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.

Real Men Wear Purple

In one of the slowest responses since the inception of the internet and the concept of blogging, this post serves as a response to a comment/question posed by IBD friend Kelly Farrell. She made the comment on December 14, 2009, at 10:04 AM on the post Obnoxious Use of Color.

Yes, I know 2009 was last year. I am trying to think of a valid excuse of why it has taken us (uh, me) so long to get around to responding but I’ve got nothing. In the five months that I bypassed the content of this post, I focused my energy on the important nature, valuable content, and timely information put into other posts for our readers.

Posts on Catfish and Spaghetti, Baseball Opening Day, Unicorn Punching, Chex Party Mix, and Star Wars Stamps all seemed more important at the time. Now with hindsight, I should have written this post a long time ago. Emily, if you are still reading I still have your question stored in the IBD archives (a shoe box underneath my bed that also includes DVDs of the 2008 and 2009 World Series as well as a pristine collection of rub-off letters set in Helvetica, to be preserved in the event of the end of the world), and we (uh, I) should get around to your question soon (and by soon I mean within the calendar year). Kelly, I have actually spent the last five months researching this topic. Okay, I know you aren’t buying that one.

Here’s the comment/question from Kelly: “Can we get further IBD commentary on not only the use but the naming of colors to further an image or attitude? Words add so many layers of meaning to the perception of a color, e.g. Texas orange is “burnt” and Oklahoma haughtily insists their red and white is truly “crimson and cream.” Understanding how words and images and colors and meanings mix is at the heart of understanding interpretation.”

Note from editor: Shea is going to divide this into two posts, Real Men Wear Purple and a post that will appear between now and the end of the world on color names.

I love women who like to talk sports and sports teams’ colors with me—or talk to me at all. The answer to your first question is yes. Okay this was easier than I thought. My work is done.

I should elaborate. I really love women who like to talk sports and sports teams’ colors with me or at all.

In most cases the color associated with a team has been related to the team’s history. When most of those colors were assigned years and years ago the selection process was much different from that of a sports team going through the selection process today. Over time, emotional connections were built between the traditional colors and fans, leading to many of the nicknames or other associated elements. With teams such as the University of Texas’ burnt orange or Oklahoma’s crimson and cream the proper use of those specific colors comes down to identity.

According to Wikipedia, burnt orange has been a common name for that shade of orange since 1915 but the school was established in 1883. After an exhaustive search (okay, a Google search), I couldn’t find any data that explained when the University of Texas began using burnt orange or calling their shade burnt. It may just have been a trendy color at that time. There is no changing of either of those team’s colors now because of the tradition that has been established. But who really pays attention to college football anyway?

In some of the less traditionally steeped teams, like the Philadelphia Phillies, it is interesting to see teams change color schemes with current trends. The Phillies fell into this category when they changed to trendy 1980s  colors such as Black-eye Burgundy and Schmidt Sky Blue to eventually change back to more conservative traditional colors like red, white, and blue.

Expansion teams of Major League Baseball in the 1990s displayed a different approach. At the time the expansion teams wanted to stand out as being different and modern from the existing teams. So, the new teams went with the trendy colors at that time. You may have to think about how different things were back then to understand this approach with Beverly Hills 90210 on the entire decade, Jennifer Aniston’s hair being a hot topic and people still liking Tiger Woods.

In 1993 the Florida Marlins (black, teal, silver, and white) and the Colorado Rockies (black, purple, silver, and white) became major league franchises despite their connection to the National League. In 1998 the Arizona Diamondbacks (purple, teal, black, and white) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (navy, Columbia Blue, white, and gold) came on board. All four teams had similar color palettes that represent the 90s. This was the baseball equivalent of choosing avocado green or harvest gold for the teams. In an attempt to stand out, each team had similar colors that were more representative of the era than the teams.

If you are having trouble picturing uniforms in these colors think about any episode to Saved by the Bell and you should be able to envision how they were being used. Since the establishment of these teams, there has been a shift away from the teal, blue, and purple elements with focus put on the less 90s colors. This shift has taken place in their logos, uniforms, and resale apparel.

The primary reason for the change is that most men (Paul excluded) won’t wear teal or purple. The Arizona Diamondbacks have now changed their team colors to Sedona Red, black, Sonoran Sand, and white. I think this was a smart move despite how many other MLB teams have red as a primary team color. Of course they are not just sporting red, it is Sedona Red. Interesting sidebar (to Paul and me), there have been name changes too. The Diamondbacks now also call themselves the D-Backs and the Devil Rays are now just the Rays.

So what does this have to do with interpretation of interpretive design? (Assuming that there are still any interpreters, or anyone for that matter still reading this post.) Is has to do with everything posed in your comment. “Understanding how words and images and colors and meanings mix is at the heart of understanding interpretation.” Colors carry meaning. While some have written songs about colors, gangs have killed over them. Sports fans find meanings and connections through rooting for their team. Wearing the colors, logos, and apparel of that team makes them part of a community. We can apply these principles to quality interpretive design and branding of our interpretive centers to help visitors better connect and feel as if they are a part of the mission.

I would just stay away from maroon and baby blue.