Jessica Helfand | Essays

All Rise!

Lately, when I'm not thinking about the future governance of our country or driving children to school, I seem to spend most of my time in the studio where I can typically be found doing one of three things. One of these things is writing about graphic design. Another is making graphic design.

And the third is playing Destructomatch.

Destructomatch is one of several activities on Neopets — a site (geared primarily to children) in which virtual pets are "fed" by a points system sustained through a number of score-based games. In this particular game, the object is to isolate a series of multi-colored boulders by grouping and eliminating them in as few mouse-clicks as possible. Think of it as Tetris meets a Rubik's cube. Simple? So it would seem. Addictive? Don't get me started.

On the scale of true confessions, this one lies somewhere between admitting I once wrote for a soap opera and divulging my complete incapacity to recall keyboard commands in Adobe Illustrator. But there it is: when I'm hopelessly stuck, a quick round of Destructomatch is just the ticket. Writer's block? Destructomatch it is. Looking to wind down at the end of the day? Right again. Occasionally I like to delude myself into thinking it's actually a meaningful visual exercise, a test of logic and acuity, of patience and fortitude, a mathematical challenge of averages and probabilities. Then my husband goes and beats my high score and every competitive bone in my body ignites with a kind of ferocious need to reclaim my lost advantage. Time stands still until I do so. (Sometimes it stands still for a very long time.)

Absurd, all of it — but also true. Sure, it's goofy to admit you're competing with your laptop (let alone your husband) but what about how we compete, in the world, as designers? "It's about the work," we tell ourselves, entering yet another design competition, seeking acknowledgment from our peers for a job well done. I have a somewhat lengthy list of related disciplines in which it is possible to ascend to such elevated status that our vocabulary itself shifts to recognize it. Sure, we designate titles such as junior designer and senior designer, Art Director or Design Director — but have you ever asked yourself why we don't have a Pontiff? Or why there's no precedent for "GD" license plates to enable special parking privileges during a design emergency? (And what, incidentally, would constitute a design emergency? This I really want to know.) Does it bother anyone else that no one will ever say "All Rise" when a designer enters the room? Or is this something Bruce Mau hopes to inaugurate as part of his proposal for Massive Change? Sure would be a change. A massive one, even.

Other times, I try to think constructively about the future of design. Only last week I came upon the sheet music for the Mister Softee theme song (don't ask) and realized how much Mister Softee sounds like Moshe Safdie. Imagine if there were a truck that rattled its way across small town America educating preschoolers about modern architecture! More lunacy, sure, but just think: people might actually all rise to the challenge. And wouldn't that be even better than just rising?

Comments [5]

It's mighty cruel, Ms. Helfand, to introduce a designer (this designer!) to a new form of Tetris-like procrastination. But, that said, and twenty minutes later...isn't it just this sort of digressing and multi-tasking and observation-juggling that feeds the ideas that win the contests, and that elevates graphic design to more than set of learned technical skills? (Could this field exist without it?)

Aside: imagine what a Moshe Safdie Mister Softee Sundae would look like!
Julie Teninbaum

I can imagine Swiss-Italian architect Mario Botta doing some sort of complex tiramisu-like construction...that's what I think of every time I see the SFMOMA.

don't get me started on addictive games. Alchemy is my personal video crack. If you value your time and your billings, don't click on this link!

The game that sucks me in for hours is Dynomite. The game areas on msn.com and yahoo are DANGEROUS for me - I once stayed up until 3am because dangnabit, I was NOT going to let the computer best me at Ricochet!

I do play Solitaire on my laptop whenever I need to distract a part of my brain that won't shut up about bills and coding and work and what's that noise in the muffler area of the car, so that I can listen to the more timid part think about how to draw that bird I saw and how to write about that event today. (ok ok and it gives me time to daydream about that handsome fellow on the bus and what I'd say to him should I ever actually speak to anyone on the bus)

Hmm... that's an interesting thought, about designers not having official titles beyond "art director" and "junior designer," and it makes me wonder if designers should be licensed—like architects, doctors and lawyers. Then, could we institute license plates and other cool trappings of titledom? Would it cut down on the amount of bad design out there, if you needed a license to wield a Pantone book? Or would it create another level of snottiness and exclude people with innate talent who shunned school in favor of experimentation? And then, how would you go about testing something like design sense? Hmm. Incidentally, these discussions are my addictive substance:)

i love bleu

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