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.

Emotional Action Figures

When I joined the Official Star Wars Fan Club, I took an oath to the Rebel Alliance. Somewhere in that oath I agreed to write about the movies whenever the opportunity presented itself. This week provided that opportunity. Well it wasn’t really the week but IBD reader and fellow Rebel Howard Aprill. That’s right, we are rebels.

The following correspondence is from Howard.

Hi Shea,

I recently visited the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, WI. They had an exhibit featuring some of America’s favorite toys from the 1940’s through present day. It was awesome! Lots of toys that took me back including Shrinky Dinks, Slinkies, Rubik’s Cubes, and more. What caught my eye first however was the Star Wars material It very much took me back long,long time ago to a galaxy (childhood) far away. I have to admit that my wife Paula was very indulgent of me lingering at the Star Wars case for far longer than most.

I’m sure the curator who assembled the exhibit was probably a museum studies major and not an interpreter. Furthermore, it was not a fancy exhibit as it was mostly objects with little text. However, I have to admit that it really connected to me on an emotional level. It was a very basic exhibit with few “bells and whistles”. They took “objects” (ie Star Wars action figures) and allowed me to forge the intellectual (or in this case and emotional) connection. It was awesome and it worked. Sometimes you can just let the resource or object speak for itself.

I have taken the liberty of including a few photos that I hope you will appreciate.



P.S. I love sweater vests, bald is beautiful, Thursday is the best day of the week, cereal should be a food group, red heads make me uncomfortable, and he National League should be abolished.

Okay so the post script wasn’t exactly what Howard had to say but I do want to clarify two things before I continue. Like me, Howard is married. It is possible to speak Jabbanese and find true love. Secondly, the greatest toy besides action figures (not dolls) are Shrinky Dinks.

I could end this post here because Howard made some excellent points. Now even though he alluded to the display being more of a museum presentation of artifacts and less of an interpretive exhibit, at times letting visitors draw their own conclusions can be just as valuable as drawing it for them. Also you can’t beat showing the thing itself. No matter what you do, people want to see original objects and the thing itself. When you are making your plans and your programs, don’t forget their wants and needs.

Seeing Howard’s pictures brought a flood of memories coming back to me. The picture above (that he titled Jabba et al, which happens to be the greatest name of a photo in digital imagery history, for the record et al in this picture is Salacious Crumb) immediately reminded me of a friend’s Jabba Palace Play-set that was painstakingly set-up as a shrine to reenact the scene from Return of the Jedi. Okay, that seems a little creepy now, considering we were in high school and the play-set stayed in tact well into college. Anyway, it was a good memory that could have been easily replaced with something like prom. At this point, as if I had a choice, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks for reading and sharing Howard.



Why do we collect?

One of these days, I’m going to end up on the TV show Hoarders, grizzled and bleary eyed, sitting in front of a pile of plastic souvenir sundae baseball helmets. I’ll have that distant, agonized look in my eyes that people on that show get, my wife Sheila will be crying in the corner, my kids will be screaming at me to wake up from this nightmare, and I’ll be saying something like, “I know no one understands, but the collection just wasn’t complete without that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet.”

My entire life, I have collected—everything from typical items like baseball cards and ticket stubs to odder things like lost pet flyers and yard sale signs. (This past Christmas, my seven-year-old son inherited my decades-old collection of the first 62 Choose Your Own Adventure books, pictured here.) I have always had a tendency to be what I think of as “goal-oriented,” and what my wife thinks of as “obsessive-compulsive.” When I focus on one of these collections, it’s hard for me to think about much else, such as family or hygiene.

Recently, I have been scouring eBay for the plastic souvenir sundae helmets they sell at Major League Baseball games. At first glance, you might think, “There are 30 teams, so there are 30 helmets. That’s not so bad.” But when you think about the fact that many teams have changed logos and colors several times (the Arizona Diamondbacks do it about every six months), and many have alternate identities, the possibilities are limitless. (It makes me twitch when I think that I have to wait several months before I can get my hands on the new helmets that the Miami Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles will be selling in the 2012 season.)

People who write about the psychology of collecting say that collectors do what they do for a connection to the past, to rekindle fond memories, and to achieve a sense of completion, among other reasons. An article on the website cites author Kim A. Herzinger on the subject:

Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.

I did not realize that I was easing existential dread when I ordered that retro Milwaukee Brewers helmet on eBay, but if that’s all it takes, then I’m in good shape. These helmets appeal to me as a designer because I like logos. They appeal to me as a baseball fan for obvious reasons. They appeal to me as a consumer because they are plastic junk. And they appeal to me as a childish knucklehead because it’s fun to see how high I can stack them.

With all of this as background, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’m crazy until I read Tim Merriman’s recent post on the NAI blog, “The Collector Within Each of Us.” Tim writes about the importance of properly interpreting museum collections—telling stories and making connections rather than simply displaying a bunch of stuff. It made me realize that the small space my wife has allowed me in our kitchen cabinets for my helmets is my own personal baseball museum.

The helmets are conversation pieces when we have guests. The blue Expos helmet prompts stories about when, as newlyweds, Sheila and I moved to Montreal; the Cubs helmet almost always leads to stories about the time Shea and I ditched our respective wives and children in Chicago to make a pilgrimage to Wrigley field; and yes, that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet that’s going to get me featured on Hoarders prompts stories about time spent with friends in St. Petersburg.

And because the whole point of the tiny baseball museum in my kitchen—as it should be with all interpretive sites—is to be relevant to my visitors, I make it a point to serve ice cream to my guests in their favorite team’s helmet (and if they don’t have a favorite team, then I don’t want them in my house).

In anticipation of Shea’s next visit, I have a Yankees helmet at the ready, which I procured on a visit to the old Yankee Stadium in the late 1990s. And I have some stories to tell about that day.

Tabletop Interpretation

One of the perks at last week’s NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was free admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota. There were many other perks as well, though I wouldn’t consider a lutefisk facial one of those benefits.

The museum was an amazing place. Here are some pictures and thoughts that I wanted to share.

The museum lobby also hosts a visitor center for the National Park Service’s Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area. I found this relationship strange initially (not a strange as the combination of fish and lye) but after understanding their proximity to the river as well as the visitation at the museum it made sense.

An overlook adjacent to the museum is highlighted by several wayside exhibits.

The National River site also takes time to interpret the urban landscape, a view a readily available as views of the river. I can imagine a planning meeting discussing the need to interpret the river but resolving to interpret other elements of the landscape. I love the rock pedestals but I’m not sure how well the fit into the landscape.

National River interpretation also spills over into a creative use of tabletop exhibits that are very well designed and an interesting use of space.

Paul wrote on Monday about the use of Twitter hashtags. Here’s the museum’s take on collecting feedback while visitors are waiting in line for their tickets. It sets the stage for visitors to share their thoughts throughout their experience. The questions give visitors something to Tweet about. This helps those struggling for something interesting to say. This is an effective use of social media through interpretation.

Okay, so I haven’t shown you anything from the inside of the museum. More to come in a future post.

Interpreting Unwritten Rules of Baseball: Part 2

In Monday’s post, Paul began a discussion of how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball. Based on the overwhelming response, it is possible that we managed to divide an already partly interested audience, yet again? Today I’m going to tackle some of the unwritten rules that address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

Don’t steal the catcher’s signs using means outside of the diamond. It is okay to be on second base and steal signs from the catcher. It is the responsibility of the pitcher and catcher to conceal those calls through various signs.

Interpreters should not conceal their messages. Otherwise they take the chance that they will get lost in translation, stolen, or misinterpreted. If the theme is a single complete thought, it should be easily repeated by the interpreter and conveyed by the visitor at the end of presentation. Having someone in your audience tipping your pitches is a totally different story.

Intentionally throwing at hitters will be reciprocated by the other team. Turnabout is fair play. In the event that a pitcher throws to hit a player (while not aiming at the head, see Monday’s post) you can expect revenge will be taken within the next couple of innings. This goes for intentional body shots but can happen on unintentional tosses as well. This can continue back and forth until the umpire starts tossing players out of the game. (Paul, I had an image of Pedro in Red Sox gear but I thought you would enjoy this one more.)

As interpreters, if we are found preaching or proselytizing at visitors you are going to get a returned negative reaction. Visitors to interpretive sites, in most cases, are intelligent people. No one wants to be preached at even if you are right. You will garner more support through carefully crafted messages that relate to your audience. You can expect a similar reaction if you are simply fact vomiting as well (minus the vomit…you know what I mean…I hope).

Base runners should not shout or distract a fielder getting under an infield fly. Imagine this, you are rounding the bases and the shortstop is about to catch an infield fly ball for the out. Just before he makes the catch you yell, “HA!” making the shortstop drop the ball. This is considered “bush league” (a term used to describe amateurish play below the professional level) in Major League Baseball.

For interpretation, extraneous information not related to the theme will detract from your presentation. Chasing tangents or being distracted from your thematic message will lose visitors. Not to say that you shouldn’t take advantage of those impromptu moments that may command your attention. For instance while leading a geology hike you hear the rare and elusive A-Rod call “HA!” You have to take that opportunity to interpret it, but somehow relate that distraction back to your theme to keep you efforts intact.

Don’t discuss a no-hitter in progress. Much like professional baseball players, Paul and I are extremely superstitious. (We are also similar in body types, bank accounts, and our affinity for tight pants.) If the pitcher for your team is in the process of throwing a no-hitter, you don’t say anything about it. If you do and the opposing team gets a hit, it is your fault. Announcers are the worst at following this rule. Joe Buck can kill a no-no like no other.

At your interpretive site if you have a no-hitter in progress and a visitor is buying in while moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, leave them alone and let them make their own conclusions. Just because we see the light bulb going off doesn’t mean we need to check the switch. We also think we know what’s best for the visitor but we never know what brings a visitor to our sites and what their motivations are. Lead but don’t guide.

Don’t steal bases when leading by a wide margin. Come on, there’s no reason to show people how fast you are. The only reason to break this rule is if you are in peewee baseball and you have new shoes and you must show others how fast they make you run. Just because you can swipe a bag because you can get away with it, doesn’t mean you should. (That goes for baseball too.) That’s all I’ve got.

Don’t admire your home run right after you hit it. This is a sure way to get yourself plunked at your next at bat.

Have you ever had a moment when Freeman shined down from the great visitor center in the sky and everything about your program went perfectly? The crowd was awesome, they asked all the right questions, and spent several hundred dollars in the gift shop before they left, buying everything related to your message. Don’t brag or someone in your office will throw a stapler at you.

Don’t use steroids. While we are on Manny you should also never grow your dreadlocks so long that they name the thing you wear under your ball cap a mandana.


Risking a Reward

Who doesn’t like roller derby? There is something great about a sport that involves wheels, pseudonyms, helmets, and a position called the “the jammer.” Over the last few years there has been a growing interest in amateur leagues, primarily made up of women. The positive community along with the empowerment that comes through participation have led to its popularity.

I remember growing up in Memphis (the home of professional wrestling, Elvis, and fried fruit) where roller derby was a part of Saturday morning programming (which I enjoyed while wearing my rhinestone jumpsuit and eating fried bananas). At the time I’m sure I was drawn by the risqué nature of the spectacle (along with the spandex) but beyond that, the part I liked the most was the amount of risk involved.

I was reminded of roller derby this week when the University of Maryland unveiled its new football uniforms. I have always been fond of Maryland, based on their mascot alone, the Terrapin. They are most commonly referred to as the Terps. Sports channels, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and news outlets all went crazy about how ugly there were. (I found it odd that these media outlets weren’t going crazy that college football ends in the equivalent of a beauty contest selection — which is what BCS stands for, right?)

The Terps took a risk with the new uniform design, which is loosely based on the Maryland flag. Ugly to say the least, current trends in college football uniforms continue to push the envelope. While reading people’s reactions to the uniforms, I came across an article on NBC Sports online that accused Maryland of ripping off the uniforms from the Charm City Roller Girls’ All-Stars team. The team’s captain, Hillary Rosensteel, whose roller nickname is “Rosie the Rioter,” was quoted in the article saying that the helmets are “not identical, but they’re shockingly similar.” Perhaps Rosie should be playing for the Terps.

I agree with Rosie (as if I had a choice, because I would otherwise be scared that she would roll up in my driveway and hip check me when I least expect it), they are remarkably similar. After Maryland unveiled its uniforms, Paul and I shared a link about the uniforms on the IBD Facbook page.

In that comment thread, one of our regular readers Matthew Greuel made the comment “But seriously…I think there’s a discussion to be had about the degree of, shall we say, adventurousness, one can use in interpretive design. How far can one push boundaries? What makes it work or not?”

I wish I knew the answer to those questions, so that this blog wouldn’t be filled with a “joke every five words” and so that those who come “here for educational purposes” don’t have to read about “our eighth grade bus driver.” (Sorry that was a little venting related to an unusually angry comment that was left recently on another IBD post.) Matthew and Katelynn Joleen make some good points.

Here’s my take.

As with most things in life that involve risk, you have to look at the risk-to-reward ratio. (You are right, I have no business talking about anything related to math. Standby.) Risk can be great if it reaps great rewards.

This may be part to the thought process behind Maryland’s new uniforms. They are not a very good team and are traditionally known as a basketball school. Perhaps, the buzz created around the uniforms was the goal itself, in order to draw attention to the program, in turn attracting recruits. (This is a departure from their previous attempts of simply paying players.) It could also be connected to their key sponsor, Under Armour, with the “any publicity is good publicity approach.” I think the mistake that they made is taking something traditionally respected, the state’s flag, and garishly transformed it into an athletic costume of sorts.

In interpretive design you can also consider the risk-to-reward ratio. If the design of a new product inhibits its use, the risk doesn’t reward the investment. I have seen some beautifully designed products whose form is cumbersome or confusing. If the goal is to have visitors use a product, read an exhibit, or come back to a website, it is good to stick to tried and tested rules. That doesn’t mean you can’t add an unexpected element. It is all about your hierarchy. Remember you want them to remember the theme, not an element that took them by surprise.

If you are going to take that risk, be careful with elements of the design/program/site/mission that are traditionally viewed one way. This is where I think Maryland went too far with the flag. If they had taken the school colors or small elements of the flag and amplified them or pushed the color palette with new combinations it may have created a more widely accepted change.

Remember that interpretive design has a purpose (to aide in communication) separate of that of art (an end in and of itself). When all else fails, make a list of the pros and cons of the risk and see where it stands against the hierarchy. For example the risk of injury to me wearing spandex while on roller skates eliminates my desire to participate in a local roller league.