Thursday, October 10, 2013

Halcyon days

Thumbnail for a postcard to promote one
of the many business workshops ADAC
conducted for its members. I was a wannabe
designer trapped in a copywriter's body.
Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end.

Halcyon days, I called them earlier this week. Days in the Art Directors and Artists Club, long gone and irretrievable.

My first experience with this remarkable club was late one night. At least a hundred people, loud in laughter and discussion, lined the ringing shiny concrete-and-cinderblock second-floor hallway of a re-purposed elementary school near downtown Sacramento. It was ADAC headquarters, and at the time it was the 800-pound gorilla of the resurrected art center, with access to rooms on both floors.

Everyone was at work measuring and cutting great slabs of foamboard or spraying adhesive glue to the backs of artwork — sometimes accidentally to the front of artwork — or scarfing pizza. Paper and pizza boxes covered the concrete floor from end to end, the space as loud and chaotic as the floor of a stock exchange.

I was in heaven, a place of odd belonging. Someone introduced herself, handed me an X-acto®© knife and told me to start cutting foamboard.

Never mind I was barely competent to wield a knife. It was all hands on deck.

At one point I helped chair the workshops program. These are thumbnails
for a series of breakfast workshops on business issues, designed to let
designers get a little information and nosh before going into work. Yes, those
are naked butts in the bottom thumbnails: I was really pushing "Feed
your bottom line" as the workshops' name. I may actually have succeeded,
but I lack printed evidence.
Though I was a reporter-turned-copywriter at this point, a status that served me well in business amid a multitude of graphic designers, I wanted to be like all these designers who were now elbow to elbow in a feverish race to set up ADAC's big three-day design conference known as Envision.

The conference was the annual and spiritual culmination of the club, which a group of designers had begun some 20 years before with a barely sustainable big idea: Let's celebrate design. Let's talk about it, share it, elevate it. Let's see if we can cajole the best designers in the world to come here to little ol' Sacramento and inspire us to be great.

Somehow the idea grew and blossomed and worked, solely because its membership wanted it to. Fees were extremely affordable, so many joined. Volunteers did all the work on shoestring budgets, afforded from the conference fees which were also reasonable. Speakers came to the conference for airfare and a hotel room and adulation.

In the early days graphic design came out of shops — 12 maybe? 15? — each with a principal or two and a staff of junior designers, almost in apprenticeship, back when they worked with technical pens and T-squares and rubylith and photo wheels. Back when cut-and-paste meant a No. 11 blade and hot wax and a knot between the shoulderblades from constant repositioning.

Many of the principals had started ADAC, nurturing their idea with borrowed meeting spaces and slide projectors, and strung-together extension cords and guerrilla marketing. The principals sent their staffs to ADAC to inspire and be inspired.

Computers had landed on designers' desks not 10 years before I showed up at ADAC, launching the democratization — or balkanization, take your pick — of design. The good news — everybody can be a designer now! — was also the bad news. None really knew its implications, certainly not me.

I could not know I had joined the club at the crest of its great wave, and that in the succeeding years it would weaken under competition from design publications' conferences, from an ability to look inward and on screen for inspiration, and from a flat lack of members' time and money.

We had become doers without dreams.
(It reminded me of my first days as a news reporter at a small newspaper. The managing editor gathered us reporters around his desk after deadline and we talked about the craft of writing, and what inspired us. If the editor had been a drinking man, we might have had tumblers in hand. Norman Rockwell could have painted us. But soon the editor left for another job out of state and his replacement decided we didn't have time for that crap, just get to work. We didn't know until then how good we had it.)
A study for announcing how I accepted nomination as ADAC president.
Time has eliminated any explanation why I chose this bizarre way to do it.
One version is my disembodied head, vertebrae exposed, rolling down the alley.
Maybe it was a premonition.
I became ADAC president during its waning days, and at the same time one of the chairs for the annual conference, blowing out the Peter Principle by several strata. I was way out of my league and ability.

The Old Guard had left by then, and I understood. I'm old enough to have walked away from several endeavors — hell, I walked away from ADAC! — brain baked and bones tired. One or two of the club's creators would show up at events and tell me about the old days, which I had a hard time taking as advice; their presence felt more like audits. Occasionally I would hear through back channels how some of the Old Guard thought we were— I was — ruining the club, which was also hard to take.

I loved and hated every minute of helping run ADAC. I stretched and grew and got to do everything, from budgeting and planning to designing promotional pieces to bolting in floor-to-ceiling shelves for years and years of posters and archived materials. In short time ADAC lost its run of the resurrected school … first the upper floor classrooms, then one classroom on the first floor, then the closet where the archived materials were kept (I don't know if those materials still exist), then the executive director's office. ADAC became a phone number.

At one point during my presidency we entertained a takeover by a national design organization, which would have quadrupled membership prices and squeezed many of us out of our own club. We turned down the offer, but we still didn't know how to adjust to the changing market, or didn't want to.

ADAC carried on, smaller, leaner, local, lectures by some of the original members, little art shows. Sometime in the last year even that ceased except for an email address. I wonder if anyone would respond to it.

We'd live the life we choose. We'd fight and never lose, for we were young and sure to have our way.

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