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Thinking Inside the Box

One of my favorite afternoon past times is browsing through used book stores. Fortunately, there is one around the corner from me, which helps facilitate this spontaneous idleness. Used book stores are a hit and miss affair. They can have stacks of nothing or you can walk out spending a hundred dollars on a yard of books. In an age of the instant gratification and purchase on Amazon, I suppose this is a large part of their appeal.

Recently, I hit the motherlode. My corner store had a stack of Nabokov books, all of which I have been meaning to read. Nabokov is a bit like Kerouac. Everyone has read Kerouac's On the Road or Nabokov's Lolita. However, most of their other titles are largely ignored by the reading public. That's probably a wise move with Kerouac, but Nabokov's catalog is well worth exploring in depth and it has been on my literary to-do list for years.

So with this treasure trove of books that I've been coveting, what do I do?

Walk away without making a single purchase.

The reason? They were the wrong covers.

I'm hopelessly obsessive about making sure any book I buy has the best cover design for that given title. Vintage Books recently commissioned designer John Gall to redesign the entire Nabokov series of books. The result is a magnificent series of covers, created by multiple designers based around a single theme: a specimen box. Vladimir Nabokov was an avid butterfly collector, and the image of the specimen box forms the visual axis around which the series revolves.

The above example is Paul Sahre's contribution. Twenty-one designers submitted designs based around this construct, the results of which you can see here in their entirety.

Designers as a rule tend to do their best work when given a specific and narrow range of parameters. Give us a white slate with unlimited options, and we tend to be a bit paralyzed with indecision. Provide a focused set of objectives within a specific set of parameters, and we are bound to defy expectation. The Vintage covers does a good job of illustrating this literally and metaphorically.

Declarations of Independence

It's always instructive to reread the Declaration of Independence, as much for the poetry and potency of the language as for its assertion of our rights as a nation. I got in the habit of reading it every Independence Day some years back and it never fails to leave an impression.

The oft-quoted Preamble contains one of the most famous sentences ever written, asserting “the right of revolution”. In effect, it says that people have certain rights and when the government violates those rights they are entitled and have the duty to alter or abolish that government.

The latter part of the document is a list of grievances against King George and England, reading like one of the most eloquent break up letters ever written. Politicians both liberal and conservative, from Green Party to Tea Party have cherry-picked quotes for their own purposes. The most telling phrase of intent was made evident this week when a spectral reading of an early draft revealed an early correction. Thomas Jefferson scratched out the word “subject” and replaced it with “citizen”.

I can think of no more apt summation of the document than what that correction implies. I actually got a bit of a chill when that was revealed. It's particularly important when you recall that several of our founding fathers, including Alexander Hamilton, wanted to establish a monarchy instead of a democratic republic.

The founding fathers got many things wrong (slavery, treatment of Native Americans, those silly white wigs, etc.). But this was one they got right.

Happy Independence Day (I simply can't relegate it to being called 4th of July) to all fellow citizens.

In Praise of Pyrotechnics…

Growing up with four older brothers in small town Ohio, Independence Day had a special significance for all of us. It meant cooking out, tossing the football around, and seeing my Dad take an all-too rare day off work.

More importantly, it meant blowing things up.

Various pyrotechnics were either brought into the house surreptitiously, or (more often the case) home made from the various flammable items available in our Dad's garage. The year my brother Tom made the bazooka out of beer cans, duct tape, a tennis ball, and some gasoline stands high on the long list of memories that make my mom's hair stand on end. Sadly, liability precludes me from including the exact instructions here (Note: Go easy on the gasoline. It's the vapor that you want to ignite, NOT the liquid. Too little gas will just burn like a candle; too much, and you're likely to lose your hand.)

Another memorable year was spent igniting bottle rockets and roman candles in our back yard. In the midst of our hijinks, a police cruiser pulled into the access road behind our house with his spotlight cast upon us. I still have a scar on my forehead from where I smacked headlong into a bird feeder while sprinting into the house.

Of course, it wasn't the local police, merely another brother who snuck out with a flashlight and the family car to see if he could get us running. Mission accomplished, ruse complete. Game, set and match.

So what is it with Independence Day and fireworks? Is this one of those traditions that developed well after the fact and has now become engrained as part of our culture, like jack o'lanterns on Halloween?

Not at all. If i may quote from the Virginia Gazette's account of Independence day, recorded on July 18, 1777:

The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal. Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more.

So there you have it. Not only are fireworks as all American as hot dogs and apple pie, they go back historically much further. They can also do considerable damage, so please leave the displays to the professionals.

Have a safe and joyful Independence Day holiday. And if you see someone with fireworks, tell them it's illegal.

Veronica Brett Site Now Live

It's hard enough for a woman to try on a swimsuit at the beginning of the summer. Men and women tend to be self-conscious about our bodies, a fact compounded by displaying it on a beach or poolside.

Now imagine doing this when you have lost your breasts due to a mastectomy and you have some idea of what many women have to confront each year.

Veronica Brett offers a line of luxury swimsuits to women who are breast cancer survivors and for women who have had breast cancer reducing surgeries.

My sister Patricia started the company, named after our aunt Veronica who we lost to cancer at the age of 44. My family drew the short straw when it comes to cancer. Many of us carry the BRCA1 gene, which predisposes the carrier to breast cancer. Consequently, three of our aunts have died from it, the first of these being Veronica. Another sister is a breast cancer survivor, and Patricia and my niece Gabrielle have undergone breast cancer reducing mastectomies.

Needless to say, this is a very personal issue for me. So when Patricia approached Substance to develop a brand and website for her swimsuits, it was hard to pass on the opportunity. We developed the tagline and message “LIfe never looked sexier” to focus on the beauty and strength of the women who are survivors.

The site focuses on the 2010 swimwear collection, modeled by the beautiful breast cancer survivor and model, Stefanie LaRue. Veronica Brett has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Body, Glamour and Redbook magazines.

Congratulations to Patricia and to survivors everywhere.

The Times They Are A Changin’

The Police had a song “Too Much Information” which was recorded in the mid-80s. Not sure what Sting and the lads would have thought about the proliferation of data that we now experience in our daily lives. I would cite statistics on how things have changed, but someone has already done so for me.

I could do without the Fatboy Slim soundtrack, but this video does a compelling job of putting the power and scope of social networking into context.

Five Years

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Substance. It has had its share of ups and downs, and while it has not been exactly what I thought it would be, I would be a liar if I called it anything but rewarding. Having the privilege of working with great clients, talented writers, photographers and web programmers has made this a rewarding experience, one that continually teaches me new things.

A colleague recently asked me what was the best part of working for oneself. Was it not having a boss and setting one's own hours?

While both of those have their merit, they don't even make the short list. What has made this so enriching has been learning something new every day, about a new client or industry, and benefitting from the relationships that come from these experiences.

Someone once said you should never work with clients with whom you would never have lunch or a glass of wine. I'm fortunate that many clients have become friends, people who I get to see socially outside of the context of merely work. That is what I would consider to be the best aspect of the past five years, one I hope that continues for the next five years. To everyone who has been there for Substance over the course of this time, a huge heartfelt thanks.

Another word of thanks on a less frivolous but no less timely matter. To my father, my Uncle Chuck, and my Uncle Mike, all of whom served in World War Two.

Dad was a tail gunner on a B-24, flying 38 missions during the war. Chuck served in Italy and North Africa, spending the final months of the war in an Italian, then a German POW camp. He was transferred after his second escape attempt. Mike served in the first Army Ranger Division in France during the war. All went on to survive and live to see their children and grandchildren grow up.

None of this has anything to do with design or five year anniversaries, but on Memorial Day, their service does help to put things into their proper perspective and context.

Thanks one and all.

New York City MTA Gets a Facelift

While there are no shortage of iPhone apps to help make ones way around the city, there's something to be said for a physical map.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has unveiled the new transit map design for Manhattan and outlying boroughs. I've always been a sucker for well-laid out maps, and this one is no exception. The NYTimes has a nice infographic showing the progression of changes in the map since 1968, which does a good job showing how trends have changed the areas of emphasis in the subway map.

Frank Frazetta, RIP

To a generation of geeks who grew up on comic books, science fiction and fantasy novels, there was no more iconic illustrator in the 70s and 80s than Frank Frazetta. His work was violent, sexist and subject to being tossed in the trash by offended mothers everywhere.

Needless to say, it was awesome.

Frank Frazetta passed away at the age of 82 on Monday, May 10.

Growing up in the cultural vacuum of small town northeastern Ohio, there were few things that made the early teen years bearable. One of these was the occasional trip to the comic book store at the local university with my oldest brother Mike. He would come home for the weekend from college and we would hit the book and record stores of Kent State. Many was the Saturday that I returned with a stack of paperbacks, purchased on the strength of the cover illustrations alone. More often than not, these covers were the work of Mr. Frazetta.

Fantasy heroes such as Tarzan, Conan and John Carter of Mars were his typical subjects, always rendered with rippling muscles, bold colors and a scantily clad or completely nude female in tow. When we would return home with the new purchases, the only items subject to greater parental disapproval than the Clash and Ramones albums were the books with the Frazetta covers.

This only served to increase my appreciation for their impact.

Tastes change as we mature, and while I still occasionally listen to old-school punk rock, I'm more inclined toward abstract expressionism in artwork than neoclassicist comic illustration. Regardless, Frazetta was a palpable influence upon a generation of designers and illustrators.

One for the Love

When James Coburn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the age of 70, he was noticeably moved, coming as it did at the end of a long and storied career as a Hollywood tough guy. Holding back uncharacteristic tears at the podium, he said “In this business, some work you do for the money, some you do for the love. This was for love.”

That same sentiment is true with regard to our recent campaign for AIDS Foundation of Chicago for the AIDS Run & Walk Chicago. In addition to being a high profile campaign for a very worthy cause, the client has been a complete joy to work with. They are collaborative, engaged, and open to new ideas, everything we look for in a client.

We developed the theme “I live. I give. I move.” This conveys the three step process of awareness, action and participation. The spectrum visually references the rainbow pride flag and provides impact to the campaign, as well as contrast to the black and white photography. The images represent a diverse group of participants, with their faces cropped out. Instead, we focused on the bodies preparing for the run, either through stretching or the act of moving.

The campaign will be rolling out over the course of the summer, in posters, advertising, CTA transit banners and signage throughout Chicago. Keep an eye out for it.

Even better, get involved and sign up to participate.

What Michelangelo Can Teach Us About Branding

Every work of art has a story to tell, and the sculptures of Michelangelo are no exception. After spending two weeks in Florence and Rome, there are a few insights that resonated with me that I thought worth sharing.

In Palazzo Vecchio stands the statue of Michelangelo's David. It's a masterpiece of form, something that has to be seen to be believed. His body is bent, poised to action, with every muscle and vein visible within the marble.

It's also a fake, or a replica in the local parlance. The real David stands within the Accademia Galleria, surrounded by protective plexiglass with a roof to shield it from the ravages of the elements.

The two pieces are alike in every way yet could not be more different. Even before experiencing the legitimate David, you can see the replica is not quite right. The details are not nearly as well executed, the marble of an inferior quality. The real piece is perfect in every regard, from the oversized hands clutching the sling, to the details that form the hair and deep set eyes. It's so astonishingly lifelike, you half expect to see its chest expand in an exhale of breath.

How does your brand stack up to these two examples? Is yours flawlessly executed, from concept to the last detail? Or are you merely competent, good enough to receive a passing nod, but nothing that people are going to remember for the ages?

A final take away from the sculpture are the two interpretations of David's pose. Some art historians hold that he has already slain Goliath and stands surveying his achievement, dispassionately. Others believe that the pose represents David before the melee, in that moment after he has agreed to do battle, but before it has taken place. In short, after he has committed to the act but before completing it.

Which defines you? Surveying your past achievements or looking forward to the next challenge which you can overcome?