Design Is A Service, Unless It Isn’t

Design Is A Service, Unless It Isn’t

Illustration by Ryan Kholousi

I’m not just writing here. I’m also contributing to the B² Interactive blog on a regular basis. I’m passionate about design. In the future, I’d like to write more about why graphic design as a “day job” (I hate that term) is an excellent choice for an aspiring cartoonist. You learn deadlines, production, and conceptualization. You learn how to clearly and visually communicate.

Here is an excerpt from one my latest post, Design Is A Service, Unless It Isn’t:

Design is a service. It isn’t art.

I’ve seen plenty of reactions to this realization over the years. You can spot the designer going through this easily enough. They’re the ones fighting with the client’s business core. They throw budgets right out of the window. They make eyerolling into an event so aggressive that you can almost hear it.

I describe this period as “second adolescence, but this time with a credit card.” If they survive this period, they seem defeated. Going through the motions. Completely lost. Sometimes, though, they get excellent at their craft. And it’s these folks I want to write about. They have rediscovered art.

I look for designers who are into some artistic pursuit outside of graphic design. Something that they can have just for themselves. It can be painting, music, writing, or, in my case, cartooning. Whatever. It will inform their work. Encourage it. Ask them about it. Having an outside passion helps that transition in innumerable ways.

Read through the end. Especially if this is something you are grappling with in your design career. If you want some extra reading, check out The Gift (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Lewis Hyde. It helped redefine my self-worth as an artist and a designer. Or if you don’t have the time for that, check out Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro. It’s a quick and inspirational read. I very much enjoy his work.

The Start of a New Comic Creation Process with “The Walk”

The Start of a New Comic Creation Process with “The Walk”

Last week, I posted two pages, side by side. One had been done in 2013, and the other was done at the time of the post. They were two different versions of the same page. They were also two different points in time in my life. What I didn’t share was the original version of the page. I’ve drawn the same page three times in a row. I think this is an opportunity to share my comic creation process as I start this “new” graphic novel. This will be a multi-part series that will share the entire process.

In the beginning…

In late 2011, I was in my first semester at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Our final project was to be an anthology. We split into small teams and needed to come up with a theme. My group decided to create a science fiction anthology, and each story tied to one of the five senses. SCIENSE was born. I chose to do a story based on “touch.”

Science Assembly Party

Sciense Assembly Party.

I created a story about the last astronaut on a space station. The program he had been a part of was being abandoned by the government, and he was awaiting transport home. Have you been alone for a significant period? It can do some amazing things to you, both positive and negative. I drew on my own experience. In the months before I moved to Vermont, I was by myself in my house, waiting for it to sell. I was avoiding dating. I wasn’t happy at work, which made me withdrawn. I swear there were days I didn’t talk to anyone but my dog. It made me focused; I was drawing comics like mad at night. It also made me introverted, beyond what I was. I was pouring over old emails and text messages from prior relationships. Where things changed. Why they ended. Positive and negative, like I said. A certain amount of self-reflection is good, but this was going to an obsessive level.

The other thing I noticed is how powerful it is when another human being touches you. The hairs on your arm stand at attention and your heart rate explodes after isolation. We are social animals. We need to be touched, to be cared for, and to be around each other. What happens if you were by yourself in space for an extended period of time with no way to get home?

What if it was your plan the whole time?


That was the premise to my story. The rest of what happened was predictable. I think I drew the whole thing in a weekend. It was 16 pages.

On team projects, those of us with any sort of print/design background are all-stars to our teams. If it was a gym class, we would have been first round choices. My job was to setup the InDesign files. At that point in our academic career it was a mystery to my classmates (no longer the case, I assure you). Since I was a little pressed for time, I drew the comic in Adobe Illustrator near the deadline.

I'm judging you.

Judge Bissette

I don’t want to say that it was a hard critique. I will say that Steve Bissette drew on little post-it notes to show how I should draw things. Basic shit, like a hand, for instance. It was a humbling wake-up call for me. I started to drift away from digital tools because of this crit. But, everyone liked the story! My execution was a little flawed, but there was something to explore.

The Walk

What was I thinking here?

At the beginning of the next semester, I sat down with Jason Lutes to talk through the flaws in my storytelling. He agreed that with some revisions, it could become great. I wanted to make the story part of a trilogy based on EC Comics. Short genre stories that had a punch. I took a lot of notes and set it aside until I graduated. I had signed a contract with a publisher, and I was ready to go when I moved home to Omaha.

Little did I know I was slowly dying. I began to feel the effects of heart failure in mid–2013. I had created a cover and two pages for The Walk by the time I started as the Creative Director at B² Interactive. You know how you start a new job and you are kind of worn out the first few weeks? I chalked up my fatigue to that. In September 2014, I contracted strep. The doctor noticed my heart murmur for the first time. After some immediate trips to the hospital for tests, I knew why I felt awful.

Also, I’m an idiot.

Wally Wood

Wally Wood. Kind of lazy.

I can’t blame this lack of progress completely on my heart. I was in my damn head. Remember how I said I wanted to make this story part of a trilogy in the style of EC Comics? If this was my sci-fi story, why not draw like Wally Wood? Draw with rendered, lush brush lines. Draw my ass off. Why not?

There were some problems with this line of thought. I wanted to draw in that style. But aping that is ridiculous. Why make a shitty version of an EC comic? I can produce superior lettering and coloring. Know how I am not superior? I cannot draw like Wally Wood. Why on earth would I try? It is beyond antithetical to my beliefs as a cartoonist that I cannot believe I entertained the notion for two years. I crippled myself out of the gate.

Back to basics

Ivan Brunetti New Yorker Cover

One of Ivan Brunetti’s New Yorker Covers

After open heart surgery, I had more energy and focus than I had in a few years. I was reading a lot of books during my recovery. One I consumed was Ivan Brunetti’s Aesthetics: A Memoir (Amazon Affiliate Link). I’ve always appreciated his minimal line work. But I had no idea that it’s partially the result of his failing eyesight. And then that a light turned on in my head.

Mola Ram. Yes I went there.

I’m never going to be on top of my drawing game again. I mean, my surgery was successful, and I feel great. But I was gutted like a fish and another human touched my heart. It has changed me and my habits in immeasurable ways. I cannot sit at the board for hours at a time. I tried and paid the price while I was working on a Spongebob assignment. In my youth, I think I’d try to muscle through it. I’m a bit wiser. It is time to change how I draw from the ground up. Minimalism, something I have appreciated in an artist, is going to become my best friend.

Tone and style

Harvey Kurtzman The Big If

Harvey Kurtzman’s legendary “The Big If.”

In the past when I’ve stripped my style down or used a “fun” line, it’s been in the service of comedy. It is a hell of a lot more fun for me. When I put in a lot of effort in the art, it looks like I’m not having fun. Because it’s true. But this story isn’t a comedy by any stretch. Weirdly enough, I looked at the work that Harvey Kurtzman did for EC Comics. His war work in particular is stunning. Instead of being overtly rendered, everything is graphic. Every line has a purpose. There’s precedence. I also reviewed the works of Sammy Harkham and David Mazzucchelli for inspiration.

Last week, I sat down at the board and started fresh on page 1. I hate to tell you that I redrew the figure five times. I kept trying to over-render it. There is something in my head that tells me that I’m not working hard if I’m enjoying myself. And I didn’t do anything as dramatic as run my hand down the giant scar on my chest, but I did take a break to refocus. I am happy with where this page ended up. I texted several friends to get their opinion, and they agreed.

Now I’m drawing again. In the coming weeks, I’m going to go through every step in my process. I hope it helps some cartoonist out in the ether of the Internet. Or at least shows the labor involved to produce a comic. My next post will be about how I wrote The Walk.

The takeaways from this post?

  1. Get out of your damn head.
  2. Know your limitations.
  3. Embrace your limitations.
Capturing My Days with Day One

Capturing My Days with Day One

We’ve all been there. You are in a bookstore or a coffee shop and something catches your eye. A row of blank journals. You pick one up, admire how it feels. The imagination kicks in. You see yourself drinking coffee and staring out at the summer morning. A pen is in hand but you’re taking a moment to become inspired by your surroundings. The journal walks out with you, guaranteed to become part of your life…

…and then you find it months later shoved under a pile of papers on your desk.

I’ve always loved the idea of journaling, but I was never good at sitting down to write in one. Then I discovered Day One. It had rave reviews online and in the App Store, so I sat down three years ago to give it a try.

I love good software, and Day One is one of my all-time favorite apps. It’s beautifully designed for you to just write quickly and easily.

Day One Sync

Write anywhere you want

With the rise of mobile devices, I demand the ability to be productive anywhere. Day One has apps for iOS, and of course they sync in the cloud with the desktop app. Day One Sync recently launched, which I recommend over iCloud and Dropbox sync. I have found less issues with my entries using their cloud sync features.

I can jot off a couple thoughts on my iPhone and then can pick that entry back up on my iPad or my MacBook Pro. It records the weather, your location, and whether you are moving or not. That information becomes fascinating meta data when you sift through old entries. You can look at your entries in a map view which is a cool visual. It also lets you tag your entries, which I’ve found to be useful.

The writing interface is simple and uses Markdown for formatting. If you don’t know what Markdown is, don’t worry, you don’t need to. For those that do, it’s handy. You also have the opportunity to attach a photo, but only one. I appreciate that limitation. Instead of a giant Facebook album of photos, you have to pick one visual that sums up your experience that day.

Old thoughts

Remember the beginning of this post? I wrote about always wanting to journal and then never accomplishing that task? I realized one day that I had been journaling for years. The original blog on this site had over 600 entries that I wrote for over a decade. Most of us, the early bloggers, shared our thoughts and feelings on our blogs. It was a wonderful time to self-publish, and the tools were there for anyone to get online and start writing.

Then our writing had to mean something. Blogs became monetized.

I miss that early time, and as I was preparing to jettison my old site, I found myself reading the previous blog. I fired up Day One and began to enter my old posts into its database. I matched up the dates for when the entries were written and where I had wrote them. Now, I have this beautiful record of my 20s. I enjoy seeing what the weather was on those old entries. It is powerful nostalgia trigger. I can sometimes see my past self writing at my old desk.

Goodbye, Old Blog

Goodbye, Old Blog

Journaling++

I don’t know about most people, but my early journal attempts were about processing my feelings. I still do that, but I’ve gotten into writing about different topics and using the tagging system. For instance, I have a “book review” tag. I journal about books I’ve read recently and include passages that I find interesting. Once I started thinking about what else I could do with this tool, I started finding more fun ways to write. The Day One blog is an excellent resource for thinking about journals in different ways.

I don’t write everyday. But Day One sends a gentle reminder every few days that it’s there. It will give me a writing prompt if I need one, but it’s never annoying. It’s just waiting for me to be ready to share.

Keep Working on Comics

Keep Working on Comics

I love starting my morning catching up with Tom Spurgeon’s excellent site, The Comics Reporter. He just published a great interview with Sammy Harkham, and one part in particular really hit home for me:

I am genuinely in awe of anybody in the comics industry who makes their living from making comics. That’s a wonderful thing. What I think the rest of us do, is at a certain point, you begin to scramble and to find ways to make it work I need an – agent! I need to do a topical graphic novel! A memoir! I need to do a web comic! But once you exhaust yourself thinking about what you did wrong, what could you do better, it really is about producing the work and just releasing it, and trusting that it will find whatever audience there is for it, naturally. You can’t look at the success of another cartoonist and assume you can copy it. So therefore, just do the work and things fall where they fall.

You can look at a successful non-genre cartoonist, like Chris Ware, and it’s as simple as it gets as far as a “plan.” He drew Jimmy Corrigan one page a week — it ran in weekly papers. When he had enough material for a comic book, it came out as a comic. Then when it was all done it came out as a book. I think thats as good a model as any, with the web being the equivalent of the weekly paper.

So I don’t think cartoonists should worry about finding a way. If anything, they have a tendency to get in their own ways and make things incredibly complicated. Very few people will have the readership of Ware, so I am not taking about making a living now, I am talking about a system to keep engaged and working on comics. I am tempted to think cartoonists are like fiction writers, who also rarely make a real living from their work, but there is institutional support in the other arts thats are not in place in comics. People love the story of Carver sitting in his driveway writing at his dashboard after work, but it’s not true. Talented writers are often recognized and encouraged and supported very early on. The more of that in comics the better. Until then, I think its healthy to expect nothing, do it because you love the process, the medium, and the great people it puts you in contact with. That’s enough.

In my youth, I made myself miserable worrying about comics as a career instead of comics as my art. I see that drive in so many younger cartoonists. I feel much more free now not worrying about it. I have the freedom to choose what I want to do. It’s a much healthier frame of mind. Now, I just work.

Quality Control: An Analysis of Pogo and Walt Kelly

Quality Control: An Analysis of Pogo and Walt Kelly

Walt Kelly debuted his comic strip POGO in the pages of the New York Star on October 4, 1948. The strip ran for the rest of the Star’s publication, which ended on January 28, 1949. But POGO returned, this time in syndication, on May 16, 1949. The early syndicated POGO strips seem familiar. Kelly took the 4 month layoff to redo most of the strips from POGO’s original run in the Star. His lines were bolder, and his storytelling became much more clear. This reaction to his own work belies his belief in total control of his product. Most, like myself, assumed that POGO first appeared in the pages of the Star. But Kelly’s characters had been appearing in comic book format for years prior. In fact, most of his work from that time is rare in today’s comic market. Kelly intended to bury this older work. In later years, Kelly misdirected his audience with a fake “first sketch” of Pogo Possum. He wanted POGO to appear as a fresh idea for the New York Star. This need for control made Kelly not only a shrewd entrepreneur, but also helped make him a masterful cartoonist.

Pogo Possum first debuted in the pages of Animal Comics in 1942. The character appeared in almost every issue of the title. There were also appearances in other Dell Comics, including a 16 issue Pogo Possum title. Kelly trained as a newspaper reporter and produced political cartoons or similar artwork. But it was his years working as an in-betweener at Walt Disney Studios that cut his cartooning chops. After leaving Disney to avoid choosing sides in a labor strike, Disney helped him find work back on the East Coast. He started at Western Printing and Lithographing Company, the publisher of both Disney and Dell comics.

The evolution of Pogo Possum.

The evolution of Pogo Possum.

What’s most interesting about this early work is how much of it would recycle into the POGO syndicated strip. This was especially true for the Sunday strips. Since the Sunday strips contained more panels, it was easier for Kelly to translate his sequential pages to the new format. Another point of interest is to see the Pogo character transform from a secondary character to a leading everyman. Albert the Alligator was the protagonist for most of the early stories. Kelly’s art began to evolve as Pogo became the story focus. The character’s visual development skyrockets. The first appearance of Pogo and Albert are in the Disney style, with Pogo himself looking almost rat-like. While Albert’s design doesn’t change much over time, Pogo’s is transformed to a more pleasing one. He receives a more rounded head, larger eyes, and a streamlined body. In 1949, Pogo’s transformation was almost complete as we see it in later work. Kelly stripped away the rodent features to portray the character’s gentle and kind nature. Even Pogo’s tail no longer has a point at the end. Instead, the tail has a more rounded bump.

Pogo was appearing in both POGO in newspaper strips and in the Pogo Possum comic book, published by Western. Kelly felt frustrated producing the comic book and meeting deadlines as the strip’s popularity increased. His frustration only continued with Western trying to capitalize on his old work. Western published a collection of Kelly’s older POGO work from its Animal Comics stories. Kelly tried to fight its publication. He felt that it would confuse readers since the characters had changed in the decade of his telling their stories. Kelly was right. His readers thought he had hired assistants with little training to do new material for him. Kelly cancelled the series soon after to nullify his contract with Western. He was beginning to take control of his property.

This trend continued with his syndicate, Post-Hall. The syndicates owned the comic strips. But in 1952, Kelly wrestled his copyright back under his control. The comic strips started to attribute the copyright to Kelly. The distribution credit belonged to Post-Hall Syndicate. This put Kelly in an exclusive club of cartoonists who owned their creations. The deal meant that Kelly was a business partner with Post-Hall.

1971 Earth Day Poster

1971 Earth Day Poster

Another interesting facet of Kelly exerting control of the POGO property was political satire. The role of political lampooning was not seen in comic strips. This was the job for political cartoons on newspaper editorial pages. Post-Hall was reluctant for Kelly’s content to make this transition. But Kelly owned the strip. To placate the newspaper editors who found the move distasteful, Kelly accommodated them with alternate strips, like those he did for the holidays. Newspapers often did not print on the holidays back then as they did today. Not wanting to confuse the reader, Kelly would do separate strips for those papers who did publish on the holidays. Readers for any given paper were never in the dark or feeling like they missed a key strip.

As POGO’s popularity increased, the merchandising and licensing opportunities inundated Kelly. Again, we see Kelly using his business savvy to flat-out turn down almost every offer. He wanted to have complete control over his creation, and often did not have time to oversee these projects. This may have a correlation to the Disney Labor Strike that led to Kelly leaving the company. Walt Disney used to have daily contact with his workers, especially his animators. As the company grew, Disney had less time to interact with his employees. And the assembly line working conditions of animation caused the employees to gripe. When the animators formed a union and started a strike, the culture at Disney Studios suffered. It had permanent lasting effects on what the company produced in the years hence. Disney’s failure may have had a much more profound effect on Kelly. He had refused to choose a side; it may have taught him to always have personal control of his property.

Disney Animation Strike

Disney Animation Strike

Which isn’t to say that POGO was never used for promotional licensing purposes. Kelly was generous in using his work to support causes he believed in. He mentioned the importance of savings bonds in the content of his strip. Pogo appeared in promotional materials for the Salvation Army, the March of Dimes, and the Department of Labor. He even designed logos for military units. This was common practice at the time. Disney Studios produced a legion of these patches and logos for various armed service branches.

POGO was operating on a much higher level than many of the strips at the time. Kelly used every opportunity to experiment. The characters of the Okefenokee Swamp would often break the fourth wall and address the fact that they were inside a comic strip, in essence making the reader one of the characters. Kelly would introduce new characters on a regular basis. Some fans count around 600 characters before Kelly’s death. Kelly treated his characters almost as if they were actors on a stage. That, in combination with the bending rules of comic strip logic, made for some interesting strips.

pogo-which-way-is-up

Kelly’s art improved from his early Animal Comics days, as seen in his depiction of the Okefenokee Swamp. There was usually a great deal of care put into backgrounds for the first panel. It acts as an establishing environment shot. By the time POGO moved to newspapers, the backgrounds are both lush and minimal. There are definite visual hierarchies. A cluster of trees in the far background used spot black. But the foreground trees almost have more detail than the swamp inhabitants themselves.

As with most artists who use a brush to achieve long, lush lines for their figures, Kelly didn’t use an underdrawing. He chose to bring the characters to life with his brush instead. From studying his original pages, he roughed the characters out in blue line with simple geometric shapes. Kelly thought of each panel as more of a composition rather than talking heads.

From his time at Disney through years of sequential comic book work, Kelly became an artist who knew the value of quality. Combining this with his background as a journalist makes for an interesting pairing. Nothing is ever perfect in newspapers; there are always errors. It’s accepted as part of the business. Kelly took that mentality to his comic strip in much the same way Hergé did with TINTIN. He took what he learned from his earlier work and recycled his art through the lens of a more experienced cartoonist. He never aimed for perfection; he would save it for the next version, the next iteration. By having complete control over his creation, he was able to tweak and refine his stories to his heart’s content. After learning the rules and then breaking them, he didn’t hold a mirror up to the human condition, he created a window for us to take part in.

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