Friday, March 25, 2022

Being a Graphic Designer in Western Jamaica

When I was in grade 6 at Mt. Alvernia Prep., the class was paired with foreign students for pen-pals, to practice letter writing and foster cross cultural experience. I went home got my mother's help and wrote a nice introductory letter. Now, beyond my experience in the 1980's tourist industry and slights at duty free in-bond shops, I didn't have an experience with racism that had left an indelible mark till receiving my response letter from my pen-pal. The letter to my horror was riddled with condescending questions like do you have classes under trees and do you wear grass skirts and such. Coming from a Pan African Christian home this was an affront of the highest order. From then on I have come to realize that when the world thinks about Jamaica the first thing that comes to the collective thoughts of people from the western hemisphere are the pivotal 1960’s rural poverty images, of zinc fences, shanty towns, marijuana smoking men and matted hair. Some may be aware of the allure of sun, sand and sex. Reggae and Bob Marley did little to diminish the sexual mystique. Afterwards it also became known as the country which for one reason or the other was the perennial exporter of various types of drugs. Was this a failure in our messaging our visual communique?

 This clash of cultures and divergent realities reflect the duality of perception. I am not saying we aren’t steeped in a variety of problems, far from it. Hence, working in the developing world can carry unique problems and circumstances not perceived by graphic designers and artists in the developed nations. Hence I hope this article elucidates my progress and journey as a designer growing and working in the wonderful conundrum and cultural melting pot that is Jamaica and the Caribbean

Visual communication is an inextricable part of human history. It has existed as long as there has been the need to make marks or leave traces, to communicate through signs and symbols rather than the spoken word. In the contemporary world the activity of organizing signs and symbols, or words and images, for public exchange is recognized as graphic design - a specialist area of the broader field of design. Just as there have been design movements and aesthetics born all over the world, Jamaica and her people too have formed it's own unique systems of visual hierarchy, layout and style. Our unique history, environment and challenges have given rise to our own aesthetic and cues for communication.

Today graphic design in Jamaica embraces printed material from the smallest ephemeral item - a stamp, label or ticket - to publication design in the form of the interiors and exteriors of books and magazines. It also includes a robust and very local poster and advertising design culture, as well as trademarks, logos and symbols. Then there are the more convention yet extensive systems of information design - signage in the built environment, exhibitions and corporate identities for companies, all often developed in close association with architectural practices that are informed by our Victorian and Spanish past yet still being influence by Deco and a modern minimalism.

Over the last decade I've watched the practice of graphic design as it has undergone momentous change as pixels have become a handy substitute for print and software has lessened the profession's reliance on its traditional tools of pen and paper. In no other discipline of design has computer technology had Reich a transforming impact. Throughout our daily lives we are surrounded and peppered by graphic messages. Indeed they have become so much a part of the fabric of every-day modern life - from break-fast cereal packaging and advertising 3 billboards to logos on clothes and television company identities - that often we register their codes only on a subconscious level.


Working in Western Jamaica is always challenging as it is an environment, where the push for excellence is always marred and pegged down by an ever changing set of economic obstacles, and technical variables though if you ask me I believe that ultimately these challenges will help make you a better designer. Anyhow my journey started way back in 2001 when I took a graphic design course in Kingston, where I was tutored by one Mr. Marcel Robinson, who gave me my introduction to Corel Draw (I still remember that hot air balloon logo with fondness) and the theories of design. That was a time when the concept of computer was still one of a luxury item in Jamaica, but my exposure to them though came earlier in the 80's but was confined to a Commodore 64 that I had to write the Basic code for PacMan to play it. After that my next set of exposure would be to some access in my high school and prep school computer laboratories and the only use that we had for them was to play ancient PC Games, some of them in DOS. I remember being smitten with the early aerial view incarnations of Grand Theft Auto, Minesweeper, Taipei and Solitaire. Midway during high school my siblings and I got a computer at home. In the back of my mind I always had intentions of doing designs especially after seeing kids in my high school library using cut outs and a photocopier to make a flyer or poster, that incident cemented for me the union of art and technology.

As my progress in illustrating on a Pentium III Windows® machine went forward smoothly, I got introduced to a variety of software such as Blender, Gimp, Inkscape, and more. My enterprising nature brought me to Macs and Linux desktops. I had fallen in love with the idea of transforming pictures and mashing colors together, and the thrill of creativity. I had some idea of the basic tenets of graphic design and color theory but no formal training in these notions, so eventually I dove into Graphic Design books that I could pick up at our local bookstore franchise Sangster's or at Computer stores. After working on odd gigs at the University of the West Indies, Mona while doing a philosophy degree, I got introduced to Macromedia Freehand and Flash for vector drawing and animation. This realm of digital creation was my major foray into the vast world of design which wouldn’t have been possible without the ‘pirated’ copies of these high end software (I have shifted my software use to free and opensource) Although I will be forever grateful for the creators of these software, there really wasn’t any way that I could honor their work by buying their product. They were too expensive for a starving artist in Jamaica's second city.

Another pivotal moment in my life as a graphic designer came in the period of 2004 to 2006. In these three years I did two things that shaped my design inclinations, the first I got to work in a lot of jobs as a freelance designer. The second, after hanging with Computer Science crowd I made the hard leap into open source. The impact of these actions resulted in my gaining direct touch with the business side of being a designer and the second introduced me to the interesting world of coding, which would lend itself to me learning HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Being a freelance designer at the time circa 2004 was a tough time because in those days Jamaican businesses didn’t really rate the importance of branding themselves through graphic design, thus they attached no importance to that side of their advertising strategy. Don't get me wrong everyone wants a logo or a business card but they don't want to pay for it. I can tell you horror stories of hunting down clients who received work and tried to get away without paying. In Jamaica, photographers and videographers tend to be able to command financial respect more and people are more willing to pay. This environmental pressure has led to designers at the time becoming a jack of all trade. We dabbled in everything from flash animation to video and sound editing. Specializing in one discipline was seen as a death warrant because the desires of our employers, clients and the market were fleeting and one had to be able to pivot with the ever changing needs of the moment. Consequently instead of specializing and learning more about the various disciplines found in graphic design, this trend made the majority of the designers, somewhat lesser artists and some lost focus on the importance of the art itself, and by necessity it made designers in western Jamaica a kind of digital Anansi and hustler, where as the developed world romanticized this as the life a digital nomad.

Becoming a digital Anansi in this worldwide web prompted me to dig deeper into codes and coding, hard ware and A+ type repairs. It was an interesting experience as it overlapped with my desire to create stuff from the base up, using computers, to understand how things worked under the hood, the magic of ones and zeroes. Concurrently I was pulled deeper into web design since it encompassed the two things that I love most, the internet and design. In these formative years, I also learned the benefits of research as a method to help yield the best possible tools and techniques to produce interesting things. These years refined me from a hustler into a consummate artist, who was more concerned about creating a graphic aesthetic that communicated a new Caribbean message and Afrofuturism. Making money was important but I was yearning for something more as I lived that ‘starving artist’ cliche. This period was where I became somewhat disillusioned with graphic design.

The majority of my clients were not looking for the ‘aesthetic’ strength of their products, a lot of them were posters and party flyers for people who didn't pay well and objected if I put black girls on their party flyers. A lot of the rest just wanted something made quickly (in retrospect, I realize it was my inexperience as a designer which through lack of a deep formal education in the field and the lack of proper exposure led me to compromise my creative integrity). Even though I did land some big work, doing T-shirts for Reggae Sumfest, Trelawny Swamp Safari among others, my desire to do graphic designed still waned, and I turned my face towards web design and coding, by that time had already been through Yahoo's geocities and was blogging on this platform. So web design was a natural progression.

To my software knowledge I added the use of Adobe's Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator, Corel PhotoPaint, and Scribus. I also graduated from Frontpage to Dreamweaver. Try as I may that market was the domain of Kingston techies who won the lucrative business contracts and clients like NGOs. Around 2008 after layout work for Newspapers, writing columns for the Western Mirror, dabbling in editorial cartoons, I somehow wound up at VistaPrint doing copywriting. Then around 2010 — 2012 and the next creative wave to hit Jamaica was multimedia and motion graphics. I had dabbled in Macromedia Director and Flash which gave me some experience, my adventures brought me to working with Montegonian artists to storyboard music videos and do some photography which I loved. 

This is an energetic time for Jamaican graphic design, in terms of the web, illustration and  graphic videos like text videos. Motion is where graphics are going and garner premium pay. The field is becoming more mainstream, and the talents out there were getting out and presenting their portfolios for the world to see. Though at the same time we are in an age where apps and templates are a dime a dozen offering consumers prettier graphic options and standards, at the same time creating a generic aesthetic in design which still leaves room for the human element in finding meaningful new expressions in design.