I truly love my job—sitting on my exercise ball in front of my colossal monitor designing logos and sketching letterforms for book titles, package designs or even the occasional tattoo. I love the creation process, my creative community here in Chicago and beyond, and the rich legacy I’m fortunate to hold as a designer. Nevertheless, I’ve found many of my favorite things are off the grid, and it is from these experiences in which my inspiration comes.
In an industry reliant on the provisions of technology, it’s often difficult to find moments removed from digital screens to step into the tangible world of making and doing—with things we can touch and feel, where our hands get dirty with experiences. Working as a designer, letterer and artist, much of my work requires technology as a tool. Whether it’s for efficiency’s sake or to refine an elaborate lettering piece, I use digital tools every day and rely on them. What I’ve recently come to cherish, however, is the recognition that I rely as heavily on my experiences away from the digital world as I do on my daily interactions within it.
This past Christmas, Santa Claus, otherwise known as my darling wife, gifted me with a human anatomy drawing class at Chicago’s Lill Street Art Center. I’d always wanted to do this, but couldn’t afford the time or money to take a course in college. I would learn about the anatomy, that much I presumed. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would provoke me to view type in such a refreshing light. Regardless of the specific application, I now see the core of the letterforms, building and constructing them from within—layering slowly and purposefully. I’m seeing, as my instructor noted, “the negative” —viewing what isn’t there and allowing it to shape what is. In the fashion muscles and tendons wrap and form over bone, I notice in recent works how my ligatures and filigrees spiral and twist off of individual characters and connect letters together in natural ways—with all elements connected and affected by the others.
It’s a powerful reminder that a few hours a week relying solely on my hands and pencil profoundly affects my digital work. Recollecting my time spent drawing the human form with its proportions, balance and symmetry enables me to see type pieces with a more thoughtful and discerning eye. I have come to value the shape of the most basic forms, which has been a prevailing shift in my approach to each new project. After all, the flourishes still need a sound skeleton to act as the foundation.
I’m encouraged, because I know I’m not the only one who enjoys rolling up my sleeves from time to time. We all need it, I’m certain. It keeps us sane.
For example, I read an interview on The Great Discontent a few weeks ago featuring Erik Marinovich. I sincerely admire his work, and the article was a well-welcomed brain break from a slow afternoon. What specifically struck a chord with me was his project sculpting letters out of the snow while on a vacation with family. Sure, he was having a blast and harkening his masonry roots, but he was off the machine armed solely with a shovel and the snow. You can tell in the time-lapse video he recorded that he enjoyed getting after it, he says so himself, but I can’t help but think it affected his work when he got back to the office as well. The dense and sound construction of his letterform kept the sculpture from collapsing. He had to be aware of how much the snow actually weighed and build the appropriate and necessary strength to keep it standing tall. I imagine as he was sketching and crafting his next lettering project in a warm office, he had that snowy sculpture in the back of his mind, reimagining a new way to work.
We all need to step away from the computer from time to time and get our hands dirty. We need that space to build things, hammer things, and create things—things of glory and things that are an utter (let’s face it) disaster. We can laugh for that extra five minutes when we scrub ink and paint out of our hair, all remnants of the best and most creatively rewarding afternoon we’ve had in weeks.
I needed my wife to gift me that class without even knowing it. She knew even more than I did that my creative soul needed those 3 hours on Wednesday nights for 10 weeks to check out, turn the phone off, grab a pencil and eraser, and relax my mind of all things RGB. That space away has allowed to me grow so I can come back to the digital world with a little extra gusto and a lot more imagination.