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Graduate Portfolio

Another week, another stroll down the dusty corridor’s of my graduate portfolio, a place where the 21 year old designer Chris’ creative machinations are reassessed by the jaded, yet ruggedly handsome 30-something Chris, I tread where other designers fear to tread!

The big assignment set during final year was the eponymous Annual Report, another labour saver favourite of lecturers, incorporating all the aspects of Visual Communication that we (should) had learned.

The brief was open (as usual) in regards to who the report would be for. I chose the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. It seemed an obvious choice for me at the time. I’d spent a lot of hours there during my study years, it was a favourite spot to draw, photograph, mope and generally collect my thoughts from the heady pressures of student life, especially midweek when the place was virtually deserted. The old Palm House in particular was a favourite spot of mine, over a century old and in a fairly dilapidated state, it seemed to provide endless inspiration for me in drawings and a stunning ‘happy accident’ photograph that I managed to snap around sunset on afternoon. The Palm House isn’t nearly as interesting since they renovated it a couple of years ago, that’s progress for you I guess.

The Gardens have a good deal of history as far as public gardens in Australia. Of particular interest beyond the variety of exotic native and introduced flora, are the number of public art pieces, statues, fountains, even a monument to Elvis if you believe that. My concept for the visual aspect of the annual report was to merge the flora with these artworks so as to emphasise both. This was achieved by the simplest and most immediate technique available to me, taking photos as transparencies and merging the resulting slides together to produce a single print. An example of the result can be seen above.

What I wanted to achieve was a sort of ‘enchanted forest’ feel, to portray the gardens as a place of new discovery, wonder, tranquility and inspiration, as they were to me rather than just a collection of trees and flowers. I’m not sure my primitive attempts really achieved this, maybe if I has access to photoshop (and knew how to use it!) I might have been able to portray this a little better, but then, maybe I would have lost some of the spontaneity and rawness of it.

As far as a concept goes, I thought it was a good one. I really think at the time the lecturers were more concerned with style over this though (a claim that can be backed up by the uproar that erupted when Design Coordinator Cal Swann tried to get the design department to look a little deeper into their concepts choosing a ‘nice’ typeface. Overall, my shots were let down by my inability to communicate what I wanted outside of an audience who had spent as much time roaming through the gardens as I had!

I never intended when I entered the Visual Communication course at The University of South Australia to become a graphic designer. I barely even knew what one was, let alone had any idea that is was something you could make a career out of, the careers course I took at high school still had ‘ticket writing’ as a job option for the individuals with artistic leanings wishing to apply their skills to the real world.

Through my life I like to draw, it was a past-time, but also something that I focused on as a future profession. While other kids wanted to be an astronaut or a race-car driver, I was dreaming of being a cartoonist, as I grew older and started to more seriously grasp the realities of ‘real world’ skill applications, I began to think that maybe I could illustrate children’s books or at least be somehow involved in commercial illustration. It was with this some what vague plan that I applied for, and was accepted into The Uni of SA Bachelor of Design course.

At the time, (we’re talking late 80s here) the course was set up so as both illustration and visual communication students did a two year combined foundation course (in the first year, all the design disciplines were pretty much combined in a foundation course, this included industrial design, ceramics, jewelry, human environments and graphics) so everyone got a grounding in the disciplines of both streams – typography, life drawing, graphics, photography, illustration, print-making, even wood and metal working – it was a pretty good system. After the two years, you split off into your preferred discipline, illustration or visual communication – it turned out to be a valuable system, because after that two years I discovered that concentrating on illustration wasn’t for me.

A couple of things led me to that decision. I could see that while some of my classmates were progressing in leaps and bounds with their illustration skills, I wasn’t progressing very far at all, my marks in illustration were just average, I was doing much better in typography, visual communication and even photography. I felt I had taken my illustration skills as far as I could at that point – or as far as I wanted to – I just didn’t get along with the Illustration lecturers, it was all too close to ‘visual arts’, too unfocused and if there is one thing I have learnt about encouraging myself to ‘create’ – it’s that I need an objective.

So I went over to the ‘dark side’ so to speak and took the visual communication stream, and for the most part, any inklings of being an illustrator fell by the wayside. The Bakehouse identity items you see above were my last gasp at any allusions in that area. To those in the know, you can see a strong influence from The Duffy Design/ Charles S Anderson style in the execution. Everyone else in the class seemed to be treating their identity projects so seriously, I just wanted to do something colourful and fun and momentarily recapture that spirit of enjoyment that made me first put pencil to paper when I was a kid.

As it turned out, in the long view of things, whether you chose to concentrate on illustration or visual communication didn’t really matter that much in the real world. A lot of the illustrators found that their skills were much in demand in the studios and went on to successful careers as graphic designers (Matthew Remphrey of Parallax Design studied illustration).

It’s unfortunate that the Uni of SA doesn’t do the combined foundation years anymore (at the moment though, that’s probably the least of their problems, don’t get me started) because for myself at least, it let me sort out what I really wanted to do. Through the years I’ve incorporated a few illustrations into the work I do, but I wouldn’t list it as one of my major skill sets. I still have a certain fondness for that pink dinosaur eating the cookie though 🙂

The Southern Cross Packaging Awards were held nationally each year for final year design students (I assume they still are). Students have a set number of briefs to choose from, the emphasis being on designing innovative packaging concepts. The year I entered I chose to tackle the beer packaging, a popular choice as you could imagine.

Out of all the projects I worked on that final year, this design shoes my influences at the time more blatantly than anything else. Charles Anderson/Duffy Design retro-pictorial elements? Check! Neville Brody typographic treatment? Check! Cool Simpatico matt black beer bottles? Check! I’m sure if David Carson had reached the heights that he would at that point in time, I would have thrown some of that grunge stuff that the kids loved on there as well.

The actual brief was that the package had to hold three beer bottles. My solution was to ‘clasp’ the bottles by the neck, leaving the labels on the bottle visible and also incorporating a nice wide panel area to maximise graphics. The back of the ‘holder’ had a cut-out hand-hold that you slip your fingers in to carry it. Basically the ‘holder’ starts flat, you punch to tops of the bottle through perforated holes that grasp the neck, fold it over, punch through again to hold the bottle top, then lock in the back. It took a reasonable amount of folding cardboard and broken bottles to get gripping the bottles comfortably.

I still cringe a bit over the graphics. The one comment I remember when presenting the work to a prospective employer was ‘why isn’t the label in blue and white’? (a reference to the Eureka Stockade Southern Cross Flag), well, I don’t really know, I guess that’s why he was sitting on that side of the desk and I was the poor schmuck looking for work.

And no one got the joke of the label. It was called EUREKA BEER, get it? As in ‘You Reek Of Beer!’ What a card I was back in those care-free student days. The design did end up winning a bronze in the awards, lame pun not-withstanding.

Photography formed a large part of the curriculum in my fourth year design studies. Where a lot of my compatriots in the course were keen photographers and really into the whole process of setting up studio lighting and breaking out the large format camera, I was never that confident in my photography skills. A lot of the technical requirement’s of taking proper light meter readings and developing the film seemed time consuming and boring – just thinking about it seemed to sap a lot of the enthusiasm I might have had for the project right out of it. My initial thoughts always seemed to turn to how can I knock this off as easily and quickly as possible – but still tackle it in an innovative and (personally) creative way, specifically in a manner that no one else was approaching it.

The lecturers were big on combining disciplines that year, less work for them I guess, so it came as no surprise to anyone when we were assigned a photography/typography project, specifically to design a calendar.

As far as the ‘brief’ for it went, it was your typical university course ‘open ended’ brief, we were allowed to do what ever we wanted with it as long as it encapsulated photography and typography. If there was a ‘client’ in mind, I guess it would be the designer’s dream project of a calendar for a paper merchant or printer. One stipulation may have been that each photo should reflect the month it was portraying in some way, I can’t remember, it may have been a matter of of that being imposed by myself to try and direct what my interpretation might be.

Keeping in mind that this was back pre my computer usage – as soon as we got the assignment my first thoughts were how I was going to lay the date information onto the photos. I didn’t have access to a scanner, the only way to get type onto a photo would be through the use of letraset – hours of meticulously having to lay down each number for the calendar wasn’t an encouraging thought. I was also dreading the planning that would need to go into shooting the photo so as to leave enough room to place the type. I was getting less and less enthusiastic.

I don’t know when the solution struck me, maybe I was lazily scribbling in the dirt with a stick (it has a Newton ‘Eureka!’ vibe to it) It’s probably fair to say that seeing as I was a student, whatever I was doing at the time was probably ‘lazily’. It occurred to me that I could incorporate the type for the calendar already in the photograph – I take the shot and I’m done in one. All at once the possibilities of where I could go with this seemed endless.

The picture above for ‘February’ was one of the first shots I took – a simple matter of writing the calendar in the mud in my backyard, surrounded by some of my mother’s pots (love those teapot planters 🙂 Where possible I tried to stick to a ‘theme’ for the month, for example, in January I wrote the calendar in zinc cream on my father’s back, in June I wrote it in the frost on my bedroom window. I wanted to keep the photos spontaneous, so the shot was set up using available light conditions.

I think they all turned out reasonably well, it was certainly worlds away from what anyone else did and for once I think I receive a good mark for a photography assignment.

Normal service resumes after my big move!

The first piece in my graduate portfolio and probably the best is this set of album, cassette and CD for Greg William’s album ‘Louder Than Words’. Not only was this the first album cover I designed, it was also my first professional, paid design job. The project was actually begun in the break between my third and fourth year. I had been a frequent attendee at Greg’s live gigs around town after catching him performing in the University bar one evening – at some of his midweek, late night gigs, sometimes I was the only attendee (I was a student, I could afford to be out to all hours in the middle of the week 🙂 I’d struck up a friendship with him and had previously used one of his songs for inspiration in a third year photography assignment. Greg wanted this album to have a ‘dramatic presence’ and figured that my enthusiasm for his music was a good enough reason as any to get me to do the design.

Among other firsts, this record was the first and only vinyl album I have actually ever designed, in fact it was probably one of the last vinyl albums to be produced locally. It was also designed completely ‘sans computer’, difficult to comprehend, I know, but no pixel touched this design – in fact it was designed sans typesetting or even letraset. This was my first experience in ‘pasting up’the artwork for print. Pasteboard, rubber cement, blue pencil, tracing paper overlay – I feel so old. I did have limited access to typesetting and computers at the time – I just wasn’t really that comfortable with either, especially on my first ‘professional job’.

I took my inspiration for the design from the title of the album ‘Louder Than Words’ – in that ‘actions speak louder than words’ as the saying goes. I used broad simple brush strokes in a Matisse inspired design, to outline an impression of Greg playing his ever present acoustic guitar. This was blown up on a photocopier so the image bled off the cover becoming even more abstract. All of the type including liner notes and lyrics were handwritten, and blown up as required on the photocopier again. I used a palette of straight cyan, yellow and black (overprinted with cyan) to emphasise the ‘bold action’ – also I was confident in the result I would get in printing these colours.

Greg and the record company were really pleased with the results – quite a few reviews for the album even mentioned the design – I was pleased than my first printed work came out as well as it did. Generally I got a good response from my lecturers at the time. Some of their comments were that they thought I could have been a bit looser and more free with my paint-stroke marks, and looking back, my handwritten type falls uneasily between being deliberately interesting an naive and just plain bad handwriting. It also doesn’t translate as well as it could have to the smaller CD format – the CD was a last minute inclusion and required extra text to be added to the cover which distracts a lot from it, it was a new medium and I was under the pump to get it out, I don’t think I even owned a CD at the time.

Out of all the pieces in my fourth year portfolio, this piece is probably the most successful, not just in the final outcome, but for the learning curve it took me on to produce it – from working with an actual client, to preparing final art, even negotiating a final fee. It’s had it’s share of accolades, appearing in the books ‘Design Downunder’ and ‘The World’s Best Music Design’. I even still trot it out on occasion when I’m specifically showing my portfolio to music clients, I’m still doing album cover work for Greg as well 🙂

I graduated from the University of South Australia’s Bachelor of Visual Communication Degree course way back in those halcyon days of 1991, so I’ve been a ‘professional’ designer for going on 15 years now, in theory anyway. When you finish your study, you’re thrust out into the working world and justly expected by any prospective employer to be ready to undertake the duties of a professional designer.

That’s rarely the case though, and wasn’t in my particular experience. I left University at a difficult time. Australia was in the midst of a recession, the days when you would see a design firms logo emblazoned on their company BMW were over and work was hard to come by for even the most experienced of designers. The course I did was excellent in regards to the theory of good visual communication, but was very light when it came to the business of an everyday design practice. Times were changing and the course was failing to (or at the very least was lacking in funds to) keep up with the important role computers were obviously beginning to play in the graphic design field, we all know it was inevitable as we scrambled to learn as much as we could from the few Mac SE machines available, trying to wring design gold under the very rudimentary tools set of programs such as ‘Ready Set Go’.

I’m currently in the process of a big clean-out in preparation for moving house. I’ve tended to be a bit of a pack-rat over the years, and I’ve dragged out my graduate portfolio into the daylight for the first time in probably over 10 years or so. It’s an interesting ‘artifact’ to say the least – full of all those past influences of Design heroes, letraset, bromides and cut paper. University is a time for experimentation, to find your direction as a designer, free to create without the burden of client input or budget constraints.

So how does the 21 year old graduate designer scrub up to the 35 year old ‘professional designer’? Over the next couple of weeks or so I’m going to examine each of my graduate projects and review where my design sensibilities where then compared to now – the good, the bad and probably the very ugly of what I offered towards potential employers back those many years ago.