Paul

“Color, Balance, Rhythm and Range”

These are my life: in my music, in my designs, or in my home by the harbor. 

Color

Most of all, I love color.  I love colors.  People say to me, “Make it green, Paul”.  Or they say “blue”, or they say “red”.  But I can’t just say ‘green’ or ‘blue’ or ‘red’.  I have to say, “early this morning I saw the sun shining through a young banana leaf.”  Or I say, “I waded out into Morant Bay about ten meters from the shore at 2:00 in the afternoon, and I looked down at the water.”  Or I might say, “When my uncle’s fishing boat came in last night, a shark they had killed was hanging from the side of the boat, and the blood was dripping from the harpoon shaft down his soft belly.”  These colors are real, even though they don’t teach them to you in school.  And you won’t find them in your box of crayons, either.  But when I put them in your sales brochure, or on your corporate website, or in the logo on your business card, people will see the difference.

I worked on a project last year that will help me explain all this.  We were supposed to do a quick update on a multi-media campaign to increase awareness of recycling in a city in California.  The existing campaign, done by a local agency, had not been very successful, even though the central message – “Do it yourself, do it today” –  was well received.

 As we got into the project, we saw that the words weren’t the problem.  The problem was really what I am calling the Color.  Since it was an environmental theme, the designers had chosen a cliché palette of greens and browns.  The tone was informative.  The voice on the radio spots was soothing.  The campaign was a lullaby. 

So we made a few changes.  We chose a new palette that we pulled literally right out of the fire.  We moved the tone from preachy to sassy.  We found new music and a new narrator – both of which we also added to the website – that was somewhere between “grabs your attention” and “isn’t that annoying?”  And then we launched.

The new campaign was a big success.  It won awards.  People remembered it.  Most importantly, they started recycling more.  Now, I’m not saying all this happened because the project had some guy from Jamaica assigned to it.  But I am saying that when the same old people keep doing the same old thing, you’ll probably get the same old result.

I’ve been doing graphic design work for almost ten years now.  But my work really got seriously interesting about two years ago when I started getting contracts from some very high-quality design shops in San Francisco and New York.  This was kind of a fluke, to tell you the truth.

I was working very hard trying to break into Internet music opportunities in Jamaica.  You see, I play in a local band, and we think we’re hot, but so far we don’t have much to show for it.  So we have been all over cyberspace trying to get a break.  In the process, I also bid on a few design jobs on elance.com.

My first job was a case of Fate screaming at me.  An agency in New York was just finishing up a website for a Caribbean tour company, and the graphic artist suddenly quit a week before a big client review.  They were desperate, I had the Caribbean thing down cold, and I bid next to nothing for the gig.  But they loved my stuff and they started feeding me good projects.  Then that got my work in front of other agencies as well.  Last month I signed on full-time with an agency in California that does absolutely world-class work.

 The band?  We’re still playing for drinks at a local tourist hotel.  But we’re feeling very good about our new material.

 Balance

My home is very close to a long, beautiful beach on the south of the island called Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea.  In the yard I have a garden and a tool shed and a hammock slung low between two palm trees.  My house has a room for cooking and eating, and three rooms for sleeping, and a room for sitting around and talking or listening to the radio or watching the television.  There is a room with a drawing table and posters and flyers and cards on every centimeter of every wall, and a beautiful little computer from the Apple Corporation on the table.  This is where I do my designs. 

 I like my life best when I don’t spend too much time in any one of these places.  I like my music best when the percussion and the vocals and the guitars weave in and out like a school of porpoises swimming across the bay.  I like my designs the best when the colors and the words and the shapes and the sounds blend together to give you the experience we are trying to create.  Balance is the invisible secret ingredient in everything we do.

 To tell you the truth, when I read the chapter on Balance in my first graphic design textbook I thought they were kidding.  Who didn’t know this?  But maybe when you grow up the way I did, you learn this lesson without realizing it.  When you go out on a fishing boat, balance is not an abstract concept – it’s how you stay on the boat.  You figure out at an early age that a really fine meal tastes best if you have been very hungry sometime in the recent past.  Trees have branches and roots; living things have an inside and an outside, and usually a left and a right; the ocean always meets the shore. 

 I have learned a lot from working with the design firms in these big American cities.  They are very fine people, and they don’t mind teaching me about the latest tools and techniques, and about the business world.  But at the end of the project, they usually say something to me about what I may have taught them.  And they usually say this word.

 I’m not trying to teach anybody anything, you know.  I do this work because it pays well, and because I have to do something with all those designs that fill my head.  And even if I think these big city people who are obsessed with their careers and their cars and their cash are like a milking stool with one leg, it really isn’t my place to criticize them.  But I do know that when they stop and realize that they love the colors, and the words, and the melodies, and the smells, and the smiles all around them, and maybe someone at home if they are really lucky, their lives fit them a little better.

 Rhythm 

I am the percussionist in our band.  It’s my job to make you want to get up and dance when you hear the music.  Not all the songs are fast, and not all your life should be fast. But everything should have a rhythm.

 When you experience one of my designs, I want you to hear the waves breaking on the shore.  I want you to feel my baby breathing on your shoulder.  I want you to see the moon rise and set every day after day. 

 You may be thinking, ‘A website has a rhythm?  A business card has a rhythm?’  But they do, or at least they should.  Every design has repeating elements that set a beat, that keep you on track, that align with your own internal rhythm.  The rhythm may be in the layout, or in the graphic patterns, or in the line spacing.  You may not even notice it, but it is there.  The question becomes one of who sets the rhythm, and how strong it is, and how true.

 I know why these agencies hire me.  My salary is less than one-fourth of what they would have to pay someone in New York or San Francisco, and my work is just as good (I have to say that so you don’t think I am arrogant, actually my work is better).  I guess I could be angry because they are paying me less than the job is worth.  I guess the designer in New York who got replaced by a cheap Jamaican fellow could be angry because he lost his job to a foreigner.  But that is somebody else’s rhythm, and it’s weak and it’s fickle.  I like my life here on the bay; I like setting my own true rhythm.  The money they pay me is more than I need already – if it was ten times as much but I give up who I am, that’s a bad deal.

 Range

When I get a design project, I get a little obsessed.  This is a fast song.   I can work all night long.  I drive people crazy because for me it has to be just a certain way, and I can’t slow down and I sure can’t stop until it is. 

 But I’m also the guy who walks to the village even though I have a perfectly fine scooter.  When I make dinner for my family, I catch the fish myself, and cook them over a slow fire along with the sweet potatoes I grew myself in my garden.  This is a slow song.

 The idea of working across a range shows up in my designs as well.  Design is about heart; it is about emotion.  Too much corporate collateral stays within too narrow a range.  Your communication can be joyful, or silly, or even angry at times.  Your new product brochure can show excitement, acknowledge fear, and foster hope.  The most difficult part is that the emotion needs to be genuine or it doesn’t work, and that is where it breaks down for most corporations, who get very uncomfortable around anything genuine.  Oh well, not much I can do about that for the moment.  Maybe if the music thing doesn’t take off, I’ll get into management consulting.

 But range is more than random application of a lot of different tempos, colors and emotions.  It is about the conscious selection of all of these, even the deliberate use of randomness!  Within any range you will find elements that contrast, elements that complement, elements that blend.  These elements can be colors, or emotions, or words, or even the people on your team.  Mix it up a little, expand your repertoire, be willing to explore.  Make some mistakes, get uncomfortable.  What’s the big risk anyway?  Life is too short, and yours is probably too boring anyway!

 And if you’re ever in Jamaica, stop by and see me some time.  I’ll take you fishing.  If I’m not working on a project.

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