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Art for the Recession-Minded

Our friends at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative are hosting their third annual Print and Poster Show, beginning May 22 from 12:00 – 7:00 PM. Everything from silk screen prints, posters, card and T-shirt are all $20 or less. There is some amazing work from a number of very talented Chicago artists, including Jay Ryan and Amos Kennedy.

This is a rare opportunity to purchase some really lovely work at an incredibly low price. Stop by the collaborative at 4642 West Leland and check out what they have to offer.

Preak Out

A new ad campaign recently debuted, designed to increase infield attendance at Maryland’s Preakness Stakes. The campaign, created by Washington based creative agency Elevation, uses variations of the headline “Get Your Preak On” to play up the always festive, occasionally raunchy atmosphere of the infield.

When I think of Triple Crown horse racing, I think of two things. Well-heeled women wearing big hats in the stands, and drunken yahoos making jackasses of themselves in the infield. This campaign is clearly focused on the latter. To the dismay of some in the community, it appears to be working. Critics have called it everything from lame and embarrassing to staggeringly dumb. It may be all of those things, but it also appears to be working. Infield ticket sales are up 5 percent compared to two years ago.

While sexually suggestive ads are the lowest common denominator in the ad industry, this one succeeds in doing exactly what it set out to do. It gets the attention of the largely blue collar audience that has dwindled in the past few years and creates a memorable, albeit lowbrow impression.

Atrios A Process Case Study

We are so often focused on presenting the final product of our work, we often neglect the steps that got us to that end point. Very seldom do we as designers come up with the final answer on the first cut. It’s often the result of combining iterative solutions and making minor tweaks before a design is ready for prime time.

This is particularly true of brand marks. In almost every project engagement, we develop more than one visual solution. For brand marks, we generally insist on doing three. In order to capture the range of concepts and executions available, it’s a disservice to clients to develop any fewer. Typically, there is the safe solution, which is fairly close to what the client may be expecting. This is generally done to address specific directives for which the client has asked. The second treatment is a bit more expressive, a bit less “corporate”, while the third solution stretches the client’s comfort level a bit. All the designs should be wholly appropriate to the client and project brief, but each one taking a different approach to the solution, but conceptually and in terms of the graphic execution.

We recently developed a brand mark and website for an online resource for homeowner associations. The goal was to provide an open and inviting forum for condo association owners, board members and developers who needed a resource that provided relevant answers and solutions.

We came up with the name Portico, from the Italian word for a porch leads to the entrance of a building or structure. In an earlier post, I wrote about how we had to begin anew when the name we came up with ran into a potential conflict with an existing company name.

What began as a challenge turned into an opportunity, as we renamed the company Atrios, a spin on the Latin term atria, the plural of atrium. After clearing any trademark hurdles, we came up with the following visual treatments for the brand mark.

This is the “safe” treatment. It's handsome and inviting and the color palette is a bit unexpected. The shape of the O suggests an opening or entryway, one that is protected as well.
This second visual treatment is a bit more illustrative. The two columns connote the legal and financial underpinnings which provide the core content of the site. The negative shape of the house suggest the house of the user which is being secured by the site resources. Highly evocative, it also works well at a small size and has immediate visual recognition.
The third visual treatment pushed things a bit further, going so far as to think of your home as your “space” and renders the word in dimensional type to make that association. The color is bright, dynamic, and the type is custom-rendered, which makes the mark that much more ownable by the client.
We recommended and the client ultimately chose brand mark number two. It had the most recognizable visual connotation to homeowners and felt most appropriate in terms of the overall graphic sensibility. The first one, while handsome, did not have as much staying power. We all liked the third one, but finally thought better of it. The shapes are handsome and readable, but conjure up images of packaging or box production.
So there you have it, the final mark as well as the ones that got away. We will be launching the Atrios site shortly which will provide a much better sense of how it works in the context of imagery and user navigation.

All In the Family

Someone once told me you should never do work with family, that it’s like oil and water, only more volatile. Sound advice, which I have long since heeded. However, some of my family members (read: my six older sisters) aren’t particularly good when it comes to taking no for an answer.

Needless to say, when my sister Regina approached me about designing a website to promote the release of her book, God Never Blinks, I had a few misgivings. The aforementioned concern about working with family was one. The fact that she and her writing are of a spiritual bent and I am a pure materialist was another.

My concerns were unfounded. Her site launched this week to coincide with the release of her book, which has been getting rave reviews (her book, not the site). Her accolades are well deserved. Regina was a two time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary and her newspaper column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer has won more journalism awards than I care to count.

UPDATE: God Never Blinks made the New York Times bestseller list!

Congratulations on the book, Regina, your youngest brother is proud of you.

Checking Out From Social Networking

Like most designers, (and most professionals in general, I suppose), I have mixed feelings about social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. At their best, they provide us the opportunity to network, reconnect with old friends, and potentially discover new clients. At their worst, we get to hear what someone we barely know is making for dinner or that an old girlfriend is still bitter about our breakup.

By and large, however, they fit the model of the old programming credo: Garbage in, garbage out. Whatever content populates the site governs our overall impression of the site. Hence, LinkedIn is perceived as professional and focused on client relations. Facebook, while occasionally juvenile, offers an informal way to stay on the radar of acquaintances who might otherwise be relegated to receiving the annual Christmas card.

The latest foray into this increasingly crowded field is Unvarnished. The site allows users the opportunity to post peer reviews and comments about other professionals, anonymously. Since we all know how classy and upstanding most anonymous posters are to blogs, one can only speculate on the clever repartee that awaits us. The tagline on the site is “truth in reputation”. More accurately, it should be called “the bathroom wall of the internet”.

The site in effect allows users to trash former co-workers, employers, all under the guise of providing a candid peer assessment. Critics have already called the site a litigation nightmare waiting to happen.

I’m not sure when we reached the tipping point of social networking, but this seems to be its nadir.

I will let a more gifted writer than myself have the last word on this. Ralph Caplan, design critic and educator provides a curmudgeon’s take on social networking in his recent AIGA post. I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Caplan speak at the first AIGA conference in Chicago in 1991.

I’m pleased to see his rapier has lost none of its point.

Getting Inky

It can be very easy for design to become an antiseptic process, devoid of the craft and general messiness that were a necessary adjunct to our profession in the days before the Mac. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Mac. I also love the fact that designers no longer work with rubber cement, spray mount, zylene markers and any number of other chemical and carcinogenic materials that no doubt took years off our lives in the early days.

And by early days I mean the nineties.
It is important, however, to roll up the sleeves from time to time and recharge the batteries a bit, by getting one’s hands dirty. I recently had the opportunity to do just that by participating in screen printing class at Chicago Printmakers Collaborative. The eight week class afforded me the opportunity to print up poster size reproductions of pages from our recent New Year's promotion. More importantly, it was a welcome break from so much time spent in front of the computer screen.
The CPC offers summer classes and workshops in silkscreening and etching for both beginners and advanced students.
A special thanks to the very talented (and patient) Megan Sterling who taught the class. Not only was she a wonderful instructor, she was kind enough to not berate us for the occasional ink spills and missteps that were left in our wake.

AIGA Spring Portfolio Review

We will be joining several Chicago design studios in the annual AIGA Spring Portfolio Review at the School of the Art Institute on April 21. This is a great opportunity to see new work by young designers just entering the field and provide design feedback and career guidance. Having benefited from the input of many established designers when I was first starting out, this provides the opportunity to reciprocate.

It's not entirely altruistic. The last portfolio review we participated in led us to bringing on our first intern, Jordan Freeman, who has been an invaluable asset to Substance.

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.