Tapping the Well

I’ve been in the graphic design game for many years.  My successes, when they’ve occurred, have been noteworthy.  Ten years ago,  had we walked through any of the shopping centers in town, I could have pointed out quite a few stores for whom I’ve designed logos

There comes a point in every artist’s career when he or she may wonder if the well of creativity may have run dry.  The answer to this quandary, of course, comes from moving past this dry period.  There is no doubt that I’d arrived at that point in my career, but that I might not have the talent to be successful again. So many younger graphic artists were coming up with designs that spoke more to a 21st Century asthetic.  I was old school, and it felt like school was out.

The pandemic, as for so many, has been a nightmare for graphic artists.  Because of the hit businesses have taken, it’s difficult to find work.  To compound this, while old businesses are folding, new ones are not opening up to replace them.

Then, finally, some good news.  Once the vaccines became available, optimism for a return to normalcy seemed imminent.  In these tight budgetary times, the State came up with an idea that the legislature surprisingly backed with great enthusiasm.  As a statement about our surviving Covid, the university announced that it would be adopting a new logo, not only for its flagship institution, but for the other nine sister campuses as well.

This would be a celebration of survival, a way of indicating to the students, staff, and faculty that the phoenix was rising from the ashes.

Every graphic artist in the State also felt as if he or she had been brought back from the dead as well.  If the State were willing to spend this kind of money for a makeover, might other businesses, both new and old, be inclined to feel the same way?  Time would tell, of course, but for the moment, all eyes turned to the design competition for the university.

The design principle behind a project like this is simple.  You create a logo that will be adaptable, with little change, to all campuses, yet the slight design difference would be apparent enough to capture the unique character of each campus.  I’d decided immediately that the variation for my logo would be color.  This single logo would embodied both the spirit of the university and of our State, and then would simply vary by color with each campus.

Selecting the colors was the easy part.  It was the logo that knocked up against me.  How closely should my design stick to the current one?  Did I want to capture that feeling of carrying on the tradition of our university and its sister campuses, or did surviving this international plague mean coming up with a design that broke from the past, that took a giant, optimistic step into the second quarter of the 21st Century and a brighter future beyond?

I was doodling furiously at my desk two mornings before the competition deadline.  This was three days after receiving the first installment of the Moderna vaccine.  The shot had left me a little wobbly, and at moments I wondered if the injection had actually given me Covid rather than protected me from it.  I’d awakened that morning finally feeling better.  I was racking my brain in desperation.  In darker moments between cups of coffee, I wondered if it might not be better that Covid take me than that I should live out the rest of my life drained of creativity.

The phone rang.  It was an old friend of mine from back in the day and Bright Design.  This is before I’d struck out on my own.  The idea of working freelance had been too enticing.  It was as if I were a graphic design magician.  Every project I tackled was a success.  I’d won industry accolades.  Word of mouth had afforded me almost more design offers than I could handle.  But handle them I did.  And then . . .

“Jerry,” I said, “how are things at Bright?”

“Eh Chris, I followed your lead.  It took fifteen years, but I’m on my own now too.”

“It’s great, isn’t it?” I said.  “Nothing like being your own boss.”

“Right, Chris, right.  Say, are you trying to come up with a proposal for this university design competition?”

Did I want to get into how hard a time I was having trying to pull this off?

“No, Jerry, nah.  It’s just not the kind of thing I want to get myself into.  My head’s in other projects.”

“Wow, Chris.  You’ve been digging up that much work?”

“Yeah, well, here and there.  Manini kine stuff, but it’s enough to keep me busy.”

“Huh,” said Jerry.  “I envy you, Chris.  You always had that go-getter in you.  Everyone at Smile knew you were too good to be tied down there.  We all figured you’d be successful by yourself.”

“Yeah, well, so hey, Jerry, what can I do for you?”

“I’ve come up with a design for the competition,” Jerry said.

“Really? Hey, man, congratulations.  I hope you do real well.”

There was a pause.  “Chris, I really respect you, you know that, right?”

“Well, yes, and thanks for that,” I said.  “I really appreciate you saying that.”

“Well, could I, you know, could I run it by you?”

Oh boy.  The last thing I wanted right now was to see some other guy’s work on the project.  With my luck, there’d be some kind of subconscious absorption of Jerry’s work, and down the line, with my luck, he’d end up suing me for stealing his idea.  I’d need that like I needed a hole in the head.

“I don’t know, Jerry.  I’m sure your idea’s great.  I don’t think any input from me would be of value to you.”

There was another pause.  “No, Chris, really, man.  I’m kind of, well, desperate right now.  I haven’t had a really good design idea in a while now, but I think this could be a winner.  It just needs a little something.  I could sure use your input.”

“Nah, seriously, Jerry.  I –”

“Please, Chris, please.  I gotta have this.  Please.”

Well, against my better judgment, I invited him to my place for a beer that afternoon.  My place was a little on the messy side, but Jerry was a bachelor too; I guessed he’d be able to relate.

When I opened the door to his knock, I could see and feel the energy and enthusiasm.  He reeked of it.  There is a fire that gets going in an artist when he’s in touch with his creative side, and when that fire burns at full intensity, there is no holding back the signs.

“Wow, Jerry, you look excited like when we were gonna redesign the world back in those college days.”

He laughed.  “I feel it, man.  I feel like I did back then.  It’s that rush, Chris.  You know.”

I surely did.  I remembered that creative rush with great nostalgia and yearning.

While Jerry cleared off the coffee table, I went and got us a beer.

“Here you go,” I said, watching him carefully unwrap his work, like a dad handling his newborn.

“Here’s to the good old days,” said Jerry, “when we were young and strong.”

I laughed.  “Dude, if you want to win this thing, you’d better change up that toast.  How about, here’s to being stronger than ever, and kicking some ass in this competition.”

“Yeah!” Jerry shouted.  We sat side by side on the couch and he proceeded to show me, page by page, what he’d come up with.  Each facet of the design, each of his carefully worded explanations of various aspects of it, I tell you, it was amazing.  I’d certainly read him right.  He had nailed this proposal.  He had rekindled that shining, harnessed it, and unleashed it with a directed blaze of creativity I’d not seen in myself or anyone else for a long while.

When he was done, I was breathless.  I knew I had nothing.  That in two days I’d never have anything approaching this design sophistication.  If anyone else in the competition could even come close to what Jerry had done, well, it just wasn’t possible.  The man had this contest won.

I sipped my beer, swallowed hard.

“So what do you think?” Jerry asked.

I sipped again, then held out my bottle to him.  “Jerry, you were always good, even way back in school, but, man, this is the best thing you’ve ever done.  This is the best thing I’ve ever seen anyone I personally know do.  Jerry, shoots, if you don’t win with this, the judges are idiots.”

We clinked bottles and drank.

“So,” I said, haltingly, “so what is it exactly you wanted to ask me?”

“Well, you see how I’ve altered, just a bit, the logo idea for each of the campuses right here.”  He indicated the area.  “Well, I don’t like that.  I want to adjust each campus logo some other way.  Some way that doesn’t mess with the integrity of the basic design.”

“Huh,” I said, wondering if I actually might have a suggestion that would make this design even better, if I could actually help my old friend seal the deal.

“How about another beer?” I suggested.

“Sure.”

I went to the kitchen and grabbed two more.  As I handed him the bottle I said, “Well, how about color, Jerry?  What about if you use a different color for each of the logos.”

“Holy shit, Chris!” looking up at me, “that is why you are the man.  That’s brilliant.  It never occurred to me.  Color.  Of course.”  He raised his bottle to me.

I looked down at him sitting there, the guaranteed winner of this design competition.  I too raised my bottle, and I brought it down on his head.

I waited until it was dark out.  I kept Jerry’s wallet, watch, and phone, tossed his body in his car, and drove out into the country.  Leaving him, I rode my bike back into town.

Two months later, the Board of Regents announced their selection of my design.  In a follow-up meeting to hammer out the details of the contract, one of the regents told me that their only hesitation about the design was the use of colors to distinguish each campus’s logo.  I told them I’d be happy to come up with another suggestion for varying them.

After a pretty rough night with little sleep, I suggested that same small variation Jerry had first incorporated into his design.  They loved my idea.

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