STEP Inside Design Peoria, Illionis

INK & CIRCUMSTANCE 7 appeared in the JAN/FEB 2007 ISSUE

When I started “ink & circumstance” I wrote each column as I was drawing it. The words would form around a central illustration or piece of typography, and when I saw that space was running out, I had to find a reasonably elegant way of bringing my argument in for a landing. This gave some of the early pieces a pretty rough look. For Year 2, I wanted to push the aesthetic side as much as the content.

The big, immediate change was that I’d write the text for the column first—on the computer—which allowed me to edit. And there’s this thought among some people that the ability to go back into your thoughts and focus them into a more precise instrument leads to a better result, writing-wise.

Editing the text also made for better layouts. (Shocking, I know.) There is something fun about skipping past any planning to the part of just making something. But I’d done that already. I wanted to maintain the visual complexity without sacrificing the flow of the argument. Using color in guiding your eye became a bit of an obsession for me over the course of the series, and that experience sticks with me today. Just look at 344 Questions? for the most obvious example.

Throughout the run of “ink & circumstance,” editor-in-chief Emily Potts gave me her full trust and support, as did her successor Tom Biederbeck. They just let me do my thing, which tends to be the best way of getting the most out of me. I’m a people pleaser, and I work hardest to please the people who trust me. It was a huge luxury, and I never took it for granted.

At the beginning of the series, this was the one project that gave me such creative freedom. In the course of Year 1, I signed on to design the Echo Park Time Travel Mart for 826LA, and as 2006 turned into 2007, the [Daily Monsters became a major force in my life. All of a sudden I had all kinds of freedom, and an ever more daunting to-do list.

To my own surprise, I was also running out of things that pissed me off enough to write a column about them. It turns out that I had a handful of pet issues, all of which I’d discussed here. Of course, I could’ve pushed through, and found more interesting things to analyze and opine upon, but I was exhausted and something had to give.

With a heavy heart, I quit the column after 11 installments. The approach of another “ink & circumstance” always put me into a slow-mounting panic that ended with a frenzied 18-hour marathon session of writing and drawing. And yet, when it was finished I was proud. It felt like I had really done something. I loved that column.

The final column was about quitting while you’re ahead. I didn’t want to let me crazy schedule compromise the quality of the work. What nobody realized—the editorial staff included—was that STEP was not long for this world. Another year and their corporate overlords would pull the plug. Even when I designed their penultimate cover, nobody saw it coming. Had I as much as suspected, I’d have finished along with Tom and his team. Even when it’s sad, there is something poetic about being together when a common purpose comes to an end.

ALTERNATE TIMELINE NOSTALGIA (shown above): One of the most seductive and personally destructive things you can do is obsess about the roads not taken. What if I’d talked to that girl at that party? What if I’d not taken that job out of fear? Trying to control your future by re-imagining your past blinds you to the possibilities of the present. (Come on: Did I just blow your mind?) The past is prologue, of course, and the future arrives one tiny course correction at a time. You’ll get there faster if you can let go of your baggage. (I know. I’m still working on it, too.)


SPRECHEN SIE MARTIAN: Designers are nerds. On the whole. Search your feelings, Luke. You know it to be true. But we find ways to fit in with the straights. We present ourselves in a way that makes us acceptable. We might even get to the point of being cool! Well, not to use two Star Wars references in one paragraph, but… it’s a trap! Strong opinions make strong art. And it’s hard to have any of those if you’re worried about how others think of you. Don’t be an approval junkie. I won’t like you if you are. (Eh? Eh? See what I did there?)


BE USEFUL. DON’T BE BORING: If I had to boil down my advice to you as an artist or a person, this would be it. Over the years, a few folks have asked me if sorting people into “useful” and “not useful” isn’t diminishing them. I see their point. “Helpful” might have been a better word. But then, being useful doesn’t offend me. I like being of use. When I’m not making anything, or helping somebody, or improving a situation… why am I here? Of course, sometimes you have to place the mask on yourself first, before assisting other passengers, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Of all the things, I’ve done, I think this is my best headline lettering, and it’s my favorite color scheme. I’m forcing myself not to repeat it. Too often.


GREED CONTROL: If you’ve ever heard me speak, you know that Greed Control® is one of the guiding principles of my work. Debt is the new sin. Seducing you into debt is how the Man keeps you docile, weak, and worried about the wrong things. To be free as a person, and to improve the quality of your work, you need to be able to say “No, thank you.” and mean it. Every purchase you make needs to be preceded by this though: “Is this [TV / vacation / cool jacket / MFA] worth having to say yes to something I don’t want to do?” In no way am I saying that the answer is always no. I like shiny things, too. But as far as I’m concerned it always has to be a conscious decision.

And then, of course, there’s the other side of the problem: If you pick jobs just to make more money, because you think money equals power, you’ll be equally beholden. The point is to keep yourself as free as possible, so that only you get to decide what’s important in your life.


GO AHEAD + BE A QUITTER: My life had become too stressful by half, and something had to give. It was a sound decision, but it felt like a failure. I should’ve been stronger, worked smarter, paced myself better. Is what I thought. This was my way of dealing with the feeling of defeat. The piece was also about the end of a long-term relationship that had gone on life support years earlier, but was only now coming to a definitive close. I wrote it before I got my walking papers, and it hit the stands after it was all done. This column comes to you from an alternate timeline where I left on my own accord. A sad end to things editorial and personal, but I went out in style. And with a little Photoshop joke to boot. Of course. Also, the legal copy on the pen says, “resistente a cinismo.” And so it is.

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