February 2, 2006

Illustrator Interview: James Talmage

Continuing my interview series, I've asked James Talmage to answer a few questions. Some of you may know James by his initials -- JET -- and are familiar with his posts in both the FreeHand and Illustrator User forums. James is also the brains behind the FreeHand to Illustrator appendix in the Real World Illustrator book (he wrote it). Below is a glimpse into the brain of a man who obviously spends all day answering and helping people on the forums and I assume must not be human because when else does he eat, sleep, and do his own work?

What kind of work do you specialize in?

Right now, I specialize in trying to find more ways to produce more pages of technical product documentation under completely unrealistic deadlines and severe understaffing. And having a blast doing it.

If I have a graphics specialization, I couldn't really nail it down more than to just say vector illustration. I've never tried to "specialize" stylistically. I'd get bored. I like to work in a bunch of programs, but 2D vector stuff is where I feel at home. One of my main tickle-my-innards interests right now, though, is vector graphics in interactive Flash illustrations that simulate real-world systems. I'm fascinated and amazed by some of the supple and elegant physics-like stuff that real Flash heads do.

What was the first vector application you ever used?

Fontographer 1.1

If you could make just one feature request for AI, what would it be?

A multiple pages interface just like that in FreeHand.

What one thing most annoys you about Illustrator?

It's interface for fundamental selection and path/point/handle manipulation. I think it's been proven inferior. I think it's overdue for a complete rebuild.

But you didn't ask what I like most about Illustrator, so I'll tell you: Javascript. And I'm not a programmer. Nor even a good Javascripter.

What kind of design education do you have?

30-plus years of working-world experience. I'm one of those people who was born with a pencil in hand, and never had any doubt as to what to do for a living. Except for a 4 year diversion behind the parts counter at a Honda motorcycle dealership, I've only worked in graphics-related fields. And I've always maintained a home-based freelance studio.

Early on, I worked in sign shops of various sizes. I learned to brush letter (can still do that), designed large erected commercial signs, and everything in between. I hated to paint billboards, though. That was awful. And brick walls. So hot the paint got gooey.

Around '78 I became enthralled about technical illustration (from looking at Honda parts diagrams) and taught myself axonometric drawing from textbooks. (I still have a big heavy steel K&N drafting table and drawing machine in my studio's downstairs.) I also took a 2 year tech school course in repro graphics. In '80, I took a job at Blue Bird Corporation, a manufacturer of School and transit buses. I was hired into the Engineering Department as a technical illustrator. That was "pre-computer," and the whole world changed during those six years in Engineering. So my first exposure to "computer graphics" was a short stint in a high-end CAE program called CATIA, just before the advent of the "desktop publishing revolution."

In '86 I transferred to the Advertising Department. I spent the next 6 years there, doing commercial/technical illustrations, designing national advertising collateral, dreaming up themes and building props for elaborate sales conventions. It was there that I was first exposed to a Macintosh Plus with Fontographer installed. This was at the scheming and insistant behest of a delightful and absolutely brilliant entrepreneurial computer consultant who had a Santa-like twinkle and an infectious laugh, whom I and everyone who met him came to love dearly, whose self-effacing motto was "Often in error; never in doubt," who could hob-nob with the bigshots but couldn't keep his shoes on, who always rolled the windows down in the car, who lived a rich and full life, and who had an ulterior motive at the time: He was building a new school bus ordering system on a funny little gray computer in a funny little program called HyperCard and needed some graphics help.

One thing led to each very quickly successive "other" and soon it was Aldus FreeHand and Macromedia Director on a Mac SE; then PixelPaint Professional, Photoshop, and everything else on a "wicked fast" Iifx with (egads!) 20MB of RAM. I was doing process brochures on a IIci when all the $350-per-hour color houses were still saying PostScript would just be a flash in the pan.

In '92 I went full time in my studio and did that for 10 years (quite well, thank you). In 2002, a desire to get back into more technical graphics and less stress led me to rejoin Blue Bird in its Technical Communications group. Presently, I'm having much great fun devising a new publishing platform for our parts manuals on a combination of--drum roll, please--FileMaker Pro and Acrobat.

Of course, my Studio remains alive and well, and that's, as always, where I enjoy illustrative variety.

What’s your personal preference, Mac or Windows?

Windows XP Pro. But I consider it mostly a non-issue. A big yawn, in fact. I don't live in the OS; I live in the applications I use. All I want the OS to do is handle files and I/O and resources with reasonable reliability and otherwise stay out of my face. I'd love to see a version of either Windows or Mac that was purely unobtrusive, uninvasive, industrial-strength no-nonsense. Leave the interface fluff to the apps.

I switched to Windows XP after the several years of anguish, rumor, unfulfilled prophecies and promises leading up to OSX. That was the same time that I began to sense FreeHand, my mainstay, was--in the words of Joe Banks--loosing its sole. It was clear that whatever Rhapsody, Gershwin, or Mac Kazoo eventually turned out to be--if it ever actually arrived--it was going to be a disruptive and costly transition. By that time, Windows had belatedly reached a reasonable par regarding font
handling and multiple monitors (something I consider absolutely essential to productivity), so I figured one disruptive OS switch was as good as another, decided it would be refreshing to swim with the tide for a while, and went with a Dell Precision when time came to upgrade my main machine again. No regrets at all. Haven't looked back since. We have a houseful of Dells. I still do my invoices and run my vinyl cutter on a Powerbook 1400, though. The pinstripe 2GB G4 sitting behind me with its obese (the pinstripes don't help) 21" ColorSync Trinitron only gets turned on when I need to transfer an old archive. I'll be glad when I don't have to do that anymore.

What’s playing on your iPod right now?

I'm the only one in the family without one. My eldest's original 10GB iPod is inscribed with "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing." He's gonna be a history professor, and a dang good one. My youngest is unexpectedly enamoured with his brand new shiney black 30 GB, and just got his driver's license (scored a 100 on the test, including parallel parking). And Nancy considers her Nano with its neck lanyard her "Corvette stereo" (her "Corvette," BTW, is her bright red Gravely zero-turn hydraulically-driven mower.)

But as for me, I'm presently content listening to the Allman Brothers on my Palm Tungsten T3. I'll do that every day for about another month, then will swap it all for Janis Joplin or Doobie Brothers or BB King or the Beatles or Led Zepplin or Steely Dan or John Fogerty or the greatest guitarist in the world, Steve Morse. (Yeah, I think it'll be Steve Morse.) Always the whole set of the same artist(s) at a time. The very concept of an iPod Shuffle scares me.

What was the nicest place you’ve ever vacationed in?

The hammock Nancy strung up for me in the back yard in the faux "desert isle" she built around it, playing with newly arrived software on a laptop under no deadline pressure. I vacation most weekends.

The second nicest, since you didn't ask, is the top of Mount Pisgah, North Carolina. Pick a year; any year. Blue Ridge Parkway on a KLR650. That was last year. Prior to that was the same road about 20 years prior in a dense-as-grease fog on a CX500 with the same above-mentioned Nancy on the back. Literally could not see 10 ft ahead. That was so scarey we didn't know it was fun until it was all over. Then there was the pitch-black time the bear snatched the lock off the same bike's fairing to get the cheese, and then invited himself to the tent to get the bubble gum Nancy didn't think he would smell. Did you know your knees really do knock?

Do you have a favorite designer? If so, who is he/she, and why?

Two. But they're illustrators, not designers. David Kimble and Mark Frederickson. The reason is obvious. Just look at their work. I don't know if either one of them uses software.

What one thing has most inspired your own personal design style?


If you could pass some advice to someone looking to become a designer, what would it be?

Same thing it would be for anyone wanting to become a professional anything. Same thing I tell my sons: First, read Atlas Shrugged. Twice. Then seek to do professionally that which you enjoy most; that which causes that weird restless excitement that keeps you awake at night and makes you smile inwardly with satisfaction; that which you would do even if you weren't paid to do it. That's the job (or the style, or the specialty) you'll be best at, and if you are to ever be noted for anything it will be for doing that. And if you are never to be noted for anything, it won't matter, because you will still have lived a fullfilled life as a creative being made in the image of a creative God.


jpro said...

Thanks for the insight, James. Very interesting

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