Become a Noun

I had something else to share this week but when IBD reader Kelly Farrell, emailed the latest video from Cadamole, I had to share it. Paul has banned all of my writing about grammar so this is the closest I will get. I love the use of interpretive principles to take on a complicated subject. I’ve always loved the introduction of music into programming, too bad I can’t sing. Let me clarify. I can sing, but no one wants to hear it.

You can check out his entire repertoire of “interpretive” songs on his YouTube page. NPR Rap is still my favorite. Caputo as a noun…scary.

We Fear Change, Part 2: Netflix’s Interpretive Approach

I consider my well versed at making apologies. If there is anything that I have learned by apologizing, it doesn’t involve changing my name and creating a new identity for myself. Well maybe that’s not such bad idea after all.

Last week when I received an email from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, I treated it like one of the several hundred emails I get from Paul each day. I scanned it just closely enough to talk to him intelligently about it with him so when he calls five minutes after sending it, I can pretend like I really care. As a Netflix customer, I think that Reed’s email may have been misunderstood. It is my hope through this blog post that I can translate or read between the lines to help you understand the recent changes.

I try not to be one of those people (Paul Caputo) who fear change. The part that really bothered me about the change was the approach. Reed’s letter takes interpretive writing principles and uses them in an evil way. We all know that Jedi Mind Tricks are for the weak minded, so I wasn’t fooled by his red envelopes. Reed didn’t read the postscript in Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage where he unveiled his 7th principle of interpretation: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Where he said Jedi, I’m pretty sure that was a typo that should have been interpreter. Who am I to question genius, though?

Here’s the letter and my comments are in parentheses (of course).

Dear Schafer, (Yes, my real name is Schafer. Insert your own jokes in the comments section.)

I messed up. I owe you an explanation. (Nice start, Roger Clemens should have taken this approach. Honesty goes a long way with readers, visitors, and baseball fans.)

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing. (Building a relationship by saying “I have heard from you and I’m sorry.”)

For the past five years, my greatest fear (Anger, fear, aggression…okay we know what Yoda has to say about that, and I agree.) at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great that new things people want. So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do. (Is he really just angry at the U.S. Postal Service or simply taking out aggression that DVDs are almost a thing of the past and they aren’t bringing in the cash they used to? The take home message here is: Daddy’s gonna get paid.)

So here is what we are doing and why. (Reed is setting the stage for meeting his objectives though this letter.)

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies. (Trying to relate.)

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service. (He wants to play for the Yankees and the Red Sox. Though I’m sure in the future the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox and Netflix will be used one in the same when describing failure.)

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. (See take home message above. Revelation coming now, please continue reading.)

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming. (Okay, I’m lost. Wait, I see. Let’s take away any loyalty you have to “Netflix” DVDs because it is easier to kill something you don’t care about then you will come crawling to “Netflix” streaming video, your old red friend.)

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the and websites will not be integrated. (Was he serious about the name Qwikster? I’m pretty sure that handle on Twitter is taken by my brother-in-law.)

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you. (He’s right, we love those red envelopes. I’ve even heard Paul say “My marriage depends on those red envelopes!” I’m pretty sure Paul’s wife has him enduring some sort of post-baseball television sensitivity training that involves the movies Steel Magnolias, Beaches, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Don’t mind trick us here, we know they won’t be Netflix DVDs because of the new complementary color palette.)

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly. (Uh, we are not the stickees but the ones being stuck. If he is trying to provoke here, he was successful)

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions. (This taken from the New York Times bestselling Book of Bad Coaching Cliches in the chapter titled When You Care Enough to Say the Very Least.)

Respectfully yours (Stick it in your ear),

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments. (Doesn’t he know that no one reads blogs anymore? What an idiot.)

Okay so this was more of a rant than a blog post, I’m sorry. I just needed to get this off of my chest. Lessons: realize your patrons are smarter than you, focus on what you are good at, be honest, and don’t use tested interpretive writing techniques for evil.

Plagiarism: The “Orange is Controversial” Controversy

We love it when other websites link to IBD. Whenever we see that we’re getting hits from another site, we click right away to see if we need to alert our web host that we’re going viral. (“Batten down the hatches! Della Jane’s baseball quilting group posted a link on Facebook!”)

So when I saw a few weeks ago that we had gotten a couple hits from a site called Dream Stream, I went to check it out. It was a surreal, Inception-esque moment when I saw on this other site my own words from a recent post about the color orange. And not just a few of my words, but all of them from that post (though none of the images from the post were included, which is a little funny, because the text specifically references the images). I don’t want to link to the site, but you can see a bigger version of the screen capture below by clicking on it.

It was even more jarring to see that not only was I not credited for the article, but someone named Philippe was.

I should point out that I get called Phil all the time. One person I know has called me Phil for the better part of a decade, and I was once quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal (true story!) as “Phil Caputo.”

I have several theories for this: There’s a famous author named Philip Caputo (no relation). The names Phil and Paul are easy to confuse since they both start with P and end with L, and they have the same number of letters. And finally, I root for the Phillies. (I sometimes wonder if IBD Phil and Other IBD Phil root for the Paulies.)

But I don’t think it was confusion over my name that caused my intellectual property to show up on another website attributed to someone else.

It was difficult to find contact information for the site, which is run by a company in Brussels. Comments on the blog post were closed, so after some research, I found a general mailing address on the company’s Facebook page and sent a message indicating my displeasure and asking them to remove the post. I received this response:

Dear mister Caputo,

Please accept my apologies for this. We usually put the source of each article on our internal blog. We have added your source immediately to the article. I hope this suits your request.

Kind regards,
Philippe De Wulf

Philippe had added this attribution at the bottom of the article:

I debated writing back and saying that it was not enough, and I debated trying to start a Cooks Source magazine style Internet campaign against Dream Stream (see Nerd Rage: A Response to Internet Thievery). But the wind was out of my sails. I had received an apology and attribution, though not exactly in flashing neon lights (I should have asked for my name in an animated starburst), and the prospect of a trans-Atlantic copyright battle seemed fruitless.

So words that I wrote still exist on this other site, looking to all the world like they were written by Philippe. At the very least, Dream Stream’s use of my words falsely attributed to someone else is immoral. At the most, it’s illegal copyright infringement. I can’t say for certain whether the folks at Dream Stream are simply ignorant or actively malicious, but this episode is a reminder that it’s incredibly easy to steal copyrighted materials that exist online, and that there’s a gross misunderstanding of what that little copyright symbol at the bottom of the page means.

I likely never would have known that I had been plagiarized if Philippe had thought to remove links to IBD’s other “Get to Know a Color!” articles contained within “Orange is Controversial,” but I get the idea that he didn’t look too carefully at the article before taking credit for it.

All of that being said, I hope Philippe’s Belgian friends got a big laugh at his insightful and hilarious jab at the New York Mets.

You’ve Got a Ticket to Design

I am a pack rat. My basement is filled with boxes of old photos, stolen yard sale signs, certain emotionally important Tastykake wrappers, and mix tapes from high school girlfriends. This occasionally earns me extended periods of the silent treatment from my wife, punctuated with flurries of the very loud treatment. But still I can’t throw anything away.

One of the things I hoard is ticket stubs. It’s likely no surprise to people who know me that I have nearly every ticket stub from every sporting event I’ve ever been to. Ticket stubs from especially important sporting events, like the only two baseball playoff games I’ve ever seen in person (in 1993 and 2008) and the time in 1999 when I caught a foul ball at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, are displayed prominently in my house. (What my wife hates more than anything is that I usually keep those ticket stubs in the plastic soda cups I buy at those games. There are a lot of plastic soda cups in my house.)

Ticket stubs offer an opportunity that many sites pass up. A thoughtfully designed ticket is much more likely to be kept as a souvenir and included in scrap books or photo albums than your standard-issue TicketMaster ticket. Given that most people are not like me and actually throw stuff away every once in a while, a generic, nondesigned ticket is likely to be discarded.

Visual interest and appropriateness are essential to making a ticket stub into a souvenir. The two tickets pictured here are from a trip I took to Spain in 2007. The first is from a three-minute carousel ride my then three-year-old son took at a medieval festival in the Basque village of Hondarribia, the second from a day-long visit to the Guggenheim museum of modern art in Bilbao. The tickets are attractive and the design elements—color, type, and image—are appropriate to each experience. They succeed in transporting me back to those moments.

The ticket pictured above for the Architectural River Cruise in Chicago is visually interesting and is more likely than most to be kept as a souvenir, but it’s not interpretive. If it had included the theme of the program or the organization’s mission statement, it would have been even better. Also, while the interpretive program, which Shea wrote about back in 2009 during a joint Caputo-Lewis family vacation, was terrific, I do not remember any mention of William Butler Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor, who is pictured on the ticket. (You’ll notice that the ticket is for a child under 7. This is because we put Shea in red suspenders and a beanie propeller hat and passed him off as a kid.)

When I am not able to keep a ticket stub, I breathe deeply into a paper bag for a few moments and look for another solution. On a visit to Kuala Selangor Nature Park in Malaysia, I was forced to hand over my ticket, so I photographed it instead. I don’t speak Malay, so I was really hoping that the inscription at the bottom of the ticket, “Sah untuk satu perjalanan sahaja,” was an inspiring theme or mission statement, but it turned out to be the rather uninspiring “Valid for one journey only” (which, no matter how you look at it, does not work that well as a program theme or an organizational mission statement).

Sometimes, ticket stubs are surprising sources of inspiration for designers, as with the unique typography featured on the ticket for the Sky Deck atop the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. And sometimes, tickets are not much to look at (even if they are unique), but people like me keep them anyway because they remind us of especially good experiences, as with a recording of the NPR show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” in Las Vegas.

If I visit your site and you hand me a ticket, you can pretty much rest assured that I’m going to keep it, much to my wife’s chagrin. For most normal people, however, it’s not such a sure thing. Any time you hand something to a visitor—be it a map, a brochure, or a ticket—I hope you’ll take the opportunity to make it meaningful and attractive, and convey your important messages. Remember, it may just end up prominently displayed in a plastic cup in someone’s house.

The Art (or Science) of Reviewing Designs

Art makes me uncomfortable. I know what I like and what looks good to me but that doesn’t make my daughter the next Pollack because of her creative use of paint and macaroni. The part that makes it really uncomfortable is all of the judging and opinion sharing that takes place with art. It just creates a stage for conflict that will never be resolved. I try to be open minded and receptive but just viewing art makes you draw conclusions. For these reasons I distance myself from art galleries, stay at home and enjoy my original Elvis on black velvet. Don’t judge me. I know you are.

For reasons that I have yet to fully understand friends and coworkers ask for my opinions about design projects (perhaps it has something to do with IBD, the book not the blog, though I still attest that Caputo and Brochu just needed someone to carry boxes of books and fetch water during presentations, which I happen to excel at) and ask for criticism. Who am I kidding? I actually volunteer to look at projects and I’m glad to help. It just puts me in a position to judge. Having a limited number of friends, I cautiously approach each review with a more scientific approach that’s more in my comfort zone.

Most would argue that graphic and interpretive design includes elements of art and I’m here to say that for every part of art that is involved in a product there is an equal amount of science involved. When I’m reviewing a project that I have created or that someone else has I try to keep three things in mind: function, meaning, and originality. Oh, yeah there is one other thing…if it is pretty. So make that four things.

The most important feature of anything a designer creates is overall function. If someone can’t read or use it then it is not worth the paper or compressed laminate that it is printed on. Function is the most difficult area to review for the creator or anyone close to the project because they know the who, what, where, and why of the creative process and cannot separate themselves from what they have done. As Paul has stated designers are also jerks that cannot accept the fact that someone couldn’t easily use something they have made but it happens all to the time to things Paul creates. Put the product in the hands of someone really disconnected, like your boss, your spouse, and see if they can figure it out. Your boss may not have a chance either way.

If there is anything that interpretive designers should be concerned about it is meaning or intent. As interpretive designers you may not have control over the inherent meaning of a project but you can make sure your design supports that underlying meaning. This is the part that involves reading into the emotions behind a project. So in a stereotypical sense, guys, try harder here. Pay attention to the story or statement of what you are designing and apply thought to the small decisions you make in order to echo that meaning in the design. Changing the leading or typeface in support can be the difference in success. Remember that the interpreter is responsible for the meaning and you are responsible for supporting that intent.

Originality in a project should stand out but should not go so far that it takes away from the function or meaning. There is something to say for tradition and the “if it is not broke don’t fix it” approach to design. I have seen too many projects changed for the wrong reasons or pushed through for the sake of change or because a designer wants to put his or her touch or style on it. Originality is important but should be carefully reviewed for success.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget the pretty factor. If you asked my wife if she thought I was handsome when we first met she would say something like “no, but you grew on me.” That’s not the most desirable response you want about a design.  We should all hope for more of a “love at first sight” reaction. Trust your instincts, but if you see there are some redeeming qualities there even though your body is still saying “run away” hang in there and work with that design. It may turn into a wonderful marriage or at least something (or someone) you can live with.

Shortest Post Ever (Excluding Parentheses)

I decided to challenge myself this week and practice what I preach. This is going to be the shortest post in the history of IBD. This is the point where in most of my posts, I make some sort of a confession, and then begin telling a story in attempt to relate some obsolete element of my life to whatever topic I am writing about that week. If that’s not working for me that week, I just start making fun of Paul. Okay, already getting too winded…sorry. Here are the rules, I’m going to keep the word count on this week’s post as low as if it was going to be placed on a wayside exhibit, the text in parentheses doesn’t count since it represents my thoughts, and the post starts at the beginning of the next paragraph. (How’s that for justification of breaking my own rules in this challenge?)

After reviewing a wayside exhibit proposal for a friend, I found myself telling her it was time to cut the text. Which is easier said than done. In IBD (the book not the blog, published in 2008, written by Caputo, Lewis, and Brochu, for sale through the link on the right side of this page) we refer to Gross, Zimmerman, and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 Rule from Signs, Trails, Wayside Exhibits where they say that most visitors spend 3 seconds looking at any given wayside exhibit, some look at the sign for about 30 seconds, and few spend 3 minutes reading the entire sign. (The 3-30-3 rule can also be adapted and modified to the 3-3-30-3-3 for the 3 readers of this blog who spend approximately 3 seconds reading our posts, 30 minutes making fun of us, who tell 3 friends about what idiots we are, and spend the next 3 days reading blogs that are more insightful than ours.) (Paragraph count: 76.)

I am also reminded here that each paragraph should have between 50-75 words and the number of paragraphs should not exceed three paragraphs. The most important elements of the theme should be included in the title. Especially, if most visitors only spend 3 seconds, primarily reading the title and looking at the message though images and graphics. (Paragraph count: 57, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 132, Words available for third and final paragraph: 92.)

I closed the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain who said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Based on the sigh heard over the phone, she most likely will not be asking me to review her work again. We should be reminded of Gross and Zimmerman’s 3-30-3 rule (it was Gross, Zimmerman and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 rule but, I’m counting words and had to make a cut somewhere. Sorry, Jim.) and how we craft  messages for the maximum effect. This exercise has been a great reminder to me of how difficult it is to be brief, how to break rules, and the power of parentheses. (Paragraph count: 92, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 225, Words allotted in three paragraphs according to Caputo, Lewis and Brochu: 225.)