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.