Coloring a purple cat
Graphic design and structure go hand-in-hand, and in this field rule-breakers aren’t always celebrated—even breaking the rules needs to be done with some show of structure. This is important, though, because in order to establish a successful graphic system or a brand visually, there needs to be a strong underlying structure and a little bit of authority. I am fully bought into this.
But here is where both the free-spirited hippie and the petulant child in me join hands and want to take over. Because, wait. It’s still creative, isn’t it?
During my childhood, my parents were always being called up and called in to speak with whichever teacher was upset with one of their children for inadvertently thumbing our noses at authority in school. Maybe I was chasing the boys around the Preschool playground, or using a little more glue than the teacher had instructed the class to use when gluing glitter to our craft projects. But no experience of free-spirit-meets-authority takes the cake more than the time my sister, Emily, colored a purple cat in Elementary School art class.
To my memory, the class had been presented with a drawing of a cat and told to color it in, then instructed on how to do just that. The final drawing was supposed to be a black cat with green eyes. Only, Emily wanted her cat to be purple. So she went rogue and colored a purple cat with green eyes.
Emily’s cat didn’t end up looking like any of the other cat drawings in the class, and that was a problem.
My parents received the call shortly after, and my father explained to the teacher that in art class, he expected that my sister would be allowed to be creative. She could follow rules and regulations in other classes.
To this day, Em doesn’t think she’s creative—that she didn’t get whatever creativity gene it is my brother and I both happened to inherit. When you teach kids they’re wrong for drawing a purple cat and single them out, that’s what can happen. I think that’s a shame.
But back to graphic design. Because commercial art does need to follow some rules, and designers are notoriously tight-assed when it comes to perfect lines and making all the right choices. We’re taught the rules—the craft— in art school and we know better than to break them recklessly.
When I worked at Jonathan Adler Enterprises, things were very free, and JA always wanted me to make type bigger. “Go big or go home!” he would say. And then when I would inevitably fail him, “Graphic Designers always want to make tiny type. It’s, like, your thing.”
We would laugh, but he was so very right.
I always tried my best, but I just couldn’t make the type enormous. To me, type had to be beautiful and perfect, not recklessly in-your-face—if it was going to be big, it needed to be big for a solid conceptual reason. In that instance, I remained mostly tight-assed.
JA reminded me in some ways of a cool teacher I had during my first year of art school, David. David taught a foundation drawing class. He was the first person ever to physically loosen my death grip on the charcoal I was drawing with and force me to just let go—to be free. I told David that I was planning on becoming a graphic designer, but he insisted that in his class I needed to loosen up. He had talks with me about finding my own way of being free with my work, he introduced me to weird music—like Can—and showed the whole class Gimme Shelter one evening.
By the end of David's class I found that my way of being free with my work was creating abstract floor-to-ceiling charcoal, ink splatter and oil stick drawings. I would start by spilling or splashing some ink on the paper and watching it bleed. Whatever form I saw it as making would then dictate the concept of the piece. The final drawings were both graphic and free. David was so happy, and truth be told, so was I!
A few years ago I started freeing myself again and openly exploring photography. Not with the intention of becoming pro, but just because it made me feel happy and creative, and I liked doing it. The better my photos got and the more I wanted to share them, the more heat I felt like I was getting from some of the professional photographers and designers I knew. They didn't seem to want me to really explore and potentially be good at something in addition to design.
I was beginning to feel the way I imagined my sister must have felt when she got in trouble for making that purple cat.
My point is, maybe we should stop feeling threatened when we see others exploring their creativity. Maybe, instead, we should celebrate that. People can make recklessly gigantic type if that's what they're feeling, or be good at more than one thing. There’s plenty of opportunity to go around for everyone. Let’s let them color a purple cat, and then we can always reel them in when and where it may be necessary. But never should we make someone feel bad or wrong, or less confident, for doing their thing.