The Importance of Identity

Feb 1, 2010

Design, for me, is a personal affair. That’s not at all to say, however, that the design decisions I make are based on subjective opinion. Rather, my thoughts and personal experience have naturally lead me to the design mindset and it’s pretty much everything I am today.

As a child, I took great interest in putting things together, building structures and figuring out how things worked. I was very akin to seeing shapes in everything and describing complex objects as made up of smaller, more recognizable components. But more importantly, I also tended to see or be sensitive to faces in objects and would instantly feel connections that made me very sympathetic and concerned for their well-being. As a result, I often saw plush toys or porcelain figures I had to have and ended up collecting hundreds of them over the years. I grew really attached to characters in stories and movies. I cried when I met Cinderella at Disney World because, I said, “they ruined your dress!” I saved flies and ants that I found in our house. I held little funerals for mice that my cats brought in. I couldn’t throw away so much as a piece of paper with a drawing of an animal on it without feeling guilty. I wouldn’t eat chocolate animals because I saw them as real animals and felt bad. I would even hold onto little pink erasers if they resembled an animal. The only way my parents ever got me to finish items of food was by telling me that if I didn’t eat the last bit, it would be lonely.

Aside from my mathematical, spatially-oriented mind which I’m sure most designers had as kids, my dedication was really more to relationships, feelings and personification. I built up a miniature town of my little animal figurines, complete with houses, trees, cars, handwritten menus at restaurants and little pieces of food I made out of clay. And with the setup continually growing from just a shelf in my room at age six to an entire room in our house by the end of middle school, I developed deep and complex stories between all the animals and would write at length and in detail about them. It was common knowledge across my family that someone could so much as rotate one of the pieces and I would be able to figure out which one it was.

I couldn’t explain it at the time, but everything had to be “a certain way.” It wasn’t until I started school, however, that this mindset really became so important to me on a personal level.

Kids have an amazing ability to make fun of anything they can. For me, it was my short height, thin build, weird clothes, bushy hair, artistic flair, lack of physical strength, inability to play sports, sensitivity, being jewish and having good grades. To add to my lament, I also loved girls way earlier than most kids and was continually frustrated that none of them liked me back. The kids made fun of that too, of course. To this day, the years of ridicule and need for acceptance have instilled so much neuroticism in me that I’m affected in some way in everything I think and do.

Unable to feel comfortable showing people “the real me,” I found more superficial ways to get people to like me: I told jokes, I performed magic tricks, I played piano, I drew pictures – anything I could do that would get people to like me without forming a “real” connection. Granted, this did instill a somewhat natural inclination to be a performer, but it masked what otherwise would have been an ability to connect with people on a more genuine level all those years.

Additionally, my parents – who finally got divorced when I was nine – were not your typical parents. My mom never made friends with “soccer moms” because she was probably too liberal-minded and she was starting a company in our basement. My dad never bonded with any other parents because he’s sensitive, hates sports and has an idealistic image of how the world should work. Both were overprotective and instilled their values – and fears – in me from a young age. As such, I grew up rather sheltered, cautious and sensitive yet ambitious, creative and an independent-thinker.

Between the social scene at school and the odd dynamic at home, the only place I really felt safe and at peace was among my stuffed animals and miniature town, with my stories and relationships and characters. I often begged my mom not to make me go to school so that I didn’t have to interact with any of the kids. But then something happened in preschool that struck a major chord in me. I liked to draw and I found that the other kids were drawn to my ability. They’d ask me to draw them pictures and I, so eager for acceptance, would of course consent. Soon I realized that despite whatever mean comments the kids could think up to say to me, they couldn’t touch my art. And that gave me something that I desperately needed – an identity.

As the school years progressed, the teasing got worse, but I got more involved in my artwork. Kids might have said things about my physique, but no one could really penetrate my made-up world in my drawings. If anything, they tried to copy them. By the end of elementary school, I had started drawing comic strips with a variety of animal characters and relationships. I considered these cartoons my real friends and would draw them constantly throughout the school day, especially when I felt alone. A project about careers I found from seventh grade reads, “I want to be a cartoonist so people will like me for my drawings.”

In addition to the social benefit, I added artistic flair to my homework assignments and it made them stand out from the rest. Without many friends, I had time to do every project when it was assigned and spent most of my time perfecting visual elements, picking out certain fonts, colors, lines, images, etc. Even little things such as math problem sets from sixth grade would be carefully written out (or rewritten, if my first version wasn’t pretty enough) and notated. By high school, I became known as the kid who always excelled at his work and went that extra mile with assignments to make them extra polished and [perhaps unnecessarily] detailed. It wasn’t because I really wanted to – rather, I was just using it as a medium to express the self I otherwise wasn’t able to. As designing became more important to my personal success, I also got involved in extracurriculars that extended my reach, allowing me to redesign and edit our school’s newspaper and literary magazine and create flyers and print material for other clubs and events.

And so, this personal obsession of mine to create, to make things a certain way, to put things in order, became almost paradoxically also a way for me to define myself and connect with people I seemed otherwise unable to. Praise for my work was taken personally as praise for me. In my mind, people may not have liked me for whatever reason, but they could connect with me through what I made, and that was just as good. It gave me extreme comfort to feel as though I did have some value to society and that following my own set of rules made everything more bearable.

This makes sense, of course. Feeling rather helpless and confused in the real relationships in my life, the only thing I really could control was my work. And, with so many different people seemingly telling me who I was and how I was supposed to act, it was imperative for my own sanity that I maintained some semblance of having an identity and I obsessed over developing one and promoting it. Fortunately, the importance of identity – of brand – is at the root of design. I had a concept and feeling that drove my actions and every decision I made in how I presented myself. For me, it was making order out of chaos. I created rules and frameworks that made sense of things, since so much in my life didn’t. I spent copious amounts of time analyzing people’s behavior and thoughts with strict objectivity, trying to figure out almost mathematical reasons why they did the things they did, so I could then change my actions and expectations to fit the paradigm. It was all I had to make myself feel comfortable with things. Otherwise, it would all be too chaotic.

As I’ve formalized my design expertise, learned techniques and about guiding principles and worked on all sorts of projects big and small – print layouts, architecture, graphic design, 3D models, animation, video production, web development, iPhone apps and much more – one thing has remained the same: an attention and true dedication to a story and a core value and vision for a design. I’ve found through my experience that most companies and projects often lack this central, most important component and without a driving force, a framework or a concept, it’s all too easy to end up with something sub-par. Design requires discipline and dedication.

As technology has grown more ubiquitous, we’ve had the ability to affect people’s daily lives and their relationships and I’ve found these challenges to be especially close to my heart. Although my specific skill-set, however diverse, may not be as perfected as others, I see the big picture and understand the need for a vision and the steps to create one and follow it. My passion is who I am, and this mindset has been so crucial to my own personal happiness that it’s become essential in my day-to-day job. Without it, everything easily feels chaotic again and I am deeply unsettled in my own well-being. What can I say – loving design is one thing, but another thing entirely is living it.

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