April 11, 1994

David Lance Goines owns and operates Saint Hieronymus Press, located in Berkeley, California. He is a graphic designer, printer and writer whose work is internationally known. Goines' graphic work includes posters, wine labels, illustrations and book jackets.

First, describe to an outsider what you do.

I draw pictures. I make flat things. If it is flat-books, drawings, posters, writing-I do it. I started out in 1965 as a printing pressman. My training was as a printer, so I learned the production end first. I learned what printed well, and what didn't. When I became involved in graphics, I knew how to print and how to design things that looked good when they were printed. I could print what I designed, which kept costs down, and quality up. I still do most of my own presswork. In design I use ordinary tools-brush, pencil, paper-though I've begun exploring computer design.

What's your definition of creativity?

The dictionary definition is to make something out of nothing, " ... to make, form or constitute for the first time." It need not be a big thing. You may start at a low level, and make something that is new only to you. A child learns the alphabet-it's not new to the rest of the world, but it's new to her. You proceed by easy stages up to things that are less common, and at last perhaps to something rare and strange. We think of Albert Einstein as an illustration of great creativity. What did he do? He created ideas from other, older ideas. He used the alphabet and numbers; he put elements together that had been there before, but he put them together in a new and different way, and that was creative.

Creativity is not so much answering as asking questions. If you look at the history of ideas, it's not about finding the answer but of asking the right question. You can ask simple questions and get wrong or inadequate answers, and sometimes you get discouraged and stop. But it's important not to stop. Keep on asking questions and rejecting easy or useless answers.

Ultimately, becoming creative is like anything else: if you want to become a writer, you must simply write. If you want to become an artist, you must draw and paint. If you want to be creative, you must begin by creating whatever you can at whatever level is available to you. Don't look at the big picture, just put one foot in front of the other and before you know it, you'll have made some progress.

When the 98-pound weakling looks at Charles Atlas, he might go up to Mr. Atlas and say, "Gee, Mr. Atlas, how did you get such big muscles?"

And Mr. Atlas will say, "When I was skinny like you, I lifted shrimpy weights. I got bigger by lifting bigger weights every day. Every day I had setbacks; I had no girlfriend; I just lifted weights. And I became the world's strongest man." Creativity works the same way.

Don't worry about whether it's any good or not. Art is not about the output, it's about the input. Just do it.

You can pretend to work at something, by observing the outward forms. If you think you're too fat, you can actually do something or you can indulge in the illusion of action. If you begin exercising and eating less, you will lose weight and replace fat with muscle. If, however, you buy a diet book and join a gym and buy exercise clothes and an aerobics video and a home exercise machine and then don't actually do anything else, you will not benefit. It seems like you're doing something, but you're not. Why? Because you're not eating less and exercising more.

My advice about being creative is, "Be creative."

What's so hard about this? If you want a mind that's more than a 98-pound mind, if you want a strong, healthy mind, you must exercise. Study a language-you'll think better. If you want to become a writer, write. Write as much as you can. Do it until you're tired, and then come back and do it more. Each day you will get better, just as if you were to go to the gym and lift weights until you were tired, and then come back the next day and do it again. Soon you will marvel at the tiny weights you struggled with so long ago, and weaklings will admire you as once you admired those who were stronger. You can change yourself from weak to strong if you desire it.

If you want to draw, draw. Draw people. Your first drawings may be bad, or at least not as good as expert artists whom you may admire. Do not compare yourself to others. Pursue your own star. If you draw a lot, you will get better.

Drawing is learning to see; writing is learning to hear. As you get better, you will no longer be satisfied with what once satisfied you, because you will be able to see what before was invisible, and to hear what before was inaudible. Eventually you will get to the point that you realize that although you will get better and better until you die, there is and can be no perfection. Perfection is not a goal.

You may have talent, or inborn ability, and you may not. You may have a lot and you may have a little. It is of no importance. There are millions of people who have talent, but they do nothing with it. Generally speaking, people value things in direct proportion to what they cost. If you have to work hard for something, you will value it highly. If something comes easy, you will dismiss it.

I work hard and have something to say, and I say it as best I can. I have little talent, but lots of courage to fail. Failure is good. It means you're stretching, always stretching your arms out further than you can hold.

You don't know where you stand on the grand scale of talent and ability. You'll have to explore. Technical expertise comes first, for without it nothing will happen. You've got to "get your chops up," in the words of my brother, Lincoln Goines, the jazz musician. Practice.

We all have a vision. We all have something to say. That's where your talent lies. Great artists are distinguished from lesser artists, not by technical expertise but by vision. The question is, "What do you have to say that nobody else can say but you?" Then, having asked that question, go out and find it.

Cheap red wine, the morals of an ally-cat, a silly beard and a beret do not make an artist. The illusion of action is not sufficient. There are no easy answers. Do things that you find difficult. Go down to the gym and lift some weights and you will get strong. Sit at home and think about it, and you will stay weak.

Do a good job, as well as you can, and let the genius and creativity look after itself. Follow your own voice and not the voice of someone else. You might be a great singer, or writer, or artist, or race car driver, but unless you work at one of these things, you will never know. Let posterity worry about that stuff.

Could you describe your own creative process?

It's difficult, but I'll try. The first thing I do is to think about an idea in an unusual way. Then, I try not to think about it for a while. Then, I sit down and let ideas flow out, each one as a springboard for the next, trying to grasp the slightly odd, yet somewhat familiar. I try to keep things familiar, yet fresh enough so that though it does not seem to be a cliché, it still is recognizable. Thinking about the task at hand, and not merely plugging in a formula or slick artwork, that's the challenge.

I try to keep it interesting to look at, too. Things that are too simple may be dull, also. I pare away inessentials, but in the words of Einstein, "we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." So, though I do not say too much, I say what needs to be said and not less. Part of my task is to entertain and amuse the viewer, by which means I also persuade it to one action or another.

When I've got something to look at, I subject it to the criticism of friends whose opinions I respect. A friend who can say, "This looks too dreary," or "I don't understand your point," or "It needs to be changed here and here." Most people can't do that terribly well. They may like something or not like it, but they can't articulate what they like or don't like about it. These people are not useful critics. I don't want to hear, "Gee, I really like it," or "Oh, that's wonderful." I need someone who can say why and what. Generally, these useful critics are writers and artists themselves.

What are the sources of your inspiration?

I am of course influenced by everything around me. Everything I see, everything I hear, everything I touch. But there are specific influences, such as Japanese woodblock prints, the German Art Nouveau, the Italian Renaissance.

I like a certain look of roughness and irregularity. I do not like clean, sterile perfection. I find a rough line more pleasing, more legible than a clean line. If you were to contrast the typeface Helvetica with Caslon, you would realize that the cleanness and spareness of Helvetica make it harder to read and harder to remember what you have read. With Caslon every letter is different, so you don't have to spend much time deciphering which is which. You read big gulps of words all at once. With Helvetica, they're as much alike as possible, which makes it hard to tell them apart. When you read Helvetica, you slow down because you have to figure out if the letter is a lower case "i" or a lower case "l" and you read almost letter-by-letter. Helvetica looks like it would be easy to read, because it's so simple, but really the more complicated, rough and irregular letters of Caslon win the contest. Things set in Caslon get read; things set in Helvetica get looked at.

When you consider a perfect line, or surface and compare it to a rough line or surface, you realize that they bear a different relationship to the real world. A line that's absolutely perfect depends for its appearance on its perfection. If it gets damaged, or dirty, it becomes repulsive. But, a rough line can take the wear and tear of everyday life. A smooth white wall soon becomes disgusting with all the fingerprints and dirt and dings of daily life raining down on it; a brick wall becomes more beautiful with age.

Levi's get faded, stained and dirty, but the older they get the better they look. A white linen suit will be fine for a moment, but it must always be clean and pressed, or you will look like a bum.

Things that embrace and accept reality are much nicer in the long run. A brown shingle house with a yard full of wildflowers is more pleasing to me than a white stucco house with a manicured lawn.

Do you like what you do?

I like to come to work in the morning. I am glad each day when I rise and think of going to work. How many people can say that? Sometimes I look around and think, "Where are the grown-ups? Why isn't somebody trying to stop me from having fun?" It's crafts period all day long. I don't have to do anything I don't like. I draw and cut with scissors and paste and color, I eat glue and flip spitballs at the girls and read "Professor Marvel" comics and write stories to amuse my friends. I tell jokes.

I don't make much money, of course. That would be too much, I suppose. To have fun and make money, too. I get respect and esteem, but not too much cash. Even now, after thirty years I find it hard sometimes to make ends meet. Being an artist and writer means having a rewarding life but you have to accept that there are some things that you're just not going to get. You have to be totally committed, and this may mean that some aspects of your life will not get much attention. But, what the heck.

People don't set out to become artists, really. They generally fall into whatever they're going to become by a series of accidents. They set out to become independent adults and somewhere along the line they find some kind of work and before you know it, in the twinkling of an eye, you look up and you're fifty years old, and it seems like only a day has passed.