Odds and Ends: Emptying the In-Box

I tend to let emails collect in my in-box, then once every three years I go and delete them by the thousands. I have a special folder for things people send for IBD, and it has reached a point where it needs to be emptied. So I give you the following odds and ends.

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Knowing that we love interesting and funny signs, Friend (and Occasional Nemesis) of IBD Phil Broder sent a series of photos from a recent trip to India.

The above photo is from a park where you are not allowed to do anything, including “misbehavior” and “eatables.” I particularly like the relaxing sound of “Garden Timing” followed by “By Order.”

This one reminds me of a Steven Wright joke. He said his parents read that most accidents happen within five miles of the home, so they moved 15 miles away. I’m glad in India that they keep their accidents confined to one zone. (And those “Dang District Police” are misusing their quote marks.)

The “Don’t Spit Here” sign seemed kind of funny to me, until Phil explained, “India has a real tuberculosis issue, and there’s a campaign to curb spitting as a public health measure.” Thanks for being a buzz-kill, Phil.

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Another Phil, this time Friend of IBD Phil Sexton, sent a link to a website called Free Font Manifesto, which asks the question:

This site paves the way for professional designers to create a collection of high-quality fonts available in the public domain (there are lots of free fonts available already, but not necessarily high-quality ones). This raises questions about how these designers would earn a living, but it’s an interesting conversation to have.

Phil also sent me this funny little cosmetic tip. Phil and I are always sharing beauty tips, so I was happy to get this from him:

I guess my friends think I need help with my body image, because Friend of IBD Chris Mayer sent a link to a tongue-in-cheek video about using Photoshop (Fotoshop) to achieve unrealistic goals:

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Friend of IBD Kelly Farrell also shared a few photos with us in recent* months:

This is one she took during the 2010 NAI National Workshop in Las Vegas (I did say that it can take me a while to get to emails). I have to admit, because I’m slow sometimes, that I did not get it right away.

This one I did get right away.

Kelly also sent a link with the subject “Arkansas on the Cutting Edge” to a story on the website The Barcode News, which states:

In October of 2009, Arkansas became the first state to use QR Codes…. Since that time, the QR Code has appeared in the 2010 Arkansas Tour Guide, the Arkansas State Parks Guide, the Arkansas Spring newspaper insert and in publications such as The Oxford American, Southern Living, and National Geographic Traveler.

I can see why Kelly, a proud Arkansan, wanted to share this with us, as we have written about QR codes in the past. I was particularly impressed by one aspect of this whole story: There is such a thing as The Barcode News.

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Finally, my coworker Deb Tewell took this photo in Argentina. It’s a great example of all the reasons we can just never predict how our work will look when it’s released into the wild.

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Check back for Part 2 of “Emptying the In-Box” in March 2015!

Social Media at the #NAI2011 Workshop

I compare the annual NAI National Workshop to final exams. I spend most of my year building to this one week, during which I go sleepless, subsist almost entirely on buffalo wings and nervous energy, and then crash afterwards until someone wakes me for the holidays.

I have been to 10 NAI National Workshops, and I remember each one distinctly for different reasons. There was the 40 Days of Rain Workshop (Virginia Beach, 2002), the “Wheel of Fortune” Slot Machine Workshop (Reno, 2003), the Shiny Horse Incident Workshop (Wichita, 2007), and, of course, the Shorn Head Workshop (Las Vegas, 2010).

Last week’s Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, will always be the Social Media Workshop to me. Smart phones and tablets were everywhere throughout the event, and there was a steady stream of Tweets and Facebook posts from participants. NAI promoted a Twitter hash tag, #NAI2011, which participants used when Tweeting about the event.

For those not familiar with Twitter, a hash tag is a short phrase or set of characters set off with a pound sign (like #NAI2011) that Twitterers use to link their Tweets to other Tweets. In Twitter, you can click on a hash tag and see all of the Tweets that have included it. Being relatively new to Twitter, I was struck by the following effects of the #NAI2011 hash tag:

It generated buzz:

It connected people—in person and online:

It made people feel bad:

It spread the message:

It expanded the conversation beyond the session rooms:

It gave participating organizations a line of communication to their people:

It provided instant feedback:

It highlighted some of the tangential benefits of the event:

And, of course, it encouraged shenanigans:

I co-presented two sessions during NAI 2011, one on blogging with my esteemed IBD co-author Shea, and one on using social media in interpretation with Friend of IBD Phil Sexton. Both were well attended, but in particular the social media session was packed so full we called it Occupy NAI, and our room monitor was turning people away. That session was popular for three reasons: 1. New media is incredibly important to the field of interpretation. 2. People believed me when I told them that Phil is actually Kenny Rogers. 3. I can’t remember the third reason.

I consider the #NAI2011 hash tag experiment a success. It was widely used by participants, encouraged conversation, facilitated connections, and generated buzz about the event.

Now, on to #NAI2012!

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.

The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.

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:

Paul—
PLEASE
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.