Getting Canned

Have you ever done something, with really good intentions, and it backfired? I have and now I have the company of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Trust me, you should never give a pet as a gift. Did you know that the average lifespan for a cat is 12-14 years?

Last week Coca-Cola unveiled its recently re-designed holiday can. The can features polar bears and was a collaborative effort with World Wildlife Fund (yes the WWF, who made the WWF the WWE, but that’s fodder for another post), to bring awareness to polar bears. Coke is donating 3 million dollars toward the effort to protect polar bear habitat. This is cool (literally and figuratively). The new can, primarily white, has been met with resistance and confusion by Coke drinkers. The first issue it the can isn’t red. The second issue is that the can is easily confused with a Diet Coke can.

The color red is easily connected to Coca Cola. When something related to your identity becomes iconic, you probably shouldn’t mess with it. Even when you have a tradition of holiday related advertising and promotional items, you have to know your boundaries. In a Yahoo article a Coke spokesman was quoted saying that “The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing.” The article goes on to say that “Coke’s marketing executives wanted a “disruptive” campaign to get consumers’ attention.” (This is fancy corporation talk for “this was my idea and I’m sticking to it.”)

The second issue is that the new holiday can looks remarkably similar to a Diet Coke can. Though, traditionally silver, the frosty look of the white can has confused many Diet Coke drinkers. It is either the cans or the artificial sweetener. Even if you are competing with yourself, it is important to know what the competition is doing. The response to this issue is interesting. It has been broadcast across Twitter and YouTube. It has even brought up old issues of New Coke and a possible switch in recipes, even though there have been no changes. Most of these accusations are related to consumers who grabbed a new white can and thought it was a Diet Coke.

What can interpreters and interpretive designers learn from this? Stay within your boundaries and do go too far outside of what you are expected to do. If your visitors have an emotional connection to your product, keep in mind changes can lead to an emotional response. Don’t forget they won’t be afraid to bring up past indiscretions as well.

Coke has about a billion of the new cans in circulation, so maybe they are hoping no one will notice. Thankfully I didn’t end up with a billion cats.

Missouri Compromise-Experience 1

Editors Note: This post along with my next two posts will revolve around three distinct interpretive experiences that my family and I had on a recent trip to Missouri. I tell you this so that if that you had already planned on not reading Thursday posts (as well as Monday posts) you now have a valid excuse.

Last week I had the honor of presenting an IBD workshop for employees of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) as well as other area interpreters in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I consider it an honor because of comments about my pants, I most likely won’t be invited back. My family was along for this trip, not for the presentation (in fact they didn’t want to hear me talk about anything besides pools and ice cream), but were there primarily due to the post-presentation weekend getaway to St. Louis.

On this mini-vacation, my family and I had three very distinct interpretive experiences at very different locations. It is not my goal to transform this blog into a “what I did on my summer vacation” blog or take away from our serious writing. But while visiting all three of these locations, I couldn’t stop thinking about sharing them with you and re-finding my family, who left me behind reading and photographing. My wife has accepted this compromise and has become aware that what used to be simply family fun is now IBD fodder.

The first location was the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center, managed and operated by MDC (which also happened to be the site of the presentation). Several weeks back I wrote about another MDC facility in my post A Marriage of Sorts. This is the second MDC site that I have been to and my love of their work continues. Based on what I have seen from the MDC they excel at getting things right.

We all know that a nature center should be the base for getting folks into nature and not the experience itself. One of the most effective elements to the design of this nature center is how the layout replicated nature, kept you guessing, and was filled with surprises. Upon entry you are immediately drawn into the exhibit area. The asymmetrical flow allows you to wander as if in a natural environment off of the trail. There are many directions for you to go.

My children loved this and immediately split up, going towards whatever met their fancy. I split off in search of illicit uses of Papyrus. My wife split off in search of single men. William (my three year old) split off and we haven’t seen him since. The layout makes the exhibit area feel larger that what it actually is. Upon my second pass though the exhibits, this became more apparent to me. The flow also naturally pushes you towards the trailhead and into the conservation area.

Three exhibits really stood out to me as being interesting, unique, or providing an interesting design.

This beaver lodge and trapper cabin exhibit is an excellent way of providing an opportunity for something that otherwise would be impossible to see the inside of. The interactive panels inside the lodge are a great way of illustrating life in the lodge while you are in a lodge. You can’t visit this center and not climb through the lodge. The trapper cabin exhibit adjacent to the lodge effectively illustrates the relationship between humans, beavers, and settlement of the area. The exhibit is supplemented with artifacts and real items to add character as well as authenticity to the interpretation.

What can a typeface do for an exhibit? Besides annoy freaks like Paul and me. It can evoke a sense of time and place. That’s the case in this mercantile exhibit. I don’t know if a historian would say that this is really the typeface that was historically accurate for trading posts or stores in southeast Missouri at the turn of the century, but it works here at setting the stage for an era.

Who’s to say we know it all? Well, my wife for one, Paul talking about grammar for two, but that’s not the case here. Maybe visitors should do more interpretation. This simple but well-designed exhibit allows visitors to reflect and add their own touch to what is being interpreted.

Looking at the artwork reveals what kids take from their visit to the nature center. It is also amazing to see what my children can take from the gift shop while unsupervised. MDC, I’ll put a check in the mail.

Here are a few other observations.

There are other options besides Comic Sans.

Interpretation of the building itself is a great way to show visitors how seriously you take your mission and provides them with information about making green choices in their own homes or workplaces.

The best-designed non-personal interpretive products cannot compete with personal approaches, even if the interpreter is Jeremy Soucy.

I ♥ Whatever

I arrived at work one day not too long ago to find this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker taped to my office door.

I’ve never been to Nepal and have no emotive response to the country one way or the other, so I was confused by the sticker’s meaning. I put on my Indiana Jones mystery-solving fedora, which I keep handy at all times, and set about decoding this cryptic message. At the time, the National Association for Interpretation’s national office, where I work, was hosting 26 people at a training course, so anyone could have been responsible.

The first thing I noticed was a Post-It note attached to the sticker with the following message:

do a blog post about this!
Phil Sexton

Well, I’m no Indiana Jones, but I had narrowed down my suspects. It turns out that Friend of IBD Phil Sexton wanted me to do a post on this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, it would have been called Indiana Jones and the Sticker on the Office Door. It would have been really short and not that interesting, but it probably still would have been better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Though the mystery was not great fodder for a movie, it did raise this important question: Why did I keep thinking about Indiana Jones? Well, any loser with too much time on his hands knows that Nepal is where Indiana Jones finds that his bitter ex-girlfriend Marion, who owns a bar and can handle herself in a drinking contest, is in possession of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra that Indy is racing to keep out of the hands of the Nazis.

It’s possible the reason I was thinking of Indiana Jones was that the “I ♥ Nepal” sticker features what graphic designers refer to as the “Indiana Jones gradient blend.” This, of course, is the vertical blend from red to yellow featured in the logos for all of the Indiana Jones movies. (Every time I use a phrase like “Indiana Jones gradient blend,” it fills me with wonder that I have any social life at all.)

Other graphic elements of note in the decal are a hot-pink iconic heart shape and a rounded sans serif italicized typeface. The heart shape could be the subject of a whole other blog. That shape is believed to have originally represented something other than a heart—and it’s a discussion not really fit for polite company. Maybe we’ll save that one for Valentine’s Day.

The “I ♥ …” phenomenon was popularized in the 1970s with the beyond-famous “I ♥ NY” campaign. The logo, designed by graphic-design legend Milton Glaser, is one of those “so simple anyone could have done it but no one did until a famous graphic designer did it” phenomena. It’s incredibly simple: three letters in a typeface (American Typewriter) that someone else designed and a symbol that’s been around for centuries composed in a rough block shape. But like a catchy tune, it captured the imagination of the public, caught fire, and has spawned countless imitations and permutations.

To me, one of the great things about the story of this logo is that Glaser designed it for free to help promote a city he loved. One of the ridiculous things about this logo is that, according to a story in the New York Times, when Glaser designed a logo that read “I ♥ NY More Than Ever” after 9/11, the city threatened to sue him for copyright infringement.

Because of Milton Glaser (who is the subject of a documentary called To Inform and Delight, which sounds like a great definition of interpretation to me), the use of the heart symbol to mean love has become so ingrained in popular culture that now any symbol used in this composition is roughly understood to mean love.

If Glaser’s “I ♥ NY” campaign had never existed, this Apple laptop skin, a logo designed for a new Apple store in New York City, wouldn’t make sense. Out of context, “I Apple NY” conjures images of mischievous teenagers throwing rotten fruit at Manhattan from across the river in Newark, New Jersey. But in context, it’s yet another example of Apple’s sophisticated and elegant marketing (right down to the use of the appropriate typeface).

On the other hand, the most nonsensical use of this vernacular that I’ve seen is this “I Jack LA” found on a site called Karmaloop. The composition is an obvious reference to the “I ♥ NY” campaign, with a close-but-no-cigar slab-serif typeface, a color scheme derived from the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and yellow, and the face of noted Laker fan Jack Nicholson replacing the heart. This is one of those instances where the viewer understands the point of the composition, but it’s just too big a mental leap to correlate Jack Nicholson with the word love.

There are other examples of this composition in which symbols represent words other than love. For instance, Bob Barker would approve of the “I ♠ My Cat” shirts available all over the internet. Perhaps the best example is this contribution from Gary Larson’s The Far Side:

Though he had a long and distinguished career in graphic design, Milton Glaser is most famous for a simple composition he designed for free out of love for a city. More than three decades later, the composition has, to borrow a word from a horrible person I used to work for, impermanated the visual landscape, from the Massachusetts native who shamrocks Boston, to Friend of IBD Phil Sexton, who clearly hearts Nepal.

Why I Cry

This is the second post in a two-part series in which Shea expresses his sensitive side. For those of you missing the snarky Shea, rest assured that he will return next week taking on obnoxious uses of color. Thank you, IBD Management.

This piece of writing is going to hurt my street cred.

imagesI’m not the guy who normally cries at movies (Old Yeller is an exception), but twice recently I have found myself with tears running down my face at the end of a movie. This is where it gets strange. The first film was Notorious (a true story of the rise and fall of the rapper Notorious B.I.G.) and the second was The Blind Side (a true story of success of a homeless boy who became a professional football player). I highly recommend both of these movies. (For the record, my tears in The Blind Side had nothing to do with Sandra Bullock’s attempt at a Southern accent.)

So what’s going on with me? I immediately realized that these two movies are not on the same list as Life is Beautiful, Million Dollar Baby, Deep Impact, The Pianist, Glory, Philadelphia, The Notebook or Dumbo. So what’s going on with me? Being the analytical guy that I am and filled with a sudden concern for the strange salty substance flowing from my eyes, I had to learn more about why these movies touched me.

I’m also borderline (and by borderline I mean completely) paranoid, so one of the first things I did was check my collection of personal hygiene products to make sure that I wasn’t using something that was specifically for girls (that’s right, I am a man). To make a very long story short, I once had an incident that involved a really bad sunburn, glitter lotion, and a lasting sparkling effect that was fodder at work for a very long time. Who puts glitter in lotion? To some, I’m still known as “Sparkles.” Based on the amount of estrogen in the house where I live, ingestion by osmosis also had to be considered. After careful research, those possibilities were quickly ruled out.

Now back to the analytical element of reaching a sensible solution to my emotional response. There had to be an explanation. What was it about these two movies that touched me so? I was pretty sure that it was not the topical connection to the rise and fall of a gangsta rapper or a talented football player. My mother wouldn’t let me try out for the football team and though I have stepped up to the mic on several occasions, my Southern suburban upbringing keeps me from really connecting to the strength of street knowledge. Now if was street knowledge of J. Crew catalogs, I have that covered.

I started to break it down like I was critiquing an interpretive program. Both movies had similar themes. I love underdogs and both of these movies carried an underlying theme of people overcoming obstacles to make it to the top—though each ended differently. I love that the success of these two individuals was directly related to key persons in their lives. I can relate to that. There are people who have been a part of my life who have helped me become the person I am today. For that I am grateful.  So regardless of the movie’s setting—or well as my athletic ability or rhyming skills—I could still relate. The interpretive themes were a success.

Now on to the interpreters themselves. Both movies offered emotionally charged performances to which I was able to connect. I’m a sucker for passion. The two lead characters—Christopher Wallace (Notorious) and Michael Oher (The Blind Side)—were portrayed in a light that anyone can appreciate. These performances also served as the conduit for connecting the tangible to the intangible. The actors helped me connect the tangible elements of the story (sports, music, facts, information, description of the events that took place) to the intangible elements with inherent meanings. The interpreters were successful at conveying the theme passionately.

When it comes down to it, the universal concepts are what did it to me. Both movies were about relationships and when it comes down to it, relationships are our legacy. The films touched on the same universal concepts that most people can relate to. In Alan Leftridge’s book Interpretive Writing, he provides a list of universal concepts that include “fear, love, peace, change, life, wonder, family, history, trade, and death.” Between these two movies, all of these concepts were included along with the inherent meanings of forgiveness, determination, transformation, self-discovery, authenticity, and personal growth that spoke to me.

As interpretive designers, this is what we should strive to create. A theme-driven product presented by a passionate interpreter, creating an emotional response, regardless of the topic, that people can relate to and be moved enough to provoke a response. Now that I have this all figured out, I am going to limit myself to movies that are about typefaces like Helvetica. The only person who emotionally connects to that movie and would cry over the tangibles of stroke width and letter spacing is Paul.

I have  to get back to improving my street cred.

PC vs. Mac (Hint: PC Wins!)

It bothers me when people start presentations or any written document with apologies or qualifying statements. Let me begin this post with both. I first want to say that I really like Apple products, have owned them and currently own them (iPod) and would even have an iPhone if Verizon Wireless offered them. Until they do, I will stick with the bag phone with expandable antenna that I have carried since 1995. It gets great reception, has a handle, and if you ever need something to hold the door open for you it is ready. I would like to apologize to all of the diehard designer types, whose mind is more like command + closed apple than open apple, that I may offend by this post.

With that said I will proceed. I’m a practical guy, drive a minivan (with dubs and a banging system), married the love of my life, listen to NPR (through the banging system), like bird watching, and use PCs. So let me outline why I choose PCs over Apple computers and let the comment section be filled with fodder discounting my way of thinking, primarily from Paul.

1. Cost: Let’s face it PCs are cheaper. The cheapest Apple computer offers nothing for a designer. The MacMini ($599 without a monitor) has a measly 2.0 GHz processor and 120 GB hard drive and the MacBook ($999 laptop) has a 2.13 GHz processor and 160 GB hard drive. Comparable priced PCs offer more for the same price or have many lower cost options. The Mac base models don’t provide enough RAM to even get your feet wet in AI or PS. Low-end PCs are filled with faster processors, huge hard drives and enough RAM to run a small town in Arkansas. Competition among PC companies has led to benefits for the buyer.

2. Speed: The fastest processor offered by Apple is 2.66 GHz in a desktop and 2.8 GHz in a laptop. Comparable priced PCs offer up to 4.0 GHz. Nothing bugs me more than a slow computer.

3. Options: When it comes to options PCs are the way to go. The options are endless. Especially in the areas of latest technologies and new hardware. This is currently evident with Apple in the lack of HD DVD options as well as updated wireless connection speeds.

4. Design: PCs are about as sexy as me in spandex. Apple wins here.

5. Windows Operating System: The Vista operating system is far superior to OSX offered by Apple. I’m sorry, I can’t say that. Apple wins here. I like Vista but all of the best options that are offered in Vista were swiped from Apple.

6. Software: The options for software are endless with PCs. Back in the early days of desktop publishing and early design work, this is an area where designers drew the line. Apple did have the superior software and operating system to run it. That is no longer the case. PCs now offer more RAM, larger buses, and just about everything offered by Apple can be run on a PC. Not true the other way.

7. Advertising: Apple’s commercials are better even though I feel sorry for the PC guy when the Apple dude makes him look stupid. For the record Steve Jobs is more cool than Bill Gates (despite Jobs’ collection of black mock turtle necks) but again I am able to relate better to Gates. I think it has everything to do with the geek in me and nothing to do with his billions of dollars. The commercials are hilarious.

Like I said, “I’m a practical guy” (I just quoted myself). I could drive something much cooler than a minivan, could have married a trophy wife (okay, debatable), could listen to a top-40 radio station, do anything that is cooler than bird watching (watching grass grow, trading stamps), and buy an Apple computer. I chose PCs.