QR Codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC Tags

The longest conversation ever to take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s LinkedIn page was about QR codes, Microsoft tags, and NFC tags. These are technologies used in magazine ads, on billboards and T-shirts, in murder investigations, and in many other media that can be scanned using a smart phone to provide a link to a website or other information. In interpretive settings, they can be used to provide access to information that augments the contents of signs or exhibits.

Here’s a quick breakdown of these technologies:

QR Codes
Based on my own unscientific observation, I feel like you see QR (“Quick Response”) codes more than the other two. About a year ago, I wrote a post about them, which, if it had been an interpretive presentation, would have had the following theme: “This is what QR codes are.” (Sam Ham would be proud.) Since then, I’ve heard from a handful of interpreters about how they’re using QR codes at their sites, including this example from Friend of IBD Bob Hinkle at Cleveland Metroparks.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Lake to Lake Trail features six signs similar to these, which are made of vinyl over aluminum, so they can be replaced quickly and easily for less than a dollar each, according to Bob.

You can read QR codes with the camera on your smart phone with an app called a “QR Reader.” I use an app on my iPhone called (wait for it) QR Reader. You can create QR codes extremely easily on a number of websites called “QR Code Generators,” like the one I use called Kaywa.

One criticism of QR codes is that they’re ugly and boring (also criticisms of the IBD blog authors), but Friend of IBD Phil Sexton shared this link to 15 Beautiful and Creative QR Codes, which shows that they don’t have to be. Above are examples from that article—tags for Fillmore Silver Spring, Louis Vuitton’s mobile site, and Corkbin. The article’s author, , points out that the QR code’s “30% tolerance in readability” allows this room for creativity. (Note that Cleveland Metroparks includes their logo in the middle of their QR code.)

Microsoft Tags
Terre Dunivant of Gaia Graphics and Associates wrote a post on her blog comparing the relative merits of Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes. Terre prefers Microsoft tags for several reasons, including that they offer even more flexibility and room for creativity than QR codes. The examples below (from Microsoft’s website) are tags for Iams, Loescher (a book publisher), and Ciara.

On the negative side, so far as I can tell, you can only create Microsoft tags by signing up for a free account on Microsoft’s website, which I assume will crash your computer. In terms of scanning Microsoft tags, I use an app called Microsoft Tag Reader on the iPhone.

NFC tags
I’ll admit that I have not used this technology. I researched NFC tags to learn more about the rumor that Brett Favre was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, and I was surprised to learn that NFC, in this instance, has nothing to do with the National Football Conference, but rather stands for “Near Field Communication.”

Near Field Communication tags are the relative new kid the block—the Joey McIntyre of mobile data-sharing technology, if you will. NFC tags are different from QR codes and Microsoft tags in that they are actual pieces of hardware rather than printed codes to be scanned. Basically, you purchase and write data to tiny electronic chips, which are then able to share that data with NFC-enabled devices (like some smart phones) that come close to them. The obvious disadvantages to this technology are that you have to create the tags, and not all smart phones are equipped to accept the information. The advantage is that the transfer of data is much easier on the user’s end, provided they have an NFC-enabled phone.

This is technology to watch, but the limited number of people able to take advantage of it at the moment, in my opinion, makes it not quite ready for prime time.

As more and more people have smart phones—including noted Apple critic and new iPhone owner Shea Lewis—interpretive sites are taking advantage of these technologies. But there are questions, of course: What are the best ways to make use of this new technology from a pragmatic standpoint? (Cleveland Metroparks’ easy-switch sign is a good solution.) How do you make information contained in the codes available to those who do not have smart phones? (Note that Cleveland Metroparks has provided a website for those with no smart phone.) How will this technology change in the next six months to 10 years? (If we knew that, we’d be filthy rich.) Can you really justify calling a designated hitter a baseball player? (Clearly not.)

I’m curious to know if you’ve been using any or all of these at your site, and what sort of success you’ve had.

Accepting Criticism

I’m on vacation this week, and I’m spending some time in a bathing suit, so I figure what better time to write about being criticized?

Being a good designer means understanding the rules of type, color, and composition. But beyond that, it’s just as much about understanding and appreciating the perspective of your audience.

It can be difficult to invite criticism on a design project—especially when you’re happy with it and you’re really only seeking validation. It can be particularly hard to hear feedback from nondesigners on a design project, because when aesthetics are involved, everyone will have an opinion, but not everyone will be able to articulate their thoughts. There’s nothing worse than, “I don’t like it but I can’t say why….”

If you’re a surgeon and some guy on the street says he thinks you ought to practice your craft differently, you can say, “Well, I went to school for this, so I think I’ll do it my way.” Graphic designers, on the other hand, can’t really say (as much as we’d like to), “Well, I went to school for this, so you have to like my work.” On the other other hand, if you’re a guy on the beach in a bathing suit and some guy says to maybe lay off the cheese steaks and ice cream, you are free to punch him in the face.

Many of you may be familiar with the website Interpretation By Design. (I’ve included a screen capture for reference.) As we’ve done several times over the last couple years, we recently changed the look of this website. This time, when we unveiled the new theme, we posted a link on Facebook and asked for feedback.

I was looking forward to comments because I liked the new look, and hoped everyone else would, too. We received a handful of comments on Facebook, a few more in the comments section of the current post at the time, one more (oddly) in the comments section of a post from September of 2009, and a handful of text messages (all from Shea, who is just so happy to have an iPhone). I really wanted everyone just to say that they loved the site and how handsome and witty and charming IBD is exactly half the time (on Mondays), but that was not entirely how it worked out.

Some people liked the new look and said so. Some constructive comments led to changes that I consider improvements (the original bright white background was hard on the eyes, so now it’s a warm neutral), while other comments offered food for thought but did not lead to changes (some people are distracted by the rotating header image; others like it). In this case, asking for and receiving constructive criticism did not only lead to immediate changes on this site, but it helped broaden my perspective as I undertake future projects.

Oddly, I am much more apt to solicit feedback on projects that I am not happy with (in design circumstances, that is; I do not intend to solicit feedback on how I look in a bathing suit this week). If I am happy with how a project is going, I worry that constructive criticism is going to derail me. Nevertheless, I always do ask for comments (again, not on the bathing suit). Sometimes criticism leads to small changes that make big improvements, sometimes I do actually receive the validation I sought, and every now and again, I consider changing careers.

Ultimately, seeking feedback on design projects is not just some part of the process to be checked off a list. Take the time to really listen to comments, look for patterns in the feedback, consider new ideas, and make open-minded decisions about whether to make changes.

And maybe consider skipping that second cheese steak of the day after all.

Apps for Interpreters (That We Also Kind of Like)

Most of you know where I stand in the realm of Mac vs. PCs. That doesn’t mean that I have to be against every single product that Apple offers. (Though it is true that the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad are all the exact same product just offered in various sizes.) What I can’t really wrap my mind around is how it is possible for Paul to write a post about iPhone apps and not make fun of the fact that I now have one too. I expect those comments to come rolling in today. Paul did a nice job avoiding hyperbole but I’m here to say these apps will change your life.

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For the first time ever on a recent birding trip and guided birding boat tour that I led, I didn’t bring a field guide with me. With the Sibley Guide eGuide to Birds app it is not necessary. The app has amazing options for viewing maps, hearing various versions of calls, along with all of the other images and information that the actual field guide offers. There are many other types of bird guides out there that cost less but overall I was most impressed with this one. It is pricy for an app ($29.99) but it is all about priorities. There are also apps for other naturalists’ interests such as field guides for herps, mammals, fish, etc.

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Speaking of apps for naturalists, LeafSnap is pretty cool too. First, it is beautifully designed. You can look through the browsing section for hours at a time.The feature that has made this app so popular is that you can take a leaf, place it on a white sheet of paper and photograph it (or snap it) and it will provide you with a list of possible species that you can peruse based on your location.

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If you ever find yourself problem solving or brainstorming and struggling with conceptualizing the issues at hand, SimpleMindMapping is available to you when ever the ideas are flowing. The free version allows you to save and view your mind maps but the paid version allows you to email and share the maps. As with most free technology today, the basic options are free and you pay for advanced elements.

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Keeping the Star Wars streak alive (and an attempt to continue to isolate any readers we still have) I bring you my favorite Star Wars-related app. I have a demanding job and personal life where at any given moment I’m searching for wisdom and guidance. Where do I turn? Thanks for asking, I turn to the Star Wars Quotes app. If Yoda can’t help me solve a problem, no one can. I also have friends (which may surprise you) who are also Star Wars fans (no we don’t dress up; well, only on special occasions) who are sticklers for accuracy that this app provides.

I tell you that to tell you this: There are quote apps for almost all interest areas that allow you to access information quickly and easily to meet your needs.

Today’s random quote from Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

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Speaking of quotes you must have, Dragon Dictation allows you to make your own quotes. It allows you speak into your iPhone and will take your transcribed dictation straight into a text message, email, word processing file, Facebook status update, or Tweet. If you need to make a quick note while out on a tour, you need this app. (Also, it’s great if you ever need to tweet or text while driving.) It is amazingly seamless, but struggles with my southern accent at times.

For all of you interpretive naturalist types out there please share your favorites below in the comment section. In the meantime I’ll be listening to bird calls on my iPhone.

Graphic Design Apps We Kind of Like

Every now and again, I wonder if my iPhone could be more to me than just the second-favorite member of my family. To that end, I regularly search the Internet for new apps that I might add. Invariably, I come across articles with titles like “10 Apps Every Redhead Must Have” or “The Best Apps in the History of the World for Baseball Fans” or “Download These Apps Now or You Will Die.” That all seems a little stark for us, but there are some good smart phone apps for graphic designers that I kind of like, so I thought I’d share.

Note that I am a cheapskate, so the apps listed here are free, with one notable exception at the end. Also note that I use an iPhone, so I ran these apps past my Android-using co-worker Jamie King, who confirmed their existence on that platform or suggested similar alternatives.

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Palettes
You may have guessed already that this app generates color palettes. You can create color palettes one color at a time using standard color sliders, or you can generate palettes from photographs.

When you have a palette that you’re happy with, you can export it in any number of ways. The app provides detailed information (hex codes, CMYK and RGB breakdowns, etc.) for each color. (Available for the iPhone. Jamie reports that this does not exist yet for Android users, but suggests one called My Color Guide.)

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Adobe Photoshop Express
Friend of IBD Amy Ford told me about this app, which allows you to make some of the basic adjustments you would make in the full Photoshop, like cropping, brightness, contrast, etc., right on your phone, as seen with this photo of my daughter below.

With the availability of this app, it is now officially possible to install Adobe Photoshop on any electrical device, including your toaster, your rechargeable toothbrush, and yes, your Android phone. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

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SimpleDraw
This app allows you to draw on your screen in several basic colors and different stroke weights. It is great for quick sketches, playful doodling, and entertaining your children in airports. You can save images that you like to your phone or email them to Grandma and Papa right out of the app. Note that if your children have been eating yogurt with their fingers, your screen will get sticky. Also note that if you only have one mobile device, your children will fight over it until one of them drops it in their yogurt. (Available for the iPhone. For Android users, Jamie suggests a similar app called Kids Doodle.)

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SignGuru
Friend of IBD Joan Lawrence recommended this app to us. And when she did, she said, “I haven’t had time to check it out yet, but it sounded good.” Well, if she had checked it out, Joan would have found a terrific app loaded with information. A section called “Specs and Guidelines” contains information on everything from color combinations to engineering basics, as well as guidelines on the Americans with Disibilities Act (ADA) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), among much else.

Not only that, a section called “A Good Sign?” shows you images of signs, which you evaluate with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and the app tells you whether your opinion is “Correct!” or “Incorrect.”

As a person who frequently tells other people that their opinions are incorrect, this appeals to my sensibilities. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

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WhatTheFont
This app identifies typefaces for you. Yes, it should be called WhatTheTypeface, but WTT is not as funny as WTF, and it’s free, so what are you going to do? Using the camera on your device, you photograph type that you find in the environment around you and upload the image. WhatTheFont uses recognition software to put a name to the typeface. I struggled with this app until I realized that your photos have to be oriented vertically rather than horizontally, but since then, I’ve been enjoying it. It doesn’t get it right every time, but even when it can’t find an exact match, the app suggests similar typefaces. (Available for the iPhone.)

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Dexigner
I almost didn’t download this one because the icon violates my first rule of logo design: No eyeballs. (Rule #2: No globes.) (Rule #3: Cleverly put a globe in an eyeball and you are banned from logo design forever.) Anyway, I did download the app and found that it contains a lot of useful design-related information, including a calendar of upcoming conferences and competitions, a list of recommended books, directories of designers, studios, and museums, and a lot more. (Available for the iPhone. Jamie did not find this on the Android market, but said that one called Dsgn: Design & Typography News might work.)

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MLB.com At Bat
Okay, so this is in no way a graphic design app, but I put it here because it’s just so great. Seriously. In my tenure as an iPhone owner, I have purchased only one app, and it’s this one. Best $14.99 I’ve ever spent. I like to stream the local Phillies radio broadcast and pretend that I’m eating a cheesesteak on the New Jersey boardwalk. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

Well, there you have it, our Top 7 Apps that Redheaded Baseball Fan Graphic Designers Must Have or They Will Die. Go get ’em!

The Cover Art of They Might Be Giants

If you got hold of my iPhone and started rifling through my music collection, this is what I would say: “I don’t know how that got on there. I don’t even know who Justin Bieber is!” Then I would laugh nervously and snatch my iPhone back and jam to a little “One Less Lonely Girl.” (Note: Justin Bieber has yet to respond to my request for a signed photo and to change the name of that song to the grammatically correct “One Fewer Lonely Girl.”)

But before all of this happened, you’d probably notice that the most heavily represented group in my music collection is the eclectic and long-lived They Might Be Giants.

From my first encounter with a They Might Be Giants (TMBG) album, the self-titled They Might Be Giants (1986), I was smitten. Their songs were catchy, quirky, and included lyrics like this from the song “The Day”:

The day Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs got married
The trees all waved their giant arms
And happiness bled from every street corner
And biplanes bombed with fluffy pillows

I was in middle school when I first saw the cover of the so-called Pink Album (on a cassette tape*, no less), and though I probably could not have predicted that TMBG would be my favorite band for at least the next three decades, I had an idea right away that I’d like them. I was struck by the pure differentness of the cover, and that quality carried through to their music. (I was also struck by the football players’ spitballs and an occasional shoe. But the joke’s on them. I grew up to be a blogger!)

Right from the get-go, TMBG demonstrated an understanding of and appreciation for the role graphic design plays in building an identity. While the artwork for each of their 14 studio albums is unique, and they are distinct from one another, they have in common that they stand out from the rest of the crowd. One of my favorites is the cover art for the album Mink Car (2001), not just for the obviously intriguing illustration, but the striking typography and subtle use of color.

Way back in the days when people acquired music by going to Tower Records** (or in Shea’s case, Walmart) and perusing the alphabetized CDs***, TMBG stood out among a sea of airbrushed glamor shots and photos of backlit bands on stages. They accomplished this largely through the use of strong illustrations, as with Apollo 18 (1992), Long Tall Weekend (1999), and The Spine (2004).

When TMBG has used photographs instead of illustrations, they use carefully crafted images that tell stories. For instance, their second studio album, Lincoln (1988), is named for Lincoln, Massachusetts, the childhood home of the band’s creators, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, and features photos of Linnell’s great-grandfather and Flansburgh’s grandfather. Similarly, the images on covers for Flood (1990), John Henry (1994), and The Else (2007) do something other than show a picture of the band; they tell stories.

And no discussion of TMBG would be complete without mention of their children’s albums, including Here Come The ABCs (2005), Here Come The 123s (2008), Here Comes Science (2009), and No! (2002). TMBG’s quirky music and illustrative style lend themselves perfectly to this demographic. (Another reason TMBG is better than Justin Bieber? Better grammar! Note the lack of apostrophes in 123s and ABCs.)

What I love about their kids’ albums is that they’re not fluff. TMBG continues to use a distinct, edgy style—both visually and in the music itself—but it’s aimed at children. I think that Freeman Tilden, who tells interpreters that communication aimed at children should not just be dumbed-down versions of grown-up programs, would be proud.

Ultimately, I think that the reason I enjoy They Might Be Giants’ aesthetic is this: It’s clear that they actually care about graphic design. Every one of their album covers could be the subject of its own blog post because they’ve taken so much care with them. From the meticulously childish illustration of their first album to the carefully art-directed photograph in The Else, the covers actually engage the viewer and invite us to explore their meanings.

And while I now have “Don’t Don’t Let’s Start” stuck in my head, it’s a heck of a lot better than “One Fewer Lonely Girl.”

Glossary for Our Younger Readers
*Cassette Tape: A device about the size of six taped-together iPod Nanos that could hold up to 12 songs. They could be played in a “tape deck” or “Walk Man” up to 17 times before said devices chewed up the actual tape and you had to dub your friend’s copy on your awesome dual tape deck.

**Tower Records: An actual building where people would go to purchase music and interact with other human beings.

***CD: Shiny round discs that look like those free coasters we used to get in the mail from AOL. They could hold more songs than their predecessors and could be played repeatedly until you held one wrong and got a thumb print on it.