The ancient art of the side hustle
A story about my grandfather’s freelance career as a commercial artist.
Back in the early 1930’s, a young man named Albert came to Port Elizabeth to study teaching and art. Unfortunately, the finer details of this story have been lost over time. The old college has changed names many times over the years – It is currently called Port Elizabeth College.
He grew up in Natal and studied without any financial support from his father (who wanted him to work on the farm and not waste time on scholarly pursuits). Even when he was still a boy in primary school, he displayed a talent for typography. During the school terms, he would freelance at a sign-writing company and buy himself a bicycle to get around. At the end of each semester, he would sell his bike so that he could afford the train ticket to go home for the holiday.
Albert married a young lady named Valeria and they settled in Oudtshoorn, where he taught art (and other subjects) at the Teachers College. Throughout his career, he freelanced as a magazine illustrator and sign-writer. You could say he was a graphic designer or commercial artist in his time. He also pursued a career as a serious artist, but I am only focusing on his commercial art projects in this article. Those were the days before desktop publishing and large format printers. Every piece of graphic design was done by hand, and mass production meant silk screening or the prohibitively expensive process of separation printing, only done by major printing companies.
Albert and Valeria had four children, of whom three pursued careers in art education. The youngest of the four, Sarel, taught Graphic Design as a subject at that very same college in Port Elizabeth. (Still in the days before the desktop computer became accessible to every business on the planet). He married a fellow art teacher named Linda, and the oldest of their three kids happens to be me.
My father saw what graphic design was becoming during the 90’s. By this time he was the H.O.D of the Art Department at the College, and pioneered desktop publishing as a subject, offered as part of their art curriculum. He facilitated the introduction of a computer lab with twenty personal computers and design software such as Photoshop and CorelDraw… even one solitary apple computer for extra measure! I played around on these in high school, finding the combination of technology and art intriguing… all the possibilities! He encouraged me to study graphic design after school, but I flat refused. I wanted to carve out my own way in the world, anything but art.
So, I went and studied Media and Communication. Low and behold, the moment I walked into my first lecture for “Design & Layout” with Ms Dipti Varghese, I was hooked. I had found my place in the world; I took up the mantel, the near-inescapable destiny of the family business.
Today I wonder what my grandfather Albert would have thought of desktop publishing and graphic design in this current format. He was quite brainy so I am sure, had he been born in this century, he would have been a geek. Maybe he would have designed for an ad agency in Cape Town, or developed User Interfaces for the web. Maybe he would have freelanced like me, or taught graphic design like my father.
My hope is to stay curious and learn all I can about this rapidly changing industry, to train and equip other young designers, and to sharpen my skill so that I can design many more logical, beautiful and pleasing things in my lifetime. Who knows how design and communication will evolve over the next few decades? We have now way of knowing what to expect, so we need to be adaptable and creative problem solvers, yet still true masters of the art of the steady brush hand lettering.