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.

The Power of the Close Crop

When I’m with friends or family in a public place and we want a group photo, I hate asking strangers to take the picture. It’s not that I don’t want to bother strangers. I like bothering strangers. It’s that strangers, as a rule, stink at taking photographs. Waiters, in particular, are the worst. (If you are a waiter and you are reading this post, I apologize. Also, I would like an Arnie Palmer and a dozen wings.)

The primary offense of the waiter-stranger-photographer is that they stand too far away and zoom all the way out (and somehow still manage to cut off everyone’s feet). The photo ends up being mostly sky with a tiny collection of nearly unrecognizable, feetless people at the bottom. On occasions when I do resort to asking a waiter-stranger-photographer to take a picture, I find myself saying, “Step a little closer, don’t be afraid to zoom in. And where are those wings I asked about?”

By way of example, I offer this photo of my family and me taken by a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, last summer. (To the waitress’s credit, she did not cut off our feet in the photo, and she was very good at her actual job, but you’ll see what I mean about the zooming. Did she think that tubby guy on the bench was part of my family? And does that guy think he’s fooling anyone drinking beer out of a paper Coke cup?)

Granted, nowadays it’s easy to crop digital photos, so this is less of a problem than it was in the days of rolls of film and printed photos. But still, why do people stand so far away and zoom so far out? And is it just me, or does my brother look like he’s eight feet tall in this photo?

On a seemingly unrelated note (I’m getting to the point, I promise), I recently received an email from Friend of IBD and noted Detroit Tigers fan Phil Broder with images of “actual billboards in Detroit, Michigan, put up by GM.” (The forwarded message says, “This is definitely cool … Pass this on to anyone who thinks old things can be cool!” I don’t know what it says about me that Phil thinks that I would think old things are cool.)

You can see a bunch more of these here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that these billboards were clearly not designed by the waitstaff at Smitty’s Clam Bar.

In my opinion, there are two elements to these billboards that make them successful. The first is the succinct, clever writing. Each slogan is short and packs a punch (much like most of the Tigers fans I know). The second element is a distinct aesthetic that relies on strong color combinations and sometimes extremely close-cropped images.

The close crop is not just a striking visual technique. It’s a powerful statement, one that expresses confidence that the subject of an image can withstand scrutiny. (Come to think of it, this may explain why waiters stand so far away when they take photos of my family and me.)

Moreover, in my opinion, close-cropped photos are more interesting to look at. (That said, cropping to the point of abstraction is a technique that has its place. For instance, I would not recommend cropping head shots down to a single nostril.)

Whether you’re a designer working with photos that have been provided to you, a photographer trying to capture the essence of a thing, or a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar, I’d recommend cropping just a little more closely than feels comfortable, and see how you like the result.

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.

140 Characters or Less

Some of you came here today hoping to only have to read a 140 character post. To keep the tradition alive of disappointment on IBD, I’m sorry to inform you that that this post is much longer.

In my new job I spend a lot of time in my vehicle driving from place to place. I have become dependent on podcasts of all types to help pass the time. This probably won’t surprise you but I listen to several podcasts related to sports (Pardon the Interruption, Colin Cowherd, and Tony Kornheiser) as well as some of my favorite shows  from NPR (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Whad’Ya Know, and Car Talk). One show, BackStory with the American History Guys, has really grown on me and I look forward to each new broadcast. I have even been downloading back issues of the show.

BackStory takes on topics in history with a modern perspective and is very interpretive in nature. The three history guys (18th, 19th, and 20th century guys to be exact) make topics applicable to listeners today. Marking the beginning of the sesquicentennial (a super fancy way of saying 150th anniversary) of the Civil War, BackStory created a series of three shows that covered issues of setting the stage for war, why the war was fought, and questions that remain today. One of the sidebar conversations that I found of particular interest was transforming the entire story of the Civil War into a 140 character Tweet. The 18th and 19th century guys were remarkably unsuccessful (no surprise) and the 20th century guy even found it difficult. I tried in conversation with myself and found it difficult to count the amount of letters and spaces up to 140 so I gave up. Try it. It is difficult (to count that is).

I can’t claim to know enough about the Civil War to even attempt to take on this thematic Tweet but overall I was more interested in the exercise itself (insert your own joke here about me being interested in exercise). Communication through Tweets and texts today is commonplace but I’m not sure that many of us don’t put much thought into maximizing our messages. There are plenty of examples of celebrities and athletes who did not think before they tweeted.

As interpreters and interpretive designers we spend an extensive amount of time and effort into crafting our theme statements and placing emphasize on our themes in our programs and products. (As we should.) Here are some tips that you can use to improve the power of your theme statements and Tweets.

Write in the active voice.

Avoid personal pronouns. (I particularly like this one.)

Think before you write, then write, and then revise.

Don’t be afraid to punctuate! (I know Paul loves this one!)

Stay away from big words.

Make it meaningful.

In a great example of brevity Ernest Hemingway wrote his shortest story consisting of six words. Here it is: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” That’s 34 characters for those counting. Imagine what he could have said in 140.

Here’s the challenge for you today. Write a thematic comment below that sums up this blog (Paul or me) in 140 characters or less. Jeff Miller, I know this may be difficult for you.

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.

Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

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These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.