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12 posts from December 2008

Book Review: Shapes for Sounds by Timothy Donaldson

Cover of Shapes for Sounds by Timothy Donaldson

A is for Aleph. B is for Beit. G is for Gimel...

When I was a child, Hebrew was beaten into me by a series of well-meaning teachers. Upon reflection, they were probably my first foray into hand-lettering type. Sadly, the letters stuck, but comprehension of the words peeled away past my teenage years. I have always had a nagging thought in the back of my head that if I’d seen a clearer historical thread between Hebrew and modern English, I would have better retained the language.

Shapes for Sounds, a lovingly crafted book by Timothy Donaldson and published by Mark Batty, explores the birth and maturation of the Latin alphabet in both written and spoken mediums across the whole of Europe and the Middle East, and so much more. It clearly demonstrates the path from the first recorded alphabets all the way to our native tongue of English through the lens of my first love as a designer: typography.

Read my full review of Shapes for Sounds at The Designer's Review of Books


Is Your Company's Brand a DogCatCow?

Is Your Company's Brand a DogCatCow

The good old metaphor of the blind men and the elephant works in a pinch, but I think it's played out. With the advent of social media, we're sharing enough information about crappy brand experiences that you can see the whole elephant, and you know what? It's not an elephant. Elephants are big, hungry, fast-roaming, vegetarian, and kind of cute. It's more likely a DogCatCow. Today's poorly maintained brands are made of expressive mishmashes of competing behaviors that hide the true wonkiness within confused corporations. If your company barks like a dog, eats like a cow, and scratches at you mercilessly like a cat... then you know something is really wrong.


Texting Your Fridge Was Never Easier

T-Mobile Cameo

We're all abuzz about items that consolidate all of our media-related needs into one hand-held device, such as the iPhone. Or, alternatively, we geek out over those little electronic doodads that just do things more simply. The Flip camcorder comes to mind, capturing 13 percent of the camcorder market within a year.

These two trends are buzzing merrily right along. We drool over devices of both stripes accordingly.

But there was a dearth of coverage this holiday season about a technological doodad that is pointing towards a new trend in our innovation-led technodevice industry. And lord knows you could find it on T-Mobile's Web site -- they don't even feature it online.

Continue reading "Texting Your Fridge Was Never Easier" »


Proper Client Care and Flossing

This Won't Hurt

Some things in life are always painful. Having your teeth cleaned, for example. There's nothing I hate more than being cantilevered back into a squeaky chair and having a dentist spend thirty minutes monkeying with my molars.

Designers often feel the same way about how the delicate dance required to keep clients happy. There was a great ad for Adobe CS2 many years back that showed a photograph of a conference room with the words "Torture Chamber" superimposed upon it in bold white gothic type. Some designers I've met would prefer the dentist's appointment as opposed to the creative concept presentation. But after a few years of being on the front lines in client meetings and dealings, I can tell you that seeing the dentist is way more painful.

Here's what I've gleaned from watching some great account managers at work. And my dentist.

Continue reading "Proper Client Care and Flossing" »


Meditation on an Empty Page

Ice on Greenlake

"White lies on the brim of the image of life, that is, of information, which has soared up out of great chaos. Chaos is like the world and white is like a map, or a figurative representation. Mapping the world, or generating figurative representations, is graphic design. White is the original form of life. I see the original form of my own work as the imagining of white rising to majestic stature from chaotic gray." --Kenya Hara

Heading towards Greenlake on this quiet Sunday morning, my feet continually snap through a thin crust of ice. I am walking on creme brulee.

This is the kind of scene I had imagined and hoped for many times -- six inches of snow in a city best known for coffee and rain. Having moved to Seattle from the East Coast, I was quite used to winter blizzards. Days like these would bring to mind hot chocolate with marshmallows dotting the surface, sledding down the steepest hills possible, long stretches of time free from school.

Sadly, the work must continue, snow day or not. The computer awaits, its ever patient cursor blinking on and off like the light at a railway crossing. Concepts require expression. Visual language must be codified. Stock images hover in the margins, patiently awaiting their entrance onto the stage.

That is why I am out here, a good mile from home, watching robins crowd the trees. They chatter, gulping down berries. In the snowbanks below, black seeds and drops of red juice stain the pure, unbroken snow.


Give It Away Now: Why Some People Willingly Do Spec Work

Pitch That Pitch

Pitching new business. The late nights and weekends slogging through meagre research materials, looking to suss out that little kernel of insight that will inform speculative creative presented in big fancy meetings with a number of prospective clients that are judging everything from your hairstyle, to how you kerned the word "Spoon" in a funky soup ad, to your slight lisp that comes out whenever you get nervous.

We all love to hate it. Pitch and bitch, as the saying goes.

Or do we?

I think there is a ton of dialogue out there about why designers shouldn't do spec work or give away big strategic insights when pitching new business. You need a signed contract. Clients need to respect your process. Working without payment is not professional. We're selling services, not products. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And yet there are plenty of people out there that are willing to do spec creative, deliver game-changing strategy willingly in the pitch, and take part in any number of other questionable activities necessary to land new business.

Just who are you, spec-friendly designer?

Continue reading "Give It Away Now: Why Some People Willingly Do Spec Work" »


Lessons in Arrangement from the To-ji Flea Market

To-ji Flea Market, Kyoto | Pottery and Ceramics Arrangement

The old man crouched on his haunches, lost in thought. As a stream of people flowed past, he reached forward, quietly shifting the placement of varied and sundry antiques on a bright blue blanket: an incense holder, teapots, rice bowls, binoculars, reproductions of classic Zen art on roughly cut wood, books for copying sutras, quartz watches, lacquered boxes, flower vases, and six-inch tall carved figurines meant to represent an African-American blues band.

The To-ji Flea Market happens on the 21st of every month on the grounds of To-ji Temple, about a ten minute walk from the JR Kyoto train station. I wasn't at the market to purchase a memento of our trip. I wanted to observe how these few hundred shopkeepers -- from food stalls to pottery, from old picture scrolls to antique buttons -- displayed and maintained their goods.

Arrangement in Japan is an art unto itself, with its own kind of psychology. Any designer who has dabbled in visual merchandising knows that the specific qualities of an arrangement have a gut-level influence on how we perceive information. A pile of leaves can look peaceful and natural, while a haphazard stack of paper on a messy desk can incite a riot. Both can be shaped by human hands, but a truly great visual stylist is able to infuse even the most mundane objects with a kind of spirit that seems both spontaneous and inevitable.

Continue reading "Lessons in Arrangement from the To-ji Flea Market" »


Avoid the Architect's Fallacy

Home Page

When we talk about the processes necessary to create a very large Web system, it will get technical. And when you're selling a Web system to a client that doesn't understand all things technical, it's tempting to make things simple. Just think of it in real-world terminology, like you're designing and building a house. Draw up the blueprints, hire the builder, pick up the wood from the Home Depot, and hammer it together with some contractors. Sign on the dotted line and we'll get cracking.

Well, that kind of analogy isn't quite appropriate for building complex Web systems, and makes things harder in the long run with a less sophisticated client. Sure, we have our information architecture and our wireframes, our technical briefs and database designs, our UI comps and our testing plans. But if we've done our job well, we haven't made a house. A Web system is an organism. A brochureware site that won't be touched for years is a tract home in Denver.

Please avoid this metaphor in your proposals. It makes it sound like you're just selling them a product. And you aren't.


Coming Soon to a Concept Presentation Near You

Concept: Take One

Like most people, I enjoy watching movie trailers -- and not just because of my love of slick CG graphics and fancy typography. If a trailer looks bad, I've saved two hours of time and ten dollars of my hard-earned money on a film that will probably be terrible.

Clients view concept presentations in the same way. If their company is going to live with a creative idea for a good length of time, then the trailer -- your concept presentation -- has to reel them in from the very beginning. Life's too short for slogging your way through Ishtar on a weekly basis.

Let's put on our director's caps, rustle up some popcorn, and screen some of the tricks we can invigorate our concept presentations, Hollywood style.

Continue reading "Coming Soon to a Concept Presentation Near You" »