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.

140 Characters or Less

Some of you came here today hoping to only have to read a 140 character post. To keep the tradition alive of disappointment on IBD, I’m sorry to inform you that that this post is much longer.

In my new job I spend a lot of time in my vehicle driving from place to place. I have become dependent on podcasts of all types to help pass the time. This probably won’t surprise you but I listen to several podcasts related to sports (Pardon the Interruption, Colin Cowherd, and Tony Kornheiser) as well as some of my favorite shows  from NPR (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Whad’Ya Know, and Car Talk). One show, BackStory with the American History Guys, has really grown on me and I look forward to each new broadcast. I have even been downloading back issues of the show.

BackStory takes on topics in history with a modern perspective and is very interpretive in nature. The three history guys (18th, 19th, and 20th century guys to be exact) make topics applicable to listeners today. Marking the beginning of the sesquicentennial (a super fancy way of saying 150th anniversary) of the Civil War, BackStory created a series of three shows that covered issues of setting the stage for war, why the war was fought, and questions that remain today. One of the sidebar conversations that I found of particular interest was transforming the entire story of the Civil War into a 140 character Tweet. The 18th and 19th century guys were remarkably unsuccessful (no surprise) and the 20th century guy even found it difficult. I tried in conversation with myself and found it difficult to count the amount of letters and spaces up to 140 so I gave up. Try it. It is difficult (to count that is).

I can’t claim to know enough about the Civil War to even attempt to take on this thematic Tweet but overall I was more interested in the exercise itself (insert your own joke here about me being interested in exercise). Communication through Tweets and texts today is commonplace but I’m not sure that many of us don’t put much thought into maximizing our messages. There are plenty of examples of celebrities and athletes who did not think before they tweeted.

As interpreters and interpretive designers we spend an extensive amount of time and effort into crafting our theme statements and placing emphasize on our themes in our programs and products. (As we should.) Here are some tips that you can use to improve the power of your theme statements and Tweets.

Write in the active voice.

Avoid personal pronouns. (I particularly like this one.)

Think before you write, then write, and then revise.

Don’t be afraid to punctuate! (I know Paul loves this one!)

Stay away from big words.

Make it meaningful.

In a great example of brevity Ernest Hemingway wrote his shortest story consisting of six words. Here it is: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” That’s 34 characters for those counting. Imagine what he could have said in 140.

Here’s the challenge for you today. Write a thematic comment below that sums up this blog (Paul or me) in 140 characters or less. Jeff Miller, I know this may be difficult for you.

Thinking Inside the Box

Paul and I have never been short on words. We have been preparing for our preworkshop session at the upcoming National Workshop in Las Vegas and have found ourselves having to cut topics, activities, and valuable information to make room for bad jokes, irrelevant stories, family photos, and useless references to bits of knowledge that no one will ever use. I have recently been told by my wife to use restraint when I feel the need to be funny in front of groups such as the one in Las Vegas. She backed this up by saying that I’m always one comment away from being offensive and isolated again. She knows me well.

That’s part of the reason we created this blog, so that we could carry on conversations here, primarily with each other, as well as avoid contact with our wives while doing “work.” Writing for this blog is easy. We can say basically whatever we want to, go on and on about various topics, and feel secure in the fact that we and Jeff Miller are the only ones reading. When people come to a workshop session and we have to see the disappointment in their eyes it is best for us to be prepared. I’m glad that we can’t see the disappointment in you reading at home.

Exercising discipline in restraint to make the most impact is difficult since we tend to put out matches with a fire hose. I’m pretty sure you know how we feel about Comic Sans, Papyrus, and clip art. If not, Paul and I are making personal appointments with groups and individuals to discuss in Las Vegas. So far we have exactly one appointment each, with each other.

I was reminded of the value of carefully chosen decisions and using restraint when Daily Designer News highlighted the designer Timo Meyer’s movie icon project. The self-imposed challenge created by Meyer is to take a movie each day and transform the concept or theme behind the film into a simple icon.

A recent conversation with Kelly Farrell, while working on a T-shirt design involving icons, displayed the complexity in digesting key components of an activity into a universally recognizable icon. Meyer’s challenge takes this complexity to the next level by taking well-known, full-length feature films with complex stories and transforming them into something recognizable. This is what interpretive designers do each day. Here are a few of my favorite movies and icons from his Flickr page. I’ll let you be the judge if he is successful and if I have good taste in movies. I will give you the names of the films represented here at the end of the post (you can cheat by holding your mouse over the image to see the movie’s name).

If you have ever worked on a logo for an event or interpretive site you may have experienced this type of challenge. Transforming the essence of a park or museum into a memorable, describable, functional logo is no easy task. You have to rely on the basics of communication the sender, the message, and the communicator.

If you have ever attended a program presented by an interpreter who wanted to tell you everything they know about the site, you can relate to the opposite of this challenge. Exercising restraint requires discipline and planning. Some of the best interpretive programs and products that I have seen were almost completely planned around the concept of what not to convey.

If you have ever spoken with Paul for more than five minutes and had the urge to run away, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here are the movies represented above: Mission Impossible, Twelve Angry Men, RoboCop, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Goonies (quite possibly one of the best movies ever made).

Live from Australia: It’s a Giant World After All

If you are reading this on the day it is posted, I am in Australia and it is the day before the annual NAI International Conference. I am in a time zone 16 hours ahead of my home in Colorado (if you’re in Colorado and it’s after 8:00 a.m., it’s tomorrow for me) and I just (legally) drove on the left side of a two-way street for the first time yesterday. I haven’t used a toilet here yet because I heard that the water goes the opposite direction than what I’m accustomed to, and I don’t want to be around toilet water that flushes up instead of down.

The morning of our departure, I awoke to the voice of my six-year-old son Joel singing “It’s a Small World,” the refrain of one of the signature rides at Disney World. It features about 400 animatronic dolls representing different countries and cultures uniting as one to get that song stuck in your head. Suddenly, Joel stopped singing and in a raised voice, exclaimed, “Are you serious? It’s not a small world, it’s a giant world. We’re going to the other side of the world and it’s going to take three airplanes and two nights, SO YOU BABIES ARE WRONG!”

I think Joel’s right. Those Small World babies are wrong. Sure, some amazing advances in technology have facilitated instantaneous communication worldwide. In preparation for the NAI International Conference, I frequently had email conversations at the end of my work day in Colorado with people just starting the next day in Australia. There was half a planet covered in nighttime between us and we were chatting about the weather and who’s going to win the Australian “footy” championship. (Not really. I know nothing about the Australian Football League beyond the fact that the mascot of the Sydney team is the Swans.)

But even as technology increases our ability to communicate and spread communicable diseases, the world remains an enormous place. I think no matter what your profession, you gain perspective by visiting new places, getting out of your comfort zone, and trying to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And there are so many ways to accomplish this.

To Joel’s point, it’s a giant world after all. Sure, the world has gotten smaller metaphorically, but it remains literally a giant place. There’s so much out there to see and do. In communication-based professions like graphic design and heritage interpretation, it may not be enough to ask, How would someone across the street, across town, across the state, or on the other side of the planet react to this project? It may require packing a bag and going somewhere new. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you don’t know what size they wear. (Either that’s really deep or I am more jetlagged than I think.)

Granted, it’s not always feasible to jet around the planet at will, but any opportunity to break out of your comfort zone is worthwhile and will enhance your perspective. Talk to a stranger on the bus. Eat at a restaurant on the other side of town. Wear a Mets hat (actually, scratch that one). Go somewhere you’ve never been and interact with as many people as you can.

As I adjust to autumn in April, spelling center as centre, and trying not to clip the sideview mirrors off the cars parked along the streets of Queensland, Australia, I may not fully appreciate the full value of the experience while it’s happening. But it is my belief that any experience that broadens my worldview—that helps me appreciate a perspective other than my own—is one that will help me grow as a professional communicator.

And now I have that song stuck in my head.

Unicorn Punching?

I have recently come to the conclusion that I’m not as young as I think I am. I’ve heard that working with seasonal interpreters helps keep you young. I’m now thinking they are great at making you feel old. It is possible to stay young at heart and hip, right?

I have a brother who is less than half my age. I think it is awesome to have a little brother, Lee, who helps me “keep it real.” Right now he is blushing after my mentioning him and the phrase “keep it real” in the same sentence. On several occasions I have had conversations with Lee immediately following a conversation with a seasonal interpreter that I didn’t fully understand. Sometimes you just need a translator. I’m a good actor, so I pretend that I know what they are talking about, and then I ask for a clarification of terms from Lee before embarrassing myself any further. This keeps me from finding myself in a strange location, using phrases inappropriately or ordering something for lunch that is not fit for human consumption.

Let’s face it, I’m out of touch. But I’m willing to work at relating to this younger generation even though most of my connection to pop culture is filtered through episodes of Hannah Montana and SpongeBob SquarePants. It is not uncommon to hear me say things like “Oh, sweet niblets” or “Ah, barnacles.”

The moment that you have to ask someone what “woot” means or what “goml” means in a text, you are officially un-cool. If you don’t know what a text is, don’t worry about your standing in society because you are ahead of Paul.

Thankfully for people like me there are websites out there like Trend Central and Trendwatching that also help keep me up to date. Both are worth subscribing to and are efficient at keeping you down with the current nomenclature. (If you ever use the word nomenclature, you are un-cool.) Trend Central puts out an annual list of terms that are gaining popularity in the types of places that use slang and that rarely ever discuss the serial comma. This year’s list has some keywords that could be used in or related to the community of IBD and interpretive design.

Trend Central – New Slang

Epic Fail: n. a frequently used term in the video game community that quite simply means you really messed up and/or something/someone is an utter failure. The logo that I just spent 26 hours working on for the NAI Region 6 Workshop in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, February 28 – March 3, 2011 was an epic fail (not that I am resentful).

Geequals: n. two people who are equal in depth of arcane knowledge. Paul has no geequal.

Alt-worthy: adj. A term used to describe people or things considered to be cool or trendy. People whose computers have a full ALT key and not a function key are alt-worthy.

‘Kward (kwerd): adj. Awkward. Most of my conversations (outside the topics of Star Wars, baseball and type), primarily with the opposite sex, are ‘kward.

Trend Central – Slanging Out

Jam It: v. a retort used to tell someone you do not like what they are telling you; similar to “shut up.” It is not uncommon for readers of IBD to say “I wish you guys would just jam it about Helvetica!”

Unicorn Puncher: n. a term used to describe someone who, in the face of cute overload (whether it be in a blog or conversation), undermines their adorableness with something gross. After carefully choosing the perfect typeface, that unicorn punching editor, suggested the use of Papyrus.  

Trend Central – Slang Decoder

Gen Pop: n. term used to describe the general population when “bridge and tunnel,” yuppies, tourists or “undesirable” individuals “intrude” upon an event, outing, club or local restaurant. I was once a member of the general population while being detained for questioning, ever since then anywhere I go I feel like part of the gen pop.

G.O.M.L.: v. acronym for the phrase “Get on My Level;” said when one person both wants to imply that someone else can’t keep up and wants to urge them to catch up. My wife is constantly telling me to turn off the computer and GOML (which I found extremely hurtful as I first translated it as get out of my life).

Curl: v. a new way to crop your pants without cuffing; best for skinny jeans, curling is when you roll the bottoms of your pant legs very tightly two or three times, creating a delicate cinch above the ankle. I don’t know how to use this word in a sentence for the simple fact that I have never worn skinny jeans and I can’t believe that anything will ever be cooler than pinch rolling your pants.

guacamoleGuacamole: n. money, cash, or funds. Working in the field of interpretation the only guacamole that I see is literally guacamole.

Post-Zuckerberg: adj. term used to describe the era of Facebook ubiquity. Dad, I would have called to tell you Happy Birthday, but in this post-Zuckerberg world I thought that commenting on your wall was enough.

Blow the mind of the Millennials you know by dropping some of these words/phrases into you daily conversations to prove that you are hip, relevant, and current. Improper use or the use of too many at any given moment could have an adverse effect.