Designers Are Geeky, Sort Of

I’m something of a a design geek, but I’m not including any discussion of graphic design in my dissertation. Why? Well, the people whom I talk to who most vocally and centrally identify themselves as geeks/nerds don’t ever refer to design when they talk about “geek culture.” It’s relatively safe to assume that a comic book reader has also watched some anime, that a person who can tell you what 2400 bps means can also quote a few lines from Star Wars, that a self-identified gamer isn’t just talking about video games, and that any of the above felt outside of “the popular crowd” in high school. When I saw video game designer Will Wright give a talk at South by Southwest Interactive, he asked how many of us had played Dungeons and Dragons, and nearly every hand in the room went up, prompting him to say in delight, “Great, you’re all geeks!” I’m not sure he would have had the same response from SXSW attendees at one of the more graphic-design-oriented panels.

Even so, the way people throw around the word ‘geek’ these days, just about anybody can qualify themselves as some sort of geek: design geek, knitting geek, Home and Garden Television geek, etc. This usage just implies some mild self-derision about one’s ability to gush about a topic of interest to only very few other people. It’s not necessarily the level or type of knowledge that make someone geeky nowadays, but the degree to which the knowledge is esoteric. Being excited about obscure stuff can make you feel awkward, but it can also make you feel special.

I imagine I could find this phenomenon among knitters and HGTV fans if were to look hard enough. I read graphic design blogs, though, and so I find things like this Design Observer post about a documentary on Helvetica

Like many, I have high hopes that this will be the moment that our field finally breaks through to the general public. As I excitedly said to a friend, “Hey, this might do for typography what Wordplay did for crossword puzzles.”

My friend, a non-designer who has always found my enthusiasm for things like fonts a bit alarming, was a little less sure. “Maybe it’ll do for typography,” he said, “what Capturing the Friedmans did for pedophilia.” […]

For the overwhelming majority of the population, the names of typefaces were as obscure as the Latin names of plants, and just as useful.[…]

I hope Helvetica is a smash. It deserves to be. But part of me still misses the days when it was just our little secret.

I’ll admit that I’m eagerly awaiting the free screening of Helvetica at Drexel University on May 15th. Having spent more of my life as the more traditional definition of ‘geek,’ however, I always find it mildly puzzling when designers express hope that “our field finally breaks through to the general public.” Even if the “general public” still has little to no understanding of what a graphic designer actually does, people are still visibly surrounded by the products of graphic design (usually in the form of advertising). It’s quite a bit more difficult to find visible traces of comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, or Linux in the world around us. You can introduce yourself as a graphic designer without people wondering if you still live in your parents’ basement. You can mention your interest in graphic design to a charming acquaintance without wondering if it hurts your chances of getting a date with that person. Stigmas of juvenility might not be the only difference between the practices of those jokingly call themselves geeky and the practices of those who claim the term “geek culture,” but I suspect it’s pretty relevant.

I’d be interested to learn about other social groups and subcultures whose members hope that their practices “break through” to the mainstream, who perceive outsiders’ reaction to their enthusiasm as “alarming,” and who feel pride over their “little secret.” I don’t want to just read this into groups where it doesn’t already exist, and I would be concerned of committing this error if I were to actively go looking for it. And so, you geeks of all stripes, please feel free to drop by and let me know where you stand on all this.

One thought on “Designers Are Geeky, Sort Of

  1. Well, coming from the Mac community, I think there’s a certain amount of the duality you describe. On the one hand, there’s definitely an almost evangelical need to “spread the word” and convert your friends to the one true platform; at the same time, many have suggested that the Mac’s relatively low marketshare may be one of the factors keeping it from becoming a major target by viruses, hackers, and malware (that debate continues to rage).

    As a community, we’re often labeled as smug or arrogant, and there’s certainly more than a little bit of that; there is something pleasing, or at the very least, ego-feeding, to think that you’ve made a superior choice to the “average drone.” That said, I’m sure there are plenty of other factors that play into this as well.

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