Attack of the Crab Monsters

My children are happiest in water. Usually, if there’s any conflict between them, I can put them in a pool, or failing that, a bath tub (and if that’s not possible, I can turn a hose on them out on the back porch) and it improves their mood (or at least redirects their ire from each other to me). I took a trip with my family to Australia in 2010, when my children Joel and Maya were six and three years old, respectively. When they talk about Australia, they talk almost exclusively about time spent in water—oceans, pools, one particularly rainy day in Tasmania, etc.

Joel, in particular, tells a story about having his pinky pinched by a crab while we were at the beach on the southern coast near Melbourne. This story has grown with retelling in the two years since; it now concludes with my brave son glaring at the offending crab still attached to his hand, then flinging it high in the air with a flick of the wrist, presumably to splash back into the ocean when it finally lands somewhere over the horizon. (The actual story involves a lot of tears followed by promises of ice cream.)

I was recently alerted by Friend of IBD and author of the Nature Geek blog Katie Fisk to the existence of something called a Japanese spider crab (pictured above in a photo by Hans Hillewaert). I Googled the spider crab and came across this pre-1920 photo from Popular Science Magazine. I assumed at first that this was a big, Internet-based practical joke at my expense, but these things appear to actually exist. It turns out that Japanese spider crabs can measure up to 13 feet from claw to claw.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is in the ocean, so this is something I did not want to know—first because the mere existence of such an animal is terrifying, and second because my son, now almost eight years old, continues to antagonize crabs by telling and escalating the story of being attacked in Australia. With a couple more retellings, the offending crab will be one of these enormous Japanese spider crabs rather than the tiny thing it actually was. Eventually, the story will turn into this:

This is a real-life example of one of my favorite graphic design techniques—scale shift, taking a small object and making it huge so that people see it in a different way. In the book Interpretation By Design (just several thousand copies left, order soon!), we use the example of an image of an acorn blown up to cover an entire wall. I can also imagine an exhibit about great inventions beginning with a huge image of a paperclip (certainly a great invention if there ever was one).

Scale shift works by making big things small, as well. Imagine an exhibit about human history (to name one small topic) beginning with a wall covered with an image of outer space. Off to one side of the image, a small, blue-green planet is marked with an arrow and the text, “You are here.”

Whether you’re making small things big or big things small, scale shift is one way to interest viewers by subverting their expectations.

Thankfully for all of us, there are no real giant mutant acorns or paper clips coming to kill us as we splash innocently in the ocean on vacation. Unfortunately for all of us, the Japanese spider crab is real, and it’s ticked because Joel is telling that story again.

Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

Kicking Around an Idea

We write about a lot of things on IBD not really related to interpretation or design. We like to write about sports, since neither of us have ever been accomplished athletes, despite our physiques. We comfort ourselves, from the tough times we had in high school (and all other parts of our lives) with the simple fact that we are good with computers (or as we refer to them, our high school sweet hearts) and our mastery of buffets.

Today is a first. I’m pretty sure in the history of IBD, and all of the sports banter, we have never written about soccer. It is possible we have used the phrases soccer mom, shin guards, and bangin’ minivan. I’m sure they were all in positive contexts too.

The football (that’s what well-cultured people call soccer) team in Sevilla, Spain, has introduced a new design element into their players’ uniforms, as well as a unique way to generate revenue. According to Wikipedia the Sevilla Fútbol Club S.A.D. (insert your own joke here about soccer being S.A.D.) “are one of the most successful clubs in Spanish football having won a 1 La Liga title, 5 Spanish ‘Copa del Rey’ Cups, 1 Spanish Super Cup and 2 UEFA Cups. Their sole league title was won in 1945-46, and their UEFA Cups were won under manager Juande Ramos in 2005 and 2006.” That all sounds really impressive.

I feel like I can trust Wikipedia, since they say this about the Philadelphia Phillies: “The age of the team and its history of adversity has earned it the dubious distinction of having lost the most games of any team in the history of American professional sports.” That’s how I fact check sources.

Anyway back to soccer, the Sevilla FC is selling the opportunity to be on the back of your favorite players, during a game. Not literally, virtually that is, in pixels. For $25 Euros (about $35 U.S. Dollars) you can submit a headshot that is placed into a collage that forms the number on a uniform. The number 14 above is what it looks like from a distance.

It is a 2×2 millimeter photo but still pretty cool. I’m sure they sell those jerseys as well. According to NESN.com each number consists of over 3000 images.

Let’s do some math: 3000 images times $35 per image times number of players on the team equals billions and billions of dollars. I’ve never claimed to be a mathematician. Perhaps I confused the number of players with the number of vuvuzelas at a match. It is still a lot of money and an original idea.

The design component is also visually interesting. I see potential for use at interpretive centers’ donor walls as well as program elements. The idea could easily be adapted into volunteers’ uniforms or a unique way to thank visitors. Of course it could be connected to resale by developing products that incorporate all of the bird species that could be found at a site.

I wonder how much I would have to pay to ride on the back of Derek Jeter during a game?

The Rule of Thirds: It’s Just a Suggestion

To clear up some confusion, the Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the minimum number of trips you’re supposed to take through the line at a Las Vegas buffet. Turns out it’s a useful and simple technique for guiding composition!

That said, the word rule can be a little oppressive, so I’m going to write this post about the Suggestion of Thirds. In short, it goes like this: A composition divided into thirds (or fifths) is natural and pleasing to the eye, like a National League pitcher, while a composition divided in half or into an equal number of parts is cumbersome and awkward, like an American League hitter trying to bunt or pull a jersey over his steroid-engorged head. (The Suggestion of Thirds is really just a simplification of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. There’s a good post on that here.)

Some rules are designed to be ignored as soon as you learn them (see speed limits), while others are ignored because some people missed that week of school (see Shea and punctuation). The Suggestion of Thirds is one that you should know, but once you learn it, you may decide it’s not necessary in every occasion.

With all of that as preamble, the Suggestion of Thirds is widely used for good reason. Take the case of the adorable kitty cat souvenir in Greece.

In this original, uncropped version, our adorable kitty cat souvenir is smack-dab in the middle of the photo. It’s not terribly interesting.

Using the Suggestion of Thirds, you might crop it like this.

The lines that occur naturally in the photograph (in this case, the horizon and the wall) fall roughly on the superimposed guidelines that divide the photograph in thirds. The focal point of the photograph (in my opinion, the cat’s eyes) falls on an intersection of one vertical guideline and one horizontal guideline.

This is another possible cropping of the same photo.

This cropping has the advantage that one of the secondary visual elements, the mannequin in the background, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.

The Suggestion of Thirds can be applied to most images. This caterpillar in Malaysia curls around a vertical guideline and a horizontal guideline, with its head landing right at the intersection of two guidelines.

The focal point of this photo is the pillars of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, Greece. The pillars land roughly on an intersection of two guidelines.

And the eyes of this koala outside of Melbourne, Australia, fall right on the first horizontal guideline.

With landscapes, many photographers push the Suggestion of Thirds to the Suggestion of Fifths, as with this photograph of Philadelphia. (Note that the tallest building in the skyline, the Comcast Center, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.)

In instances where the Suggestion of Fifths is employed, the horizon typically falls either on the bottom guideline to show a lot of sky, as with the photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado, above…

…or the horizon falls on the top guideline to show the terrain, as with this other photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado.

The very worst thing you can do with any composition is put a starburst in it. The next worst thing you can do is split it in half, as with the photo of Puerto Rico here. This is one of the reasons we oppose centering things, and it’s one of the reasons we suggest that compositions like interpretive panels and even individual pages be divided into an odd number of columns.

One of your responsibilities as a designer is to edit images that are delivered to you. None of the photos I’ve used as examples in this post arrived perfectly cropped and ready to use. They all had to be cropped in some sort of layout program.

As a designer, you should be thinking about the Suggestion of Thirds at all times, even when you’re watching The Big Bang Theory or combing your goatee. You should use it when laying out compositions, cropping photos, or combing your kid’s hair. It’s easy to remember, simple to implement, and visually pleasing.

But it’s just a suggestion.

Taking Liberty with Lady Liberty

Okay, for those really paying attention (Paul and Jeff) I said at the end of my post last week “Next week a planned impromptu stop in Mississippi.” This is not that post. I’ll have to save it for another week because there is something more current that I just couldn’t pass up writing about.

Whenever possible, I try to quote rappers. Many quote Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and past presidents. I prefer Jay-Z. Nothing says “I’m terrific!” (Kelly Farrell, 04.19.2011) like dropping a little flow into daily conversations. Z’s (that’s what I call him) Blueprint 3 is one of the most critically acclaimed hip hop albums in years. One of the signature songs, “D.O.A.” is my favorite (or as the kids say these days, the schizzle – ca. 2004).

Perhaps one of reasons I have always been drawn to rap is that I can’t sing. I mean, I can sing, just no one wants to hear it. In Jay’s (something else I call him from time to time) “D.O.A.” (Death of Auto-Tune) he takes on the over use of Auto-Tune in the music industry. For those of you who don’t know what Auto-Tune does, Wikipedia says, “Auto-Tune uses a phase vocoder to correct pitch in vocal and instrumental performances. It is used to disguise off-key inaccuracies and mistakes, and has allowed singers to perform perfectly tuned vocal tracks without needing to sing in tune.” I particularly like the song, since he is calling out several rappers/singers for “T-Paining too much.” He challenges artists to not be lazy by trying to cover their mistakes/shortcomings, and has a mad beat with a crazy clarinet that I just can’t get enough of.

I tell you that to tell you this: Sometimes you just have to own up to a mistake and not try to cover it with tracks filtered through Auto-Tune. The United States Post Office (or the USPS, as I sometime call them) made a mistake this week and have yet to fully own up to it. I’ve been responsible for publications and a logo that will go unnamed where a mistake was caught after it was printed and several hundred promotional pins and bookmarks were produced and distributed. I can relate to the Post Office’s pain somewhat—though they printed 3 billion of their mistake.

A new stamp being offered this year features the Statue of Liberty. Upon closer investigation by the folks at Linn’s Stamp News they noticed that the photo being used was not Lady Liberty of Liberty Island in New York Harbor, New York, but Lucky Lady Liberty of the New York New York Hotel and Casino of Las Vegas, Nevada. I love Linn’s Stamp News’ attention to detail and the fact that they have a website that is possibly nerdier than IBD. That’s a jab at them and they have over 40,000 subscribers. (We have 714 followers on Facebook. According to my caluculations I will be 73 before we reach 40,000.)

Linn’s noticed that the Lady Liberty of the stamp had additional sculptural features and less worn and tired eyes than the real Lady Liberty (which I have no doubt is related to the relationship between her and her prodigal baseball sons the Mets and the Yankees; I’ll leave it to you to figure out which team is which son).

The image was purchased from a stock photo agency (Getty Images) that simply labeled it “Statue of Liberty” and the USPS took it at face value (uh, sorry). They are standing by their choice. According to a USPS spokesperson, “We still love the stamp design and would have selected this photograph anyway.” They have no plans to pull it out of circulation. They also report that they like how tall black boots look with blue denim-like shorts and that dogs really are their friends.

Just because it looks good, it is a great image, and is well designed doesn’t make it authentic. If a design represents a universal concept, such as freedom in this case, all credibility is lost in the presentation by using an unrelated, though similar image. For years I have encouraged interpreters who I have worked with to take their own images of park resources to add authenticity to their programs. They may not be as good of an image at the New York, New York image, but authentic images improve the quality of their message. Interpretive sites should rely on their authenticity to bring responses out of visitors.

This is a stamp, and yes, I can’t wait to buy some now. I know most people don’t care. As interpreters, we must care about the products we produce, the messages we send, and the experiences we create. If you are representing something as important as freedom, you better get it right.

Now I’m going to go download the T-Pain app so I can read this post back as if T-Pain were singing it.

For those really paying attention (not just Paul) I have another great (0kay, that’s more than presumptuous) post on stamps coming soon.

A Moment, Captured

The top four moments in my life—and I am careful not to rank these in any particular order—are my wedding day, the birth of each of my two children, and the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. For each of these moments, there is an emblematic photograph—an official wedding portrait by a river in the Colorado mountains almost 10 years ago, hospital-sanctioned portraits of the grotesque, misshapen heads of my newborn children (they’re much cuter now), and Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge on his knees at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia with his hands raised to the heavens as a city celebrates around him.

Really good photographs are like interpretive presentations. They capture our interest, tell an engaging story, and invite us to investigate further. My Japanese friend Masanori Shintani recently shared the above photograph of his daughter Aina with me. At first, it looked like a nice vacation photo, and the idyllic location—El Nido beach in the Philippines—is certainly somewhere I’d like to go. My interest was captured by the composition—the rule of thirds has been used effectively, the calming blue-green color palette is punctuated with bright warm colors—and the story it tells, of a gleeful child running along the beach, is uplifting. But it was the further investigation that turned the meaning of this image on its head (so to speak).

You don’t have to look long before you realize that there’s a rope that attaches the small blue and white boat in the image to some unseen anchor on the shore. Aina, running at full speed, has cleared the rope with her right foot, but her left foot is planted perilously in the sand underneath it. The way Masa tells the story, a split second after this photograph was taken, his daughter face-planted in the sand. (He laments not having an “after” picture, but his daddy mode kicked in and he ran to tend to his daughter.)

Suddenly, as I was looking at it, this image went from being a nice vacation photo to being packed with the energy of the moment to come. It stands on the razor-thin precipice between the glee of a playing child and the thump of a face on wet sand. It’s filled with conflict—you can practically feel the tropical breeze and the lulling motion of the anchored boats, but there’s a visceral reaction to the realization that this happy moment will end with a wet slap.

The real power of the image isn’t revealed until you discover the story behind it.

Unfortunately, photography can be used to disguise truths rather than reveal them. A story on CNN, ‘The sexy lady’ and other hotel photo tricks, shows how hotels use unscrupulous photography (and Photoshop) techniques and unrealistic-looking models to lure travelers. For some reason, I am on the email list for the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, which uses the attractive model technique to advertise its pool. My own experience is that the Luxor pool feels more like a Tony Siragusa family reunion than the natural habitat for exotic models.

I am usually distrustful of photographs, if for no other reason than that people tell me that I look like Clay Aiken in my photo on the back of IBD (the book), and I know for a fact that I look like a cross between Ted Koppel and Howdy Doody. (Besides, I look nothing like Clay Aiken; he’s wearing a suit, and he parts his hair on the other side of his head.)

However, photographs can be powerful interpretive tools, used to create impact and emotional connections. And like all forms of communication, any photograph that draws viewers in and communicates on multiple levels, as the photo of Aina above did with me, can be considered successful.

Just be sure you’re using photography for good rather than evil.