A few years ago, I was hitting a roadblock in my personal work when a series of drawings I was making seemed increasingly to be leading me toward etching. Sketchbook in hand, I drove to the nearest art supply store, thinking someone there might be able to advise me on materials.
"If I show you my drawings," I inquired of a young man stocking the shelves, "do you think you could direct me to the right tools?"
He narrowed his eyes at me, and examined my scrawly sketches with a certain unease. Then he cleared his throat.
"If I may be so bold," he carefully responded, "your first mistake is shopping in a store that sells fake ficus trees."
It soon turned out that fake foliage shares not only space but also a certain fierce demand with craft supplies, which masquerade in many parts of the American retail environment as art supplies. In the midst of this economic foment is something called scrapbooking quite literally, the idea of making a scrapbook (not to be confused with "journaling" which, in scrapbooking parlance, is understood as the recording of captions or text for the accompanying photographs in one's scrapbook) which has rather a lot to do with graphic design.
Naturally, any self-respecting graphic designer wants nothing whatsoever to do with any of this.
It may come as little surprise that as photography becomes more a function of the individual and less a consequence of institutionalized production, so, too, should the way an individual's photos be displayed be more idiosyncratic. Arguably, in the hands of the average civilian (read "non-designer") such photos typically dwell in scrapbooks. A hundred years ago back in the days when taking the family snapshot was colloquially referred to, in certain places, as "going Kodaking," a person's favorite snaps could be affixed to the pages of an album using something called photo corners, little triangular pieces of acid-free paper with one side primed for gluing. You scribbled the time, place and names of the individuals underneath the pasted-down photo and you were done.
Today, scrapbooking afficionados juggle a dizzying array of paper punches and themed stickers and specialty papers as well as a host of conferences, trade shows and websites to advise them on their assorted scrapbooking needs. And this is a significant market. More critical even than its rapid spread as a reputable economic force (migrating steadily toward occupying a greater share of the greeting card and specialty papers industry) scrapbookers are out there in huge numbers sharing tips about design. ("Another neat idea is to make a background," advises one scrapbooking site, "using thin strips of colored paper put together to look like pom poms.") It's at once horrifying and fascinating to witness the degree to which design is being discussed online by people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows; whose appreciation of photography is ordained by goofy framing techniques; and whose understanding of typography is rather heavily weighted toward pastel drop shadows and generously kerned lowercase script. (I could write an entire post just on the scrapbooker's predisposition toward fonts like "Whimsy Joggle" and "Pool Noodle Outline" but I will try and restrain myself.) (For now.) Pre-packaged words known as "word fetti" lend a refrigerator-magnet sort of haphazardness to scrapbook typography, and include the sorts of words a scrapbooker is likely to want to include. ("Forever" and "Memories" and "The Best of Everything," for starters.) The sort of free-form composition generated by word fetti borrows from the material notion of confetti the shards of colored paper that get tossed in the air during certain types of celebrations which has, to my knowledge, never been a recognized barometer of any kind of typographic value. Nevertheless, this does not appear to concern scrapbookers eager to incorporate language into their pages: indeed, such ready-made captions come in handy for those not quite intrepid enough to venture forth into actual journaling on their own.
In scrapbook culture, page layout itself is the province of the fearless: here, less is never more. ("Use themed die-cuts to accent your pages!") Burdened by questions about how to frame your loved ones? Just hop on over to the Cropping Corner to learn how to crop photographs in new and unusual shapes. Need more inspiration? The members area at Luv2Scrapbook share over 3,000 layout ideas, which is nothing compared to the 15,000+ available over at Lifetime Moments. Need ideas on "accenting" your pages with embellishments? ("Embellishments" represent a significant core competency in the scrapbooking world.) Interested would-be embellishers can visit Addicted to Scrapbooking to learn more about trinkets, patches, themed eyelets and page pebbles; or Making Memories to lean the best way to untwist a twistel. (I didn't know either: it's a kind of wiry raffia-type ribbon, I think.)
While any of a number of late, great editorial designers are spinning in their graves Alexander Lieberman springs to mind the truth is that some of what scrapbooking has to offer is intrinsically connected to design. There's the encapsulation of time through collage and montage; the representation of chronology through sequencing and framing images; there's the very notion of documenting, of visual evidence and diaristic detail. I even confess to liking some of the supplies (letterform brads!) which I buy for my children and then swipe for an occasional project of my own. But the bigger issue remains: obviously, there's nothing that says you need to be certified in graphic design to keep a family scrapbook. But if millions of people are getting their layout ideas from page pebbles and twistel ties, might there not be the slightest bit of graphic fallout in our midst? "Craft-born embellishments," observes one scrapbooking supplier, "are penetrating an unexpected market: graphic design." Accounting for nearly $2 billion in sales in 2002, such numbers may indicate more than mere hobbyists at work.
Of course, scrapbooking is not now, nor has it ever been about achieving design excellence. But where do we draw the line? We can't simply dismiss scrapbooking on the assumption that its decorative nature and personal content relegates it to non-design status. Sure, it's goofy and its homespun (if there's such a thing as outsider art, maybe this is insider art) but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take it seriously. At the end of the day, I suppose if someone gets really serious, they can always break away from the pack and start calling themselves mixed-media artists. Or even graphic designers.