Monday, March 31

The Island of San Serriffe

As found at the Museum of Hoaxes. This is Great!!!

In 1977 the British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic located in the Indian Ocean consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands. A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. The Guardian's phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the idyllic holiday spot. Few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer's terminology. The success of this hoax is widely credited with launching the enthusiasm for April Foolery that gripped the British tabloids in subsequent decades.

Click here to read the Full Story. It's fascinating and oh, so clever. Happy April 1!

Sunday, March 16

Beware of PCI - Discussion #7

Design is about the idea. It's a well know fact that the better the idea, the better the design. And our goal as designers is to figure out that idea. It's the one that pops into our head and makes us giddy. It's the one that can't come out fast enough as we desperately try to draw as fast as our brain is working. It's that one brilliant, shining, fabulous idea that will ultimately save the universe… or at the very least, make your client happy and bring them the business they need.

So what is this "idea" we all so love to talk about? According to the dictionary, it's a concept or mental impression. I like to think of it as the answer to the question "what if?" After gathering all of the information needed from the client, we need to determine the course of action we'll be following for the job. This is where the idea comes in. We're all talented individuals, that's why we're in this field. We can draw and paint and dream and imagine. What we need to do is start questioning. What if speed were represented by a bird? What if I can somehow connect the client's process into a visual cycle? What if I change the format to an unusual size to stand out better? What if I draw my own type? What if I turn the whole thing upside down and see what shakes out? What if I push to have a more illustrative logo so I can better show the client's business? You get the picture.

Let's talk about a real job. Let's say it's a logo and we've already made our conclusions on audience, final output/placement (such as web, print, billboard, etc.) and communication needs of the client. What's the next step? Believe it or not, the majority of designers do thumbnails. No, really, we do. Seriously. In my many years of experience in the design field and at the jobs I've held I, and all of the other designers I've worked with, have done thumbnails for 98% of the jobs we've done. Now that I freelance, I still do thumbnails for every job I work on. Why don't I get right on to the computer and start the job? The easy answer—I don't know what my idea is yet. In my experience, working on the computer first is distracting. I have too many decisions to make before I can get down to the task at hand. I have to decide which program to use, page size, font choice, font size, color, tool I'll use to render, etc. By the time I'm really ready to begin, I've wasted an inordinate amount of time I could have spent on generating ideas. In addition, I can pump out more ideas as thumbnails in 30 min than I could ever do on the computer (and I will gladly challenge anyone who claims "I work faster on the computer" to a showdown any day). A good designer should be effective with their time since time is money after all. Too many good thumbnails are discarded or never even brought to fruition because of PCI, Premature Computer Involvement.

Thumbnails help me think of all the possibilities, not just the ones I can render in the computer. I wouldn't bake a cake without a recipe nor would I start a design without my thumbnails. I tend to begin any job by making lists. I take the parameters of a project and write down as many adjectives, verbs or ideas that spring into my mind. I may write down five words or I may write down 3 pages of words. They consist of image ideas, format ideas, synonyms, icon representations and anything else I can think of. The words become the basis of my thumbnails. I analyze my lists and begin drawing. The thumbnails are more than just pretty drawings. They are concepts and ideas. I draw everything that comes to mind but if I can't justify why the thumbnails works, it doesn't make the final cut. Just looking nice or cool won't do, it needs to be functional. As always, you need to be able to communicate the needs of the client through your design. If it communicates AND looks good, then you've done your job.

In addition, your first idea isn't necessarily your best idea. Sometimes it takes a few rounds to suss out the best way to go about the design. Thumbnails are the quick way to determine what does or does not work. If something doesn't work in one try it a different way in another. You really like the way 3 different design pieces look—try them in one design together. Try, try ,try. It's the whole point of thumbnails. Too often a designer will fall in love with a typeface or alignment or size or color during PCI (see definition above) and not be able to see beyond it to the better idea. Thumbnails are a way to make sure that doesn't happen.

So now that you've heard my rant on thumbnails, why else are they important? Why bother doing them at all? In addition, what else can you do to generate ideas so you have better thumbnails? Where else can these universe stopping concepts come from? What do you do to brainstorm ideas?

**UPDATE After reading some comments hitting on quantity of thumbnails, I have a rhetorical question for you. I did these 2 pages of sketches for a logo. Does it make me an incompetent designer because I couldn't "nail it" within the first few? The logo ultimately chosen by the client was about the 60th one sketched. Just some food for thought…**

Monday, March 3

Enclosed Please Find…

Those three little words changed the way I wrote forever. Seriously. When did it happen? Three years out of college while I was a designer at Bailey Design Group (now The Bailey Group). I'll never forget the moment. My boss asked me to draft a letter to a client which would be included in a package we were sending. Not being an experienced letter writer, I asked what it should say. To this day I remember what he said:

"Enclosed please find the requested revisions to (insert product name here). Please call when you have a chance to review."

The simplicity of the statement blew my mind. My letter would probably have said something like, "From our discussion last Thursday I included the revisions you needed done. Hopefully these solve some of the issues. When you get a chance to look at them, please give me a call so we can discuss the next steps." Now granted, I was a terrible writer all through college. I could get away with decent essay answers on exams and particularly excelled at art history exams, but ask me to write more than a page and I tended to fall apart. I even failed an Honors theater paper—first time I had ever failed anything in my life. I was devastated but fortunately the professor allowed me to resubmit it and I managed to pull it up to a B. But I digress.

I was shocked and awed by what my boss dictated to me. It was clean, elegant and simple yet refined and stated everything. There was no better way to say it and I was officially hooked. I wanted to clean up my skills and learn how to write that well. Why? I wanted to be successful and appear to be as professional as possible to my colleagues and clients. I had already noticed that more professional I was, the more they responded to me and the work I presented.

I worked hard at improving my skills. I happily volunteered to take the extra time to include a letter or draft an email. The only way to improve was to practice and by the time I left the company 5 years later I had enough practice to practically qualify for the gold medal of business writing. My resume then consisted of not only business letters, but design proposals, presentations, copy for product packaging, website copy and more. I also became a whiz at editing and proofreading—when you're working with a product which will be reproduced a half million times and cost the client a tremendous amount of money, you need to make sure everything is spelled correctly and commas are in the correct place. Remind me to tell you about the $16,000 mistake sometime.

Today I do even more writing. Aside from the usual onslaught of business letters, I write for both clients and academia. As a freelancer I write headlines, taglines, body copy, product copy, mission statements, trademark definitions, website copy, etc. You name it, I've written for it. For academia (as a professor) I've written assignments, handouts, worksheets, abstracts, proposals, seminars descriptions, etc. Writing has invaded every aspect of my life. The more I get involved in business and academia the more I find myself writing. Besides, who else is going to do it for me? I can't afford to hire a full-time copywriter so the weight must fall on my shoulders.

I've even taken writing to the next level writing not only for this blog but participating in NaNoWrimo. Taking a stab at NaNoWrimo the last two years opened up a whole new world of words and resulted in two 50,000+ word novels under my belt. Are they any good? The first one is funny and entertaining but has no real plot and no possibility of getting published. The second one has a real possibility if I can find the time to edit it and try to find an agent who believes in it too. (spare time… who has that?) What have these novels done for my writing? Everything. I now use better sentence prose, increased variety in the selection of words I use and have an easier time transitioning thoughts. It has also helped my grammar and punctuation skills.

Where else has it taken me? I landed a contract to do humor writing and illustrating for a greeting card company. How? It was the writing that sold them on my skills. I showed the president a card I had written and he laughed his ass off. I showed him a few more and he kept laughing. He told me that while the art was important, it was the writing that sold a card and he thought these cards could sell. From a little writing on my part, I now have the opportunity to have my cards—my writing and artwork—distributed in stores across the country. Would I have gotten the contract without the writing? Maybe but it was the writing that sealed the deal.

While I wouldn't expect everyone to take it to the level I have, I would hope that writing can become more of a priority among designers. Freelancer or not, writing is a main form of communication with a client and the main form in which clients communicate with their audience. Good writing is remembered and effective writing sells. Something as simple as an email which convinces a client to choose the best design can make a world of difference.

-lorem ipsum

***As an aside—Writing in "txt msg" mode in email is not going to cut it in the real world. Plz, :-), ty, yw and ttyl are not appropriate and will absolutely lead the client to think you are less than professional. Not a good impression to make to the one who's paying you. And while I'm saying it, it's not a good impression to make on professors either. Give yourself a head start and start practicing good writing skills now***

Sunday, March 2

The Good Word - Discussion #6

Writing is a topic of conversation usually left out when talking about graphic design. We use typography, letterforms, quotation marks, commas and such, but we rarely talk about the words beyond kerning and point size. What do the words really mean?

A great deal actually. Words provide the content which leads to the design, connotation, choice of imagery, choice of color, choice of typeface and size... it leads to everything. The words contained within a design are often times more important than the design. It's the reason why the design exists in the first place—to communicate what the written word has to say. Therefore, and it's a big therefore, we need to read the text we've been given in order to properly understand how to design for it. *gasp* Show of hands... how many of you have read and understand ALL of the text you're using for your current project? Have many of you went forward with your designs without having read everything (and I do mean down the the last sentence)? I thought so.

Reading your copy is important to figuring what the design should even look like. It's the subtle nuance of how something is worded, the bullets points which show how the product works and the intro paragraph with it's flowery boast of how wonderful something is. In this information is clues as to what the design should look like. Do you think a designer working on a Stephen King novel cover or Nike's next ad campaign isn't going to spend the time to read the text given to them? Understanding that link between what something looks like and what something says is key. And this is called? Anyone? Bueller? Beuller?

Visual verbal synergy.

Oh yes, a term you've heard used time and time again. The more support the visual has for the copy and the copy has for the visual the more successful the design will be. A no-brainer you say? Not always. Not all copy a client gives you will be clear as far as imagery/design is concerned. Sometimes you'll need to communicate an abstract concept or communicate for subject matter you're not very familiar with and possibly don't even understand. You have a few choices at that point.
1. Trudge forward with the design and try to come up with something that looks cool. This will only hold water with the client if you are a true master of B.S. and can convince them to use the design.
2. Speak with the client and ask pertinent questions about the material you've been given. Maybe they can shed some light on the subject. This has a 50-50 percent chance of working. Half of the time the client will speak to you in lay mans' terms and be able to simplify the abstract nature of the business. Half of the time they'll tell you what you've already read not clarifying anything.
3. Do your own research on the matter. Do a search for what it is you don't understand and learn about it. Expand your mind. The more you know about your client and the service/product they provide, the better insight you have into what kind of design they need. Please notice I said need, not want. They may want something fluffy and pretty but may need something a little more functional. It's your job to help determine what's best for their needs.

Understanding a client's needs is exactly what you should do to develop a good relationship with them. In turn, a good relationship with a client means more work, more money and more stability for your career.

Aside from the information a client gives you, what else can you do to better understand your client and their needs? How can you get inside their heads and determine what kind of design is appropriate for them? What can you do to build a better relationship with someone you could potentially spend years working with?