Getting Canned

Have you ever done something, with really good intentions, and it backfired? I have and now I have the company of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Trust me, you should never give a pet as a gift. Did you know that the average lifespan for a cat is 12-14 years?

Last week Coca-Cola unveiled its recently re-designed holiday can. The can features polar bears and was a collaborative effort with World Wildlife Fund (yes the WWF, who made the WWF the WWE, but that’s fodder for another post), to bring awareness to polar bears. Coke is donating 3 million dollars toward the effort to protect polar bear habitat. This is cool (literally and figuratively). The new can, primarily white, has been met with resistance and confusion by Coke drinkers. The first issue it the can isn’t red. The second issue is that the can is easily confused with a Diet Coke can.

The color red is easily connected to Coca Cola. When something related to your identity becomes iconic, you probably shouldn’t mess with it. Even when you have a tradition of holiday related advertising and promotional items, you have to know your boundaries. In a Yahoo article a Coke spokesman was quoted saying that “The white can resonated with us because it was bold, attention-grabbing.” The article goes on to say that “Coke’s marketing executives wanted a “disruptive” campaign to get consumers’ attention.” (This is fancy corporation talk for “this was my idea and I’m sticking to it.”)

The second issue is that the new holiday can looks remarkably similar to a Diet Coke can. Though, traditionally silver, the frosty look of the white can has confused many Diet Coke drinkers. It is either the cans or the artificial sweetener. Even if you are competing with yourself, it is important to know what the competition is doing. The response to this issue is interesting. It has been broadcast across Twitter and YouTube. It has even brought up old issues of New Coke and a possible switch in recipes, even though there have been no changes. Most of these accusations are related to consumers who grabbed a new white can and thought it was a Diet Coke.

What can interpreters and interpretive designers learn from this? Stay within your boundaries and do go too far outside of what you are expected to do. If your visitors have an emotional connection to your product, keep in mind changes can lead to an emotional response. Don’t forget they won’t be afraid to bring up past indiscretions as well.

Coke has about a billion of the new cans in circulation, so maybe they are hoping no one will notice. Thankfully I didn’t end up with a billion cats.

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!

Toucan play at this game

It’s been a busy couple weeks for graphic design and typography in the news. The thing is, I often miss the news because I’m busy watching baseball and old episodes of Battlestar Galactica, so I appreciate it when IBD readers send links to interesting stories. Here are a few items that landed in my in-box recently.

Maya Archeology Initiative vs. Toucan Sam
Personally, I am tired of Guatemalan nonprofit organizations using scare tactics and lawyers to bully defenseless multi-national food conglomerates. So I was glad to see Kellogg’s defend its signature Toucan Sam against the Maya Archeology Initiative’s logo’s blatant trademark infringement. (In case you can’t tell them apart because they’re so similar, the one on the left above represents an organization devoted to defending Mayan culture, the one on the right is Kellogg’s Toucan Sam.) According to news articles about the case, Kellogg’s objects not only to MAI’s use of a Toucan, but also its use of Mayan imagery, because, it turns out, Kellogg’s uses Mayan imagery, too.

Fight the good fight, Kellogg’s! Before you know it, MAI (which was *this close* to stealing the acronym of the association I work for) will be spelling fruit with two Os and trying to pass off high-fructose-corn-syrup styrofoam balls as cereal, just like you do.

Thanks to Friend of IBD Kirk Mona who alerted us on Twitter to this story on Forbes.com, and my co-worker Jamie King, who sent a link to this story on TechDirt.

A Book About Type
This story from NPR, sent to us by Friends of IBD Jeff Miller and Brent Erb, uses the words Font and Type in its headline, so it was pretty much guaranteed that I was going to hear about it.

The article is about a new book called Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield. (Simon is the really talented part of this author’s name. Garfield is just riding Simon’s coattails.) The book is about the history, trends, and cultural impact of certain fonts, and it is on my Amazon wish list.

Ahem.

Titling Gothic
New York City’s Central Park, a large urban nature area named after a coffee shop in the TV show “Friends,” made the news recently when it debuted its new identity on more than 1,500 signs (seen above in a New York Times photo by David W. Dunlap). And when it did, Friends of IBD Adrianne Johnson and Bob Brzuszek let us know about this article on the New York Times blog.

The new identity features a palette of warm green with red highlights, a heavy dose of pictograms, and a typeface called Titling Gothic. The story quotes the typeface’s designer, David Berlow of the Boston-based Font Bureau as saying, “None of the styles of Titling Gothic exude the kind of authoritarian insistence of Helvetica, which I’m sure was considered in the selection process.”

I love this for all sorts of reasons. I love the discussion of the nuances of type, the carefully considered decision-making process, and that New York City had to go all the way to the home of the hated Red Sox to find a type foundry with just the right typeface for their park.

Thanks to everyone who sends these stories! I’ll make you a deal: If you keep sending current, relevant news items, I will keep you apprised of developments in six-year-old episodes of Battlestar Galactica as I watch them.

Risking a Reward

Who doesn’t like roller derby? There is something great about a sport that involves wheels, pseudonyms, helmets, and a position called the “the jammer.” Over the last few years there has been a growing interest in amateur leagues, primarily made up of women. The positive community along with the empowerment that comes through participation have led to its popularity.

I remember growing up in Memphis (the home of professional wrestling, Elvis, and fried fruit) where roller derby was a part of Saturday morning programming (which I enjoyed while wearing my rhinestone jumpsuit and eating fried bananas). At the time I’m sure I was drawn by the risqué nature of the spectacle (along with the spandex) but beyond that, the part I liked the most was the amount of risk involved.

I was reminded of roller derby this week when the University of Maryland unveiled its new football uniforms. I have always been fond of Maryland, based on their mascot alone, the Terrapin. They are most commonly referred to as the Terps. Sports channels, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and news outlets all went crazy about how ugly there were. (I found it odd that these media outlets weren’t going crazy that college football ends in the equivalent of a beauty contest selection — which is what BCS stands for, right?)

The Terps took a risk with the new uniform design, which is loosely based on the Maryland flag. Ugly to say the least, current trends in college football uniforms continue to push the envelope. While reading people’s reactions to the uniforms, I came across an article on NBC Sports online that accused Maryland of ripping off the uniforms from the Charm City Roller Girls’ All-Stars team. The team’s captain, Hillary Rosensteel, whose roller nickname is “Rosie the Rioter,” was quoted in the article saying that the helmets are “not identical, but they’re shockingly similar.” Perhaps Rosie should be playing for the Terps.

I agree with Rosie (as if I had a choice, because I would otherwise be scared that she would roll up in my driveway and hip check me when I least expect it), they are remarkably similar. After Maryland unveiled its uniforms, Paul and I shared a link about the uniforms on the IBD Facbook page.

In that comment thread, one of our regular readers Matthew Greuel made the comment “But seriously…I think there’s a discussion to be had about the degree of, shall we say, adventurousness, one can use in interpretive design. How far can one push boundaries? What makes it work or not?”

I wish I knew the answer to those questions, so that this blog wouldn’t be filled with a “joke every five words” and so that those who come “here for educational purposes” don’t have to read about “our eighth grade bus driver.” (Sorry that was a little venting related to an unusually angry comment that was left recently on another IBD post.) Matthew and Katelynn Joleen make some good points.

Here’s my take.

As with most things in life that involve risk, you have to look at the risk-to-reward ratio. (You are right, I have no business talking about anything related to math. Standby.) Risk can be great if it reaps great rewards.

This may be part to the thought process behind Maryland’s new uniforms. They are not a very good team and are traditionally known as a basketball school. Perhaps, the buzz created around the uniforms was the goal itself, in order to draw attention to the program, in turn attracting recruits. (This is a departure from their previous attempts of simply paying players.) It could also be connected to their key sponsor, Under Armour, with the “any publicity is good publicity approach.” I think the mistake that they made is taking something traditionally respected, the state’s flag, and garishly transformed it into an athletic costume of sorts.

In interpretive design you can also consider the risk-to-reward ratio. If the design of a new product inhibits its use, the risk doesn’t reward the investment. I have seen some beautifully designed products whose form is cumbersome or confusing. If the goal is to have visitors use a product, read an exhibit, or come back to a website, it is good to stick to tried and tested rules. That doesn’t mean you can’t add an unexpected element. It is all about your hierarchy. Remember you want them to remember the theme, not an element that took them by surprise.

If you are going to take that risk, be careful with elements of the design/program/site/mission that are traditionally viewed one way. This is where I think Maryland went too far with the flag. If they had taken the school colors or small elements of the flag and amplified them or pushed the color palette with new combinations it may have created a more widely accepted change.

Remember that interpretive design has a purpose (to aide in communication) separate of that of art (an end in and of itself). When all else fails, make a list of the pros and cons of the risk and see where it stands against the hierarchy. For example the risk of injury to me wearing spandex while on roller skates eliminates my desire to participate in a local roller league.

Tube Socks+

If someone hasn’t told you to stop wearing tall tube socks, do so now. A couple years ago a friend and co-worker, who we’ll call Mary Anne Parker (to protect her identity), told me it was time to ditch what she referred to as “the Ph.D.” socks. She often speaks without filters.

Ankle-high or lower socks are preferred these days. I didn’t realize that I looked like Kareem Abdul Jabbar (legs not to scale) in my socks, and that I had fallen behind in what was acceptable coverings for your feet while still providing support and protection of my shins and calves. It was time for a change. This change was going to be slow considering the lifetime supply of tube socks already existing in my dresser drawers. The transformation is now complete but for some reason (occasional interaction with cowboy boots or alternative footwear that is not conducive ankle socks that will be determined at a later date, I’m sure) I kept a couple pairs of my hip waders around.

In a world of change today it is tough to keep up with what is acceptable, current, or the next big thing. So how do you know when to make that jump? Just this week Google+ was released, and I can’t see myself taking it on right now (on top of multiple email accounts, Facebook, making fun of Paul, Twitter, talking to my wife, texting, a blog, making sure my children are breathing, Words With Friends, and a correspondence course on recognizing prison tats) without it being proven to last or the opportunity that it will improve my live or communication amongst my overloaded outlets.

Since we care about you and don’t want you to be the tube socks of social media, here are a few things that I hear about Google+ that may interest you. The hard part for now is that you have to be invited to become a member. This is a rough start for people like Paul, where this brings up memories of junior high school dances and being picked last at softball a few nights ago. It does sound like it has great potential and takes the best (along with all of the weaknesses) of other social media outlets and rolls it into one application. Here are those details promised above.

Google Circles: First can Google do anything without calling it Google _____? Okay, it’s out of my system. Do you have friends on Facebook who you aren’t sure who they are? The answer is yes. Circles, as I call it, allows you to organize your friends in groups like family, friends, high school, collage, band camp (Paul), and co-workers.

Sparks: Allows you to feature articles on your landing page based on your interests. Ever since my brother burned me with a sparkler in 1984, I stay away from sparks.

Hangouts: Allows you to video chat with friends—a feature that will not be popular with lurkers.

Huddles: Allows you to chat in groups. Imagine a place where all of the readers of this blog could meet in one place and discuss use of their, theirs, there, and there’s. I know this was an underlying purpose in the design phase. I’ll see you there Paul and Jeff.

I also hear that there is great interaction between + and Picasa (an excellent free image editing program offered by Google that will soon be called Google Photos, big surprise huh?). More details, a tour, and images can be seen on Google. From there you can see if + is going to become a part of your life.

This may not surprise you, but I haven’t been invited yet. Perhaps that has something to do with my Yahoo email address.