Noelle / Style Academy

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This is my first shot at a homepage for the Tipping Bucket website. What do you think?

Better Than Free

Most designers, and most design firms, have an eclectic little collection of animal shelter logos, after-school center business card sets, and community gardens promotion posters. We call this pro-bono work–donated time and expertise to causes (or sometimes just people) we believe in. Is it valuable? Of course. Is it a good thing to do? Certainly. But it’s pretty solidly on the “handing out fish” end of that classic analogy.

From a capacity-building “fishing instructor” perspective, better than a killer logo is a simple style guide. Better than the meticulously-kerned name on a business card is the business card template the girl at the front desk can update and print. Better than a file full of printing quotes is a 15-minute training on the factors that influence those prices. In short, better than great design (even great free design) from an outside source are the basic skills and resources to produce passable or even mediocre design internally.

There are notable exceptions to this value proposition. If the piece in question is the branding for a once-a-decade gala, I would say by all means do it and do it right. But for the postcards, the newsletters, the funding reports, even the annual reports, I’d argue that a capacity building approach, with all its potential for tortured aesthetics, is the better long-term contribution.

So let’s sum up. All in favor of slower, messier, more demanding capacity building over simple pro bono work?

Aye.

The Design Continuum

Count on me to turn the very first class of my very first day of graduate school into a full-scale debate. IP&T 655 “Instructional Print Design” doesn’t sound like particularly fertile ground for philosophical disagreement, but it’s not difficult to imagine that in a room full of students with backgrounds from engineering to English to elementary ed, we had a unique and beautiful specimen in full bloom on the whiteboard before we’d even finished introductions.

Our instructor began class with the invitation to list all the fields of design we could think of. We listed architecture, engineering, fashion, landscape, industrial, network, theater, visual (yes, gasp, they put print and web designers in the same category) etc. etc. Trouble ensued when he then asked us to place these fields along a continuum from ARTSY to TECHNICAL. Needless to say, though the discussion was tentative at first, it quickly became apparent that this would not be an exercise in common consent:

“Landscape is very technical! You have to consider soil composition, drainage, growing seasons…”
“Yes, but in the end, what they really care about is that it looks good.”

“The end result of engineering is a functional product.”
“Sure, but the best engineering happens when you think outside the box, stretch the norms, get creative…”

Even at the risk of being branded an overbearing shrew (at least for the semester), I felt compelled to push, rather loudly, for a unilateral criterion. If we can’t judge by the intent, the process, or the end product, what can we judge by? Can we judge at all? We discussed, debated, proposed ideas and shot them down, and finally agreed to place professions on the ART-TECH continuum based on this; If a professional were forced to FAIL in one of these two areas, which would they most likely choose?

Obviously, this method is not truly unilateral either, but we were able to come to some mostly-mutually acceptable conclusions. If a fashion designer were forced to fail, it would likely be in the technical aspects of a piece rather than the artistry. An engineer, on the other hand, would be more likely to choose an artistic failure for her designs.

Here is a representation of the fields we classified on our design continuum:

We didn’t dislodge any paradigms, probably didn’t even raise any truly significant questions. But the process of relinquishing assumptions, of consciously adjusting vantage points and doggedly searching for an underlying truth felt very much, to me, like what higher education is all about.

Trust the Rope

I feel like I should be choking on clouds of dust coming back to this after so long…Probably the better idea would have been to launch back into the blogosphere without so much as an apologetic emoticon, but somehow I feel the need to acknowledge my abandonment.

It’s been more than 6 months since I’ve posted here, and nearly as long since I’ve written anything apart from casual personal correspondence. At first, of course, I was just busy. [ I think it had something to do with a 300-page book put together in just under 3 weeks 🙂 ] But those weeks turned into months, [as they usually do] my schedule quieted, [as it usually does] and still I didn’t post.

“Write a blog post” has been [near the bottom] on my personal task list for several weeks now, but only after some gentle prodding from a friend did I consider WHY it wasn’t getting done.

I was afraid.

Earlier this month I spent some time with a friend at a painting studio he rents downtown. While we waited for the glue to set on some frames for an upcoming show, he plunked down a couple tubes of oils and a brush in front of me, winked [he does that often, it’s quite a charming habit] and walked away. I stared at the canvas. I stared at the brushes. But I couldn’t do it. The idea of painting, at least painting well [which is really the only way any of us want to do anything] called up a state of mind I hadn’t been in, well, since I graduated from college. I wasn’t at all sure I could get back there.

In climbing/canyoneering it’s called the PFF–the Penalty for Failure. The level of care I take setting a line, the number and nature of backups and safeties I employ is directly proportionate to the probable injury I’ll sustain should something go dreadfully wrong. If the worst-case scenario is a splinter, I probably won’t even bother with a hand line.

But “failure” in any sort of creative endeavor is anything but a splinter. I didn’t paint that day because the PFF was terrifying; what if I actually can’t paint? what if I never really could? what if all the beautiful things I want to express end up scrambled, broken or lost, trapped and desiccating somewhere between my heart and that canvas? It’s exactly the kind of visceral surge of fear I get looking over the edge of a 200ft free rappel.

So why can I turn and, grinning, walk backward over the edge of that rappel? Because I have a rope. And regardless of the PFF, if I’ve set it properly, I can trust the rope. Here’s the fun part: I think these months of creative paralysis have shown me the “rope” for adventures of the heart and mind.

I think it’s practice.

Even if it did nothing in the area of honing skills, sharpening responses, and refining taste, practice would still be invaluable for its fundamental side-effect of bolstering confidence. If I fight something nearly every day, I’m much less likely to be devastated if today’s foray onto the creative battlefield feels sinkingly like defeat–if the words won’t come, the colors all run together, or my fingers trip all over themselves through a simple arpeggio. And, if I commit to practice as not just a principle but a, well…practice, I set myself up with a historical perspective and a long-range plan. That in itself cuts the PFF to a much more manageable level.

I’m not yet convinced that “practice makes perfect,” but in this sense at least, I believe “practice makes possible.” It creates a protective buffer of time between my intentions and the sometimes stark reality of my achievements. It lends, through conditioning, a sense of familiarity and ease to the mental and physical rigors of the work. It facilitates a more tangible connection between where I started, where I am, and where eventually I want to be. It gives me a rope. And I plan to try trusting the rope.

My Branding Toolbox

I spent a good deal of time as a child tagging along behind my Dad as he framed houses, repaired cars, installed plumbing etc. In fact, given my height at the time, I have much more vivid memories of the carpenter’s tool-belt he wore, with its dangling hammer, tape measure, chalk line (my personal favorite) and pouches of nails, than I do of his face.

Receiving my very own (long overdue) toolbox for my birthday this year has rendered me both nostalgic and metaphorical…

Here are a few of the tools, old and new, in my Branding Toolbox:

The Brand Shrine
I first experienced this concept during my 5th grade “career week” field trip to a design/advertising firm somewhere in the Loveland/Fort Collins area. To this day, I can’t remember who it was, so I guess all I can say is “I’m not the genius.” But this one is genius.

It works especially well for in-house shops, but is fantastic at agencies or even freelance. The entire concept is a large (we’re talking floor to ceiling covering the better part of a wall) magnetic/dry erase/whatever board dedicated to the worship of all things “________” (brand.)
I’ve used it to post logo iterations, ad concepts, storyboards, email rants and napkin doodles from off-site lunches. In a high-traffic area and supplied with plenty of markers and Post-its, it becomes a veritable petri dish of creative thinking. Anyone can, and everyone seems to, contribute. I’ve found it speeds up the approval process by putting feedback on their time, but also in their face (also speeds up meetings as they tend to be standing). I’ve felt an increased investment in and appreciation of the creative process at all levels in a company. I’ve even seen it avert potential disaster: umm…those look like breasts, did you mean that?

All hail the brand shrine.
The Metaphor Match
This is a fairly common concept, but can really help a client who has trouble understanding, let alone expressing, their brand in concrete terms. Tune in during casual conversation to find something the client finds interesting, then go back to it during the brand discussion in terms of a metaphor. “If [your company] was a [car, line of clothing, drink at Starbuck’s, etc.] what would it be?” “why?” If things go well, or if they’re still having trouble, you might ask what their competitors would be and try to extrapolate from the comparison.
The Identity Spectrum
This one comes straight from Mark Bixby–albeit 2 months ago–and is a brilliantly simple application of a concept I’m sure most of us have played with. I’ve never been able to get the delivery just right, until now. The idea is to come up with 4-6 pairs of words, not necessarily opposites but representative of competing values within a market segment: “Grounded-Innovative” “Authority-Commonality” etc. Not only does this provide a mini SWOT, it gives you a window into what the company values, which aspects of their identity matter to them, how they feel about the industry in general.

I’d like to build an actual board with movable slider knobs and slots to insert the word pairings (since they change with every client) just to see the kind of discussions that would happen with this as a tactile element in the conversation.
The Good’Old Questionnaire
My favorite twist on this has been to let clients envision their own “extreme makeover.” I have them fill out one copy of the questionnaire according to the daily reality of the business and one guided by the vision of what they want it to be. I find they are much more honest and accurate about the realities when given a forum where their grandiosity has free rein.
Just as important as having quality tools is knowing which ones to use for a particular application. I have pounded in my share of nails with the butt of a screwdriver (both literally and figuratively) and am a firm believer–and metaphor mixer–in the old adage about not using cannons when a shotgun will do.

Measure Twice, Cut Once
Occasionally, a client will come to the table with a fully developed brand concept and the vocabulary to go with it. Usually, however, a successful campaign will require some definition/refinement of the brand itself and some groundwork for effective decision making. In my [limited] experience, a few minutes of thoughtful questioning and purposeful application of one or more of the forgoing strategies can save hours if not weeks of aggravating managerial vacillation, not to mention all but eliminate the phrase “I’ll know it when I see it” from the discussion. (And what designer wouldn’t leap tall buildings, jump in front of trains, or “waste” a couple hours analyzing annual reports for a reward like that?)

I Call That Art.

Spent the last week in Kaua’i. Rough life, I know. It was nothing short of heavenly. This being my first trip to that anomalous paradise we call the 50th state of the union, I had day-dreamy expectations at least 20 years in the making and wasn’t sure the real thing would measure up…It did.

But flipping through a magazine on the flight home (from LA, not Kaua’i–spent that one crashed out across a whole row of empty seats) enjoying the ramblings of my internal ad critic, I realized that particular voice sounded oddly unfamiliar. Scanning back in wonderment over the preceding 6 days, I realized I couldn’t recall a single piece of paid advertising from the entire trip.

Typically, at least one shows up in my mental highlight reel of the vacation, but even racking my brain, I couldn’t think of a single impression. I hadn’t turned on the TV, listened to the radio, gone online, opened a magazine or (gulp) driven past a billboard in 6 whole days! (figure there’s got to be a law on the billboard thing–who wouldn’t want to put one up in the Mecca of US tourism?)

The second realization, almost paradoxial at first, was that I felt strangely inspired…creative…energized. Something in the plumeria-scented breeze, the crashing waves, the searing sunsets had driven me to be a better designer, a better communicator.

Perhaps there’s more than one way to go back to the source material.

Packaged to a “Tea”

I firmly believe in the power of one’s “design environment”–not your desk, your life. The places you eat and shop, the clothes you wear, what’s on your walls… and what’s in your cupboards. I advocate great knives, fine stationary and rich handsoap for their effect on my work as much as my cooking or correspondance, and place the blame for my decidedly expensive taste squarely on my aesthetic training.

Hence, the purchase of this exorbinant morning infusion. Yes, I paid $1.08 for a tea bag. Why? Because it’s what I want my work to be. It’s striking, yet the colors are understated. The type is meticulous and well-chosen, the materials are fine and pleasing, the concept is unexpected, yet the overall effect is familiar and comforting. The design simply works.

Yes, I paid $1.08 for a tea bag I will likely never use. It sits on a shelf by my desk, an icon in a growing collection of great design that with time, exploration, and [sadly] money, I will continue to enrich my environment, and my work, for years to come.

What Makes a Legend?

Once again, I find my foot in my mouth. This further exposition will likely only make it worse, but here goes… Last post, I listed a few legends of “traditional” design (though part of what makes these people legends is being anything but traditional.) In an [obviously failed] effort to resonate with the web design bunch, I included Cameron Moll. I was instantly, and perhaps rightly, put in my place for even mentioning them in the same sentance. It’s made me wonder: Does web design have legends? Will it ever?

The current design climate of the Internet seems to resemble what would happen if Adobe made CS3 free-ware and offered free printing/production to the first 10 million people to submit designs. Still the preponderance of hideous design on the web today does not preclude the possibility of truly exceptional innovation, well-grounded aesthetic and clean execution. CA’s Interactive Annual is packed with stunning examples, but even their opening editorial suggests it’s like panning for gold to find them.

A couple possible contributing factors:

The medium is young: 
Nobody’s had time (we’re talking decades, not years) to truly establish a reputation for consistently superior work.

The technology is constantly evolving: By the time you get one system/method/language (whatever it is you guys actually use) down, another is sweeping the stage. Nobody’s had time to truly refine any one approach–perhaps nobody else would be interested if somebody did.

We haven’t developed viable evaluation criteria: The experience of web/interactive design is fundamentally different. Usability, for instance, adds a whole new dimension. Perhaps, we just haven’t agreed upon what’s “good” yet.

The whole climate of design is changing: While there certainly are still giants in the sky, design in general has become something of a team sport. Only 3 of the award-winners in the Interactive Annual were produced outside a firm–and all of them involved collaboration with writers, photographers etc. We may no longer have a place for a single visionary.

Cameron Moll probably can’t be rightly compared with Milton Glaser. Perhaps no web designer ever will be. Not because they are on different “levels.” Not because they will never be as “good.” But because, perhaps, there will never be another Milton Glaser.

The field of design is expanding, diversifying, fragmenting, and fusing at a rate at once exhilirating and terrifying. Definitions change. Who will be our legends? Will we even have them?