Forever Stamps

The most difficult part about moving (besides carefully packing your wife’s collection of vintage Fiesta ware) is having to establish a relationship with a new postmaster. When you live and work in small towns, this relationship is important. Barbara has made this transition easy for me, and seems quite accepting, in public venues, of my inquiries into daily USPS operations, requests to browse through the stamp inventory, requests for various USPS products, and of course my bad jokes.

I was fairly new to the area when I came in with my first request for the Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamp series. In my defense details in the initial media release by the USPS said the stamps were “to be released in 2011.” Last time I checked January 2011 is in the year 2011. Much to my disappointment, Barbara was often quick to tell me that the stamps had not arrived yet. A couple weeks ago, the stamps had arrived. I bought all of the sheets that were available.

At that time I felt obligated to share with her the story about the Star Wars stamps. (Update: I only have three sheets remaining and they now are reserved for very special correspondence. They are not for mailing the water bill—a mistake my wife made that was twice as bad since they are only 41-cent stamps and two had to be used. Egads!) I told Barbara about those Star Wars stamps and my relationship with my former postmaster Robert (whom I have only spoken with only three times via phone in the year since we moved), which were featured in a blog post here on IBD. I couldn’t tell if Barbara was comforted or disturbed. Now that I put this all in writing, I’m a bit disturbed.

The new Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are awesome (not quite as awesome at the Star Wars stamps, but equally awesome to watching Paul eat hot wings). USPS.com states:

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design (Forever®) stamp pane honors 12 of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers. Encompassing everything from furniture and electric kitchen appliances to corporate office buildings and passenger trains, the work of these designers helped shape the look of everyday life in the 20th century.

Each stamp features the name of a designer and a photograph of an object created by the designer, as well as a description of the object and the year or years when the object was created. The selvage features a photograph of the “Airflow” fan designed by Robert Heller around 1937.

I know what you are thinking. “So what, right?” This is a blog about interpretive design (along with baseball, food, and working with people who have Cheeto dust in their goatees) not industrial design. Graphic design is a subset of the design profession, like industrial, fashion, or interior design. Each discipline has something that interpretive designers can learn from. (Insert your own joke here about what Paul and I could learn from fashion design. Keys to humor success include the use of red Crocs, bow ties, sweater vests, bowling shirts, and a very worn-out 2008 World Championship Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt.)

When looking at the objects featured on the stamps it is easy to see beauty in simplicity. The organization of hard materials to create something practical while ergonomic, original, and affordable is no easy challenge. It requires a person that is creative and analytical.

Rhead’s Fiesta ware Disc Picture, featured above, is a classic example of simple beauty. (A second example is my son and I’m not really sure what that means but I know it’s true.) It’s a practical item but the design adds to its usefulness while still be unique enough to stand out. There are plenty of pitchers out there today but this one stands out. It has also stood up to the test of time. Nonpersonal interpretive media can be the same way. Making an exhibit stand out by applying interpretive techniques, such as strong interpretive writing, makes that exhibit less like a piece of Tupperware serving up your message and more like a disc picture.

Since much of what we do in interpretive graphic design is related to a computer screen, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the tangible materials that will make up the product or be displayed within the end product. These materials can inspire you. Whether it is a color, texture, overall feeling or even a typeface, take time to look at the material objects that the exhibit will be constructed out of or even a part of the subject matter.

Much like interpretation being a combination of arts and sciences, interpretive and graphic design is as well. You have to draw from your creative side so that you are not creating the same product over and over while still applying that creativity in systematic way that improves the message being presented. Many shortcomings in interpretive projects lean too far in either direction. Balance is the key.

The stamps are also “Forever” stamps which will always be valued at the current first-class rate. That can keep foolish over-postage accidents of valuable (intrinsic value) space saga stamps from happening.

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).

Get A Grip: Interpreting Baseball

This is a big week for Paul and me. We are celebrating the return of baseball! (I seldom use exclamation points, but in this case it is worthy.) I love new beginnings. For me, a New York Yankees fan, the start of this season comes off a World Championship, in an awesome new stadium, setting the stage for years to come. For Paul, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, the season marks an opportunity to meet the Yankees in the World Series and fall short yet again. So, how can I write about baseball for a second time in one week without ostracizing our audience with another baseball-related post? I should have asked this same question prior to posts on Star Wars, NASCAR, and Walmart but I didn’t.

Baseball is in my blood. My grandfather was a huge New York Yankees fan, which led to my love of the Yankees despite the distance from Yankee Stadium to my house (1144.26 miles to be exact, just to save Paul the trouble of researching it for the comments section). With satellite television, he never missed a game. As I grew up, keeping up with the Yankees was an important part of staying close with my grandfather. I kept up with the smallest details of players, statistics, and games to converse with him and hopefully add something insightful to the conversation. I never got one up on him.

He was a talented athlete as a child, adult, and even later in life. I never have been. I remember the disappointment in his eyes when he took me to purchase my first real baseball glove and I wanted the pink one. I also remember seeing the disappointment after he attended one of my peewee baseball games and realized that I was going to be better suited for playing Super Mario Brothers. I played in the catcher position not because of my throwing or catching ability but because I served as the best backstop. My husky disposition was effective at stopping balls especially when I closed my eyes after each pitch.

One of the greatest memories that I have of me and my grandfather came years after peewee baseball when he taught me how to throw a knuckle ball. Again I was playing catcher. The knuckle ball is a remarkable combination of skill and physics. Much like the great New York Yankee manager Joe Torre said, “You don’t catch a knuckle ball, you defend against it.” I still couldn’t catch; at least I could blame the knuckle ball this time around. He never let these details get in the way of our personal relationship or our relationship with the game. The great thing about baseball is that anyone can be a spectator and I’ve got that position covered.

The more you learn about baseball, the more you want to know. I was excited to see an exhibit in the Museum of Westward Expansion, a part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, more commonly known as The Arch. St. Louis is a great baseball town and the exhibit “Baseball’s Gateway to the West” was a welcoming sight to me. The exhibit immediately caught my attention. A portion of the exhibit that I had a hard time walking away from reminded me of my grandfather teaching me to throw a knuckle ball. The simple exhibit was a creative tactile approach for explaining the various grips of types of pitches. St. Louis entrepreneur Ted Kennedy created a mail-order correspondence-type course for learning various baseball techniques. Taking on the topic in some other way would have otherwise been too complicated to explain in text and graphics wouldn’t have provided this type of experience.

As you can see, baseballs are attached to self retracting lanyards that are embossed with a “T” for your thumb and two other spots for index and middle fingers. I’ve seen explanations of various pitching techniques written and on television, but this approach brought it home. This is the next best thing from having Ted Kennedy or your grandfather teaching you. As with most interpretive experiences, personal interpretation is preferred for effectiveness and non-personal approaches run a close second.

The other portion of the exhibit that I found interesting was about the St. Louis invention of the Knot Hole Gang. The Knot Hole Gang got its name from not having tickets to the games and watching what could be seen through knot holes in the fence. The Cardinals created, as a bonus to their stockholders, the first Knot Hole Gang where tickets were handed down to children to attend games.

The designers of this portion of the exhibit took an interesting approach to interpreting the story. Instead of just graphically re-creating a fence in the compressed laminate, actual fence boards were used to make a fence complete with knot holes. When you peer through the hole you see a historic picture of a game in progress.

For a moment, I relived parts of the 1928 World Series where Babe Ruth went 10 for 16 and the Yankees swept the Cardinals. I could have relived the 1926 World Series, where the Cardinals beat the Yankees in an effort to develop empathy for Paul and the 2009 World Series, but I decided that it would be too painful.

Both of these concepts remind me that the thought, design, and innovation to interpret the story doesn’t always require a high-tech, sophisticated approach to be effective. Oh yeah, one doesn’t have to live near New York to be fan of the Yankees, a pink glove is okay for a boy, and you don’t have to be athletic to be a spectator.