If not golden, silence can be precious, especially when trying to find a way out of a bad design problem. As they like to say – “back in the day” – we used to layout lettering by hand. I was never good at it, and it was the part of carving that I least liked. As soon as computers came on the scene, I eagerly discarded the tracing and graph paper for a nice word processing application. But as I said back when it was by hand.
One particular week I was laying out a transom banner with a flowing font; the letters joined by graceful ligatures and flourishes. I had tried explaining to the client that the banner would be an illegible scrawl from any distance. But he was firm in his resolve. So there I sat, attempting to make the unintelligible both readable and stylish with my very inadequate skills. At that moment into my shop walked my nephew ( by marriage) Douglas. In the vernacular used by an English friend of mine Douglas was a “carker” – a whiney little brat who couldn’t shut up ( actually the term “bloody” usually preceded carker if Douglas was not around).
About eleven, precociously bright and with a mouth that was always moving, he was annoying. Today I was his babysitter, so I had the pleasure of his company while the rest of the family was in Portland shopping. I distracted him for almost an hour with a piece of wood and a plane as he practiced some plane craft. But now he was bored, and wanted to know more about what I was doing. It was not a good time.
Into the shop walked the client, spying the layout on the bench he started asking about progress. While we were talking, Douglas walked over and, grabbing the drawing, proceeded to turn it upside down and then back right side up. Smiling, the client asked Douglas what he thought of it. I was now flinching. Douglas was eleven, a motor mouth, and small for his age, but he was bright and didn’t like condescension. Flipping the drawing around, he plainly stated the obvious: ” This font is terrible. For identification purposes, the Coast Guard won’t like it. But if you turn it upside down, it’s a nice abstract design. I’d go with a nice font like Palatino on this, simple, elegant, and very legible.” The client was flustered; having your illusions shattered by a plain-speaking eleven-year-old was never pleasant. The client stormed out of the shop, and I had lost the job.
Sitting there, I took in the design I had sweated over, thought about the balance in the checking account, and pulled out my wallet and handed a dollar to Douglas. Douglas stammered out: “Uncle Wes…I am so sorry. What’s the dollar for?” Douglas had absorbed all my idle chatter over the past week about the design. He had also unknowingly relieved me of one hell of an unpleasant commission. ” Douglas, you did well – simple and elegant is good. I loved the way you capsized the design to look for a balance.” the kid seemed to glow, and for once was he was silent.
Another carver got the job after me and had similar issues. Sometimes you are just lucky when clients walk away. Douglas enjoyed an ice cream cone on me when we saw the completed banner gracing the client’s boat down at the harbor.