no idle hands for the canaries

Art Chantry (

i found this in my old crap files. it’s an advert from the april 2, 1981, issue of rolling stone magazine (it also ran in a few other music journals). it’s nothing special, really. just an ad of dubious quality promoting some sort of contest. but, for me, the interesting part are those hands. that’s because they are MY HANDS. for a brief period of time i made extra money doing work as a hand model! no kidding.

in retrospect, the fact that i used to have pretty hands is a bit of a surprise for me. i’ve been making a living as a free lance graphic designer since i was a teenager. there were NO full time jobs doing this stuff back in the 1970’s when i started out. that meant you also had to do all sorts of other work to subsidize your career options. in other words, you did just about any sort of crap work that came your way in order to survive.

--- i also wrote that music. i sort of just made it ups and shoved it in there on the blank sheet of scored paper.---AC

i picked up jobs hanging sheet rock, building fences, roofing, building stone walls (with staircases!), house painting, light logging (thinning stands of trees and bucking it all up for cordwood that i sold, delivered and stacked), building foundations for green houses, delivering pianos(!), digging ditches, demolition, assembly line work, and grinding airplane parts in a machine shop. i worked as a box boy and night stocker (they used to stock store shelves at night when they were closed.) i worked for a year as a garbage man. the shittiest gig i picked up was emptying septic tanks – with a shovel and wheelbarrow!

not all the part time work i got was manual labor, though. inside the ‘professional’ world i did minor book keeping, mural design and installation (both hand-painted and photo murals), magazine art director, window display work, print production (i can perform miracles on an offset press), illustration, lettering, sign painting, and nordstrom department stores used to hire me to do calligraphy – even though i’d never done calligraphy before or since. i was also a great “leroy” lettering artist (betcha never heard of that). i worked as in-house freelance (a sort of indentured servitude like a sharecropper.) i’ve wrote books and articles (even won a couple of journalism awards), i taught design classes for over 15 years (in three different area colleges, universities and private art schools). i’ve spent 25 years traveling around the world on the lecture/workshop circuit (a strange way to see the world). i’ve curated art exhibits in galleries and art spaces. for one full year, i was even the creative director for an established (25 years) software company (but don’t tell anybody. it’s a secret. it’s embarrassing to admit i did that.)

all of this was outside of my regular work as a freelance design career. being freelance was the ultimate (at least in the northwest). it’s what everybody wanted to do and it was the pinnacle of the profession. however to be freelance meant you had to be ready and willing to do whatever came your way – no matter what it was. the overhead on your own studio (plus living expenses) was so high that it meant that you had to do everything yourself whether you knew how or not. you swept your own floors, did your own sales, did all the labor and design work, everything by yourself. you answered your own telephone and you dealt with the public and babysat the clients and the contractors (printers, typesetters, copywriters, photographers, illustrators, paper salesmen, proofreaders, etc. etc. etc.) it was like being the conductor of an orchestra at a funny farm. not easy at all.

so, the idea that i picked up work as a hand model was no big deal back then. it was easy work and all i had to do was show up and look pretty (i had to get manicures. that was the worst part).

over the years i’ve noticed that nobody really respects graphic designers. i don’t even respect graphic designers. they are a bunch of sneaky, hustling, two-faced, dishonest, vicious competetive assholes who will stab their own grandmothers in the back to make a buck. it’s a sad reality i’ve had to accept over the years. always cover your desktop when other graphic designers come to visit.

everybody knows how awful the advertising world is, right? but even THEY have a set of rules they live by. they’re awful rules, but at least they are rules. for instance, if you steal your boss’s client accounts and start up your own business with those same accounts, the “rules” are that people won’t work with you for a spell – they’re afraid you’ll steal THEIR accounts, too. you get temporarily blackballed. it’s not much of a rule, but it’s a rule. well, in graphic design circles, even those rules don’t apply. it’s always been “anything goes” and believe me, every time i think i’ve seen it all, some enterprising hustler with a great song and dance (and maybe a criminal streak) will come up with a new one and almost put you out of business. being versatile really pays off in a work environment like that (thus the outside work).

but, there is one odd thing i’ve noticed about the design biz: whenever the economy starts to sour, we’re the first to get our budgets axed. most businessmen see our services as peripheral and silly. so, we lose work before the rest of the economy. every time i get slow, i will witness the economy slump soon thereafter. contrarily (but not illogically), whenever the slumping economy starts to repair itself, us designer types are the very FIRST to get re-hired. all those cheezy businessmen want to be ready and raring to go when that upswing takes off. they need our skills to be be ready to tak

vantage of the market. so, they need us for advertising and packaging and branding, etc.

most designers i know have been suffering pretty badly through this depression. i’ve managed to stay relatively busy the whole time (but then, i’ll do anything to survive). lately, even big-name designer pals will talk about about they haven’t had work in months and are really worried they might have to leave the biz entirely. but, i’ve also noticed that (rather suddenly) folks have started to get busy, work is showing up. people suddenly are starting to not worry as desperately – the fear is subsiding. sure, it’ll still take a spell to catch up to the losses suffered, but it seems that the economy is actually improving solidly for the first time in years. work is available.

we designers have always been the canary in the mineshaft.

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Marketing/Advertising/Media and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *