The Value of Physical Place in Work, Memory, and Life

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This week marks our third week “back at work” after quarantine. For nearly four months our team, like most teams, had been among the millions worldwide who suddenly found themselves working from home. While MJM has always had a few remote team members (two on the West coast and one in the Twin Cities) the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to abruptly transition to an all-remote team. We tried to be positive and embrace the new normal, but it presented a fair amount of challenges. I would even say that there was some grieving for what was lost in the daily face-to-face interactions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that grief, in a time when we are all trying to navigate how to mourn the more grievous loss of life, and I think a big part of the disorientation many are feeling has to do with the loss of the physical spaces we shared. When we go to the places where we work, play, or get coffee, that physical change of place functions as a cue or marker. The erasure of those spaces—and the movement to those spaces—has left us in a trackless sea of mingled social interactions, mostly mediated through our screens.

Finding our place

Physical places help us situate ourselves, both mentally and emotionally. Driving back into your hometown after years away brings a wash of memories. Walking through the halls of your elementary school calls up faces of classmates and teachers. And it’s why “I can still remember where I was when I heard the news” is such a common experience.

This link between memory and places has long been established. In order to remember their speeches, Roman orators like Cicero would use the “method of loci” to create mental maps of a place—a home or a street of shops—called memory palaces and then mentally associate items to be remembered with each location. To recall the information stored in these memory palaces the speaker would then mentally move through the space, collecting their key points like a shopper in a well-organized grocery store.

 

Man thinking, looking at an image of a palace as he remembers information

In order to remember their speeches, Roman orators like Cicero would use the “method of loci” to create mental maps of a place—a home or a street of shops—called memory palaces and then mentally associate items to be remembered with each location.

 

Our spatial memory even extends to printed material, and especially content in books. We often remember where on a page we read a certain piece of information (an advantage that is lost when reading in the endless slippery scroll of a digital device.) In a 2014 study done at Norway’s Stavanger University, researchers noticed that subjects were able to more accurately recall the plots of stories they had read in print, when compared with stories read on an electronic device:

“When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” said [lead researcher Anne Mangen.] “You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual… Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

This may be one reason that readers seem to prefer print books, and often report a deeper emotional connection to the content of a physical book.

Even on a neurological level, our experiences and memories are coded in a way that time and place are deeply intertwined with the content of the memory. Researchers monitoring brain activity during a study that involved having participants play a virtual reality game found that

[n]eural representations of the content of the experience had become linked with the spatial and temporal context. Such evidence provides strong evidence for the theory that memory formation and recall involve association of event with context, especially spatial and temporal context. This linkage creates a mutually reinforcing interaction of event and location. We tend to remember both or neither.

The unifying power of sharing space

Two coffee cups, overlaid on an old map of LondonIf physical spaces shape our memories of the past, they also generate innumerable intangible benefits in our daily lives. Sharing space with others unifies us, almost accidentally, through countless small quotidian interactions. One of the biggest losses we’ve all felt in this season of quarantine and social distancing has been the loss of those incidental interactions that we’d grown accustomed to in our favorite third places1. In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg first brought the idea of “third places” to the attention of the wider public:

“Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second.'”

Working from home meant that our “first place” (home) and our “second place” (work) collapsed into one seemingly borderless experience. And now, at a time when our need for some escape from our work and home spaces is most acute, many people are concerned that those third places that formerly offered escape are in danger from both social and economic pressures.

By sharing space before the pandemic, both at work and at home, we unconsciously created a vast bank of shared experiences with members of our community and with our coworkers. At a distance, over Zoom calls and Slack messages, we’re still drawing on that bank of shared experiences, but without opportunities to replenish those connections our mutual connections are being stretched, becoming thin and tenuous. But with cases still on the rise and most traditional third places closing their dine-in spaces, if we’re going to rebuild those connections it’s probably going to have to happen in outdoor public spaces.

Back at work

Old-fashioned typewriter overlayed on old map of London

The MJM space opened back up for business on July 6th. We have gone to great lengths to mitigate the risk of infection, both to ourselves and to clients and vendors. We wears masks when moving around our space, and nixed the communal coffee pot. We also rearranged all our work areas to provide at least 8 feet between each worker. (Brady Holm, our design lead, put together a great post outlining how our process of working together to develop a new office layout was a perfect microcosm for our experiences in remote collaboration.)

As I write this at my appropriately socially-distanced desk back in the MJM space, I believe it’s worth the trouble. Ideas flow quicker in person, and feedback in matters large and small is better. There are daily accidental conversations that connect us and move us forward in our creative work as well as in our friendships—conversations that we never would have scheduled a Zoom call to have, but that came about because we happen to be sharing the same physical space. It’s good to be back at work.

 

 

1“The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.” (Ray Oldenburg, quoted by Project for Public Spaces)

Thoughts on 36 Days of Type 2020

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36 Days of Type is a global challenge to draw, illustrate, and letter the 26 letters and ten numerals in the Latin alphabet over (you guessed it) 36 days. Artists world-wide share their letterforms on social media using #36daysoftype, creating a massive catalogue of experimental type. Our design team once again chose to participate, you can view the full 36 days on our Instagram feed. Each character could be illustrated, animated, or otherwise constructed and each composition borrowed at least one color from the letter that came before it. The designers put together some post-mortem thoughts on the project:

Tim

This year I decided to continue to explore animation, specifically in After Effects. As a team, we decided to base the color palette for each day’s letter on one or two colors from the letter created the previous day. The goal was to unify the pieces somewhat, without giving ourselves too short a leash.

A project like this is fertile creative ground because it provides two potent ingredients for creativity: a clear objective and a time constraint. Creativity loves constraints. You can make whatever you want, but (helpfully) you don’t have unlimited time. And because you have to produce a letter every day you don’t have the luxury of becoming too precious about each piece. There’s a little bit of pressure because you know there’s an audience, but you’re also free to explore because the stakes are so low—no one cares what you make.

Joel

For 36 Days of Type this year, I dove into the world of the open-source 3D design program Blender to familiarize myself with the tool and create some distinct letter explorations. What I found was a powerful program with plenty of potential for future projects. I also discovered the unique and visceral fun that designing in a 3D space can create. Watching your work come to life with the click of a render button is just one of those things that will never get old.

Kirstie

During this year‘s 36 Days of Type, one of the most important skills I gained was not a new technique or software, it was adaptability. For reasons none of us need reminding of, this year’s project didn’t exactly go according to plan. Instead of meticulously planning out my letters, I found myself transforming an Rs into Ps on the fly and choosing ideas based on how quickly I could execute them in between Zoom calls. But, rather than being a roadblock, I found it surprisingly freeing. With the complete inability to be anywhere else, I was forced to live and create in the present moment and my work was better for it.

Brady

I love the 36 Days of Type creative prompt for the opportunity to experiment and try something new. I called in the Cavalry this year to help with my animated letters. Cavalry is a new 2D animation tool built around the concept of procedural systems. It relies less on key frames (though it is incredibly well-equipped in that regard) and more on routing values from one property into another to create effects. For example, using a sine wave function to control the vertical and horizontal position of a shape, or even random noise to change its size over time. It felt a little bit more like creative coding or generative art rather than illustration, which was a good stretch for my creative muscles. I didn’t expect to find so much joy in routing data from one property into another and waiting to see what happened, but the surprises and failures were both invigorating. And while it felt much like play and experimentation, I quickly found opportunities to use the tool for project work too, solving problems that would have required much more time and effort using other more familiar tools.

Alison

36 Days of Type is a favorite collaborative project. I love seeing what the other designers come up with, and especially what techniques, colors, and forms are appealing to everyone. When I’ve got a short time to illustrate a letter, I resort to some of my favorite tools in Illustrator: the pen tool, the zig zag effect, gradients, and the blend tool. Illustration is not a daily task for me, but it is something I enjoy. 36 Days of Type is a great excuse to get back to illustration process. From sketching to shape and color exploration, I’m grateful to have projects like these to explore the sandbox.

Check out the whole set:

The Shape of Our New Business Cards

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When we set out to redesign our business cards, we knew we didn’t want to go the standard route – we wanted something that would help tell our story. We had already been digging into the symbolism and imagery of wayfinding when we redesigned our logo. In that process we stumbled upon a fascinating shape called the reuleaux triangle – and it was perfect.

Reuleaux: /roo – LOH/

The reuleaux triangle has been used in many applications, from architecture to mathematics and map making. The overlapping section in the center of a three-set Venn diagram? That shape is the reuleaux triangle.

three-set venn diagram

Reuleaux triangles are geometrically beautiful shapes with surprising properties. They have been used as clever solutions to a variety of challenges in engineering and other fields. Its shape has a constant width – the diameter is the same no matter the orientation. It can rotate within a square while constantly touching all four sides, which allows for the creation of a drill bit that can create a square hole. How’s that for squaring the circle? Pencils in the shape of a reuleaux triangle have a couple of benefits: users often find them more comfortable to hold, and because they are not perfectly cylindrical, they are less likely to roll off tables and under your coworkers’ chair.

As creative guides for strategic journeys, the reuleaux triangle’s rich history in map making and trail signage is what ultimately captured our imagination. Leonardo da Vinci used the shape in an early map projection of the earth. It has been used in trail signage to help hikers find their way, such as along the Lewis and Clark National Trail. So it felt appropriate as the shape for our business cards, which help you find members of our team.

the cards tile into interesting patterns

We knew we wanted to feature topographic textures on the cards. But it couldn’t just be an image of topography – there needed to be some actual topography to our cards. They had to be tactile, where you could literally feel the terrain under your fingers. So of course we had them letterpressed! We are very pleased with the results.

Notes from Design Camp 2019

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Every October, MJM sends some of it’s creative team to the fall wonderland of Branierd, MN to attend Design Camp, an informal design conference with nationally renowned speakers and special workshops. Read our three campers’ reflections from this year below!

Alison

What do I love about Design Camp? First there’s the swag bag, then it’s spending time outside the office with the design team, and then there’s beautifully thoughtful powerpoint presentations that designers put together (it can be done!). The best parts are the ideas that I chew on afterwards. This year’s featured keynotes focused less on immaculate portfolios of design work and more on their purpose and how design lives in the world: as public service at White House, alongside other artists and musicians, and as a tool for huge, international corporations to work more iteratively.

One theme that stood out was the idea of love. Love for yourself, your colleagues, your clients and your users. Ashleigh Axios gave an example of putting together rapid-fire graphics that support statements made during the State of the Union address given by the president. To a room of designers, she admitted it wasn’t beautiful, crafted work, but it was accurate, legible, and delivered on time. As designers and problem solvers, we make things for people. And we should make things to the best of our ability because people deserve that.

Kirstie

This is my third time attending Design Camp and while I always leave inspired to do new work, this year I noticed a different theme to a lot of the discussions. Instead of hearing about how I should be hustling every minute of every day, I heard about the importance of recharging creatively. Instead of leaving with a list of design topics to research and skills to hone, I left with a list of what could be better described as self-help books.

One example of this was a workshop I attended called “How to Speak Unicorn: Translating Design for the Digital Age” led by Michelle Schulp. Based on other web design workshops I’ve attended, I was expecting to be inundated with a list of new software and coding languages I was supposed  to learn. But instead, the presentation focused on something I’m not used to hearing about in web design: interpersonal communication.

Schulp acknowledged how designers who crossover to digital are often expected to be a “unicorn” skilled in every stage of the process. But, she said, rather than being an expert in every aspect of web development, it’s more important to be able to communicate with people who are. Rather than trying to force print designers to learn Python, we should be working on soft skills like active listening that allow us to bridge disciplines and leverage strengths. My overall takeaway from this year’s Design Camp was that to be a better designer, first you need to be a better person. Software will come and go, but things like empathy and compassion will always be a vital part of the designer’s toolbox.

Tim, Kirstie, and Alison in their Plaidurday finest at Design Camp 2019.

Tim

One aspect of Design Camp I enjoy every year is that the ideas and the concepts I hear there percolate in my mind for months afterward. One idea that sunk particularly deep this year was the importance of being intentionally and personally connected with the creative community around you.

Creative business consultant Emily Cohen admonished her audience to “support everyone you know.” Creative work can be discouraging, isolating, and lonely work at times, and many people don’t have the benefit of working closely with like-minded people. She emphasized that the work we do is always personal before it is professional, and we ignore that truth at our peril. And she also pointed out that wanting to be supportive isn’t enough—we also have to be intentional about supporting the people around us.

I‘m blessed at MJM to work in close proximity with four incredibly talented designers (not to mention the rest of our MJM team), and it can be easy to take that degree of connection for granted. We can Slack the other designers with questions, send over screenshots of a sticky design challenge, or even just doodle our problems out on the dry erase walls around our tables. And because it‘s so easy, I sometimes underestimate how much I‘m learning from them, and how valuable that is.

Being purposeful about “supporting everyone you know” sounds simple on the surface, but Cohen’s talk echoed many of the thoughts I’ve been having in my work with AIGA South Dakota over the past few years. As I’ve worked to support and amplify the good work that other creative professionals are doing around our area, I’ve found that I am more connected to that community. And although it wasn’t my goal, I also find that the more I spend time with the people in our community who are doing great work, the more my own work is improved and sharpened by their insights and advice.

Commonplace in Community

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A commonplace book is one central location for keeping important, interesting, or useful information. The practice of commonplace was used to keep track of ideas, concepts, facts and any piece of useful information that one might want to return to later. The commonplace book would be a fertile ground for new ideas and insights to form. Sometimes the books were kept as general collections, but were often kept on a specific topic or theme. The curators of these books found immense value in both the practice and the book itself.

These books were recorded by hand, in a journal. Over time, the practice has evolved with technology and now there is a proliferation of ways to keep a commonplace book as well as new kinds of content to keep in them. Digital apps like Evernote are a great way to keep a commonplace book, and are a clear evolution from the traditional pen and paper format.

These books were very personal artifacts for use by an individual. But something interesting has happened with the advent of the internet, blogs, and social media. Our commonplace books have become public, community commonplaces. Tumblr blogs, Instagram accounts, and Pinterest boards all can function as a sort of commonplace book. On Reddit, the community votes the most compelling content to the top.

These are all public, curated collections. And we have the ability to follow the collections of others. Your follower list is a curated collection of notable people. There’s an exponential or fractal quality to it. Or perhaps a kaleidoscope is a better metaphor. Ideas from a variety of sources are brought into friction and collision with one another, in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t if they were strictly private collections.

Commonplace goes digital

But are these collections really in the spirit of keeping a commonplace book? Keeping commonplace is a deliberate practice. It is done with care, and the entries into a book are meaningful – they are recorded for a purpose. If we are to see these public collections of content as commonplace books, they must not be divorced from intention and context. We need to understand why something was shared if we were not the ones to originally share it.

At MJM, we use Slack for internal communication, and have several channels that function as commonplace collections of sorts, curated by our whole team. #inspiration is full of articles, quotes, videos, and websites shared by members of our team who were inspired by them. Members of our team with an interest in motion graphics and animation have a channel named #timeline-chatter (after the timeline interface element common to editing and animation programs). We share tips and tricks that we have found as well as examples of animation that we want to learn from.

Inspiration endorsed with enthusiasm

The entries that inspire and engage others are those that include a brief personal note from the poster about why they found the item so interesting. These entries give context and are endorsed with the enthusiasm of someone who shares similar interests. It’s an invitation to dialogue, and helps establish a foothold for a common, shared vocabulary. The goal is not just to find the coolest thing and be the first to share it. Keeping commonplace is a constructive act. The goal is to build and expand upon each other’s curiosity and knowledge. This creation of context and invitation into dialogue is vital to a community collection that is truly in the spirit of commonplace.

This has implications for those of us who create, collect, and manage content for others as well. We should strive to be intentional and constructive with the content we create and share, and not just another distraction. And we must consider how we facilitate the creative act of curation as a unified group, not just a collection of individuals.

MJM Designers Participate in AIGA South Dakota Stamp Show

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Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to participate in a group show created by AIGA South Dakota—the South Dakota Stamp Show. For this show, AIGA asked 13 area designers to each create a set of five concept postage stamps around a topic related to our fair state. There was a lot of good work in this show, and you can still see it at the Sioux Falls Design Center for a limited time.

Here the designers at MJM talk about their process and work:

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Deadwood

Deadwood is deceiving town.If you were to visit the area today, it presents itself as an unassuming South Dakota town and (aside from some gambling and historic displays) you wouldn’t guess its rich history. With this topic, I saw an opportunity to highlight the people from a long-gone era that made Deadwood a household name. People like Poker Alice and Wyatt Earp. As I researched these historic individuals, I found myself thinking of them as more characters in a drama and less actual people that lived out their lives in our rural region. With names like Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, it’s difficult not to. Because of this, I chose to make the goal of this stamp series is to spotlight that juxtaposition of real person and western legend with a set of minimalist caricatures of some of the most famous people to reside in Deadwood.

Joel Jochim

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Roadside Attractions

South Dakota has mastered the art of the roadside attraction. Drive down any highway in the state and you’ll be bombarded with billboards advertising sites ranging from the delightfully kitschy to the straight-up bizarre. Are they desperate money grabs? Maybe. But you have to admire the ingenuity of people who have found a way to use whatever resources they have at their disposal to capture people’s attention. The kind of ingenuity that sees some old pieces of wood and turns them into a forest or sees an abandoned town and fills it with animatronic cowboys. Because, why not? In a state as vast and unpopulated as South Dakota, it  takes a little bit more effort to remind people that you exist. To honor these beacons of the prairie, I wanted to design stamps that were, above all, fun. South Dakota is usually expressed in shades of greens and browns and I wanted to bring in some vivid technicolor that screams, “I’m here! Look at me!”

Kirstie Wollman

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I-90

Interstate 90 runs through the center of the state and is the main artery of travel for most people moving through South Dakota. I-90 unifies the state, and touches on a lot of common elements of the experience of living here.

Bisontennial: 200 years ago there were an estimated 75 million bison roaming the countryside. By 1895, that number was cut to 800 due to reckless and wasteful hunting. Now, after 200 years, the North American bison is again thriving in commercial herds and roaming in both wild and protected places. The population is now estimated to be about 500,000.

Accumulation: In a state that averages between 30 to 70 inches of annual snowfall, snow (and snow removal) is a large feature of life. For every mile of interstate, South Dakota spends more than $2,800 on winter maintenance. So if you get a chance, buy a coffee for one of the 400 or so workers who are driving the state DOT’s snowplows this year.

No Services: With the straight lines created by the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, small towns that found themselves too far off the interstate gradually lost ground to those communities that were closer. Sometimes towns bypassed by the interstate saw business come to a standstill literally overnight.

Home Alone: My first car was a 1984 Subaru GL station wagon, light blue and relatively reliable. I loved that I could throw everything I needed in the back and drive wherever I needed to go. I put Christmas lights in the back windows and installed a switch by the gear shift—I’m lucky the whole thing didn’t catch on fire. My second car was a 1990 Subaru Legacy station wagon—no Christmas lights but just as great. I’ve never owned a kayak or a teardrop trailer, but maybe someday.

Share the Road: Of the 546 motorcycle accidents reported last year, 51% involved another motor vehicle.  And I drew a helmet on this guy because in 245 (or 55%) of last year’s accidents the riders weren’t wearing helmets.

Tim Murray

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South Dakota Rocks!

Rock climbing strikes me as a very physical test of strength and endurance, but also one of creativity—finding a route up what appears at first to be an unscalable rock face. So it’s only appropriate that one must also exercise creativity in naming a newly devised route—an honor given to the first climber to ascend (or “send” in climbing lingo) a new route. South Dakota’s Black Hills region features granite spires and limestone canyons that provide for spectacular rock climbing, and which give birth to even more spectacular names.

In rock climbing there are both good and bad names. Poor names are childish or in poor taste; the worst names are misogynistic or racist. A good name can put a new climb on the map, attracting more climbers and elevating it to the status of legendary. The best names describe the rock or route itself with fitting imagery or a clever reference. In that sense it can be like the task of naming a new business, or designing an appropriate logo for it. Cerberus, a climb in Custer State Park, is on a spire with three little peaks at the top—a reference to the three-headed hound that guards the gates of the underworld in Greek mythology. The name lends enough antagonism to feel like a challenge or foe to overcome, inviting intrepid climbers to try and best the beast.

Brady Holm

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Wall Drug

Wall Drug is a wonderfully weird place. It’s the ultimate American road trip stop attracting 2 million people* per year—but why is it so popular? I think some people just need to see what all the fuss is about. Hand-painted billboards advertising Free Ice Water put Wall Drug on the map decades ago and led to a national and international network of billboards that point back  to this obscure corner of South Dakota. The climbable jackalope, the 80-foot dinosaur, homemade donuts, and iconic signage are the most popular tourist photos at Wall Drug. I drew them with a brush tool that gives it some roughness reminiscent of a fading billboard. The pastel color palette borrows from that early-morning light and shadowy landscape you get on a long road trip. I, the  bleary-eyed kid in the back seat of this road trip, wakes up and thinks, “Where in the world are we?” We pull up to a parking space. The sign says “Welcome to Wall Drug” and it smells like donuts.

*To put it this number into perspective, there are less than 1 million people living in both North and South Dakota combined.

Alison Raaen

Thoughts on Design Camp 2018

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Our content team voyaged north to Design Camp for inspiration from leading creatives, technique sharing and time together. Here were some takeaways from the team:

The theme of this year’s Design Camp was “Inside Out” and the goal was for everyone to put it all on the table—personally, professionally and creatively. As a classic reserved Midwesterner, my first reaction when I heard this was, “No, thank you.” But as I listened to the speakers and presenters share their stories, the more I started to think that maybe I do have a story of my own to tell. I have always shied away from doing personal work, believing that my purpose as a designer could only be derived by creating things for other people. But the presentations left me questioning the assumption that creating something for myself is inherently incompatible with creating things for other people.

This idea culminated in the final keynote from illustrator Andy J. Pizza who talked about how looking at gig posters had helped him dig himself out of a depression. Something that was meant to be functional and ephemeral had become someone’s lifeline. As designers, we have very little control over what happens to our work once it has been released into the world. Most often, we worry about people misunderstanding or even ruining our work, but isn’t magical to think that our work could be thing to turn someone’s life around?

So, still being a Midwesterner, I of course did not voice any of the ideas that were running around in my head during the actual weekend, but it has got me thinking about how I can use design to tell my own story. Because, maybe, there is someone out there who needs to hear it.

– Kirstie

Design Team in Brainerd, MN

Plaidurday 2018

Design Camp 2018 was a great opportunity to glean new techniques and meet skilled designers, but the most important takeaway I had from the experience was that even the most veteran designers out there undergo the same brief moments of doubt and near-burnout that all creatives do. Not only do they have these moments, but their experiences have taught them how to systematically push through these obstacles and return to creating their best work. We able to hear these and learn from these stories thanks to the vulnerability the keynote speakers were willing to show us, so I think we can all agree that we’re endlessly thankful.

– Joel

Design Camp was a fantastic weekend of fellowship and learning for our design team. We studied and discussed the creative process, inspiration, and collaboration and came home with some great tools to improve our work. One teaching theme emerged for me from a number of the speakers, and reflects a comment from a famous athlete:

”It seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

A number of speakers reflected on how they fought through low periods of creativity or dead periods of work. For those that found their way through these periods, a common theme was ”just keep working.“ Work projects, personal projects, passion projects—find a way to keep working and producing. It was often this work borne in low periods that created the exposure or inspiration for future successful work. This kind of ”luck,” obviously, is created through dedication and intentional focus, and all creatives need to find a way to fight through their low periods and breakthrough. At MJM, having a great team of creatives around to work with and create with definitely helps support each individual creative as they work hard and create more luck!

– Logan

I have one core or foundational belief about creativity. It’s that new ideas are simply new combinations of familiar things. This concept of combinatorial creativity is only reinforced by conferences like Design Camp. It’s incredibly invigorating to spend a weekend retreat with like-minded designers and thinkers, getting inspired by the journey others have taken and the things they’ve learned along the way.

One of the workshops outlined a technique for ”Bulletproof Ideation” by combining ideas in a methodical fashion. We learned about the Bedno Diagram – a tool invented by designer and educator Ed Bedno—which provides a framework for seeing and exploring the intersection of multiple ideas. The process was very familiar, but I had never seen it implemented so thoroughly and methodically. And I was inspired by the suggestion to use the technique to reverse engineer ideas that have inspired me, to understand how their creator may have arrived at that solution. It was a good reminder that good ideas don’t come out of thin air, delivered by a muse in a ”eureka” moment. They are intentionally crafted and combined, and are accessible to all who are willing to work rigorously for them.

That last point connects back to the final keynote speaker, Andy J. Pizza. He shared the highs and lows of his creative journey, and wisdom he gained along the way, with the ultimate conclusion that there are no shortcuts for a fulfilling creative career. You have to do the work. And sometimes you have to struggle for it. That struggle might look like an exhaustive Bedno diagram, or piles of discarded concepts on the way to one workable solution. Learning to enjoy the process and to see it as intrinsically valuable is the key to going far.

– Brady

No matter what you want to learn, most skills and ideas are available to anyone who is interested through YouTube tutorials and Skillshare classes. You don’t need to drive halfway to Canada to find inspirational speakers or to learn interesting new techniques, but our design team does exactly that every year.

AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp is a yearly retreat just outside Brainerd, MN. Each fall the MJM design team makes the trek up to northern Minnesota, and while the workshops and the speakers’ portfolios are interesting, to my mind they are not the most valuable part of the experience. The reward that compels me to make the trip is perspective.

This year that perspective had less to do with design methodology, new paper options, or printing techniques—it was something deeper. I felt like I heard two different answers to the question, “What is your work for?” Some of the speakers I heard and the designers I met talked about the scope of their portfolio and the size of their audience; they spoke about their personal brand and their career path. Good work equals more glory. Other people focused on the lives they had touched, the students they had taught, and the relationships they had formed with clients and colleagues over the course of their career. Good work means better relationships with people.

“What is your work for?”

Looking at my own past work, some of it has held up well, but much of it has not. Projects I worked on even 6 months ago can sometimes cause me to cringe. But the relationships I’ve developed with coworkers, students and clients are evergreen. Last year’s projects are getting stale; last year’s relationships are still a source of joy. Do the work, and enjoy the process, but don’t look to your work to make you happy. The work (whatever it is) is valuable, but it’s really only a backdrop to the things that matter most.

– Tim

A Call for a Community Coloring Book

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Our very own graphic designer/copywriter/baking extraordinaire, Alison Raaen, has been selected as one of two recipients of the South Dakota AIGA’s Idea Fund, a grant that helps fund designer-initiated projects that impact the community.

Her goal is to create a Sioux Falls coloring book inspired by the culture, landmarks, and ecology of the Sioux Falls community. Each page will be based on something found in the Sioux Falls area. This may include Falls Park, the Great Plains Zoo, the Butterfly House, farmer’s markets, or local cuisine. Alison has had the idea for a while, but the grant gave her the motivation she needed for the project to come to fruition.

As the designer of this project, she is focused on the “colorability” of the book, or how she can make people sit down and experience Sioux Falls in a brand new way. She wants as many people as possible to be able to share in the community and activity that the City of Sioux Falls brings. Raaen swears that this entire project is a learning process, so the book will evolve as time goes on.

“It’s tricky because I’ve never been formally trained as an artist by any means,” said Raaen. “I’ve just been sitting down and drawing each page off an app on my iPad. I think this also brings a message that this book is for everybody, not just those who are artistically inclined.”

She is focused on using her personality of naturally being a “maker” of doodles and design and channel it into a project. Though anybody can take a picture of a Sioux Falls landmark, Raaen hopes to bring a sense of abstract and vibrancy to the pages through her illustrations.

Raaen has six months to complete the project and will present the completed book at 2018 Sioux Falls Design Week. Beyond that, she is working to find cost-effective printing options with vendors and looking to have local stores carry the coloring book upon completion.

“It’s a mix of exciting yet scary being both the designer and director on this project,” said Raaen. “I’m not usually wearing both hats simultaneously at MJM, just because my projects are dictated by client need and now it’s just me and my imagination.”

As for long-term goals, Raaen said she would consider making a series of these books, one for each season. For now, she is just thankful for a beautiful city for inspiration, monetary support from AIGA, and a sense of community that goes along with Sioux Falls.

“I think it’s great that AIGA wanted to support the community to get people like me who wouldn’t have the time to create something we can share,” said Raaen. “With projects like this, it just gets everybody to care a little more about design.”

Check out the video below to learn more about Alison’s inspiration!

You make the MJM office proud, Alison! We can’t wait to stock up on coloring books come October.

Designers Tackle the 36 Days of Type 2018

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#36DaysofType

Each day a new character, and in our case, a new designer as we passed around the alphabet to explore type, animation, illustration, storytelling and more. Designers and illustrators around the world participated in 36 Days of Type by posting to instagram and connected with the #36DaysOfType hashtags. We decided to tackle the challenge as a team this April and May. Repetition invites creativity and crafting. We also invited the opportunity to try new techniques. We stuck (somewhat) to our original color palette and prescribed dimensions and dove in.

Each designer chose their favorite letter and gave some background. (Check out this reference for a quick guide on technical type terms.)

C

Joel

I always appreciate projects like 36 Days of Type for creating opportunities to try new tools and solutions in a design setting. I used much of that opportunity to explore computer-generated three-dimensional design and animation. While there are quite a few examples of this in the library of type we created, this “Inflatable C” is one of my favorite results of that exploration. While it’s quite minimal, it shows off some of the new options that the third dimension can create for designers like convincing depth in the subject and a more robust use of simulated physics. Along with all of that, this piece just makes me think of summer.

G

Kirstie

The double-story (or looptail) “g” is one of my all-time favorite letterforms. Even though it’s mostly superfluous, difficult to write and unrecognizable to the majority of population, I love how it seems to capture all of the personality of a typeface and its designer. For this illustration, I wanted to take full advantage of the letterform and do something playful to link the two counters. The shapes reminded me of pools of water, so I turned them into little ponds and, in the name of the letter “g,” added a goldfish leaping between the two. It’s a quirky little fish at home in a quirky little letter.

J

Alison

I think the most interesting part of a capitalized J is its arm. Many sans serif fonts do away with it for simplicity’s sake, but I like the way it can balance the otherwise asymmetrical form. I started with a grid paper sketch to articulate my idea. On paper I could visualize how to fit the two scoops of each J shape together and experiment with softly curved terminals. Then I moved to the Procreate app for iPad. I used a chalky brush to give body to the letter, and then used the eraser tool to define the edges and corners. Procreate allows layers so I could add illustrated florals between the tall, narrow J and the more squat, overreaching J tucked in where I wanted—and still have each piece editable. I fit organic shapes and ornaments in and around the ribbons to complete the bright composition.

K

Tim

One of my favorite aspects of the 36 Days of Type project was that it gave us freedom within a rigid structure. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s not—the project was completely open-ended, with no direction or client feedback, but at the same time, the content was inflexible (the letter of the day), the timeframe was limited (one letter each day) and as a team we also chose to limit ourselves to a common color palette. Freedom within constraints can lead to remarkably creative solutions.

For some of my letters I tried to build a formal letter shape, conforming to typographic traditions and crafted for legibility and grace. This K is an example. After looking at other K shapes in a variety of fonts and calligraphy I identified some of the geometric “bones” that I wanted to build my K around.

In other letter explorations, I chose a more conceptual approach. I thought it would be fun to build the letter P shape out of large, oversized pixels. In the animated version of this “P is for Pixels” composition, I created a digital sort of shimmer by slowly fading each block between a few different values of blue.

X

Brady

I love projects that require a series of explorations around the same prompt. Eventually your typical approach to the problem starts to feel tired and uninspired and you are forced to try something you might not normally consider. 36 Days of Type was that sort of project for me (even in just the 7 or so iterations I completed as part of our team approach).

Part way through my initial explorations began to lose their initial spark and I started looking around my environment at home for inspiration. We have a variety of patterned fabrics and other materials around the house, from curtains to coasters, and while studying them one evening I started to imagine how those patterns would look in motion. One pattern in particular happens to feel very much like a grid of geometric letter X’s.

Once I tested the idea with X, I wondered about the same concept applied to a different pattern-letter combination. It was interesting approaching the problem from the other direction the second time around, starting with a particular letter or number and trying to discover it in an already existing pattern.

You can see the whole set from the MJM design team on our Instagram account or by watching the video below!

Good Reads from 2017

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