February 13th, 2009

Practical

By Bob Aufuldish

Perhaps you remember this scenario from attending a football game in high school. Your team scores and the cheerleaders throw small plastic footballs into the stands. On each ball is an ad from a local business. When I was in college at Kent State, my internship was pasting up mechanicals of those ads at a local printing company. Because you aren’t in design school in the early 1980s you have the blissful advantage of not knowing what “paste-up” is. Believe me, contrary to what old-timer curmudgeons would have you think, you really aren’t missing much. While this internship was not the least bit glamorous, I got to refine my stat camera skills (see paste-up above) and watch the high speed letterpress that used a bed of open flame to dry the ink as it came off press in what I now remember as a Beavis and Butthead meets Fred Goudy moment.

Luckily, a few semesters later I was invited to be in Glyphix, a program at Kent where a studio staffed by students designed work for local non-profits. This was certainly more in keeping with what I was interested in, although in those days before computers it seems — in my memory at least — that lots of time was spent waiting for the typesetting to be delivered (see paste-up, above).

After years of teaching I am still struck by this unspoken reality: all the weeks of effort put forth in the classroom getting ready for a final presentation is the work that would be done in a studio setting preparing for a first presentation. We need to remind ourselves of that from time to time. So, when I teach I try to critique students from a variety of viewpoints: the reality of their work in class; how things might be pursued differently in a studio situation; how it might be even more different in presenting to a client; and how design is an inherently iterative process that continues well beyond the first presentation. I try to keep the students aware of these shifting conditions as I critique.

In 1995 when I was asked to start a Glyphix-like studio practicum for graphic design students, I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach from these multiple points of view in a setting where the outcome would be especially clear. Sputnik, as the studio is known, started with two students in the fall semester of 1995 and has grown significantly since then.

Sputnik’s only client is California College of the Arts (CCA). San Francisco has a wealth of design firms with a strong sense of community responsibility and it seems that every non-profit has a designer — the last thing I wanted was to take work away (often fun and rewarding work) — from our local colleagues. Besides, I can’t image a better situation than designing for the CCA: clients who are pre-sold on the value of interesting design, who are visually sophisticated and, well…it’s an art school.

In Sputnik the students work essentially as free-lance designers in that they’re assigned projects individually and are responsible for the design and production of those projects. They present sketches and comps in class and once those are approved they present to the client. The presentations are chaperoned — either I as the faculty advisor or the College’s director of publications are at the meeting to provide backup. Presenting is often a good wake up call because the kinds of convoluted explanations often used in studio classes just don’t work. Sometimes I need to gently prod the students during their presentations (“Maybe you can talk about why you’re using this image.” “And orange is a good color for spring because…?”).

Every semester, the faculty nominate students they think would make good Sputnik staff members. I ask them to consider students who are reliable, articulate, and mature while possessing excellent typographic skills, the ability to self-author imagery, and the aptitude to effectively process criticism. This is a dream list, really, because very few students possess all these characteristics. I think I’m missing a few of them myself. We interview everyone and look at their resume and portfolio. When it comes to looking at resumes, I’m a big fan of students who have the sense to run spell check. And here’s a hint. A resume is a nice simple typography problem. If you can’t nail the design of your resume then things are looking dismal from the start.

It’s interesting how the staff comes together each time. I’m one of three votes. Erin Lampe, the Director of Publications and her assistant are the other two. And we don’t always agree. Erin, because she has far more contact with the students and has deadlines and processes firmly in mind at all times, is attracted to more mature students who she can be sure will promptly answer their email. I’m often more willing to take a chance on someone whose design skills are outstanding but whose organizational skills are questionable. Neither of us, however, want to deal with prima donnas. Things happen too fast to have senseless arguments with people, and we have to consider our clients as well. The students will move on after the semester, but we work with the same people year after year. We’re trying to build trust and rapport so that the quality of work can continuously improve. If someone’s attitude endangers that we have a big problem. Other designers often say they’re looking for an employee who’s a good fit. This can mean lots of things —someone whose skills complement those of the office, for example. But what they usually mean is that they want someone who fits within the office culture and personality. You spend more time with your co-workers than with your family. No one wants to spend the majority of their waking hours with some jerk, no matter how talented.

I think being in Sputnik and having this extraordinary degree of support and independence beautifully prepares students for the working world. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to participate in a program like Sputnik, there is a larger lesson here. Not too many people get full time jobs straight out of school. Most of the time there’s a stretch of freelancing before landing a job. Having freelance experience can expose you to the possibility that you might not need a “real” job anyway, and that perhaps there’s another way to manage your career. Freelancing is a perfectly fine option, and a good segue to opening your own studio. I wish I had realized this back when I first moved to San Francisco. I turned down a chance to design music packaging with Tom Bonauro (a hero of mine to this day!) because I wanted a full time position.

Bob Aufuldish is a partner in Aufuldish & Warinner and an Associate Professor at the California College of the Arts, where he has taught graphic design and typography since 1991. In 1995 he founded Sputnik, a student-staffed design office that produces work for the College.

With A&W Bob has designed diverse projects for clients such as Adobe Systems, Advent Software, American Institute of Architects, Center for Creative Photography, Chronicle Books, Denver Art Museum, Emigre, the Logan Collection Vail, Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the State Compensation Insurance Fund. His digital type foundry, fontBoy.com was launched in 1995 to manufacture and distribute his fonts.

He has participated in a number of exhibitions, including, “CCA at 100: Fertile Ground” and “Icons: Magnets of Meaning,” both at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He has lectured across the US as far east as New York and as far west as Honolulu. His work has been included in competitions and publications sponsored by the American Association of Museums, the American Center for Design, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Communication Arts Magazine, Critique Magazine, Design Net (Korea), dpi (Taiwan), Graphis Magazine, How Magazine, ID Magazine, Idea, the New York Type Directors’ Club, and Print Magazine, among others.

Bob has a BFA and MFA in graphic design from Kent State University, Ohio.

This essay first appeared in Never Sleep, a book written by Andre Andreev and G. Dan Covert, published by de.MO. Summary: There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional. To demystify the transition, we share the failures, successes, and surprises during our years in college and progression into the field: the creative process, monetary problems, internships, interviews, mistakes, and personal relationships.