Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good and bad design? Good and bad critiques.

I spoke with a group of design students at a local community college this past weekend. At the end of the lecture, I talked through a bit of my work which includes a couple slide of which I am not particularly proud.

Basically I mix a bit of bad with all my best work so I can talk about "bad design" - something I learned from a past lecture.

I put the terms "bad design" in quotes because of the ridiculously subjective nature of what constitutes a bad piece of design. And it's frustrating as hell, man!

So during my walk-through, one of my rather unhealthy pieces appeared on the big screen and I began to speak about why the piece does not work. I started into my little diddy about the fine difference between subtlety and hammering one over the head with your message.

In the middle of my rant, the instructor for the class raised her hand, pointed to the screen and said, "I like it."

The students, who were all attempting to digest my thoughts on my very own bad design work, were blindsided by a lone compliment from their fearless leader. Well, thanks for the kudos, but now I have an auditorium of students staring back at me with a giant collective question mark hoovering over their heads (which puts a question mark and exclamation point above my head as well since I am a novice lecture-giver).

I turn to the class thinking, "Hello, beginning design students! Welcome to the Dadaism of what is design critique. Confused as to what is considered good and bad design? Yes, that feeling will never go away."

I didn't say that, though. I was able to use the instructor's kind words to segueway into a conversation about how design is subjective. I told them that as they progress through the curriculum, they will experience critique after critique, and usually no two people will be of the same opinion (unless it counts for a grade).

Don't get me wrong. I think debates and critiques are healthy. I firmly believe there are solid benefits to a good design critique of one's work, but the idea of how some people could be right on the money while others are pulling stuff out of the proverbial ass used to elude and annoy me. Heck, just read the comments over at Ads of the World.

As a budding design student, I remember sitting in my layout class during a critique. In this class, you always wanted to be the first one up on the chopping block because the class has not yet warmed up, see?

However, after critiquing a few measly design pieces, the students begin showing their teeth and they are out for blood. Piece after piece would become a victim of classmates looking to toss in their two cents, with pessimism on full display masquerading as deep intellectual thought and sophistication.

Some pieces deserved it, some did not. Some absolutely did not!

I remember looking at some of the design pieces that were getting kicked violently around the room, all the while thinking, "This piece works, dammit! Would I have done it the exact same way? No, but it communicates its purpose clearly. Thumbs up."

I came to the conclusion that if I took a professionally designed cereal box or candy bar wrapper or whatever, and hung it up on the classroom wall, it would still get torn to shreds by these students.

That bummed me out as a student because, in my mind, a cereal box from Kellog's or a candy bar wrapper from Mars were done by real professional designers with professional art directors with professional production teams who, for all intensive purposes, know their STUFF.

Me, I was just a student, green in design principles and Photoshop, who was not in the same league as a designer at Kellog's, yet the cereal guy would still get his ass chewed by a bunch of peeps with my same experience (which was next to nothing).

It wasn't until a few years later when I discovered the difference between a true critique and self-satisfying verbal garbage. A true critique is about design quality while the other is solely about personal preference.

Another individual's personal preference in how they would have designed your piece is good to hear sometimes, if only for a bit of food for thought (and usually, that food only contains nourishment if offered by another professional - i.e. someone how knows what they are talking about. Usually).

Actual in-depth criticism on how a design piece communicates successfully or unsuccessfully based on principles of grid use, eye flow, information hierarchy, usage of color, white space, etc. can be invaluable in making a stronger piece.

However, back during my time in design school, it seemed that students would rely on personal preference instead of design quality while judging others' work, and even if I didn't fully understand it all at the time, it still rubbed me the wrong way.

But they were students, right? Still wet behind the ears. Once they get out in the real world and gain a few years of experience, that will all change in how they critique (or worse, direct) design work.


Nope. Well, sometimes.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Cleaning the house and blue cans

I am at a stopping point in my bathroom remodeling venture. It will resume once our relatives vacate the premises.

I put my Bob Villa skills to the test and it is coming out rather well. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as long as the grout holds the freaking tiles together, I don't care.

I hate to say it, but as my wife and I fumbled around the mess I created, we let the rest of the house go to shambles. Dishes piled and laundry scattered about, the house looked like my old apartment dwellings during my pizza slinging days.

As I mentioned, we have relatives staying with us for a couple weeks, so we had to get the house back in shape, with or without a completed upstairs bathroom. After all, my wife's relatives are Brazilian, and to them your only as good as how clean your house is. We don't want them to label our house a "favela" as her brother has done in the past.

As my wife and I were getting things in order, she asked me to make a quick sweep of the rooms with the disinfectant spray. It's not that our house was filthy to warrant an emergency disinfecting, it's just that we genuinely like the scent (and the disinfecting is a nice bonus).

Needless to say, between the remodeling and work, I was tired and useless when it came to deep cleaning, but I could manage spraying down the rooms, right?

I made my pass over the furniture, the hallway, the curtains, and the stairs. Afterward, I returned to the kitchen to begin washing the mountain of dirty dishes.

My wife came up from the basement and asked, "What did you spray?"

"Disinfectant," I said.

"No," she said, sticking her nose in the air for a few full sniff of air. "No, that's Pledge. You sprayed Pledge polish all over the house!"

I scoffed. No, I used the generic brand of disinfectant. The blue can. There's no way I would mistake the blue disinfectant can with a can of Pledge which is...

Yeah, I soaked our stuff in Pledge wood polish.

I looked over at the disinfectant, and while the color of the can is indeed blue, the label looks absolutely nothing like the Pledge can.

Later, this incident got me to thinking about how we use color for communication in our design work. The green coffee can is decaff, the cherry flavored candy is red, and pastel pink or blue on a cereal box is most likely a vanilla nut healthy cereal aimed at women.

In my case with the disinfectant, I simply remembered that can's color is blue. When asked to use it, I reached for the blue can. I ended up polishing our carpet and curtains in the process.

I looked both of the blue cans over and discovered that they are both a pleasant "outdoors" scent. Two different companies use the color blue to say "outdoors". Interesting.

Along the same line, my toothpaste is a cool mint flavor and my hemorrhoid cream offers a cooling sensation. Is there a color to represent "cool" because I sure as hell don't want to mix the two up.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short post: New post coming soon after I clean up this mess


I am in the middle of remodeling the upstairs bathroom. I admit that this is my first big renovation project and I thank God that my brother (who has extensive experience in doing this crapola) is helping me out.

I've learned many things while taking this wonderful journey. The main thing is that if you have eczema, wear gloves while handling hardibacker board. My hands look like those of a dried-up zombie.

Anyway, once I get done with this mess, I'll have a few posts ready. Until then, have fun and happy designing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why employers are beating down the dude's door

A good friend of mine is beating the odds against a sucky economy. Without actively pursuing employment, he's had three (3) design firms personally approach him, offering him a job.

Many people are having a tough time jumping out of the unemployment line and this happily employed dude gets three (3) out-of-the-blue job offers. How? Lucky streak? Good karma?

Well, I don't believe in luck or karma, but I can tell you what this dude** does posses that turns him into someone who is sought after by rabid employers. Rabid, I say.

1. I don't mean to insult your intelligence with the obvious, but what the hell: The dude knows his craft.

"Well, duh," you say. "So do I!"

Sure you do. You and a thousand million billion other designers out there. Even if the work varies from weak to excellent, any graphic designer (or copywriter, art director, pool cleaner, etc) worth their saltines knows his or her craft.

While knowing what the hell you're doing within your particular profession is extremely important to getting the job done, that is only a small portion as to what would make an employer kick in your door.

2. The dude has a killer work ethic.

When someone is early to work, eager to work, likes his work, and cranks out work that is of a high quality, then such dazzling work practices get noticed. The dude has made plenty of connections through his freelance jobs. As word about his honesty and integrity in his work spread, so did his job offers.

3. The dude is not arrogant about his work.

Some may think, "People mistake arrogance for confidence." Yeah, only arrogant people say that.

When someone is arrogant, it's hard for them to see their mistakes, although it seems to heighten one's abilities to see the mistakes in others' work (usually to try and cover insecurities in their own work). Because of that, people will not really want to come to them for advice on…well, anything. Arrogance is the cock block of teamwork, and if you're not a team player*, employers don't have much use for you.

4. The dude's helpful.

Simple, right? If someone has a question and he has the answer, he'll help out. You would be surprised at how many peers enjoy watching others sink or swim - especially if they sink.

Another friend of mine writes code at a local web/design firm. We'll call her Sally. When a new employee came into the office for orientation, Sally thought it would be nice to write out a few things to help the newbie get situated. Why? Because my friend had an absolute hellish first month when she started at the company. While her manager at the time was very accommodating, her peers were not only unhelpful with any questions or problems she faced as a new employee, they were downright mean.

Sally wanted to help out, not to brown nose the boss (because she didn't blab and blab and blab to her boss and the rest of the office about how she is taking it upon her fragile shoulders to help the poor new employee), but just to be team player* and to genuinely help someone avoid some of the pitfalls she experienced.

5. The dude is nice.

This appears to be an add-on to #4 since "helpful" and "nice" seem to go hand in hand, but you don't necessarily have to be nice to be helpful. You could be a world-class asshat of a mechanic and still help people to get their cars working.

What I mean is this: Have you ever worked with a peer whose attitude was so piss poor that they made everyone else in the office uncomfortable? The angry grumbler who surrounds him or herself with the eggshells upon which you must carefully tread?

Some people are so full of suck that no one in the office wants to work with them. Which, by default, places them in the "difficult" and "not a team player*" corner.

6. The dude is not a freaking drama queen.

Bringing personal problems to work, constantly panicking about every little thing, crying, pouting, and being the personification of a sore that itches does not make others want to work with or around a co-worker. Giant freak-outs about a moved deadline or a typo are not warranted.

Put dramatic spasms into perspective: Cancer is serious. Car wrecks are serious. Getting mugged is serious. A color change on a proof is not.

At least not enough to wave the arms all around and scream throughout the office like a crazed banshee, making both peers and boss sick to death of the dramatic crapola.


7. He owns up to his mistakes.

Yep. Anyone who will throw others under the bus in order to cover his or her mistakes is someone NEVER to be trusted. Why? Because when someone makes a mistake at his or her job and doesn't come clean about it, they are essentially lying.

Owning up and willing to correct work-related mistakes shows character-built integrity and honesty. If all someone can do is find ways to cover their tracks and point fingers at others who have nothing to do with the problem, then word will spread fast enough to brand the person completely worthless and untrustworthy in their job.

Although such a person deserves to have their freaking teeth knocked out, doing so would brand you as a rash and violent person. So don't go around knocking people's teeth out no matter how much they have it coming. Be a team player* and do your job well, knowing that the moron must learn not be such a lying clown shoe or they could be bounced out of a job.

*Let me end here and explain what I mean by "team player".

A team player is not necessarily someone supportive of design-by-committee or to bend over backwards for the detrimental-to-your-work benefit of the group. It's not about group brain storming or sheep-like group think.

A team player simply recognizes that they work for a company with a group of other individuals, all of whom should be treated with professional respect. No more, no less. They have a job to do, you have a job to do, and you are all (ideally) on the same team.

Employers like to see this dynamic work, and if you are the one pissing all over it, then don't expect anyone to do you any favors.

** No relation to Lebowski.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Esther Aarts: the Old-School iPad

Allan Peters turned me on to Esther Aarts' killer illustration work.

According to the Esther Aarts blog, all the "marker doodles" are done on the iPad. :D

My first job: Shocked, I was.

My first real job was a marketing/graphic design intern position with a local construction company.

Like many growing companies, these guys were sick of paying the relatively high prices to outsource their design work. They would spend a pretty penny having someone else put together their project books and print ads.

So they decided to bring all their marketing and design in-house...and I was it. Design department? Marketing? Me. The intern who was still in school.

Wet behind the ears is understating the cliche. I was soaked from head to toe, but it was exciting and now as I look back, I couldn't have started my career at a better place.

You see, I came into this internship from a job where I answered phones and figuratively changed the diapers of those attempting to fill out their college financial aid forms online. Out of all the jobs I've had, the freaking phone-answering job had to be the craziest and most stressful.

If I had to go to the bathroom, I had to "punch out" of my phone so that management knew I was not available, and I had TWO (2) minutes to get to the bathroom and get back or I was in trouble. It didn't matter if I had to go number 1 or number 2, I had to push fast and sit my half-wiped ass back down to answer the phones.

I worked at this place full time to get me through design school. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of an internship doing design work for a construction company, I jumped at it. I was overjoyed that it was a paying gig and I could quit my hectic job with Big Brother.

Imagine my shock as I left a job where I didn't have time to piss to a place where they sat me at my own desk to perform a couple week's worth of...web browsing.

They wanted me to design a new web site for the company and they wanted me to take a look at other construction companies' sites to see what I thought worked.

I was shell-shocked because after the first couple of full days, I had sketches and notes up the wazoo for a new web site. The rest of the week was just cruising the net. They didn't have anything else for me to do just yet, so I was to simply sit tight.

Well, I at least wanted to get started building the site, even if they didn't have all the information I needed ready to go.

Since I knew both diddly and squat about coding, I told them I needed...haha...I told them that for me...hee hee...for me to build the web site, I would need...I would need...hahaha...Microsoft FRONTPAGE....


Yeah. Intern.

Anyway, after my first week there of noodling around on the internet and eating candy, I started to feel guilty about getting paid to do this "job". I mean, after almost two years of getting hammered day in and day out on the phones by people who didn't know how to clear their browser cookies, I felt like I was stealing from my new employers.

I told my brother, who works as a web programmer, about my feelings. He laughed and told me to chill and soak it up because the slow pace will come and go, and when it goes, I'll understand why the company hired me.

He was right. The slow couple of weeks came to an end and suddenly I had a ton of construction project books to design, as well as the site, print ads, newsletters, and press releases.

Then a couple more slow weeks. More internet noodling and candy.

I was sad to leave that company (although the money I was to make at my new job would cheer me up considerably) because it was a great first job that yielded much time for me to learn my craft.

One last thing. Those of you who are starting late in the design profession, or it is taking longer than usual to finally get through school, know that when I accepted my internship, I was 30 years-old.

Yep, a 30 year-old intern working in FrontPage. Don't let that image make you sad because I am now onto better things in my career. If I can do it, anyone can. Trust me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thrash metal logos do their job

I love thrash metal logos.

Twisted, jangled, thorny, stretched, sketchy, bloody, and even amateurish.

To look at them, some may wince at the band logo's appearance. Check out any one at random and you'll usually find at least one of the following characteristics: hand drawn, spikes, inconsistent widths, and some unreadable. They also like the color red.

Yeah, I love 'em.

What these logos lack in beauty, they gain in recognition. A D.I.Y. aesthetic derived from thrash's punk roots. The album art could be anything, but with a thrash band's logo plastered across the top of the cover, fans instantly know what they're getting.

Sure, some thrash metal logos can be pretty slick, but a lot of the new retro thrash bands that have popped up, as well as any old-school death metal band, immortalize their names within logos that could care less about conservative design principles.

They are strictly for the me!

Here are a few examples.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Polishing a turd

I'm not sure if it was a coincidence or not.

My friend told me about a flyer he has been working on for the last two months. Oh, he got it done a long time ago, but it keeps getting sent back to him for revisions. By one executive.

So far, this executive has asked for 11 revisions on a project that was literally sent through all the channels, signed off on, and was put to bed.

The flyer was about to go to print until he saw it.

Now, you have to understand how this executive thinks. He actually told a girl in the marketing department, "Yeah, you'll never want to show me anything because I will make changes."


As I said, my friend already went through all the channels regarding the flyer design. He told me that a bunch of people had predetermined how this flyer was going to look, so when he was originally finished, he had already deemed it a toxic addition to his portfolio.

It was a "turd," he said.

But the flyer was done and he was more than happy to close the book on it.

Then word came back from marketing that one of the suits saw it and requested a change. Fine. He did it, sent it back, and went on to his next job.

The next day, word came back that the executive didn't think he got the change quite right. Fine. My buddy made the change, sent it back, and washed his hands of it.

After all, the flyer was ugly to begin with. The executive's requests were simply making the damn thing uglier and uglier.

Needless to say, the changes continued. Since no information was being added or delelted, the changes were equivalent to "Could you move the blue line up 10 picas?"

Essentially what the executive was doing was polishing the turd. Move the freaking blue line up and down all you want, it's still going to be a steaming pile of gridless information.

To add insult to frustration, the flyer was an internal flyer for employees only. Thankfully, this was not for public consumption, but what was with the constant fixes?

Well, that's what I asked my friend - "Why all the bother?"

He told me, "He's just one of those guys."

So the bottom line is that there were no real reasons for the executive's changes. He's some dude with a hankering for adding his two cents.

Now back to my original statement. I'm not sure if it was a coincidence or not, but after my friend told me about his misadventures in committee design, I stumbled across this article over at Smashing Magazine (LINK).

I read the article on the pitfalls of design-by-committee and chuckled to myself. I even left a comment there, linking to an article about a terrible redesign of a logo, directed by focus groups and stakeholder input. HA-HA! Yuck.

My friend's experience and the article got me thinking about my own design work and the occasional compromises I have to make in the name of the committee.

Thankfully I learned to never be married to my work. Take pride in my work, sure, but never get too attached because complete creative freedom is hardly a reality.

Otherwise frustration will rise when you're faced with an executive who likes to move around your blue lines.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

First year students and my own bad design work

Along with my lovely wife, I gave a presentation about working as a graphic designer to a lecture hall full of beginning design students.

The instructor wanted us to give a small kick in the pants to these guys and let them know how freaking cool it is to be a designer.

Well, shoot, that's easy. Right?

So as the presentation began, we spoke about our early years in design school: commuting, working full time, and completely broke. BROKE.

Many students related to that. Score.

We told them about how their passion for design will reflect in their work. We told them how to make the most of their time while learning design principles in school.We told them that school assignments aren't like pain in the ass math story problems, but rather a journey for their creativity, and school is the one place where they will be able to shine and build that gorgeous portfolio to entice future employers.

Sounds great, eh?

Oh, it wasn't all pie-in-the-sky talk about passion and creativity. We also warned them about dangerous office politics and how to avoid the dreaded Weaselsnake-worm, but we only touched on that. Most of the presentation centered on how it completely rocks to be a graphic designer. Infinity.

Now while this might have been a pleasant eye-opening experience for the students, I had a bit of an awakening myself.

It happened while talking through some of my design work. I brought with me mostly print pieces - ads, campaign posters, newsletters and the like.

As each slide clicked by, I had a great time explaining process, grid and concept. Then it happened.

One of my favorite pieces popped up on the giant screen. I looked up at the oversized ad, ready to dive into the what's and the why's of the piece, and all that came out of me was, "Uh..."

As I gazed up, it was like I saw the piece for the first time. I designed it a couple years ago and it always stuck in my mind as a very cool design piece. However, now it was up on the big screen and after a few seconds I thought, "What a colossal hunk of crap!"

After thinking that and realizing that the students were all looking at the same image I was looking at, I had to say something a bit some substantial than "uh".

"Okay, I don't like this piece," I said, as if I had thought that all along. I went on to explain why I added a bad design to the slides. I explained to the students what I was originally thinking when working on the design and why it really doesn't work (zero eye flow, hits you over the head, a "try too hard" look to the design, etc.).

This actually gave me a bit of cred. An designer who could keep his ego in check long enough to speak about his own design mistakes! Yes, I exist, although by accident. I really thought it was a good piece at first.

So after speaking about the mistakes I made, a student raised her hand and asked, "If you designed that today, what would you have done differently?"


I JUST found out that I hated it. Now I had to quickly deconstruct the design and see about how to do it right.

Thankfully, I was able to explain on the fly by reversing what I said about the design's major flaws (pay attention to eye flow, be more subtle, don't over-think, etc.).

I was a little more specific than it sounds, and in the end, my explanation worked.

After a rather successful presentation, i went home to think about how I need to go back over some of my past designs to look and learn from previously unnoticed mistakes.

Putting past work under a magnifying glass might be a great idea. Not only can it help a designer see what he or she may need to clean up in their portfolio, but it can be a nice affirmation of one's growth in the profession.

If we can keep our egos in check long enough. ;)

Short post: Know your stuff before the interview

At the age of 16, I was asked during a job interview, "What is the most important thing about consumerism?"

I asked, "What's consumerism?"

I didn't get the job. Lesson learned.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Protect yourself from the office weasels

Unfortunately within many departments, not just the design department, there is an element which could be extremely detrimental to your employment. It's called the weasel.

Or the snake or worm or any other creature used to describe a person looking to use exaggerations and manipulation to toss you and your career under the bus.

Right away, most of you thought of that one person at your workplace that fit the description. Weaselsnake-worms are the people with which you purposely do NOT share personal or professional information.

Why? Because the Weaselsnake-worm will take that information, jumble it up just enough to either make you look bad or to make them look good (usually both). They will then find a way to regurgitate this nonsense to anyone in higher management.

So what you thought was just a typical conversation about work, co-workers, or your boss has now become job-threatening gossip. Even if the conversation you had with the Weaselesnake-worm was harmless or joking, a few missing details could transform it into a malicious bitchfest. Now, after selectively choosing what the Weaselsnake-worm will tell management about your conversation, you are now on the sh*tlist.

Such behavior perpetrated by the Weaselsnake-worm is deemed acceptable to them because they somehow mistake backstabbing and juicy douchebaggery for hard ambition.

So you learn early to find out who is the Weaselsnake-worm and steer clear.

Easy way to determine a Weaselsnake-worm:

- They try to cozy up to the boss in relatively uncomfortable ways. While its perfectly acceptable to be on friendly ground with your boss, it's another thing to clamor for a BFF relationship with him or her. This also includes getting angry if anyone else in the office is getting any type of positive attention from the boss.

- You will rarely if ever get a compliment out of them if everyone else (including the boss) has paid you some big kudos on your work. You see, you just "one-uped" the Weaselsnake-worm, and that is simply unacceptable to him or her. OR...

- You will get a healthy dose of compliments for your work to try and drag you into personal conversations. These conversations will quickly steer into your personal feelings regarding you job and co-workers. This is like poisoning your own drink.

- No accountability. This is a doozy because to the Weaselsnake-worm cannot take the chance of looking bad in front of the boss. Also, since they believe that everyone else in the office is just as "ambitious" as they are, the Weaselsnake-worm doesn't want to lose face in front of the peers who will go directly to the big boss and rat him or her out!

All of these examples lead up to one thing: throwing you under the bus to try and further their career in the workplace.

There are a couple ways to avoid being eaten alive by the Weaselsnake-worm in the office.

- The most important thing is to be direct and honest at your job. People who are honest and truthful without arrogance have integrity, and people see and respect that - especially the boss. This is an important defense against the Weaselsnake-worm's attacks, because when it comes down to believing one word against another, one tends to believe a person with integrity over one who has zilch.

- Leave a BIG paper trail. If you have to work directly with the Weaselsnake-worm on a project, try to get everything in writing via email and make sure you carbon copy anyone who may have anything to do with the particular job, including the boss. You see, if anything goes wrong, the Weaselsnake-worm has a way of "losing" bits of information or lying about what the parameters of the job entailed. For some reason, the lost details always seem to make it your fault. A virtual paper trail will serve well in protecting you against the buss's career-crushing wheels.

- As mentioned before, do not share information with the Weaselsnake-worm. Especially do not say anything about the job, co-workers, or the boss that you wouldn't say in front of them. This is where the integrity part comes in. Such loose-lipped ammunition is all the Weaselsnake-worm needs to bury you, so don't be party to it.

Good luck out there in the wilderness of the office and stay protected!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Glorious b&w and lessons from old-school generic labels

I remember thinking that the old stark black and white generic food labels were freaking cool. I liked how a box of corn flakes would simply be a big white box with the word "Corn Flakes" written in bold black letters across the front.

You would see these labels spattered about the store. Green Beans. Flour. Beer. Cola.


Companies are always trying to figure out the best way to draw a consumer's eye to their particular product as it sits on a cluttered store shelf. Well, take some lessons from the old-school generic label, man. The reason it stuck out to me was because it stood as this shining beacon of pure black on white within a sea of supposedly popping colors and images.

You couldn't help it. Your eye would automatically go right to the white box. For many years now, many generic/store brands have used color package design, ironically making them more generic.

"New look! Same great taste!" Yeah, right. :P

The idea of how well the black and white labels products drew my eye followed into my days of screaming in a hardcore/thrash metal band. When printing up flyers, I hated it when others would recommend colored paper to "draw attention" to our gig advertisement.

Heck, EVERY band was printing flyers on orange, yellow, and light blue paper. My guitarist and I demanded pure white paper with big-ass bold black type.

It was great to see on the outside walls of the local record stores and clubs, done up like a freaking rainbow with all the colored flyers, you could see our bright white paper flyer from across the street.

Although the only people who would show up to our gigs were those who lived for METAL and mosh pits, the flyer still did its job of making people look at it - at least those who were looking to see live music.

In my day job as a graphic designer for a financial institution, I tend to get a ton of black and white ad work orders. I know of people who sneer at having to create black and white ads, especially small ones. They look at them as "throwaways" that can be slapped together and shipped to print.

An understandable mindset when you are on your 20th small b&w ad, that will essentially advertise within similar publications, the same services as the past 19 ads. Just switch out the little photo/graphic to fit the demographic, and BOOM, new ad. Yawn.

Yes it is an understandable, yet misguided mindset. Even the smallest newspaper ad can shine in its color-challenged form if done right (and even if you have to do a bunch of 'em throughout the year).

There is so much potential for a cool b&w ad to pop, especially when everyone else wants to cram as much information into their ads as possible. You know where I'm going with this. A good lesson from the old-school generic labels. Chipotle ads got it right!

Beyond ads, stark black and white design can look fantastically slick.

Here are just a few examples that have caught my eye.

I love, love this cover for Spectacular Spider-Man #101. I believe it was created by the legendary John Byrne.

Beautiful, slick and eye-catching.

These are a couple examples of b&w art from the ridiculously talented Alex Trochut.

EDIT: Over at the inspirationfeed site, they have a nice list of b&w biz cards. Check it out.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Make your period a little more enjoyable...with cool design!

I came across these packages of U by Kotex and marveled at the nice design work.

Although I am a male and blissfully ignorant of what fun a monthly visitor is like, I believe that if I were miraculously blessed with a menstrual cycle, these would be my choice cotton absorbents based on the design alone.

This package design for U is way better than it used to be, which looked like a condom box you would buy at an interstate truck stop.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's a fun job, but it's still a job

I don't work in a design firm. My job resides within a small department of a financial institution - the creative department, a suburb of marketing.

I don't have the leisure of a jeans and a t-shirt atmosphere. One Friday evening I relived my 20s and shaved my hair into a mohawk, went to a party on Saturday, woke up late on Sunday, shaved the rest of my head that evening for my required clean-cut appearance on Monday.

My co-workers and I within the design department look like the rest of the company's employees with our business-as-usual attire, but those on the outside of our workspace know there is something different about us. No, we're not better or smarter or prettier...we simply enjoy coming to work.*

When you work in a nice, yet sanitized and stuffy workplace, you can literally smell it when someone in the building is having fun at his or her job. And there is the problem: in the eyes of many, if you're having fun at your job, then you don't really have a JOB job. If you're having fun at your job, then you are basically "goofing off".

We are in the department that gets to play with crayons, and crayons are for kids. Doing our little art projects for the company. Having fun. Goofing off.

I can't say I entirely blame others within the company for feeling that way. Every other department has sterile, clean walls and ours are covered with design trends, comic art, and posters. Every other department deals with customers in well lit offices. We work under dimmed lights and only deal with each other. Every other department has an iron clamp on their internet usage while we have unlimited access for research, tutorials, and, of course, stock photography.

I believe the perception of graphic designers as kids in the playroom is universal dogma to those not in the profession.

Once, after a particular stressful day, I mentioned to a friend that I had a tough day at work. He snorted out a scoffing laugh and condescendingly murmured, "Work." He went on to give me details about his labor-intensive job and told me that once I do something similar to what he does, then I can claim to actually work.


I can't apologize for loving what I do. I've worked many, many crappy jobs in the past before I became a graphic designer. In fact, it was working all those terrible jobs that made me want to go back to college and pursue something I genuinely enjoy doing.

Also, the fact that I am having a blast at work doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. I have handled million dollar campaigns, and there's not much "goofing off" when the company is fronting that kind of dough. If I'm NOT serious about my job, the campaign could flop, rendering me an unemployed designer.

I'm not about to convince anyone otherwise who believes my job is equivalent to playing on a playground. Heck, sometimes it is. I just thank God that within the marketplace there is a need for what I love to do.

*We are lucky enough to not work under levels of micro managing middle managers, angry co-workers looking to throw anyone under the bus, or power-tripping suits who see themselves as stand-in art directors. This is a rare thing within corporate institutions and we are fortunate and ecstatic to be where we are.

I know many designers who work in a worse environment than I, but even with all the corporate b.s., they are still happy with their chosen profession. It beats working as a roofer or a king's food taster.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Album art that told a story (usually a scary one)

As a child, I loved thumbing through my father's record collection. He is a fan of blues and old-school hard rock, so mixed in with BB King and Johnny Winter I would also find Blue Oyster Cult, 70s-era Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Nazareth, White Witch, and The Who.

The album art to which I was most attracted was anything that was a bit dark and ominous. You could gaze not at the album cover, but INTO the album cover, finding your own story within. Usually it wasn't too pretty.

Consider Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny cover or Rainbow's Rising album art. All beautiful and scary at the same time.

I would spend hours with these records, studying and pondering the story behind each one. The old building on Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Alice's green face when he Goes to Hell.

Throughout my dad's entire collection, no cover had the impact on me like the Medusa album from Trapeze.

This cover art literally scared the crap outta me.

While older folks who gaze at the cover for the first time might not see any reason for such a dreaded feeling, you have to look at it through the eyes of a 5 or 6 year-old kid.

First of all, the album is titled Medusa. Even at that young age I remember seeing a painting of the beheaded snake-haired woman with a look of anger and terror frozen in her eyes and open mouth. Just the word Medusa was scary enough to me.

Then we have the cover art: a stained glass horror. Triangular shapes piecing together to form an angry face, seemingly screaming at another face below. The angry face became a character all its own to me, and not one that I would ever want to meet. It embodied nothing but anger, highlighted in its eyes and cartoonishly crooked mouth.

The emotion I took away from the front cover made the back cover all the more disturbing. The art work appeared the same, just a bit more ethereal. Within the swirling colors, I could make out another face showing off what appears to be a smile and a wink. The happy emotion is mixed in a surrounding atmosphere of new age, storms, and fire. Any peaceful offerings hinted at on the back cover is a facade.

As terrible as I make it sound, the entire cover, both front and back, are genuinely beautiful expressions Trapeze's music. There is a story in there and my past 6 year-old self looked hard for it and loved every minute of it.

Even if it did give me nightmares.

Clever equivalencies

Charlycrash over at Livejournal's designrants wrote out a hilarious list of what the client sounds like to a designer when asking for silly or unreasonable requests. Classic.

Monday, June 21, 2010

As designers grasping for concepts, we've all done it.

Generally, products are supposed to make our lives easier. Think about it: can openers, window cleaners, orange peelers, dish washers, steam irons, water picks, banking services, self-propelling mowers and vacuums, diet pills, WD-40, iPhones, etc., etc., etc.

When faced with creating an ad for such a product, a designer wants an original concept. We need to let the consumer know that specific tasks will flow so much easier if they run out and buy whatever is pictured in the ad.

Sometimes when the brain is fried from too much…whatever designers like to do on the weekend…then the dulled artistic mind will inevitably fall back to the default tried and true concept:

Life is Hard. Your (fill in the blank) Doesn't Have to Be.

For design students, this concept is a must. It's just going to happen and nobody is to blame. Kids laugh at knock-knock jokes, tadpoles swim in water, and design students create "Life is Hard" ads.

Now if the student who created the ad doesn't get slapped down early in the critique process, he or she may think that such weak brainstorming is acceptable.

Don't get me pegged as a concept snob. I still have my own fair share of stink bombs. It's just that the "Life is Hard" concept is such an unbelievably easy cop-out to witty or clever ideas (and it is surprisingly overused in the professional arena), that to not call folks out on it would be a disservice to their creativity.

So if the student did not learn to avoid the default concept pit trap, they may very well incorporate it into their professional career.


Life is Hard. Washing dishes shouldn't be.


Life is stressful. Your plane ride shouldn't be.


Life is full of problems. Your insurance company shouldn't be one of them.


Life is a bitch. Your girlfriend shouldn't be. (Okay, that one's a bit funny, but it would never pass the suits.)

I noticed this trend of the easy concept when I ran across one in a national magazine. Why did it catch my eye? Because I thought, "Wow, I've done ads like this before."

Then after I let the concept in the ad simmer for a moment, I thought, "Aw, crap. I've done ads like this before."

I realized that since I was never reprimanded for my own elementary ideas while in my advanced design courses, I carried those bad habits into my professional career.

If you are a student, please be receptive to push harder into your concepts.

As professionals who may occasionally do more than a few student portfolio reviews, the best medicine we can offer is to slap down lazy concepts. Stop them at the inside doors of the university before we are hit with another "Life is Hard. Your water shouldn't be."

Because, after all, life is hard. So should brainstorming for quality concepts.

My first frightening logo

I was a very visual kid, and certain images would burn themselves into my head, terrifying me as I tried to sleep at night. The first image I remember having this effect on me was the logo for the movie The Shining.

Saul Bass created an image that was equally scary and haunting as the movie itself (at least to a 7 year-old). If I had to point out the most frightening aspect of The Shining's logo, it would have to be the eyes of the...boy? Ghost? Who or what is that individual trapped within the shapes of the waved letters? It didn't matter. To me, the image did its job by solidifying the idea that The Shining was a scary freaking movie.

As I look at the logo today, it makes me wish more film studios would identify their movies with a genuine piece of worked art instead of whatever system font is available.

If I see one more comedy using Gill Sans Ultra Bold for their "logo", I'm gonna puke glass.

Training the employees and pissing them away

There are many confusing aspects to working in a design/marketing department.

Let's start here.

First we have Company A looking to hire an art director who has extensive design skills as well as knowledge on web code. Company A is reluctantly willing to train those weak in coding skills, but only because they are NOT willing to pay even the minimum salary rate of an experienced art director.

Now, since Company A is having a hard time hiring art directors and designers because of their low pay wage, those working for the Company are getting extremely backed up with jobs, mainly due to the account managers not being able to set boundaries with the clients, but also because the Company is understaffed for the quantity promised.

The underpaid art directors are now burdened with a pile of impossible deadlines and Company A will not approve even an hour of overtime to handle the expected work load.

How in the world does Company A expect to keep quality art directors and designers? You have a group of frustrated employees who have sharpened their skills to a fine edge due to unreasonable demands from the ignorant suits who not only deal with the clients ineptly, but also fancy themselves junior art directors.

"Change this or I will not send it out the client."

So now that Company A has trained their employees through trial by fire, one would think they would do right by the those who busted ass to get everything out on time. A raise maybe? Haha, forget it.


Well, now you have office managers overseeing the design department who have bonus incentives for keeping costs low. Handing raises out like candy doesn't very well cut the costs, does it? So bend over the hard workers within the department with empty promises that the big bosses are "considering" the raise/promotion, and "we'll get back to you".

Weird. One would think that with all the time and money spent training the newbies on all the necessary skills for the job, they would want to freaking keep them.

But now the employees have their sharpened skills, and with what they are experiencing with the Company, there's only so much they can take before beginning to hate the workplace. So they end up taking their sharpened skills elsewhere. Most likely Company B may very well have its own set of faults, but they will respect the people involved in making the company a success. Company A trains them and then Company B benefits on Company A's time and dime.

Company A's loss. Now the Company is stuck with a high turnover rate with the self-imposed curse of hiring only inexperienced newbies who they will have to train...and then inevitably loose to another company.

A rotted business practice to be sure, but one that is easily avoidable. However, Company B will not be complaining any time soon.

My first love (for a logo)

The first logo I remember attracting my attention was Mobil Oil's. There was a Mobil Oil station in my grandmother's small town of Lakin, KS, and every time we went to visit I would look out for their faded logo on the front of the small brick building.

Why did this particular logo call to me for a passing-by eyefull? Although the red "o" is the obvious focal point within the Mobil logo, I remember really being infatuated with the logo's blue.

Blue to me was the color the working man. It was the color of the gas attendent's jumpsuits, the color of their garage rags, and even the color of some of the beat up Chevy and Ford trucks parked haphazardly all over the gravel parking lot.

I also can't deny that the color combination of red and blue reminded me of the small plastic toys my mom would buy me at the local ALCO store. If that was the simple explanation for my liking of the Mobil logo, such a cause is unsurprising to me. I was, and still am, a toy geek.

Even as I see the logo today, the direct simplicity of the letters along with its iconic focal "o" is still a thing of beauty. No frills, no Photoshop bevels, and you know it when you see it.

Thank you, Mobil logo, for being the possible first steps into my love for design.