BellaOnline Literary Review
Creater Lake by Al Rollins


Debi Gardiner

Lisa Shea

Debi GardinerDid you know from a young age that you enjoyed drawing and designing?

Yes, I did know very early on that I wanted to work in the arts. Both of my parents were artistic. My father was an architect and my mom was a self taught artist so I was exposed to art and design at an early age. I began oil painting at about 8 years old, and I what I lacked in quality, I made up for with quantity and determination. I was in the third grade when I told my parents and teachers that I was going to be an artist. Of course my thought at that point was a painter in Paris, or a children's book illustrator, not a graphic designer, as I didn't even know what that was at that point.

Jumping a bit ahead here, the year I started college was the first year that, by law, that the school system could not refuse for me to see my "permanent record". My first trip home I went to my high school to see it, and was amused by the comments written by nearly every teacher SINCE the third grade that "Deborah spends too much time on her artistic pursuits". I guess they didn't believe me!

Were you encouraged or discouraged by teachers and family in your artistic dreams?

I was blessed to have two parents who strongly believed in letting their children pursue their dreams. Again, they were both artistic, so I think they were excited that I had chosen that route, and they encouraged me every step of the way. My dad had attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and our house contained many of his art and design magazines, books... and even art aptitude tests, so I was constantly being fed a diet of beauty and its creation.

Almost as important, I credit both my parents for not ever trying to push me into a more "appropriate" female role as did so many of friends’ parents. One of my college friends had wanted to be an art major, and her family told her if she wanted to get help with college tuition, she had to be a nursing major so she could get a job upon graduation. She flunked her first semester and became a liberal arts major.

My maternal grandmother was a working woman, when the majority of women didn't work outside the home. She was a bookkeeper and had a natural knack for figures (unlike her granddaughter). She loved her job and even worked at home for a while after she retired. She cautioned me at a very early age to "Make sure you love what you choose as a career, as you will spend more waking moments doing it than anything else in life". So true, and great advice! I do love what I do!

My maternal grandfather was a jewelry engraver, and although we lost him when I was still in grade school, I have many of the rings he engraved both as samples and as gifts for family members. I also had a neighbor growing up that was an incredible artist. She did sketches and paintings of her own, but also copied masters’ works including Rembrandt's "Man in the Golden Helmet" and Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" both of which hung on her family's living room walls. They were perfect reproductions, and as we shared common interests in the arts, I was invited in often as a child to see her latest work, as well as share mine. Both she and her husband, who did wonderfully detailed jewelry casting and engraving as a hobby, encouraged me with every project, and until their deaths a couple of years ago, I continued to visit them with new design projects and beadwork I'd created. I minored in jewelry design as a direct result of inspiration of seeing my grandfather's designs and my neighbor's jewelry works-in-progress.

My teachers were great as well, and nurtured me throughout. I went back to visit a favorite third grade teacher when I was in high school, and she still had an art project of mine up as an example... and she was my English teacher! I pretty much LIVED in the art department my senior year, as I had been offered an early graduation at the end of my junior year (I had enough credits) if I took a summer course in English as the number of English credits must be completed. I opted instead to graduate on schedule with my class, and took only English, calculus (sort of a family joke as I was NOT at all good in math), and the remainder was all art courses. The calculus didn't go very well, although the class voted to pass me because they enjoyed having me in the class, and because my teacher said he could NEVER do that if he EVER thought I'd take calculus again, but he figured the only time he'd ever see my name associated with calculus was if I designed the cover of a calculus book. I guess I owe him one!

Then comes the derailing. From one of my art teachers no less. She asked what I was going to major in, and of course I said art. She looked stricken! I was rethinking my choice in a heartbeat and stammered “You told me I was good.” She replied, "I do, but you'd be crazy to assume you are THAT good." She further explained that I should major in Art Education so I'd have a fall back plan, and I could always take a stab at design or illustration after graduation. OUCH! I foolishly listened to this first discouraging input, and in fact, did start freshman year majoring in Art Education. It was mostly psychology courses with a few rudimentary art courses. It wasn't me. So I turned her bad advice my way. I'd study what I liked, and if it didn't work out, I could always go back and get a teacher's certificate. After one semester I changed my major to Fine Arts, majored in illustration and design, and minored in jewelry design, and graduated with my BFA... happy.

What were your first jobs as a graphic designer like?

My VERY first job as a designer was at a local retail store. It was a full-time summer job in the advertising department the year before college. I was creating hand-sketched concepts, including headlines etc, for upcoming newspaper ads for sales, or holidays. I felt important... how cool to have bagged a design job even before starting college. In reality, I think they took me on more to mentor me, as really I don't think much of my work was actually used. A few headlines/themes here and there, and even the occasional artwork.... but mostly they used clip art, from a variety of sources, so nothing ever came out quite as I'd imagined. Still, for a summer job it was a great experience and certainly gave me some insight into my future career.

My second design job as part time in college at a Minuteman Press not far from campus. This job was a godsend as it turned out. In college we were basically taught how to design, and illustrate in a pre-computer environment. I guess the thought was that we would graduate and become art directors in a huge New York agency and bring in big salaries. This is not reality. You start at the bottom. You get jobs doing paste-ups and mechanicals. I doubt recent design graduates have ever even heard the terms. Everything is computer driven now, so you do all the work on the computer, slap it on a CD or email it to a printer. Done. When I was in college, and this job, you had to send text to a type house, telling them point size, font, etc... get a printout delivered, coat the backside with wax, and perfectly align it, and any artwork, on a sheet. The printer created a copy of it as film for the printing press. The prepress/striping department had to then align THAT film on another sheet that could be placed on the press. Things have changed so much I can't even remember all the steps or their names. But this was nothing I was taught in college courses... although, for the times, it should have been. We were not going to graduate and be art directors. We were going to graduate and be paste-up artists. Had I not gotten that job in college I would not have been employable upon graduation. As it turns out, I wasn't anyway. I looked for a year and a half before getting my first job as (get this) art director!

I even got the salary I asked for (what was I thinking.... what did I know?). I was art director and art department... well, I think that says it all. So a paste-up artist, on a paste-up artist's pay, but with a title. Basically I was it as far as the art department, and often found myself doing the work of the copywriter in order to meet ridiculous deadlines. I managed to tough it out for three years, and finally quit, although I continued to freelance for my ex-boss for almost a year. Apparently I was either irreplaceable, or there was no one else stupid enough to that kind of work, for those hours, for that pay.

My next job came through a college roommate who was a junior designer at a direct mail house. They needed some freelance help laying down INTs... I had never heard of it (turns out it is rub down type used for creating a comp... in other words press-type). Again, probably no longer used in the design field. I told her I'd never done it. She assured me I could, and to come in, but to please bring my portfolio so her boss wouldn't accuse her of favoritism. So off I went. Her boss flipped through my portfolio in about 30 seconds, and basically said "Yup, I assume you can rub-on letters". And so I could. Not exactly rocket science. Just had to be straight, and not crack. I freelanced for them for about a year doing menial tasks. Not exactly my ideal career, but enough to survive (while living with my parents rent-free anyway). We got an assignment to do a brochure for a computer company, and had to put together a comp for approval. The brochure was to be boxed in an embossed silver card stock case designed to look like steel girders with rivets. There were to be photos in the brochure of building and bridges being built. My job was to create the box. My boss explained that to give the illusion of embossing I should cut multiple layers and glue them together. I questioned that, saying it wouldn't look embossed. He replied "Well what would you suggest?" I quickly grabbed some vinyl (left-overs from the self healing drafting table covers, roughly cut the shape of a rivet, threw the silver card stock upside down on top of it, and used the burnishing tool (used for rubbing down press type) and embossed it. He loved it, and said to do it my way. It came out well.

About a week later the "comp illustrations" came in with great fanfare. Again, this was before the internet and online stock photo images that are so inexpensive. Back then you had to hire a photographer to take photos, and you had to hire an illustrator to draw a sketch of what the photo would look like to show the client for approval, before going to the expense of hiring the photographer. Once you had "comp" approved by the client, basically it was trash. My boss was thrilled to have only paid $3000.00 for the 5 comp illustrations... say what? I approached him later and pointed out that I was basically there full time (although still a freelancer) at a whopping $15.00 an hour, so I could have done the same thing at a fraction of the cost. He said, "but you aren't an illustrator." I told him that my BFA was in illustration, and reminded him that he had seen my portfolio. He pointed out that my interview was for rubbing on type and that he might have "skimmed" it. I brought it back in the next day, and became their in-house comp illustrator. I LOVED this job. My boss, twice, called me into his office and told me I wasn't charging enough for what I was doing and to increase my hourly rate. After a devastating accident had by a member of my family, they allowed me to pick-up work after hours so I could be at home during the day. They were incredible and supportive. I wanted to work there full time, but the art director pointed out that the only openings were for production and paste-up, and if I was hired in that department it would be years before I could move up. So I continued to freelance until... jumping to the next question...

Debi GardinerWhat encouraged you to launch out on your own?

The art director at the company I was freelancing for was in a conversation with another and was asked if he knew a good freelancer. Since things had slowed down where I was, he gave him my name and number, and said he could "borrow me" until it got busy again. I interviewed, and starting freelancing, and was soon offered a full time job. I really missed the other job and the people there, so I approached them about matching the senior designer position. They again pointed out they only had production jobs. So I sadly let the lure of a real title and a new office (after the upcoming buildout) buy my soul.

It was a terrible job, an awful commute, where I did only paste-up and a total of 2 design jobs in seven months. I believe I was hired to justify a bigger art department. Once they had the physical space I was expendable. I had a male coworker intentionally lie to me about how to do something. I questioned it, and he restated how I should do it. When I went with him to the press proof, the job was wrong, and he threw me under the bus with the printer. When we were alone, waiting for hours of reworking to be completed, I asked him why he had lied to me. His response was that "a woman should not be at a senior designer level." Thankfully he was fired after this, as he didn't deny any of it.

But the true kicker was although I was fired about 2 months later it was a meeting in between these occurrences that made me want to "go it alone". I had been working on a comp for a client for over a week, and was very pleased with the result. I then presented it to the account rep for that client. He spent a long time going through it, and complimented my efforts, but the piece was mostly blue (based on the client's logo) and ultimately he told me he didn't like the color blue, so I would need to redo the whole thing so he could be comfortable selling the idea. The client likes blue. Their logo is blue. "Maybe you should just run it by the client?" "No, I don't like blue." That was when I decided to eliminate the middle man and find out what the client likes, not what the salesman at the agency likes.

What are some benefits and challenges of running your own studio?

First and foremost, I feel the main benefit is dealing directly with the client. If there are too many departments involved, everyone puts their own interpretation and personal preferences on the specifications of any given job. What happens is that client wishes are white washed to a degree, and as a result they may not be happy with the initial design. Being in direct contact with the client leads to a quicker and more accurate "first run." Another big plus is that clients tend to let me be more creative than account reps. I can get a feel for someone's personality in our first meeting and let that be a guide as to whether that particular client would be open to something a bit wild or unconventional. Unless the client has a business which is clearly off-beat, account reps would have you err on the side of caution... so a lot of creativity is wasted. Working one-on-one with a client lets me "think outside the box" more than if I worked in a traditional agency. Don't get me wrong, sometimes they'll hate the more creative designs, and go for a more traditional look, but more often than not clients either choose the creative design, or at least appreciate the process and ingenuity.

Another huge benefit of running the show is that I can work in my own timetable. I have never been a morning person, and I am not thinking creatively at 9:00 am. My magic hours are from 11:00 am through about 7:00 pm, but I always meet my deadlines and deliver a great product. Most of my clients know of my work hours, and are very understanding. They also know if they absolutely need to see me at 9:00 am, I'll be there. But having the flexibility to sleep in the next day is great! When my dad was dying, I contacted all the clients I was actively doing jobs for and explained that I could only visit my father during "normal" daytime/early evening visiting hours, but I could work on their jobs at night. Every one of them was willing to let me go into "flex time", and every deadline was met. They understood that communication might have some gaps, but they had my cell number for emergency messages, and I had email for late night questions. Dad's last hospital, rehab, and eventually hospice stay lasted 5 months. I can't imagine that I would have been able to take off a minimum of 2 - 3 workdays a week at an agency and still had a job. I will be forever grateful to have been with dad at the very end, and this is certainly a testament to my clients' understanding and patience.

As far as the challenges, the obvious one is the expenses. Now with a home office I've eliminated the additional rent and utilities, but between self employment taxes, health insurance, supplies, and this current economy I am living a fairly spartan existence. But then so are many friends and associates with full-time jobs. Yes, it would be nice to get a paid two week vacation, but as a homeowner, it's also nice to run out and mow the lawn before the rain starts!

One thing that always make me laugh is when friends comment that "It must be nice not having a boss or anyone to answer to." Are you kidding? Every client is my boss, and often within one organization I have to appease multiple people. I have a LOT of bosses, and so far most have been happy... but as of yet none have offered be a paid vacation :-) An occasional unexpected bonus, and even a Christmas present or two, but alas, no vacations.

How has your job changed with the advent of the internet and computer tools?

By leaps and bounds! As I mentioned earlier the way I worked starting out and the way I work now is totally different. I was very anti-computer as recently as 1990. I knew exactly what was in the mechanical I handed a printer, and had horror stories of last minute problems with jobs done on the computer... because you can't always see what's hidden on a disc. I admit, I hate change, and I fought going digital like a pit bull. However patient designer friends convinced me that if I didn't get a computer, I would become a design dinosaur. Clearly they were right. I was also blessed to have a remarkable office mate and friend, Annie, also a designer. With the patience of a saint she generously walked me through many software applications so I could learn the ropes. Honestly I was so frustrated and cranky most of the time I can't believe she didn't hit me over the head with the CPU. We were doing a lot of collaborative work, and she knew it would make both of our jobs easier if I learned the computer, but she spent a LONG time teaching me. A very good, and as I mentioned, patient friend. Without her my career would be extinct.

My boyfriend at the time kept asking me when I was going to get one of those "graphics machines." He made it sound like I could give it voice commands and it would spit out art. Although this is probably technology currently in Beta, it didn't exist then, so since I am also an illustrator, I purchased a drawing tablet along with my first computer. How could I possibly draw with that bar of soap known as a mouse. Can't be done. The tablet lasted about a year. It took up too much room, and by then I had gotten pretty good with the mouse. Who knew?

I finally had email by 1991, at the insistence of a client. What? Bad enough I have a computer, now you want the ability to contact me all the time, are you crazy? Nope, there again, it was me being a change-a-phobic. Wow, this is kind of cool I can send PDFs instead of driving... hummm....

That same year I went to visit a client and he wanted to show me a design website on the "World wide web." I believe my response was "huh?" It was like magic or voodoo or something (yes, a little behind the times). We were sitting at his computer looking at something in Germany. How can that be. He gave me a rudimentary explanation... seemed like all smoke and mirrors to me. Surely voodoo. In a few months I took an online html basics course through my alma mater and began designing websites. It was so fun wowing my mentor Annie writing code and talking all "techie". Oh, and I should mention I still think it's voodoo, and that rudimentary explanation I got 20 years ago is still the one I go with. This is why I job out anything beyond basic html. I make it pretty, and associates make it work. But seriously, I love designing websites, and I can code basic html, but I am a designer by profession and choice, and have no interest in becoming a programmer. Programming is certainly an art, best left to those who have a passion for it. My passions lie elsewhere.

So in summary, the computer and internet have changed everything as far as I how I do things. And yes, I admit, for the better. Change is good.

I am thankful that my education and early working years taught me the fundamentals of good and pure design. I learned to kern type on a letterpress, and then spec type for a mechanical, as well as create the resulting mechanical. Very hands-on stuff. I do miss some of that now outdated process, but I can do it all, in my home, when I want, and much faster. Plus I still do hand-drawn (yes, on paper) illustration work so I haven't completely lost touch with the old days. And if all the computers in all the world crash, I will be very employable in creating the mechanical for the newspaper to let you all know about it!

Debi GardinerWith the flood of inexpensive, untrained designers on the web, how does a high quality graphic designer differentiate herself?

Shortly after moving my offices to Worcester, I was called by the Telegram and Gazette who was doing an article about web design. They quoted someone they had spoken to earlier in the day when asked "How is your business going?" He responded that it was a bit tough since everyone had a teenage nephew who could create a website for them. They asked me my opinion of that statement. My response of "Just because they can, doesn't mean they should" was, I believe, the only part of my interview that made the issue. I still believe this. Just because kids are creating websites at such young ages doesn't make them designers. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of exceptions. I have seen websites designed by high school students that I wish I'd created, beautiful, easily navigated, classy and modern designs. Because these students are clearly gifted in design. Because you can "code" a website" doesn't make you a designer, having artistic talent makes you a designer. I can't even count the number of clients who had a relative design them a website, only to hire me later to redesign it. These days a lot comes down to price. It's sad but realistic.

I guess what makes me stand out is over 35 years of experience in the field and multiple skill sets. I am a designer, illustrator, and coder. I had a wonderful illustration professor in college who cautioned me that I had too many styles, and that clients would hire me based on one style I had become known for. Excellent advice had I been working solely as an illustrator. But since I had quickly realized I couldn't work as a full time employee, as an illustrator, I went into design as I needed a full time job. But I used, and use, my illustration training on a daily basis and am often hired by other designers as an illustrator. So in MY case, the varied illustration styles was a plus because I can, in most cases, serve a client’s needs on my own without hiring a third party (databases aside).

Most designers are not illustrators. Designers, generally speaking, take elements created by someone else and combine them into a design. They may have a visual idea for a graphic for a logo, but if the design is illustrative in nature they hire an illustrator to take their idea to print. I am an illustrator, designer, and coder, so have a slightly larger client base. I work one-on-one with clients, create art for other designers and code websites (within limits). The diversity of my portfolio differentiates me. Think of it as one stop shopping. Are their better illustrators and designers in the world? Of course. Are there high school students as good as me? Absolutely! Better, I'm sure... (God help me when they graduate)! But I have put in my time, and am happy with my body of work. Clients will always be able to find someone cheaper and more desperate. We all discount sometimes as finances become an issue, but when was the last time a plastic surgeon was told "I want to hire you for a face lift, but do a free eyelift first so I can see if I like your work?"....

What words of advice would you offer to someone who has always dreamed about becoming a graphic designer? my main advice to about becoming a graphic designer? Be creative, be attentive, be flexible and DO NOT WORK ON SPEC.

You can visit Debi's website and see more of her artwork at:

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Summer Solstice 2011 Table of Contents