Commentary & Analysis
Introducing the Inside of the Box
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: April 10, 2007
--- Special Feature Introducing the Inside of the Box By Pete Rivard April 10, 2007 -- Think outside the box. This phrase has become such an abundantly overused cliché that “outside the box” is becoming the new “inside the box”. The inside of the box represents conventional thinking, but if everybody is outside it then, by definition, they become conventional. Which puts them squarely back into that vilified cube from which they long to burst free. Somewhere along the line, we began to raise people who believe that all rules were created by Big Brother, refined by the Star Chamber and rubber stamped by Dick Cheney. My experience as a production technician and an instructor, specifically in the graphic design, color reproduction and print processes, informs me that both students and industry professionals alike mistake the “inside of the box” for any and all known rules. Simply breaking those rules is entrée to that cherished region known as “outside the box”. Somewhere along the line, we began to raise people who believe that all rules were created by Big Brother, refined by the Star Chamber and rubber stamped by Dick Cheney. In the real world, most rules became rules in the first place because they’re such darn good ideas. Here’s an example of a perfectly useful rule: posters should be designed so that their message is clearly conveyed to viewers who are ten or more feet away, and moving. Yet I see posters every day whose typography is unreadable at that distance. Does the designer think that I am going to alter my course, approach to within normal reading distance of the poster, and stop in my tracks to scrutinize their 12-point distressed font that sits superimposed upon a second, upside down font? Do they actually believe communication is occurring, or is their “outside the box” design simply a middle finger presented to accepted practice? Is their placing red text into a purple background and reducing the leading to zero their idea of cutting edge design or an attempt at sticking it to the man? Is placing red text into a purple background and reducing the leading to zero “outside the box” design or simply a middle finger to accepted practice? I know I have spent countless hours over the past three decades either directly involved in, or supervising, the repair of poorly designed documents. We prepress technicians were, by circumstance but not by choice, the body and fender shop of graphic design. We were the ones schooled in the rules engendered by the implacable realities of production technologies. We bent ourselves to the task of tearing apart provided documents, and reassembling them in the fashion to which they should have been originally built, in order that printing could someday happen. We championed ideas such as CREF (Computer Ready Electronic Files) to guide designers in the creation of files that would survive the RIP. History tends to repeat itself, so these days I consistently see work prepared for the flexographic process prepared by designers who have never read that industry’s design guidelines published in the FIRST book. Too “inside the box” I expect. We instituted a graphic design Associates degree track two years ago here at Dunwoody, somewhat against my own inclinations, as my morning espresso is prepared by some other college’s graphic design graduates and half the wait staff and bartenders at my favorite watering hole are graphic designers from a third school. Yet the owner of that restaurant has his menus, signage and take-out labels designed and produced by my students. Go figure. We had this idea that if we made design students hang out with prepress and press students, if we taught them how to lay out documents for specific output devices, and we made them look at color profiles and use densitometers and spectrophotometers, they might benefit from the experience. In essence, we put them “inside the box” and asked them to stay put, for the most part. Since our school had no reputation for design, our first class set to graduate is small, five students to be precise. All five students are presently out working paid internships in the design community, in production artist roles for the most part. Five out of five. Not bad. The following class is nine strong. September’s incoming group is sixteen and counting. The production artist labors inside the box of business realities such as budgets and deadlines and overtime, not just gestalt and simultaneous contrast. We designed the program to prepare students for positions as production artists, which appeared to us to be an achievable entrée into the agency world. The person who can sit down at a Mac and make hay in Adobe CS and Quark, and who can happily churn out three variations of someone else’s idea, fills that role. The production artist labors inside the box of business realities such as budgets and deadlines and overtime, not just gestalt and simultaneous contrast. If their work is informed by the realities of given proofing technologies and the specifications of the various print technologies (all very inside-the-box subject matter), then the agency is fortunate indeed. Over time, and perhaps with additional education, that production artist can certainly develop into an established designer. One of my favorite classes to teach is folding carton design. Folding cartons are absolutely unforgiving. There is no wiggle room. The thing has to securely hold and protect its contents. It has to assemble, open and close properly, stack and ship with no ill effects to the carton itself or the contents. It absolutely has to attract attention and provide all the information the consumer needs in a clear and organized fashion. The folding carton is the very box itself, the manifestation of the subject of the cliché. There’s nothing like designing a box to make you appreciate its inside.