Finding your own mediocrity

Find your mediocrity! Photo by Indy Kethdy at Freeimages.com.
Slightly different cliché motivational poster. Photo: Indy Kethdy @ Freeimages.com

A lot has been said about finding one’s own path and true calling in life. In fact, we’re bombarded by all kinds of advice, motivational posters, gifs, and whatnot, set against stock photo sunrises and featuring platitudes from people like Paulo Coelho. If you ask me, if you are in the middle of that search, it might be more important to find the wrong paths than the right ones. You need to discover your own mediocrity.

I have been mulling over this idea of accepting one’s mediocrity for more than ten years now – ever since design college. But I never got around to writing about it. By now you have probably read about the ‘CV of failures’ published by Johannes Haushofer. He got the idea from Melanie Stefan’s 2010 article in Nature, and it’s clear that there are many others who share their feelings. Their point is that coping with failure is an integral part of being an academic, even though most of us tend to hide our shortcomings. I think the same applies also to designers and, especially, design students. So now that the issue is topical it is the perfect time to add my two cents to the discussion.

It was one of those unremarkable days in college when I was studying graphic design. I was headed out to lunch together with my friend Marko and we started talking about our possible futures. It was our second or third year so we already had gained a relatively good understanding of the different paths a graphic designer could take.

I said that I had realised that I could never be a really good advertising graphic designer. I just couldn’t do that kind of cool, slightly arty design. Whereas it was clear that there were other people in our class, Marko included, who produced gorgeous commercial looking pieces. It also didn’t enjoy advertising related courses that much. I was much happier doing everything else. If I had to, I probably could make a career in advertising design. But I would never become one of the gurus. I could only be a mediocre designer in that field.

Admitting this was hard. When I entered the school, I thought that the advertising world was one of those key destinations for graphic designers. I feared that if I didn’t have what it took to work in advertising, I must be a failed graphic designer in some sense.

Of course, at this point, I had already worked in a newspaper as a layout compositor. So I knew there were definitely some paths I could take. But, I laughed a little nervously, I can say goodbye to the world of glamour and champagne at the office. Although it was just a joke, some part of me still believed advertising work to be more glamorous than other design jobs. (Shows how little students know about reality!)

We continued the discussion as we walked, commenting on areas where we excelled or fared less well. In the end we agreed that it didn’t really matter if we couldn’t do everything perfectly. After all, nobody really needs to master all the possible sub-areas of their field. Some designers become illustrators, some work in advertising, and others design books.

The important thing was to find the right specialisation. This meant that trying to master everything might actually be counterproductive. So instead of struggling with advertising, I should put my energy to better use.

But there was a catch. As a student or a fledgling designer it is not easy to recognise what that specialisation should be. So instead, the best thing for you may be to find what you aren’t good at. It might not show you your future path exactly, but at least it narrows down your options. It helps you focus your energies roughly in the right direction.

Therefore, we concluded, the really important thing for design students in their second or third year was to find their own mediocrity. They should look at their own work and experimentations in different sub-areas critically. And admit to themselves the areas they did less well in.

And then we had lunch.

I think that discussion helped me relax about my choices and the possible directions I might take. Of course, all of these worries went away as I grew more confident in my own skills and career. Only a couple of years later, I was comfortably working in the newspaper industry as a graphic journalist. I had no doubts about my specialism because by then I was, even if I say so myself, pretty damn good at my job.

Later I decided to switch to teaching and research, but that had nothing to do with doubts about my skills. I just realised I couldn’t imagine myself working in the newspaper industry until I retired. Whereas I enjoy teaching so much that I might end up doing it until I drop.

Today, I feel confident because I have had two good careers. I have no problem talking about my history in the design industry. I’m just trying to come up with more and more sarcastic replies to cliché comments like ‘those who can’t do, teach’.

And interestingly even advertising appeared back into my life despite my attempts to stay away from it. I never did become a graphic designer in advertising. But as I progressed into more and more theoretical areas in design, I ended up studying and writing about things like branding and corporate identities. Eventually I found myself teaching advertising – conceptually but not graphically. And I am completely comfortable with that. I find it interesting and I have the right kind of conceptually oriented brain for it.

But not everyone has been as lucky as me or Marko, who continues as a successful designer to this day. Some of my classmates and friends didn’t recognise possible dead ends until it was too late. After college they went on to work in fields where they did not succeed and possibly hated every minute of their work. Many got disillusioned, left the media industry altogether, and struggled to find something else. Some of them are still searching for the right path.

Of course, it’s not possible to foresee the future and avoid every bump in life. My life hasn’t been perfect either and I’m not saying I don’t have any regrets.

But I have decided that I will encourage my students to discover their own mediocrity and accept it. Even if they don’t find the perfect path for themselves, accepting problem areas might help them avoid some of the painful experiences in life. Maybe.

At least it can’t be any less helpful than staring at stock photo sunrises and quotes from Coelho.

Charts instead of tables please

When you are trying to get a point across using numbers, show us the point, don’t make us calculate and compare! Again it’s time to talk about the Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Yet another great reading experience which suffers from flaws in the way information is presented visually. Brian McNair’s book News and Journalism in the UK has provided me a sober and easy starting point to the inner life of British journalism.

I especially enjoyed the way McNair introduces the various sociological schools of journalism research. I think that chapter would benefit not only journalism students but also generally all students of design or communication etc. who are trying to wrap their heads around concepts like Marxist media criticism, social construction of reality, the dumbing-down of culture and so on.

My only problem lies in the tables the book contains. The 4th edition (Routledge, 2003) that I got from my library has 8 tables and I think all of them could have been made into bar charts. Or at least turn the most important numbers in them to charts. And from what I can see from the Amazon preview, the problem remains in the 5th edition.

Some of the information is so simple, that the tables are pretty sufficient. Like the one on newspaper ownership (image below). It’s ordered mostly from the biggest to the smallest and the numbers are relatively small and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, adding a chart would make it even better.

But where I really noticed the problem was where McNair makes a point through comparing numbers in a table. It’s not a major point in the book, and if you’re feeling bored you can just skip the table take McNair’s word for it. He talks about how John Birt affected BBC’s news production and popularity in the nineties:

In terms of ratings ‘Birtian’ journalism certainly appeared to make a positive impact on the British viewing public. By late 1989, for example, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News was on occasion recording audiences of 12 million, as compared to 6 million for ITN’s News at Ten, a pattern of dominance that was repeated across the news schedule, though not usually in such stark form (see Table 5.1.). (page 107)

So, check out the table yourself (below). See how easy it is to see how the “pattern of dominance is repeated across the schedule”.

Did you get it immediately? I didn’t. Yes, of course I did get it in time. But it’s such an easy point, that when I finally did, I felt kind of cheated or bothered. “Why did I have to spend so much time and effort on such an elementary point?!” How much time did you spend on it?

Perhaps you glanced it quickly hoping to return to the text. But when it didn’t make sense immediately, you had to devote a few more glances to it. And perhaps you also had to do a kind of mental switch from understanding text, contexts and the society, to understanding abstract numbers.

There are several ways you can turn that table into a chart. The solution depends on what one wishes to emphasise, space & color constraints etc. I thought that the point was to show that the BBC’s programmes were dominating in all the different time slots, such as main news, early evening news, midday news and so on. Below you can see one solution I might propose. This version omits the precise numbers but who needs them anyway? What the reader needs here is the point that BBC’s news programmes are doing better than ITN’s, and he or she can still approximate the numbers from the bars if necessary.1

This should be in McNair 2003, page 107

Okay, in this particular case “much time and effort wasted” is relative and actually not that much. It’s not like you’re trying to understand Wittgenstein or the national budget. We are talking about few glances, a handful of seconds.

Never mind the actual time it took in seconds. What I’m talking about is that feeling you get. That even if it was not really a big effort, you are annoyed that you had to do a little more than you felt was justified or necessary.

And that’s the key point in all design. Think about badly designed handles, mugs, chairs, doors, windows. Whatever. It might be an insignificant door knob or other invaluable mundane object. But you are reminded of its clumsiness each time you touch it. It might slightly irritate you each time. Perhaps several times every day.2

And that clumsiness and irritation drags your thoughts from whatever important thing you had in your mind – your job, your children, your ongoing relationship crisis, your happiness – demanding your attention to the silly mundane object.

Design is about minimising the effort of the user. Making the user feel comfortable. That’s what some fields of design call usability, ergonomics, etc. And here we can call it information design.3

In a book the designer is bound to a two-dimensional surface. But he or she still has a vast amount of resources which can be used to maximise the usability of the page and thus minimising the effort and irritation of the reader.4

  1. I would also like to change the headline, but here I’ve kept the original one for consistency. I mean, who’s interested in “figures”?! The variable is the “audience” or “viewers”. The figures themselves are just abstract entities used to express their quantity. []
  2. This is why the difference between pc:s and Macs & iPads is so significant. If I have to use a computer constantly it should be as painless as possible, and not raise my blood pressure every 30 minutes. []
  3. Some might call it graphic design, but I’m not using it because all too often that seems to lead to worsening the usability because it tries to be expressive or artistic. Information design always aims to maximise the usability and clarity. []
  4. And don’t try saying that “maybe they didn’t have a designer”. It’s a book you’re holding. How do you think it materialised. Out of thin air? []