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Taking the Next Big Step

They sit stuffed within a ruffled stack of documents beside my desk, although the haphazard nature of their filing belies their importance to me. They are “official immigration documents” but their value to me is far more personal than political.

The first document is a copy of the manifest from the good ship Oceanic, sailing on the Atlantic on the White Star Line out of Queensboro, Ireland in September 17, 1902. It arrived at Ellis Island, New York City and the historical record transcribed on the manifest is as follows:

Name: Michael Brett

Age: 17 (typed as 14)

Occupation: Laborer

Cash on person: $15

My grandfather left Ireland with not much to keep him there. He lost both of his parents at an early age, presumably to tuberculosis, although the historical record is a bit sketchy on this matter. Michael came over as an orphan with my great uncle John Brett, seeking a better life for he and his future offspring.

What guts.

I moved to Chicago from Ohio when I was 21 and I was intimidated by the prospect. I can't fathom what it must have been like to venture to a foreign country you have never visited. Then again, I also can't imagine what it must have been like to be an orphan as a teenager with only $15 to your name.

From time to time, I read the manifest when I feel the urge to take a big step and need the proverbial kick in the ass to pull myself out of my routine. We all get stuck from time to time, as individuals and organizations. Change can be scary and paralyzing, particularly in a recession where you don’t know what lies ahead. But it beats stagnancy any day.

What big moves have you made to keep yourself moving forward and take yourself further in your journey? Are you moving ahead or spinning your wheels? Sometimes you just have to jump on that ship and see where it takes you.

The move worked out pretty well for Michael Brett. The orphan from Tulla, Ireland ended up having ten children of his own, and siring 53 grandchildren.

That second document I keep beside my desk? My Irish passport, which I was able to secure through Irish citizenship, the benefit of my grandfather being born in Ireland.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Going Big On Governors Island

The most esoteric play of the year award goes to Lincoln Center Festival production of Dostoevsky's Demons. The source novel is a 700+ page story of a political assassination among a radical student group in 19th century Tsarist Russia. It's dark, laborious, difficult to follow, and one of the best books I've ever read. In its own convoluted way it's a bit of a page turner, once you fall into the rhythm of the prose.

The upcoming New York production, of which only two performances will be held, does justice to the novel in length if not content. The play is 12 hours long, performed in Italian, and will be produced on Governor's Island. Audience members will need to take a ferry from Manhattan to the island then walk to the warehouse where it is being staged.

It's unlikely I will see the play, but I love the fact that it is being produced. Having just come off an eight month literary journey of reading all the major Dostoevsky works, as well as the Joseph Frank cinder-block sized biography, I have an appreciation for his genius and the demands it makes upon the reader. While I can't vouch for the quality of the performance, the scope and duration is exactly the type of translation a work of this magnitude calls for, an ideal translation of user experience.

We've all sat through movie adaptations of books that, by necessity, eviscerated the plot to conform to the demands of a two hour running time. This play does the opposite, which seems to be the only way an adequate translation of the book could be accomplished.

In a world of the Kindle, which conveys information but not experience; and increasingly shortened attention spans that substitute scanning for comprehension, it's gratifying to see a production that pushes boundaries and tests stamina.

A Fine Balance

One of the challenges of owning a design firm is deciding what type of clients to pursue and what type of work to take on. Historically, we have been very successful with professional services firms, including a number of Fortune 500 clients, mixed with the occasional not-for-profit or pro bono work. The mix keeps things interesting and forces our thinking to remain fresh.

We made the decision at the outset of 2010 to consciously pursue not-for-profit clients that were doing interesting and socially relevant work. This work comes not at the expense of our existing corporate clients, but in addition to them in our client portfolio.

Our efforts have paid off, in our collaboration with AIDS Foundation Chicago on the 2010 Chicago AIDS Walk / Ride, and our continuing work with YMCA of the USA.

I'm thrilled to report we will be partnering with another great organization, the Illinois Humanities Council. The IHC, through programs and grants, promotes an understanding for and appreciation of, the humanities in Illinois. They fund numerous activities throughout the state, including seminars, discussions, performances, film, and the written word.

Any time we land a new client, it's always pretty exciting. But the opportunity to work with one whose mission directly correlates with many of my own hobbies and interests is a coup worth celebrating.

New! Improved! For Real This Time!

Back in the day, Coca-Cola gave us an object lesson in how NOT to change your product. We all remember it. They wanted to reinvigorate their brand by refining the formula for Coke. After extensive research, including focus groups which universally lauded the new product, they released New Coke to massive fanfare.

It fizzled.

After a few months on the market, it was pulled and Classic Coke went back to being just plain Coke, the kind we still drink today.

This time around, a company finally gets it right when it comes to redoing their product. Of course it helps that their product was pretty terrible to begin with. Domino's Pizza overhauled their pizza formula after 18 months of growing criticism. Rather than close their ears and hide from the poor reviews, they embraced it. After a guerilla ad campaign that showed diners criticizing the pizza, comparing it to cardboard with sauce, Domino's is back with a new pizza and revived sales to show for it. The company profit has more than doubled in the wake of the new recipe and campaign.

I can't vouch for the quality of the pizza, not having sampled it. But from a marketing and crisis communication standpoint, the company did everything right. They admitted there was a problem, they addressed publicly in a memorable and humorous way, owning the story at every step.

The commercials got people talking, the new product got people buying.

Act Two

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously opined “there are no second acts in American lives.”

With no disrespect to the great chronicler of the early 20th century, no realm of the arts has proven him more wrong than that of music. To the contrary, the artists who have not burned out or faded away have had their careers defined by late stage comebacks, reinventions and renewed interest by younger audiences. Bob Dylan’s career path has been so varied and gone through so many evolutions that it would be more accurate to say he has experienced second, third and fourth acts, still continuing to follow his muse in new directions well into his late sixties.

In the twilight of his life Johnny Cash recorded a stripped down series of albums most notably “American Recordings” with famed producer Rick Rubin that broadened his appeal to a new generation of listeners, many of whom would have never considered listening to country music. I had the pleasure of seeing the Man in Black at the now defunct Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. Punk rockers with mohawks and multiple body piercings chatted amiably with senior citizens in what was easily the most eclectic concert audience I have ever experienced.

Now, the great Gil Scott Heron now follows suit with his ironically titled new CD “I'm New Here”. Heron’s music defies classification, spanning blues, soul, spoken word and hip-hop. Of course, he was doing hip-hop 40 years ago, long before anyone had coined the phrase. The stunning new release is largely autobiographical, describing his upbringing in a house of strong women who did not think of their home as broken, instead focusing on what they had, not what they had not.

The best of these songs are pure poetry, the story of his life writ large, in the greater context of the human condition and what it means to be a black man growing up in America. True to his early work, it has anger, sadness, and beats so catchy you almost forget you are hearing a man’s life story and social commentary to boot. The video for his cover of the Robert Johnson song “Me and the Devil” is nothing short of chilling.

His first album in thirteen years, “I'm New Here” proves that some second acts are well worth waiting for.

Design For A Worthy Cause

A collection of artists and designers from around the world will be participating in the Haiti Poster Project. The project seeks limited editions of posters from artists and designers around the world, whose work will be auctioned off to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. This is a very worthy cause for a group that does great work with no regard for personal gain, and often, personal safety. They literally put their lives on the line in the most troubled parts of the world for the simple reason that they can save lives by doing good.

Deadline for poster submissions is March 15. We need to get cracking.

Unexpected Consequences

The Philadelphia Orchestra recently underwent a comprehensive brand repositioning, encompassing a new marketing strategy, website design and online campaign, with the goal of increasing single ticket sales. Like many orchestras, they have been facing a shortage of funding, an aging core audience, and a perception that the are no longer relevant in an ever-competitive marketplace for entertainment dollars.

I was curious to see the results, as the campaign touches on a number of my longtime passions; graphic design, wordplay and classical music. As a longtime subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I have a good sense of the demographics involved and the unique challenges faced by orchestras as they try to engage new audiences.

To meet these challenges, Pennsylvania branding agency Annodyne came up with the concept and tagline “Unexpect Yourself” to roll out the new marketing campaign.

Which is unexpectedly terrible.

Coined phrases have their place in marketing. They can engage an audience in a fresh way when they roll off the tongue, are memorable or particularly euphonious. This is none of the above. While strategically off-base, it also has phonetic connotations that are clumsy at best and downright unpleasant at worst.

Extricate. Expectorate.

These are the words that come to mind, like trying to pull one's foot out of a bucket of sludge. Not the association one wishes to conjure up when branding a world class orchestra. Classical music and the attendance of live performances thereof elevates us. It's not always easy to appreciate, a bit like reading a challenging novel. It can be daunting, but it is ultimately rewarding, and upon becoming familiar, quite a bit of fun. To convey this, the website compares attending an orchestra performance akin to taking a road trip. Which is about as different an experience from a classical performance as I can imagine.

Apart from the clumsiness of the tagline, the campaign is off base because it does not accurately address the offerings of the Philadelphia Orchestra. A quick glance at the schedule reveals a typical greatest hits lineup of classical music clich├ęs.

Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.

These are all brilliant artists, but they are the equivalent of turning on your FM dial and hearing Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones in rapid succession. They are many things, but unexpected is not one of them.

The campaign has created a backlash in Philadelphia and the arts community.

Which, to be honest, is not wholly unexpected.

The Who? The What?

In the touring days of their reckless youth, the band the Who were often referred to as the Horrible Who. The sobriquet had nothing to do with the quality of their music; far from it. It was bestowed on them because of their manic behavior, both onstage and off. Their shows were nothing short of full frontal assaults on the senses, invariably ending in smashed guitars, bloodied fingers, and in the case of guitarist Pete Townsend, profound hearing loss. Keith Moon, the manic drummer who served as the model for the Muppets' Animal, is the archetypical self-destructive musician who “died before he got old”.

It was a different horrible Who at the Superbowl last night. Truncated into anemic medley format, their songs were stripped of the peaks and valleys that gave them their anthemic resonance. It was a bit sad to see Roger Daltrey omit the “F word” from Who Are You. No doubt the network was mindful of Janet Jackson's notorious wardrobe malfunction from a few years back.

I realize asking musicians to maintain authenticity at the Superbowl is the equivalent of asking Rod Blagojevich to have a sense of personal dignity. It's a halftime show, full of schtick and fireworks, more akin to a Vegas spectacle than a full blown concert. However, there's something about the Superbowl halftime show that sucks the life and energy out of the best of bands (Prince being the rare and notable exception). Regardless, watching the Who perform was a bit like seeing your favorite uncle drink too much at a family reunion and get sick on the gardenias. You still love the guy; you just don't want to ever see him like that again.

The greater underlying issue here is one of authenticity. When does a band of note cease to be that band? Keith Moon died in 1978, bassist John Entwistle in 2002. Do two surviving members, albeit the primary creative forces, still constitute the authentic band? Could Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr credibly perform as the Beatles? What about the idea of reuniting Nirvana sans Kurt Cobain for next year's performance?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, indeed.

Walking the Walk

We are very pleased to announce that Substance has been selected to partner with AIDS Foundation of Chicago to develop the branding and marketing campaign for this year's AIDS Run & Walk Chicago. A 5K event with over 7,000 participants, the event benefits over 70 local organizations. This is a very high profile event, as any who lives in the city can tell you, from the ubiquitous CTA banners to the messaging that is prominent throughout Chicago.

We're thrilled about the opportunity and looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work for this very worthy cause and organization.

No Country for Bad Design

As a designer, I'm a sucker for a well-designed book cover. I will gladly spring the extra dollars for the book that has the nice typography in lieu of the tacky movie tie-in book covers. I've been known to buy books I already own by virtue of the cover. The recent Peter Menelsund book covers for Dostoevsky's novels made me repurchase the entire series, though I've yet to reread them.

I had the same weakness for a well-designed CD cover, when that media was relevant. I remember flipping through the stacks of CDs at Dr. Wax in my twenties, when I pulled out a copy of Social Distortion's Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. It's not a great design by any means, but it has a nice energy to it. The hipster skater kid standing next to me took notice and said “that music is exactly like that cover”. I bought it on that endorsement alone. He was right, what you see is what you hear; raw, unflinching with a rebellious spirit to the music.

The same can be said of the re-issue of Cormac McCarthy's backlist, designed by David Pearson. McCarthy is one of my favorite writers and the cover series is breathtaking. Gorgeous typography, bold colors that jump off the page to smack you in the face, and to paraphrase the skater kid, look exactly like what you are about to read. McCarthy's work has never been represented in such an evocative manner, capturing the spirit of the writing and the time in which the stories occur. Stunning work.