ago. She LOVES it and wore it to the Clinton County (NY) Democratic Party fundraiser the next night. Home run!
LOVE > HATE
Designed for the Back-to-School Don't Bully Collection, sales of this shirt help provide resources to prevent bullying through Stand for the Silent.
The design was created to support and spotlight an unsung hero — MK Hill, of The Arrows Nest in Memphis. At just 27, MK's made her home a community refuge to children of all ages in crisis foster care. Proceeds from the Family Matters! Collection go to help her and her team in their amazing show of love.
I have enjoyed — and learned a tremendous amount from — the opportunity to work the full spectrum of branding possibilities from new development to the application of established styles. The experience of each informs the other.
If you ever want to truly understand something, teach it to someone else. For the past six years, I have been teaching undergraduates the ins and outs of good logo design. My approach changes from semester to semester as I am constantly re-evaluating and redefining what does, indeed, make a good logo. There are, however, some adjectives that remain constant: simple, memorable (preferably with a dash of clever), and versatile. These are a few of my logo designs that I believe hit that mark.