The Annual IBD Holiday Gift Buying Guide

Christmas gift buying personifies my procrastination. I was well trained by my father to make last-minute holiday gift purchases so that pressure aides in the decision-making process. I’m of course in the same boat again this year. But as a gesture as to the selfless person I am, I’m going to keep tradition alive of the annual IBD annual gift buying guide. (Well, this is actually the first in the line of a soon-to-be tradition. We have dropped hints before.)

By focusing my efforts into online searches of items for the designer, interpretive designer, blogger, or all around geek, it keeps me from thinking about the needs of my friends and family.

This really began when IBD reader Phil Broder emailed Paul and me saying, “All I’m saying is that one of you is getting Superman socks, and the other is getting Wonder Woman socks, and I’m not gonna say which.”

We are still waiting on the socks. Phil, here’s the link just in case you lost it, Fashionably Geek.

Check out these other gifts for the IBDer.

This shirt actually shows you available WIFI connectivity strength by lighting up. It also measures how many bars of geekiness are available from you. It can be purchased at Think Geek.

Amazon.com describes this book as “interesting and eclectic journey examining the unending versatility of nature, showing how to uncover nature’s ingenuity and use it to create beautiful and compelling designed communications.” I haven’t read it yet but I plan on it (as soon as I receive it as a gift). As an interpretive naturalist, the concept sounds promising. I’m always down for an interesting and eclectic journey.

Interested in getting your little woman inspired in the kitchen? First stop calling her little woman and second, buy her this. That’s Nerdalicious reports that the Kitchen Aid mixer are only available in Brazil, which seems well worth the trip for your Wonder Woman.

I’m not much on hyperbole, but this is the single greatest piece of furniture ever made. I can be purchased at Tom Spina Designs.

What would an IBD Christmas list be without a flow chart? This one leaves all other weaker flow charts (including Which Baseball Team Should I Root For? and Which Football Team Should I Root For?) tapping out in submission. This appeals to me with the subject matter and the taxonomy. It can be purchased at Pop Chart Lab.

Once you have bought all of this nerdy loot, you have to wrap it. This is the coolest wrapping paper I have ever seen. Based around QR codes (You can read Paul’s post on QR codes here. Also here.) Design Boom states the “UK-based studio The Chase have designed several Christmas wrapping paper using QR codes that suggest gift ideas when scanned.”

I have more. If you are interested let me know and I’ll put up some more. Happy shopping!

Odds and Ends: Good, Bad, and Ugly

So this is one of those posts where I’m cleaning out my email inbox filled with ideas from readers to share on IBD. This week’s collection of odds and ends deals with one of my favorite things and one of my least favorite things and something simply ugly.

Let’s start with the good. The email was from Adrianne Johnson an interpreter at Niobrara National Scenic River in Nebraska. Warning to the birders: If you don’t have any free time step away from this link.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is working on a project known as Merlin. According to the website:

Merlin will be a new kind of bird identification tool—one that combines artificial intelligence with input from real-life bird watchers to produce an online “wizard” that helps people ID birds quickly and connects them to more information.

To build Merlin, we need to know how thousands of people remember and describe birds. You can help us by playing games that gather the information to help Merlin understand what bird watchers see. The more you play, the more you’ll help Merlin become a true bird ID wizard.

The website generates a random image of a bird. Like this one of a Sanderling.

The challenge is to see what three principle colors you see in that bird, and report it to Merlin. It is loads of fun, more or less the Wheel of Fortune for birders (minus all of those complicated conversations about consonants and vowels). You are also helping build a database of information. I completed 10 birds when I should have been concentrating on this blog.

Oh yeah, by the way, I love Cornell Lab’s logo.

Now for the bad from Phil Broder, as you would expect. His email plea of “Please, oh please, for the love of god, write an IBD about these!” sounded desperate, so I decided to include it. Also, based on an established history of turtle-related text messages from Phil, I was nervous about the ramifications of not sharing the story.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the new uniforms of the University of Maryland Terrapins. Keep in mind this post was about college football uniforms and not baseball, displaying our “fair and balanced” approach on IBD. For those who didn’t read the post (the majority of the free world), I can sum it up in one thematic statement: The Terps went all spandex on the state’s flag and that’s simply wrong.

Each week Maryland continues to unveil new versions of their uniforms. This week brought the latest helmet. Though creative, the helmet is embarrassing to all real terrapins out there.

Now for some ugly.

This is ugly for two reasons. One because I’m in it and second since I’m taking this opportunity to rub in my lunch with the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher Cliff Lee, at Paul. He had pork chops, turnip greens, pinto beans, cornbread and milk to drink, just in case you were wondering. He still hasn’t responded to my friend request on FB, but I know he’s busy.

Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus Says, “Don’t Steal!”

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about being plagiarized. In the comments on that post, I was particularly moved by this remark from IBD reader Heidi:

I agree with Karissa!

By way of context, I should point out that IBD reader Karissa had commented earlier on the same post:

Why not write a blog or two about copyrights and plagiarism in general? I would love to learn more about the challenges in the digital world regarding intellectual property.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I haven’t exactly written a post about copyright. But I’ve done the next best thing: I’ve stolen all of the text below from Dummies.com and claimed it as my own:

The Basics of Copyrights
A copyright protects an Original Work of Authorship (OWA) — think short story, computer program, or song lyrics, for example — which must have tangible form, be a result of significant mental activity, have no inherent technical function, and be the author’s original creation.

This seems pretty straightforward, though some might debate whether IBD is the result of actual “mental activity.” The most important thing to note here is that when you create something—anything—through your own “mental activity” (or in Shea’s case, randomly mashing his computer keyboard and punctuating it with “Go Yankees!”), you own the copyright. You don’t have to register it with any government agency (though you can; in the United States, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website to learn about that), and you don’t even have to put that © symbol on it. You own the copyright as soon as you create it, assuming you created it on your own time rather than on the job or under some other form of contract.

One obvious problem is that bad people steal things—be it money, intellectual property, or that parking space that I was clearly waiting for with my blinker on. Another less-obvious problem is that good people steal things without realizing what they’re doing.

Friend of IBD Amy Lethbridge shared this fascinating story from the Utne Reader about a mild-mannered guy named Noam Galai who posted an image of himself screaming on Flickr, only to find months later that it had been used around the world without his knowledge on everything from magazine covers to T-shirts to political posters. There’s a terrific video about it on the Digital Photography School website. (I’ve reproduced this poster from Uruguay in the name of fair use, which I’ll discuss below.)

In terms of technology, it’s extremely easy for me to download a photograph from a website and use it. But even if I credit the photographer and include a link to the website where I found the image, I’ve still used another person’s intellectual property without permission. I can legally use another person’s photograph if its owner has released the copyright (like some of those found on sites like Stck.Xchng or Wikimedia), if it is in the public domain (like many images created by government employees), or if I specifically request and receive permission from the copyright owner.

That said, copyright law does not always prevent you from reproducing another person’s work. The US Copyright Office says this:

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope…. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use.”

Fair use allows you to reproduce another person’s intellectual property for the purposes of commentary, criticism, or parody. If I use an artist’s illustration without permission just because I need an illustration, that’s copyright infringement, even if I credit the artist. However, if a piece of artwork has been put out in the world for public consumption and I use it in the course of critique or commentary (as with the poster above), that’s fair use.

If I publish the complete lyrics of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” for no reason, that’s both copyright infringement and poor taste. However, if I quote the single line, “Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while, Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies,” in the context of a post about how awesome senior prom was, that’s fair use.

If I write about certain design aspects of logos from Major League Baseball teams (which are trademarked rather than copyrighted, but fair use still applies), that’s fair use. However, if Philippe De Wulf of the Belgian design firm 6+1 takes all of the text from one of my blog posts and reproduces it in its entirety without my permission (even with that tiny little credit at the end), that’s copyright infringement.

In the end, the basics of copyright law are pretty simple: Don’t claim other people’s work as your own, implicitly or explicitly, and don’t use other people’s copyrighted material without permission. Unfortunately, technology has made copyright infringement extremely easy and far too common. If you’re an honest person, resist the urge to borrow copyrighted materials, even just this once, and even if they’ll never notice. If you’re a dishonest person, consider a career writing for the Belgian firm 6+1!

Note: The photograph of Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus at the top of this post was taken by Captain Budd Christman in the course of his duties as an employee of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

The Grid is Not Your Enemy

Some of our readers know already that we had a little incident this month where a post went viral and crashed our server. (Though many readers thought the message that appeared on our site for two days, “403 Forbidden: You don’t have permission to access / on this server,” was Shea’s finest work yet.) My one-post suspension imposed by the IBD commissioner is over, so it’s time to move on.

One of the promises we made to our new web host—ServInt Managed Hosting Services—was that our next few posts would get practically no hits at all. So this week I’m writing about the grid!

Friend of IBD Kelly Farrell recently sent me an email with the subject, “This page has a problem.” The body of the message contained only this link: www.thegridsystem.org. Any time Kelly sends me a link, even if it looks like spam, I know it’s going to be fun. I clicked right away.

I realized quickly that Kelly felt that the site’s problem might be that it was a little rigid, for lack of a better word. Arranged in a strict grid, the page contained many, many links to articles and resources related to—you guessed it—using grids in graphic design. (No mention of baseball, so far as I could tell.) At the top of the page was this quote from famed 20th-century Swiss typographer Josef Müller-Brockmann:

The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.

I was smitten.

Good graphic design requires restraint in terms of choosing a specific color palette or a limited number of typefaces within a composition or system. It also requires a system to guide where and how to place design elements. Using a grid is where it can be hardest for beginning designers to restrict themselves.

Whenever a new designer asks us to review a project, almost always, the first thing that jumps out is a lack of an underlying structure. (Also clip art.) In all of our training, writing, and relationship-advice call-in radio shows, we encourage designers to use a grid to guide placement of type and images.

Some people react against the idea of a grid because it sounds like what the IRS might use to create tax forms. If you’re one of those people, you can call it by its much sexier name, The International Typographic Style. With a name like that, you can bet that if James Bond were a typographer, he’d use it.

We discuss the grid in Interpretation By Design (the book)—complete with a nifty diagram of how to create one on pages 50 and 51. But the classic text on the subject is Müller-Brockmann’s 1961 Grid Systems in Graphic Design, which features the book’s grid right on the cover of the book. (Someone should steal that idea.)

There are other systems and philosophies that guide composition, but we encourage new designers to use the grid because of its visual cleanliness and relative ease of use. (You can start with a simple grid and work your way up to creating more complicated, versatile ones.) The grid reduces visual clutter and helps create hierarchy, but it can also be used creatively to create dynamic compositions.

Müller-Brockmann was well-know for his concert posters for Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (among much else). He created dynamic compositions not only within the context of a grid, but using the same grid for each one. You can see by looking at the posters above side by side how “beethoven” on the left falls on the same horizontal axis as “der Film” on the right. If you were to lay these posters on top of one another, you would see that the small type on each poster falls on the same vertical axis.

This is the same sort of system we recommend for series of exhibits or panels at interpretive sites. Using the same grid throughout a series of related compositions creates a visual consistency that ties them together, whether it’s five panels along a trail, a multiple-page publication, a series of publications, or a family of websites.

I admit, the word grid does not conjure up positive associations. It sounds rigid and uncreative, the designer’s logical Mr. Spock to the artist’s dreamy Captain Kirk. And when it’s enforced to its extreme, it makes Kelly Farrell send us links to websites that make designers look anal-retentive.

So don’t think of the grid as a grid—restrictive, severe, constricting. Think of it as a framework, the steel structure that supports the architecture of your composition. Or think of it simply as a system, a way to bring order to chaos. To paraphrase Josef Müller-Brockmann, think of it as an aid that will help you flesh out your personal design style.

So the next time you’re designing a publication, exhibit, website, or even some sort of flowchart, I hope you’ll use a grid to guide your composition. It may even land you on Katie Couric’s Twitter page.

Our Bad Habits

I occasionally read or listen to books that could be categorized as being self-help that deal with business, leadership, or other topics that could be interpreted as a cry for help. The more that I dive into these types of publications the more I feel the urge to read more of them. More than anything I like to keep up with the next catch phrase and dream of life on the business circuit as a motivational speaker. (Though purposefully I avoid phrases that involve the movement of any cheese.)

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with me is me, and much of the information provided in these books is generic, and these books promise more than they could ever produce, and at the very least are mildly thought provoking or entertaining (which happens to be remarkably similar to posts on this blog). Paul and my attempts to win friends and influence people have fallen short. I’m pretty sure Jedi “mind tricks” may have a better chance of success than IBD eliminating the use of Papyrus and Comic Sans.

Recently when I came across 100 Habits of Successful Graphic Designers by Sarah Dougher at a used bookstore, I couldn’t pass it up. The book was the perfect combination of self-help and design. After my initial scan of the index, and not finding anyone named Caputo, I knew the book had potential. The version of the book that I have was published in 2003 but I have recently found out that there are newer editions and specialized editions for freelancer designers and publication designers.

As I have said before, I have a short attention span and I like books that can be read in chunks and picked up and put down easily. 100 Habits allows this to take place easily with each habit only being one or two pages. The book is sold as is presented as if “grabbing lunch with a fellow designer to commiserate or celebrate.” Just like eating lunch with us without getting stuck with the bill.

The book is divided into eight chapters (like other non-picture books, from what I hear) with the topics of self-promotion, working with clients, workflow and in-house dynamics, continuing education, community involvement, technology, personal growth, and partnerships covered.

Rockport Publishing states, “Noteworthy designers, both past and present, working in fields ranging from graphic design, fashion, architecture, typography, and industrial design sound off on every topic, ranging from deadlines, inspiration, competition, rules, respect, education, and handling criticism-all with a certain amount of irreverence. Their thoughts are boiled down into succinct, quotable quotes and one-liners that exemplify their character and demonstrate their philosophy on the world around them.” Since I didn’t go to school to be a designer, I didn’t recognize many of the names but found their contributions interesting. As an interpreter who does design work I found their insight invaluable. Here is a sample of some of the habits. You will notice a steady diet of Cheetos and TastyKakes is not listed as one of the successful habits.

Habit #17 – “Don’t talk about CD art in a CD art meeting” offers solutions for working with invested groups. In this example about designing a CD cover/art invested parties involve the band, the label, and management which is not much different to working for/with visitors, resource, managers, interpreters, and the local community of an interpretive site. The featured designers have solved this problem by focusing on the needs of the artist, whose voice is often lost because of others’ interest (which is no different for the resource getting lost in the complexities of a project).

Habit #25 – “Find an emotional connection with your audience.” Okay, maybe designers should spend more time learning from interpreters.

Habit#44 – “Read it all, forget it all, and do your own thing.” Read page 91 of Interpretation By Design.

Habit #66 – “Make design invisible.” This habit asks the question “Can it (subject) be presented in a way that feels more memorable—that is designed but at the same time doesn’t feel like design overwhelms the information?” We write often here about the unique design of interpretive sites around the world. Perhaps we should be looking for those locations whose designs disappear in the subject and are not the subject itself.

I have learned from the contributions of designers in this book. I have also learned that Paul designs under the pseudonym CaptainKakes and still isn’t in the book.

Going with the Flow

What’s not to like about flowcharts? They are capable of transforming a complex issue or process into something that is simple, cut, and dry. I love how they work, you respond to a question and you get an answer. Sometimes your answer leads to another question but eventually you get an answer. Order can be brought from chaos through a flowchart. Now, if there were a flowchart on how I should appropriately respond to my wife, I would use it all the time. Wait, let me refer to my flowchart on when to use flowcharts…okay, I’m not so sure it would really work well after all.

Wikipedia.org defines a flowchart as “a type of diagram that represents an algorithm or process, showing the steps as boxes of various kinds, and their order by connecting these with arrows. This diagrammatic representation can give a step-by-step solution to a given problem.” (I must admit I just used this definition of flowchart to add the word “algorithm” and the phrase “diagrammatic representation” to our searchable list of keywords that will surely bring hundreds of hits to IBD.)

Paul and I often get asked difficult questions like, What color should I use in this logo? Which is better, In Design or QuarkXPress? What is the best file format for my project? and Do you know where your children are? All of these would be easier to answer with a flow chart. So why not create a FC (that’s flow chart for the really cool) to answer the ever-present question of which typeface should I use?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do it. Twenty-two year-old graphic design student Julian Hansen has created one for us. You can view the full image here. The FC asks some great questions and at the very least conceptualizes the thought processes behind choosing a typeface. Of course, much like IBD, there is an insane amount of humor woven into the chart and it shouldn’t be taken literally. Though I specifically love the path to Futura and Frutiger, along with the questions that lead to OCR.  Oh yeah, there is even a path to Comic Sans (though I think you know where we stand on that path).

I wish design decisions could be this easy. For years we have advocated that one of the most important areas for designers, non-designers, and interpretive designers to grow in is the ability to verbalize to supervisors, co-workers, and advisory boards on the reasons behind design decisions such as font selection. As the designer, if you can’t explain why you made a decision to foster support you shouldn’t expect support. Saying something like I just like it, or because I said so, only works with my wife.

If you haven’t created a FC in while take the time to do so. I use them in developing complicated PowerPoint programs, to map project progression, and as a way to conceptualize problem solving/solution finding. There are plenty of programs that more than likely already on your computer to help you with the process or you could always use free downloads such as SmartDraw. You could also go on with life, as a normal person.