Have a Platypustastic New Year!

I have been making New Year’s resolutions on this site since we started doing this in 2009. And I’ve accomplished some amazing things based on past resolutions: I threw out that old, disgusting Tupperware in 2010, and I have not feathered an edge in months.

With that, here are some promises Shea and I make to you for 2012:

  1. We will learn about platypuses—web-footed, venomous, egg-laying mammals that they are.
  2. We will embrace new media. Learn about it. Talk about it. Use it.
  3. To my wife’s chagrin, I will at least triple the size of my collection of Major League Baseball ice cream sundae helmets.
  4. We will get a pet platypus.
  5. Shea will finally call Cy Sperling to see what can be done.
  6. We will not place photos in compositions at random angles (and certainly not with drop shadows).
  7. We will introduce a new word to the English lexicon: platypustastic.
  8. We will use that extra day in February to its fullest potential.
  9. We will become huge hockey fans. I will root for the Philadelphia Flyers because I grew up in Philadelphia and I am still connected to that community through family and frequent visits. Shea will root for the Montreal Canadiens because they have the most championships and that’s how he picks his teams.
  10. We will start a podcast. A platypustastic podcast.

Happy new year!


Defining the Strike Zone

Much to Paul’s chagrin, today’s post is dedicated to Jo Schaper, who challenged Paul’s take on starbursts (the explosive graphic design element, not the fruit-flavored candy packed with sweet goodness and that is more efficient than a dentist at removing a filling) in his post Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying on Monday. Her comment and Paul’s reply are presented here.

It is not uncommon for folks to challenge our opinions about elements of interpretive design (along with personal style choices – despite what you think we both still feel red Crocs are perfectly acceptable in public venues). In fact we welcome it. Through this blog we have learned that there is nothing more polarizing than discussions on Comic Sans, serial commas, and now starbursts.

This is where I have to applaud Jo (as well as Judy Sneed the official Pro Comic Sans Spokesperson of NAI Region VI) for speaking up for what they believe is an appropriate use of starbursts. Plus, I like anyone that is willing to give Paul a hard time about anything.

I think I can speak for Paul here. Facing this adversity he might say something like, “I disagree with Jo but at least I got her to think about the design decisions that she makes every time she starts a project. I bet the next time she goes to insert a starburst she thinks twice about how she uses it.” I like it best when Paul speaks without commas. The underlying goal behind IBD (the book not the blog) was to help interpretive designers make the best design decisions possible, which could be said in this instance as well.

Since I’m speaking for Paul, I think it also safe to say that he might also say something like this: “If I wasn’t a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I would pull for the New York Yankees because deep down inside I’m jealous and really think they are awesome, oh yeah and Arkansas I where I should live because if Shea lives there it must rock, oh yeah and Shea’s children are cuter than mine!” I would have to agree with both of Paul’s statements.

I see the opinions that we offer in/on IBD (the book and the blog) are equivalent to the role an umpire plays in a baseball game. When a pitcher stands on the mound and is looking at the batter, catcher, and umpire, he has many choices of what kind of pitch throw (cutter, fastball, curve, sinker, splitter, knuckleball, slider, change-up). It is the role of the umpire to confine the space where the pitch has to be thrown and up to the pitcher to be creative enough to put those pitches into that space. I also see us playing the umpire because our lack of baseball talent and the fact that Paul looks best in a mask.

A pitcher can throw pitches outside the strike zone and it’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they will be successful, it simply means they are pitching in the National League. Also the better you know the strike zone or the parameters and guidelines you will also know when to break the rules and throw outside the zone. The best pitchers throw a combination of strikes and balls in order to get that batter out. There is no guarantee that the batter is going to swing at the pitches outside the strike zone in order for the pitcher to get them out. Sometimes you end up with a walk (which has no design equivalent in this long drawn out analogy). The most important thing to remember is that you want to throw as many good strikes as possible, within the zone.

As interpreters and interpretive designers, I think we have to be careful about not only to be thinking about our clients or our visitors by simply giving them what they want. We need to place thought into what design decision help meet the goals of the project and the interpretive site. I have been guilty (and this blog has been guilty, and by this blog I mean Paul) of writing to our audience of interpreters and interpretive designers. We like talking and reading about topics that we are familiar with, comfortable with, and align well with what and how we think. We need to challenge and be challenged to grow. This can be said of personal interpretation as well. We all have had program participants that come to your program already knowing exactly or more about what you are presenting. That may be your objective but more than likely is not. It is my hope that Jo would comeback with an amazing design chock full of starbursts that makes Paul say, “Wow, that’s an effective use of the starburst.”

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this image of the 2010 NAI National Workshop logo, designed by Paul, complete with a starburst.


When I was in high school, I ran on the cross country team in the fall and on the track team in the spring. Cross country was simple (though not easy). Everyone on my team ran 3.1 miles against everyone on the other team. The fastest runners won. I enjoyed cross country and wanted desperately to succeed, but I was not good at it. I was not a fast distance runner.

In track, there were multiple events, from short sprints to two-mile distance events, not to mention field events like shot put and pole vault. As a self-imagined distance runner, I practiced with the distance runners, ran distance events during meets, and made fun of the sprinters for their wussy practices.

Then one day, one of our top sprinters was injured, and because I never placed in any distance event, the coaches pulled me out of the mile and two-mile runs and placed me in the 100-meter dash. To my chagrin, I placed first. Before I knew it, I was the lead sprinter (on a very bad track team, mind you) in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and the anchor of the 400- and 800-meter relay teams. During practice, I would watch the distance runners as they glided around the track, knowing they were scoffing at my wussy sprint drills. I eventually accepted and enjoyed sprinting, but in the fall, I would always go back to the cross country team with the idea that my body might yet morph from that of a stocky sprinter to a lanky distance runner.

As a graduate student in visual communications at Virginia Commonwealth University about a decade ago, my fellow students were supremely talented graphic designers, each with a particular talent or knack that defined them in my mind. Five of them in particular really made an impression on me. Sandie Maxa had an amazing skill for working with color; Mark Sanders used his background in architecture to establish a unique and appealing visual voice; Grace Marraccini applied an elegant and sophisticated touch to everything she produced; Kristy Pennino had a flair for combining her own intricate photographs with simple but expressive type; and Guido Alvarez had a way of thinking about design (and the world) that made me shake my head, smile, and say, “Wow.”

guido_ceroI admired the work of all of these classmates then and still do today. Sometimes I’ll get something as simple as a greeting card from one of them or see something they’ve posted on Facebook and it reminds of the sort of work I imagined I would do some day. (Pictured here is one of my favorites from Guido, a poster for an international film festival that envisions a theater experience that goes beyond popcorn and candy.)

Let me be clear: I love my job. I love that I get to work in a variety of media (print, web, logos, and sometimes video), and I love that I work for an organization filled with great people and whose goals and mission I believe in. But when I started grad school, I thought I’d end up as a poster designer in some European city where I would go out at 5:00 in the morning with a bucket of glue and a paint roller to place edgy posters that I had designed among all the other edgy posters that other designers had designed. (Also, I would own an airplane and not be so tubby.)

Of course, the area where I had the most success in grad school was not where I wanted to succeed but something else altogether: Information design. The best group critique I experienced in six semesters as a graphic design student was for a project in which we were asked to redesign food nutrition labels. In order to break free of this—to explore and embrace a world of rough edges and imperfection—I did my entire thesis project on what graphic designers can learn from yard sale signs.

Guido used to torment me during critiques (I seem to invite that sort of thing), but the most penetrating comment he ever made was, “Your work can be so obvious.” I earned a Master of Fine Arts in 2001, all the while feeling like a distance runner in a sprinter’s body.

Last week, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about graphic design resolutions for the new decade. It was all about detail-type things (using em-dashes instead of two hyphens, not using globes in logos, etc.). It was not about how to think about graphic design.

This week, my real resolution is to visit with my former classmates and other designers online and in person as much as possible (starting with this post), to try to continue to grow and learn as a designer, to focus on the process of graphic design rather than the end result, to identify and break out of boxes, to strive to become a graphic design distance runner.

As a runner, I was constrained by my body type (you don’t see a lot of marathoners with short, thick legs) and I’m not sure that all of the hard work in the world would have made a big difference. But as a designer, I feel I can build on what I perceive as my strengths (organization, information, clarity) and work toward a more expressive and unique visual voice.

Note: You can find Sandie and Mark’s design firm, Q Collective, at www.upwithq.com. Kristy now teaches and posts her students’ work on Flickr. Guido and the weird stuff he does is at www.hyperscholar.com.