is the design of kevin kennedy

The Comedy of Graphic Design

Working as a freelance graphic designer leaves one with a lot of alone time. I spend most of the day in my office, staring at a laptop, manipulating either text or pixels. Joyous was the day when I decided to check out this thing called “podcasts.” Podcasts are essentially episodic audio files connected to a feed that a user can subscribe to, so whenever a new “episode” comes out, my audio player automatically downloads it for my listening pleasure

The revelation with this is that, in my world of solitude, I get to now hear voices chatting and laughing in the background, it’s almost like being around people! Many of the shows I find myself being drawn to are of the “dudes chatting” variety, and more often than not, the dudes are of a comedic background. The more I listen to stand-up comedians talking about how they got started, the more I start to notice parallels between the beginning of a stand-up’s career and that of a graphic designer.

Let us first consider some similarities between these two seemingly disparate professions:

  1. We both must answer to a wider audience.
    In the world of comedy, a performer, ultimately, is trying to get a laugh. Arguments can be made about relative “senses of humor,” or how “alternative” comedy and niche sketch performers might not feel the need to conform to the “mainstream,” but the fact remains that a laugh is still the goal. If not a laugh, at least a connection of some sort. Graphic designers are beholden to the same sort of struggle. On the one hand, we are expressive and creative people with our own thoughts and ideas on where a particular project should go. On the other hand, we still have to conform to certain standards in order to make our message understood. Certain limitations from the client or society at large prevent us from designing in a bubble, because in the end, we need to communicate information.
  2. We are both provide services for a client.
    A designer can only really be considered as such when they are solving problems presented to them. Expression for the sake of expression is the realm of the artist, the designer needs a goal to fulfill, one that typically comes from a client. The same can be said for a comedian, where the venue or performance outlet is the client, and the comedian provides the service of entertainment for that client.

I recognize that these points can be considered quite broad, but the purpose of them is to provide a context for what I feel is the most interesting comparison between these two professions, and that is the starting of a career.

Open Speculation

My amateur analysis of the beginnings of most stand-up comedians seems to be that one starts with a knack for making jokes or performing, one sees a performer that makes an impact, and then one does as many open mic performances as possible until one gets noticed enough to book a paying job.

The beginnings of a graphic designer can be similarly generalized: one starts with an active imagination and a love of drawing, one sees some work and desires to learn more about that work, one either goes to school or gets an entry level job and tries to work their way towards a more lucrative position.

What I find interesting about the way comedians and designers start is that the comedian accepts it as fact that they will perform for free until they get good, whereas the designer tends to take a position of expertise very early on in their career, and feels that their abilities nearly always warrant compensation.

There is much debate and even movements centered around this notion that speculative work is evil. There are communities where work is “crowd sourced,” something very similar to spec work, and the consensus among the high-minded is that these practices devalue the position of the designer as expert. My position is: what is spec work but an open mic for starting designers? Aren’t these things essentially a person showing off what they can do up front with the hope of future compensation?

I guess my main complaint about this whole discussion is that that the primary fight against these practices is this sense of, “I provide a service, therefore I should be compensated REGARDLESS of the final decision.” In what other profession do we find such brazen proclamations of one’s own value? The comedian and the performer accept that “dues” must be paid before their skills are employed, but the designer expects payment with no demonstration of skill at all!

Dem’s Fightin’ Words

The happy ending for a select handful of comedians out there is that eventually they get noticed, and then they get to tour, put out CDs and DVDs, make talk show appearances, work on a pilot, write for a show, or whatever the end game is. The happy ending for the designer may be landing some huge contract, working for an open-minded, filthy rich client, or making enough money to be one’s own client. The comedian isn’t going to get there doing only open mics, and the designer isn’t going to get there doing only spec work.

My aim in getting these thoughts out is to simply say that spec work has its place in graphic design. I feel that we, as designers, should humble ourselves just a little and accept that sometimes, we have to perform for free.