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.

What kind of graphic designer are you?

As with any profession, it’s important for graphic designers to be introspective. I have experienced life as a graphic designer in multiple stages: with no actual training in the field (1996–1998), as a graduate student in visual communications (1999–2001), and as a professional designer (2002 to present). I have witnessed all of the below subspecies of graphic designer (and I have been or continue to be one or more of them myself). Thinking about where you fall in these categories can help you understand your work and why some people look at you that way.

Uber Conceptualist
This designer says things like, “The single straight black line in a field of white represents human kind’s unwillingness to recognize its own shortcomings.” Then when his client says, “Yes, but we asked you to design a logo for the county fair,” he sighs and walks away. It’s important for design decisions to have meaning, but when the meaning is so abstract it has to be explained to everyone who sees it, graphic design crosses over into fine art—a different field altogether.

Hack
This person uses Comic Sans and starbursts. Also clip art.

Prima Donna
This person hates you. How dare you question his design decisions? If you don’t like it—or don’t get it—it’s because you’re too dumb. And who needs you anyway? Also, every other designer who has ever created anything is just so corporate. Bunch of sellouts. Especially Paul Rand.

People Pleaser
The yin to the Prima Donna’s yang, the People Pleaser takes any suggestion that comes along. Bold this? Yes. Add 17 photos to page three? You’re the boss!

Tech Guy
One of the great things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Conversely, one of the terrible things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. The Tech Guy designer can tell you everything you would ever want to know (and usually much, much more) about all of the advanced functions in Adobe Photoshop, then uses the software to create fliers for book sales that look like laundry that got washed with Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Old Timer
The Old Timer has been setting metal type by hand since you were wetting your diaper, and doesn’t need any of these newfangled devices to help him.

Of course, these are gross exaggerations, and every good designer has at least some of the above in him. It’s important to balance the Prima Donna with the People Pleaser—to have confidence in your abilities and your decisions, but to be able to hear criticism with an open mind. It’s valuable to let your inner Uber Conceptualist battle it out with the Hack—to think in deeper meanings but to make your work accessible. And every designer should be able to make the best use of his tools—à la the Tech Guy—but to understand the origins of the principles of graphic design the way only the Old Timer can.

And while every designer should have a little of each of the above, maybe you lean a little too far in one of the above directions. And that’s why people look at you like that.

Uber Conceptualist photo by Fausto Giliberti. Old Timer photo by Leroy Skalstad.

Show Me the Money

One of the best lines ever used when receiving an award was delivered by Don Simons at NAI’s National Workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 20, 2004. After delivering a respectable and predictable acceptance speech, the line was carefully delivered. For those of you who know Don, you know many of his comments are loaded, and by the end of his speech, you were expecting something more. He said very sincerely while holding up his award, “This isn’t why we do what we do; we do it for the money.”

Let’s face it, we didn’t get in this profession for the money. (Though, it is rumored that Don became involved in interpretation due to the large female demographic in the profession.)

This post is going to allow you to see digital images of bank notes. In the event that you choose to print them off and try to pass the off as legal tender at Starbucks, IBD will not accept responsibility for your actions. Though we will gladly accept gift cards purchased with your printed bounty.

The downturn in the economy has sparked creative people to come up with unique ideas to stimulate the economy. One idea stems from Richard Smith and the Dollar ReDe$ign Project. The concept as stated on the movement’s website is “that the ‘only’ realistic way for a swift economic recovery is through a thorough, in-depth, rebranding scheme – starting with the redesign of the iconic US Dollar – it’s the ‘only’ pragmatic way to add some realistic stimulation into our lives!” I’m no economist—in fact, I had to look up the word to make sure I was spelling it right—but this idea is as flawed as the mission of IBD (the blog, not the book) to make the world a better place. But you have to give him credit for trying to do something.

Smith urges visitors to his website to take part in signing a petition for change, since the “American Dollar has not truly been redesigned since about the 1930s” and the “the Dollar ReDe$ignProject is your opportunity to theoretically ‘change’ that.” The project has accepted submissions from designers around the world attempting to create a well-functioning note while still capturing elements of American culture and history. I was immediately drawn to the website for the simple fact that this challenge is the ultimate interpretive design project. Interpreters do this every day. We take complicated subjects, intense data, scientific information, vast time lines, and iconic images that are transformed into a product of personal or nonpersonal that helps visitors make meaningful connections.

The current leading design comes from British duo Dowling Duncan with a fresh, crisp, colorful, and vertical approach to the bills. As presented on the website, the design comes from research based on how people actually use money. The vertical approach works more naturally with how money is exchanged. The project website goes on to say, “You tend to hold a wallet or purse vertically when searching for notes. The majority of people hand over notes vertically when making purchases. All machines accept notes vertically. Therefore a vertical note makes more sense.” The bills are also presented in various lengths based on denomination to assist those with disabilities or impairments in differentiating value. The colors and large numbers also help avoid confusion in value.

I’ve often wondered why brochures were primarily presented in a vertical format when it is easier to present information less segmented in a horizontal format. (I also wonder what happened to MC Hammer.) The National Park Service recognizes this with its horizontal approach in the unigrid brochures that you see at each site. I guess the one hold back to horizontal design is they don’t display in racks as well. If the information is important enough to have visitors read it, perhaps page orientation should come into consideration.

Many of the designs like Dowling Duncan’s and the one seen here break the tradition of the notes being green. There is something to say here about consistency and tradition along with something to say about change and keeping up with the times, but I’m not sure what it is.

The contrast from today’s bills is shocking compared to these designs. Part of that change I like and part of it I don’t. You shouldn’t change something for the sake of change itself. Smith says “our great ‘rival,’ the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison it seems the only clear way to revive this global recession is to rebrand and redesign.” Trying to stay spanky is not enough reason to make a major design change.

If a change from horizontal to vertical is justified to improve use or function, that is a reason for change. If you want to shock little old ladies with your snazzy use of saturated colors because you are the designer and can do it, you should put on your MC Hammer pants and go hang out at the mall. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but do it.

This design by Sean Flanagan submitted purposefully used only American-designed typefaces. I wish I had a bumper sticker on the back of my minivan that stated “I’m Pro-American Typefaces!” That would be almost as cool as my minivan itself. As much as designers love Helvetica, I’m not so sure it should be the default on this project. Sometimes you have to go local.

This simple clean approach doesn’t really represent the complexity of what a bank note is forced to include in today’s world. This less complicated approach seems to be missing something, like holograms, metallic strips, eagles, and watermarks.

Here are a few other submissions that I just couldn’t pass up.

Visit the Dollar ReDe$ign Project website where you can sign the petition for rebranding. The stories behind design decisions in the bank notes is as interesting as looking at the designs themselves. Voting for favorite design ends on September 30.

Voice of the Village

In 1995 I was hired as a seasonal interpreter with Arkansas State Parks. I was so excited to have the chance at a professional position, doing what I went to school for, and working in an area I was passionate about. One of the first steps towards being prepared for that position was to attend seasonal interpreter training. My initial impression upon meeting other classmates at the training was mixed, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I fit in with the group. This was a feeling that I was well accustomed to and had experienced in most every other interaction that I have ever had with humans.

Being highly trained in the skill of observation, one thing that I picked up on immediately was the amount of original personalities in the group. I was witnessing originality from the outside looking in but I found myself concerned about my lack of outward originality as well as my lack of  inner voice. Now that I look back with experience I see that it was the originality of those interpreters’ personalities and styles that help make the profession what it is today.  That training helped me find my voice as an interpreter.

Originality and voice are key elements of interpretation.  Freeman Tilden speaks of both elements in his definition of interpretation from Interpreting Our Heritage.

Heritage interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.

The use of the word original was no accident. It is those original objects that make our interpretive sites special. Those original objects can range from a prehistoric ceramic vessel to a landscape to a compelling story. It is “the thing itself” as Richard Todd coined in his book The Thing Itself that is the motivation behind creating where you work or what you interpret. How those relationships and meanings are revealed is where an interpreter’s voice comes into play.

I recently came across an article titled Getting Real at Natural History Museums on the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading the Chronicle could be part of the reason that I have issues interacting with others. Perhaps I should spend more time visiting TMZ or on Facebook. The writer of the article Thomas H. Benton (pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) re-caps a recent visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (insert joke about Paul, museums in Philadelphia, cheese, and the Phillies) and is particularly harsh about his experience and what museums should interpret.

I have been compelled to read his article several times along with the other supporting articles that he provided about his visit. I also was compelled to come up with a pen name. His perspective voice from outside the field of interpretation is more than valuable to those of us on the inside because not only did he write about what museums and interpretive sites should be doing he speaks to the importance of originality, and “the thing itself.”

At one point in the article Benton aka Pannapacker (no wonder he has a pen name) makes this summation about museum interpretation.

It had taken many generations for museums to cultivate a kind of cultural capital that shaped visitors’ expectations in advance, similar to the experience of making a pilgrimage to a famous cathedral, full of relics. But in the last few decades, many natural-history museums have tried to emulate the entertainment industry, focusing almost exclusively on children and tourists—attempting to generate spectacles that do not cultivate quiet reflection and cannot sustain repeated encounters. The result has been a dilution of the museum’s formerly well-established identity: one that had cross-generational appeal and a deep connection to institutional histories and the local community.

On an interesting side note Benton was contacted by the Academy as well as other museums to help facilitate discussions on visitor experiences and expectations. The power of the visitor opinion or voice is a driving force in other areas online as well.

Paul and I have both have consulted Trip Advisor while planning distraction-based activities while we attend baseball games on “family vacations.” Our wives have been impressed with our combined knowledge about places that offer authenticity and original objects in cities with MLB parks. If you haven’t checked on reviews of your interpretive site or facilities on the website, you should. It can be empowering and depressing. There are several other online communities similar to Trip Advisor where visitors can be responsible for sharing or tearing experiences at your site.

If you stay close to your mission, interpret original objects, work with an original staff, and follow Tilden’s definition of interpretation you are probably doing fine. If you spend most of your day on Facebook just remember that there is someone out there with a voice to report that they saw you on Facebook while at the front desk.

Social Networking and “So What?”

Several weeks ago while on a flight I had a moment of inspiration, took out my laptop, and begin to write a blog post. I usually try not to work (not that writing this blog is work) on a plane for the simple fact that it is a finite amount of time where I can relax, think, listen to music, and not be connected. In this instance, I just had to write. I was fully engrossed. At one moment I chuckled to myself at how cute, clever, and funny I was being. I could imagine how literally 10s of readers would be laughing out loud (that’s LOL for everyone else but me) or at the very least Paul would find funny and then pretend that it wasn’t.

When I chuckled out loud (COL—you can use that one too) the lady sitting next to me asked me what I was working on. Up to this moment she had carefully ended every conversation starter that I had in my little book of airplane conversation tricks.  Lines like “How many words can you spell on a calculator?” and “I wish I had a Photoshop Eyedropper to capture the color of your eyes” got me nowhere at breaking the ice. Even though I have grown accustomed to awkward silences I still had some ambition to be friendly and get to know the person that owned the shoulder that my shoulder had been pushing against since we were somewhere over Kansas. Here’s my response and the remainder of the conversation.

Shea: I’m writing a post for my blog.

14C: You are a blogger?

Blogger: That’s right.

14C: Every blog I have ever read has left me thinking that the writer is narcissistic.

Blogger (carefully looking up synonyms for narcissistic in Microsoft Word while pretending that her tone didn’t bother me): I’m also a park ranger. [Found the following synonyms: vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, and selfish; okay she hurt my feelings.]

14C: So you blog about trees and nature? (COL)

Blogger/Park Ranger: And fonts. (COTI, crying on the inside)

This led into a longer explanation of interpretation, the profession, and various niche groups (including the 10s of IBD readers). I kept the description short, to the point, and based on the non-verbal cues I was receiving and previous law enforcement training, 14C was quickly becoming a threat to my safety. Despite her discontent the conversation continued.

14C: Really (displaying extreme disinterest). I guess you tweet too.

Blogger/Ranger: I do. But I don’t have much a following.

14C: All of this social media is just an attempt for people our age (though she looked much older than me) to stay relevant.

Blogger/Ranger: You are right. (I have over 15 years employing the use of this line and I knew it worked. I pretended to continue working while learning new words on my computer calculator).

Once I had time to reflect on the conversation, as well as define narcissism, it became apparent to me that our society has grown more narcissistic than ever. Blogs and social media have amplified this human nature to new heights. Of course, this blog is written for a very specific audience, which has similar interests, related to the profession of interpretation, which therefore cancels the narcissistic connotation for Paul and me (excepting for when it comes to conversations about Phillies/Yankees, cereal, and the use of Papyrus/Comic Sans).

The conversation with 14C got me thinking about how many of our personal and non-personal interpretive efforts are geared towards our own interests, thoughts, opinions, and ideas, much like a blog. The conversation also had me wondering how it is possible to answer Sam Ham’s question “So what?” for all of the various types of visitors to interpretive sites.  We live in a world where more visitors than ever care more about themselves or their own personal experiences than the resource or the thing itself. Can social networking outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, help lead to better visitor understanding and appreciation?

First of all I had to realize that a small dose of narcissism is part of us from birth. 14C hit the nail on the head when she said I was just trying to stay relevant. If we want to continue to be able to answer the “So what?” question for our visitors we have to be relevant to them. Wikipedia, another social-driven outlet, states that “Andrew P. Morrison claims that, in adults, a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism allows the individual’s perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others.”

Now there’s a connection we can understand between perceptions and relationships. Being relevant goes beyond just being on Facebook or Tweeting, you have to understand the nature of these networks as well as their strengths and weaknesses. While Facebook’s strength is “relationships,” Twitter excels at the spreading of information. Where Facebook allows interaction, Twitter allows exchanges. 14C is right, we have to stay relevant by using the media to the best of its ability.

One approach is to appeal to the voyeuristic nature of social media. Admit it, we have all spent more than what would be considered healthy looking at pictures of old flames that we have re-connected to Facebook. Come on, I know Paul and I are not the only ones. It is a great opportunity for us to imagine what life would have been like if things were different. Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. That is, admitting doing this not the looking at the pictures part. But interpretive sites can put all kinds of information, pictures, video, audio, podcasts, and almost anything else you can think of into these networks that will allow visitors or potential visitors to see what you are all about or allow visitors to re-connect with the memories of your site. If visitors come to your site with a better understanding of what the mission is then answering the “So what?” question becomes easier.  Be prepared for the positive responses along with the negatives. There are very little censoring capabilities with these networks.

How can we appeal to this narcissistic subculture? The best way is for it to happen on its own. Not to say something going viral didn’t begin without a little uncovered sneeze. Okay, that’s a little gross, but what I’m saying is that a grassroots approach to appealing to this culture can begin with some seeding. People like to have the feeling of discovery or doing something that involves exclusivity. That, combined with the narcissism of social networks, allows interpretive opportunities to go viral. By offering a behind-the-scenes tour or previewing the opening of a new exhibit, a website, or proof copy of a brochure, you can create that hype. If you use the word hype on Facebook you may be sent back to 1994 and receive a complimentary dial-up modem. The nature of the interaction on social media outlets, after attending your program, will definitely answer the “So what?” question.

You will notice a new feature at the end of each post on this website that will allow Facebook users to “like” posts and have that “like” reflected on their personal page. (We are saving the “dislike” plug-in for Paul’s posts.)

This begs the question, is it narcissistic to “like” your own post?

Live from Australia: It’s a Giant World After All

If you are reading this on the day it is posted, I am in Australia and it is the day before the annual NAI International Conference. I am in a time zone 16 hours ahead of my home in Colorado (if you’re in Colorado and it’s after 8:00 a.m., it’s tomorrow for me) and I just (legally) drove on the left side of a two-way street for the first time yesterday. I haven’t used a toilet here yet because I heard that the water goes the opposite direction than what I’m accustomed to, and I don’t want to be around toilet water that flushes up instead of down.

The morning of our departure, I awoke to the voice of my six-year-old son Joel singing “It’s a Small World,” the refrain of one of the signature rides at Disney World. It features about 400 animatronic dolls representing different countries and cultures uniting as one to get that song stuck in your head. Suddenly, Joel stopped singing and in a raised voice, exclaimed, “Are you serious? It’s not a small world, it’s a giant world. We’re going to the other side of the world and it’s going to take three airplanes and two nights, SO YOU BABIES ARE WRONG!”

I think Joel’s right. Those Small World babies are wrong. Sure, some amazing advances in technology have facilitated instantaneous communication worldwide. In preparation for the NAI International Conference, I frequently had email conversations at the end of my work day in Colorado with people just starting the next day in Australia. There was half a planet covered in nighttime between us and we were chatting about the weather and who’s going to win the Australian “footy” championship. (Not really. I know nothing about the Australian Football League beyond the fact that the mascot of the Sydney team is the Swans.)

But even as technology increases our ability to communicate and spread communicable diseases, the world remains an enormous place. I think no matter what your profession, you gain perspective by visiting new places, getting out of your comfort zone, and trying to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And there are so many ways to accomplish this.

To Joel’s point, it’s a giant world after all. Sure, the world has gotten smaller metaphorically, but it remains literally a giant place. There’s so much out there to see and do. In communication-based professions like graphic design and heritage interpretation, it may not be enough to ask, How would someone across the street, across town, across the state, or on the other side of the planet react to this project? It may require packing a bag and going somewhere new. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you don’t know what size they wear. (Either that’s really deep or I am more jetlagged than I think.)

Granted, it’s not always feasible to jet around the planet at will, but any opportunity to break out of your comfort zone is worthwhile and will enhance your perspective. Talk to a stranger on the bus. Eat at a restaurant on the other side of town. Wear a Mets hat (actually, scratch that one). Go somewhere you’ve never been and interact with as many people as you can.

As I adjust to autumn in April, spelling center as centre, and trying not to clip the sideview mirrors off the cars parked along the streets of Queensland, Australia, I may not fully appreciate the full value of the experience while it’s happening. But it is my belief that any experience that broadens my worldview—that helps me appreciate a perspective other than my own—is one that will help me grow as a professional communicator.

And now I have that song stuck in my head.