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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.

Protecting Your Brand What Tiger Woods Could Learn from Steelcase

Steelcase, the global office furniture provider, has built a brand based on product innovation, consistency, and above all, reliability. This brand promise is reinforced by every interaction with the public and not merely when the public is using their product. When a Steelcase truck breaks down on the highway, the first thing the driver does is to cover the Steelcase brandmark with a white canvas tarp. The goal? To make sure passing motorists don't make an association between a stalled truck and a provider of high-performance office furniture.

The message? Steelcase does not break down.

It's a solid way of reinforcing their brand promise, one that Tiger Woods should have taken to heart. Steelcase makes $3.4 billion in revenue a year, Woods makes $100 million a year. Small change by comparison but more than many companies generate in revenue. His recent late night car accident and subsequent admissions of infidelity are the brand equivalent of his truck breaking down on the highway, without a canvas tarp in sight. Putting aside the issue of marital infidelity, this was an object lesson in how not to handle crisis communication.

No one is perfect nor is every (or any) brand. However, when your entire brand is predicated on excellence, high-performance and the most squeaky clean sports image this side of Wayne Gretzky, you need to do a better job of protecting that image. Compare the stonewalling of Tiger Woods to the full disclosure of David Letterman's infidelities weeks ago. Letterman owned the narrative from the start, announcing his mistakes on his show, apologizing and asking for privacy and the right to move on. After a few days in the headlines, the public did just that. Woods stonewalled, creating curiosity and doing significant damage to his brand.

No one expects a truck that will never break down. But when someone peeks under the canvas tarp, you better be prepared to admit it's your truck and take accountability for the situation.

Professor, mentor and all around good guy

It's often said you should thank a teacher who had an impact on you, as they are seldom aware of the profound impression they have on their students. Eric May, a former professor who had such an impact on me, passed away over the week at the age of 70.

Eric taught a variety of courses at Kent State University beginning in 1971, but was best known for his letterpress class. Long before letterpress and retro forms of printing were in vogue, Eric was a champion of the old world skills of craftsmanship, attention to detail, paper and typography. He was a gentle soul, often referred to as the Zen master of the faculty, with a quiet but very quirky sense of humor. He was the first person I ever knew to refer to an elegant piece of typography as being “tasty”. As a hyper-stressed out underclassmen struggling to learn the fundamentals of design, his voice was one of reassurance and calm, always encouraging and focused on positive reinforcement. The few instances I have had occasion to work with students and junior designers, I have strived to emulate his model of teaching and mentoring.

Eric once said “The field of visual communication is so dynamic with change, it requires that both student and teacher maintain the role of learner at all times”. This comes pretty close to describing my ideal student / teacher relationship.

If you have the chance, take a moment to Google a professor who made an impact on you. Then drop them an email to acknowledge their contribution.