Summer Design Technology Studies

I’m not sure on whether this summer was really long-or really short… I’ve kept myself busy tearing through books, taking notes, doodling, playing around in photoshop and discovering my own personal design process. But the results are several unfinished projects and a sense of anxiety that there’s still so much that I need to learn. It’s been several weeks since I last posted and the imaginary teacher in my head is displeased. In my last post I had just gotten the book, Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual and I have since read through it cover to cover.

This book did a really great job of thoroughly covering photoshops extensive capabilities in a well-organized and easy to digest linear manner that allows readers to see why photoshop is the ultimate tool for  image making and tweaking and how they can utilize it to enhance their own projects. And even though it wasn’t terribly inspiring it is already serving me well as my photoshop reference source and even more so after I put together notes that I took in order to describe the lessons in my own words and included thumbnail images for those harder to grasp concepts (PsMissingManual Notes). To continue engaging and advancing my photoshop skills I subscribe to 365Psd for free photoshop files to examine and got “The Artists Guide to Photoshop” for master-level creative tutorials.

I was also working on learning Drupal 7 in my last post and purchased “Drupal 7 Themes” in order to build Drupal-based CMS sites from scratch but it turned out that that books section on custom theming wasn’t as comprehensive as it should’ve been. With only 2 pages on customizing and creating new regions in the .tpl.php files I am formally retracting my previous recommendation. Fortunately, I soon discovered “The Definitive Guide To Drupal 7” which, amongst almost every other facet of Drupal 7, exhaustively covered the topic of customizing and building a site from scratch including discussing Default Regions, Hidden Regions, Module-Specific Regions, when to use regions vs. hard-coding variables, and then walks you through 2 distinct examples of implementing a new region (p.291-292). As well as clear explanations and examples on implementing template overrides, theme functions, theme hook suggestions, pre/process functions, and the render api’s alter hooks. My only issue with the book is that it doesn’t have a dedicated section that concludes its fantastic coverage of the individual theming techniques by providing an all-inclusive comparative analysis or custom site build that demonstrates the logic of using one theming technique over another throughout the site build process (similar to how css management strategies were summarized in ch. 16 pages 347-348).

Since I’ve decided to separate my postings on the technical and theoretical sides of my graphic design studies I’ll create my other post in the next few days to talk about the other more design-oriented books that I have read, what I have learned from them as well as my newly gleaned incites into my creative process and hopefully have a few more of my projects to showcase along with those that I have yet to post.


Per Aspera Ad Astra

Over the past week I’ve been focusing on art and design and patiently waiting for my new developer books to show up. I always have to prepare myself to be overwhelmed and crushed by all the great designs and designers out there and reading “The Web Designer’s Idea Book” by Patrick McNeil has been no exception. Half the work featured in the book is of incredibly talented design firms and freelancers with impressive portfolios and comprehensive service offerings. But as I got into the book I began to consciously separate the art, photography, and photoshop effects of the websites and focused on the elements that served as the foundation of functionality such as type, borders, grids, color, and shapes.

Thats not to say that I reached this enlightened perspective without spending half a day searching for online tutorials but I was incredibly surprised just how easy it is to achieve alot of those effects in photoshop and also frustrated at the same time by both the lack of tutorials based on current versions of the software and my unfamiliarity with the new interface of photoshop CS5. In that regards, my hypothesis and subsequent plan of action is to read “Photoshop CS5: The Missing Manual” and to make a mental note not to become overwhelmed by visual effects, but to allocate a small amount of time building a repertoire of photoshop know-how. While the art, photography and photoshop effects of others are awe-inspiring, I resolved that the underlying issue here for an aspiring designer is to evaluate their conceptual strength as elements in contributing and supporting the larger composition.

I read this book along side “Design Basics Index” by Jim Krause, a godsend of a book that articulately demystifies the principles of design. I mentioned that I had already read most of the book for a class some time ago but returning to it again I find it so useful and refreshing that I believe designers of every level of skill and experience could benefit from opening it at some point during their design process. In the book, Jim Krause breaks it down into 3 sections to cover the most basic principles of design:

Composition – The arrangement of the elements of a piece, which takes into account relationships developed through grouping, alignment, visual flow, and the divisions of space within a layout.

Components – The visual elements within a design such as photos, illustrations, typography, linework, decorations, and borders.

Concept – The message that is conveyed through style and theme.

I found many of the solutions that are presented to be very helpful and relevant to the design issues that I often find at hand, such as the suggestions to resolve the issue of trapped space and visually bridging blocky elements in order to create effective visual flow. I predict I will have this book nearby for reference for longer than I will like to admit. Especially the C.A.P. guidelines for evaluating Composition, Components, and Concept, Jim Krause explains:

Inspiration and perspiration are essential to the creative process. As artists and designers, we must also understand that the products of their fusion will rarely amount to aesthetic or conceptual greatness if we do not cultivate and employ well-developed skills of evaluation.” (Krause pg. 96)

However, while the book attempts to explain the theories and principles of design that have been developed based on a logical attitude towards the visual presentation of concepts, it also instills in the reader the necessity to think “outside the box” and be creative:

Books can provide us with the terms and definitions that make communication about (design) possible. They can teach us practical theories surrounding…. the technical aspects that a designer must deal with… The rest of our education happens on a more instinctual level during a lifetime of observation, enjoyment and hands-on practice. It’s the combination of our book-learning and the intuition we gain through observational and hands-on experience that endows us with the (design) sense that we can then apply to all of our works.” (Krause pg. 207)

I believe it is this delicate interaction between the logical and the creative, the right and the left brain, that makes design so interesting and so challenging at the same time.

Key attributes of designers who excel in (design) are perseverance, patience, artistic skill, awareness of audience and a mind that’s brimming with potentially viable stylistic and conceptual forms of expression.” (Krause pg. 160)


Drupal 7 Introduction and Custom Theming

Its been almost 2 weeks since my last semester ended and I intended to take some time off to relax and read “Smashing CSS” by Eric Meyer. That only took me 2 days and I had started to play around with the idea of rebuilding the website of the non-profit that I intern at with cleaner, more standards compliant code and implementing php includes to centralize the common areas such as the header, navigation, and footer for easy modifications and redesigns when I came across the Drupal 7 content management system. Even though I’ve read that this framework is complex and has a learning “cliff,” I decided that this was a valuable skill to acquire and that it would help the people at the non-profit that I intern at who don’t know very much about web design and sometimes struggle with content updates on their website. So, in case anybody would like to follow along and avoid the sometimes frustrating lack of straightforward online tutorials on implementing a local testing server and setting up drupal I will provide the most winning tutorials that I have found throughout the past week and a half.

In order to download and install MAMP, a free local testing server software, and implement it so the url will read instead of something ugly like http://localhost:8080/ I found a simple and straightforward tutorial at

Set Up Your MAMP Like a Dev King

Although there was a problem modifying the hosts file so I did a search and found this tutorial that showed me how to do that through the terminal:

How to edit the hosts file in Mac OS X – Leopard

Next, I needed to set up a MySQL database in MAMP, change the default username and password, and than download Drupal on it:

Changed The Root Password

Setting Up MySQL Database and Connecting WP Account

I had read that there were certain contributed modules that are considered must-have and that it was necessary to increase memory limit for PHP in MAMP for them, so I did that with this tutorial:

HowTo: Create a local environment using MAMP

Update 02/06/2012:

After several months of trying to figure out my own path to becoming competent in Drupal from the position of  learning how to customize with a precision knife and paining over learning pre/process functions, template overrides, theme hook suggestions etc with only a very basic idea of how to configure, I now realize that it is nearly impossible to learn how to theme in drupal without first learning how to configure the various content types using core and contributed modules. Its amazing how much can be done with configuration without getting into the code and besides, its just best practice in my opinion to configure rather than code when the option is available. Johan Falk of NodeOne has made the most comprehensive drupal video tutorials available for free. I recommend watching the following screencasts in order:

Learning Drupal 7 with NodeOne

Taming the Beast: Learn Views with NodeOne

You should be well into your own Drupal project at this point because the use cases of the following tutorials are very particular and use several modules in conjunction with each other, which is all very hard to wrap your head around on a purely theoretical level.

Learn Relation Module with NodeOne

Learn Page Manager with NodeOne

Johan has compiled many of his screencasts into the Four Weeks of Drupal series, which more specifically includes a chapter on theming in Drupal. If you followed the order of my tutorial advice you should have already started  your own drupal-based website. You should start theming only after you’ve configured a primary page or two such as a home page or interior pages that are going to be unique from the rest of the  pages.

Other great modules that are supposed to revolutionize and make it a lot easier to theme without getting your hands dirty with code are the Display Suite, Fieldgroup, and Beans modules however Tim Cosgrove’s BadCamp presentation on these only served to confuse me and I haven’t found any tutorials on the Fieldgroup or Beans modules. I did find a tutorial on Display Suite by swentieman

I haven’t read Johan Falk’s book, “Drupal 7: The Essentials,” but judging from his video tutorials and what I’ve seen in other books, its probably one of the best books for beginning Drupal and I feel totally confident in recommending it. If you buy only one book however, it definitely has to be “The Definitive Guide to Drupal 7“.

2011 Application Essay

What is your definition of design and why should design exist?

Design is the study and practice of using form, color, and relationships to develop solutions for visual communication problems with the objective of clearly articulating a message to a target audience. It is distinct from other artistic endeavors because of a lesser emphasis on personal expression. Instead, designers are trained to conceptualize and organize effective visual interpretations of client’s messages that will have the intended effect in the attitude and behavior of the target audience.

Understanding the culture of the audience is essential to effective communication and the field of design achieves this by harnessing the cultural codes, symbolism, narrative strategies, values, and other visual rhetoric of a society. Design engages in an intimate conversation with the spirit of a society in order to develop and utilize a visual vocabulary that can not only achieve a consensus of interpretation and acceptance but can instill in the audience an intuitive sense of interconnection with as well. These observations and insights offer a unique vantage point to social and cultural paradigms and can even serve as a legitimate subject of sociological and anthropological exploration. Therefore, design plays a role as a mantle and signifier of each societies worldview, validating itself as a valuable and significant discipline.

Design doesn’t merely serve to reflect society back to itself however, but through the creative spirit for which it rests, it helps to shape and define its culture by drawing on memory, creativity, and imagination to expand the realities and uncover new possibilities. Design also preserves the integrity of a culture by crafting a focused narrative out of the incessant cacophony of a cluttered world that is all too often oriented towards instant gratification and basal prerogatives. Separating the worthless, trivial, and false from the valuable, relevant, and true and finding within the swirling chaos an underlying substance of surprising breadth and significance. As with traditional art, music, and literature, making an impact through creative interpretations of culture is the driving force of design that excites, inspires, and informs each member of the culture to take part in their communities and endeavor to pursue positive futures for their society.

I am drawn to the field of design not only because of the unique insights and observations that are gained from its intense focus on popular culture from a creative vantage point, but also because of the opportunity to interpret and shape that culture as well. The expectation of the audience for taking the time to look will always fundamentally be to be entertained, but design differentiates itself from traditional art by requiring a specific message and allowing less room for visual stimulation as its own end. I see design as the meeting place of an exploration of mainstream cultures threshold of acceptance for existential authenticity and a search for the sophistication and stylishness of the archetypal hero’s journey in life.


Books I recently ordered for this summer:

  • Grid Systems in Graphic Design/Raster Systeme Fur Die Visuele Gestaltung
  • Graphic Workshop: Innovative Promotions That Work
  • All Access: The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers
  • Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators, Second Edition
  • Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities
  • 200 Projects to Strengthen Your Art Skills: For Aspiring Art Students
  • Architectural Drawing Course: Tools and Techniques for 2D and 3D Representation
  • The Elements of Typographic Style
  • Typography Workbook: A Real-World Guide to Using Type in Graphic Design
  • Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design
  • The Best of Brochure Design 10
  • Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills
  • The Web Designer’s Idea Book, Vol. 2: More of the Best Themes, Trends and Styles in Website Design
  • Becoming a Digital Designer
  • Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers
  • Perspective Made Easy
  • Botanical Illustration Course: With the Eden Project
  • Rendering In Pen and Ink
  • Teaching Motion Design
  • Logolounge 4
  • The Mind Map Book
  • Master Digital Color
  • Masters of Design Corporate Brochures
Books I’ve read or own:

  • Pantone Guide To Communicating with Color
  • The Principles of Beautiful Web Design
  • Designing a Digital Portfolio
  • The Art of Thinking Sideways
  • Area by Phaidon
  • CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions
  • Smashing CSS3
  • The Design of Sites: Patterns for Creating Winning Websites
  • The Education of a Graphic Designer
  • Designing Web Sites That Work: Usability for the Web
  • Real World: Digital Photography
  • Illustrator CS5 Classroom in a Book
  • The Packaging and Design Templates Sourcebook
  • Layout Workbook
  • Thinking With Type
  • Design Basics Index
  • Introducing Maya 2011
Books I plan on getting soon:

  • Megg’s History of Graphic Design
  • Graphic Design Theory: Readings From The Field
  • Design Discourse: History Theory Criticism
  • Basic Principles of Design (Manfred Maier)
  • Mastering Sketching: A Complete Course in 40 Lessons
  • Cosmic Motors: Spaceships, Cars, and Pilots of Another Galaxy
  • Adobe After Effects CS5 Classroom in a Book
I will be reading most of the computer language and software books on, which includes books on javascript, jquery, mySQL, PHP, ruby on rails, photoshop, and after effects.


  • CS3 Design Premium and CS5 Production Premium
  • Maya 2011
  • Mudbox
  • Autodesk Smoke
  • Sketchbook Pro

Game Plan

So begins my independent studies career, I don’t hold any misconceptions about my creative genius being on par with those at the top of their game, but I do like to aim high and I am obligated to believe that a good education can unfurl the full potential of my latent creative talents, whatever that may be. My goal is to study all summer long, learn as much as I can to be able to fully ingrain the principles and technologies of design, build up my portfolio and re-apply next year to the single, and highly selective design school in my area, find another affordable school of equal prestige (and with similar transfer requirements), or get an internship at an inspiring and innovative design agency on those same merits.

To that end I will spend my time studying towards the research, theory, criticism and philosophy of academic scholarship and the application of the tools and skills necessary to enter into the field. So anyways, here is my plan, I recently ordered a veritable library of art and design related books on Amazon and I will use this blog to post projects that I work through and describe the lessons that I glean from the writings in my own words, much like critical thinking exercises in traditional schools following in due course the employment of my studied comprehension of design in my application essay and obviously, additions and refinements to my portfolio. Several of these books are project-based art and design books, however if I find those to be less than comprehensive I will take non-credit art classes and will stay informed of events through the local AIGA chapter. I also have access to hundreds of software and computer language books through and of course tutorials available all over the internet. As well as college courses through OpenSourceWare and OpenCulture, and video training all of which I will be sifting through. I’ve already found a Digital Typography course from MIT that uses the classic text, “The Elements of Typographic Style” which I recently bought.

I figured 5 “courses” at a time, each day focusing on one for 2-3 hours a day: starting with 2 design theory books, an art project book, a software book, and a computer language book, then later moving to the design project books that I have. The other days will serve as relaxation and inspiration. Though the idea of continuing to supplement your knowledge throughout your career is necessary I will continue at this frenzied pace until I find my way back to an acceptable path. There are people who start freelancing as soon as they’ve learned their way around the software and taken a few courses on design but apart from the rare prodigy, even after rigorous study of the principles and technology of design, I have heard it said that students are still ill-equipped to make serious contributions to the profession until they’ve worked in the real world under the careful eye of an experienced master (Though I suppose there is a market for every class of design). So while I may take on work where I feel confident that my knowledge is adequate for the job (in fact I already have), my goal will be to transition into the field through a well-rounded internship at an innovative design agency.

I’m still in the thick of my last semester (I have a comparative literature paper due this month) and I don’t plan on going full force until I’m finished but until then I will be searching and developing my strategy. Hopefully this blog will help me to receive feedback and advice throughout my independent studies, but at the very least it will serve as a very public journal that I can perceive as a serious charge in order to keep my feet hovering uncomfortably close to the fire.

This is my mulligan

It’s been about a week since I received the rejection letter from NC State. I had a good run, I began my studies in a 4 year program at a private university, maintained a near perfect GPA while there, and made some very good pieces for my portfolio that I still parade around to this day. And it was a good school too. The best of its kind that I could find with professional, knowledgeable and attentive teachers, a list of successful alumni with impressive resumes, the appropriate regional accreditation as well as accreditation with NASAD, a peer reviewed accrediting organization that defines art and design education in cooperation with AIGA.

But, like all private universities in this country it was ridiculously expensive, so after a year I rejected the idea of taking on nearly $100,000 of student debt and transferred to a local community college with the intention of fulfilling the extra liberal arts credits that the much, much cheaper public universities require and also to ease the debt that I’ve accumulated from the private university at the same time.

Unfortunately my options were extremely limited; short of uprooting my family it was NC State or nothing. I was nervous about putting myself in that situation given that NC State’s College of Design is notoriously hard to get into and requires submitting a 10-piece portfolio, 2 essays plus one optional essay, an interview and if you manage that they still ultimately only accept around 30 applicants out of thousands for each program. But the only other alternative to this was to spend a fortune on private universities all too eager to let me in and take my money and the shirt off my back too.  Regardless of what I did it was a Sophie’s Choice between backbreaking debt and the premature death of my educational goals.

And here I am without a school to call home. My educational plan was developed to strictly adhere to AIGA’s philosophy on the education of graphic designers. Which is that two-year programs are designed to either allow students to transfer to four-year programs or to prepare students for jobs as assistants in the design and printing industry (AIGA, “How Do Design Programs Differ?”). They don’t mean this to instill a class-system within the design industry but to promote a higher standard of professionalism that will result in progress and development of the field.  If I could explain in one simple sentence the unifying message of the top designers and educators who contributed to the book “The Education of a Graphic Designer” it would be that graphic design education should be based on a comprehensive liberal arts program.

The idea that design is essentially a field of interdisciplinary research is not a new one, but it has only slowly become an academic policy with the recognition of design as a respectable profession and the realization that a robust and cultured education is just as important, if not more important, to the makeup of a good designer as artistic aptitudes, in fact, the old Bauhaus master Lázló Moholy-Nagy had said, “A human being is developed by the crystallization of the whole of his experience… Only when men and women are equipped with the clarity of feeling and sobriety of knowledge will they be able to adjust to complex requirements and to master the whole of living” (Ken Garland, “Anxious about the Future”). More than anywhere else, Universities have seemed to reach this same consensus with design education by implementing rigorous programs in order to create designers who are able to distinguish themselves through their scrupulous and accomplished conceptual work from the scientific backgrounds of computer technicians and the leisure play of bedroom designers that have encroached on the field with the advent of the digital era.

Well, it was never my intention to be an assistant fumbling with color swatches at the wrong end of the desk. I support applying the highest standards for any field, especially for design and have justified my decisions on that premise to complete all of my liberal arts credits at a local community college in order to save money. I’ve taken argumentative writing, critical thinking, literature, political science, economics, environmental biology, foreign language, a half-dozen math courses and more towards that end. NC State’s College of Design states that they consider the potential of a submitted portfolio over the quality of the work, but I can’t help but wonder how much my focus on the ideals of a comprehensive liberal arts education over the last year and a half as opposed to art and design-centric courses cost me in the relative scope and strength of my portfolio. Ironically, I consider that thought to be an optimistic one, I would at least like to think that there is “potential” in my creative ideas. So, while my circumstances have caused this serious hiccup in my educational goals it also instills the hope that my portfolio is merely a surmountable weakness that can be fixed with the redirection of my focus from liberal arts towards the study of art and design. Since I’m finishing that chapter of my education I have a whole year to prepare for my application and until then the only sensible thing to do would be to study, work on my portfolio, and seek out other opportunities.