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10 posts from October 2008

Spotted in Japan: D-Bros 2009 Creator's Diary

Creators Diary 450px
Creators Diary 450px
Creators Diary Cover

While I was in Japan, I purchased two of these personal diaries at an art museum in Kyoto. The 2009 Creator's Diary -- created by D-Bros, the product design arm of the marketing and advertising firm Draft -- allows creatives to keep up with their day-to-day activities on the top half, while tracking projects from week to week on the bottom half. I especially love how the binding allows you to continue projects without having to "turn a page" or recopy anything -- just keep folding it out!

The photographs here are from the Japanese design boutique Kok-Design. The diary is approximately $29 USD.

How to Escape Brandcuffs

Your Idea

Brandcuffs: Working within a style guide that's so tightly defined, the grid of every brochure must not deviate one millimeter from the provided templates and if you even consider a photo or illustration that doesn't exactly match the provided disc of examples, their branding group will effectively fire you. (I didn't come up with the term... I stumbled across it on Chris Korbey's portfolio site.)

I'm a very big believer in brand guidelines, and spend a lot of time working with clients that have extraordinarily articulate brands that have been around in some form for 20 years or longer. The amusing thing about working with such brands is that client groups within those companies are always asking in meetings for work that skirts along the bounds of the brand in some way they can't articulate with mere words. "Show me something I haven't seen before," is usually the rallying cry.

The trick, in such situations, isn't to throw the brand style guide away and just start dreaming of crazy-cool ideas. You've got to inhale the brand book and the words describing the real brand essence, consume it voraciously, look through examples of what other designers have done with the brand (if any exist). Then, throw it all away and meditate on the real core or spirit of what the client wants to tease out of the brand essence. This is concerted, thoughtful effort. It prepares you for the creative journey.

Continue reading "How to Escape Brandcuffs" »

Time Estimating Essentials for Designers


What do designers hate most? Other than improperly kerned type, being grilled by their superiors about why they went over budget on their time estimates.

Design isn't something that can be easily done on a deadline. Ideas come flying at you in the shower, while you're longboarding down Fremont Ave., and sometimes even while you're in a creative brainstorming meeting. Cut me some slack, all right? This is the way I do my best work. Can I skip out of that meeting about the TPS reports?

Yeah, that line of reasoning flies real high when the agency principal pulls you aside and lets you know that your last few projects have been a drag on agency profitability, and as a team you all need to find ways to keep costs down. Is it even possible to change your working methods and try to fit yourself into the narrow boxes you keep getting handed? Or should you start looking for the kinds of agencies and companies that give you more time to do your projects? (Oh, wait... that last one was a trick question.)

Continue reading "Time Estimating Essentials for Designers" »

The Client as Visual Decorator

Make It Red

If you've ever had a big corporate client, you've probably had the following type of conversation:

Designer: We've used purple in the logo because it connotes royalty, and since our audience is British nobility, we think it'll really resonate on a deep emotional level.

Client: I don't like purple.

Designer: I understand your personal preference towards another color, but our research and review of your competitive landscape reveals a real opportunity to make purple the real differentiator between you and the Goliath Corporation.

Client: Really, every time I see purple, I get violently ill. There's no way I'm looking at this logo every day for the rest of my life [or until I sell my company next week]. Show me more options.

Designer: Er... [looks panicked, locates nearest exit]

You know how this conversation ends. You make the change or you don't progress with the job. Put up too much of a fight and dishes get thrown around the kitchen, threats are made, and usually by the time everyone's gone kissy-face and made-up, the long-term prospects of working with this client are toast because you weren't a good listener.

Continue reading "The Client as Visual Decorator" »

Easy as ABC? Pt. 2 of 2

80 Works for Designers

Being a designer is about continual reinvention. About knowing the range of your talent, and playing to both your strengths and your weaknesses. About promising to create what hasn't been created before, and being comfortable with going through the process over and over again, drawing on the confidence that you will succeed no matter what the obstacles at hand may be.

In every designer's career, there's a point where you can't just rely on your education and your computer skills. A paradigm shift occurs in how you view the design profession. During this transition, you move from developing your hard skills -- software savvy, technical expertise in various artistic mediums such as illustration and photography, methods of hand-printing or coding your work in the appropriate delivery technology -- into a more nebulous space. A place where you're asked to achieve goals instead of tasks. Instead of retouching a photo or improving a logo, you may be standing in front of twenty clients, your knees quaking nervously while you attempt to sell them on why Logo 1A is better than Logo 3C. The client may be asking you for your opinion on subjects that range far from your realm of expertise: proper colors of blouse for the photo shoot, whether mahogany or cedar makes more sense for the bar-top, and whether it's a better idea to spend $100k on a Web site overhaul or just go put some more ads in the local newspaper.

Clearly, you can't learn all of this in design school.

You had to sop it up by listening your teachers share war stories, or seek out bold assignments that gave you a tiny taste of what a real client critique may do to your self-image.

You had to learn it in the real world by watching your bosses do the tap-dance in front of their clients -- and seeing how the clients reacted when work tripped and fell over.

You had to bluff your way through business challenges and unfamiliar design tasks until you'd absorbed enough learnings from your clients to gain the appropriate lingo and the street smarts to keep up, let alone get ahead.


What if you could rewind the clock and go back to school, but when you walked into the classroom, your class resembled something more like the real working world, warts and all? And by the time you were done with that class, you'd know what kind of designer you were going to become?

This is the kind of class I've been developing in my free time. "80 Works for Designers" is a brief, intense seminar crafted to help students and aspiring designers gain broad exposure to a wide range of design disciplines and develop the depth of skills necessary to excel as a working professional. Over several all-too-brief weeks, seminar participants will take part in a dozen projects a week under time constraints that match the pace of most professional creative agencies.

Laced into those assignments are some of the "greatest hits" I've either experienced in school or solicited from teachers and fellow designers. Perhaps you have some you'd like to share?

Here's the one I described at the start of this post:

"Easy as ABC"

Assemble a 26-character alphabet using only found objects. Letters may be documented for presentation to the class through collage, photography, photocopying, digital illustration, and other appropriate mediums. Bonus points will be doled out for punctuation such as ampersands, exclamation points, and the like. You may not merge examples of computer typefaces out in the wild, document elements of existing signage, or pull in anything that may be considered a complete letterform. Your alphabet must be crafted by hand.

Here's another:


A hat is passed around the class. Teams of three students pick out a slip of paper with the name of a major nonprofit organization. For the next class, each team member will be required to bring a redesign of that nonprofit’s Web site home page, including recommendations for use of interactive elements such as video or Flash.

In the next class, those teams will regroup and critique the work... with a twist. One person will be the designer, while the other two are the client. The designer presents the first “round of creative”, which consists of all the Web site designs. Each client picks out of a hat a constraint that governs the changes they want made to the work: “I don’t like any of these,” “My budget just got cut,” “Pick the most dominant color and say you don’t like it,” “The designer cut you off in traffic this morning,” “When you get done with this meeting, you are laying off 25 employees,” and other drivers for their behavior. The clients and the designer then negotiate which design they like the best and draw up a list of revisions they would make to the work. At the end of their creative presentation, the students share their experiences, motivations, and lessons learned.


If you're interested in trying out 80 Works at your school, drop me a line at dksherwin at

Easy as ABC? Pt. 1 of 2

Easy as ABC

S is for string bean. E is for eggplant. Z is for... what vegetable name starts with Z?

My Intro to Design teacher, a forty-years-young art historian and graphic design aficionado, distributes to the class the following assignment: create a typeface out of found materials, document it in whatever medium you so desire, and present it to the class on a single sheet of paper.

One a.m. before the assignment was due, wire basket full of rare and unusual produce at the 24-hour supermarket, I was beginning to realize just how much I'd underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand. The very idea of creating a typeface, which seemed like such a simple activity when I'd read the handout, had become a gut-wrenching effort. And I only had nine more hours until I had to turn it in.

Fast-forward through one of the longer nights of my life:

4 AM: Photo-reducing bananas on the Kinkos color copier.

9 AM: Frantically cutting and pasting the copies onto a 20" x 24" sheet.

10 AM: Running to the art building, barely making it into the lecture hall before the class began, I dropped my fruit and vegetable typeface into the stack for grading and wearily went to my seat, both surprised that I'd survived the assignment intact, and excited to see what new work I'd be forced to create in the coming week.


A foil-wrapped tube with a die-cut in the middle that shows the wine label. A 4-color printed bag with handles made from grosgrain. Or perhaps a simple cardboard container that has been letter-pressed with the restaurant logo?

2006. Another busy day at the design studio. A kind of controlled chaos.

Our client, director of operations at a firm that develops restaurant concepts, needed to see two packaging ideas for their new wine bar by tomorrow. Meanwhile, we're trying to polish off the home page and secondary page comps for a technology consulting Web site. And we've got two big mailers for a cruise line that are still in process and need a ton of photo research.

I need to get a vendor on the phone, since I can't show these ideas to the client without knowing if they're even feasible in their budget. The photo researchers at the stock agency are calling me back soon to let me know what kind of glacier shots they were able to scare up. Meanwhile, I've still got to design the navigation for the Web site and other designers want to have a quick group critique to make sure we're going in the right direction on those trade show booths that are due on Friday. How could I have forgotten the booth designs? Our account manager extracts a deadline out of me, knowing that another project will have to give as a result.

I sit back in my chair for a moment, just letting it all sink in. Somehow this gigantic pile of work will all get done -- and to an exacting artistic standard. Our clients will love the work, and we will get paid for it.

My Dream Channel: ARG-TV

Massive Dynamic

Delving deeply into the online world crafted for Alan Ball's new vampire series on HBO, True Blood, I was struck by how the world of Alternative Reality Gaming (ARGs) and the world of TV are so well made for each other. I'm waiting for the day that they crash together American Idol-style into an interactive experience that, after every commerical break, would adjust its storyline based on the preferred audience input home by home. Call it immersive, personalized, interactive entertainment. ARG-TV.

If you haven't participated in an ARG, it's a collaborative rallying of players around the activities of clue-gathering, puzzle-solving, and online and real-world collaboration to help assemble complex strands of plot and character into a meaningful narrative. The intense focus on creating a mythology, the high level of detail crammed into most ARGs, and the cross-linkages between on- and off-line clue gathering make for a novelistic, long-form gaming experience that blurs boundaries between the real world and the world of the game. Many ARGs are crafted to promote corporate entertainments such as movies and TV programs, while others are created by die-hard gamers with a personal interest in creating a meaningful gaming experience or pushing the boundaries of the medium. The screen capture shown above is from the ARG attached to the new TV show Fringe. In true J.J. Abrams style, the corporation referenced as the big bad evil in the series has its own Web site full of puzzling secrets -- much like The Hanso Foundation in one of the Lost ARGs.

Now, I haven't owned a television set for 8 years and counting -- and colleagues in my field in the late 90s and early 2000s ragged on me hard for it, because I've had some responsibility for helping to craft storyboards for commercials, video, motion graphics, Flash demos, etc. "How can you do a good job if you don't see what everyone else is doing? You should be watching MTV every day. Suck it down from the pipe!"

Then MTV became Which helped to spawn YouTube. Which begat Vimeo. Which spread killer work via blogs. Which were aggregated into sites that tracked all the hot work in motion graphics for me, so I didn't even need to go out and seek it anymore. All that great work is beckoning from my Google Reader, the junk drawer of my Internet addiction beckoning away, awaiting another mainline fix.

I'm waiting for the same growth progression to happen with ARGs and how they filter into our mainstream consciousness. There are communities that have sprung up around ARGs such as Unfiction's forums and ARGNet, where the players create the dialogue and archive the game progression as it unfolds, wiki-style.

But I'm waiting for a similar kind of daily content aggregation to happen to ARGs. The lurkers, the mass audience that watches the activity of the ARG players --- almost like the hushed crowd at Wimbledon watching the tennis ball get smacked back and forth between expert players -- hold the real power to push an ARG's mythology and associated thought product into our collective consciousness.

But the important thing is, it won't be just content aggregation or news coverage. ARG-TV would allow the creation of the story, rebroadcast and assembled into a more palatable form for the masses and still malleable enough to be influenced by every reader. A kind of wiki-tainment that flows across text, image, audio, and video. Instead of playing your game on an Xbox 360 or Wii, you'd be playing it in the real world and on your TV... though what we consider a TV would have eventually mashed up with your computer and platform gaming machine into some kind of unholy beast.

I'd also want ARG-TV to have some form of slider that allowed me to dial in exactly how much community interaction I wanted with my gaming experience. Other people's actions could influence my online experience massively, or not at all, depending on how I twist a certain dial in my television settings.

Unlike a regular first-person shooter or other type of reflex-based game, watching ARG-TV would require a real investment of time, intellect, and emotion. Most games only require an investment of time and don't tax the intellect or emotion too heavily. There's a smaller but more focused audience that I feel would invest the energy necessary to play a massive, ongoing ARG, and then be rewarded with a truly collaborative experience that would be watched by others and appreciated.

Think ESPN gone Kurt Vonnegut patronized by MENSA. I'd pay to watch that. Maybe two other people would, too.

If You Build It, They Won't Come

Internet Page Growth

Creating a "world-class online destination" will not assure an audience for your Web site. This bears repeating, over and over again, to each and every one of your clients. The rules have already changed.

I continue to see companies devising elegant, well-laid plans for crafting quality Web sites catering to niche audiences that get smacked down by the sheer volume of highly-relevant content out there on the Web.

You can't put a Web site up nowadays without extraordinary plans to promote it: through great content, smart search ads, a social networking strategy, and most importantly, very active efforts by real people -- not PR departments -- that can create real relationships and connect with the people controlling the conversation.

You don't make a Web site. You make a place where humans connect with humans. It just happens to be with language and code. All this Web 2.0 stuff is just like a telephone that does the dishes and can tell you who the King of Spain was in 1822.

Playing with Google's first index spawned this whole line of thinking. In the good old days, if you created a Web site about how you love horny toads, you were probably the best damn site about toads if you were feeling lucky. No longer. The battle for relevance will only continue to scale exponentially, as borne out by my infographic above. Each new site is just a little pinprick in the ever-expanding void. And I think being relevant and having killer content just isn't good enough anymore.

So I have a proposal that will make UX people cringe, but it's a holistic measure that will help you satisfy your clients outside making Web systems that surprise and delight users.

When when you start the planning phase of your next project, sneak a little area into your wireframe that talks about the following: how you want people to get to each page, and why they'll want to go there. It's something I almost never see discussed until a site is in build, when you've got "the luxury of time" -- but I think that's a weak strategy. Think it out in advance. Let it iterate with the system you're creating. Get holistic on why every feature connects back to your community, and if it doesn't, kill it.

This may require forcing your content strategist, copywriter, or client into a corner to hash out a massive tangle of detail. But you need to build some roads to your fancy hotel in the sticks. Otherwise, how will they know it's even there?

Hello, My Name Is Printeraction Designer

Hire Me

Do you create brands? Web sites? Freeform Flash experiences? Motion graphics? After you scrape off all those titles, deep down, you must be a designer. But wait -- you do development as well. That would make you a devigner. Or a designoper. Or a designuxinteractionphotographician.

Which begs the question: Does title really matter in the world of design today, once you've cut your teeth on a full-time job or three? Should we be measured based on our skills and portfolio, all rolled up into the ever-ballooning term "designer"?

I can't keep track of the various design flavors flying around today. They're getting specialized to the point that it really refines away the beauty of spanning and blending various disciplines.

While I may have a background in print design and ended up migrating into the wilds of interaction design, I definitely couldn't call myself a devigner, because I lack the patience to bug-test and browser-test code. (I'm also not very good at it.) The same goes for heavy AfterEffects... I'm not that guy either. So... Would that make me... a printeraction designer? A printeractive designer?

What do you call yourself? How do you convey to a client or your employer the breadth of what you do, all rolled up into the term "designer," when you're writing the copy, tweaking the ActionScript, making the coffee, returning the client phone calls, cutting the presentation boards to size, and stressing over whether the logo needs to be 5% bigger to activate your layout? That sounds like a designer... and a whole lot more.