Mark Boulton

Design muscles

In 1984 my uncle's mother died. She lived in a tiny bungalow at the end of a small street with a long garden leading on to a golf course. It was always raining in 1984. On this day – I think it must have been a Saturday (it always rained more on Saturdays) – it was drizzling with heavy grey skies. The trees at the end of the garden complaining as much as the adults in the house sorting through a lifetime of stuff.

During her later life, she was an enthusiastic artist. A member of a local painting club, she would regularly exhibit her work in the local library. I went to see one once. I remember a few paintings, but mostly I remember the smell of the library: old books, old wood and old people.

The inside of her house was yellow. Yellow wallpaper. Linoleum kitchen floor. Lemon yellow laminated kitchen cabinets. As was usually the case, I was sat in a chair too big for me drawing what was going on around me. My uncle asked if I wanted to come and look at an old pile of 'The Artist' magazines. 'Do you want them?'. My mum's eyes must have rolled thinking about the mess this would generate in my bedroom. The stack of them reached my waist – about 15 years worth. Of course I said yes.

I was nine years old when I knew I wanted to be an artist; drawing and painting came naturally to me. For as long as I can remember, I've known how to draw well and communicate ideas through drawings much more effectively than words. Through school art classes were a time I could relax and take it easy much to the frustration of my teachers at the time. 'I don't need to try at this', I thought. And, for a while, that was true. Learning to draw and paint is like learning any new skill. At first you concentrate on the techniques, building the muscle memory, drilling them into your brain so you can start to free up mental space to push yourself further. But then something happens: skills plateau.

This happened to me when I was about fifteen years old. I'd been drawing and painting in my free time, as I said, since I was about nine years old. More seriously since I was twelve. I never exhibited or anything, but kept tons of sketchbooks. At this time I was preparing for my GCSE exams in art and was constantly frustrated by thinking I'd finished early and could take it easy for the rest of lessons chatting to my friends. My teacher at the time kept telling me to go back to my desk, sit down, and really look at what I was drawing.

What did he mean? Of course, I was looking! I'd spent an hour looking at that flower in a glass jar. How much more looking can one person do!? This charade continued for the rest of the school year. When I returned to art school a few years later – after a brief but disastrous flirtation with science – I started hearing the same thing again but from different teachers. What is it with these people?

Looking back I now understand what this was. When our physical skills – in this case drawing and painting – plateau we need to look to other 'muscles' to push those forward. In this case, it's the ability of an artist to observe in a different way. Artists are trained over years to have a highly developed sense of form, space, colour, and tone. All of these things push their skills forward. Once these skills are developed, they move into flexing their observation in other ways: politics, social commentary, empathy, nature, etc. For art and artists, this has been happening for centuries.

Relative to art, commercial design is a youngster. Digital design, in particular, is barely thirty years old. We've been developing our motor skills but we're starting to plateau. Lately, I've been thinking in these terms to focus my attention on developing other skills that will help me move forward to be a better designer. And, just like artists, these skills are not motor skills. They're not design chops. They're observational. They are different ways of seeing. Being open to trying to understand others and their point of view – even brexiteers. I'm trying to develop those other muscles.

I enjoyed reading some those copies of 'The Artist' all those years ago sat in a chair that was too big for me on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Stockport. It was the start of something.

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