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Favorite Google Doodle of the Year

Boy, it was a late entry in the year, but the Google Doodle for 18 December is a real winner for me. Honoring Paul Klee, an artist I couldn’t understand while in high school, but grew to love while in college. He painted simple shapes with such a sophisticated color palette. I find his  work both endlessly fascinating and inspirational. Happy birthday, Mr Klee.

The Star Mangled Banner

On Sunday, February 18, I listened to Fergie butch the National Anthem at the NBA’s All-Star Game. What gets me, is that she has a good singing voice and had she gone out there and sung the song as it is meant to be sung, she would have done fine. Would she have been memorable? Probably not. But would she have been ridiculed in the media on Monday morning, definitely not.

This event poses a few questions.

Why do artists feel compelled to “make it their own”?

When I was a kid, my father and I went to a Rockets game at the Summit. Before tip-off, this gentleman stepped out onto the court and belted out the worst rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard. Believe it or not, even worse than Roseanne’s debacle. He went up, he went down, he free-formed, he scatted a little. It was everywhere and the entire crowd laughed – hard. His singing was memorable for all the wrong reasons, much like Fergie.

Other renditions of the Star Spangled Banner that get me are when the singers insert extra notes and use the song as a platform to show off their unbelievable talent. Christina Aguilera  or Mariah Carey come to mind. They go up too high, hover in the stratosphere far too long and are compelled to add in a series of scales in the middle of the song, often more than once. You know, the song is hard enough to sing as it is; you don’t need to push the boundaries of it even further. Listening to their wailing, you lose the melody. You definitely lose the meaning of the song, and isn’t purpose of singing it to begin with?

Just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you have to exploit it all the time. Adele does that with her singing. Yes, she has an amazing, HUGE voice and can sing the hell out of a song. But her best music, IMHO, is when she sings quietly. Her accent comes out and she has that real authenticity and intimacy in her voice. Just beautiful. Much more so than when she’s belting out a song.

Miles Davis understood this. He was a virtuoso trumpeter, inarguably one of the most gifted jazz musicians ever. He could play as hard and fast as anyone. But listen to his “Cool” music — You can feel the restraint, the power behind his each note. With his confidence, he never had to show off, or go off script to prove himself to anyone. He knew he could make the most amazing music and he did. He regularly co-opt a song from one of his contemporaries not by playing the hell out of it, but rather crafting it until he owned it.

I take such umbrage to singers butchering the National Anthem because it is OUR song, not THEIRS. It is about our collective experience, not that of the individual.

So what does any of this have to do with design?


First and foremost, the work we do is commissioned. Rarely does a designer work in a vacuum. You give up the right of personal expression when you cash the check. The designer’s role is not to express their thoughts/opinions/etc., but to help their client realize their vision.

Your work is out in a public space. Should your biases or attitudes come through? What if those attributes convolute your client’s message? How successful is your design?

There is plenty of room for creativity in commercial design. Plenty of room to be yourself. But often times, taking the mindset of a craftsman and go through the motions to achieve excellence is exactly what is order for the task at hand.

Much like singing the National Anthem.

Why can’t Johnny draw?

An Art Director’s and a Designer’s inability to draw seriously distresses me. Over the years, I have met numerous young people who identify themselves as a creative professional yet they have zero ability to draw. If you cannot represent your ideas visually, how can you expect to make something original or be successful?

It begs the question, why aren’t designers drawing?

Being able to use your artistic talents for commercial purposes has long been a motivator for bringing people into the business. They don’t want to be full-time artists, but still have a burning desire deep down inside to create.

If you read interviews with almost ALL the leading designers, they share a love of drawing. So much so, that this was a primary reason for them going into design in the first place.

For as many problems that new technologies solve, there are as many more caused by them. I blame the learning curve for design software being a leading cause for a decline in the interest in drawing. It requires so much time to learn these tools and become proficient. So much instruction in design school is on using the tools, and softer skills like drawing are getting sacrificed.

I also think people do not like drawings as they look unfinished and sloppy. Messy. I, however, find beauty in these scratches and doodles. Milton Glaser once noted that (paraphrase) drawings are gray, giving you room to maneuver and explore, whereas artwork on the computer is black and white.

As discussed before, I also think designers are scarred for others to see their roughs; they only want their finished, beautiful designs to be seen by the world.

Back when desktop publishing was still in its infancy, I met McRay Magleby at the Art Director’s Club of Houston. When asked about his usage of these newfangled computers, he referred to work done on screen was “inking”. Just use the computer for finishing ideas. I’ve always liked that thought.

Rarely, though, does real insight and discovery occur while inking and finishing.

And isn’t that the value designers and artists bring to business — insight, perspective and discovery.

I equate this lack of ability to visually express yourself to “musicians” who cannot read music. How can you make music if you don’t have an understanding of the basic building blocks?

When I worked at JWT, there was an Art Director in the Dallas office named Mel Sharps who epitomized what I consider everything to be great in an AD. He could draw like a mad man. Asked for ideas, he would pull out a set of makers and a pad of trace, and fire off dozens of different concepts. Quickly. Accurately. Visually telegraphing the essence of what needed to be communicated. He did some great work.

As a designer, why would you want to tie your hands and not have this basic skill?

The Rich Visual Feast

Printmaking was why I got into design in the first place. Drawing was cool, but you did one drawing and that was it. I have always been fascinated by mass producing images.

I learned to silkscreen in Mrs. Hopkins’ 10th grade art class. We exposed the screens in the storage closet at the back of the room.

The first thing I printed was my interruption of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. I had seen the movie, loved it and created my own version of it as a one color print with lots of contrasting white spaces and dark shadows to create these forms that became a scene from Rick’s American Cafe.

I took two semesters of printing once I got to college. One was a silkscreening class taught by Lynwood Kreneck, and the other was a lithography class with Terry Morrow the head of the art department. I loved both those classes in very different ways.

I also had Kreneck for a freshman drawing class, which I think the university made him teach. The thing is, he only wanted to work with students who were committed to making art, not the kids who were there just to get a humanities credit, or worse, there to find a husband. He could be cruel to say the least.

One thing Kreneck said to the class one day has always stuck with me to this very day. “Mr Ratcliff, always strive to create the rich, visual feast”. Make something so compelling that you cannot take your eyes off it. So interesting that you can see something new in it every time you look at it. If you’re going to all the trouble to make art, make it interesting.

Just look at all the glorious detail. The pea green cabinets in the background with the red plates popping in the front with little red accents scattered throughout. This was deliberate and exceptionally well-designed. Chapeau to the Art Director.

I was watching FX’s series “Better Things”, with Pam Adlon, a funny and poignant show about a single mom raising three daughters. I swear my wife and oldest daughter have had some of the same arguments I’ve seen on the show.

Beside the stories, the best thing about “Better Things” is the art direction. It is the most beautifully shot show on television. Even the simplest of shots are cinematic and break-taking in scope. With the sound turned down, the show is beautiful to watch. The backgrounds are colorful and deep. You see into their world, understand a little better about who these women are.

The rich visual feast.

I cannot take my eyes off the show even though some of the stories can be hard to sit through. The visuals and so stunning, so evocative, so captivating, I can sit perfectly still for 30 minutes and drink it all in.

Kreneck was right. When you make something so rich and interesting, you cannot help but make the world a better place in the process.

John Berger

As noted in an earlier post, one of the most influential books I’ve read is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It should be mandatory for artists, and recommended for anyone wanting to lead and live a richer life. Berger passed away on 02-Jan, sad news so early in the new year. For the uninitiated, The Guardian as a number of articles they’ve run on Berger that are some fine first steps into understanding the man and his work. Although I am not necessarily a fan of his politics, his philosophy is both thoughtful and timeless. Rest in peace, Mr Berger.

John Berger, art critic and author, dies aged 90
Booker-prize-winning author of titles including Ways of Seeing, G and A Painter of our Time had been living in Paris

British Library harvests archive of novelist John Berger
Writer’s papers come at a price – helping with haymaking on the farm

John Berger: ‘If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen’
On the eve of his 90th birthday, one of the most influential writers of his generation talks about migration, Brexit, growing old – and his fondness for texting

John Berger: ‘Writing is an off-shoot of something deeper’
Language can’t be reduced to a stock of words. Most political discourse is inert and ruthlessly complacent