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.

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.

Knowing Your Audience is ILL

Last week, my family and I took our annual trip to the New Jersey shore, famous for its white-sand beaches, greasy food, and hairy backs. I grew up in the Philadelphia area (as I may have mentioned once or twice on this site) and spent at least two weeks at the Shore every summer as a child. These days, every summer, my wife and I take our children to the Shore for a little dose of the culture that made me who I am—boardwalk amusements, soft-serve ice cream, and a preponderance of Philadelphia sports paraphernalia.

At the Shore, I noticed people wearing the “ill” T-shirts pictured here. The designers of the shirts, which I found on a site called Philavania (official tagline: “Where porkroll egg & cheese is for breakfast, every damn day”), cleverly extracted the “ill” from the middle of the logo of Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball team, the Phillies, set in the typeface Scriptwurst. (Note that the product shot of the women’s shirt features a slender model, while the photo of the men’s shirt does not. I can only assume, based on my own week of eating cheese fries, cheese steaks, and fried cheese, that there are no men slender enough to fit the shirt in the photo left in the tri-state area.)

Of course, this raises the question, “Why would someone wear a shirt that says ‘ill’ on it?” Interestingly, this is exactly the question our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu asked upon seeing these shirts on my computer screen (immediately followed by “Don’t you have work to do?”). Well, as Urban Dictionary tells us, the kids these days use “ill” to mean “cool, tight, or sweet,” as in “Dat ride iz ILL” (actual example shared by Urban Dictionary contributor Da Shizzle). I’m surprised Lisa didn’t know that.

So, the shirts are clever, provided that you are familiar enough with Philadelphia sports to recognize the Phillies logo typeface and your slang is current to at least 1997. If not, you may see someone wearing this shirt and assume that they are, as the word is traditionally defined by dictionary.com, “of unsound physical or mental health; unwell; sick [possibly from eating too many fried cheese products].”

But the folks at Philavania didn’t stop with just one clever twist on the Phillies logo.

On the Philavania website, you can find versions of the shirt not only in Phillies blue and red, but also the orange and black of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and green and silver of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Upon seeing these shirts, I had two simultaneous and equally strong reactions. I thought, “Why would you hybridize the identities of two different teams—the type and composition of one with the color scheme of another—that already have their own carefully constructed brands?” And I thought, “Those shirts are awesome.” (Oddly, I also thought, “I could use some cheese.”)

Finally, I thought, “There’s a lesson here.”

Interpreters and graphic designers talk a lot about knowing their audience. When I was in design school, any student who described his or her target audience as “general public” on any project was summarily dismissed from class and forced to work as an intern creating forms for the department of motor vehicles. Having a specific audience identified at the beginning of a project gives an interpreter or designer a significant head start towards success.

Look at the Phillies/Flyers “ill” shirt, for instance. You can identify the target audience as people who: 1. Like Philadelphia sports teams, 2. Are familiar enough with the Phillies’ logo to recognize it with five of its eight letters missing, 3. Are familiar enough with the Flyers’ team colors to recognize them on a shirt that contains the logo of a different team, 4. Speak 1997 slang, and 5. Want a shirt whose color will hide cheese drips.

At first, it seems that the folks at Philavania might have limited themselves by targeting such a specific market, but based on comments I’ve seen online and heard in person about the shirts, the people in that target audience overwhelmingly like the shirts. The shirt doesn’t resonate with everyone, but the people it does resonate with, it really resonates with them. As a communicator, I’d rather create a message that hits home with a specific audience than one that only marginally registers with a much larger audience.

Interpreters and designers stand a better chance to be successful by concentrating on a specific audience rather than trying to appeal to everyone all the time. Do a good enough job and before you know it, kids at your site will be saying things like, “Yo, that campfire program was ILL.” Do a bad job and they’ll be saying, “Yo, that campfire program made me ill.”

One final note, not entirely unrelated: In September of last year, I wrote a post called “Type and Branding: Lessons from the Phillies and the Jersey Shore,” in which I explain that the font the Phillies use in their logo, Scriptwurst, is proprietary and not available to the public. Nevertheless, Scriptwurst continues to be the most-searched term that drives readers to this website, presumably the result of people looking to find and download the font. A big IBD hello to all of those folks! Sorry we weren’t of more use to you.