Fun with Googling Colors

I was on the phone with Friend of IBD Howard Aprill not long ago, when he described something as being the color “vermillion.” Because Shea and I are going to present a graphic design workshop this summer at Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee, where Howard works, and because I am a graphic designer, I felt I should know what color vermillion was. Rather than ask, I changed the subject of the conversation to baseball and on the side, quietly Googled “What color is vermillion?”

Of course, the rest of my afternoon was shot. I’ve always wanted to know the difference between sea foam…

…and sea mist. (Not much.)

Or the difference between cerulean…

…and manganese. (Cerulean’s a little darker, maybe?)

Then, of course, this led to further exploration. (All while Howard and I were still talking, mind you. This may explain why I apparently agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” during our workshop in Milwaukee this summer.) What if you Googled “What color is [something that is not a color]?” Some (but not all) of these turned up interesting results.

What color is nature? (I thought this would come back overwhelmingly green. Kind of refreshing that it did not.)

What color is energy?

What color is Greece?

What color is New Jersey?

And, of course, this led to even more exploration. (At this point in the conversation, evidently, I’ve agreed to buy everyone Brewers tickets and wear a T-shirt that says “I’m Ryan Braun’s pharmacist” to the game.) I took a few of the screen captures above and uploaded them to my favorite color-palette generator, Kuler, which I wrote about way back when.

Here’s what I got for vermillion:

Cerulean:

Energy:

Nature (I love this one):

And New Jersey:

I think what this amounts to is a kind of fun, Internet-based brainstorming—and sometimes it works better than others. I would never commit myself to generating a color palette for a project exclusively using this method, but the results that it returns could be a springboard for thinking about colors in ways that you haven’t before.

I plan to explore this more in the future, and I’d love to see some of the results IBD readers come up with in the comments of this post. In the meantime, I have to figure out why my presenter’s agreement with the Wehr Nature Center says I’m doing Howard Aprill’s laundry.

Social Media at the #NAI2011 Workshop

I compare the annual NAI National Workshop to final exams. I spend most of my year building to this one week, during which I go sleepless, subsist almost entirely on buffalo wings and nervous energy, and then crash afterwards until someone wakes me for the holidays.

I have been to 10 NAI National Workshops, and I remember each one distinctly for different reasons. There was the 40 Days of Rain Workshop (Virginia Beach, 2002), the “Wheel of Fortune” Slot Machine Workshop (Reno, 2003), the Shiny Horse Incident Workshop (Wichita, 2007), and, of course, the Shorn Head Workshop (Las Vegas, 2010).

Last week’s Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, will always be the Social Media Workshop to me. Smart phones and tablets were everywhere throughout the event, and there was a steady stream of Tweets and Facebook posts from participants. NAI promoted a Twitter hash tag, #NAI2011, which participants used when Tweeting about the event.

For those not familiar with Twitter, a hash tag is a short phrase or set of characters set off with a pound sign (like #NAI2011) that Twitterers use to link their Tweets to other Tweets. In Twitter, you can click on a hash tag and see all of the Tweets that have included it. Being relatively new to Twitter, I was struck by the following effects of the #NAI2011 hash tag:

It generated buzz:

It connected people—in person and online:

It made people feel bad:

It spread the message:

It expanded the conversation beyond the session rooms:

It gave participating organizations a line of communication to their people:

It provided instant feedback:

It highlighted some of the tangential benefits of the event:

And, of course, it encouraged shenanigans:

I co-presented two sessions during NAI 2011, one on blogging with my esteemed IBD co-author Shea, and one on using social media in interpretation with Friend of IBD Phil Sexton. Both were well attended, but in particular the social media session was packed so full we called it Occupy NAI, and our room monitor was turning people away. That session was popular for three reasons: 1. New media is incredibly important to the field of interpretation. 2. People believed me when I told them that Phil is actually Kenny Rogers. 3. I can’t remember the third reason.

I consider the #NAI2011 hash tag experiment a success. It was widely used by participants, encouraged conversation, facilitated connections, and generated buzz about the event.

Now, on to #NAI2012!

Why Blog: The Interpretive Sourcebook Entry

We’re in Saint Paul, Minnesota, this week for the NAI National Workshop. We’ll be presenting a session on blogging Wednesday, which means we had to prepare actual content (something we’ve done only rarely in three years of blogging). Since writing this blog has inspired the content for the session, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share our paper (written by both of us) with you. Here goes:

Why Blog?
You should blog if there is an audience. As a blogger, it’s important to know your purpose and message, along with where your blog is going to fit in (a common problem for us anyway, and also anyone who identifies themselves as a blogger). We started the Interpretation By Design blog (which we now call simply “The IBD Blog”) in March 2009, about five months after our book by the same name was published. We were aware that there was an audience because multiple presentations at NAI workshops were filled with interest revolving around the subject matter (graphic design and interpretation). Post-presentation conversations (face to face, in emails, on Facebook) led us to create a forum for further discussion. The blog also offered an opportunity for discussion with those not able to attend a presentation or conversation.

Knowing your audience is a tenant of the interpretive profession that can be applied to blogging as well. On the internet, your blog has a potentially large, anonymous audience. IBD is a specialized subsection of two professions (graphic design and interpretation), and it occasionally crosses into other areas of interest (baseball). Just as interpretive sites have streakers, browsers, and students, your blog will have readers who will read every word, while most will pass through from time to time to catch up or see if there is anything of interest to them.

Getting Started
The nature of a blog, where someone has to purposefully come to your page on a regular basis, requires the interest mentioned above as well as knowledge of how a blog differs from a newspaper or book. This less-traditional form of media has room for more opinions, fewer facts, and lots of personality. Where a book is typically focused on one subject or topic, blogs can cover a much wider spectrum within that topic. These positive elements can also be negatives if the blog becomes too much of a personal platform that alienates portions of the audience or is inconsistent in topics.

Before you start a blog, ask yourself why you are doing it. Do you want to create awareness of a site, increase visitation, gain public support for political reasons, or sell a really awesome book that sometimes cracks the top million on Amazon’s rankings? The starting point for setting goals for your blog—as with any other media—is that it should support the mission of your site or organization.

If clear goals are established, you will see your audience grow. A portion of that commitment should be introspective towards building a voice through your writing. Just as front-line interpreters represent their sites to visitors, as the author of a blog, you represent your site to a potentially much larger audience. It’s important that you set an appropriate, engaging tone, and that your writing is interpretive (not just informational).

Nurturing and Maintaining Your Blog
Maintaining a blog is a lot like keeping a pet. It requires constant, consistent nurturing and left unchecked, it might make a mess on your carpet. Just as you can’t keep a pet alive by feeding it a lot for three days then ignoring it for a month, your blog can’t survive without regular attention.

Put another way: Blogs are also like romantic relationships. It’s easy to be enthusiastic when a relationship is new. There’s lots to talk about, it’s new and fun, and it’s your primary point of interest. Then months or years down the road, when you have a cold and other work-related deadlines and the kids are screaming for you to take them to Dairy Queen, the blog might not seem like the most important thing in the world. But without constant attention, the blog suffers and possibly goes away altogether.

Here’s how to keep your blog (or pet or relationship) healthy and vibrant:

  • Give it constant attention. Update your blog, at an absolute minimum, once a week, preferably more often. On our blog, we publish without fail (even on holidays and while we’re on vacation) every Monday (Paul) and Thursday (Shea). If you anticipate a busy schedule, write several posts in advance and use your blogging software (we use WordPress) to schedule them to go live at the appropriate time.
  • Don’t write a Russian novel. You’re more likely to get feedback on shorter posts that ask readers to participate. Our experience has been that posts more than 500 words or so are too long. (This does not stop us from writing long posts. We’re just aware that they’re too long.)
  • Mix it up. Sometimes you need to spice things up (the pet metaphor may break down a little here). In addition to regular posts that occur on a schedule, throw in a quick question, observation, or photo now and again. Commemorate a special event (such as a trip or conference) with a week of “Live from [wherever…]” posts.
  • Communicate. Some readers will simply read your blog and move on. Others will comment regularly. And a select few will comment on nearly every single post. Your commenters are there to engage in a conversation that you started, so be sure to participate. We appreciate all of the comments on Interpretation By Design, and try to show that by responding quickly, giving nicknames to commenters, mentioning them in subsequent posts, and taking suggestions. Even the people who just read and move on are also likely to read the comments.
  • Keep tabs on your blog’s health. You can track statistics on your blog through built-in software (we use a WordPress plugin called StatPress) or an online service like Google Analytics. A healthy blog will get higher and higher hit counts the longer it’s around. Some of these hits will come from random internet users (we get a lot of hits from Googlers searching the term “Phillies font”), but you’ll see consistent growth in numbers as your core readership expands. If you maintain a consistent schedule, your numbers will spike on the days of new posts.
  • Communicate some more. Blogging falls under the umbrella of social media, but it is altogether different from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Maintaining a presence on social media outlets is a great way to alert readers when a new post comes along, or to further the conversations you have on your blog.

Going Viral
Once you have established a routine and a regular readership, you never know what might explode on the internet and garner a lot of attention. For instance, our biggest viral event was caused by, of all things, a flowchart. What started as essentially an inside joke—an example of information design intended to help newcomers to baseball choose a team—was picked up by several national websites, shared extensively on the social networks (including being Tweeted by Katie Couric), and even translated into foreign languages and reposted. Ultimately, it crashed our website.

Obviously, your main focus should be on your core readership, but when that unpredictable viral event occurs, it’s a great way to make a huge number of people aware of your organization and its important mission.

Conclusion
Maintaining a blog is an opportunity for outreach that costs little in terms of finances, but requires great energy and commitment. It should have stated goals, a comfortable tone, regular content, and most importantly, reflect the passion and commitment of the interpreters at your site or organization.

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.

We Fear Change, Part 1: Facebook

We live in turbulent times. REM stopped making music, major college athletic programs change conferences almost daily, and Leonard and Penny split up after more than half a season together (I’m watching Big Bang Theory on Netflix Qwikster, so I’m a little behind the times). With all of this change, it’s a little unsettling when you reach for one of your comfort blankets at the end of a long day only to find that Mark Zuckerberg has knitted it into a completely unfamiliar pattern.

Welcome to what we’re calling Garth Algar “We Fear Change” Week here on IBD. I will discuss Facebook today, and Shea will address Netflix Thursday. Some day down the road, when we’re all emotionally prepared for it, we’ll write about the new logo for the Florida Miami Marlins baseball team.

In the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, the hateful Benjamin Kane (played by Rob Lowe) comes to Garth (Dana Carvey) with the insidious notion of giving arcade tycoon Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray) a regular interview segment on Wayne and Garth’s cable-access TV show. Garth responds with a simple “We fear change” and starts smashing the robotic hand he’s building with a hammer.

Those of you who use Facebook may have noticed that there have been some changes recently to the design and functionality of the popular social media site. Those of you who don’t use Facebook, this is why two-thirds of the people you know recently spent the better part of a week screaming as though someone (Mark Zuckerberg) had stabbed a fork through their hands.

To say that the reaction to Facebook’s redesign has been negative is a little like saying some people didn’t like the movie Cabin Boy. (Note: One of my favorites.) As with all of Facebook’s previous changes, this one was met with tears, confusion, and threats to cancel accounts (and that was just one guy).

The difference now is that there’s another option. Google+ is gaining momentum and is seen by many as an alternative to Facebook, if only they could get their friends to come along. The irony is that many of Facebook’s changes (increased interactivity, larger images, tweaks to the “list” feature) are in response to the emergence of Google+.

And this is the crux of the issue: Facebook is in the unenviable position of needing to stay current, respond to competitors, and adapt to emerging technology, all while keeping the Garth Algars of the world from freaking out.

The day the changes were unveiled, there was a collective uproar on the site. When I posted on my Facebook page that I didn’t mind the changes (I actually like the new scrolling, Twitter-esque news feed), it garnered a pile of comments, some of them unnecessarily personal. (I will say that I don’t support the changes wholesale; Facebook needs to address the fact that some of the new features have upended privacy settings by allowing friends of friends to see items only meant for a select few.)

The thing is, this all felt familiar to me. I was searching for reactions to the new look on Google and found articles going back years where irate Facebookers were screaming that they wanted the old site back. Every time the site has been updated, features have been added, users resisted, then got used to them and even came to enjoy and rely on them. (In 2006, Facebookers were unhappy with this gimmicky new thing called a “news feed”—now a staple of the Facebook experience.)

Facebook is an optional leisure activity, like watching baseball or visiting interpretive sites. People don’t want to feel confused and annoyed by something they choose to do in their spare time. Any change to a comfortable environment is going to be disruptive to some people.

Interpreters faced with the task of creating materials for visitors—especially repeat visitors—should be extra careful that changes to exhibits, publications, websites, and logos are not just for change’s sake, but for the improvement of a product. If you make drastic, unnecessary changes to a place where visitors come to learn and relax and enjoy some solitude, you may just find your self playing the role of that robotic hand in Wayne’s World.

If you make changes that are warranted and actually improve your product, people will get used to them, but you still may find yourself cursed out on a highway construction sign.

PowerPoint Poison

Last week, I presented a two-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Jacksboro, Texas, with our mysterious and reclusive third author, die-hard Texas Rangers fan Lisa Brochu. I always love traveling to present IBD workshops, as it affords me the opportunity to partake of local fare. In Texas, I got to eat a meal at a real City Drug soda fountain counter, see a game at a new (to me) Major League Baseball stadium, and learn exactly what 106 degrees feels like. (On a serious note: The IBD workshop took place just before the wildfires started. Our thoughts and best wishes are with our friends in Texas.)

There’s a facial expression I’ve seen a lot in recent years. As a frequent traveler and a parent of young children, I am very familiar with the look of dismay that dawns on airplane passengers’ faces when they see me approaching their row with my kids in tow.

I have seen this same look on the faces of conference attendees when they walk into a session room to find a presenter firing up an LCD projector and checking the batteries on his laser pointer. It’s bad enough when you’re faced with one or two hours with a PowerPoint show, but two days would be torture. During our two-day workshop in Texas, Lisa and I used PowerPoint slides for less than half the time.

The first morning of the workshop was conducted entirely without PowerPoint, then we fired up the projector after lunch that first day. So imagine you’re a participant in a two-day workshop. It’s roughly 1,000 degrees outside in the hottest summer Texas has had since the earth was an unformed ball of magma, you’ve just eaten chicken-fried something with fries and a milkshake for lunch, and you walk into a room to find the presenter turning off the lights and firing up the ol’ projector. What would you think? You’d think, “Oh no. Those kids aren’t going to sit by me, are they?”

Here are some tips I follow to keep from crushing the souls of IBD workshop participants with PowerPoint:

Make it image-intensive. I project images, usually with no words, and I talk about those images. Sometimes a single slide generates 10 minutes of conversation, sometimes it’s 10 seconds. The image above is a slide from my PowerPoint that I use as a springboard to talk about how different people use grids in different ways. (Look how adorable my children are. Don’t you feel bad about rolling your eyes when you saw them get on the airplane?)

Get the words out. At the moment, there are 166 slides in my slide show. (It changes frequently.) Only 15 of those slides have words, and most of those are introducing new sections. There are fewer than 50 total words in my entire slide show. (For the record, the word count goes up when I’m presenting with Shea. He can’t tell you his name in fewer than 50 words.)

I know you’ve heard this before, but the worst thing you can do is project bullet points and then read those bullet points. The only reason I repeat this is because I keep going to presentations where presenters read bullet points. Whenever I see this, I feel like the content of each slide is new to the presenter and he’s discovering it along with his audience. When I do use words, as with the “Serif” slide above, I don’t use full sentences to be read aloud, but rather a single word or phrase to be discussed.

Drop the laser pointer. If you have so much going on in a slide that you need a laser pointer to show it, you have too much going on in that slide. The only reason to take a laser pointer to a presentation is if you’re presenting to a room full of cats and you think it would be fun for them to chase the little red dot.

Not only are laser pointers not helpful, they are actively distracting. I find that presenters with laser pointers use them way more than necessary, seemingly absent-mindedly, to fill dead space or as a nervous tic. It makes me wonder if the laser-pointer button is connected to a morphine drip, like with those lab rats in that experiment back in the 1970s.

Don’t use effects. Don’t. They’re distracting and everyone hates them and we’re not impressed that you applied a checkerboard transition to every single slide. And for the love of all that is sacred and good, don’t make your bullet points bounce into the frame from the side.

The only time you’ll see me using transitions, movement, and sound in a slide show is in the above slide, which I use to demonstrate that PowerPoint effects are the Comic Sans or clip art of the multimedia world.

Mix it up. No matter how good your slide show is, it’s not going to keep everyone engaged for the entire presentation. Be sure to mix in activities, conversation, and content that does not require projected images.

Finally, take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. I realize that every presentation is going to differ based on the content and purpose of that presentation, so it’s impossible to apply hard and fast rules to every one of them. The most important common thread of all of my suggestions above is that presenters should seize control of their content. PowerPoint is a useful tool, but used incorrectly, it can sap the energy out of your presentation. It should complement your personality, not replace it.

One final note: Thanks to Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel, who shared a link on our Facebook page to the Swiss Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP), which fights against the “economic damage resulting from presentations using PowerPoint.”