Everyone Gets Fired

by Dan Walsh

When I was a bright-eyed graphic design student, I had the privilege to study under a professor named Chris Corwin. Most people mistook his South Carolinian twang and blunt, no bullshit attitude for him being an asshole. He wasn’t.

He often called out students for bad design-thought, and he wasn’t really worried whether or not this would offend anyone. This often made him the bearer of bad news, and caused many a student to undertake yet another sleepless night as they struggled to rework their project the night before the final critique.

He was like a forge. Everyone who was exposed to him became harder, stronger, a better designer – even if the experience wasn’t pleasant. We listened, because even if his words hurt, they came with good intentions.

He became a mentor to me, and I jumped at the chance to do a directed study with him during my senior year. The study focused mostly on typography – of which Corwin was a wizard – and most of my assignments were projects with which other university departments needed design help. Most of the projects worked out well. I learned a lot about client / contractor interaction.

One project in particular did not work out well. I was “hired” by the political science department to layout and typeset their annual anthology. It consisted of  papers produced by masters and phd students, and the previous editions weren’t much more sophisticated than 8.5 x 11 MS Word printouts. The poli sci department wanted to step up their game and publish these papers as a bona fide book. This was my biggest project yet and I was super excited to flex my design muscles and show off my talents.

I really wanted to create a work of art. I pushed the department head to let me hand set each line of type. The book was about 150 pages long, with roughly 30 lines per page. Hand setting 4,500 lines of text is a lot of work, but I knew it would be awesome. Awesome in the subtle way that only practitioners a specific craft can appreciate.

“Why don’t we just justify the text and save all the hassle?”

Justify! Are you kidding me?! Don’t you want your essays to come alive? I can make your book BREATH!  I can give it a heart and make it beat. I can give it a soul and provide salvation!

I knew this project would make me bleed, but I didn’t want to do it otherwise. It took three phone calls to convince the poli sci department that this was the way to go, that this was what their anthology deserved.

They eventually relented and I had the project I wanted.

I went to work.

 

The project took up the better part of the semester, so it’s impossible to know how many hours I poured into it. I was in close contact with the department head, who knew just enough about type layout to be dangerous. He called me out on tracking and kerning (the space between words and individual letters, respectively) that was too loose or too tight. He and his assistant sent revision after revision as the papers went through the editing process. Each reversion meant I had to hand set every line of text in the entire book all over again.

Cover to cover.

It was tedious. It was long. It was stressful. I thought it would never end. I developed an ulcer because of it.

It all felt worth it when I finally sent off the finished, print-ready files. I knew what I had delivered was stronger than what I would have otherwise produced had I not been endlessly harassed by the department head. I was proud of what I had accomplished. Corwin was impressed. My colleagues congratulated me for the epic effort and excellent final product.

My previously constant contact with the poli sci department dwindled to nothing after the customary thank you email. The project was complete, so I didn’t think anything of this. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that I heard anything more about the project.

They had scrapped my files and the department head did the layout himself – in Word.

 

He used the justify button.

 

It was a John Henry story and I was on the receiving end of the heart attack. Beaten by a fucking button.

Corwin saw my utter defeat when he delivered the news. Without skipping a beat he gave me one of those gems of advice that one never forgets:

“We all get fired sometimes.”

 

It was harsh. It was honest. It was Corwin.

Fired?! Who said anything about being FIRED?!  I don’t get fired. I do good work!

It took a little while for the emotional dust to settle. When it did, I knew he was right. It was the first time I had ever been fired. It stung, but Corwin’s don’t-give-a-fuck-about-it delivery of the news somehow made it ok. His nonchalance about the situation was the loudest argument for the truth of his statement: “It happens. It doesn’t matter. Move on.”

People are dumb sometimes. All of us are dumb sometimes. The value we’re presented isn’t always obvious. Spouses, employers, clients… It happens. Patterns, past prejudices, and incongruous expectations are usually the culprits. Sometimes the stars just don’t align and shit doesn’t work out. It’s the way of the world. We all get fired sometimes – and we really shouldn’t give a fuck.

This was one of the projects I was most proud of over the course of my 4 years. It still is, even though it was technically a complete and utter failure. It was a work of art. Everyone knew it except the client.

 

I received a copy of the anthology in the mail that summer.

They used my cover design.