Designing fiction

Designers tend to think of their chosen mode of employment as sexy and fast-moving and of themselves as interesting and creative – so why are they so underrepresented in fiction? Does designers' own self-depiction fail to match up with the public perception – or indeed reality – of the job? Is design just not a rich enough seam for authors to mine?

Few works of fiction feature graphic designers as protagonists - only George Orwell's 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' and Chip Kidd's 'The Cheese Monkeys' come to mind (and Kidd himself is a designer), though if you expand the definition to include branding consultants you could add William Gibson's 'Pattern Recognition' and a few others.

One short story by a well-known author does focus in on the working life of a designer: 'The Owner', by Michael Marshall Smith. Digit caught up with Smith by e-mail, to find out what just his interest in design is.

Jason Walsh: You're a Mac-user – do you have any connection to graphic design?

Michael Marshall Smith: Yes. I worked for about five years as a graphic designer, producing an in-house magazine for one company and doing a lot of freelance corporate ID work. I had no formal training, but had always been intrigued by design and very anal-retentive about lining things up neatly and so on, so... An enthusiastic amateur, I guess. Basically I lucked into it as a way of life because I'd started using a Mac for writing, at around the time of the DTP boom, and there was a halcyon period where no-one understood just how much faster and easier you could do stuff on a Mac than via traditional methods. I was completely immersed in it for those years, and tried to make sure I was doing interesting things... Even got as far as producing my own (very Neville Brody-derivative) typefaces at one point.

I still keep my hand in doing occasional design work for friends (mainly book covers and interiors and the odd business card), and my collection of typefaces has now passed all sensible bounds.

JW: Any chance you would like to share your own fonts with Digit's readers?

MMS: Be hard to find them now, to be honest. I have all that period's stuff archived on a Syquest somewhere, but I don't even think I have a drive to stick it in. Or a functioning computer with a SCSI connector... If I can dig anything out I'll let you know.

JW: Why did you make the protagonist in 'The Owner' a graphic designer?

MMS: A couple of reasons. The first is simply that it's what I was doing at the time. The second was that it can be - along with many other desk-bound office jobs - the source of the kind of anomie and emotional disconnect that I wanted to explore in the story. At the time (back in the early 1990s) there was this major change starting in the way people worked, or so it seemed to me: more of an itinerant, skill-for-hire lifestyle, with a concomitant loss of stability and security.

JW: Do you think this is a strong trend in post-material jobs? Everyone knows that call-centre employment is insecure and less than pleasant, but so-called knowledge workers (though I'm stumped trying to think of a job that actively requires stupidity) such as designers, journalists and so on tend to see themselves as specialists who are difficult to replace.

MMS: Yes, though I guess the fact that what they do has this certain intangibility about it makes it sometimes hard for other people to see this hard-to-replaceness. There's still this dated industrial revolution-style association of the job with the machine required to do it. 'A designer is a guy/girl who sits at a Mac. We own the Mac. So... Just get me someone else to sit in front of it.'

This is a very interesting area, actually, and one I hadn't thought about. And again, you see something similar in film. Producers always pay lip service to the importance of the writer, and yet actually they really think they could probably do the job themselves if they had the time - or the crap producers do, anyway.

JW: In 'The Owner' you have an unpleasant character say: "Won't do any harm to have someone else who knows how to run up a bit of design. Can't have all our eggs in one basket." Such an opinion is an offence to designers, but do you think that many have come across just such a low opinion of their work?

MMS: Absolutely. As soon as people got the idea that actually they didn't have to spend a ton of money farming design out to specialist outside firms who did arcane things with typsetting, but could just buy in a Mac and send someone junior on a course, I think that happened a lot. I saw it in the companies I worked for. Which is why you immediately started to see design with no understanding of typography, no hand-kerning, over-leaded titles, no baseline grid, and so on. And it has also contributed (he added, bad-temperedly) to the gradual death of the apostrophe...

JW: Not to mention the decline of the en-dash and death of the em-dash, although poor type support on the internet has as much to do with that as poor typographical skills does.

MMS: Very true. And will create a feedback loop, too.

JW: Do you think that today's the majority designers exhibit good typographical skills? Illustration seems to me to be a stronger suit for many. Have you been happy with your books, for example?

MMS:Also true.

They've done the job, I think. The exteriors are the key here, I guess. UK book publishing tends not to make a great deal of effort with interiors (they're much more into that in the US) and so much of what goes into cover design is the political - what will work for Asda won't do so well in Waterstones, but you sell a lot more books out of Asda, and so on - and so it becomes more an adjunct to the sales department even than the marketing department.

JW: In your opinion, does the non-material nature of design work and its connection with visual art reinforce these kinds of [negative] attitudes?

MMS: Very possibly. It's a hard thing to grab hold of, too intangible to describe in terms that people will understandable. 'My job is to organise text and pictures on the page in a manner that is attractive, while meeting the requirements of successful information delivery - and either maintaining sufficient connection with the visual zeitgeist or creatively subverting it'. Um... What?

JW: Design and the creative industries generally are of increasing economic importance, yet as a job design has a fairly low profile in wider culture - do you have any opinions as to why this is?

MMS: I think people just don't actually understand what it is, in fact. I used to find this. People would ask what I did, and I'd say 'graphic design' - and you could see they had zero idea what this meant, but didn't like to say. I even wonder whether people believe (if they ever think about it) that graphic design just kind of 'happens', without any conscious effort on someone's part. People get that someone has to write the words, and someone takes the pictures, but... The pages just kind of make themselves.

I once had a bizarre conversation with someone while I was working on a film script. They asked what I did, and I told them, and they were clearly very puzzled. Soon afterwards it became apparent that they believed that movie actors came up with their own lines (I'm not making this up). So I realised that me claiming to 'write films' must have sounded weird or maybe even borderline fraudulent to them. Perhaps graphic design occupies a similar space in the visual arts?

JW: Likewise, people don't realise that journalists rarely write their own headlines. Is this not an argument for better public relations on the part of the industry?

MMS: It probably is, but I think it's also probably just one of those industries where the people who know, know. The world and their wives and small children all have camcorders now. A very small number of people will realise that the zoom button isn't something you want to use the entire bloody time - and they'll be the people whose output is watchable. Similarly I do believe that while there may not be an awareness of the process of design, there remains an appreciation of it. And perhaps the fact that people are now confronted all the time with a new designed environment (websites) may help. I suspect that if there was an aggressive campaign by a graphic design industry, saying 'Hey, look - we're the people who make all this stuff look good on the page, who design your magazines and stuff...' the public at large will just shrug and say 'Who cares? I just want to find out about Jordan and Chantelle - and I didn't even know there was more than one typeface.'

JW: Surely, though, in an age of DIY design and the increasing importance of amateurs in media production through things such as YouTube and MySpace, a significant section of the public would be interested in finding out more about how things are made?

MMS: Maybe - but weirdly, after a period of design being 'easier' to achieve technically, it's got a lot more difficult again. For people who might be interested in getting into it, the web is probably the new frontier. And unless you use pre-packaged templates, getting stuff to work on the web is a little more mental and technical grief than the man in the street is interested in, possibly...

JW: Can you think of any other writers who have used designers as protagonists?

MMS: I can't, off-hand - apart from one Jack Finney novel which has a commercial artist in it, it's a very under-used area. Precisely because...

JW: Will you again? (Considering that having desk-bound characters is probably not an advantage for a fiction writer).

MMS: is such a desk-bound (and therefore apparently non-dramatic) activity. As noted above, it worked perfectly for me in that story. I also have an unfinished novella where the protagonist is a designer. But the problem is that usually a character's occupation is chosen either because of its relevance to what's going to happen (hard to think of an obvious blockbuster plot in which that would work), or as something so prosaic and staid that either (a) he or she wants to escape from or (b) it's more thrilling when they're thrown into some weird situation.

I think it's very likely I'll use a designer again at some stage, however. Not only is it an occupation I know a little about (which always helps) but - especially now - designers tend to be quite technically involved. With so much of everyday life revolving around competence in these skills now, that seems to make them a good choice for a kind of accomplished everyman figure...

JW: Finally, what are you working on right now?

MMS: Trying to finish a new novel, co-producing a film adaptation of a story of mine called 'Hell Hath Enlarged Herself', and I have just co-written the first draft of an animated horror movie for children, which is a bit of a departure - and it's interesting to be bearing in mind the graphic look of things again for a change!

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