Seeing Red (and Some Green)

A few days ago Paul and I were talking. After several minutes of Paul taunting me about the Phillies’ acquisition of ace pitcher Cliff Lee (underbidding the Yankees), the conversation turned to IBD. I have mentioned before that as baseball fans we tend to get a bit competitive about numbers and statistics. Paul felt compelled to mention that two of his posts (Knowing Your Audience is Ill and Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry) held the single-day record for hits or visits to the website. He felt compelled to give me an honorable mention by saying that one of my posts (Momemts in Error) held the record for the number of comments made by readers. Paul went on to write a post about how those two posts of his were circulated through social media to audiences beyond interpreters and interpretive designers, and went viral (by our standards) online.

Because I’m competitive, I have decided to write this post on the colors of Christmas and why I feel “ill” when I see anything related to Philadelphia professional sports. It is my hope that I can tap into the same audiences that made Paul’s posts go viral, and that the fine folks at Colour Lovers will feel compelled to share my post with their huge following. Also, I hope that the fine folks (TBD) of Philavania will be filled with dismay at my post and therefore compelled to visit our site to badger me and defend their teams’ honor, while inadvertently giving my post a hit. This will pass the record baton to me and beat Paul at his own game [insert evil laugh].

Here’s the problem: My post hits two days before Christmas on a state and federal holiday for most, as well during a time when many have more important things to do, I hope, than reading or commenting on this blog. This is really no different from any other Thursday; I just have an excuse this time around.

Let’s start with the colors of Christmas, red and green. Most can’t help but recognize this complementary color pairing as being related to the holiday. In fact, when I see designers using green and red, it reminds me of Christmas (even when Paul used them on this promotional piece for the upcoming NAI International Conference in Panama). I also have a difficult separating David Lee Roth from the same piece, but that has more to do with Panama than Christmas. These two colors together do remind me of The Muppets: A Green and Red Christmas album that just happens to have a moving rendition of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat.

If you are interested in looking at colors and Christmas in a new light, check out the website Christmas By Colour, which offers Christmas cards similar to Pantone color swatches with names like Quality Street, Sprouts, Yellow snow, Mulled wine, End of the Sellotape, Park Lane & Mayfair, Bank Balance, Granny’s Whiskers, After Eights, Bucks Fizz, Pigs in Blankets, and Walking in the Air.

When making design decisions, holiday color meanings should be taken into consideration. Just in case you were wondering, there are specific reasons why red and green are connected to the holiday. For a full description of the meanings behind red and green at Christmas, you can read these eHow articles on the subject. Some of the origins may surprise you.

If I wanted to steal Paul’s thunder for his upcoming post Get to Know a Color! Red and/or Green, I might write something like Wikipedia has on the colors:

The word red comes from the Old English rēad. Further back, the word can be traced to the Proto-Germanic rauthazand the Proto-Indo European root reudh-. In Sanskrit, the word rudhira means red or blood. In the English language, the word red is associated with the color of blood, certain flowers (e.g. roses), and ripe fruits (e.g. apples, cherries). Fire is also strongly connected, as is the sun and the sky at sunset. Healthy light-skinned people are sometimes said to have a “ruddy” complexion (as opposed to appearing pale). After the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century, red was used to describe revolutionary movements.

The word green is closely related to the Old English verb growan, “to grow”. It is used to describe plants or the ocean. Sometimes it can also describe someone who is inexperienced, jealous, or sick. In the United States of America, green is a slang term for money, among other things. Several colloquialisms have derived from these meanings, such as “green around the gills”, a phrase used to describe a person who looks ill.

Of course that really doesn’t help you that much, and Paul does a much better job of making the subjects of color interesting (and by much better I mean somewhat better), so I will leave it up to him. Okay now Colour Lovers is never going to pick up and share this post.

I did notice that the last line of the Wikipedia information mentioned the word ill. The primary colors of the two major Philadelphia teams happen to be red for the Phillies and green for the Eagles (photo courtesy www.the700level.com). This is no coincidence. There are two other professional teams there as well, but no one takes the 76ers or the NBA very seriously, and I can’t remember what that other ice-based professional sport is called. I guess there is no better time to be a Philadelphia sports fan with a felon quarterback leading an otherwise excellent team and a baseball team working hard to be considered a team not buying a World Championship, while buying a World Championship. Now that will make you ill and provides new meaning to those catchy shirts. Okay, that’s not even close enough to make Philavania get fired up. I should have used more curse words.

Okay, so maybe this post was a bit competitive and mildly bitter.

All kidding aside, Paul and I both hope you have a great holiday season. Thank you for being a part of our lives and making our year a memorable one, as well as helping me assume all IBD records.

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.

QR Codes: Know Them, Use Them

Shea and I are not exactly cutting edge when it comes to, well, anything, really. For instance, I still own a VCR, Zip disks, and tapered jeans. Shea still has that haircut.

Bearing that in mind, this post is about technology that is not widely used just yet, but it’s coming. It’s completely free, extremely useful, easy to use, and—get ready for a cutting-edge technical term—kinda neat.

You may have noticed that QR Codes, the bar code-looking squares like the one here, are popping up in print and online more and more. QR (“Quick Response”) Codes direct people with smart phones to whatever kind of information you choose to provide—contact information, narrative text, or a URL, to name a few examples. The code here directs you to the Interpretation By Design website that you are currently reading. It’s not the most creative thing I could have posted here, but I figured some of you would want to use this image as your Facebook profile picture.

Like tapered jeans, QR codes have been around for a long time—in this case since 1994—but with the increasing popularity of smart phones, they are just now poised to really take off. QR Codes were developed in Japan by the company Denso-Wave primarily for industrial use. But pop culture has gotten hold of them, and now you can see them in Pet Shop Boys videos or even create your own QR Code T-shirts on sites like zazzle.com. The codes are starting to pop up more in the visual environment at varying scales, as with this photo by Nicolas Raoul taken in Japan in 2009:

From this we can learn two important things: 1. Technology can be used in fun and creative ways, and 2. The Pet Shop Boys are still making videos.

It’s easy to create a QR Code. Just visit one of the many website that generate the codes, such as zxing.appspot.com/generator or qrcode.kaywa.com (just to name two of the many that come up when you search “QR Code Generator” on the internet), plug in your information, and tell the site to generate the code. What you get is an image file that can be downloaded for use in print or online.

To read a QR Code, all you need is a smart phone and an app called a QR Code Reader. I have an iPhone and use a free app called QR Reader. There are plenty of similar apps for other smart phones. When you open the app, it will activate your phone’s camera. Just point the camera at the code and your phone will do the rest.

Beginning with the November/December issue, Legacy magazine will include a QR Code directing readers to the National Association for Interpretation’s website, www.interpnet.com. You could use a QR code on an trailside panel to provide visitors more information on a topic. You could place one on your business card or nametag at a conference to easily share contact information, in a newsletter to direct potential donors to a website, or in a blog to direct readers to a photo of an adorable puppy, which I have done here.

When you use QR Codes, not everyone will know what they are, but for the ever-increasing number of people who do know what they’re looking at, you’ll have created the opportunity to engage with your media at a deeper level.

Star Wars Re-Invented

In a second attempt this week to isolate ourselves from our readers by writing about subjects that they care little or nothing about, this post revolves around interpreting Star Wars. I’ve got to get something off my chest from the start of this post: Star Wars is the premier sci-fi movie series and it cannot be compared to cheap imitations such as Star Trek. Okay, I feel better now that you know where I’m coming from—and as with most post topics on this blog, after you read our opinion we know that you will immediately agree.  I really feel better now that you feel the same way.

I call the above connecting with the reader (singular for more than one reason). It helps when the writer and reader are on the same page, but when you write 52 blog posts a year, you find yourself keeping a mental list of topics that the majority of readers may find relevant. Some posts fall short. This mental list has officially taken the place in my mind where I used to keep important things that my wife has told me to take care of, which brings me back to today’s post on Star Wars and falling short.

Star Wars and I are at the same places in our lives. We are approximately the same age; I won’t say who is actually older. If you were to ask, I will promptly respond by saying, “e chu ta,” and you can respond with your best C-3P0 voice, “How rude!” After you reach age 30, it really doesn’t even matter that much. We’ve both been around for a while now and we aren’t as young, hip, or current as we used to be. We work hard to maintain physiques that were never that great to begin with and have become worried about blood pressure, Death Star-shaped moles, and cholesterol counts (okay, that was mostly about me).

High definition has not been that great for us. It just displays the fact that we are more wrinkled, have less hair, and look more like Jabba the Hutt—all in 1080p. We both are working hard to re-invent ourselves in an attempt to stay young and relevant.

The creative geniuses that manage the Star Wars universe continue to impress me in how many times they can come up with something that I willing to drop some “Benjamins” on (see, staying hip—okay, like 1994 hip). The movies haven’t changed (despite those unfortunate special edition debacles of 1997; I still attest that Han shot first) but they have managed to maintain a huge fan base, please the uber fans, and continue to grow a new audience while pretty much offering the same products. Interpretive sites can learn from this approach.

Last week I went to one of those new approaches, Star Wars in Concert (a live symphony orchestra presentation of the music from Star Wars, highlighted with scenes from all six films). I had certain expectations about what the event was going to be like, knowing that the concert was created to please a general audience or even attract the armchair Star Wars fans. I was aware that a large portion of the concert experience revolved around interpreting elements of the Star Wars universe in an exhibit featuring characters, props, technology, and roving costumed interpreters (okay, maybe that’s a reach). Star Wars and interpretation together, much like the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, my worlds were colliding.

Needless to say I was excited to see how many times the typeface Star Vader could be appropriately used in exhibitry and to have my picture taken with those costumed interpreters. I had seen a few images of the exhibits via photo text message from an unnamed interpreter who resides in Missouri and who attended the event several months prior to me and who was attempting to make me jealous at the time. Because of his requests to stay anonymous in order to maintain the appearance of not being connected to such an event and this blog in general, I will withhold any further information. His attempts were futile and only encouraged my excitement.

Upon entering the venue for the event, the costumed interpreters and the exhibits set the stage for the experience. This is something at all interpretive media should strive to do—enhance the experience but not be the experience. Despite my love for Star Vader, I was pleased to see the exhibit type set in something easier to read, even if it was in all caps. As you would expect from Star Wars, cutting-edge technology was a large part of the exhibits (even though the movies took place a long time ago in a galaxy far away).  The technology was not interactive technology, but the use of large monitors (in high definition with flat screens), video, text, and images presented on “beautiful stylistic pedestals” (I was chastised by a reader after making such a statement in a previous post on interpreting NASCAR) were used to disseminate the information.

The presentation was nice, but there seemed to be a lack of theme overall. Unless the theme was “Star Wars is awesome,” which may very well be the case. Each display was effective at constantly changing. While one screen offered text about the concept the other provided supporting videos and images. As with most exhibits more information was provided than the average fan would want but were there any average fans there? Not that I saw.

Authenticity in the items on display added value and interest. There is something special about seeing the thing itself. One item on display was the original score sheets where John Williams’ hand wrote the notes that became a large part of the movie. It’s the geek equivalent of seeing the Declaration of Independence. Oh yeah, it was also a reminder that the music was the reason for the event. This was one of the last exhibits before entering the concert hall.

Several displays required no interpretation. I love this approach with authentic items. Leave the interpretation to the visitor, and allow them draw their own conclusions, provoke thought, and appreciate the item in their own way. When I first saw Yoda, I might as well have been frozen in carbonite myself.

Another simple approach for visitors to invent their own interpretation was applied though large scene backdrops that allowed visitors to make memories and create their own interpretation of the films that can be then shared on Facebook, with friends, or print in a very large format for hanging in the dining room. After George Lucas sees this picture I emailed him, I have no doubt I’ll be cast in Episode VII.

When all else fails, make it larger than life. I alluded earlier to the scenes from the movie to support the symphony orchestra. What I didn’t say is that those scenes were presented in HD on a 60-foot-tall LED screen. It was awesome in and of itself, though for the most part interpretive centers don’t have the budget for such a television. I have been told by my wife that we don’t have the budget either, despite my best efforts to persuade her on how good Oprah would look in that format.

The presentation went beyond the format and was one of the most important elements of the concert because in small snippets the program designers took key story elements and quotes, especially those prized by the inner circle of fans, to meet the expectations of youngest fans, uber fans, and normal people with significant others and jobs that don’t involve blogs or video games.

This may be best use of Star Vader ever. Oh yeah, by the way the music was great.