Welcome to My Chronic Internet Freak-Out Syndrome

(2)

Left: AOL, about the time the internet and I first met. (Remember that sonorous modem music? The sound of the future!) Right: AOL now (yes, it's still there). With lotsa "headline news" on household health hazards, amazing pet stories, and shocking-yet-true dramatic personal episodes of total nobodies.

 

I.

I should probably start with a brief, unflattering jaunt down memory lane—unflattering mostly to my old college buddy, the internet. See, I came of age as a graphic designer in the early 2000s, when the internet was a vastly different place—virtually (heh, virtually) unrecognizable. I'd only ever had an AOL email account. I'd never sent a text. MySpace hadn't even dethroned Friendster yet as king of social media (a term no one had ever heard), Facebook was still just a glint in young Zuck's eye, Twitter was a looong way off, and a camera phone was the must-have device du jour (bonus points if yours didn't have a little antenna you pulled out to get reception).

That is, until the first-generation iPod dropped. Right on the heels of 9/11—which led everyone to predict that Apple's sexy little white music box (amazingly the size of our undergrad packs of Camel Lights) was doomed to fail, in the ensuing market slump. Of course it turned out that there was no stopping Steve Jobs, who was still healthy, feisty, and widely regarded by me and my school chums as our Design God. Apple could do no wrong as far as we were concerned—and the iPhone was still six years out. But that beautiful first-gen iPod didn't really interact with its unfortunate-looking cousin, the internet. Ol' internet was, for the most part, an aesthetic dump: 256 colors. No custom fonts. No CSS styling or HTML5 gewgaws. The best-looking sites featured those Flash-animated splash pages with terrible MIDI-loop sound—all a huge, fussy annoyance, even then.

You're not gonna believe me if you weren't there, but the biggest, ugliest internet culprit of all back then was none other than Google. (Yes, children, almighty Google.) For us early-2000s design kids, Google was a joke and an anachronism. It was the big busted elephant in the room, because we all still used it religiously anyway, despite its face that only a coder could love. How could something so repulsive, so glaringly un-designed, be so useful? So powerful? So inevitable? Google 1.0 (or whatever it was) went against everything we were being taught about the importance and certain ascendance of beautifully crafted design solutions. And our 40- to 50-something graphic design professors were of little help; they sure didn't have much of an answer when we pressed them on the Google paradox. Every design student's dream back then was to "fix" Google. To use an acceptable typeface, to ditch the kiddy color combo, the bubbled-out effect and the nasty drop shadow, and get with the program that Jobs & Co. were busy championing. 

Left: Shield your eyes! Google circa 1998, when I was typing in "art/design colleges NYC," then clicking "I'm feeling lucky." Right: Duh. Today's pared-down, souped-up Google.

This digital-design crisis was all going down right after that other doomed craze popped—when every graphic designer was like, "Instead of making this into a book, let's make it into a CD-ROM!" Well. Thank the Lord I didn't go into CD-ROM design as a way to get ahead.

So, that's what was up around the middle of my sophomore year, when I had to decide whether to specialize in straining to create things of beauty onscreen, venturing down the graphic design department's "Digital Track," or whether I'd stick with their traditional Communication Design curriculum. (Ha!—"traditional communication." If I only knew then what I know now—would I have taken that Digital robo-route? Or run the other way, screaming?)

In any case, given how the look of the internet (not to mention my trusty flip phone's interface) depressed me so, I spent the next two-and-a-half years learning to design books, posters, logos, magazines, and the like. (My one junior-year elective in Web Design had me banging my forehead against the keyboard repeatedly. Trying to write code to create things I could make by hand in a fraction of the time felt like figure drawing with a joystick controlling a robot arm that's holding my charcoal. No, thank you.)

Left: Okay, who remembers the slow agony of texting on a numeric keypad, before every phone in the industrialized world had the full QWERTY experience? Minds were blown when we started using T9, which predicted our thoughts and we no longer had to key in 4-4-3-3-9-9-9 just to say "hey." Right: The first glimpse most of us got of the earth-shattering iPhone.

 

II.

Flash forward ten quick years. And just look at the internet now (I guess you are, if you're reading this)—at how far that undergraduate ugly duckling has come! It's like he snuck up from behind and— Oh my God, he's gorgeous! (Really, you guys: His looks are seriously freaking me out.) When did this happen?

Well, the iPhone was a pretty huge leap for the digital-design underdog. Going from that ubiquitous Nokia/Samsung flip-phone icon menu to the first iOS skeuomorphic interface—where the notepad looked like a real yellow legal pad, the calendar had those darling ripped-paper edges, and the compass looked like it was off an old ship—was like Dylan going electric (or what I imagine that earlier moment of awesome awakening to have been). And now that we've all got HD retina displays on all our devices, that early photo-realistic interface trend has topped out and—with the recent release of iOS 7—the industry's moving toward a beautifully pure graphic sensibility of crisp iconography. (Think: the YouTube app icon going from a little old-timey television to a clean white-on-red "play" button. Or Windows 7's interface of brightly colored cascading squares of information.) To say nothing of the elegant site designs now possible with the killer combo of CSS, JavaScript, HTML5, custom Web fonts, and millions of colors—no longer shackled by the tyranny of hexcode. In ten short years, digital's gone from unbearably clunky to jaw-droppingly cool. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: here I am, still designing books, magazines, business cards, and newspapers (newspapers!) for a living. (Do you see where I'm going with this?) I look around at print design these days, and—compared with what they're up to in digital land—can't help feeling like we've fallen massively behind, aesthetically speaking: The unfortunate "refresh" of Paul Rand's elegant UPS logo in 1993 to a bloated, chunky shield (with that fugly glint of highlight, no less!) Or the death of Massimo Vignelli's timeless American Airlines logo earlier this year in favor of that hip slash-y thing they're using now. And don't even get me started on the busier-is-better logos of America's sports teams. Every day it seems there's another distinctive logo-mark being dumbed down. Put through the sausage grinder to come out the other end as a bland Helvetica-style type-in: just straight-up spelled-out company names in some friendly-looking, "approachable" rounded-off sans serif in a splashy color, that any untrained eye can plunk down and copy-paste as needed. (See below, exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I)

Logo evolution by grapheine.com/blog

And oh, magazine covers: Shall I just accept that your former glory is lost forever?

Here's one theory behind all this: The print design industry becomes more and more sickly and anemic as the rocket-fueled web siphons off all the best and brightest design talent. No?

There's this beautifully inspiring example from another paradigm shift, articulated by Oscar Tuazon in his contribution to castillo/corrales' Social Life of the Book series, "Making Books" (2011). Tuazon wrote, "Painting started to get really interesting at about the time photography came along." So—why has the opposite been true with print design, in the age of the internet? Sure, I come across new and beautiful print pieces now and then. But for the most part it's generally bringing me down. Nothing as magical going on, I'm afraid, as the dawn of Modern Art, when photography took over the heavy lifting of image-making, and painting was free to soar. Instead, what we have is a desperate race to the bottom.

And not only is print, on the whole, rather uninspiring these days. I'm also worried to death that my means of making a living might very well evaporate in the next six months or five years or by the time I hit forty, when I'll finally have to break down and try to land a job as a barista.

 

III.

So—duh—if I really feel this way, constantly looking over my shoulder these days, why not just hop off my sinking loser-ship and head on over to the digital cool kids' table? If I'm feeling so utterly left behind, having such severe anxiety about that missed college-age fork in the road, it's not too late to turn back. Right?

Well, to be fair, this condition does come and go. Some days, I'm positively over the moon about what I do for a living. Like when I'm exhibiting alongside other print creatives at the New York Art Book Fair. Or when the first print proofs of something I designed arrive back from the bindery. But other days—like when a client has ordered up a ninth revision of a cover I'm working on, with no end in sight—it feels like I'm rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Or when I see the amazing things the New York Times is up to with dynamic online storytelling, using integrated multimedia and parallax scrolling, I feel like I'm just diddling and fussing over my print layouts while Rome burns.

The other thing that's stopping me, besides this waffling back-and-forth, is that I kind of worry that it might be too late for me to "go digital." (I mean, Dylan was only twenty-four when he made his seismic shift—a totally acceptable age for reinvention.) Maybe—maybe—I could get over my revulsion to code if I just force myself to stomach it long enough. (Like getting over blood-squeamishness in nursing school?) But even if I bite the bullet and start signing up for continuing-ed classes or get online-certified in CSS and HTML and JavaScript and WordPress and whatever else, will I really be able to compete with all the twenty-somethings out there, throwing themselves at Silicon Valley VCs like all the single ladies after that dude from Twilight—all dying to be the next Hottest App Out?

Or is the answer that I'm really just a Luddite? 

 

IV.

The thing is, I may still work mostly in print, but I really do feel like one of those digital creatures—you know, "platform agnostic," "digital native," all that—in just about every other aspect of my life. (Maybe why I'm not such a gung ho spokesman for print's vitality?) When I'm honest with myself about my own media consumption patterns—how I mostly get my fix of news, art, movies, humor, recipes, gossip, music, et cetera, et cetera—they're almost all coming at me through my laptop at home, my desktop at work, and my phone everywhere in between.

And not just my enjoyment-media and culture-bonbons—my multiple screens are also the portal through which I file my taxes, check the weather, schedule a dentist appointment, pay my gas and electric and cell phone bills, figure out if I qualify for health insurance, procrastinate, hate on Ticketmaster, skip over other people's toddler photos, try to land cheap airfare, get driving directions to that Pennsylvania wedding, and yes, sometimes look at porn. True, there's so much that's visually impressive about the internet these days. But there's also so much interaction with it that is utterly mundane. The screen that used to be such a treat—a site for pleasure and for toying around—I now associate primarily with work and boredom. What used to be a happy, endlessly surprising and engaging place is now where I go to order Chinese food or deal with my credit card company. So, now, when I think about getting creative, the screen is definitely not the place I wanna go to have my fun.

In fact, in my personal life these days, I seem to be primarily doing battle against the internet: trying to keep it at bay so I can get some quality creative brain-work done. Or trying to be at least a little less dependent on my smartphone than on oxygen. Or seeing if I can spend an entire Saturday without booting up a single screen. Come to think of it—is my digital-design anxiety all that different from my personal struggle against the digital tsunami? Of whether or not to commit Facebook suicide? Being a little bit disgusted with myself by how much I crave all those little jolts of internet affirmation? (Voice in my head: "This new post of cat doing something stupid or this pic of my beautiful brunch will surely surpass my previous record of fifty-three likes, nine comments, and twelve re-posts for that snarky quip about the New York Times site being temporarily down. Oh, please, please, please." So pathetic.)

Back to business: I've tried, recently, to man-up and get serious about making the digital switch—bleary-eyed nights spent suffering through Code Academy or Coursera lessons on front-end development—and it's about as enjoyable as TurboTax with a cold. Just 'cause I work in print media doesn't mean I'm not staring at a screen all day, every day in my cubicle, eyes burning by the time I look up for my ritual three p.m. coffee. The last thing I wanna do when I finally get home and make time for my own creative pursuits is open up my laptop for a little more screen time. It seems, for all my internet lust, my pleasure zone has shifted back to analog: my previous college amour.

Which is maybe why—for all my career and creative digital anxiety—I can't bring myself to embrace the land of screens and code. On the one hand, the internet has become this intoxicating, necessary, sometimes beautiful and magical place. But still, when I want to get creative (aka have fun), I run the other direction from any and all screens.

(Am I just talking out of both sides of my mouth? Or—more likely—just overthinking myself into a neurotic knot?)

 

V.

Okay, confession: I'm actually writing this on an old manual typewriter. (Ha! What do you think of that?) Yup—this past summer I bought this sweet Olivetti off Craigslist (which has amazingly retained the look of that old Google 1.0 we so disdained in college). I took my new baby to a typewriter repair shop (yes, they still exist) for new ribbon and a tune-up. And here I go, happily working at the cutting edge of the nineteenth century.

What does it mean that I prefer the clickety-clack of my heavy, oily, dusty, smelly, unconnected typewriting machine, even when I have an iPad sitting, breathing, silently waiting, alive, right next to me and my typewriter on my desk right now? 

How dumb is that? I sometimes scold myself. Like right now. Why are you writing an article for an "online journal of art and technology"—on a typewriter? Well, because it's fun, I argue back to myself. And I like the clickety-clacking sound of it. Pushing the paper roller-thing back after the bell dings at the end of each line (which, truth be told, I sometimes mistake for a new text message coming in).

But why, self? What is this impulse that cherishes antiquated analog forms when I have a shiny black iPhone 5 and a sleek chrome fifteen-inch MacBook Pro and even an iPad all turned on, sitting, waiting, breathing, alive—right here beside me and my clunky unconnected typewriting machine, on my desk? I know full well the advantages of working onscreen instead of the page. You don't need to tell me that that's where the money and the power and the glory are in graphic design, for ever and ever. I know all of that. But somehow. Still. I prefer to sit here, clacking away. While Rome burns.

I wonder: is this fraught relationship going to carry on and consume me for the rest of my (hopefully long) creative life?

You know—as I'm writing this, I really do feel like I'm painting the internet as some crazy lover I've been carrying on this tumultuous relationship with, ever since college. We had our brief drunken fling, then broke it off and went our separate ways. But now he's back in town, taking over my turf, and I keep running into him everywhere. (I haven't told him this, but I secretly love what he's done with his hair! And that wardrobe? Mmm.) Plus, I'm totally envious of his new job and all his über-hip friends. But when we end up talking one-on-one at a party or the few times we've sloppily hooked up, the morning after I'm sure we're really not right for each other. Yet still—for whatever reason—I go on cyber-stalking him. And being totally smitten. And wondering if maybe, just maybe, one day…

Come to think of it, perhaps that's not far off? Yeah—he's this mega-powerful, mega-successful, mega-cool older (younger?) lover I can't ever quite bring myself to quit for good. Or else surrender to utterly and completely? So, we keep it up—he always indifferent to my wild fits of passion—as we have been doing, these dozen years or so. Our sloppy, love/hate, "it's complicated" affair.

Whew, that feels better.

So, now that I've got a handle on it, does that mean I'm gonna stand up from my dusty oily typewriter and run out into the streets, declaring my unrequited internet love? Then buckle down and take clear and deliberate steps toward embracing Monsieur Internet, whole hog?

Um… Not really, I'm afraid. No. Me and the internet—that's not really our thing. I think it may be better to keep things between us a little bit messy. And a whole-lot interesting.