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Archive: 7 June 2015

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If you do something you love for long enough, it gets into your bones.  But more than that, the things adjacent to it do as well.

Since I got started on the web, very nearly 22 years ago now, I’ve never really seen myself as a designer.  Granted, I did some visual design in the early days, because anyone who set up a web site back then had to be the designer: there was nobody else.  No graphic designers would deign to look at the web, and no “web designers” yet existed.  We were Web Masters because we had to be, drawing buttons and laying out content along with writing code and doing UX and UI and IA and everything else.

So I did design when I had to, but I always knew I wasn’t a capital-D Designer.  I knew this in the same way I knew I was not a boulder nor an odor: it wasn’t a failing or even a lack, but just what was true and even unremarkable.  I was a code monkey who knew his way around Photoshop and could mimic what he saw around him decently enough, but I didn’t have the creative vision or training or, really, inclination to generate my own, unique work.

As we passed out of that epoch of the web, I was more than content to stop trying to design and instead be an enabler of design.  My efforts to teach HTML and CSS had twinned, helical aims: to help anyone who wanted to create a web site share their thoughts, and to help any designer who wanted to create a visual effect share their vision.  I was a technical author, a developer, a sometime observer of design, but never a Designer.  I knew Designers by then, and I knew they possessed a skill and focus I did not.

Which was okay.  After all, I possessed a skill and focus they did not.  Our work was complementary.

What I didn’t realize was that, over all those years, as the knowledge I shared seeped into their bones and became second nature, the same thing was happening in reverse.

For the past few months, I’ve been managing a design project, getting a ton of help from Jason Santa Maria; but I’ve also been the annoying client, making unreasonable demands of everyone involved.  I insisted on changes of direction partway through, and coped with changes of understanding at other points in the process.  I refused to listen to reason at one point, and yielded to reality at another.  For most of it, I compared font faces and sizing, trying to decide which I liked best, telling Jason I wished I could have a little of option A, a little of option B, a dash of option C, struggling to put into words what I could almost see.

Among my friends, I’m vaguely infamous for not being able to tell, at a glance, the difference between Helvetica and Arial.  I’ve seen the detailed analyses of the two, and if I had the exact same run of text in each face, sitting side by side, I could probably do a credible job of figuring out which was which, but give me a standalone block of sans-serif text in Ariatica or Helvetial and my odds of knowing which it is are literally no better than a coin flip.

And yet, there I was, staring at the same layout set in various font faces, feeling the sense of each, obsessed with spacing and intervals and kerning, examining which had the best italics while trying to decide if italics should even be used, if their use conveyed the right message.  I scrutinized the spacing between blocks of text, the alignment of fragments of information, the rhythm of the entire piece, every bit of content.  It wasn’t enough that it be passable, or decent, or even good; it had to be right.  I focused on all the details as well as the overall picture with a will and intensity I had never felt before.

It wasn’t easy.  I massaged my temples as the stress of needing to make exactly the right choice overwhelmed me; I paced around my office, glaring at the alternatives on the monitor every time I passed by; I felt tears of frustration rise as I ran into yet another setback and knew that the final result would not be everything I had originally wanted it to be.  I stood in someone else’s office and rode herd on their archaic software setup, literally telling them where and how many times to click, because that’s what was necessary to get the job done properly.  I wrote and rewrote emails to the various parties in the project, masking my battered spirit as best I could while still being clear about where things stood and where I wanted them to go.

Not, as I say, by myself: Jason was invaluable to getting me off to the right start, keeping me on the right track, and helping me through the setbacks.  I doubt I could have done a tenth as well without him.  But as we progressed, I increasingly felt like I knew what his answers to my questions would be.  My inexperience and fear of error and just plain fear meant I kept checking in with him, but with every iteration, I felt more confident that I already knew the right answers.  In a lot of cases, I made the changes I was already sure he would make, and Jason’s feedback confirmed that I had done right.

Over two decades, I had slowly, unwittingly absorbed everything I needed for this project.  It had seeped into me, creeping out of a thousand Keynote slides and a million words, written and spoken, from my friends and their friends and all the people they looked up to and quoted.

Gradually, I had become a capital-D Designer.  I had a very specific intent to render, and with help and focus, I made the end product as reflective of my intent as possible.  I knew when the design felt wrong, but more importantly, I knew when the design felt right.  And I could see, at first with Jason’s help but increasingly on my own, how to get from one to the other.

This morning, the result was unveiled—literally unveiled, ritually, at the direction of our congregation’s rabbi.  A block of sparkling silver-blue granite carved with a few words of English and Hebrew.  A compact arrangement of text bearing more emotion and meaning than anything I have ever done, horrifying and beautiful, set flush into the earth of Cleveland Heights, where similar markers will one day be set for me and for my wife.

Everything I absorbed over all those years, everything I learned by choice or by chance, and most of all the help I received from everyone who’d ever shared their knowledge and insights with me, all made that possible.  Made me a Designer.

Thank you all.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 7 June 2015.

Afterimage

I remember her last breaths.
I remember how she methodically ate every last scrap of frosting from her birthday cupcake.
I remember her eating Sasa fries and looking with affection at little Joey, who’d come to her last meal.
I remember the last sentence she ever spoke.
I remember her singing and blowing out the candles at her sixth birthday party.
I remember her many laughs—gleeful with mischief, wild with delight, brimming with amusement.
I remember how her whole body shook when she laughed.
I remember how ticklish she was, and how much she loved being tickled.
I remember when she had finally grown enough that her fingers could interlace with mine when we held hands.
I remember the quiver of her lip as we told her there was no special medicine.
I remember her screaming “YES!!!” when we told her we’d bought season passes to Cedar Point.
I remember how she would oppose and defy us even when it cost her something she wanted.
I remember how she insisted on doing everything herself, insisting she needed no help even when she clearly did.
I remember how she would respond to my jokes in a flat, unimpressed voice: “Seriously?”
I remember how she’d cheat at every game and laugh about it as she did.
I remember playing air hockey with her.
I remember how much she loved to wear sparkly princess dresses.
I remember snowflakes stuck in her curly hair.
I remember her sticking her tongue out at me.
I remember her learning to read and write her name.
I remember how she nearly always threw up a hand to block me taking pictures of her.
I remember her painting her own nails for the first time.
I remember how much she loved to have her face painted.
I remember her squealing with delight when we told the kids we were going to Disney World.
I remember sitting on the porch roof with her and her siblings, watching the clouds and waving to people on the sidewalk below.
I remember her arms locked tight around my neck in a squeezy hug.
I remember her snuggled into my lap as I read her a book.
I remember her huddled against me and flinching every time a firework burst.
I remember how she would nod her head with studied nonchalance and say in an offhand, half-dismissive tone, “Yeah, cool, Dad.”
I remember how much she loved and looked up to and emulated her big sister.
I remember how much she loved and played with and protected her little brother.
I remember how she loved watermelon so much she’d eat half a melon by herself and then say she was too full for dinner.
I remember how she danced through life at every turn.
I remember her unbounded joy.
I remember how her body strained against my arms when I had to restrain her, to keep her from hitting, screaming her defiance until I wore her down.
I remember how she jumped waves at the beach, flinging herself into the air with no thought of how she would land, no concern except to jump over the crest as high as possible.
I remember her shouting “Watch me!” before jumping from the pool’s edge to her mother’s arms.
I remember how much she loved to splash in any pool or a puddle or any body of water.
I remember her playing in a big box of styrofoam packing peanuts, shrieking with delight.
I remember how she would grab my thumbs and climb up my front until she was standing on my shoulders, giggling all the way.
I remember her nestled into a sling on her mother’s back, peeking out at the world with a sly grin.
I remember how she used to carefully stick a raspberry on each fingertip before eating them one at a time, again and again.
I remember her feeding a giraffe.
I remember how much she loved coffee.
I remember her throwing rings at the bottles on the boardwalk.
I remember her trying to wash the dishes when she was barely tall enough to stand on a stepstool and see into the sink.
I remember her sitting in the car at the sledding hill, warming her hands against the air grating and waiting for us to be done.
I remember how she always wanted to drive the car.
I remember how she waited for her first birthday party to take her first steps, so she’d have as big an audience as possible.
I remember how she would call to her sister: “Lerlyn! Ah ooo?”
I remember her sister stamping the papers that finalized her adoption.
I remember the gleam in her two-week-old eyes that made me call her “Little Spark”.
I remember how wide and clear her big brown eyes always were.
I remember the first time I ever saw her, asleep in a car seat in a trailer home in a park in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of Ohio.
I remember how joyful I was when I picked her up and nestled her in my arms.
I remember how scared I was.
I remember.

June 2015
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