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Computers Called DaVinci

“When I was in high school,” says Heather Penney, “I had lofty notions of being both an actress and an artist. I just knew creativity and design were for me. But I was against computers. I wanted to do everything hand-drawn and hands-on.”

The earth moved after she landed a job at a print shop. Expecting to continue sketching with a pencil, Heather quickly learned she could draw better and faster on the computer. “That was it,” she grins. “I took courses at Newfoundland's Cabot Institute of Applied Arts and Technology (now the College of the North Atlantic) and became an artistic geek.”

Today, she's a graphic designer for the Canadian Bioinformatics Resource, part of the National Research Council in Halifax. She designs for the web and for print, and has even crafted some t-shirt motifs. “I pinch myself frequently to make sure this is real,” Heather enthuses. “I work with amazing people who do amazing things with DNA and genomics research. This is my way of helping to save the world one DNA strand at a time. I did mention I had lofty notions, right?”

J.D. Lejeune was vague about what he wanted to do after secondary school. “My parents were big on the multimedia thing,” he recalls, “so I went to a few info sessions at colleges and trade schools. As soon as I left the session at New Brunswick Community College, I knew digital communications was for me. It sort of hit me out of the blue...BAM!”

J.D. laughingly remembers how lousy his technical skills were. “I grasped the basics of computer use — mainly how to turn it on and off. And I couldn't really free-hand draw. Yeah, I could think up an idea but had absolutely no way to get it out of my head and onto paper.” So he studied graphic and web design, along with audio and video production, 3-D animation, and CD-ROM development. He now designs dynamic websites for BrunNet and finds himself in cyber heaven. “It's everything I thought it would be! Challenging, creative, leading edge. It's great to see a website through from a thought to a finished, well-oiled site.”

Toronto-based Martin Crawford also pictured himself in the arts, perhaps theatre or music. He spent his high school life in a rock band. Being a 22-year old CEO of a cool web development firm wasn't part of the plan.

But he enjoyed playing with computers, learning different operating systems and interfaces. He also attended the Ontario College of Art and Design, studying design theory, visual problem solving and “the human element of design.”

In 1997, he started Beautifully Misguided Inc. and, with his six employees, specializes in creating Intranet tools for businesses. Unlike websites, Intranet programs deliver information to internal staff.

“I believe the competition in pure web design is steep,” he argues. “And one day the Internet will be as obsolete as 8-track.”

Is being 22 a handicap? “All the time,” shrugs Martin. “But I tell clients, 'I may be young but I know what the Internet should do for you.' At first people are sceptical, but as we talk, they understand that I'm not just some kid off the street.”

So just what does the word “design” mean? Most of us surfers know about web and graphic design, but does the idea go any further? “Design is the poetry of technology,” says Ged McLean, who teaches engineering design at the University of Victoria. “You can have all kinds of hot technology out there, but unless it's brilliantly designed, it's a waste of time. Mere engineers can put things together, but designers can dazzle, make the thing beautiful, balanced, with the right shape, size, colour. Designers create. And 90-plus per cent of today's designers use the computer as a tool.”

A sophisticated tool. That's how Frank D'Ambrosio sees the computer when he starts designing a new building. But the partner in Williams, De Hoog & D'Ambrosio Architects begins the creative process in his head.

“You must have an idea, a vision and a purpose for the building whether it's a cathedral or a shack,” Frank observes. “Otherwise, you're just doodling.” Once the idea of the structure takes shape, Frank draws his concept — pen on paper, or with a stylus on a gizmo called a wacom tablet, which connects to the computer.

“The act of drawing, by hand or electronically, contributes to your design in some way,” the UBC architecture graduate explains.

When hand drawing, he may use crayons and watercolours, paste in photos or collages. He then scans the sketch and refines it on the computer with Photoshop or Painter Classic. A high-resolution colour printer produces a first, hard-copy draft — a base for further hand drawing, which is rescanned. And so it goes. Draft after draft. Until the design is completed and forms the foundation for building models and working drawings.

“These electronics — the tablet, computer, scanner, printer, plotter — all these are tools,” continues Frank, “but they are extensions of the creative idea.”

Frank's partner Terry Williams totally agrees. “A line on paper stays in place; a line in the computer is a digital object that can be turned every which way,” he says. “Computer designing is faster and more flexible. We fashioned a computer rendering of the whole Malaspina University College campus in Nanaimo, B.C. Inside that plan, we can ‘fly’ around the university grounds and look at the buildings from different angles. We can drop buildings into different spots, move them all around. It's also a great way to create green, sustainable buildings by making sure we position them for energy efficiency and comfort.”

Marlana Telfer, a California-based designer with Pacific Bell, who puts together complicated cable systems. She adds that computers eliminate lots of drudgery. “You can update and improve designs without having to draw the whole thing over again,” she stresses. “And it's great that the computer is a neutral tool. It doesn't get on your case — although sometimes you want to whack it. It doesn't bully or tell you to hurry up. It doesn't care if you go at your own speed, or whether you're a boy, girl, or have zits. Still, to use the awesome creative powers it offers in design, you must learn to use it. Either on your own or through courses.”

Graphic designer Charlene Boyce Young uses the computer as a “doodle pad” to try out different arrangements without overtaxing her spatial imagination. Since finishing English studies at Saint Mary's University and graphic design at Nova Scotia Community College, Charlene designs graphics for Nova Scotia's Teachers Union. She thrives on the challenge of working creatively within the limits set by time, budgets, “even working around an ugly logo.”

But she wishes she'd known more about jobs and how to prepare for them while in high school. “I didn't have a clue,” she laughs, “I thought that a commerce degree made you into a bank teller.”

Natasha Kong had no such problems. The co-creator of web-zine SheNetworks, Natasha always knew she'd be in an artistic career. She gained experience in film and theatre during her teens, but got more interested in new media. Her acting experience came in handy, however, when she began writing and hosting a technology column on the Discovery Channel. “I never thought I'd draw on the skills I'd gained as a performer,” she says.

Natasha has always been a shooter. She won an art scholarship to UBC but moved to Toronto a year later. She bought a Mac and, after a steep learning curve, founded Random Media Core, developing flashy corporate websites and identities. She launched SheBytes, an e-mag focusing on women making waves in the IT world. SheNetworks was next. The Canadian New Media Awards liked all this action and, last spring, named 25-year old Natasha a “Young Women of the Year.”

All these accomplishments haven't gone to her head. “I really enjoy building this company with my business partner Nicole Blades,” she reveals. “We learn, laugh and meet great people along the way. At the same time, SheNetworks is an Internet company and the industry has been incredibly volatile. Many companies haven't survived the crazy dot.com roller-coaster ride. We've had to revise our business plan again and again. Yet I feel successful. To me success is making a living at something you enjoy, something you're passionate about. And if you can help a few people along the way, then I think that's pretty successful.”

Passion also drives Alan Graves, an exhibit designer at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. He'd hoped to be an Olympic volleyball player, but unable to reach that goal, he turned to his other love: drawing. That landed him his first job with the National Film Board, which in turn led to the museum.

He explains that creating a new exhibit is a tough, complicated task. “When I start designing a show like ‘Out of the Mist’ (now touring North America), I do rough sketches, you know — on a napkin or the back of an envelope. Then when I get serious, I work on the computer.”

He doesn't work alone. A team made up of a curator, writer, educator, marketer and finance person bashes out the core concept. Then they each develop their part, work with the storyline and create a three-dimensional computer model. “It's magic,” says Alan. “Our hardware and software are so powerful we can turn the digital images into a physical cardboard model. It becomes real!”

But Alan wants designing to be real in another way. He believes that working with wood and pounding nails helps the designer to understand the complexity of the design. “Think of designing a chair,” he says. “It's simple but hard. You must build it to know it's comfortable. Only then can you confirm your chair shows craftsmanship and integrity.”

That's how Steve Miller started. Knocking furniture together as a hobby. Formerly a computer science consultant in Calgary, he left the herds of nerds to do “something closer to art and design.” Besides founding the Design House (“cool stuff for modern living”), he designs tables, chairs and storage systems.

He hand-sketches first and then uses a design program to create scale drawings. “What is clear in your mind may take some time to complete in algorithmic format,” he chuckles. “You know, making the lines connect. I agonize until it looks right.”

Comic books and drawing fascinated John Lepp during his teen years. Wanting to pursue an artistic career, he studied graphic design at Red River Community College. “Design school opened up opportunities for me,” he recalls, “and computers opened them further.” John has been at the Winnipeg CBC design department for eight years. Among other tasks, the shop designs sports graphics and sets for television newscasts. “We took real pride in developing graphics explaining the Calgary Stampede,” said John. “The graphics show what drivers do specifically to make the race a good ride.”

Riding also drives the design work of Duhane Lam, the creator of innovative new bikes for Rocky Mountain Bicycles, a Vancouver manufacturer of performance bikes. An engineer by training (he has a master's degree from Simon Fraser), Duhane only picked engineering as a back up in case his real plans didn't work out. He never imagined it would lead to becoming the winner of the gold 1999 Design Engineering Award in the consumer category.

“I realize now that as a teenager I had no idea what engineers did,” smiles Duhane. “I thought engineering sounded boring — working with numbers and computers. As it turns out, I couldn't have made a better choice. Being an engineer is one of the most creative occupations I know. You constantly have to come up with better ways to solve problems. One of my favourite aspects of being a bike designer is that I have to create something that not only works well, but looks good to boot.”

For Duhane, there's nothing like the feeling of designing something and then walking into the factory and seeing a thousand of them lined up there being made. But, he adds, it can be scary. A lot of responsibility goes with being an engineer. The smallest mistake in the design or drawing multiplies to a thousand mistakes.

“Nevertheless,” Duhane concludes, “the favourite part of my job is watching other people riding and having fun on bikes that I had a hand in designing. The second favourite part of my job is getting to ride my own designs!”


Picasso on the Computer
Have a yen to design? Here's some advice these designers have for you.

Tom Lepp, designer and animator, CBC
“There's a place for everyone — for techies and artists. Projects are so complicated that the artistic side is essential for a good product while the geek gods put it all together. Don't give up whatever your bent is.”

Ged McLean, Engineering Design Professor, UVic
“The way to be a great designer is to design. It's like skiing. You can view the videos, buy the best ski gear, the sexy outfit and the lift tickets, but until you actually zoom down hills, you'll never be a skier.”

J.D. Lejeune, web designer, BrunNet
“Go for it. If I could overcome my computer illiteracy and weak drawing skills, make a living and enjoy it, anyone can.”

Lynn Gordon-Findlay, Williams, De Hoog & D'Ambrosio Architects
“Play and experiment with computer software. Think up design projects like Christmas cards or invitations. Check out the materials in art stores and use them creatively. Learn to draw. Just remember, you don't have to be Rembrandt to succeed.”

Architect Frank D'Ambrosio
“All buildings have walls, roofs, windows, doors — but they can be Notre Dame de Paris or a shed. It's what you do with it. Learn to draw. The rest is practice.”

Natasha Kong, Co-founder, SheNetworks
“Think of the computer as merely a tool. Some of the best designers are traditional artists. They don't rely on the computer for their creativity but look outside the digital box for inspiration. They're moved by their physical environment; they crossbreed different mediums; they're innovative; they're dreamers.”

Alan Graves, Exhibit Designer, Royal British Columbia Museum
“You have to find your passion. If you like to draw, draw your heart out. Train that skill, either by hand or on the computer. Then, you must work cooperatively with other people. Those are the core issues. If you don't have those — passion and teamwork — you won't succeed.”

Steve Miller, furniture designer, Design House
“Think about what kind of life you want to lead at age 30. If you want a BMW, you must pick an area of design where you may reach that goal. But don't turn your back on what you love.”

Zandra Xochiltl Gutierrez, web designer, Arcnewmedia.com
Research the school you want to attend. Interview past students. Are they working? Buy someone in the industry a cup of coffee and pick their brain about the biz.

Duhane Lam, design consultant for Rocky Mountain Bicycles
“Find a new angle. Be creative. Don't be scared of math and physics. But don't shun the arts. Balance is important. Use school to learn things that you wouldn't learn on your own.”

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