Hi, my name is Joel, and I’m an addict.
Like a lot of you, my graphic design addiction started innocently enough. It was long ago, in a different and simpler time.
There I was, designing brochures and advertisements, keeping the waxer hot and the t-squares lined up, when I noticed it for the first time.
A simple box in an ad, but this box was different from any other box I had ever seen drawn around a bullet list. For a moment I was confused, visually and aesthetically.
The box was casting a “shadow” on the page.
Oh sure, it was just an illusion. In fact, it was just a box with a thick black line drawn on the left side and bottom of the box.
But it introduced something radical, something powerfully attractive, something paradigm-shifting: it seemed to add a third dimension to what was just a piece of paper with type on it.
Zounds! I had to try it for myself. Could it really be that simple?
Half of the rest of the day was spent on experimenting with this miraculous invention, a shadow.
My Addiction Grows Worse
We had our own typesetting equipment in my studio. We had drafting equipment. We could add those shadows too, and soon enough, almost every design coming out of the studio had drop shadows somewhere.
Thick black lines were added to the left and bottom sides of every box, panel, rule, you name it.
Years went by, and eventually we moved to typesetting on early PCs with “desktop publishing” programs. For some reason, when graphic design transitioned to computers, the drop shadows moved from the left side to the right. I adjusted.
Soon, this software made it even easier to put in shadows when the clever engineers extended the “third dimension” metaphor by introducing “layers.”
These imaginary layers allowed you to just duplicate your object and put it on a lower layer to create your shadow. Cool!
Printed pieces including objects that appeared to float above the background became more and more common. Everyone, it seemed, was doing it.
More and More Realistic Illusions
By this time, nothing left my computer without shadows. This third dimension was changing everything. Then one day the stakes got even higher.
Adobe Photoshop, the leader in image manipulation and processing, added what they called “blending modes” to control how these different layers of your image interacted with each other.
Soon thereafter, I discovered the miraculous “multiply” mode. OMG, now the shadows created on one layer could blend realistically with whatever was on the layer below.
These shadows were no longer just heavy lines drawn around a box, they were semi-transparent, modeling themselves to fit the contours of the background image.
Soon enough, we were given the amazing ability to adjust the “opacity” of the shadows and objects.
Gone were the awkward rules, hard edges and all-black shadows. Now they were subtle, realistic, and even more addictive than ever.
Layers, blending, opacity controls. These were like giving an alcoholic a lifetime “drink all you want” card to their local bar.
Finally, the last step in the evolution of my addiction: the introduction of the “drop shadow button.”
Instead of figuring out how to make your drop shadows work properly, now the scheming engineers had put it all into a simple button. Anyone could do it!
And everyone did. Type and objects floating off the background were everywhere. I guess there are a lot of other addicts, although they won’t admit it in public.
The Healing Begins
Sure, I’m in recovery. I woke up one day and started noticing that lots of the designers I admire the most didn’t use drop shadows. Not at all.
I started studying book covers, looking at thousands of examples. It seemed like the top designers almost never used a drop shadow and, when they did, it was subtle, discreet, and part of the whole effect they were looking for.
Going back over my own designs, I felt the shame of the addict. When you’re an addict, you’re always looking for a way to indulge your addiction. They are insatiable, that’s part of the illness.
Now they looked mechanical, unnecessary, ugly. What the hell had I been thinking? I was repulsed, ashamed of my own weakness.
Determined to break free of the grip drop shadows had on my designer’s soul, I swore off, determined to find the design that didn’t need a shadow to be effective.
Sure, there were lots of times my mouse edged toward that drop shadow button, that tantalizing big dialog box with all those sexy controls. And yes, I’m not too proud to admit I fell off the bus, but it was less and less often.
Pretty soon I felt my discipline returning, I knew I was strong enough to stand up to that illusion of three dimensionality. After all, typography is a two-dimensional art form, why not celebrate that?
Hey, I’m not saying I’m totally over it. Every day I’m designing is a day I have to avoid those shadows. I use them sometimes, but it’s just a fraction of what it once was.
But now when I see the designs from other addicts, I feel sorry for them. Don’t they see how artificial their designs look? Don’t they know they are substituting artifice for art?
Everyone’s journey is different, that’s for sure. Thanks for listening to my story. I may be a drop-shadow addict, but I’m over the worst part. How about you? Is it drop shadows, embossed type, fancy box corners?
Tell me, I’ll understand. We can heal together.
Photo by Wayne Wilkinson