Odds and Ends, mostly Odds

This week I decided to share with you three items sent in by readers. I didn’t have enough on each to make them into a full post by themselves (who am I fooling, if I can transform a discussion revolving around socks into something about social networking, then I surely could have done a post on each) so I rolled them in to this odds and ends post.

The first comes from Phil Broder. Every time I get an email from Phil, I make sure I don’t open it on a work computer. I don’t want to get put back on the watch list. This email was okay and worthy of sharing. He stated:

Take a look at http://www.jameshance.com/index.html. He’s my new favorite artist (Muppets and Firefly… two of my favorite things!). But you Star Wars geeks should love this too. There’s definitely something IBD-worthy about re-doing the classics in new styles.

In a snobbish follow up email from Paul (in which he didn’t copy Phil) he stated that he would leave this email for me to respond to since this topic was more in my court nerdom. He may be right but he didn’t have say it like that. I did like the fact that my “Star Warsness” is automatically being tied to Paul. It is about time considering many of his quirks have been connected to my persona.

The artwork offered by James Hance is described as “relentlessly cheerful art” on the website. His trademark is the combination of two distinct styles that most wouldn’t draw conclusions to and from.

The image above known as Promise is part of Wookiee the Chew (yes, Wookie is spelt wrong, silly artist) is a combination of Star Wars characters and Winnie the Pooh. Phil mentioned that there may be “something IBD-worthy about re-doing the classics in new styles.” He’s right; I’m not sure what there is to say except it is awesome. It’s also awesome that Phil admitted to liking Muppets.

The part that I find powerful is that it makes you think specifically about the decisions made by the artist and how specific styles can be connected to genera. This could be applied to an interpretive center making design decision to be at juxtaposition of the complexity of nature by choosing a clean, open, or geometric typeface (such as Futura) to add impact. Otherwise the art by Hance should simply be enjoyed.

The second piece comes from Sarah Keating. Sarah has issues with denial. She wants to claim that she’s a cool kid and not a member of the nerd herd but she can’t seem to stop showing people her membership card. Sarah stated in her email:

Each day I find myself acquiring more nerdy tendencies. A few weeks ago I found myself downloading NPR apps on my iPhone, and now I am reading NPR stories on the internet. Today, for instance, I was looking for a little inspiration on the NPR interns’ website and I clicked on a story link about plastic bag use, only to get the ever so popular “Page not found” – story of my life!! But as I continued to read I realized that NPR has taken it a step further and instead of making you disappointed in their inability to locate what you were trying to find they have put a positive spin on it (see below). HOW REFRESHING!!! I really do love NPR – GOD BLESS AMERICA!!

Sarah, embracing your inner nerd is the second step to obtaining personal peace after admitting you are a nerd  (immediately followed by the cessation of the excessive use of capital letters and exclamation points).

I wish I knew how to make the 404 Page not found on IBD offer suggestions, but I don’t. For those web gurus out there this is a great idea. I also have to admit that Sarah really doesn’t claim to read IBD but sent the email to me and several others. I don’t have her permission to share it here either.

The third piece comes from me (uh yeah, I’m a reader too, someone has to read Paul’s posts so you don’t have too. It’s just something I do for you). You got to love this link offered by the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York City). Who doesn’t want a custom NYC Subway Sign set in one of the most famous uses of Helvetica, featuring the Yankees Stadium stop on 161st Street? You could also have one with some other landmark in New York City. Do they have others?

These iconic signs as well as other MTA items are offered on the website. The signs start at $25.

Keep the suggestions coming…you know we need them.

Scratched IBD Cover

I have heard that a person that is considered a genius is one step away from being off their rocker. Some time ago Paul and I wrote a book titled Interpretation By Design, along with our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu. It is not often that one of the co-authors of a book happens to be the art director for the association publishing the book. It wasn’t only Paul’s responsibility to remove all of the y’alls and fixin’ tos from my writing (not that I have an accent); he was responsible for the layout, overall design, and cover for the book.

For some time I have made fun of one of the book covers that Paul designed and submitted to Lisa and me for review and comments. Needless to say, it wasn’t accepted. To this day, Paul claims that we should have approved it (because of the creative genius behind it) and that our oversight is gross negligence. I claim that for people to buy a book they must pick it up and look at it and if their eyes are bleeding, that won’t happen. Lisa and I simply wanted something that didn’t look like gummy bears had melted on the cover of an excellent book or a manual to hosting baby showers. Oh yeah, Lisa is also Paul’s supervisor.

I need your help today. Let me know what you think of the cover in the comments section. There are two versions above (one I call melted gummy bears and the one I call Design Your Baby Shower). You are more than welcome to review both.

I do have to give Paul some credit. There is a clever element, I just wonder if anyone can figure it out. Paul, you can’t play. After some comments have been posted, if no one picks up on the one possibly redeeming element to the design, I will follow up with further discussion in the comment section. We may even let Paul defend his decisions and explain what pushed him off the rocker.

Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.

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).

Get to Know a Color! Red

My six-year-old son Joel recently started wearing the Philadelphia Phillies clothing I’ve been buying him since he was born. I know that Joel resents the Phillies because they’re frequently on TV when he’d rather be watching Spongebob Squarepants, so I asked him about it. I figured he had decided to embrace the Phillies out of affection for his father or a desire to relate to his extended family, much of which is in Philadelphia. The actual reason is much simpler than that: after stints with green, yellow, and blue, red is now Joel’s favorite color.

This got me to thinking about how and why people relate to certain colors. This also made me hungry, because it turns out that red is an appetite stimulant, which may explain why there are so many fat Phillies fans.

Anyway, welcome to the first installment of “Get to Know a Color!” Every now and again in the coming months, we’ll delve into the meanings, associations, and usage of a specific color. (To paraphrase Buster Bluth, as I have done before, this party is going to be off the hook.)

The human eye can perceive roughly 10 million colors, so if I do one a week, I’ll be done in the year 194,317, or shortly before the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. To narrow it down a bit, Isaac Newton, who devised the first color wheel in 1666, identified seven pure spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Since indigo and violet are both essentially purple, we can narrow that to six. Given that primary season just ended in politics, we’ll start with red. (Get it? Because it’s a primary color! Now we’re having fun.)

First, a note about creating meaning with color: The color wheel is your friend. We encourage designers to select a color palette using the color wheel. Colors that oppose each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, yellow and purple, or green and red—are complements. Used together, they create a bold statement. Colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, like green and blue or orange and red, are analogous. They create a softer, subtle visual presence. Selecting colors carefully based on a specific kind of color palette will reinforce your message.

Look up color psychology online and you’ll find a lot of sweeping statements about specific colors. An article about color psychology on the website infoplease says this about the color red:

The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. It is also the color of love. Red clothing gets noticed and makes the wearer appear heavier. Since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help people in negotiations or confrontations. Red cars are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention.

One important thing to keep in mind when you read this sort of thing is that these meanings vary across cultures. For instance, in China, red is associated with good luck, but in South Africa, it’s associated with mourning. If you’re on Wall Street, the last thing you want to be is in the red. In Jamaica, if you’re red, it means that you’re drunk. In Germany, if you had 99 balloons, they would definitely be red.

Another factor to keep in mind is that sometimes these generalizations can be contradictory. Red is associated with love and warm emotions, but it is also associated with danger and alarm. In the United States, red is the color of the Republican party; globally, it’s associated with communism.

Whatever the associations, red is the most intense color on the color wheel. According to Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, the human eye sees colors as electromagnetic radiation measured in nanometers. Of all the colors, red has the longest wavelengths, followed by orange and yellow. (For more on this, have a look at “The Physics of Color” on the website Colors on the Web.) This is why, if we were at a really awesome party and you got us talking about color, you’d hear us say that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Because red is so intense, it is used to attract attention. In print, it’s frequently used as a highlight color. Online, it should be used sparingly because it’s tough on the eyes in large quantities on screen (not sure how Netflix gets away with what they do). In short, red is to color what bolding is to type, or what habanero chilis are to dinner (evidently, I’m still hungry). It’s a powerful tool that should be used carefully.

Inspired by Pie

Pie 1I love living in the south. I love visiting other places but there is something about the south that makes it home to me. The pace and culture of small southern communities is the heart and soul of America. It is also the location of great homemade pies. Several weeks ago I mentioned pie in my post on Text as Art. I am no less obsessed with pie than Paul is with the use of Comic Sans. So why not combine pie and design.

The Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama represents the best of the south and southern ingenuity. Located in Hale County, one of the poorest in the country, the lab was created to be the conduit for creativity and design. With collaboration efforts between Project M (Community design firm) and HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) the end product should be positive change. According to their website, “Pie Lab creates the opportunity for participants of Project M to meet and collaborate with the community, while enjoying a slice of pie—because who doesn’t love pie?” This is a great question, because everyone loves pie.

Pie 2Graphic designers and interpreters should think more often, not about pie, but about how the decisions that they make and products they create impact the communities or resources that they reside in. Designers, in general, have been forced to come up with creative ways to engage and evaluate places where their products will be placed. As an interpreter I have been guilty of not fully considering the community or resource itself in the creation of a new program or non-personal interpretive product. Through the years I have learned that the most successful programs, products and events come from grassroot-type approaches such as the one in Greensboro. The Pie Lab will hopefully lead to product and projects that will be fully adopted by residents of Hale County, Alabama. I can’t wait to see what comes from their efforts. At the very least the sugar from the pie will stimulate new ideas.

Next week you will have the unique opportunity to take part in the much anticipated social experiment of the summer (also known as IBD-Live in Chicago). This experiment, while we are on vacation, may be the first and last time it takes place. Based on comments from our wives, who are not necessary looking forward to listening to long conversations between Paul and me (on Adobe updates, wearing Crocs in public, use of color, NL vs. AL, and obsessive-compulsive type disorder), while our children are screaming for our attention. We are also planning some live updates from Wrigley Field and video blogs from Paul’s iPhone. We will attempt to limit images of us in poolside attire. So check in each day next week for posts on whatever strikes our fancy in the Windy City. We’ll see you in Chicago August 10-14.