Ward Nicholson

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Work Overview: How It All Fits

Career Evolution

Hover your cursor over the “Work” menu item on the main site navigation bar above, and among the submenu items you’ll see are Hangman/Picture-Hanger Guy, LeewardPro Custom Car Tags, Proofreading, Graphic Design, Font Production, and Reverie Massage Music Playlists. What the heck? Why is one guy doing all these different things, and how are they related?

Sre, some of them have to do with graphic design. But picture-hanging? Car tags? Massage music playlists? Huh? And where did that last one come from, anyway? Does this dude have some kind of split-personality disorder? Plus, if you’re in the advertising business, have you ever known a graphic designer who could proofread their way out of a cardboard box? Are you kidding me? What gives?

Here’s what it all comes down to: All of my life I have been a lover of the printed word, and most of the pursuits I’m involved in career-wise can trace their way back to that in one roundabout way or another. And, even though some of what I do falls under the label of “graphic designer” today, I actually started out as a typographer many years ago, which was my first love when it comes to work.

As a young kid

It started early. My mom said she read to me from a very young age, and I began reading a lot on my own beginning in the second grade. Part of our report-card grade in reading was dependent on how many books we read, so that was one incentive, but really not the main one for me.

Reading and discovery. For whatever reason, I came to love reading for its own sake. I loved not just the stories, but the process of discovery. What was going to happen or be revealed next kept me turning the page, book after book. Whether it was fiction or nonfiction, the lure applied, not just to stories but to knowledge. Over the years, at some point, the process of learning for its own sake took over. Arriving at a new viewpoint — a more expanded perspective to slough off an old way of thinking about something and come upon a new way to fold it into a larger, more inclusive outlook — became the draw.

Not only love of reading — love of fonts. In part because of my love of the printed word, I have always had a fascination with typography and fonts as well. Early on, since I was reading so much of the time, I would notice certain typefaces were more or less easy to read, more or less hard on the eyes, more or less attractive. Some were frumpier and more staid, others more elegant. Some more scrumptious for long-term reading and enhancement of the experience, while others detracted and made it less satisfying.

Learning for its own sake

Beyond specific things like this I had a particular affinity for, I was interested in reading about many things. I liked learning itself enough that I enjoyed the process of scaling the learning curve, developing skill in just about anything in which I had an opportunity or developed an interest. I liked a range of things and didn’t want to be forced to restrict myself to any single thing in particular. While a plus in many ways, this also meant I was out of step in a society that wants to thrust us into fixed roles.

So why is it we have to specialize in one thing? The funny thing was I never knew “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” In college, I ended up getting a business degree — due to my wide range of interests, I wasn’t strongly drawn to any one thing, so a business administration major was more of a practical default choice than anything else.

After graduation I cast about, still not really knowing what kind of career or job I wanted. I worked as a greenskeeper on a couple of different golf courses, having played a lot of golf as a kid. I tried computer operations for a short time, and went back to the university to take another semester of coursework, in computer programming this time around. Then I found a word-processing job at a large corporation because of my previous computer operations experience (this was some years prior to the advent of personal computers), and because I had always liked writing and typing reports.

Getting a career foothold

First self-employment stop: freelance typesetting. From there, a friend who knew of my situation suggested I get in touch with another friend she thought I should know. The other individual was a graphic designer wanting to get out from under the loan payments on a phototypesetting machine he’d purchased for his design business. (At this point, the advent of desktop publishing on personal computers was still a few years into the future.) I followed up on the lead, and my parents — happy to see me finally find an occupation I was enthused about, wanting to encourage me to forge my own way, and willing to take a risk — co-signed on the loan for me to acquire the typesetting equipment.

And so with that, I was now in business: exciting but also very scary, with loan payments to make. Not only had my parents helped make it possible, but I benefited from the help of this designer as well, who became both a client and a lifelong friend. And it also took a lot of very hard work and long hours, of course. (People who have never been self-employed, or married to someone who is, have no idea.) Somehow, here I was with my own freelance typesetting business, with ad agencies and graphic designers as clients. A business doing something that I loved, having stumbled onto it almost without thinking.

From typesetting into graphic design and writing. The business rolled along fairly swimmingly for several years, but it didn’t last. The desktop publishing revolution hit in earnest within just a few years of my business’s launch, and progressively began undermining the entire typesetting industry, eventually driving all those making their living in it out of business. It was sink or swim.

I had picked up both some graphic design and ad copywriting skills just by observation and having been steeped in the advertising and graphics business (which had been the only real place to make any decent money typesetting). So from there I shifted into freelance graphic design, and later, freelance writing and ad copywriting for a time.

Detour: repetitive stress injury

All the computer work eventually resulted in repetitive stress syndrome, however (serious tendonitis), so I was forced to backpedal for a while till I figured out how to manage it successfully.

Massage therapy to the rescue. One aspect of treatment and rehab that proved to be useful on an ongoing basis was getting regular deep-tissue massage to help deal with the tendonitis. Part of the ritual of massage therapy is putting on relaxing yet engaging music as accompaniment. However, typical massage or yoga music sold as such can often be too bland, boring, and languid — at least for my taste. The massage therapists I’ve worked with often feel the same, and prefer something more energetic to help keep things moving along while working.

Personal hobby putting together massage-therapy music playlists. Having had some musical training as a youngster, I thought I could do better, so out of this grew the pastime of putting focused effort into creating specially tailored track sequences that I eventually titled Reverie Massage Music Playlists. After having compiled an array of these over the years, it occurred to me it might be interesting to put the tracklists up on the website. Perhaps those in the field of massage therapy would appreciate them too, but it would be just as intriguing to see what music others might suggest along the same lines. (In my experience, finding suitable music for massage therapy with just the right balance of energy, relaxation, and accomplished musicianship in the first place is the biggest obstacle, not simply the stage of arriving at an entrancing selection and sequence of tracks.)

Freelance proofreading from the ashes of typesetting

Somewhere around this time, when I was attempting to deal with the initial repercussions of repetitive stress and how it had negatively impacted my career, I was contacted by the owner of an ad agency (a former typesetting client) about doing freelance proofreading for them, which I took them up on. It was a skill that came naturally and was “second nature,” and also to at least some degree helped get me away from the computer keyboard, the largest single cause of the repetitive stress problems. And proofreading on a freelance basis is something I still do today.

Like the other designers and agencies who had formerly subcontracted out their typesetting work, this agency had discovered typos and other errors were very difficult to catch on their own — always lurking, and ready to cost money or cause embarrassment. So the proofreading skills I had developed previously as a typesetter ended up becoming another way to supplement my income.

Self-employment, take two

Promotional license plates business. After eventually hiring on and working for the above ad agency for a brief couple of years, an opportunity came along to work with another friend and graphic designer in his custom promotional car tags business. We had initially met years before when I set type for him on a few graphic design jobs. Along the way he had started the car tags business as a sideline, then at this later date proposed we partner in it, with him doing the screen-printing and shipping, while I handled dealing with customers, designing tags, programming and maintaining our order-tracking database, and running the business’s website. Which we did and enjoyed for several years together. My friend eventually moved on, but this business, which we called Leeward Productions (for our first names, Lee and Ward), is one I still run.

Font classification schemes. It was during this time that I had to wrestle with the issue of quickly identifying fonts to rebuild customer logos for their car tags. Often customers could not supply us with their original logo artwork files. I had played with font classification schemes previously during my days as a typesetter, when putting together my font library listing as a reference for clients to keep on hand. But for the car tags business, locating a font quickly without burning too much extra time was critical because it could be a significant bottleneck otherwise.

Aside from rebuilding logos, creating the design for an order of car tags was the most time-intensive aspect of the work involved, if the customer hadn’t supplied print-ready artwork themselves. Finding a font with just the right look and feel required was a key aspect of speeding that task along. Because — aside from a logo, mascot, or other organizational symbol — promotional license plate design usually consists of little more than the customer’s identifying graphic plus a few large words artfully laid out. So capturing just the right appearance to get the impact the customer wanted was essential, with the right font(s) a central component.

From this experience, I spent a solid year and a half of spare time creating and building out a font classification scheme to quickly locate any type of font, or to identify any specific font, which I now call FontCompass, and that I’ve used on the job for over 10 years.

The opening of a door into font production work. I also happened to make the acquaintance of Chuck Davis at Letterhead Fonts during this time, having licensed a good deal of the fonts in their library for use designing license plates. I had been tinkering around with modifying fonts for years behind the scenes and, based on the recommendation of an artist in his stable of font designers whom I’d gotten to know, Chuck gave me the opportunity to produce a few fonts for the foundry, which I greatly enjoyed and that expanded my skill set further.

This work involved taking alphabets that lettering artists had created as drawings in Adobe Illustrator (or that might have been first created by hand prior to importing into Illustrator), bringing them into FontLab, and building a font from there. From time to time I’ve also assisted a key supplier of license platemaking equipment to the prison system in the U.S. in converting the design of physical, embossed license plate font dies into digital fonts, as more plates are produced digitally these days. For the latter work, I first import AutoCAD drawings for steel font tooling into Adobe Illustrator for cleanup, then bring things from there into FontLab to convert the fonts for use on computers.

A new direction

Chance meeting in a grocery store leads to picture-hanging business. More recently, because of a connection that harked back to my typesetting days, I got into an interesting part-time business — perhaps odd on first glance — working with an older friend: that of hanging pictures, paintings, and other items on the walls of businesses and homes (the latter usually higher-end ones). The need for hanging items in larger homes often comes up immediately after a family has moved into a new residence or remodeled, and needs to get everything up on the walls all over the house in short order. We also deal with difficult-to-hang items such as large, heavy mirrors, or items that need to be hung in difficult areas such as over concrete or brick, on wood paneling, or high up above mantels or in stairwells, for example.

The items to be hung comprise a lot more than just pictures, paintings, and mirrors: anything that can be hung on a wall, really, such as plaques, clocks, wall lamps, shelves, towel racks, whiteboards and bulletin boards, metal sculptures, wood carvings, animal heads, the occasional flat-screen TV, and so on. It’s a business this friend of mine — who goes by the name of The Hangman — has operated on a part-time basis for over 50 years now, beginning during his time as student director of a university art museum.

We had met, years before, when I set type for him on a series of print jobs during his years as a designer and salesman at a large printing manufacturer in our area (his day job at the time). After many years out of contact, we started bumping into each other at the grocery store every year or two, and the last time it happened, he let me know he was looking for an assistant and wondered if I would be interested. I was, but told him I didn’t have the handyman skills required, although those were something I’d always wanted to acquire. He thought my graphic design background was a lot more important to the job, and agreed to school me on the hands-on skills required, and so I started tagging along and eventually joined him in the work.

The view from here onward

Which brings us to the present. It will be interesting seeing how things evolve from here. Given the uncertainty of the economy since the 2008 financial crisis, I like being in the position of having more than one income stream going to help weather the years ahead. And I can certainly vouch for the old saying that “variety is the spice of life.” Learning new things is what keeps life continually interesting — for me, at least. How about you?

I’d look forward to working with you on your next project if our needs coincide. Take a look under the “Work” menu item on the main navigation bar just under the masthead of the site to find out more and see what you think. Please don’t hesitate to contact me, and we’ll go from there.

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