“Most of what makes a book ‘good,’” wrote Alain de Botton, “is that we’re reading it at the right moment for us.” The art that means the most in my life—the art that has profoundly resonated with me—has just as much to do with where I was—both physically and mentally—when I first encountered it as it does the artist’s original intentions. And sometimes, when you experience that kind of art, it can feel like the art found you instead of you finding it.

If we’ve had a conversation about movies sometime in the last year, there’s a good chance I begged you to watch Liberal Arts, an independent film written, directed, and starring Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame. It is one of those films that feels like it found me exactly when I needed it most. I have no idea where I heard about it or why it was the movie I decided to download it before I flew to San Francisco to look for apartments. I found myself sitting on that plane, embarking on the biggest change in my life so far, thinking about the apartments I’d be looking at, working out logistics from the airport, and terrified to be moving across the country; yet this movie gave me a strange comfort.

Liberal Arts centers around Jesse, a 35-year-old college admissions officer following a recent breakup. One of his English professors invites Jesse back to speak at his retirement dinner and Jesse suddenly finds himself back on his college campus, feeling like his time there was the best in his life—a time where he could read all day and talk about ideas with others like him. He meets a 19-year-old sophomore, Zibby, and after striking up conversation over a shared interest in books and music, they become pen pals and a relationship blossoms. The film follows the build up and unraveling of that relationship through the tension between nostalgia for youth and the desire to move into the future.

That’s something I can relate to. It’s easy for me to long for my college years; to think of them as the best years of my life or just want to skip it all and jump into the future. Those thoughts tend to creep in at the crossroads. Jesse feels them after he finds himself newly single and dissatisfied with his job and I felt them before I make the leap to move across the country. But life moves forward at its own pace whether we’re ready for it or not. As much as we’d sometimes like, we don’t get to do it over. We can try to resist it—to prolong the next stage—but life doesn’t stand still. “Change takes time,” one of the characters tells the confused Jesse, “give it a few minutes to settle in.”

Perhaps more than art finding us when we need it most, the best art are the pieces that grow with us and each repeated interaction reveals something new, something we need at this moment. I watched the movie again last week and a line jumped out at me in a way it never had before. Towards the end, Jesse is in a bookstore talking with the clerk. “I’m actually starting to read less. I started to feel like reading about life was taking time away from actually living life,” she says to him, “So I’m starting to accept invitations to things, say hi to the world a little more.” Man, that line practically knocked me out of my seat. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. I might be there now; turning down invitations because I’d rather be alone with a book.

And perhaps that’s really what this film is all about. It’s about saying “yes” to life. We can waste so much of our energy thinking about our past and worrying about our future but today is what is important; everything will sort itself out in the end. Change takes time, just give it a few minutes to settle in.

George Lucas provides a compelling argument to including visual literacy and communication alongside English as a part of a child’s education. My excitement was palpable watching this; the more he spoke the more resounding my “Yes’s” became.

See also my essay from last summer, Graphic Design as a Liberal Art.

Graphic Design as a Liberal Art — Part III: The Future

This is part three of a three-part series. Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 (You are here.)

Are we really afraid? Are we afraid that we’ll be out of jobs or are we afraid the design can’t solve all the problems we think it can? Do we think opening up our toolkit1 — improvising, frameworks, storytelling, and delight — will ruin our field? Or is it possible that these are skills that can help push the world forward, shining light into the darkness?

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Graphic Design as a Liberal Art — Part II: The Tools

This is part two of a three-part series. Part 1 / Part 2 (You are here.) / Part 3

"The liberal arts have always been changing just as much as we have." —The New Liberal Arts 1

The liberal arts are those subjects that were considered essential for students to study. They provide the student with the tools they need to learn and a framework in which to navigate through the world. Somewhere along the way, we decided writing was something every student should learn. Public Speaking is a required course in most university programs. Could graphic design sit along side these liberal arts?

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The Content Designer

Bill McKibben, in an article for The New York Review of Books on public radio, wrote:

Radio receives little critical attention. Of the various methods for communicating ideas and emotions—books, newspapers, visual art, music, film, television, the Web—radio may be the least discussed, debated, understood. This is likely because it serves largely as a transmission device, a way to take other art forms (songs, sermons) and spread them out into the world.

Design is a lot like radio. It’s a language of sorts. It’s vessel that can be filled with any type of content. As designers, a lot of our work is actually finding a way to communicate and transmit someone else’s content.

For years this is how our profession has operated—design means working for clients—but it doesn’t have to be like that and I think we’re headed to a world where designers make the vessel and fill it up themselves.

I’m about halfway through an independent study I’m doing for my senior year of school. I’m designing a series of books but I’m also producing all the content for these books. I’m involved in creating every single piece of this project from concept to completion. This is profoundly different from the way we are used to working. There is a new push and pull between the design and the content. I can do more than design around the content, I can now make the content fit the design as well. They constantly can influence each other.

Sure, designers will always work for clients because clients will always need designers and designers have always worked on self-initiated projects but the future is pointing towards the idea of designer as content creator; the designer who has an opinion and pushes that opinion out into the world.

If design is a language, and I believe it is, we now have the chance to create our own content and shout it into the void. With the economy the way it is, clients aren’t coming to designers as much as they use to and this is pushing us into the role of content creators allowing design to be finally be it’s own language and not simply an empty vessel. I think the time of calling ourselves print designers or web designers or interaction designers is coming to a close. We are all now content designers.

“The creative act is no longer about building something out of nothing but rather building something new out of cultural products that already exist.”

That is from Wired Magazine’s 7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College section on “Remix Culture.” I’ve been thinking about meta content recently; work that is based on preexisting frameworks and products. How many people make a living and spend their time writing critiques on movies and music and books? How many people spend their free time writing fan fiction based on their favorite television shows? How much art is built on preexisting works?

This bothers me. It frustrates and unsettles me. Is there nothing new? Are we simply left with dissecting work that’s already finished? I wonder how much time is spent (wasted?) making fan art, producing work that honors old content, or reviewing and critiquing new work that could be spend crafting new original art. I guess this is why I’m blown away when Sufjan Stevens writes a 25 minute song or a show like LOST comes along or that at half way through, I still can’t put down East of Eden. It’s like a breath of fresh air. A wind of new and original feels good amidst a culture of meta content.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of work. There is a place for it in culture. I just pray to God that Wired is wrong and there are still people producing amazing work from nothing.

And for what it’s worth, the seven principles in Wired’s feature are fantastic. I think each one is important in today’s culture. It’s especially interesting to look at them through the lens of design. Each skill is critical to today’s working designer; more proof that the creative fields are needed now more than ever.

“It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”