On Designing a Project: Looking Ahead

This is intended for my senior students-to-be. I'm on sabbatical and slated to return in January. In the meantime, they are working under the steady-eddie guidance of John Hendrix. But John and are working a switcheroo-at-the-door: as I return he will exit the scene for a much deserved sabbatical of his own. Our senior charges are already anticipating the shift. They are starting to prepare proposals for their spring capstone projects. Since below I offer advice on designing a project, I am providing a few visuals to accompany this post to report on the projects I am pursuing on my sabbatical. 

To review, a course description: Senior Illustration Capstone: Nonfiction Illustrated for Page and ScreenThis course will combine nonfiction writing and image-making in a project designed for printed or digital formats. Each student will identify personally compelling subject matter, craft a coherent story, write a text, and create appropriate images–though not necessarily in that order. Formats may include books, zines and comics, or screen-based experiences like animatics, films and interactive games. Content may include science and history; biography and memoir; journalistic reportage in contemporary settings; or educational/ informational material (e.g., explaining photosynthesis, a guide to field hockey, famous moustaches). The content must be factually grounded, but subject matter is open. Editorial “takes” and visual styles will vary widely. Viable project texts will range from 100 to 1500 words. Course learning will encompass all aspects of the project design and execution. 

Group: for ease of access, given the backward to forward formatting of blog posts, I am providing links to all five posts that precede this one. My initial post, which introduces categories, also provides examples and thoughts about the first one, Social History. The second explores Curated Collections, which might under other circumstances get filed under informational illustration, gets its own biling here. The third introduces Perspectival Reportage, a category with a journalistic pedigree;  No. 4 introduces Education and Information. And the fifth overview post explores Memoir and Biography. Please read them all, then return to this wrap-up material. (They should all open in their own windows to spare you a bunch of forward and backward clicking.)

Rule No. 1: Build on Strength. If at all possible, you should design your project to build on what you have achieved this fall. Medium, visual approach, your emerging overall sense of who you are (or might be) creatively: they all deserve to be honored. Stated more succinctly: add to your strengths. 

Rule No. 2: Avoid Weaknesses. The converse of No. 1: Don't use this as a time to shore up your weaknesses. If you have never worked on an interactive project except under duress as a first semester junior, this is not the time to start coding. Likewise, if you've worked in watercolor all fall, don't suddenly decide to make screen prints. We will help keep you focused on this; your proposals will need to include a pdf of recent work, since I will not have seen any of it. 

Rule No. 3: Own Your Mojo. This reinforces Rules 1 and 2. It is a universal fact: we all tend to undervalue what we naturally do well, and overvalue the things that other people are good at. The answer to your creative problem is always staring you in the face, in the form of the things you already do but don't think "count." No need to tromp fields far and wide looking for the exotic discovery: it's probably sitting right next to you. 

Rule No. 4: Relax, Focus & Learn. This is just one project! It will not determine the course of your biography from here. If it has value to you five years from now, it will be as a template. You will learn how you specifically conceive, manage, and execute a complicated project. But you know this! We've challenged you to be observant of your own methodological patterns since you started in the program. This is just a little bigger version of projects you did in Word and Image 1, two years ago. 

Rule No. 5: Write Well. People who write and speak well are categorically more valuable than those who do not. If you are wondering why you are being required to write your senior project, a) you are a university student after all, and b) you would not be at this particular university if you were not academically capable. You don't know it yet, but this will turn out to be your secret weapon: you think well and flexibly, and you write persuasively. If you were being trained for a narrow field or prepped for very particular job, you might be able to argue to the contrary–but then your parents would also have overpaid for your education. You could have just apprenticed somewhere. I really cannot stress this enough: a supple education is a timed-release capsule. You know how to do some stuff now, but not that much. Your value will have to do with what you can learn, and how you will be able to think in fresh ways about problems new and recycled. That will be true no matter what you end up doing, solo or with others. 

Rule No. 6: Nail the Dismount. Once you are underway and invested in the project, follow it through. Execute right to the end of it. As you know, it isn't that hard to get something 85 percent there. The last 15 percent, and especially the last five, is a true theater of achievement.

Rule No. 7: Desire trumps Talent. Never forget this. Driven people often surpass more complacent talented ones. 

Rule No. 8: Be a Good Doobie. Honor the field; support your mates; wave the flag; work together. 

D.B. Dowd, working scan from Massillon v. St.Vincent-St.Mary's (unfinished); illustration for Spartan Holiday No. 3 (upcoming). This project, a collaboration with Scott Gericke, ably assisted by intern Sara Wong, occupied may September and awaits completion in December. 

D.B. Dowd, detail, Baroque Self-Portrait, from Spartan Holiday No. 3. Yup: Professor Red in a powdered wig. Can't wait to get this project out. I think it's the best Spartan so far. Set in Paris. 

D.B. Dowd, Japanese Banana, Jardin des Plantes, Paris. 2013.I spent October holed up in an underground bunker (on a TVA lake in Alabama) finishing a book I've been pondering for a dozen years, began writing in 2009, and substantially completed during my Parisian interlude, summer 2013. The last step was to expand, resolve and button up the project. Stick Figures: Symbolic Drawing in the Digital Age will see print in the next year or so: details to come. This drawing figures in Chapter 6. 

Austin Briggs, Sketch for New York Railroads Advertisement, circa 1955. Reproduced in Stick Figures

Clara Elsene Peck, Frontispiece illustration, A Lady of King Arthur's Court, by Sara Hawks Sterling, G.W. Jacobs & Co. 1907. Since last spring, working with Eden Lewis, above mentioned Sara Wong and now Abhi Alwar, I have been working on a curatorial project focusing on women in American illustration, drawing on the Walt Reed Collection at the Modern Graphic History Library, also pulling selectively from my own collection. This project is burbling along; I think Abhi and I will have it ready to go live online in the next six weeks. Stay tuned.