The NAI 2012 logo: Not literal

It’s been two weeks since the NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul ended, which means one thing: We’re counting down to next year’s workshop in Hampton, Virginia, November 13-17. (Also, we’ve almost gotten the smell of lutefisk out of our hair.)

I lived in Richmond, Virginia, an hour or two down the road from Hampton, for basically the entire 1990s, so I entered into designing the logo for NAI 2012 with a sense of the place. My first thought was that the logo should feature a steady stream of cars hurtling at 70 miles per hour along Interstate 64 and disappearing suddenly and horrifyingly into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. This idea was borne from repeated and horrifying trips that I used to take across and/or through the 3.5-mile-long Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel between Richmond and the beach. (Thanks to the Virginia Department of Transportation for the horrifying photo I’ve used here.)

There’s a lot going on in Hampton that would make great fodder for a logo. The region is rich in Native American heritage, Colonial history, a contemporary military culture, and an abundance of natural beauty. I briefly flirted with the idea of coming up with a cartoon character like a blue crab in a three-cornered hat, but as a designer, I felt my chief responsibility in coming up with a logo for NAI 2012 was to exercise restraint. (I’ve always said that a logo is the face of an identity system, not the entire body.) It would be all too easy in trying to literally represent all of the noteworthy aspects of the Chesapeake Bay area for the logo to degenerate into a cluttered mess—or worse yet, a collage. (There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than a collage masquerading as a logo.)

So I started with this image of the Chesapeake Bay from a site called My Desktop Wallpapers. Of all the photos I found online of the area, I chose this one because it most closely reflected my memories of the sunlit skies over the bay.

I imported the photo into one of my favorite color-palette websites, Kuler, and it generated the palette pictured above. (I wrote a post about Kuler way back in March 2009 here.)

While I was not trying to literally represent natural and cultural features of the area, I certainly wanted to suggest them. Guided by a theme settled on by our Workshop committee, “Chesapeake Reflections,” I used the palette above and typographic composition to mimic a sunrise over water. I chose to juxtapose a handwriting typeface and a bold, architectural-feeling sans serif to represent the diversity of cultural heritage in the area.

Based on feedback on the first draft, I darkened the colors a little (particularly the yellow-orange of “NAI 2012”) and changed the handwriting typeface to one with more of a historical feeling—as though it could be from a 17th-century explorer’s journal.

One note on the type: I felt that the zero character in this typeface (on the left) was too intrusive, so I changed it to a lower-case O (on the right), which I feel works better and is a little more visually interesting.

As the art director for an organization of individuals who interpret an incredible diversity of nature and culture, I try to strike a balance in everything I do. I try to be careful that our magazine, Legacy, does not focus too heavily on either nature or culture. When I go looking for photos or other visual elements for our publications, I try to be sure that for every photo of a stream or a mountain, that there’s an image that represents the cultural heritage that NAI members interpret. (And vice versa.)

In the end, some people liked what we ended up with for the NAI 2012 logo, and some people wanted it to say more. However, in designing the logo, I decided that trying to fairly represent all of the natural and cultural resources in the Hampton area (or even some nature and some culture) would result in a logo that was too cluttered. Ultimately, it was my responsibility to settle on abstractions rather than literal representations.

That said, I still plan to use images of the great natural and cultural heritage we’ll find in Virginia next year—just not as part of the logo. If you go to the Workshop website right now, you’ll find three photos in the banner at the top. These will change throughout the year. Right now, there are two natural features depicted (seagulls and a horseshoe crab) and one cultural (a boat), but if you keep score between now and next November, I bet you’ll find that the final tally will be pretty close to even.

And when we’re actually in Hampton, I can tell you one place I won’t be going: That scary bridge-tunnel.

The Last Word from Australia: A Devil of a Time in Tasmania

Until this past week, my image of the Tasmanian devil, an endangered marsupial that lives on the Australian island state of Tasmania, was based exclusively on this Looney Tunes cartoon character. The poor Tasmanian devil, because of its obscure location and a perception of its unpleasant disposition, does not get much attention. (Interestingly, the New Jersey Devils hockey team does not get much attention for essentially the same reasons.)

On Tasmania, visual depictions of the animal are odd, to say the least. Because devils are unique to the island (they used to be all over Australia, but are now just on Tasmania), local organizations like Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service (pictured above) use them in logos, brochures, and other media. Rather than being portrayed as even vaguely likable, though, the devils are almost always shown as vicious little monsters with their mouths open and teeth bared.

Stuffed animals (or the souvenir slippers pictured above) found in gift shops have cuddly open mouths and bared teeth. Even this wooden sculpture atop a donations box at the Tasmania Zoo in the town of Launceston shows the animal in a perpetual state of ferocity. This sculpture is particularly strange to me because the animal is sitting, but still has its mouth open like it’s tearing apart dinner.

It seems to me that if you’re asking for donations to help protect an animal, you might want to show its softer side—or at least show it not being openly hostile—so that people might actually want to protect it. (For the record, we did not make a donation here, but we did later on.)

I still had never seen a live devil when I saw this and was starting to think they walked around with their mouths just hanging open all the time.

On our third day in Tasmania, we went to the zoo to see the devils in person. We approached this enclosure with trepidation, fearing for our lives when we saw this sign posted on a wall less than three feet high. But the moment we first saw the devils was a bit anti-climactic. They didn’t spin wildly like the Looney Tunes character, nor were they devouring some other animal’s carcass. They were roughly the size of house cats, and they all had their mouths closed.

They were actually a little bit adorable in an ugly sort of way, like Hugh Jackman or the original Volkswagen Beetle.

After five or ten minutes, we finally saw a devil open his mouth and bare his teeth. We snapped away with our cameras, though in fairness, I am compelled to reveal that this guy was just yawning. To this point, the experience was going exactly as I expected. It was a thrill to see a unique animal on its home turf, but the build-up related to the ferocity of the devil was impossible to live up to—until we learned a thing or two about them.

At 10:30 that morning, we witnessed a short interpretive presentation and a devil feeding at the zoo. A burly bloke carrying a bucket of what the devils clearly knew was their morning tea dodged and weaved as these adorable little Hugh Jackmans turned into the snarling monsters we saw portrayed everywhere. Suddenly we understood. While giving the devils a rack of kangaroo ribs that they devoured—bones and all—in short order, the interpreter explained that these scavengers have a bite 12 times stronger than that of a pit bull—only slightly less than that of a crocodile. One of these little guys could pull him from one side of the enclosure to the other with no problem.

The devils are facing a number of challenges and were listed as endangered in 2008. Sadly, the devils have been besieged by a virus that has wiped out 80 percent of the population and could go extinct if the problem is not solved. In fact, Mr. Burly Interpreter told us, the reason there’s so much roadkill on the roads in Tasmania these days is that devils play the important role of cleaning up these messes, and there are far fewer of them to do so now.

Before we left, we got the chance to give a baby devil a pat. The young ones don’t start biting right away, so this was a chance to create a connection (literally and figuratively) between the animals and the visitors. After telling the story of the devil’s plight and showing us a softer side of the animal, we did make a donation to help protect it.

This moment reminded us that no matter how they’re portrayed in logos or brochures, Tasmanian devils just want to be loved. Until they’re two years old. At which point they will gnaw your hand off if you give them the chance.

Our great Australian adventure ended this weekend, but as our kids spend the next six months recovering from jet lag and exhaustion, they’ll have the company and comfort of their new friend “Diablo,” a stuffed devil—with its mouth open and teeth bared—that we purchased as we left the Tasmania Zoo.