Graphite and Lab Coats

Pay close attention to the sharpening process. Basically, be mindful of this humble act so that your enjoyment may increase thereby.”

– David Rees, Professional Artisanal Pencil Sharpener

Graphic Designers before me and after will espouse the virtues of sketching and while I agree it is a virtuous activity, for the purposes of this treatise I am more concerned with the tool that makes the sketches. The pencil. I am interested in the way tools and ritual can shape professional practice.

Massimo Vignelli and John Wooden are my first and primary sources of inspiration.
Massimo founded Unimark International in 1965. Soon after he decreed that all staff would wear white lab coats to designate them as professionals. Lab coats set them apart from other firms and aligned them with European professionals in medicine and architecture who were similarly attired. Mr. Vignelli was interested in “…the sense of clean, of order of unity …” I am enamored with this idea and am convinced it can have relevance to graphic design practice today. The staff at Unimark we not nearly as enamored as I and the lab coats were gone by 1968. The lab coat was communicating in at least two directions. It had a message for the person wearing it and a message for the public. It was speaking to designer about order and discipline and to the public about professionalism and integrity.

The first thing John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, would teach his incoming freshman players was how to put on their socks and shoes. The UCLA basketball team won 10 NCAA titles under his tutelage. He believed in doing all things well. Even the smallest parts of preparation deserves your best effort. Maximize your potential in all things.

What do these ideas have in common, how can this help a graphic designer?
I want an object, a fetish, a tool in the classroom that embodies and supports these characteristics; discipline, unity, professionalism, etc. An object that speaks to both the designer and their clients and makes a connection to past practices. It is not enough to have just the object though, I want to pack more into the pencil. It can do more work. A ritual or some type of meditative activity is also needed. Preparation before an important task. What if besides using a pencil to sketch, you also sharpen it by hand, in a prescribed and specific method? Then I think you have really have something. It can Mr. Vignelli’s lab coat and Mr. Wooden’s shoe tying simultaneously.

Perhaps pencil sharpening can do one more thing. Focusing on preparation might help you be more creative. Recent studies from University of Central Lancashire and Pennsylvania State University, suggest a connection between boredom and increased creativity. It seems sensible that a mundane or meditative activity can focus your mind and help increase your receptiveness to new ideas. Pencil sharpening could certainly be this boredom inducing, mind focusing preparation. The exact method of sharpening does not matter as long as it is effective and can be replicated before each work period and lasts long enough to be “boring”.

A pencil is old fashioned, antiquated. In a meeting with a client, in skilled hands, a pencil and paper can convey the most complex ideas more quickly and efficiently than tablet or software. There is value in a client seeing in action the expertise they are. Using and maintaining a pencil has myriad benefits.