Of One Tricks And The Ponies That Love Them

Call this my answer to Frank Chimero’s “the slow, hard and dumb way”:

Back in maybe 1990, maybe even before that, this kid none of us had ever seen before rolled up to the skatespot. Given the year and sub-suburban location, this was a simple red curb in the back of a gas station parking lot. I’d maybe been skating 6 months or a year; my go to trick at the time was a front ollie 50-50. I doubt I even had any backside tricks at that point, maybe a boardslide?

So anyway, this kid, after mumbling ‘hey,’ he starts doing kickflip to 50-50s on the tallest curb. We’re stoked! “Who is this kid?” “Yeah dude!” Single-handedly upped the intensity of the entire scene within seconds. I pushed that much harder on way to yet another 50. Josh and Jeremy, who were with me, and way more ahead of me in the skill department than their six month headstart should have put them, stepped it up a bit as well.

But as the session continued, he did another kickflip to 50-50 on the same curb, the same way. And then another. And another. Over. And over again.

It turned out he couldn’t ollie. He couldn’t kickflip. He also couldn’t do a normal 50-50. But he could do them together. We were less impressed. He eventually skated off after about 20 minutes without really saying anything. Not really surprisingly, we never saw him again.

The way this kid approached skateboarding didn’t sit right with me then, and still doesn’t now. I’m not sure if this incident was responsible for it or not, but for the next decade-plus, I found myself almost obsessively driven to really learn tricks, even at the expense of doing more of them. This take on skating wasn’t popular with my crew, who, as teenage boys were more focused on out-jocking and one-upping each other with that half-flip casper they maybe landed, once, in Canada.

The thing about really focusing the way I did is, that whenever months of injury or weather kept me away, I always had a core set of tricks I could come back to. Skateboarding stayed fun and relevant over the long haul because it was something I earned and appreciated in a way that trick collectors don’t. It’s not entirely surprising then that I still love and am involved in skateboarding as I can be while they moved onto weed and/or hot rods a long time ago.

Now 20-some years removed from that day at the curb, I can’t help but see the similarities in Graphic Design. I was, admittedly, a lot like that kid.

I remember wanting to go from zero-to-postmodern as quickly as possible, and, armed with my first Mac, I could get as crazy with the grunge fonts and drop shadows as my (upgraded to) 16MB of RAM would allow. I was a “designer” for years before taking on any sort of direction or concept of the function and power of the medium — I just wanted to make things look cool on a computer. (Surprisingly, enough people bought into my bullshit to keep the rent paid.)

It wasn’t until I bashed my head against front-end web development (in a WYSWYG visual editor) for a number of years until I realized the need to get back to basics. Having already done sites for clients, it took a deep breath and a huge amount of humility to enroll myself in an almost special-ed level weekend course in HTML. From there I learned of the merits of standards over table-based layouts, even when it meant an agonizing few years in the trenches of the cross-browser wars without knowldge of conditional comments that likely retarded my career by several years. Within two years, I weaned myself entirely into a text editor and now, 11 years later, am teaching the entire web design curriculun at the school I took that first class from.

Having been through this, it’s hard when I get students that are exactly where I was in 1995. And its important that I sympathize with that. But getting back to basics was the only thing that saved me from a lifetime of poor design decisions, mediocrity and obsolete skillsets. I wish there was a way to tell them that having the patience and diligence to start small makes the real opportunities in the future that much bigger and easier to do.

I don’t know, maybe I just did. (49 min.)