The first step in design education no one will tell you about

When you’re a beginning or self-taught graphic designer, it’s only natural to do a Google search for advice. The Internet is full of tutorials that will tell you how to make a sick tattoo design, apply effects so button graphics look shiny, and lead you through the process of re-touching your glamor shots.

If you ask Google what for first steps in becoming a designer, they might take you to this list of beginner Photoshop tutorials, which does seem legit.

But those tutorials will only tell you how to master the technical elements of Photoshop. It’s kind of like being in the social media world and learning how to craft the perfect, shareable Facebook post… according to Facebook’s algorithm. Once that algorithm changes, your post will be invisible unless the qualities that make it shareable are, in a sense, timeless.

Good design is not based on knowing how to work a program like Photoshop. Although it’s important to be familiar with the the tools and master them, there’s a first step that will provide a better foundation. And it’s not very “graphic.”

Paper before screens

This is going to sound old-fashioned, cheesy and elementary, but the best first step is to pay attention to the design around you. Magazine ads, billboards, logos you see in your everyday life. How do they make you feel, and why do they make you feel that way? Is it the colors, the way the lines lead your eye to a certain point, the shapes in relation to each other? Maybe take pictures of designs that especially grab your focus.

Most likely, what you remember stands out because of one or more of the Gestalt Principles of Design. A group of German psychologists came up with these principles in the 1920s to describe their theory of how visual perception works. People respond to elements like repetition, similarity or continuing paths, which simplify and unite visual compositions. Smashing Magazine and Creative Bloq have good roundups of the principles.

Next, before you worry too much about how to reflect these principles in Photoshop or other image editing programs, take to paper. Use whatever you have and noodle around with free sketching and coloring. Try to come up with something that’s soothing or exciting to you. Work with whatever media you prefer, and don’t worry about feeling self conscious. I’m 30 and do this with pens and crayons,* so…

Here are some examples of my process, during a routine time I like to call #analogevenings.

Not only does it help me figure out what works in design, it is a great stress reliever. I do it while watching Netflix, as a respite from a day spent looking directly at computer screens (including tutorials).

Of course, this method may not work for you and that is perfectly fine, but if it does I would love to hear about it, and to have more people using the #analogevenings tag to make it a bit of a trend. Because as we all know, once there’s a hasthag for something, it’s official – #hasthagoritdidnthappen. (Kidding, mostly.)

*Also: adult coloring books are a thing now!


Stepping back to say hello

WMS3In a coffee shop last week, a friend gently challenged me to tell her what it was I wanted to do and focus on with the graduate degree I’m working on.

I’m not taking any classes at the moment, and only working some of the time, so on most weekdays I ask this question to myself and come up with half-formed, convoluted answers. After a moment of disorientation I was thankful to be asked this question (and just to be out of the house, talking with another very understanding human rather than putting all my life choices on trial in my head).

This is the light in which I view the first Blogging 101 assignment to write an intro post about “who I am and why I’m here.” It’s a nudge to step back from complex thoughts in my head that would have never turned themselves into a post, because I’m plagued with perfectionism and needed a prompt to let them out in, maybe, a less complex form.

At the risk of sounding repetitive to the small group of friends that read this blog and obviously know me already… hello!

Who I am

My name is Andrea. I am a Media Studies graduate student who worked in local journalism for about five years before going back to school. I’m married to my soulmate and best friend. He enthusiastically joins in my sitcom obsession and I step outside of my comfort zone to embrace the drama and fantasy he’s into. This is hopefully a metaphor for our relationship and a description of our TV watching adventures. Ah, words.

I have always loved making and designing things, and one of my strongest interests right now is graphic design. Although I’m still learning, I got a lot of meaning and inspiration out of being a Course Assistant in a Design Principles course this past spring.

I’m very much in a “building” phase, professionally, which often amounts to feeling lost. Half the time I research the ins and outs of getting started as a freelancer, while at other times I sincerely miss office life (something I wouldn’t have pictured myself saying a year ago).

Why I’m here

I’m “here” in Blogging 101 because of the above dilemma, partly. I have so much free time this summer, and have a hard time just doing nothing. So I’ve branded it as a #selftaughtsummer. Tutorials, Twitter chats, learning to code, webinars: you name it, I’ll sign up if it’s in my interest area. These things have been great in this want-to-learn-but-can’t-always-afford-things spot in life.

I’m “here” on this blog to write about the media generally and broadly: ideally, you’ll find an examination of trends in technology and how they might be affecting individuals next to roundups of links from brilliant writers, always infused with a social justice perspective. My goal is to listen first and reflect thoughtfully, never to co-opt voices but to respect and amplify marginalized perspectives.

The problem with nuance is it doesn’t always lend itself to volume. Maybe some post will be old-school personal blogging, or all about the visuals, as blogging becomes more of a regular practice. That’s what I’m here to figure out!


Making it multimedia: I’m also on tumblr and Twitter.


It’s not love that’s incomprehensible. It’s hate.

I hope that this snippet of a story feels dated. It was somewhere between the end of the ’90s and beginning of this millennium.

It’s not much of a story, either. I just remember being in high school and saying out loud that I “didn’t get” the whole “gay thing.” I didn’t go to a school that was outwardly homophobic. Teachers never pushed conservative views on sexuality onto us. Much like the rest of my adolescence, it presented no enshrined words or dominant opinions at all, leaving me to guess at what the silence meant.

For many, that silence was stifling. Sure, there were no official proclamations against being gay as a teen, but it was being gay as a teen at the turn of the millennium, with classmates who “didn’t get it,” jokes/slurs on TV and in the halls, and no official voice saying “You are fine. You are whole just as you are. You’re not a problem to be solved.”

This “not getting it” was because of the privilege that lurked behind the silence, of course. The only reason there was anything to be confused about was because no one unpacked the jokes and slurs (or the sermons) as forms of hate. A person loving another person should literally be the easiest thing in the world to understand, matching genders or not. There was nothing not to get and it was being made needlessly complicated by being painted as some scandalous secret.

The thing that cleared it up was living. Witnessing the lives of friends, meeting my first roommate. Living and learning that sexuality is not one size fits all or simple, that love civil rights and love are quite obviously for all. How was that even a question?

As of today the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples a right to marriage [!!!] How many legal headaches, how much emotional turmoil could have been avoided if our nation would have just done this sooner? It was still a 5-4 vote, after decades have passed, and people in power have had that much time to live, learn, witness stories, have stories of their own that make the obvious clear beyond any doubt.

There will always be people who hate, but now their attempts to obscure and over-complicate love will have a hell of a challenge in what is now the law. That’s huge. I’m excited for the 2015 version of this high school kid story – never having not understood that love comes in many forms, just baffled about why it’s a big deal to some people, and ready to do something to make progress go even further.

‘I can’t believe a Pulitzer Prize winner left for PR,’ said no one in media ever.

“Exit.” Original collage.

If you’re at all interested in journalism, it’s unlikely you missed the story of the Torrance, California reporter who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team on the Daily Breeze, but switched to PR to pay his rent.

The writer, Rob Kunzia, was part of a team that afflicted the comfortable, uncovering corruption in a school district where the superintendent was paid highly while the students were under-served. It struck a chord with me because I was an education beat reporter, too, and the ideals behind the stories I worked on were the same.

Like Kunzia and droves of others, I “left” organized journalism for something else. It’s something not fully defined at the moment, but I will probably include communications or PR work of some kind.

This story is being passed around with an implied sad nod. We’re supposed to give it a glance, think “Isn’t this depressing?” and move on. I think that’s exactly what I would do if I hadn’t left a world bookended by reporter’s notebooks and Board of Education meetings.

While I’m not a historian, I get the sense that part of the muckraker’s identity came from not having a lot of money, and being able to speak the voice of the people. But as strikingly as the figure of the starved, sleep-deprived reporter looms in our culture, there is hidden privilege behind it, whether it’s the lack of diversity on news staffs or the families and partners that help house and feed the ink-stained heroes. We should stop pretending this austere time is the first tough climate for journalists, and pay attention to the class implications of who is affected by the hard times, and how.

Leaving the education desk on a local paper has been done. Moving on happened before moving on was the only choice. Let’s look beyond this setup, though, and talk about how leaving a news publication is not – maybe has never been – the end of an individual journalist’s journey.

When contacted at his new job as a publicist for the USC Shoah Foundation, Kunzia is reported to have said feeling a “twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist.” If we take this at value, we’ll overlook the perks of not being tied to a publication. Institutional backing can be helpful, but what are the benefits of leaving, besides currently or eventually being able to pay rent?

One of the first things I noticed was an eventual un-siloing of information. Being tied to one beat, one issue or one geographical area can restrict thought and exploration when it’s your job to have narrowly defined expertise. The other is a freeing of voice. Dan Gilmor writes about the importance of journalists as activists, but institutionally backed writers are always walking a tightrope between the expression of their personal beliefs and the pressure to be “objective.” Never mind that objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. As an independent writer, I actually feel comfortable being loud about stances that comfort the afflicted. When part-time faculty at The New School advocated for their rights, I did not have to hide my support behind the veneer of objectivity.

Leaving is not just selling out. It’s not just sad. It can be a powerful force for redefinition. The world beyond the desk, without an editor to support, correct and defend, is indeed intimidating. At the same time, it’s freeing.

Midweek Media Moment: Sound

Original design by andreach

I am a textual being. There have been entire stretches of life where being carried away by the currents of sound was entirely too much, and I couldn’t give you an answer to that age-old icebreaker, “What kind of music do you listen too?” A tumblr post on my musical loves is about the closest I have gotten.

But this Midweek Media Moment will be brought to you by chords, airwaves, beats and jams. Being plugged in to media today has beckoned me to step off the page and embrace video, music and other ways of being “carried away” through time-based forms.

Last week Kendrick Lamar released “To Pimp A Butterfly.” The phrase “tour de force” is very cliche, but this is one of those times where that description is warranted. It will leave you speechless for all the right reasons. Don’t take my word for it, though. Listen on Spotify and read these two very brilliant pieces about the album.

To be honest and black is, by nature, to be a threat. To be honest and black and poor is to know deeply and personally how racism and capitalism works.

To be honest and black and poor and smart is to know who is at fault. To be honest and black and poor and smart and gifted is to know how to move others to action.

-Carvell Wallace, Pitchfork

Ann Friedman, a smart person herself, talked to other smart people about the economics of the podcast boom.

The medium feels intimate. Unlike the audience online, which tends to click through and then bounce away quickly, podcasts draw people in for the duration of the episode. They feel a deep, personal connection with the hosts. In an era when other ad rates are plummeting and publications are trying to position themselves as membership organizations, this level of fervent fandom is something that most media outlets would kill for.

And finally, I’d like to spread the word about This is My Jam, a simple network for sharing your “song of the moment.” As someone who has felt music can be evanescent, and who conceives of blocks of songs as the soundtrack for various phases of life, I appreciate its aesthetic and purpose.

Apparently, we’ve been able to post jams on the site since 2012, but it looks like a recent redesign made the platform more user-friendly and appealing.

The redesign lifts some of the restrictions the founders imposed on the site at launch: it introduces a history function, letting users see, and edit, their jams all the way back to when they joined; and it redesigns the song screens, which gel together the social and radio aspects of the site.

Also, half a million songs screens, which the site features, is described as “relatively low” in the above article. Welcome to the age of infinity.

A Tale of Two PSAs

[Trigger Warning for discussion of domestic abuse/violence]


Advertisements and PSAs play on “gut reactions” and hope to convert shock into action. Last week, a  branch of the Salvation Army tried to use #thedress of viral Internet fame (some people saw it as blue and black, some as white and gold, fun was had, science was learned and if tweets were print, we would be in the midst of a global ink crisis) to spur an awareness campaign to stop violence against women.

And in this case, I could not get past my gut reaction of disgust. This link to an article critical of the PSA contains the actual image, which may be triggering or upsetting, so proceed with caution and self-care. An image of a bruised women wearing the “white and gold” version of #thedress accompanies the text “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?”

It comes across as flippant, as forcing the very complex and sensitive issue of abuse to conform to a meme soundbite so it can get “traction.” Meanwhile on a recent Facebook share of the image, this observer noted that most of the comments were about the dress (or the PSA itself), not the issue of violence against women.

Full disclosure: I’m looking at this PSA in the context of actively participating in a media production space where a key value is thoughtful critique of how techniques are being used to transmit messages, and I had just finished working on a literature review about ethics in advertising. Just because an organization is a non-profit or working for a good cause does not mean the ends always justify the means, or the aesthetic and elements of their design accurately reflects their intent. Now would be a good time to insert all the grains of salt about the Salvation Army’s history, generally.

Around the same time, another PSA drew semi widespread attention.

From Adweek: “London agency WCRS teamed up with Women’s Aid and Ocean Outdoor to create some remarkable digital billboards about domestic violence. They use facial recognition to recognize when people are paying attention to the image of a bruised woman. As more people look at the ad, her bruises and cuts heal faster, communicating the benefit of not turning a blind eye to the problem.”

This response is still jarring (and potentially re-traumatizing to survivors who walk past the billboard), but instead of the subject positioned, model-style, in meme swag, the billboard features simply the victim’s face, which is does not remain in the static position of a pity object, but which can heal and change. While I understand ways it could still be problematic (the bruised face still on display, after all), I appreciate the use of technology and the narrative of progress.

An even better example was this 2013 Anar Foundation anti-child abuse ad that used a serrated surface and Lenticular lens to display a help hotline number only children could see. It’s in the same universe as the “quick escape” feature on the website. People who are actually experiencing violence and having their activity monitored can press the escape key, a new tab will open and the page will redirect to Google.

While awareness and prevention are important (see Don’t Be That Guy), I think socially conscious marketers can best use technology not to make a message meme-worthy, but to reach ignored groups that are already too “aware” of issues like domestic violence. Maybe the best innovations lie somewhere in between.