The Annual IBD Holiday Gift Buying Guide

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

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

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

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

Check out these other gifts for the IBDer.

This shirt actually shows you available WIFI connectivity strength by lighting up. It also measures how many bars of geekiness are available from you. It can be purchased at Think Geek. describes this book as “interesting and eclectic journey examining the unending versatility of nature, showing how to uncover nature’s ingenuity and use it to create beautiful and compelling designed communications.” I haven’t read it yet but I plan on it (as soon as I receive it as a gift). As an interpretive naturalist, the concept sounds promising. I’m always down for an interesting and eclectic journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Nerd Rage: A Response to Internet Thievery

Everyone wants to be a blogger, and the reason is simple: Nothing makes you more attractive to a potential romantic interest than saying, “I’m a blogger.” Sure, athletes are popular, and so are musicians, I guess, but having opinions and writing them down and putting them online without any real hope of compensation? That’s hot.

So it’s no surprise that people are jealous of bloggers—so jealous in fact that they steal the content that we put online for free.

One case that’s been getting a fair amount of attention in the media recently comes to us from my coworker Russ. In a nutshell, the case goes like this: Cooks Source magazine took the content of a blog called “A Tale of Two Tarts” (which I was disappointed to learn is about desserts) by Monica Gaudio and published it, without permission (but with credit), in print. Ms. Gaudio contacted the magazine and was told this by managing editor Judith Griggs:

The web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!

Ms. Griggs said lots more horrible stuff, which you can see in the article “How Cooks Source Magazine Learned That Reputation Is A Scarce Good” on the website This story has exploded on the blogosphere, and has also appeared in reputable sources like The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and Time magazine, among countless others (seriously, it’s everywhere; just Google it). Cooks Source magazine’s Facebook page was crushed with comments (some of them hilarious, like “And Cooks Source was like ‘Dude, you *have* no pie article’ and ran off” from Cole Moore Odell, and “Cooks Source told Apollo Creed to fight Ivan Drago” from Jill Gallagher), and advertisers are bailing faster than Cowboys fans on the 2010-2011 football season. (Sigh. I miss baseball.)

In the Time magazine article, Gaudio attributes the uproar to “Nerd rage,” which is the greatest phrase ever. Well, the raging nerds aren’t just making obscure pop-culture references on the Cooks Source Facebook page; they’re turning up numerous examples of articles that the magazine stole from other sites, some of them pretty high profile. (See “The Cooks Source Scandal” on

As a blogger myself (hello, ladies!), I am at once concerned and elated. First, it seems that in spite of the little copyright symbol at the bottom of this page, I am in danger of having blogs that I spent literally fives of minutes writing about Comic Sans and the designated hitter show up without my permission in The New York Times and Orion magazine. And I’m pretty sure I saw something Shea wrote in Teen Vogue recently. On the other hand, writing these posts will be a lot easier in the future. Next week, tune in for page one of my new online novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

For the record, I am jealous that this happened to Monica Gaudio and not me, because the site Gode Cookery is getting more than a few hits these days.

Speaking of this happening to me, this happened to me! One Saturday not long ago (October 30, but who’s counting?), I noticed that IBD was getting an unusually high number of hits. In fact, IBD set a record for the most hits in a single day that day, and Saturday is usually our worst day of the week (probably because Jeff Miller is at work). Most of the hits we got that day were coming from Twitter, and they were landing on a post I wrote about the color blue two weeks ago.

I noodled around on Google to see if I could figure out who had Tweeted about IBD. After some research, I learned that the fine people at a site called COLOURlovers had alerted their more than 410,000 followers to the post. (Thanks COLOURlovers! We love you, too!) This is about 409,500 more people than the number we usually alert through the IBD Facebook page.

What I also discovered as I was Googling around was that my post appeared ver batim on another blog (to remain unnamed) with no credit or attribution. I commented on the post that I was surprised to see that the “author” also had a husky friend named Shea and how great it is that he roots for the same baseball team I root for. (Or maybe I just said, “Hey, you stole this.” Who can remember?) I was surprised, just minutes later, to get an email from the “author” with this response:

I just wanted to make a formal apology to you for what I have done. I have no intentions of claiming the work of yours to be mine and it is indeed of my fault not to clarify the source of the post. The post has already been deleted from my blog and I would like to apologize for any inconvenience caused and hope for your forgiveness.

I was satisfied with the apology and the quick action, but somewhat skeptical that the author had no intention of claiming my work as his. Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. My father, who has authored a number of books on philosophy, was once contacted by someone who had questions about the Korean translation of one of his books. Dad had questions, too, like “There’s a Korean translation of that book?” The Internet has made this sort of thing all too easy and much more prevalent. Copying and pasting is not difficult, and having happened just by accident upon one instance of IBD being plagiarized, I’d bet there are more instances out there.

The important lesson of the Cooks Source incident is not just that intellectual property has the same copyright protection online as it does in print (seems to me that that should be evident), but that there is a serious level of misunderstanding out there. Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs’ understanding of copyright law—that she can use another writer’s work without permission or compensation in an ad-supported print magazine—is comically flawed, and she’s paying for it dearly now. But designers working with little to no budget should be wary: even something as simple as downloading a photo and using it in a newsletter without permission can be a breach of copyright law.

So this lesson courtesy of Judith Griggs: Don’t use copyrighted materials without permission, apologize profusely if you do so by accident, and know that if you screw up then act like an arrogant snoot about it, the Internet mob will crush you.

Social Networking and “So What?”

Several weeks ago while on a flight I had a moment of inspiration, took out my laptop, and begin to write a blog post. I usually try not to work (not that writing this blog is work) on a plane for the simple fact that it is a finite amount of time where I can relax, think, listen to music, and not be connected. In this instance, I just had to write. I was fully engrossed. At one moment I chuckled to myself at how cute, clever, and funny I was being. I could imagine how literally 10s of readers would be laughing out loud (that’s LOL for everyone else but me) or at the very least Paul would find funny and then pretend that it wasn’t.

When I chuckled out loud (COL—you can use that one too) the lady sitting next to me asked me what I was working on. Up to this moment she had carefully ended every conversation starter that I had in my little book of airplane conversation tricks.  Lines like “How many words can you spell on a calculator?” and “I wish I had a Photoshop Eyedropper to capture the color of your eyes” got me nowhere at breaking the ice. Even though I have grown accustomed to awkward silences I still had some ambition to be friendly and get to know the person that owned the shoulder that my shoulder had been pushing against since we were somewhere over Kansas. Here’s my response and the remainder of the conversation.

Shea: I’m writing a post for my blog.

14C: You are a blogger?

Blogger: That’s right.

14C: Every blog I have ever read has left me thinking that the writer is narcissistic.

Blogger (carefully looking up synonyms for narcissistic in Microsoft Word while pretending that her tone didn’t bother me): I’m also a park ranger. [Found the following synonyms: vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, and selfish; okay she hurt my feelings.]

14C: So you blog about trees and nature? (COL)

Blogger/Park Ranger: And fonts. (COTI, crying on the inside)

This led into a longer explanation of interpretation, the profession, and various niche groups (including the 10s of IBD readers). I kept the description short, to the point, and based on the non-verbal cues I was receiving and previous law enforcement training, 14C was quickly becoming a threat to my safety. Despite her discontent the conversation continued.

14C: Really (displaying extreme disinterest). I guess you tweet too.

Blogger/Ranger: I do. But I don’t have much a following.

14C: All of this social media is just an attempt for people our age (though she looked much older than me) to stay relevant.

Blogger/Ranger: You are right. (I have over 15 years employing the use of this line and I knew it worked. I pretended to continue working while learning new words on my computer calculator).

Once I had time to reflect on the conversation, as well as define narcissism, it became apparent to me that our society has grown more narcissistic than ever. Blogs and social media have amplified this human nature to new heights. Of course, this blog is written for a very specific audience, which has similar interests, related to the profession of interpretation, which therefore cancels the narcissistic connotation for Paul and me (excepting for when it comes to conversations about Phillies/Yankees, cereal, and the use of Papyrus/Comic Sans).

The conversation with 14C got me thinking about how many of our personal and non-personal interpretive efforts are geared towards our own interests, thoughts, opinions, and ideas, much like a blog. The conversation also had me wondering how it is possible to answer Sam Ham’s question “So what?” for all of the various types of visitors to interpretive sites.  We live in a world where more visitors than ever care more about themselves or their own personal experiences than the resource or the thing itself. Can social networking outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, help lead to better visitor understanding and appreciation?

First of all I had to realize that a small dose of narcissism is part of us from birth. 14C hit the nail on the head when she said I was just trying to stay relevant. If we want to continue to be able to answer the “So what?” question for our visitors we have to be relevant to them. Wikipedia, another social-driven outlet, states that “Andrew P. Morrison claims that, in adults, a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism allows the individual’s perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others.”

Now there’s a connection we can understand between perceptions and relationships. Being relevant goes beyond just being on Facebook or Tweeting, you have to understand the nature of these networks as well as their strengths and weaknesses. While Facebook’s strength is “relationships,” Twitter excels at the spreading of information. Where Facebook allows interaction, Twitter allows exchanges. 14C is right, we have to stay relevant by using the media to the best of its ability.

One approach is to appeal to the voyeuristic nature of social media. Admit it, we have all spent more than what would be considered healthy looking at pictures of old flames that we have re-connected to Facebook. Come on, I know Paul and I are not the only ones. It is a great opportunity for us to imagine what life would have been like if things were different. Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. That is, admitting doing this not the looking at the pictures part. But interpretive sites can put all kinds of information, pictures, video, audio, podcasts, and almost anything else you can think of into these networks that will allow visitors or potential visitors to see what you are all about or allow visitors to re-connect with the memories of your site. If visitors come to your site with a better understanding of what the mission is then answering the “So what?” question becomes easier.  Be prepared for the positive responses along with the negatives. There are very little censoring capabilities with these networks.

How can we appeal to this narcissistic subculture? The best way is for it to happen on its own. Not to say something going viral didn’t begin without a little uncovered sneeze. Okay, that’s a little gross, but what I’m saying is that a grassroots approach to appealing to this culture can begin with some seeding. People like to have the feeling of discovery or doing something that involves exclusivity. That, combined with the narcissism of social networks, allows interpretive opportunities to go viral. By offering a behind-the-scenes tour or previewing the opening of a new exhibit, a website, or proof copy of a brochure, you can create that hype. If you use the word hype on Facebook you may be sent back to 1994 and receive a complimentary dial-up modem. The nature of the interaction on social media outlets, after attending your program, will definitely answer the “So what?” question.

You will notice a new feature at the end of each post on this website that will allow Facebook users to “like” posts and have that “like” reflected on their personal page. (We are saving the “dislike” plug-in for Paul’s posts.)

This begs the question, is it narcissistic to “like” your own post?

Passion in Parentheses

Two of my last three posts have been about the community that revolves around IBD and this will mark another. I love being connected to our readers but it seems as if the relationship between Shea the friend and Shea the IBD blogger has been blurred.

I received one Christmas card and one Christmas letter (along with many others mind you, I didn’t just receive two) that included traditional holiday greetings along with specific notes not to put them on IBD.  I’m one of those people who visits a museum and when the sign says don’t touch, I have to. On one visit (of many annual visits, more to come in a future post) to Graceland, home of Elivs Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, I felt the touch of a security guard on my shoulder while touching a jumpsuit. There are no refunds at Graceland when ejected. I’m very tactile and it was worth the interrogation.

It is possible that I will not receive Christmas greetings from these two next year, I’m okay with that. This is a hard lesson to learn. The card was a beautiful handmade card not like anything that you would find on a Christmas aisle at any big box type store. It had a craftsman style to it along with huge amounts of character. It did have an insert that was desktop produced with a well written holiday greeting printed in an acceptable easy to read sans serif typeface. What else can you ask for in a holiday greeting? The letter was a very well written year in review type letter filled with beautiful images and interesting typefaces. It was thoughtfully laid out in an organized manner with great respect for ease of use by the reader. Again, what else can you ask for in a holiday greeting?

I was grateful to receive both extremely personal greetings produced with love and passion. Thank you to you both for sharing them with me and my family. But, this is the part that you have been waiting for, right? The part of the blog where I make insightful comments about their work that are filled with humor, right? The part where I use self-deprecating humor as an attempt to soothe the burn of criticism from a friend, right? Well, you will have to wait for a post from Paul reviewing some of my work for that to happen. I cannot post images of their greetings because their statements, added in parentheses, to a warm holiday greeting really bothered me. Would I have done something like that without the parentheses? Would I have put their greetings up on IBD to share with the world (actually about 9 people, 7 if you don’t count Paul and me)? Am I that kind of guy?

Okay, I guess I am and I am sorry.

The part that bothers me about these two statements is that our community and relationships in our community should be built on trust and two of you obviously can’t trust me. I’m sorry. I hate for such an important element of our community such as friendship being defined with parentheses. Saying Merry Christmas (don’t put this on IBD) is kind of like saying you are a great friend (when you don’t wear sweater vests) or I love you (but Star Wars is lame). Thank you for bringing the element of IBD paranoia to my attention. Again, I have no control over Paul and his future comments. Now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have scanned your letter and card and sent them to him. Again, I have no control over him.

Here’s what is great about your card and my second point in this post (the first point, just in case you missed it was that honesty is important in a community) is that your card and letter were both filled with passion. As I have said before I am sucker for passion. I can look past many design flaws, and use of Papyrus, if what is being produced is produced with passion. This is also goes for any interpretive product or program. If it is produced with passion or presented with enthusiasm, issues with style or technique can be easily overlooked. In Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden wrote about passion and said “Whatever is written without enthusiasm will be read without interest.” What you created and shared was filled with enthusiasm and passion. If we put more of our hearts and our souls into what we created the end product would be much higher quality.


Needless to say this McDonalds employee was lacking passion and enthusiasm when assigned the task of updating the marquee.

Free fonts!


As synthetic, mass-produced, quick-sign solutions erode society’s appreciation for the unique, it is the designer’s responsibility to restore it. If you only take one thing from this website, here is what it should be: Computer defaults are not your friend.

Among the most obvious default settings that are not your friend is your pull-down menu of available fonts. Some of these default options have become so overused that they are experiencing backlash. To see what I mean, read this discussion of one blogger’s selection of the top 10 worst font choices: I note one exception: If you are starting an organic aroma therapy massage clinic and your plan is to advertise exclusively on coffee shop bulletin boards, I recommend that you use Papyrus for all of your communications. You’ll fit right in.

There are so many resources for free and expressive typefaces that are not horribly overused, that you are negligent as a designer if you use any of the same old few. Note that I have used the term expressive typefaces. By this I mean decorative or handwriting options like Papyrus or Brush Script that are easily identified by the casual viewer. When it comes to traditional serifs or sans serifs like Helvetica or Garamond that are not as readily identified, you’re safe using the classic options already included with the computer.

The point is, when your goal is to be expressive rather than functional, explore the options beyond the defaults, not just to be different, but to find that perfect typeface that fits your needs. Below are just a few of the many websites that offer fonts for you to download. The whole point of these sites is to give you stuff (usually for free) so that you don’t have to use the fonts your operating system chose for you. (pictured above)