Monday, December 22, 2008

Color Palette update

My entry for MONDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2008 "Building and presenting color palettes" illustrated a range of primary and secondary colors proposed for a client's communications. Over the past two months, dozens of comps have been generated using the palette and some have worked nicely. Others are positively hideous.

As the basis for a communication strategy and long-term design guide, having a chance to test concepts before they are included in a brand stylebook is a luxury. Either the client can afford a costly and time-consuming process whereby the designer tests each proposed application before the stylebook is published, or they suffer through endless edits and compromises. Neither process can be called the best, however, I have had a chance to develop pieces and the stylebook simultaneously and learned a lot about creating a usable guide for a corporation.

Mainly, I'm not locked into a bunch of colors that I thought looked nice together but that don't make very good graphics in actual working solutions. While it has delayed the stylebook, the result will be a lot closer to the tool it is intended to be.

Photography resource

I recently learned of a new on line stock photo agency, They use a system of pre-purchased credits, either just enough for one image or a pack of credits you can use as you choose. The average price is the main advantage—$15.00 per image. Now, if, like me, you do projects where the ad is a small local black and white where you need some punch, you can create something eye-catching without blowing the budget.

I do a lot of jobs for clients, especially non-profits, who simply don't have budgets for much more than the media they are purchasing. While istockphoto's images suffer from the same problem most stock images do—trite concepts—they are reasonable enough that you can afford to use a chunk of one for an illustration base, or simply an accent.

Creative applications of images, say as parts of montages or blown up as a background or even just a visual field can lend a lean ad some heft. The resolutions available allow you to take part of an image and enlarge it until it is filling an average frame or covering a large ad.

And at the prices they are asking, istockphoto's images are within the reach of small design shops and students.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The single bright light of creativity

While browsing my email, I opened an update from fontbureau®. A news bit caught my attention.

I quote, "Cyrus Highsmith’s Eleventh Digit

No, Cyrus Highsmith doesn’t have an extra finger (although that might explain his prodigious output!). “The Eleventh Digit” is the title of a workshop Highsmith presented in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October. “The idea was to invent a new number that appears compatible with the others but cannot be confused with any other character. It gets the students thinking about the structures of glyphs, the role of handwriting in their evolution, and the design of a glyph as separate from its structure. It’s pretty fun.” archives/114

Side note: Highsmith's font "Escrow" has absolutely gorgeous numerals.

While in school, during a creative problem solving session, our professor, Victor Papanak (google him) gave us a challenge. Gaining weight was an issue in 1970 too and we were to come up with as many ideas as possible to solve society's problem. The two that stuck with me were: letting wild (preferably man-eating) animals roam the streets; the other was four-foot high curbs.

While there were many in-between, (and yes, we did think of and discard potato chips that gave you diarrhea, and now we have Olestra®) we held on to a few of the most far-fetched ideas to help create a spectrum. It kept bringing us back to possibilities that really, were simply impractical but would work.

The more good, or at least, in my judgment, effective, design I see, I also see the free-for-all thinking that is necessary to get out of the obvious solutions and into creative outer space.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Watch out it's coming to a design near you

A quick update. Swirls are everywhere. The popularity of florid swirls will go on long after their design life has peaked. Don't wait for the big fall. Find something new. Rough cut, clunky fonts, hand mangled, are holding on strong. And stop using Rosewood Fill, damn it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dialogue and productivity

The loss of my mother distracted me from doing much work for the past two weeks. I had done comps for a client but neglected to set up a meeting. Hoping to get voicemail, I called at four on Friday afternoon. She picked up the phone and said, "Come right over." The comps were already in my messenger bag so I mustered the strength to present five versions of one idea. This client liked looking at work product so I had about twenty mounted examples of discarded ideas in another pocket. When I mentioned it, she jumped at the chance to see them. I spread the various abandoned ideas on the tiny table. In brief, she loved several ideas and sent me back to burnish them. Her choices also solved some issues such as how to get brilliant photography for a dozen pieces and stay on budget. We agreed that public pieces, those distributed outside the organization, would use the images we already had. In-house brochures would use a single graphic solution in various colors to differentiate their messages. Enthused client, problem solved, closer to completion, closer to billing.

Now read, "Enthused professor, closer to degree, closer to job. Most design classes break into three tiers. Promising designers, designers who will develop into promising designers and those who's careers will not be involved with Adobe® products.

Procrastination is a hallmark of creativity. The first two tiers display this early on in their pursuits. The sense that any idea completed is only another step toward the "right" solution hobbles them. The meeting avoided, the incomplete solution, simply not showing up with some excuse plague designers.

Maintaining communication and the visual dialogue with work progress and ideation—with the right clients and teachers—expands the realm of exploration. Bite the bullet, move forward, seek criticism. It does pay off.

Oh, it helps if you have nice comps, well mounted and organized and that you pick an appropriate time and setting to present your ideas. Nice shoes are optional.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Little reminder of shrinking economy

Some marketing giants are reacting to the downturn, (that's putting it mildly). I picked this up through an RSS feed I watch. While you read this, envision the storefronts of these mall heavy hitters.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mike Clelland's boing marks

I just learned of a friend's site Mike is a talented illustrator/cartoonist and even more talented at backcountry life. He came into my office about 25 years ago and we learned we both knew a particular Chicago expatriate living in New York City. Anyway, long story. Visit his blog and check out his work.

Desperately seeking inclusion

My main purpose here is to encourage people to look beyond design annuals and trendy periodicals and websites and develop their own design inspiration from a larger universe of stimulus. The hope is that good, innovative design follows.

There are a number of design forums, such as http: // that provide a chance to enter into a dialog with other designers on a broad range of topics—some relevant and some not so.

Keep it in mind.

What are you listenting to while you work?

Designs, whatever we're working on, have unique rhythms. Much of the time, music, at least what I listen to the most, is a distraction. But other times, something syncs with the text, images, pages and spaces I work on. From time to time, I go on jags, listening to similar or the same pieces over and over. Recently I discovered Japanese rap. The Japanese are good at mimicking American (and probably other) cultural affectations. Often, their music is accented with English words and phrases mixed with their own language. What I like is the music, rhythm and pacing of rap without words I can possibly hope to understand. Additionally, the unusual pronunciation and juxtaposition of syllables wash over me like a subtheme to the bass beat.

Another designer, late twenties, in our office, likes to play Medeski, Martin and Wood on his ipod while building Flash segments on websites.

Whatever works for you, I would like to hear about it.

Why no posts for a while

I haven't dropped off the face of the Earth, at least not yet. My mother was recently diagnosed with cancer and just passed away. I just haven't had the necessary motivation to post. But I just went through some of my design scrapbooks and will be back on the job soon. Thanks for your patience.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Design annuals' limitations

The remark was recently made that looking to design annuals, such as Print or CA, gives you inspiration from last year's ideas. Considering the entry schedule and publication date, the work could have been done nearly two years prior. I find certain things attract my attention and I scrapbook them for later scanning when coming up with a new solution.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Invaluable tutorials

While scanning graphic design sites, an article on creating "Grunge" brushes in Photoshop caught my attention., impressed me as great place to scan for solutions or to a use some of your spare (read sitting there trying to come up with an idea) time to stimulate your mind. I'm not a big fan of brushes because they look so, well, brushy. That said, if you take the time to try learn a particular technique and perfect its execution the exercise alone is worth it. They say learning something new keeps you young.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quick, slipshod review—creative tools—Behance

If you are a student, you are probably creating on raw anxiety and adrenaline resulting from roommate problems or a resolution thereof. if you are a little further along in your creative career, you have likely been exposed to various creativity incubators, capturers, developers and organizers. These usually involve movable tabs, clips, stickies, even magnets, a "motherboard" repository of some sort, and "nodes," individual pads, binders or folders that replicate the organization steps for each individual on the team. Tasks are usually broken down in some categorization system. Something like: Do now, do later, blow off. Some are more Freudian than others. If one of the action categories reads something like, "rub this card against yourself in private," then email me and let me know what dark little hole you found it in—or better yet, dow what it says and afterwards, I'll buy it from you.

If you are still reading, How Design/Behance describes one company's effort to sweat-out your creative solutions. Their basic premise follows the norm, "I think—therefore, I am on deadline without an idea." One thing most creativity/productivity tools have in common is—The Action Step.

The next step usually leads to a special creativity jumpstarter known as "Shopping."
Everybody is more creative when they have just purchased and eagerly await, (read: got to put off for another day or two at least) their new, mondo expensive set of tabs, stickies, binders, folders, sleeves requiring numerous specialized refills available only from the innovators of this wonderful system and your big, UPS deliverable to street addresses only, shipping $14.95 or FedEx overnight $64.95, Motherboard!

In the HOW® article, the author takes stunningly dull photos of stacks of work and the many household uses you can put little tabs to. It all looks very, "I wish I worked at a place like that."

The article references the designers' "Moleskines" too. I never paid much attention to what these were actually called, other than, very expensive, sexy pads found in art museum book stores. Well, they really are Molskines® and guess what. More shopping!

If you can read the red special internet price, you can see where this is going.

So a bear walks into a bar and asks the bartender, "How much for a beer?"

The bartender replies, "Five bucks." Then goes on, "We don't see many bears in here."
Then the bear says, "At five bucks a beer, you won't see many more."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Creative customer service

Creativity, it's said, is 5% sweat, 95% presentation. Being self-employed or owning and running a small office teaches you a lot about customer relations. It also deprives you of the working model for office/client/employee procedures you would find in a typical working office.

When I took my studio personal and rented my office out to another firm in a similar business, they asked me if I would "mentor" them some about customer relations and office management. The glow of the new digs wore off quickly so the mentoring never happened. But I am an occasional customer and our interaction led to some thoughts about customer service.

When your client has an impossible deadline and you deliver on time — then the client doesn't show up for days, even weeks to pick up the work — you ask yourself, "If they did't need it that badly, why did they have this impossible deadline?"

One explanation is the timing of the phone call. Say the job is done, on your counter, and you call and let the client know it's ready. Now they have to wrap that task into whatever else they have to do just as they had to wrap their deadline into their entire list of obligations. New information often makes deadlines flexible, sometimes making them non-existent. So the urgent job sits, along with the deadline, gathering dust.

When you are creating something for a client's tight timing, letting them know the job is definitely going to be on time, ahead of time, gives them the opportunity to fold your work into their project. Giving them a heads-up a day prior to delivery can make you look like a hero and strengthen your relationship with your client.

Just make sure you deliver when you said you would.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A thousand words about web templates

Yes, a remark in that same comment spun off another recollection. csszengarden demonstrates the range of ideas CSS, cascading style sheets, can turn into reality. Though the site's name obviously influences many of the solutions, check out "Revolution!".

The layout is simple, the Post Constructivist elements combined with a graphic floral, all on a rich, deep background. However, many of the other sites here, and in my experience, most of the sites I see, it grabs my attention. Moving on, the right column is too wide for comfortable reading and there isn't much payoff as you move down the page. But the designer has showcased the subject with his own creativity at the forefront. More about this later.

Who cares about creativity

A comment raised a question in my mind, "Why creativity?" I haven't fully answered that question because I assumed everyone wanted a unique design. Creativity isn't an end in itself, but a process that aids someone who communicates graphically.

My clients have goals they want to achieve—they come to me to implement the graphic direction, and sometimes the marketing, to get where they want to go.

A great deal of my professional work is creating identities. Each approach is unique, creating an image, icon, logo, that speaks visually to the personality, scope and professionalism of that client's endeavor. I often use similar geometry, handled in a unique way, to convey subtle differences.

Both of the above logos are for builders, both builders work as general contractors assembling their crews to fit the project.

The logo on the left is for a builder who works on small to moderate sized projects, one house at a time. He is also a carpenter on his projects. The logo on the right is for, again, a single individual but who works on much larger projects, not just what you think of as "homes." He is often building small compounds, salvaging historical structures on the site, creating massive homes, guest houses and other custom buildings. Finally, each builder has a unique, memorable personality that comes through in their work.

Future posts will better describe the role of the creative process and how it applies to various subjects.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Digital sketches

These are sketches for a site I was creating for Finegan Thompson in 2007. Three splash page designs, mocked up with the same images in different formats. I don't write html very well so I work with a web jockey who can translate my ideas into online sketches. From there, we have a system for filing components, delivering them sized and optimized and quickly putting rollovers, Flash, whatever into the online mock-up.

Blog catalog

Mixed Media Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Monday, October 13, 2008

Building and presenting color palettes

Navigating the world of color is a complex and wonderful thing. Here is an initial palette of tones for a client's branding system. As with so many projects, the client has a preconceived notion in their head. My job is to present a cogent group of tones and prioritize them for each potential use.

Building the palette requires a lot of trial and error. Instead of starting with the usual Pantone books, look around at what catches your eye in your environment. It could be something such as Fall aspen leaves on a rock in a stream—setting up a gold, rich gray, blue and silver theme. Clothing or fashion spreads—not the images so much as the pockets and bands of color created by the process.

When developing a system that may be handed to people with absolutely no sense of design—choose wisely.

Successful print bids

Staying within a budget or creating pieces that are readily doable by a number of print sources is easier when you create designs that fit within standard paper sheet and printing press sizes. In the digital age, it is easy and quick to photograph your mock up and include images when you submit bid requests. Put dimensions with the image and note pertinent requirements. Does that wrap need to seal, etc.

By including images it makes your finished project "real" to everyone who has to deal with it down the line. It hastens and simplifies communication and could easily get your bids processed more quickly. You can ask the printer to modify your specs if there is a much more efficient trim.

Shameless self promotion vol. two

My work, circa 2003. 19 inches tall, hangs on wall.

NOTCOT—a model for success, a site dedicated to perpetuating creative thought via design references is a great source for what's what on the hipness front. In a universe of great ideas/less-great execution, it is a successful example of serious collaboration. So many sites are built on the foundation of an untested idea and someone who can get stuff up on a website.

Read NOTCOT's background and you get a feel for the level of dedication it takes to build, grow and maintain a spark of creativity. The marketing model is basic—anyone could do it. The success is the team behind it and their constant attention to detail and their adherence to their mission.

The answer to the question, "What has this to do with tips and tricks in the marketplace?" is, if you want a full-time salary plus profit from a web endeavor, be prepared to work as hard as this group has. There are no concepts on the web that simply go viral with no effort.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shameless self promotion

As I mentioned in the first post, I am an artist, making these boxes with found objects and my own creations. "Metropolis" a piece from 2000 is roughly 18 inches tall, wood with steel, feathers and pool ball. I have sold a few to friends but have not yet put them in a gallery. Here in Jackson, "Western" art, i.e. those beautiful savages I mentioned in the previous post, win out.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Magic numbers throughout history

James Carville, while advising Bill Clinton for his second run for the presidency, had two edicts. Stay on point, count off your arguments supporting your point in threes. Using fingers is optional. Psychologically, three gives the listener, reader, whatever, more than an "either-or" decision path. Options and flexibility make it easier for the audience to come to a decision they (he/she/they) feel they have made independently. When the listener comes to their own conclusion, the impression left in their mind is far stronger and more durable over time. Think about this in terms of advertising.

Thirty seven, a prime number, has many magical associations. The most fetched I read, (Scientific American a while back) was as a decision making tool. Say you want to hire the best possible job candidate from a pool of applicants. Line up thirty-seven good resumes, start interviewing with thirty-eight and hire the first good prospect. Your chances of getting a good employee go up 300 plus percent. But who's got the time? In this economy though, you'll likely have the applicants. (see next paragraph)

Another SciAm citation: Miracles. If you divide your life into five minute segments, probability says you are likely to experience six miracle-like episodes each year. Something such as humming a tune and then hearing it when you turn on the radio counts.

It is said that it takes doing something thirty times in a row to make it a habit. It's cold where I live. A suggested method for resetting your body's thermostat to better accommodate sub zero days is to sleep outside (in a nice, down sleeping bag of course) for two weeks and you will better tolerate cold for the rest of the (long) winter.

Here's one I won't test. Told to me by a guide who runs rafts down the Colorado River, after 26 or so days not washing your hair, it attains a natural, washed glow on it's own. That could explain those beautiful savages in movies.

With marketing research, don't base your entire decision making on surveys, focus groups or the like. Never base more than thirty percent of your decision on research—no matter how thorough you think you have been.

This is just a rule of thumb but it gets clients thinking about their assumptions about media. Thirty percent of the paid subscribers to a periodical (and this may be even more likely with electronic media) don't see a given issue of a publication. Issues are lost in the mail, lost in the household, go under the porch, get to the bottom of a large stack of other stuff. Or, the readers are sick, on vacation, bored, angry, whatever—and don't bother to open the publication.

Finally, lists—odd numbers, three or five for talking points on brochures for candidates or causes when you are trying to change people's minds. I have done many campaigns and this rule has not failed. Then again, maybe I just picked the right causes and candidates.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pro Bono Reaps Rewards

Doing something in the public good can be effective in drumming up more business. This brochure for our local mental health center's annual Summer fund-raising led to several new clients. They were referred by fellow board members so the introductions went smoothly. I went into the initial meetings with positive reviews and less anxiety on both my part and the client's.

The fundraising exceeded this year's goal and was the most attended event in the run's three year history.

I illustrated the cover and all art in Adobe® InDesign. The piece, 16 x 9 inches folding to 4 x 9, was printed in four-color offset. Due to the relatively short duration of its need, no varnish or aqueous coating was necessary.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

copywriting for the net

SEO, search engine optimization, has been the golden fleece of internet marketing. Capture it and you realize your prophecized quest for success. Good copywriting suppports good design. The two must work hand in hand to turn SEO into revenue. This site's glossary is an easy-to-absorb list of pertinent net-writing terms as they relate to your site's search engine success.

focus focus focus

What do you get when you cross a Mafia hit man with a performance artist? Someone who makes you an offer you can't understand. was introduced to me by a friend of a friend. It is a pretty, Flash® driven site with an obscure offering. It is grossly self-aware and no matter how useful its product might be, I still can't figure out what they do or why I should care.

Ben, the acquaintance, already has my trust. But Ben's site is engulfed in beautiful nothings. The message is wordy and the navigation requires more guesswork than intuition.

A site that really grabs your attention can be a piece of crap with the right headline.

If I see a Google result that says "John Thompson can't afford to overlook this site" my ego will drive me to click on the link. Then if I encounter a busy, hard to read, ad-ridden black hole with a headline such as "John, this site will get you the best deal possible on that A4 you want, has the best gumbo recipe ever, will solve that buzzing issue in your phone and show you how to fold fitted sheets." you bet I'm going to find and read the meat of this offering.

Providing the copywriting is at least passable. Oh, and it really has to deliver on at least one of those promises.

And finally, I get things like this in my email all the time and never click on them. So know your target audience and your best method of reaching them.

Best proofreading method on the planet

I talk big because I like making monumental generalizations from obscure ideas. My proofreading's superiority claim has been backed up in the May, 1987 issue of "Gross Generalizations" magazine. I wrote a letter to the editor thanking them, but they never printed it. On to the meat of the post.

Assuming you have just written or edited some copy - read it word for word forward twice. Once out loud helps. This gives you a chance to test the flow, grammar and syntax. Next, read it backwards, one word at a time. Out of context, misspellings stand out, making them easy to correct prior to publication. While this deprives readers of that smug sense of superiority they get catching you in a typo, it gives you the warm glow of keeping your act together and depriving them of that satisfaction. Let them read this and get their own typo fix.

Many people rely on spell check. But it can't differentiate words with two spellings and divergent meanings. So if your typo happens to be a real word, you REALLY look foolish to savvy readers. To not-so-savvy readers, you leave them scratching their heads.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Home Office and Studio

Finegan|Thompson design studio and art side of a 16 x 28 foot room. The carpet is FLOR tiles. They are environmentally friendly, easy to lay down yourself and can be washed or replaced easily. That's an HP 130nr, a low priced Epson scanner, early Mac Cinema display, Wacom et al. On the art side are some of my boxes, and a steel frame work table with an old bowling alley lane floor as a top. I have a large cutting mat for mounting comps. There is enough room to set up table top photo shoots for comps. Camera is a Nikon D70, no flash setting. Grainy in low, available light but good enough for comps and family photos.

The Home Office

My Pandora® just played The Cure, then Jimmy Reed followed by Question Mark and the Mysterians. This is one nice thing about home/office. My music preferences are universal, played on nice equipment in just about any room where I work. I have to admit, the office had a nice, wall wired quad system driven by anything on my computer.

The distinction between office and home is a valuable tool for limiting stress for many. I chose two stressors, working with my wife and then the studio. Since art is my other pursuit outside work, the two blend together. I don't experience the home studio as a haunting reminder of project stress. It allows me to jump back into any project, ideate and develop it on the fly, while it's hot.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why Graphic Design in Marketing

Tests have shown it takes a glimpse of only one seventeenth of a second for us to compile, interpret and store an image we see. Hence, the justification for a strong identity for your business or endeavor. Your image characterizes the nature, direction and sophistication level you wish to send to your audience.

Good design is the tool that develops that image. I created this blog to communicate and promote quality graphic design in marketing. I went solo, read: no employees, about a year ago. But I miss the informed chatter that goes on in a creative business. It ran the gamut of subjects from typography and letterform design to our loves and hates in music, motorcycles and single malts. I want this blog to inject some of that banter back into my life and my work. So please feel free to throw in your thoughts and ideas about anything relating to visual communication and its impact on culture.

John Thompson