The Unbearable Lightness of Art Supplies

There has been some changing of the seating chart at my office recently, and in the process, I’ve seen some of my colleagues — art directors on the print side of the organization — moving the contents of their flat files back and forth along with their seats. Watching them do this in the background, I realized that since we first took up residence in our our new building last year, I’ve barely paid attention to those file cabinets, which store critical samples of printed pages and reference material in wide, shallow drawers. But for a print designer, they’re critical tools.

In fact, I realized, it’s been years since I’ve paid attention to or felt the need for flat files at all, to say nothing of ‘traditional’ art supplies of any kind. This is what it means to practice design on the Web, I guess. On the digital side of the business, we’re admittedly still a long way away from a paperless office, but we’re getting there. I rarely ever print out my own work these days, and I’ve made it a habit to throw away nearly every single piece of paper handed to me by colleagues before the end of that same day — and I can’t recall a single time that practice has made it harder for me to do my job the next day.

The Nearly Paperless Office

There are some things that I see print art directors doing day in and day out — like actually printing out their work for review — that I just never do. What’s more, when I think back to the days when I worked at a design studio, I can list a whole host of tasks that are no longer among my daily activities: not only printing out just about everything I did, but also assiduously trimming it, sometimes assembling it, mounting it, flapping it, packaging it, and shipping it or carrying it to clients, too.

That’s what I like so much about digital design, I guess. From very early on in the genesis of a design solution, we have the luxury of working directly in the medium for which the solutions are intended. The leap from a wireframe or a mock-up of a Web page is not so very far compared to the leap from a layout in InDesign to fully printed page. In digital media, that journey from idea to execution, while not necessarily always more expedient, just seems physically much shorter, and less encumbered with messy paraphernalia — there’s very little call for rulers, erasers, brushes, paints, cutting implements, and a rainbow of adhesive substances that gently poison the respiratory system.

Smells Like Design Spirit

However, I’m not gloating. While I’m not sure that I long for the world of physical cut-and-paste rather than digital cut-and-paste, exactly, I do feel like something is lost to me now that I hardly ever engage with art supplies anymore. I spent a lot of time in art supply stores in my youth, both as a student and as a learning professional, and it saddens me somewhat that it’s been years since I’ve set foot in one. Ostensibly, I have nearly everything I need to do my job on my desk in the form of my Macintosh, but like Paula Scher once said about her computer, “It doesn’t smell right. It should smell like an art supply. It smells like a car.” (Was she the originator of this quip? I thought for sure it was Paul Rand, but I couldn’t find any evidence of it.)

Nostalgia aside, there’s something else about this gap in materials that nags at me. I’ve more or less based my current career on proving out the hypothesis that there is a meaningful commonality between ’print and digital,’ for lack of a better label for that dichotomy. I really do believe there is much to share between the two disciplines, but some days I despair that the differential is greater than I can bring myself to admit. I despair further when I realize that, to acquire the raw materials for their respective crafts, a print designer and a digital designer don’t even shop in the same store. Like politicians, any of us can claim fraternity with anyone else, but what it really comes down to is: where do you shop for what you need?



  1. I buy ‘everything’ online, including art supplies (Utrecht). The exception is photo printer consumables, food, building materials, and large household items. Hate shopping and filing paper 🙂

  2. Though I have been doing a lot more web design lately, I really love x-acto blades and spray mount. Having the skill to mock things up has very much to do with being a good designer in my book.

  3. I am not sure about that quote, but I know Paul Rand said this which I read in ‘Conversations with Students’. He said, ‘It is important to use your hands, this is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator.’ Great post and some good thoughts.

  4. I have to say I agree with you whole-heartedly here. I really miss my old waxer and how I could wake myself up a bit after a late night by touching both light tables in our studio at the same time and sending a shock through.

    It is nice to be at a point where I can do everything on my laptop though. As always, convenience robs us of many things, but it’s just so damn convenient.

  5. I went to an art High School, as well as college and I do miss my art supplies. The smell of the oil paints and the charcoal.

    I work at a large ad agency in NYC, a few blocks from you Khoi, and I’m still amazed how often people print stuff out, especially when it’s design meant for the screen. I always bring this up in meetings and some people, including my Creative Director, sometimes insist that I print the work out. Not only are we wasting paper, but the design itself isn’t intended for print and a lot of things can be lost.

  6. > we have the luxury of working directly in the medium for which the solutions are intended

    Um… I don’t. Thinking so is a mistake. Even if just doing web stuff (vs. embedded, mobile, telematics, etc.) there is such a wide variety of platforms, browsers and installations that you have to spend a lot of time making sure everything looks right.

    And often, on the way there, you need to run it past several validators to make sure it’s even sort of right.

    Printing, cropping and assembling brochures or business cards or CD cases is a lot easier. It’s never /exactly/ the same as the final piece, but can be so close as to make no difference, and there’s never a need to do it again for people who are left handed, or colorblind, or drive Chevys.

    Despite the bulk and some other difficulties, I prefer the solid workflow and proofing schemes of print production.

  7. Not so fast Khoi… that print production process is becoming more digital everyday. In fact one of my main mandates (in my position as Director of Publishing Technologies for a magazine publisher) is to get our print production to the point where the first time ink and paper meet is when the job is on press… and we’re not far from that. Everyday I walk past the old school art supplies and everyday the dust laying on top of them is a little bit thicker. In a few short years we’ll have an art department that is completely digital – a design group that thinks in bits and bytes and ink on paper will just be one of the many possible manifestations of that process.

  8. Khoi, I know exactly what you mean. I wrote this quite a while back to purge my own conflicted feelings about my transition from ‘graphic designer’ to ‘web designer’. I suspect we are of similar age and experiences.

    I still find it unnerving that many friends and classmates who stayed in the world of traditional graphic design have little understanding as to the details of interaction design, usability, ‘living systems’, active participation, etc. When this ‘technical’ stuff comes up in casual conversation, they look at me as if I am some other, alien creature.

    The notion of ‘integrated campaigns’, ‘360 degree branding’ (or whatever buzzword you choose) etc. has certainly become de rigueur within the worlds of branding and advertising. I am hopeful that, as as the digital space continues to mature, we can begin again to think about design holistically, even if it means we won’t get to show off or compare scars from late night Exacto blade cuts.

  9. Who has money to shop for art supplies? Most of what I use I find in the trash. There’s alot of things you can find there. Mostly junk that scatters my walls and floors. It’s a shame that I’ve no money to spend on real art supplies. I mostly just need a good straight edge and a box cutter. I’ve been using the same one for many years. But on those dark and lonely nights, I’m just walking the streets, looking for something to turn up. An old tire. A used sneaker. Lots of boxes and used magazines. Common items. A thrown out can of house paint goes a long way. Eventually, I get home and turn on the computer. Flick the roaches off the keyboard. Light up a cigarette and tune out the prostitutes and cop cars making a racket outside. The client needs an asian themed design for a music festival. I fire up Led Zeppelin on the old turntables and turn two day old chinese food into a spinning design. Spelling out Wok and Roll. I can eat and get all my art supplies at the Chinese dive downstairs. The computer I got at the Apple Store.

  10. I’m in a different field (fine art/art lithography printing), and well, I can’t say the same. A computer can’t give me the pleasure, the feeling and the liberty I got on a stone, a paper, or with my trusty acrylic an coton paper.

    I can do nice things with a computer (yay for Processing for example), but most of the time, the transition from screen to paper is hard. Screen are tiny, they emit light, they are limited in the number of shade, they are not 3D. They do not feel and smell like art.

    They’re cold, most of the time.

  11. I have a wacom intuos3 tablet. It’s simply amazing. However, it can never replace a piece of charcoal. The tablet pen doesn’t snap to half unexpectedly and make my fingers dirty.

    I like my fingers dirty.

  12. As a web designer constantly hooked up to the machine, I constantly long for activities that involve flat files and art supplies.

    All things in moderation…

    My one outlet, grabbing an xacto knife, cutting board, and some magazines and creating moodboards to help conceptualize a design prior to hitting up my computer.

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