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The Art of Making Cookies

What got you into cookie decorating?

My mom and I have collaborated on cookie projects for years.

Frosted sugar cookies are a classic Christmas tradition in my family (like many others!). From the beginning, I embraced it: rolling out dough, selecting shapes, working elbows deep in flour, covering each cookie with a little lake of frosting, and placing sprinkles precisely where I wanted them. And even when they looked bad, they tasted like buttery-sweet heaven. What’s not to love?

Once, someone gave my mom a Halloween cookie with frosting that had been piped with a piping bag and tip rather than spread clumsily with a knife. It was a detailed design with three different colors and we were impressed. My mom and I thought, “We could do that.” We had the supplies, the recipe and were only a few YouTube videos away from sinking into cookie world.

Our first big project was part of a fundraiser for a family friend with breast cancer. We made dozens of ribbon cookies with pink royal icing. Some had tiny, hand-piped messages of thanks. People were delighted by them and I think it’s that kind of response that motivated us to keep going. We have created cookies for themed parties, baby and bridal showers, graduations, birthday parties, and of course, holidays.

Decorated cookie

What is the favorite cookie you’ve ever decorated?

One. You want me to pick just one cookie?

This is cheesy, I know. I got married last July and my mom and I made cookies for all of our reception guests. We didn’t count the sticks of butter or the hours it took to finish it all, but there were many. After a day and a half of piping flourishes onto cookies, I made one for Casey. While it’s not as clever as the margarita glasses with sugar rim cookies or elegant as an all-white wedding dress cookie, it was a privilege to give him something homemade with love. Plus, he’s my biggest fan and offers to taste-test for me. Win-win.

Decorated cookie

How is decorating cookies like graphic design?

  • Both are creative processes. Every step involves small decisions that contribute to a complete end product. There’s also a lot of ongoing incremental refinement to the process. In cookie world, we’ve edited the sugar cookie recipe so it holds its shape during baking and still tastes good. I’ve tried most types of cookie cutters available and have learned that metal work the best.
  • Principals of design matter. What makes something beautiful and functional? Contrast, color, balance, rhythm, etc.
  • The process is messy! The kitchen, my desktop, even my Illustrator pasteboard can be a mess in the middle of a project.
  • In every batch there’s a sad failure. Broken cookies, poor quality photos, a botched idea. Mistakes happen and it’s part of learning and getting to a great final product. (Note: Cookie mistakes are tastier than design ones.)
  • Beauty and function work together. A brochure about cataracts can look great and incorporate interesting images and illustrations, but the true test is when it’s in the hands of a patient, learning about cataract surgery. Cookies are the same. I’ve been told “It’s too pretty to eat!” which is beyond flattering, but the cookie’s real purpose is to be eaten. And to be delicious.
  • It’s about people. I love being able to bring something beautiful into someone’s day or help them do so for others.

Decorated cookies
How is it different?

  • Ctrl+Z (the shortcut for delete) is so helpful in design work. It does not, however, translate to spilling an entire bottle of sprinkles. Physical mistakes cannot be undone.
  • Iteration is much faster in digital design. With a few clicks, I can try out options before making a decision. Cookies take much, much longer.
  • Cookies have a clear purpose: look good, taste great. As a graphic designer, someone poses a problem and I have to design the solution. For example, the problem might be that potential LASIK patients are dissuaded by the cost of surgery. The solution might look like a brochure, a digital campaign about HSAs or a video testimony from a patient who thinks LASIK was totally worth it. I have not yet pursued cookie decoration with the intent to educate, but perhaps I’ll give it a shot.
  • Cookies are perishable; design may last long after the project is complete. The lasting power of a logo or video that hits the mark might make the difference for a client. Because of that, the work we do has to be good.
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The 5S Visual Management System

I confess that we designers and creatives tend to obsess about our tools—the ones we have and the ones we could have. While these tools undoubtedly aid us in our work, there’s one simple, free tool that can be more effective in helping with work efficiency than anything you could spend money on: organization.

Cluttered and disorganized environments cause more stress and wasted time. They also cause the output of a workspace is to be more unpredictable in terms of quality and quantity. With this in mind, organization can be a topic that is difficult to quantify. That’s where the 5S Visual Management System comes into play. Developed in Japan, the 5S System thoroughly analyzes any workspace to show what areas need strengthening in terms of visual management.

The 5S Visual Management System

The system breaks the aspects of organization down into five categories to be examined and controlled in order. The sections are Sort (Seiri), Set in Order (Seiton), Shine/Clean (Seiso), Standardize (Seiketsu), and Sustain/Discipline (Shitsuke).

  • Sort seperates what is necessary and what isn’t. It has also been called “The fine art of throwing away junk.”
  • Set in Order takes the necessary and places it in its rightful spot—making sure that it is easily accessible.
  • Shine/Clean makes certain that properly placed items are clean. If there’s a persistent source of dirt, find and remove it.
  • Standardize involves creating an easy system of repeated tasks that will measure and maintain the organization of the workspace currently.
  • Sustain/Discipline takes the repeated tasks of upkeep and turns them into habits for everyone involved. This step will take the longest amount of time, but with simple motivation it is very achievable.

Results

The 5S Visual Management System has proven to be an effective way of taking a workspace and moving it to the next level in terms of efficiency. Some of the world’s largest companies even implement it into their spaces. As MJM has recently moved into its new location, this is definitely something we are working towards to keep our area effective and continue creating great work.

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Arts & Drafts: A Fundraiser for JAM Art & Supplies

A Toast to JAM

No, we aren’t talking about a great breakfast food to start your day (although that’s important, too). We’re talking about JAM Art & Supplies,  a local non-profit “committed to providing Sioux Falls artists with low-cost art making materials.” MJM is partnering with Fernson Brewing Company to host Arts & Drafts, a fundraiser for JAM Art and Supplies.

The event, organized by JAM and the design team at MJM, takes place at Fernson on 8th on Sunday August 21st, from 3 to 5pm. The purpose of Arts & Drafts is simple–to support JAM’s mission and to give people a chance to learn some basic drawing skills in a relaxed and comfortable environment. Drink craft beer, learn to draw, and support a local art non-profit!

Learn to draw! And Fernson!

If you have always wanted to be able to draw, but have yet to learn how, this will be an experience you won’t want to miss. There’s no pressure–this isn’t a contest, and your work won’t be judged by anyone. It’s just for fun!

Arts & Drafts will not only benefit those who want to draw, but also the Sioux Falls art community in general. For every beer sold, Fernson will donate $1.00 to JAM Art & Supplies to help JAM continue its mission, so anyone can buy the awesome craft materials they need at affordable prices. We hope to see you all at Arts & Drafts and we encourage anyone curious about drawing to come!

Let us know you’re coming and watch for updates on the Arts & Drafts event page. And please share this with anyone you think might be interested!

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Sioux Falls Design Week: What Would You Ask a Designer?

Sioux Falls Design Week 2016

Are there questions you’d like to ask a designer? Or do you have an idea for a design-related event? This fall the Sioux Falls Design Center is organizing the third annual Sioux Falls Design Week. Design Week is an annual celebration and exploration of all types of design. MJM will be organizing a 1–2 hour event during Design Week, and we want to know what you’d like to learn about.

Sioux Falls Design Week events will be held from September 30th to October 8th at various locations. Check out their website or like the Design Center page on Facebook to get notifications about upcoming events.

What Would You Ask a Designer?

What makes a logo good? What’s the difference between a font and a typeface? Why is everyone so down on Comic Sans? Why do designers hate Papyrus? And what’s the big deal about Helvetica? What is a pixel? How do you draw a cat?

Or maybe you have bigger questions like, Why does design matter? Is design different than art? Let us know here and then watch for details in the next few weeks.

Thanks for your feedback. Follow MJM on Facebook or check back here to find out what form our design event takes. As we get closer to the event you can also follow all the Design Week events using the #siouxfallsdesignweek hashtag.

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White Space

I recently read an article from Anne Lamott that’s been rattling around in my head for the last couple of weeks. It left me feeling understood but utterly exposed in the way Lamott’s writing usually does. In it, she asks this question of her writing students and of all of us:

[W]hat manic or compulsive hours will they give up in trade for the equivalent time to write, or meander? Time is not free—that’s why it’s so precious and worth fighting for.

I always have this glorious but misguided dream that there will eventually be a triumphant end to my to-do list and a vast expanse of empty time will roll out before me and I can finally let my creativity roam free.

But this time is never just presented to us. The to-do list never ends and the need for more time only grows.

A need for space

Enough words have already been spilled about the “cult of busyness” we currently find ourselves in. Suffice it to say that the curse of our age seems to be that most of our days are consumed with constant reminders of all the other things we should be doing.

Life has become so filled, so scheduled that there is a longing for an absence; a white space in which we can simply be.

In design, white space is purposeful emptiness. It is defined by its very lack of content. But by allowing that content adequate space to breathe, white space allows us to focus on what’s really important.

In design, white space is purposeful emptiness.

Unfortunately, white space is often one of the first things to get sacrificed in favor of more: more words, more images and more information. But there’s a cost to this trade-off. The more room we fill up, the less time and space we have to appreciate what’s actually there.

Reclaiming time

Which brings me back to Lamott’s question: “What are you willing to give up?” Rather than sacrificing this time and this space, what to-do list item can wait or be eliminated altogether?

Last weekend, I asked myself the seemingly trivial but critical question, “What would happen if I didn’t do the laundry?” And the answer I came up with was: nothing. The world wouldn’t end if I decided to let the laundry go for a few more days.

So, rather than spend my Sunday afternoon folding and sorting clothes simply because that’s what I always do, I began working on a personal design project that I’d been thinking about for months and just never found the right time to get started on.

“What are you willing to give up?”

Of course, I’ll have to do the laundry eventually. This is a not a call to shirk the responsibilities of being a functional and decent human. The to-do list will always be there, beckoning us back into comfortable busyness. But by deliberately carving out this space – whether for a passion project, a walk outside or just time to let our thoughts wander – we make the space where we do everything else better.

Roll ‘Em

I have many hobbies and inspiration sources in my life that affect the way I approach design as a whole. One of the main influences I’ve embraced most over the years is the art of film. Film and design are two completely separate art forms, but that does not imply that designers cannot learn from the world of cinema. Our job as designers is to convey the intended message in the way that is easiest to understand in terms of content and tone. A great film has the same job to accomplish.

The elements of a film provide us with concise understanding of the filmmaker’s tone and connects the world of cinema to design. The quirky tone of a Wes Anderson rooted in the bright color palettes and snappy dialogue is so immediately evident in any of his works from his filmography; it’s a truly masterful thing to see. The complex nature of the Lord of the Rings lore is broken down to perfection in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy as to convey all the necessary points and provide a glimpse at all the minor points within J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision.

Depending on the client, the tone built in the branding and writing is just as important as they would be in a movie. The tone itself needs to match the narrative that the client envisions for themselves. Similarly, you wouldn’t handle a scene for a comedy the same way you would for a horror film. Handled incorrectly, and the direction of the tone becomes muddled. Unclear. Just plain bad. With clear understanding of what needs to be said and what that means, good design can tell you everything you need to know in a visual manner.

As an example, let’s take a look at Damien Chazelle’s phenomenal film, Whiplash. More specifically, let’s look at the lighting. Early in the movie, we see two separate band rooms at Shaffer Conservatory, one for the lower tier players (top) and the other for the band director, Terrance Fletcher’s, elite players (bottom). The easy-going demeanor of the band director of the lower tier band is matched by the cool blue lighting of the room. It is serene and well-lit, making for a rather peaceful tone. Then later in the film, we move to Fletcher’s room and we see the exact opposite. It is a dim room with the only lighting being so warm in color temperature that it is fire-like. It’s ominous and tense at all times.

Screenshot from the movie "Whiplash"

Screenshot from the movie "Whiplash"

It appears that the main character, Andrew, has entered Hell, and as we see from Fletcher, that is not far from the truth. J.K. Simmons played the character of Fletcher with such a fire-like intensity that this Hellish room matched his Hellish character.

Screenshot from the movie "Whiplash"

Seeing how effortlessly some movies like Whiplash tell what the over-arching meaning is in such succinct ways has inspired my craft many times. But there are many other sources to find these sorts of inspirations. Some look to music and sports and find it does the same thing. I guess what I’m getting at is that sometimes the best influences for your work are found when you explore outside your domain.

Strengths Hidden Under Perceived Weaknesses

Sometimes noticing your own strengths can be a challenge, and this might be because they can be hidden under perceived weaknesses.

A while ago everyone on our MJM team took the Strengths Finder 2.0 test. After answering a series of questions for around 45 minutes, the test taker is given their top 5 themes as well as a description of each one. The purpose of this quiz is to help a person focus on their unique qualities and recognize how they stand out in a crowd.

Before reading my results, I didn’t expect the test to take an attribute I perceived as negative and spin it in a positive way. I was fairly certain that “organized” would not be a word this test would use to describe me- and I was right. One of the positive traits that this test gave me, however, is “adaptability.”  According to the Strength Finder 2.0 test, “People who are especially talented in the adaptability theme prefer to ‘go with the flow.’ They tend to be ‘now’ people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.”

Reading this, it makes sense. I know that I could benefit from writing everything I need to accomplish each day in a planner and becoming a more organized person in general. That is something I want to work on and something I intend to improve upon. But the results I received from this test help me realize that weaknesses don’t overshadow strengths.

I adapt to my surroundings and just handle each task as it comes my way. I live in the moment. I have the ability to zone in on a project or a situation and focus all my attention on it. While others prefer to spread their energy and efforts across multiple projects, I prefer to lay it on thick to just one at a time. I like to juggle whatever life throws at me instead of creating a strategic and rigid game plan.

And maybe that’s okay.

I realize that being organized and having the ability to adapt to changing schedules aren’t necessarily oxymorons. Many people have the ability to do both. But this got me thinking that if I needed to have my entire day or life planned out to a tee, then maybe I, personally, wouldn’t be so skilled at adapting to changes.

Be deliberate at working on areas in your life that need improvement, but also take time to step back to see the bigger picture and the many strengths you possess within. When you celebrate your strong attributes, you set yourself up for success and move forward confidently. Don’t let what you perceive to be a bad characteristic trait disable you from seeing the strength intertwined with it.

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A Hand Lettered Alphabet GIF

GIF of a hand lettered alphabet

I drew one letter every day for 26 days last December. The alphabet. Alpha through Zed. The ABCs. I completed the hand-lettered alphabet project just for me. I made a gif of it just for you.

Some letters took a few tries before I came to something I liked. “F” was a fantastic failure if I remember correctly. “X” is all over the place.

None of them would function well in a font. Still, every time I put pen, pencil, or marker to paper, I faced decisions about line, movement, dominance, value, and balance. These design element decisions are important to practice. Letter forms are the perfect tool for rapid iteration, once you get to know them.

Characters are purely symbolic. They have no meaning until people come along and give them something. Still, anyone using the Latin alphabet recognizes that an A is an A; it has a sound, a name, and looks like an angle with a crossbar.

Because an “A” already has a form structure, I have the freedom to add flourish and dimension. “B” forms of the world add curved elements to the challenge. “C”s abandon straight lines altogether. Their personalities are curious and demand attention. When I do it again, they will be different, but never perfect.

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How Curiosity Inspired a Generative Music System

I have a music problem.

I enjoy working to the sound of instrumental and ambient music, but sometimes I don’t want or don’t have the time to search through my music library to find the right album to listen to. I also worry that consuming music as background “filler” at work means I won’t appreciate an album I’d otherwise delight in listening to actively.

So an idea was born, and I became curious if I could create a musical system that would generate ambient and instrumental sounds indefinitely. It would be a soundscape that had enough sonic interest and depth, but without worry of devaluing the creative work of another. Ableton Live provided all the tools needed to achieve just that. I picked a selection of instruments I enjoy and began using plugins to generate a stream of MIDI notes at various rates. The whole system is constrained to a minor pentatonic scale, to ensure nothing sounds dissonant. Some instruments would play more frequently, while others would enter randomly and more infrequently to serve as a bit of sonic accent.

Ableton screenshot

It was the accent instruments that led me to a fun discovery about the tools I use to create music, and I learned a new method for building instrument racks that has sparked an interest in further musical exploration.

Curiosity has a compelling effect on your productivity. I’d been in a bit of a creative drought when it comes to my music production. This music system wasn’t aimed at ending that drought, but I think it has, in a roundabout way. What had been missing was curiosity. I’d been writing music in the exact same way for a year, using the same techniques and instruments, and that spark of discovery was gone.

Curiosity is an essential element of creativity. Psychologist and creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that, “Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting ” Having an interesting problem to wrestle with is something we all desire. It touches on Csikszentmihalyi’s other concept of flow, or being “in the zone.” When you have a challenge that matches your level of skill, you are more fully engaged in the task at hand—and that engagement often relates to enjoyment of the work as well. As we search for good work, and good causes to work for, our guiding value of curiosity serves us well.

Fresh Starts

January is all about fresh starts. There’s a white blanket of new snow on the ground. The air is crisp and clear. It’s the perfect time to re-center and re-focus. One of my January rituals is to go through every item I own and get rid of anything that no longer seems useful or relevant. It’s a process that always leaves me with a sense of lightness and clarity. By getting rid of things I no longer need, I can see how much I’ve grown and changed over the last year.

But as much as I appreciate this process once it’s over, the toughest part is always letting go of the things that I had high hopes for. The dress that should have made me look like a million bucks but never fit quite right. The book I thought would be excellent conversation fodder but  never actually read. When it comes to items like these, giving them away feels more like giving up.

I often struggle with the same problem when designing. When I’ve invested so much time and thought on an idea, it can be hard let it go even when I recognize it’s not working. It’s so tempting to double down, to invest even more time to try and make my vision a reality. But I usually only succeed in digging a deeper hole for myself to climb out of.

So recently, I’ve been trying a new tactic: being grateful.

Just because you’ve spent time on an idea that didn’t pan out doesn’t mean that it was time wasted. Just like a dress that doesn’t fit, an unrealized idea doesn’t have to be a failure or a mistake. It can serve a purpose — if only to teach you what not to do.

So rather than clinging on for dear life, acknowledge when something isn’t working, be grateful for the lesson you learned, and let it go.

With a new year comes endless new possibilities and it’s inevitable that some of those possibilities won’t work out. So embrace the uncertainty and appreciate everything you learn along the way.