Fun with Googling Colors

I was on the phone with Friend of IBD Howard Aprill not long ago, when he described something as being the color “vermillion.” Because Shea and I are going to present a graphic design workshop this summer at Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee, where Howard works, and because I am a graphic designer, I felt I should know what color vermillion was. Rather than ask, I changed the subject of the conversation to baseball and on the side, quietly Googled “What color is vermillion?”

Of course, the rest of my afternoon was shot. I’ve always wanted to know the difference between sea foam…

…and sea mist. (Not much.)

Or the difference between cerulean…

…and manganese. (Cerulean’s a little darker, maybe?)

Then, of course, this led to further exploration. (All while Howard and I were still talking, mind you. This may explain why I apparently agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” during our workshop in Milwaukee this summer.) What if you Googled “What color is [something that is not a color]?” Some (but not all) of these turned up interesting results.

What color is nature? (I thought this would come back overwhelmingly green. Kind of refreshing that it did not.)

What color is energy?

What color is Greece?

What color is New Jersey?

And, of course, this led to even more exploration. (At this point in the conversation, evidently, I’ve agreed to buy everyone Brewers tickets and wear a T-shirt that says “I’m Ryan Braun’s pharmacist” to the game.) I took a few of the screen captures above and uploaded them to my favorite color-palette generator, Kuler, which I wrote about way back when.

Here’s what I got for vermillion:

Cerulean:

Energy:

Nature (I love this one):

And New Jersey:

I think what this amounts to is a kind of fun, Internet-based brainstorming—and sometimes it works better than others. I would never commit myself to generating a color palette for a project exclusively using this method, but the results that it returns could be a springboard for thinking about colors in ways that you haven’t before.

I plan to explore this more in the future, and I’d love to see some of the results IBD readers come up with in the comments of this post. In the meantime, I have to figure out why my presenter’s agreement with the Wehr Nature Center says I’m doing Howard Aprill’s laundry.

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.

Halloween: Our Most Visual Holiday

For those of you reading this in the future, today is Halloween. If Halloween does not exist in your time, I can tell you that it was an ancient custom filled with magic, during which kids dressed like monsters, men dressed like women, and women dressed like they were in Las Vegas. Everyone got candy, except for the kids who went to that one house where they gave out apples and toothbrushes.

If you are a time-traveling visitor from the past, here are some interesting facts about today’s Halloween: We don’t carve jack-o-lanterns out of turnips anymore! Now we use pumpkins. (Did you know that pumpkins are actually a fruit, not a vegetable? It’s a crazy world we live in.) And jack-o-lanterns, instead of welcoming the souls of deceased loved ones the way they used to, now welcome ungrateful, entitled children in plastic masks from Wal Mart.

Halloween is one of the most striking holidays from a visual perspective. It has a distinctive color palette: ominous, somber black, and the official color of prop comedian Carrot Top, orange. Centuries ago, Halloween was associated with orange and black because of the season of the holiday (fall) and the time of day that the holiday was observed (night).

These days, the visual vernacular of Halloween is spooky and ghoulish—ghosts, demons, witches, and all sorts of gruesome stuff:

Halloween has lost most of its original reason for being as a religious holiday, and it’s now perpetuated almost entirely through a commonly accepted visual aesthetic (also through the promise of candy). Ultimately, when the trick-or-treaters come by our houses tonight, we’ll all be aware that we’re witnessing a really well-branded product, with a well-defined color palette and visual voice.

That said, I hope you’ll share photos of your costumes with us either here on the blog or on our Facebook page. Happy Halloween!

Structure in Exhibits

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook reminded me of what my status update was a year ago. Being the sentimental and nostalgic guy that I am, I was reminded of a trip to St. Louis, Missouri, that I took with my family at the same time last year. I decided to go back and look at the pictures to relive the good times and to see how much my hair line had changed in twelve months.

As with most of my family vacation photo files, I have more pictures of signs and exhibits than I do of my children. I get to see my children every day. I may not ever have a chance to see a great use of a complementary color palette at a museum in Missouri ever again. It also keeps your kids’ egos in check by letting them know that it is not all about them.

While browsing through the images I came across a few images that I haven’t shared before of a really cool exhibit featuring the architecture of the Gateway Arch. The exhibit is not at the arch itself but at the St. Louis Science Center.

Here are some images and thoughts.

The design of this structures exhibit was clean and architectural in nature. I love how the materials echo raw materials of a construction site. Even the justified text could represent building blocks. Of course it could have been designed by someone who likes squares, but I think it was purposeful.

These panels continue the consistent message presented on the orientation sign. The concept is expanded with the blueprint-type symbols and open-ended question approach. Of course this is enough to bore my children to death (though death by type is underrated). This was the option that really inspired them…

These pillow building blocks allow children to practice what it takes to build an arch. You will notice that Anna (in the middle) is restraining her younger brother William (the destroyer) so we could get the picture of the complete arch.

This is not related to the structure exhibit, but I just had to share it. I’m not sure what incident led up to the creation of this sign but it was warranted, trust me. Do you have any ideas?

Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

Since today is the Fourth of July in the United States (not sure what the date is in other countries), I feel I should mention that I love fireworks. Even if I don’t totally understand the point, I figure anything that is an excuse for a cookout and that can cause more than 400 people to show up at a Florida Marlins game has to be good for something.

However, when it comes to graphic design, the closest counterparts to fireworks are starbursts, which cause me to do what my son did the first time he experienced fireworks: burst into tears.

Whenever I make some unequivocal statement about what is good design and what is bad design, people come to me with arguments to the contrary. (“I use Comic Sans because I want people to equate my interpretive site with yard sales and take-out menus.”)

With that in mind, let me make this unequivocal statement: Starbursts are bad graphic design. Even if your product is FREE! or NEW! or simply AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME!, the starburst is the bold, blinking, animated gif of graphic design. The person who uses starbursts in design is the same person who emails you in all caps. Whatever reason a person has for using a starburst, I can assure you there’s a better solution.

I found this brochure in a rack at a highway-side restaurant in Wyoming. There are a lot of things wrong with it from a design perspective. It uses clip art, glowing drop shadows, random angles, roughly 8,000 fonts in every possible style, and a color palette loosely described as “all of them.” (It’s reminiscent of this design advice that Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel heard recently and shared on our Facebook page: “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”)

Even amidst all that chaos, what stands out most is that it looks like the brochure was attacked by a pack of eight-year-olds wielding yellow paintball guns. I can’t be certain of this, but I’d guess that the person who designed this brochure has a background in producing late-night infomercials.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely of a similar mind and the larger problem is what to do with that client (or boss) who asks for starbursts. This is your opportunity to politely resist and educate your client (or boss) about the more subtle and elegant ways of drawing attention to important information without resorting to the visual equivalent of punching your audience in the face. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as changing the color, size, or line thickness of your type, or possibly altering the composition to prominently feature important elements at the top of a page or within a large amount of white space. (There are lots of solutions, and all of them are better than starbursts.)

In the end, the things that make starbursts so terrible are what make fireworks so great: They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and they’re pointless.

Happy Fourth of July!

A Work in Progress: The 2012 NAI International Conference Identity

People who communicate for a living have to be ready for a variety of reactions when they put something out there for public consumption. As a visual communicator, I have created things that people hate (see my first attempt at a logo for last year’s NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas) and some things that have been more well-received (see the identity for last month’s NAI International Conference in Panama). The one reaction I do not know what to do with is silence.

When NAI announced the location and dates of the upcoming NAI Pacific Islands International Conference (Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, May 8-12, 2012), I posted a link to the conference website on the IBD Facebook page and asked for feedback. Perhaps I posted it at a moment when there were not a lot of people online, or perhaps Facebook’s popularity is fading and people just aren’t using it as much as they used to, but when I checked back later in anticipation of a handful of comments, there was very little—a couple of likes and one, “Looks good. Sign me up!”

We know from our surveys that one of the reasons people attend the NAI International Conference is its location, so each year, I focus my design decisions on the site of the event. In the identity for the Pacific Islands International Conference, I used an iconic Hawai’i photo by Gregory Runyan (which I found on stock.xchng, my favorite source for free, high-quality photography) in part because it establishes a sense of place and in part because it fits with the color palette that I wanted to use. (I’m calling the color palette “pastel primary”—a sort of tropical, relaxed blue, yellow, and red.)

One problem with the photo is that it raises questions of whether the palm tree is native to Hawai’i. (The answer is not simple: Palms are not technically native to Hawai’i, but some of them have been there for a really long time, since the days of the early Polynesian settlers.) Another problem is that one person’s “iconic” is another person’s “boring” or “predictable.” That second person is my wife.

The words “Pacific Islands” are set in a distressed script typeface called Marcelle Script, which I found on DaFont, another great resource. I’m using Marcelle Script because I feel it reflects the relaxed, comfortable environs of the event. If you visit the link to that typeface, you’ll notice that it’s “free for personal use.” If I stick with Marcelle Script in the final version of this identity, I’ll be sure to make a donation to the designer.

And on a technical typographic note, because we’re honoring the indigenous spelling of the name Hawai’i, you’ll see it spelled with that diacritical mark before the last I, which it turns out is not just an apostrophe. Because I have Adobe InDesign set to use smart (curly) quotes and apostrophes (as you should, too), I have to jump through some hoops to get the appropriate, straight-up-and-down mark. In InDesign, I select Type > Insert Special Character > Quotation Marks > Straight Single Quotation Mark. (Unfortunately, there is no way to do this online that I know of, so I’m using an apostrophe here.)

So that’s the thinking that has gone into this website so far. And while the reaction has been generally positive, it has also been luke warm, which fills me with angst. So I set about looking for some other options.

This image by Margan Zajdowicz shows the distinctive lava rock of the Hawaiian beach, but with this cropping, as my co-worker Jamie points out, it looks like it’s promoting a conference about oil spills. (Also, if you visit the link to the image, you’ll see that this cropping eliminates the endearing word “Aloha” written in the sand.)

I like the color palette and general feeling of this image by NAI Executive Director Tim Merriman, but I hesitate to use it because most of the conference will be held above the surface of the water.

The same goes for this photo, also by Tim Merriman.

So that’s where I am now. They say that a graphic designer never finishes a project, but is sometimes forced to stop working on it (like when it goes to press). With this event nearly a year away, I could spend 11 months tweaking the identity and never be completely happy with it.

And as you may have guessed, I welcome your feedback.