Why do we collect?

One of these days, I’m going to end up on the TV show Hoarders, grizzled and bleary eyed, sitting in front of a pile of plastic souvenir sundae baseball helmets. I’ll have that distant, agonized look in my eyes that people on that show get, my wife Sheila will be crying in the corner, my kids will be screaming at me to wake up from this nightmare, and I’ll be saying something like, “I know no one understands, but the collection just wasn’t complete without that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet.”

My entire life, I have collected—everything from typical items like baseball cards and ticket stubs to odder things like lost pet flyers and yard sale signs. (This past Christmas, my seven-year-old son inherited my decades-old collection of the first 62 Choose Your Own Adventure books, pictured here.) I have always had a tendency to be what I think of as “goal-oriented,” and what my wife thinks of as “obsessive-compulsive.” When I focus on one of these collections, it’s hard for me to think about much else, such as family or hygiene.

Recently, I have been scouring eBay for the plastic souvenir sundae helmets they sell at Major League Baseball games. At first glance, you might think, “There are 30 teams, so there are 30 helmets. That’s not so bad.” But when you think about the fact that many teams have changed logos and colors several times (the Arizona Diamondbacks do it about every six months), and many have alternate identities, the possibilities are limitless. (It makes me twitch when I think that I have to wait several months before I can get my hands on the new helmets that the Miami Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles will be selling in the 2012 season.)

People who write about the psychology of collecting say that collectors do what they do for a connection to the past, to rekindle fond memories, and to achieve a sense of completion, among other reasons. An article on the website HorizonLines.org cites author Kim A. Herzinger on the subject:

Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs. It functions as a form of wish fulfillment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.

I did not realize that I was easing existential dread when I ordered that retro Milwaukee Brewers helmet on eBay, but if that’s all it takes, then I’m in good shape. These helmets appeal to me as a designer because I like logos. They appeal to me as a baseball fan for obvious reasons. They appeal to me as a consumer because they are plastic junk. And they appeal to me as a childish knucklehead because it’s fun to see how high I can stack them.

With all of this as background, I had resigned myself to the fact that I’m crazy until I read Tim Merriman’s recent post on the NAI blog, “The Collector Within Each of Us.” Tim writes about the importance of properly interpreting museum collections—telling stories and making connections rather than simply displaying a bunch of stuff. It made me realize that the small space my wife has allowed me in our kitchen cabinets for my helmets is my own personal baseball museum.

The helmets are conversation pieces when we have guests. The blue Expos helmet prompts stories about when, as newlyweds, Sheila and I moved to Montreal; the Cubs helmet almost always leads to stories about the time Shea and I ditched our respective wives and children in Chicago to make a pilgrimage to Wrigley field; and yes, that 1997 Tampa Bay Devil Rays helmet that’s going to get me featured on Hoarders prompts stories about time spent with friends in St. Petersburg.

And because the whole point of the tiny baseball museum in my kitchen—as it should be with all interpretive sites—is to be relevant to my visitors, I make it a point to serve ice cream to my guests in their favorite team’s helmet (and if they don’t have a favorite team, then I don’t want them in my house).

In anticipation of Shea’s next visit, I have a Yankees helmet at the ready, which I procured on a visit to the old Yankee Stadium in the late 1990s. And I have some stories to tell about that day.

Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.

Blogging: Not Just for Aging Sci-fi Fans Anymore

With the World Series effectively over, we now resume our regularly scheduled posts.

A person of Walmart as seen on the People of Walmart blogWhen we launched this site back in March, we asked the question, “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” The Internet is already saturated with the unsolicited opinions of countless middle-aged nerds living in their parents’ basements. Blogging has given us everything from sites like People of Walmart, in which Walmart shoppers make fun of other Walmart shoppers (pictured here), to more useful special-interest sites like Cloud 9 Organize & Redesign, which offers budget-friendly interior-design advice, just to name two of the countless examples out there.

The software that drives many blogs, including this one, is called WordPress. It makes it possible for people who don’t design websites to create and maintain their own online presence. During the Enlightenment, this would have been like giving every individual a printing press and an unlimited supply of paper. Seventeenth-century streets would have been littered with scraps of paper with comments like “René Descartes thinks therefore he’s an idiot” and “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace made me want to throw up my fig pudding.”

One interesting feature of WordPress is that it allows us to see how some Internet users arrive at IBD (which, for the benefit of my wife Sheila, stands for “Interpretation By Design”). We can see what browsers and operating systems our readers are using, the web page that referred them here, the pages that they viewed on this site, and even where those people are physically located. (At the time of this writing, we’ve had readers from the USA, Ukraine, Thailand, Brazil, and Canada in the last six hours.)

Admittedly, this is creepy.

Possibly the creepiest thing we can do is see what search terms Internet users have searched to reach our site. So all of you people in Parkin, Arkansas, who search the term “Shea Lewis” three times a day, we’re on to you. So far, my favorite search term that has landed someone on this site is “can you wear sweatpants to a museum.” I hope that person eventually found some guidance on the issue.

Some other recent search terms and the pages to which readers were referred include:

So this is the world of the Internet these days. Shea uses fashion as an analogy for breaking out of his interpretive comfort zone and this site starts getting visits from people too cheap to buy their own sweat pants or too skinny to find sweat pants that don’t fall down.

On the other hand, blogs significantly broaden the ability of organizations to inexpensively and regularly reach a worldwide audience. The National Association for Interpretation maintains five different blogs (listed under “NAI Blogs” in the sidebar on this site). None of these blogs can quite match the popularity of People of Walmart, which once crashed its server after receiving 2.6 million hits in one day. But NAI’s sites offer a great way for InterpPress authors and NAI leaders to share thoughts, ideas, and information that you will not find on NAI’s traditional website, InterpNet.

I especially encourage interpreters at small sites like community nature centers, historic sites, or museums to maintain blogs. You may find a whole new market of visitors and supporters you never knew were there. And more importantly, they may find you.

I recommend that you add content at least weekly, write seasonal or topical posts, promote the site in your newsletter and on your traditional website, and mention sweat pants a lot.

Chicago Reprise

Just when you thought that you had heard enough about the Lewis/Caputo vacation to Chicago, I go and drop this post. I will do my best to avoid direct references to pizza and sausage since we are now in a post-sleeved-meat detox (which began on Monday), as appropriately coined by Paul’s wife Sheila. The Lipitortinis have really helped with the cleansing process.

Much like Paul’s “Live from Chicago” post, Observations: Type on a Curve, Which Way Goes the Dollar?, Proud to Be an American Cubs Fan, and One Creepy Bear, I had a few additional observations that I wanted to share with you.

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DSC02921Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago: Our experienced guide brought about the element of discovery to us like no other tour I have ever been on. She also brought lots of cookies and lemonade. Her passion allowed her to transfer a boatload of information into an interpretive experience. It was a very tourist thing to do in Chicago but the guide transformed it from a touris trap into a memorable experience. Of course the skyline was great participant as well. Despite what you see here, the tour was great.

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An alternative to Papyrus: Paul is to Comic Sans as Shea is to Papyrus. I have a sick obsession with Papyrus and in Chicago finding Papyrus was as difficult as finding a place serving New York style pizza (sorry pizza reference). I only found it in two places. We did find an interesting Papyrus-esqe type at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Paul and I discussed that on the initial design drafts Papyrus was likely used but a great design decision was made switching to this organic type.

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Sky Deck Logo: We write about logos often and here’s an interesting one. The jury is still out on it for me. What do you think about it?

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Here’s a picture of my daughters on the sky deck.

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Zookeeper Note: I love the function of this simple sign. Suction cups allow it to be easily moved and updated. It also allows for it to be re-hung upside down and possibly stolen (not that a thought like that would cross the minds of two design geeks). The message is timely, appropriate and cute. And what’s not cute about breeding hippos. The aggressive element to me was not the message but the over-centering.

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Sense of place at Wrigley Field: Visitors come to interpretive sites because they are special places. Simple things can be done to make a site special or unique. The flags flying atop the scoreboard at Wrigley Field are a simple element that make it a special place. In today’s world of jumbo-trons and high-tech, high-definition, super scoreboards the Wrigley board stands out as unique, providing visitors to the park with a nostalgic feel. The flags serve a purpose as well. Each series of flags represent the divisions of the National League. The flags for each team also fly in order, from top to bottom, representing the current standings within the division.You will notice (and to avoid an additional comment from Paul) the NL East division (on the far right of the board) has the flag of the Philadelphia Phillies flying on top.

It is undetermined if the Caputos and Lewis families will ever be together in full force again. Perhaps if our wives read this blog, they could answer that question for us. Until then like gravity it will remain a mystery.

It has been determined that I will never be allowed to own an iPhone.