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For the past three years, Chicago teen Lauren McClusky has held a fundraiser for Special Olympics. The festival, which she named McFest as a variant on her name, consists of high school and college bands and has raised $30,000 to date. Pretty ambitious and admirable for a teenager. When I was in high school, my charity activities largely consisted of trying to meet girls and buy beer underage, generally failing miserably at both.

For her laudable efforts, Lauren has been rebuffed by the McDonald's Corporation. When she tried to register the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, McDonald's filed a challenge, claiming the fest would be linked to the chain. The trial date is pending and she has spent $5,000 defending the challenge thus far.

I don't want to fall into the knee-jerk populist trap of bashing the big, evil corporation in defense of the little guy. Sadly, there's no other way to look at this scenario. This is a classic case of a company getting it completely wrong. They are confusing protecting their brand with protecting a variation of their name. Whether you love their food or hate it, (I fall into the latter category), McDonald's has done many admirable things for charity. Their Ronald McDonald houses provide families with children in hospitals a place to stay that is comfortable, close to the hospital, at little or no cost. By and large, they have been a fairly solid corporate citizen.

They really screwed up on this one however. The last thing a company with a brand based on family and community needs is the appearance of being the corporate spoiler of a grass roots event to do some good for kids with special needs. McDonald's is so focused on protecting the variants of the “Mc” name, they have lost sight of why that name is valuable to the communities they serve in the first place.

Making the boring interesting, since 2005…

We recently wrapped up a branding and web development project for a professional services firm in the financial industry. Over a celebratory lunch, the client said by way of what I presumed to be a compliment, “Wow, you really made our boring stuff look interesting.”

I never really thought of it that way. One of the most fascinating aspects of being a graphic designer is having to learn all the nuances of a client and their industry before you can develop a meaningful message and brand proposition for that client. I knew nothing about leveraged financing, facilitation training, or private equity, but having done work in each of those industries, I can speak very intelligently about those respective industries.

Which may not win me friends at cocktail parties, but it certainly helps inform the work.

Contrary to the client's comment about their industry being boring, I find it intriguing to have to learn something new with each engagement. I've long resisted the design cliche

Winter Portfolio Review

I will be joining a host of other Chicago design firms to review student portfolios at the AIGA Chicago Winter Portfolio Review. I'm looking forward to seeing what the students are developing and seeing some fresh new ideas. Too often as professionals it's easy to get caught up in the mill of doing work that is palatable to the client, vs. developing work that challenges some expectations.

A Nice Little Surprise

Under Consideration's For Print Only site has done us the kindness of featuring our holiday resolution promotion. Thanks to Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio for the kind words! Hope everyone is keeping their resolutions. Or at least having fun breaking them.

Dont take any guff from the swine. – Hunter S. Thompson

Once again, the London Financial Times has announced its annual awards for management guff. Guff, also known as marketing-consultant-speak is probably best summed up in one word. Bullshit. Phrases such as paradigm-shifting, best in class, impactful and leveraging get bandied about in conference rooms everywhere. It's enough to disincentive even the most jaded consultant.

A few examples and excerpts:

– “We might have significant optionality.”

– “disestablish up to 100 positions” (I would much rather be fired than disestablished)

– “Experience Architect” (an actual job title on a business card)

There are also numerous examples of poorly mixed metaphors and the obligatory overused phrases that permeate the language. The elephant in the room. Throw someone under the bus. Failure is not an option.

What is it that makes people feel the need to abuse such a wonderful means of communication as the English language? As marketing communicators, we counsel our clients to be direct, clear and succinct in their choice of words. Otherwise, it is virtually impossible to develop strategic communication.

One of my favorite writers is Martin Amis, whose collection of non-fiction writings and essays is called The War Against Cliche. I've always taken the title as both rallying cry and litmus test for how we should treat corporate communication. Avoid the lazy and the trite. Strive for originality but not at the expense of clarity. It's a worthy mandate for both clients and designers, one that is applicable to the visual language as well as the written.

Home Sweet Home

This video developed by the American Museum of Natural History is nothing short of breathtaking when viewed in full screen mode. It maps the known universe, scaling back from the (relative) epic peaks of the Himalayas, through the galaxies and toward the limit of the knowable universe, and hence, the literal beginning of time. All done to scale.

It's quite moving to see where we stand in relation to the rest of the universe, akin to staring at the stars on a summer night and feeling blissfully insignificant in the grand scheme of things. When the film scales back from the known reaches of our universe back to Earth, it's quite comforting and makes me think of Earth as “home” in a fresh way.

I considered creating some dopey top ten list to commence 2010 but thought that this did a good job of visually putting our planet (and worries) into perspective and context.

Thanks to David Airey of Belfast for sharing this.

I Heart the New Year

What does a heart have to do with 2010? Not much, to be perfectly honest. But it does serve as a nice teaser for our New Year's holiday promotion booklet. We took the liberty of offering a dozen resolutions, one for each month of the year, then applying a representative quote and image to each. Words from Martin Luther King to Edna St. Vincent Millay are represented, in an elegant sixteen page booklet printed by the good folks at Mission Press. The above graphic is February's resolution (love, of course), with the copy from Shakespeare's “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Day?”

If you would like to receive a copy drop us an email at

Scene One, Take Two

Earlier we discussed the perils of what happens when trademark conflicts ensue with an existing company name. Even if you are not working in the exact same industry space as your client, a peripheral competitor with a similar name or branding can draw the lawyers out from the woodwork. Look no further than the recent kerfluffle between Apple Computers and Apple Records, the label founded by the Beatles. Despite clear differences in their industry and competitive landscape, Apple Computer sued the record company for breach of trademark. Both companies settled in an undisclosed 2007 out of court settlement with the respective parties responsible for their own legal costs.

Given Apple Computer's deep pockets, however, would you really want to get involved in a war of attrition with their attorneys? Me neither. So with regard to trademark infringement, discretion is always the better part of valor.

Substance was tasked with developing naming, branding, and website development for a new firm providing online solutions for homeowner association. The goal was to empower condo board members and owners with online answers in a subscription-based ecommerce model. The name we originally chose was Portico, the name for a covered patio supported by columns. It evoked not only a welcoming place with a distinctive name, but metaphorically referenced the support provided by the online resources.

After developing extensive creative, we had to go back to square one on naming and brand development. The Portico name was already in use by a condo association in the west. Granted, it was not the same industry as our clients, but as in the Apple example, it's best not to poke the bear.

We are pleased to announce the launch of the new Atrios brand and site.

The name is Latin for atrium and the new brandmark visually references the thematic underpinnings of the Atrios name with the grey doric columns. The negative space between the columns creates a residential house, simultaneously evoking the support that is provided and the audience which is being supported. The colors are warm and inviting, suggestive of the friendly and welcoming editorial approach of the Atrios site.
Changing the name was definitely a curve ball for us and are client, but we are thrilled with the final result and look forward to the site going live in the next six weeks. It's like you were told when you were young, when life gives you lemons, make a limoncello.

A Fly In the Ointment

At a previous agency I where I worked, a consulting group was hired to conduct sales and presentation training for the entire office. They were consultants with a capital C, with all the negative baggage that word entails. Phrases like “work smarter / incentivize / impactful / leveraged” rolled off the tongue of their team leader, who resembled a slicked up Clark Kent. Natty blue suit, $1,000 designer glasses and utter disdain for his audience oozed from his sizable pores. While he actually gave some worthwhile information, the condescending manner in which he presented it was so off-putting, it was hard for the team to engage with his message.

Halfway through “Clark’s” big pitch in the conference room it became apparent that he dressed in something of a rush that morning, as he failed to zip the fly of his trousers. If you ever want to see a room of professionals revert to snickering second graders, this is a sure fire way to make it happen. At that point, he lost his audience completely. The fashion faux pas ran so counter to his message and mannerisms it became impossible to take him serious.

In another instance, the great stage actor Richard Burton was in a squabble with a fellow actor with whom he was appearing in a London play. During a dramatic dinner scene that preceded a long speech by the rival, Burton placed a glass of water just slightly on the edge of the table, where it was perched ever so precariously, just waiting to crash to the stage. It didn't fall, but that didn't keep the audience from focusing on the glass, in effect diminishing the impact of the entire scene. Burton's quiet sabotage of his stage rival was a subtle and effective way of distracting the audience from the message.

The point of all this is not to deflate stuffed shirts (although that can be fun). The point is to not let unnecessary distractions derail your message. When we do client presentations of design work, we take great care that any copy that is not part of the brand message (ie, body copy) is presented in Greek or dummy text. We want the client to focus on the big picture of brand and message and not focus on details that will be resolved at a later stage of the process.

Don't let an incidental distraction kill your message. Focus on the big picture so your presentation is completely buttoned down. And zipped up.

Where I’m Designing From

High on the list of things I want for Christmas is the recent biography Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. Carver is considered by many to be the finest short story writer of the 20th century, an assessment I would not dispute. Known for his terse, stripped down realism, Carver wrote of people barely hanging on, to relationships, sobriety or sanity. It's unflinching work from a man who did a fair amount of abuse to himself and others, whose life was cut short by cigarettes ten years after he was able to quit drinking.

What is most intriguing is the minimalist style for which Carver is known came largely at the behest of his editor, Gordon Lish. Lish was instrumental in pushing Carver toward a reductive style, taking a hatchet to manuscripts when a razor would have sufficed. Curious readers can pick up the recent Collected Stories volume, which presents both versions of an early story. The relationship between writer and editor was often contentious but ultimately Carver realized Lish controlled access to publication and was thus willing to make the necessary compromises to his work.

The Carver/Lish dynamic made me think of the nature of the designer/client relationship. The best clients are collaborative, engaged in the process and willing to listen, as well as offer up strategic input. Our strongest work is always a product of these types of interactions, where client feedback works to the betterment of the final design. An engaged and informed client can elevate work from good to stellar. A bad client can kill it entirely, reducing the work to something completely different from the original vision of the designer.

As astonishing as Carver's body of writing is, one is left to wonder what might have been had his editor given him the trust we appreciate and expect from our clients.