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.

Conclusion
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.

The World of Coca-Cola (An Opening Day Post Not About Baseball)

Today is opening day of the Major League Baseball season. Wait, wait, don’t click away just yet. Despite a desire to spend the next 500 to 750 words going on and on about how great the New York Yankees are going to be this year (with one starting pitcher), how the National League should be contracted (forcing the starting pitchers of the Philadelphia Phillies to be absorbed by the Yankees), and how delicious hot dogs are, it is the predictable and unpredictable natures of the game that I really love and why I can’t wait to watch the games.

Instead of writing about baseball, I have decided to show you pictures from my family’s recent spring break vacation trip to Atlanta, Georgia. Wait, wait, don’t click away just yet. Okay, maybe you should.

Nothing goes better with at a hot dog at a baseball stadium than an ice cold Coca-Cola. (I’m seriously not writing about baseball.) When visiting Atlanta, one of the must-see sights is the World of Coca-Cola. While visiting the museum, or interpretive site, or commercial, or I’m not sure really what it is, I found myself reminded of the feeling when visiting a new Major League stadium. I was also reminded of the power of interpretation. Needless to say, the facility itself was amazing, well designed, organized, beautiful, and worth seeing. Though in some ways it left me wanting more (much like a trip last summer to Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.). I did fill that empty feeling with large amounts of Coca-Cola products at the end of the visit, which helped.

I think it is safe to say that architects, designers, planners, and the Coca-Cola Corporation applied Disney-type techniques into the concept. Staging areas were interesting and gave you something to do while you were waiting, which kept you from feeling like you were waiting.

Open areas in the main concourse gave you plenty of room to play a game of baseball (if so desired). In our case, there was room for my children to run and hide while I was taking pictures of exhibits. In Disney fashion, the Coca-Cola Polar Bear mascot was there for photo opportunities. (You will have to go to the IBD Facebook page to see those images.)

I did find that in many areas of the museum that Coca-Cola was working harder than the Phillies trying to find a closing pitcher to build a meaningful connection between visitors and the product. I found this exhibit well designed and produced, but reaching for meaning. The scale and quality was amazing. When it comes down to it, Coke is really a just a soda that we all love. I can relate to that. My daughter still wants to know why the turtle wouldn’t talk to her.

Here are some other highlights:

Reminder of the “green” features of the gold LEED-certified building were found in several places. (I hope this is the last urinal picture to be put on this blog.) The importance of water in the making of Coke is a secondary theme found through the museum.

I love planned photo opportunities that help set the stage for the experience. This one with Mr. Pemberton (the creator of Coca-Cola; no Paul it wasn’t Dr. Pepper) and my son is positioned well for posing with the museum in the background.

The most successful areas were interpretive in nature. The story behind the creation of the soda were fascinating. As you can imagine red was the color of choice.

I found this exhibit really interesting on how the famous Coca-Cola script became the logo over a century ago and is still used today.  The touch screen allow visitors the opportunity to try their hand at mimicking the script. My fingers only draw Helvetica, for some reason.

For some reason, I had a hard time connecting with this exhibit as well.

I have more to share with you from Atlanta and the Coca-Cola Experience, which I will get to next week.

When it comes down to it, you love Coke or you don’t. You love baseball or you don’t. Me forcing it into a post isn’t going to make you love it. The World of Coca-Cola is a tremendous place to visit and is at its best in the areas that just celebrate the power of something that people love and are passionate about, like baseball. Take a 7th inning stretch, I’ll have more next week.

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.

Mining the Internet Archive

If you watched the video posted above, you wasted 96 seconds of your life, and for that, I apologize. There’s so much more that you could have been doing with your time, and nearly all of it would have been of more value to society.

I put the above video together using footage I found on a website called Internet Archive, which is a free resource that contains public domain, archival movies (and other media). The primary reason I put the video together is that it was more fun than doing actual work. But also, I wanted to test out how to work with materials from this site, which I learned about from Dr. Chris Mayer, interpretive consultant and director of the National Association for Interpretation’s Spanish Section.

It turned out to be surprisingly easy. I searched for certain terms (like “baseball” and “park ranger”), found some videos with narrators who sounded like they wanted to be my friend, downloaded them at the resolution of my choice, and spliced snippets of them together in iMovie.

The original footage comes from four different movies—Story of a Forest Ranger, a 1954 US Department of Agriculture film; Heading Home, a 1920 silent film starring fat old man with little girl legs Babe Ruth; Good Eating Habits, a 1951 instructional film; and a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon called Piano Tooners—all of which (along with many, many others) are available for free download, some at high resolution.

All of the videos I’ve used are in the public domain, either because their copyright has expired or they were produced by a government agency, so they can be used for the sort of nonsense I’ve posted here (or they can be used for something of actual value). The Internet Archive offers versions of these videos (and many, many more) at varying resolution free of charge for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but I’ll certainly take it. On its website, the organization describes itself like this:

The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.

And the Internet Archive features more than just video:

The Internet Archive includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages in our collections, and provides specialized services for adaptive reading and information access for the blind and other persons with disabilities.

Some of the content found on the Internet Archive is not in the public domain, so it can’t be used in media that you produce, but it’s still awesome and you just want to watch it over and over instead of doing real work. The stop-action video Extreme Lego Breakdancing falls into that category.

I’m not sure just yet how I plan to use this resource in any real way, but it’s a great way to track down free stock footage or create a certain tone for historical pieces. If you use this resource in the future (or if you have in the past), please share your product with us. I’m curious to see what the possibilities are.

Crocodiles do not swim here

crocodiles

One of the advantages of presenting sessions on graphic design is that people think of us when they take pictures of amusing signs. For some reason, people also think of us when watching the TV show “The Biggest Loser.”

This photo arrived courtesy of James Massey, who earned a Certified Interpretive Planner credential from NAI a few years back. The great thing about the sign in this photo is that is a springboard for discussions about what could have been done typographically or design-wise to make its message—that you should not swim here because there are crocodiles—more clear. (The word “Crocodiles” could have been set in a different color. The border could be red instead of blue to signify danger. The words could be rearranged so that “Do not swim here” appears first. And so on.)

After showing this image during classes and training sessions for the last few years, the consensus is that the crocodiles themselves are the target audience, which explains why the sign has been placed so low to the ground.

If you have images you’d like to share, send them to us or post them to our Facebook page.