A Moment, Captured

The top four moments in my life—and I am careful not to rank these in any particular order—are my wedding day, the birth of each of my two children, and the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. For each of these moments, there is an emblematic photograph—an official wedding portrait by a river in the Colorado mountains almost 10 years ago, hospital-sanctioned portraits of the grotesque, misshapen heads of my newborn children (they’re much cuter now), and Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge on his knees at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia with his hands raised to the heavens as a city celebrates around him.

Really good photographs are like interpretive presentations. They capture our interest, tell an engaging story, and invite us to investigate further. My Japanese friend Masanori Shintani recently shared the above photograph of his daughter Aina with me. At first, it looked like a nice vacation photo, and the idyllic location—El Nido beach in the Philippines—is certainly somewhere I’d like to go. My interest was captured by the composition—the rule of thirds has been used effectively, the calming blue-green color palette is punctuated with bright warm colors—and the story it tells, of a gleeful child running along the beach, is uplifting. But it was the further investigation that turned the meaning of this image on its head (so to speak).

You don’t have to look long before you realize that there’s a rope that attaches the small blue and white boat in the image to some unseen anchor on the shore. Aina, running at full speed, has cleared the rope with her right foot, but her left foot is planted perilously in the sand underneath it. The way Masa tells the story, a split second after this photograph was taken, his daughter face-planted in the sand. (He laments not having an “after” picture, but his daddy mode kicked in and he ran to tend to his daughter.)

Suddenly, as I was looking at it, this image went from being a nice vacation photo to being packed with the energy of the moment to come. It stands on the razor-thin precipice between the glee of a playing child and the thump of a face on wet sand. It’s filled with conflict—you can practically feel the tropical breeze and the lulling motion of the anchored boats, but there’s a visceral reaction to the realization that this happy moment will end with a wet slap.

The real power of the image isn’t revealed until you discover the story behind it.

Unfortunately, photography can be used to disguise truths rather than reveal them. A story on CNN, ‘The sexy lady’ and other hotel photo tricks, shows how hotels use unscrupulous photography (and Photoshop) techniques and unrealistic-looking models to lure travelers. For some reason, I am on the email list for the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, which uses the attractive model technique to advertise its pool. My own experience is that the Luxor pool feels more like a Tony Siragusa family reunion than the natural habitat for exotic models.

I am usually distrustful of photographs, if for no other reason than that people tell me that I look like Clay Aiken in my photo on the back of IBD (the book), and I know for a fact that I look like a cross between Ted Koppel and Howdy Doody. (Besides, I look nothing like Clay Aiken; he’s wearing a suit, and he parts his hair on the other side of his head.)

However, photographs can be powerful interpretive tools, used to create impact and emotional connections. And like all forms of communication, any photograph that draws viewers in and communicates on multiple levels, as the photo of Aina above did with me, can be considered successful.

Just be sure you’re using photography for good rather than evil.

Real Men Wear Purple

In one of the slowest responses since the inception of the internet and the concept of blogging, this post serves as a response to a comment/question posed by IBD friend Kelly Farrell. She made the comment on December 14, 2009, at 10:04 AM on the post Obnoxious Use of Color.

Yes, I know 2009 was last year. I am trying to think of a valid excuse of why it has taken us (uh, me) so long to get around to responding but I’ve got nothing. In the five months that I bypassed the content of this post, I focused my energy on the important nature, valuable content, and timely information put into other posts for our readers.

Posts on Catfish and Spaghetti, Baseball Opening Day, Unicorn Punching, Chex Party Mix, and Star Wars Stamps all seemed more important at the time. Now with hindsight, I should have written this post a long time ago. Emily, if you are still reading I still have your question stored in the IBD archives (a shoe box underneath my bed that also includes DVDs of the 2008 and 2009 World Series as well as a pristine collection of rub-off letters set in Helvetica, to be preserved in the event of the end of the world), and we (uh, I) should get around to your question soon (and by soon I mean within the calendar year). Kelly, I have actually spent the last five months researching this topic. Okay, I know you aren’t buying that one.

Here’s the comment/question from Kelly: “Can we get further IBD commentary on not only the use but the naming of colors to further an image or attitude? Words add so many layers of meaning to the perception of a color, e.g. Texas orange is “burnt” and Oklahoma haughtily insists their red and white is truly “crimson and cream.” Understanding how words and images and colors and meanings mix is at the heart of understanding interpretation.”

Note from editor: Shea is going to divide this into two posts, Real Men Wear Purple and a post that will appear between now and the end of the world on color names.

I love women who like to talk sports and sports teams’ colors with me—or talk to me at all. The answer to your first question is yes. Okay this was easier than I thought. My work is done.

I should elaborate. I really love women who like to talk sports and sports teams’ colors with me or at all.

In most cases the color associated with a team has been related to the team’s history. When most of those colors were assigned years and years ago the selection process was much different from that of a sports team going through the selection process today. Over time, emotional connections were built between the traditional colors and fans, leading to many of the nicknames or other associated elements. With teams such as the University of Texas’ burnt orange or Oklahoma’s crimson and cream the proper use of those specific colors comes down to identity.

According to Wikipedia, burnt orange has been a common name for that shade of orange since 1915 but the school was established in 1883. After an exhaustive search (okay, a Google search), I couldn’t find any data that explained when the University of Texas began using burnt orange or calling their shade burnt. It may just have been a trendy color at that time. There is no changing of either of those team’s colors now because of the tradition that has been established. But who really pays attention to college football anyway?

In some of the less traditionally steeped teams, like the Philadelphia Phillies, it is interesting to see teams change color schemes with current trends. The Phillies fell into this category when they changed to trendy 1980s  colors such as Black-eye Burgundy and Schmidt Sky Blue to eventually change back to more conservative traditional colors like red, white, and blue.

Expansion teams of Major League Baseball in the 1990s displayed a different approach. At the time the expansion teams wanted to stand out as being different and modern from the existing teams. So, the new teams went with the trendy colors at that time. You may have to think about how different things were back then to understand this approach with Beverly Hills 90210 on the entire decade, Jennifer Aniston’s hair being a hot topic and people still liking Tiger Woods.

In 1993 the Florida Marlins (black, teal, silver, and white) and the Colorado Rockies (black, purple, silver, and white) became major league franchises despite their connection to the National League. In 1998 the Arizona Diamondbacks (purple, teal, black, and white) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (navy, Columbia Blue, white, and gold) came on board. All four teams had similar color palettes that represent the 90s. This was the baseball equivalent of choosing avocado green or harvest gold for the teams. In an attempt to stand out, each team had similar colors that were more representative of the era than the teams.

If you are having trouble picturing uniforms in these colors think about any episode to Saved by the Bell and you should be able to envision how they were being used. Since the establishment of these teams, there has been a shift away from the teal, blue, and purple elements with focus put on the less 90s colors. This shift has taken place in their logos, uniforms, and resale apparel.

The primary reason for the change is that most men (Paul excluded) won’t wear teal or purple. The Arizona Diamondbacks have now changed their team colors to Sedona Red, black, Sonoran Sand, and white. I think this was a smart move despite how many other MLB teams have red as a primary team color. Of course they are not just sporting red, it is Sedona Red. Interesting sidebar (to Paul and me), there have been name changes too. The Diamondbacks now also call themselves the D-Backs and the Devil Rays are now just the Rays.

So what does this have to do with interpretation of interpretive design? (Assuming that there are still any interpreters, or anyone for that matter still reading this post.) Is has to do with everything posed in your comment. “Understanding how words and images and colors and meanings mix is at the heart of understanding interpretation.” Colors carry meaning. While some have written songs about colors, gangs have killed over them. Sports fans find meanings and connections through rooting for their team. Wearing the colors, logos, and apparel of that team makes them part of a community. We can apply these principles to quality interpretive design and branding of our interpretive centers to help visitors better connect and feel as if they are a part of the mission.

I would just stay away from maroon and baby blue.

What’s Your Sign?

I’m obsessed with email. Each day is an adventure in and of itself to see what the inbox holds and to see what friends have sent me. By friends I mean Paul. I have gotten used to his personal passion to document every known use of Papyrus in pixels and chastise me with it. That’s what friends are for right? This is the most recent version from Sea World in Orlando.

I also have a sick circle of friends who send me post cards from exotic places like Australia and North Carolina filled with beautiful images and messages set in Papyrus. And by circle of friends I mean the Caputos. Sheila Caputo may not actually consider me a friend but Joel and Maya do.  This is the most recent version from Australia, obviously they have the same default fonts even down under.

Ever since the inception of IBD way back in 2009 the friends, readers, interpreters, and complainers began sending us photos of signs, exhibits, and other design related products that caught them off guard or that they found interesting. The images illustrate the good, bad, and ugly approaches to design and communication. At the very least they may make you think about design decisions you make and sometimes laugh.

I was reminded of this after reading Paul’s second post from Australia and seeing the picture that he posted of the Australian bias against schnauzers it reminded me of a photo that a friend of IBD had sent me that displayed a similar bias against schnauzers (specifically those defecating) from Belgium. 

Perhaps this anger towards schnauzers is more than just a southern hemisphere problem.

As  I was looking though the IBD archives (a shoe box underneath my bed that also includes DVDs of the 2008 and 2009 World Series as well as a pristine collection of rub off letters set in Helvetica, to be preserved in the event of the end of the world), I came across several other images that had been emailed to me in the last few months that are worth sharing. Six images I could not post. The person responsible for sending those images and any associated text messages (you know who you are) please keep those to yourself in the future.

Here are few worth sharing…

I’m constantly searching for signs that have a unique way of saying something like “it’s air conditioned in here” without saying “it’s air conditioned in here.”

Who says signs have to be square or fit in a box? I normally do, but in this case the shape speaks volumes about the animal.

Most would agree that Disney is successful at most approaches to communication. These signs were posted in areas under construction in Epcot to remind you of their vision and to distract you from the box that is hiding something cool that you are missing out on.

I saw these same signs in the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom too. They were all designed with custom backgrounds and typefaces. These being located in Epcot led to the Tron-like typeface being used.

This sign is cool for one reason only and only to me.

Some signs really give you a feeling for what a place is going to be like. Since I’ve never been to Hawaii and I need that feeling. The color combinations, type, and image in this sign all work well together inviting you in. I also like claims to fame.

This sign echoes elements of the memorial. I’m not sure I could handle the feelings a visit to this site could evoke.

I would steal this sign if I was still in high school. In some ways just making a public statement like that reveals that I’m still in high school, mentally. And by steal I mean borrow. Photographer, thank you for risking bodily harm for this image. It was so worth it.

This sign says if you are lost and need a safe place to go, come in here and accept a hug from this alien (the eye sticker was most likely applied by the person who sent me this picture, who shall remain nameless, and who lives in Maryland).

Despite the maintenance needed, this is a great sign with a powerful message that makes visitors think.

Keep the pictures coming except from those being blocked by my filters, require vandalism, and from Paul.

Get A Grip: Interpreting Baseball

This is a big week for Paul and me. We are celebrating the return of baseball! (I seldom use exclamation points, but in this case it is worthy.) I love new beginnings. For me, a New York Yankees fan, the start of this season comes off a World Championship, in an awesome new stadium, setting the stage for years to come. For Paul, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, the season marks an opportunity to meet the Yankees in the World Series and fall short yet again. So, how can I write about baseball for a second time in one week without ostracizing our audience with another baseball-related post? I should have asked this same question prior to posts on Star Wars, NASCAR, and Walmart but I didn’t.

Baseball is in my blood. My grandfather was a huge New York Yankees fan, which led to my love of the Yankees despite the distance from Yankee Stadium to my house (1144.26 miles to be exact, just to save Paul the trouble of researching it for the comments section). With satellite television, he never missed a game. As I grew up, keeping up with the Yankees was an important part of staying close with my grandfather. I kept up with the smallest details of players, statistics, and games to converse with him and hopefully add something insightful to the conversation. I never got one up on him.

He was a talented athlete as a child, adult, and even later in life. I never have been. I remember the disappointment in his eyes when he took me to purchase my first real baseball glove and I wanted the pink one. I also remember seeing the disappointment after he attended one of my peewee baseball games and realized that I was going to be better suited for playing Super Mario Brothers. I played in the catcher position not because of my throwing or catching ability but because I served as the best backstop. My husky disposition was effective at stopping balls especially when I closed my eyes after each pitch.

One of the greatest memories that I have of me and my grandfather came years after peewee baseball when he taught me how to throw a knuckle ball. Again I was playing catcher. The knuckle ball is a remarkable combination of skill and physics. Much like the great New York Yankee manager Joe Torre said, “You don’t catch a knuckle ball, you defend against it.” I still couldn’t catch; at least I could blame the knuckle ball this time around. He never let these details get in the way of our personal relationship or our relationship with the game. The great thing about baseball is that anyone can be a spectator and I’ve got that position covered.

The more you learn about baseball, the more you want to know. I was excited to see an exhibit in the Museum of Westward Expansion, a part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, more commonly known as The Arch. St. Louis is a great baseball town and the exhibit “Baseball’s Gateway to the West” was a welcoming sight to me. The exhibit immediately caught my attention. A portion of the exhibit that I had a hard time walking away from reminded me of my grandfather teaching me to throw a knuckle ball. The simple exhibit was a creative tactile approach for explaining the various grips of types of pitches. St. Louis entrepreneur Ted Kennedy created a mail-order correspondence-type course for learning various baseball techniques. Taking on the topic in some other way would have otherwise been too complicated to explain in text and graphics wouldn’t have provided this type of experience.

As you can see, baseballs are attached to self retracting lanyards that are embossed with a “T” for your thumb and two other spots for index and middle fingers. I’ve seen explanations of various pitching techniques written and on television, but this approach brought it home. This is the next best thing from having Ted Kennedy or your grandfather teaching you. As with most interpretive experiences, personal interpretation is preferred for effectiveness and non-personal approaches run a close second.

The other portion of the exhibit that I found interesting was about the St. Louis invention of the Knot Hole Gang. The Knot Hole Gang got its name from not having tickets to the games and watching what could be seen through knot holes in the fence. The Cardinals created, as a bonus to their stockholders, the first Knot Hole Gang where tickets were handed down to children to attend games.

The designers of this portion of the exhibit took an interesting approach to interpreting the story. Instead of just graphically re-creating a fence in the compressed laminate, actual fence boards were used to make a fence complete with knot holes. When you peer through the hole you see a historic picture of a game in progress.

For a moment, I relived parts of the 1928 World Series where Babe Ruth went 10 for 16 and the Yankees swept the Cardinals. I could have relived the 1926 World Series, where the Cardinals beat the Yankees in an effort to develop empathy for Paul and the 2009 World Series, but I decided that it would be too painful.

Both of these concepts remind me that the thought, design, and innovation to interpret the story doesn’t always require a high-tech, sophisticated approach to be effective. Oh yeah, one doesn’t have to live near New York to be fan of the Yankees, a pink glove is okay for a boy, and you don’t have to be athletic to be a spectator.

One Year of Interpretation By Design: What Have We Learned?


Photo by Michael Lorenzo

One year ago today, we asked the question “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” and with that, the Interpretation By Design blog was born. We have yet to achieve our stated goal of eradicating the world of clip art and Comic Sans, nor have we overthrown all world governments in order to impose our own merciless rule. But we have enjoyed the opportunity to dialogue with and learn from readers, as well as to rant incoherently about whatever random thought pops into our heads every Monday and Thursday.

We have gotten to brag about our respective favorite baseball teams winning the World Series (the Phillies earned their title in 2008; the Yankees purchased theirs in 2009). We have discussed design pet peeves (drop caps for me, the typeface Papyrus for Shea), and we have revealed our deepest, darkest secrets (I used to work in TV news, Shea likes Walmart).

We have learned (to our surprise) that our readers are passionate about grammatical and typographic minutiae like the difference between less and fewer and whether to single space or double space after a period—and whether they’re setting that type on a Mac or PC.

We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to use the phrase “Friend of IBD” often, not to mention that our respective marriages are still intact even after our families vacationed together during a blog-intensive week in Chicago last August. We’ve enjoyed (nearly) all of the comments that readers have left (even the one telling me that “life is too short” and that I should “get over it” in my post about drop caps).

In that first post exactly a year ago today, I wrote, “We don’t want your Social Security number, credit card information, or first-born child. You don’t even need a username or password. All you need is an interest in interpretation and/or graphic design and a moment to share your thoughts with us.”

Quiet sign on the road to Hana1Since then, we’ve enjoyed interacting with readers, especially when you send entertaining links and photos like this one from Friends of IBD Lori Spencer and Don Simons, who wrote after a trip to Hawaii, “Hi guys, You’ve got us noticing signs now.”

And that’s really what IBD is about. We know we’re never going to shut down a server because one of our posts goes viral on the Internet, but we hope to have found a niche of readers who find beauty in the quirky, who care about type and design, and who enjoy the way our natural and cultural heritage is presented visually at interpretive sites. We write this blog because we enjoy discussing interpretation and design. (If we didn’t have the blog, we’d probably end up writing all of the same content in emails to one another, only probably with even more snarky baseball-related comments, so it’s best for our mental health that we do have the blog.)

If we have changed the way you look at the world—noticing worn-down signs while others might be soaking in a beautiful rainforest or seascape, wondering whether a specific typeface was appropriate while others enjoy the content of an interpretive exhibit, or cringing at the use of a double space after a period while others read happily along without a care in the world—then our job is done, and we are truly sorry.

And finally, an announcement: For the next year, Shea and I will use the typeface Helvetica every day until a major Hollywood studio makes a movie about us called Shea and Paul and Max and Eduard. The movie will span seven decades and tell the parallel, touching stories of the creation of the typeface and our use of it. Shea will be played by Meryl Streep.

I Heart Rejection

This may be the saddest pre-Valentine’s day post in the history of blogging. If there is one topic that I feel comfortable writing about, it’s dealing with rejection. I could have taken this pre-Valentine’s Day opportunity to write about the things that Paul and I love (Helvetica, baseball, and sausage), what designers do on Valentine’s Day (talk about Helvetica, re-watch the 2008/2009 World Series on their respective DVRs, and eat copious amounts of sausage alone), highlight a cutesy design-related item for your sweetie, or write about the opposite of everything that Valentine’s Day stands for.

I could insert one of the many stories from my past highlighting moments of rejection that led to me being found in a fetal position in the corner of my room days later, but would that be healthy? It could be.

In high school, I was really bad in math, and by really bad I mean that I still count on my fingers while figuring a tip at restaurants. Algebra 2 was going to be the end of me, and based on my first attempt at the ACT, it was going to be the end of my parents’ dream of me going to med school (or to college for that matter). In an attempt to improve my Algebra 2 standings, I secured the assistance of a friend and tutor. If you have ever seen any after-school special or any episode of Saved by the Bell, you know where this is going.

How much she helped me with the Algebra 2, I really don’t remember. I do remember developing a crush on her. Being concerned about Algebra 2 and the need to spend time with her, I was persistent (persistent at asking her out). Much like the algebra we were working on, she was effective at reducing the frequency of the common denominator in our equation. (Note: I just exhausted every bit of math knowledge that I have in that last sentence.) For the non-math types, I was the common denominator. We never made it out beyond a school function or trip to the library, which was pretty good for me. We remained “friends” through high school.

Several years ago I heard about my tutor in the news. She had made quite a name for herself as a blogger (www.dooce.com), gaining national recognition. (Aside: Paul and I have yet to receive the same recognition or notoriety for this blog. Matt Lauer should be calling any time.) I was excited to hear about her success as a blogging-designer mommy and decided to take the opportunity to say hello and catch up. I sent her two emails, and much like my previous advances, I received no response. Rejected again.

meYesterday I was watching Home and Garden Television (I just recently discovered other channels on our TV besides ESPN and MTV) and saw a commercial featuring their new correspondent Heather Armstrong, my tutor, who is obviously continuing to do well for herself. I immediately went to the HGTV website to find out about her new role, and that she now has 1.6 million followers on Twitter (I have 24), and she now has 7,046 fans on her Facebook fan page (we have 340). I am pleased with her success and wish her well.

If you haven’t read her blog you should. Maybe in between reading the 500 comments that her blog gets each day she will catch word of this post and contact me.

In the meantime I’ll be reading the 10-15 emails I get from Paul each day and refreshing my email inbox every three minutes until I hear from her. What else do I have to do? Oh yeah, finish this blog post, watch Sponge Bob Square Pants with my three kids, and pretend like I’m listening intently to my wife all while clicking on the check mail button every three minutes. I deal well with rejection.

Okay, I’m off the couch. When you are working in the field of interpretive design you have to get used to being rejected from time to time. Even the day before yesterday, I received a comment that a certain element of a logo that I was working on was “inventive, though the genius of that decision will likely not be appreciated until long after your death.” The really sad part was that comment was from Paul.

Let’s face it, in most cases gaining approval or receiving a review is a painful process. We are the designers/creators and we know what’s best, right? We don’t want a bunch of wannabes/control-freaks/know-it-alls telling us what our work should look like, right? If I want to eat cereal for dinner and feed it to my children I can do it, right? Whether we are dealing with a logo or a new program as an interpretive designer, we put ourselves out there for interpretation. When you put your heart and soul into your work it can be difficult when it gets shot down or torn apart by folks who are less connected to the process. It can hurt.

So what can you and I do about it? Above all else make sure you can articulate your decisions. It is easy to be critical of something that has nothing backing it up. If you chose a typeface or PowerPoint background that gets challenged or ripped, make sure that you have a reason for choosing it and that you can clearly explain why you chose it and how it is connected to the overall theme and program. If you respond to a question or comment about your decision and you respond with “I thought it looked pretty” be prepared to be ripped. If you respond by saying “I carefully considered the use of a light gray sans serif type to be easily read on the screen when projected against the background that includes hues from the natural environment” you may have more solid ground to stand on. For many, the decisions we make are good and are intuitive but we don’t think about how we would defend our choices if asked. Be prepared to make your case and convince others of what you did. It will also help you make better choices.

You should be prepared with alternatives. This is my favorite approach. You have to realize that people look at things differently based on what prior knowledge that they bring to the table. With this mind you should have options that may appeal to multiple approaches and styles. I am also one of those who likes to include a “sleeper.” This doesn’t involve the use of any animal tranquilizers.

If I email out a proof for review or comments, I don’t give away which one I like the best and I never provide it as the lead option. That way when those reviewing the item see it, you can get honest feedback from them, and it allows them to discover the best option, that you created and intended for them to like in the first place. With that being said, you shouldn’t provide the sabotage approach by providing one great version and two alternative versions that look like Screech created them. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Saved by the Bell is just good television.

Get to know your boundaries. Most of us have to answer to someone. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a boss. That doesn’t mean you have to sell yourself out trying to make someone happy. When working through the creative process know what elements are important to you and which are less important. This will help you keep an open mind to suggestions or changes along with keeping you focused on the end goal, completion.

Has it been three minutes? I’ve got to go check my email.

For those that came here today looking for that Valentine’s Day post highlighting a cutesy design-related item for your sweetie, check out Acme Heartmaker where you can design you own custom message on the well-known Valentine’s Day heart candies. Custom candies can be ordered as well, but since Valentine’s Day is just three days away you may not have time to place an order. But you can create a digital version that you can edit, cut, and paste. Here are a few examples that I would avoid.

Type IBD Kern PMS

Before I get accused of being insenstive…PMS stands for Pantone Matching System.