snagging the exotic:the youthful prodigies

graphic design is language not art…

by Art Chantry (

School papers are made by dorks and nerds. you just never find cheer leaders and jocks working on them (except part-time sports reporting). It’s basically the place where any kid with an odd skill or hobby of any level can find a place to perform their stuff. the photographers, writers, control freaks (editors), smarties and erstwhile losers all work on the paper and meet each other for the first time. It’s really the ultimate DIY congregating place.

Because of this weird social/talent phenomena in American life, I think this is where most of us professional artist types get our start. If you check on the backgrounds of the various writers and artists and photographers and art/editorial directors were they first plied their trade, I imagine a huge percentage of them will (reluctantly) admit they worked on the school paper or even (dare i say) the year book. It’s the great boiling pot of Amercian creative talent. nerdbugers at their initial epiphany point – at their purest and finest.

AC:c'mon all you nerdy school paper dorks out there need to confess right here and now! the secret brotherhood is being OUTED!!!

To take this thought a step further, when I was in school was about the time that hippie ‘underground’ papers were all the rage. like the early ‘SF zines’ and the later punk ‘zines, the ‘underground school paper’ (a paper usually mimeographed outside of school hours telling the ‘news’ and gossip and jokes satirizing the school and faculty) became the OTHER great training ground of independent creative thought.

In my junior high school a paper called “the tongue” was published secretly (and distributed) by a fella named Tim Olsen. It was hilarious and even offered ridiculous fake stories (parodies of school current events) and a comic strip based on the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon cleverly disguised with the title ‘facultynuts’. Tim Olsen went on to amazing great things, becoming a professional luthier (starting with crazy electric guitars) and now publishes ‘the American Luthier’ – THE trade magazine of American stringed instrument makers. he even prints it on a surplus press in his own home. his staff are all old school pals who worked on the Tongue with him (it seems). they also happen to be know as the rock band “girl trouble’ a local musical institution (who may be the ONLY worthy successor to the cramps’ musical heritage.) tim olsen was also also their producer. so, that little underground paper (“the tongue”) spawned creative folks who went on to do amazing things – all outside the mainstream and extremely influential in their own right.

This little paper I show you above is the GRADE SCHOOL paper from Hamlin Park elementary school in North Seattle. It was the grade school I attended as a child. It was situated in the old army barracks on the edges of Fircrest Hospital (a former tubercular retreat that later became a hospital for the mentally disabled.) It’s all gone, now. this may be one of the only artifacts from that old school to survive. most people don’t even remember there was ever a grade school in Hamlin park (a city operated park now).

If you look at the article at the top right, it’s headlined “Beatle survey”. this old mimeograph 4-sheet paper is dated feb. 18, 1964. the Beatles were all the rage at this point (having played on ed sullivan recently) and this is a survey taken of students opinions (by other students) about the fab four. the second person interviewed is my older sister, cindy. “i think they’re neat, even if they don’t have any musical background. they sing pretty well.” she was a six grader and much wiser than me at the time. later, she entered a ‘talent show’ along with three of her friends lip-synching a Beatles songs playing air guitar while sporting black fright wigs. they won first place (a giant hershey chocolate bar!)

The other day, while thrifting around a small rural town near Mt. Rainier, I tripped across a bound edition of the first year of the Seattle-area Cleveland high school paper, ‘the Cleveland Journal’, dated 1926. now, THIS is a paper! it covers stories in depth with a sophisticated writing style (though amateurish). It’s packed with photos and poetry (not too bad) and short stories (maybe a little better) and in-depth journalism of the moment. It’s almost as good as reading a professional paper from the same time period. It’s very impressive.

This particular copy was bound by the printer who printed it (in Sea

) and presented to the editor of that paper as a keepsake/souvenir. the inside cover is signed by all the other students who worked on it and there is a hand written dedication by the instructor as well. all in all this is quite an artifact of a forgotten bit of history. and it’s amazing it survived. most of this school paper stuff get tossed in the trash and ignored into oblivion. when I find something this exotic, I snag it and find a new home for it.

One of the things about my own profession that surprises me is that how many of the very best talents and most successful designers I’ve known are seemingly entirely self-taught in the craft of graphic design. It seems very very few of the ones who prosper to the higher levels of the profession actually took design classes in academic school situations. I’ve met world class designers who came out of glassblowing, biochemistry (doctorates!), runway modeling (you’d be surprised), automobile pin-stripping, and even one came from a family of sponge divers! they all fell into graphic design almost by accident. they developed an interest and followed that interest. and most of them also worked on the school paper.

Maybe one of the very best designers I’ve ever known was a man name of Hank Trotter. he was absolutely brilliant in every way. he also had very wide ranging skills to bring to the table as well – photography, writing, layout, humor. he could do it all. his background was also rather interesting to note. he studied journalism in college and through that program decided he wanted to run a small town newspaper. he literally bought a failing paper in a small Montana town and began publishing it all by himself.

Eventually, he became exhausted by all the hard work. he was the sole reporter, photographer, printer, designer and book keeper. he even sold all the ads and delivered it himself. he finally decided to sell it and moved to China (!) and taught English there for a year. I guess that seemed relaxing after what he’d been through with his newspaper.

When he returned to the Northwest, he decided, because he so loved actually pasting up his old small town newspaper, he would go into graphic design professionally. when I met him he had been freelancing around town for some time. and he was EXTREMELY good at it, too. he went on to design work for the Rocket magazine, Sub Pop records (where he was the assistant art director under Jeff Kleinsmith), designed most of the covers for UP records (which spawned the band, ‘modest mouse’), and designed books for Pearl Jam and the photographer Charles Peterson. and then became the art director of The Stranger (in seattle), where his basic re-design (done 20 years ago) is still in use by a succession of art directors and designers ever since. his design for the Stranger was so good, they couldn’t really change it and improve upon it.

So, Hank is my shining example of where the real starting point of most graphic designers really begins – amateur journalism. It’s the truest breeding ground for great design I’ve ever encountered. Most academia tends to lump graphic design into the ‘art’ department. But, graphic design not ‘art’ any more than a dentist is a brain surgeon. If an honest poll were ever taken you’d likely see an enormous number of graphic designers would (again, reluctantly – because it’s so nerdy) admit they worked on a school newspaper in their early history. so be it. graphic design is language, not art.

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