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.

I Heart Rejection

This may be the saddest pre-Valentine’s day post in the history of blogging. If there is one topic that I feel comfortable writing about, it’s dealing with rejection. I could have taken this pre-Valentine’s Day opportunity to write about the things that Paul and I love (Helvetica, baseball, and sausage), what designers do on Valentine’s Day (talk about Helvetica, re-watch the 2008/2009 World Series on their respective DVRs, and eat copious amounts of sausage alone), highlight a cutesy design-related item for your sweetie, or write about the opposite of everything that Valentine’s Day stands for.

I could insert one of the many stories from my past highlighting moments of rejection that led to me being found in a fetal position in the corner of my room days later, but would that be healthy? It could be.

In high school, I was really bad in math, and by really bad I mean that I still count on my fingers while figuring a tip at restaurants. Algebra 2 was going to be the end of me, and based on my first attempt at the ACT, it was going to be the end of my parents’ dream of me going to med school (or to college for that matter). In an attempt to improve my Algebra 2 standings, I secured the assistance of a friend and tutor. If you have ever seen any after-school special or any episode of Saved by the Bell, you know where this is going.

How much she helped me with the Algebra 2, I really don’t remember. I do remember developing a crush on her. Being concerned about Algebra 2 and the need to spend time with her, I was persistent (persistent at asking her out). Much like the algebra we were working on, she was effective at reducing the frequency of the common denominator in our equation. (Note: I just exhausted every bit of math knowledge that I have in that last sentence.) For the non-math types, I was the common denominator. We never made it out beyond a school function or trip to the library, which was pretty good for me. We remained “friends” through high school.

Several years ago I heard about my tutor in the news. She had made quite a name for herself as a blogger (www.dooce.com), gaining national recognition. (Aside: Paul and I have yet to receive the same recognition or notoriety for this blog. Matt Lauer should be calling any time.) I was excited to hear about her success as a blogging-designer mommy and decided to take the opportunity to say hello and catch up. I sent her two emails, and much like my previous advances, I received no response. Rejected again.

meYesterday I was watching Home and Garden Television (I just recently discovered other channels on our TV besides ESPN and MTV) and saw a commercial featuring their new correspondent Heather Armstrong, my tutor, who is obviously continuing to do well for herself. I immediately went to the HGTV website to find out about her new role, and that she now has 1.6 million followers on Twitter (I have 24), and she now has 7,046 fans on her Facebook fan page (we have 340). I am pleased with her success and wish her well.

If you haven’t read her blog you should. Maybe in between reading the 500 comments that her blog gets each day she will catch word of this post and contact me.

In the meantime I’ll be reading the 10-15 emails I get from Paul each day and refreshing my email inbox every three minutes until I hear from her. What else do I have to do? Oh yeah, finish this blog post, watch Sponge Bob Square Pants with my three kids, and pretend like I’m listening intently to my wife all while clicking on the check mail button every three minutes. I deal well with rejection.

Okay, I’m off the couch. When you are working in the field of interpretive design you have to get used to being rejected from time to time. Even the day before yesterday, I received a comment that a certain element of a logo that I was working on was “inventive, though the genius of that decision will likely not be appreciated until long after your death.” The really sad part was that comment was from Paul.

Let’s face it, in most cases gaining approval or receiving a review is a painful process. We are the designers/creators and we know what’s best, right? We don’t want a bunch of wannabes/control-freaks/know-it-alls telling us what our work should look like, right? If I want to eat cereal for dinner and feed it to my children I can do it, right? Whether we are dealing with a logo or a new program as an interpretive designer, we put ourselves out there for interpretation. When you put your heart and soul into your work it can be difficult when it gets shot down or torn apart by folks who are less connected to the process. It can hurt.

So what can you and I do about it? Above all else make sure you can articulate your decisions. It is easy to be critical of something that has nothing backing it up. If you chose a typeface or PowerPoint background that gets challenged or ripped, make sure that you have a reason for choosing it and that you can clearly explain why you chose it and how it is connected to the overall theme and program. If you respond to a question or comment about your decision and you respond with “I thought it looked pretty” be prepared to be ripped. If you respond by saying “I carefully considered the use of a light gray sans serif type to be easily read on the screen when projected against the background that includes hues from the natural environment” you may have more solid ground to stand on. For many, the decisions we make are good and are intuitive but we don’t think about how we would defend our choices if asked. Be prepared to make your case and convince others of what you did. It will also help you make better choices.

You should be prepared with alternatives. This is my favorite approach. You have to realize that people look at things differently based on what prior knowledge that they bring to the table. With this mind you should have options that may appeal to multiple approaches and styles. I am also one of those who likes to include a “sleeper.” This doesn’t involve the use of any animal tranquilizers.

If I email out a proof for review or comments, I don’t give away which one I like the best and I never provide it as the lead option. That way when those reviewing the item see it, you can get honest feedback from them, and it allows them to discover the best option, that you created and intended for them to like in the first place. With that being said, you shouldn’t provide the sabotage approach by providing one great version and two alternative versions that look like Screech created them. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Saved by the Bell is just good television.

Get to know your boundaries. Most of us have to answer to someone. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a boss. That doesn’t mean you have to sell yourself out trying to make someone happy. When working through the creative process know what elements are important to you and which are less important. This will help you keep an open mind to suggestions or changes along with keeping you focused on the end goal, completion.

Has it been three minutes? I’ve got to go check my email.

For those that came here today looking for that Valentine’s Day post highlighting a cutesy design-related item for your sweetie, check out Acme Heartmaker where you can design you own custom message on the well-known Valentine’s Day heart candies. Custom candies can be ordered as well, but since Valentine’s Day is just three days away you may not have time to place an order. But you can create a digital version that you can edit, cut, and paste. Here are a few examples that I would avoid.

Type IBD Kern PMS

Before I get accused of being insenstive…PMS stands for Pantone Matching System.

Blogging: Not Just for Aging Sci-fi Fans Anymore

With the World Series effectively over, we now resume our regularly scheduled posts.

A person of Walmart as seen on the People of Walmart blogWhen we launched this site back in March, we asked the question, “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” The Internet is already saturated with the unsolicited opinions of countless middle-aged nerds living in their parents’ basements. Blogging has given us everything from sites like People of Walmart, in which Walmart shoppers make fun of other Walmart shoppers (pictured here), to more useful special-interest sites like Cloud 9 Organize & Redesign, which offers budget-friendly interior-design advice, just to name two of the countless examples out there.

The software that drives many blogs, including this one, is called WordPress. It makes it possible for people who don’t design websites to create and maintain their own online presence. During the Enlightenment, this would have been like giving every individual a printing press and an unlimited supply of paper. Seventeenth-century streets would have been littered with scraps of paper with comments like “René Descartes thinks therefore he’s an idiot” and “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace made me want to throw up my fig pudding.”

One interesting feature of WordPress is that it allows us to see how some Internet users arrive at IBD (which, for the benefit of my wife Sheila, stands for “Interpretation By Design”). We can see what browsers and operating systems our readers are using, the web page that referred them here, the pages that they viewed on this site, and even where those people are physically located. (At the time of this writing, we’ve had readers from the USA, Ukraine, Thailand, Brazil, and Canada in the last six hours.)

Admittedly, this is creepy.

Possibly the creepiest thing we can do is see what search terms Internet users have searched to reach our site. So all of you people in Parkin, Arkansas, who search the term “Shea Lewis” three times a day, we’re on to you. So far, my favorite search term that has landed someone on this site is “can you wear sweatpants to a museum.” I hope that person eventually found some guidance on the issue.

Some other recent search terms and the pages to which readers were referred include:

So this is the world of the Internet these days. Shea uses fashion as an analogy for breaking out of his interpretive comfort zone and this site starts getting visits from people too cheap to buy their own sweat pants or too skinny to find sweat pants that don’t fall down.

On the other hand, blogs significantly broaden the ability of organizations to inexpensively and regularly reach a worldwide audience. The National Association for Interpretation maintains five different blogs (listed under “NAI Blogs” in the sidebar on this site). None of these blogs can quite match the popularity of People of Walmart, which once crashed its server after receiving 2.6 million hits in one day. But NAI’s sites offer a great way for InterpPress authors and NAI leaders to share thoughts, ideas, and information that you will not find on NAI’s traditional website, InterpNet.

I especially encourage interpreters at small sites like community nature centers, historic sites, or museums to maintain blogs. You may find a whole new market of visitors and supporters you never knew were there. And more importantly, they may find you.

I recommend that you add content at least weekly, write seasonal or topical posts, promote the site in your newsletter and on your traditional website, and mention sweat pants a lot.