My First Time

She asked if I was willing. I said, “Yes.”

Her name was Alese, we were still in high school, both Juniors. This was new to me. It was unexpected. She was popular, a member of the yearbook committee, and I was just another face in the crowd. To say I was excited about it was an understatement—I was also very much confused. We weren’t in the same social circles, but, we had been friendly for years. She was nice, fun, and cute. So, why not? I should go for it. Right? Yeah, sure. I was more than happy to help design the cover for the yearbook.

“Great!” Came her elated response. She had a pretty smile. It was always nice to see, and it was now on full display.

The two of us stood in the hallway, near my locker, while it was between class periods. Alese showed me the plan for the cover and what she would like me to do. I felt a little overwhelmed by the whole thing. So many questions were flying through my mind it became difficult to focus on what she was telling me. Through the haze of it all, I was able to pull a few bits of integral information: This was important to her—a very big deal. She also believed in my artistic talent. Additionally, she could have done better.

Now, that last one… I added that last one. She never said that, nor was it implied in any way, shape, or form. Alese had full faith in me and my abilities. Yet, I knew there were better artists to be found in our little town than me. I was good friends with one of them. She was good friends with one of them. So, why me? When I asked her that question, her reply was something like, “Because, I know you’re a really great artist.” Wow. I hadn’t ever shown her anything—that I could recall—that would have led her to believe that. But, hey. If that was what she believed, then, who was I to tell her she was wrong?

“I can’t do that part.”

“What?” You would have thought this yearbook was the Hindenburg and I had just lit a match.

“Yeah, I don’t really know how to do pointillism. I could probably do it, but it might not look as good as you want it to.” I was referring to the part of the cover design that included a large ’92’ that was to be Illustrated by using dots and then to be placed under the word ‘NINETEEN’.

The look on her face… You would have thought this yearbook was Pompeii and I was Mt. Vesuvius.

This was 1992 and stippled work was a rage going about art and design. I didn’t know it was called that. I had heard it referred to as pointillism (for more on this, you can visit this Master Class website). Now, I know it as stippling. If you don’t know what either one is, pointillism is where you paint with dots. Stippling is where you draw with dots. In simplest terms: One uses dots of paint, the other uses smaller dots of ink. There ya’ go.

“But, I know someone who’s really good at it, and would probably do a better job than I probably could.” If this situation was The Great Flood, you would have thought I was Noah’s Ark. Alese’s smile was back, bigger, and brighter. I told her who the artist was and if he couldn’t do it, that I would be willing to give it my best effort. And, with that, my first job on an unplanned career path took place.

Years would go by. I joined the Marine Corps. Got married. A couple of children were born. Several jobs came and went. Then, school—finally. I had started college.

Knowing only that I loved art, only had skills in art, and only really felt comfortable in art, meant that I should probably start in art. But, what kind? I wasn’t good enough to illustrate. I had never really painted before. Are there really any other options in art? Seriously?

Author’s/Artist’s Note: I feel that at this juncture I am compelled (as an educated adult, as a professional, as an educator—in art) to inform you—dear reader—that while I didn’t know what other fields were considered ‘art’ back then, I do now. I very much do now.

The more and more my wife and I studied the local university’s catalogue, the more I realized I had one choice: Graphic Design (whatever that was?).

Again, let me be clear: I know what it is now. I teach graphic design at that same university I graduated from with degrees in graphic design and art—and teaching.

As time has passed, it only recently hit me that my very first piece of graphic design was thirty years ago. Oddly enough, fourteen years after that, I graduated with my BFA degree in graphic design, and with an almost complete memory laps of that first work—and why I did it.

I have thought about it, off and on, over the past several years, mostly because somebody once asked me what my first piece of graphic design was. They were referring to professional work (the kind that brings in the money), but the question eventually brought this memory into recall. I tell it now for a couple of reasons: One, it is that time of year. Graduation. The end of the school year. The time when yearbooks surface and get signed. Second, just the other day—in my graphic design class—a student and I were sharing our feelings about how grand it is to hand letter. The joy of carefully handcrafting each and every letter form. The curves, the spaces, measuring… Everything about it is so engaging. And that is what I had done, thirty years ago. I had been fully engaged.

Thirty years ago I sat at the same drafting table that is currently two feet to my right. I sat for hours in my room, under the heat of my desk lamp. You know the kind. The style that resembles the little Pixar lamp. It clamps to the side of the table, has springs to provide tension, and despite the fact that the bulb is only 60watts it still feels like it’s about to set your head on fire when it’s only inches away but you gotta see what your drawing…! Yeah, that lamp. Mine has long since bit the dust and been replaced (the switch disintegrated—I know what I wrote). But, that drafting table is still good. And in use.

Sorry, I’ve tangented.

Once tasked with my part of the cover, I worked and worked and worked. The hours I spent getting the measurements as close to perfect as I possibly could. Dividing up the space just right for each and every letter… Trying to figure out how to do that over a curve…?!?

A process I now know a shortcut for (thank you, years of teaching math).

The sheer joy of getting it all just right!

I had to set a series of waves, a splash, and text. I had been given the measurements they were to fall into. I reset the wave heights at least six different times before I had the perfect balance of wave count, wave height, and wave curve. The letter setting was harder than I thought it would be. I had never before realized how subtle the distance needs to be when dealing with different letters like ‘W’ versus an ‘t’. I almost went mad remeasuring and remeasuring and remeasuring to get it all just so. And for some sick reason, I loved every minute of it. And, having crafted a few fonts from scratch—as well as having spent many a year modifying already developed ones—I better understand it all. And, I still love it.

Here are some of the tools I used, all those years ago. Some are simple Crayola brand templates intended for children. They are still some of the best tools I have ever had. After setting measurements and such I would make pencil marks on the french curves so I knew how to align the tool for each new edge of another wave. It was tedious, but, I didn’t know any other way. This was long before Adobe Suite was commonplace—not to mention computers in the home.

It is possible that that one simple request—thirty years ago—had a subtle, subconscious affect upon me. That it somehow, slowly, carefully, indirectly brought me to the place where I am now. A guy who loves to design. A guy who loves to hand letter. A guy who loves to work digitally and on paper. A guy who teaches that stuff to another generation. Who knows? Regardless, that’s where, and who, I am.

To this day, I am uncertain as to why Alese asked me, but, I do know this, I am eternally grateful that she did.

My contribution to the Manti High School 1992 yearbook cover is the circular graphic in the lower right-hand side. Looking at it now—as a professional, I see so many subtle errors that I had no idea to even look for, let alone avoid. Still, this was my first. And as such, it will always be very special to me.

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