Commercial Art. Visual Communications. Graphic Design. All of the previous phrases were ones I juggled in college and years after.

Being called a commercial artist in the late '60s and into the '70s was a negative. It meant you worked for corrupt corporate America. You worked for "the man." I remember having a "discussion" with someone in line at registration. She was a fine arts major and couldn't fathom how I was going to make a living doing commercial art. If I were to take a wild guess I'm betting I'm the one who has been working in my field since leaving college and she probably never got a show in a gallery. I could be wrong.

Visual communications was the title for a series of core classes designers had to take. At the time I thought it just sounded hokey, but I can't tell you how many times I've used the phrase to explain what good design is about.

Then there's graphic designer. These days the phrase is so common I could scream. Every moron with an Adobe product hangs out a shingle. Knowing InDesign and Photoshop does not a designer make. Life, a good eye, an understanding of far reaching subject matter, AND the ability to use InDesign and Photoshop start to get you into the neighborhood. Once saying you had a degree in graphic design drew blank stares and, "Oh, that sounds interesting." These days it's, "Oh yeah, I do that too. I did some business cards for a motorcycle shop and a poster for a poetry slam at the senior center." It usually takes awhile for my eyes to uncross.

Sometimes when I'm working on a book I think back to Gutenberg and how he is the forefather of what I do. Imagine him seeing a computer and one person typesetting an entire book while listening to NPR then changing their mind in the middle of the night and reformatting the entire book by simply changing some style sheets. The fella's head might explode.

Here is a vintage magazine ad from July 1918 extolling the possible benefits of being a commercial artist simply by studying with the Federal School of Commercial Designing correspondence school.

(SOURCE: The Delineator, July 1918) Click on image to see it larger.

No, this is not the "Draw Me!" school. You can read about the school and the other art correspondence schools here.
During the late teens and early twenties, when advertising began a meteoric rise and commercial artists and letterers were in demand, correspondence schools were founded to train illustrators and designers. The most notable included The International Correspondence Schools in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Washington School of Art in Washington, D.C., The Lockwood Art Lessons in Kalamazoo, Michigan, The New York School of Design in New York City, Art Instruction, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota and The Frank Holme School of Illustration in Chicago, Illinois. The leader, however, was The Federal School of Commercial Designing founded in 1919. The Federal School's headquarters occupied a three story high, block long building in Minneapolis; had branch offices in New York City and Chicago; boasted over seventy-five advisors and full-time faculty members, was larger than any of the other schools; claimed over 3000 home study students annually enrolled and offered "a well-rounded, practical preparation for a profession" that was recognized by the Home Study Institute and the Midland National Bank of Minneapolis. (SOURCE: Draw Me Schools of Commercial Art by Steven Heller at The Designer Observer Group, December 3, 2008)


  1. I feel the same way. When some fool drops a couple of thousand on a digital camera, takes 500 pictures on a single afternoon, gets three semi-nice images and then tells me they're a photographer...Actually,I don't feel like screaming, I feel like hitting.

    1. With a 2 x 4? I've always favored 2 x 4's.

  2. I think that someone out there have already decided to whom they should hire for another period. Good thing that ad agencies are working on big level.
    Scranton graphic design