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Creative Momentum

My first ideas are usually terrible.

My next ideas are a little bit less terrible, but still not great. Worse still, it takes me a relatively long time to develop those first not-great ideas. But those first attempts aren’t a waste of time, because the process of working through bad ideas is what makes good ideas possible.

The process of working through bad ideas is what makes good ideas possible.

It’s a common experience for anyone doing creative work, and I imagine that the same is true in a lot of professions. Friends who are writers tell me that the first few paragraphs, or even the first few pages of a project, are sometimes painfully slow and that the early ideas are often difficult, stunted half-starts. Much of the early material gets thrown out along the way, but those initial faltering steps are the only way to get to the finished product.

“Sing in me, O Muse…”

Once the creative momentum has started, the work flows more easily and naturally. It can feel like the ideas have a life of their own. It’s easy to see how the Greeks spoke of the Muses–how it seemed to them that their ideas were coming, fully formed, from some outside source. Homer starts the Odyssey by saying, “Sing in me, O Muse–through me tell the story…” We get caught up by the momentum of the work and it carries us along almost effortlessly.

Part of the creative process

My sketchbook is full of abandoned layout concepts, half-finished logo ideas, and doodles and scribbles that will never be seen by the client. But most of my finished projects can be traced back to one of those sketches. They weren’t the product of wasted time or effort–they were a part of the process, and an indispensable step along the way. The only way to get to the good ideas is to work through the bad ones.

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The Value of Side Projects

A friend asked me a few days ago about the pros and cons of doing freelance work along with your primary design job. Even though I approach the question as it relates to my work as a graphic designer, I think there are general principles here that apply to any profession.

The biggest benefits to pursuing side projects that I see relate to the variety of work. Along with my freelance design work, I get to work with this solid group of people at MJM, and I’m fortunate that there’s a lot of variety even within MJM. (MJM spends about half its energy and time working for non-profit clients, and about half working with clients in vision care and related fields.) The more I thought about the pros and cons of working on outside projects as well, the more benefits I saw.

Everyone wins

A broad range of work is good for everyone involved.

Your clients (all of them) get work that is more sophisticated, informed by a wide range of past projects. When a designer works in one brand or one voice for a number of years, it’s easy to let everything have that flavor. On the other hand, if a designer is regularly working in several contexts, it’ll be much harder to fall into a creative rut.

Working with a variety of clients, and therefore a variety of styles and voices, is one of the best ways to keep your mind and your fingers nimble. It may be the only way.

But clients aren’t the only ones to benefit. Your employers will find themselves working with a designer who is much more versatile, able to adapt his or her style with an agility developed by constant practice.

The designer may be the one who benefits most in the long run, in plain quality of life. None of us wanted to work in a creative field so that we could churn out the same work day after day. Working with a variety of clients, and therefore a variety of styles and voices, is one of the best ways to keep your mind and your fingers nimble. It may be the only way.

Access to a wide variety of styles

Working in a wide variety of projects give you access to a wide variety of styles and voices.

Along with our non-profit clients, MJM works with a number of organizations related to health care. The danger with health care design is that a lot of design in the industry ends up looking pretty similar. A lot of white space, clean, sparse layouts, blues and greens, nothing edgy or alarming (a lot like the interior of most hospitals, actually.) The value of having my hands in a lot of different projects is that each project influences and shapes the others. When I start designing a brochure for an eye care clinic, I may have just spent the morning developing a website for a non-profit, or laying out spreads for a cookbook. It’s likely, and I think beneficial, that elements of those projects will inform the clinic brochure. The clinic brochure will tend to be a warmer, more human, and more accessible piece than it would have been if I’d spent the morning designing other pieces for the health care industry.

The same principle applies in the opposite direction. When I’m working on the website for the non-profit, I’ll be able to selectively apply some of the tone and visual language of the clinic brochure, helping to give the non-profit a credible, trustworthy voice. Even though the aesthetic might be less formal, the information still needs to be well-organized and easy to follow, and I can also draw from the tools that I used in the clinic brochure to do that.

Renaissance men and polymaths

Working in a variety of fields helps give you a broader understanding of each field.

Having worked on a variety of projects in various fields, I have a toolbox full of strategies and styles to choose from.

Part of our role as designers is to organize and present information in ways that are accessible to a wide audience. We’re not generally designing for other designers, or even for other people in our same demographic. To be successful, my eye clinic brochure needs to be equally accessible to a 20-something college student, a 55-year-old farmer, or a 35-year-old IT worker. Having worked on a variety of projects in various fields, I have a toolbox full of strategies and styles to choose from. But working on that wide variety of projects has also given me the opportunity to learn a lot about a range of topics.

In the spirit of the ideal Renaissance Man, a broad range of knowledge and experience makes it possible to make connections that might otherwise be missed. (Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, but also a sculptor, architect, mathematician, inventor, engineers, etc.) When we know and understand more, we are better teachers, and we’re better equipped to present information to our audiences.

The dangers

There are some dangers, of course. There’s a limit to how much you can keep track of in the one head you have, and the more clients and projects you have, there is always the increased chance of losing the thread on a particular project. There is also the potential for the occasional conflict of interest between your primary job and a freelance client, or odd political situations to be aware of, but an open line of communication between all parties and an ongoing dialogue with co-workers should avoid or defuse those situations.

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Moving back and forth between several styles and voices allows a sort of cross-pollination between those projects. That interchange of creative ideas gives me as the designer ready access to more options than I would have had otherwise. (And often speeds up the process, which is always a welcome thing.)

If nothing else, your side projects are a place to explore new ideas and learn new skills without asking permission or risking the credibility of the organization you work for.

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Typography for Kids

As a parent teaching my kids about letters, it’s sometimes difficult to know which A to focus on.  What is the Platonic form of the lowercase A?  It may also be an occupational hazard that I want to tell them about serifs and italics and the difference between a two-story “a” and a one-story “a.”  And I’m not alone.  Here are several books that have been put together with the aim of teach children more about the various and sundry shapes that our letters can take.

Bembo is a typeface that was developed in 1929, but was based on the print in a 1495 work from called De Aetna.   The De Aetna type, as it is called, was cut by Francesco Griffo for a printer named Aldus Manutius in Venice.  The modern typeface was named after Pietro Bembo, an Italian poet who wrote a short book about a journey to Mount Aetna.  (That text was the original purpose of the De Aetna typeface.)

Bembo has been very popular for setting books and long texts since the 1930s, but more recently it was the inspiration for a children’s book, Bembo’s Zoo, by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich.  The author creates a zoo-ful of animals out of the letterforms of the Bembo font.

An even more recent project is The Clothes Letters Wear, by Jeremy Dooley.  It’s a straightforward trip through the alphabet, but each letter is taken as an opportunity to explain and explore the myriad forms of letters.  That project should be available to purchase within the next few months.

One more resource that teaches children about letters, typography and letterforms is a book called Hyperactivitypography from A to Z.  The book looks fantastic, although I have yet to see the printed version–that link will lead you to the full version online.

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Crafting Type Workshop

I’ve been getting more and more interested in typeface design over the past year.  A carpenter needs to know how trees grow and a chef should know something about the origin of the food that ends up on the plate.  In the same way, a designer who works with text and letterforms every day should have a solid understanding of how those letterforms are constructed.

I like the idea of designing a custom typeface that could serve as the unique voice for an organization. There was a time when an author could be identified by the handwriting on the manuscript, but fonts have largely taken on that role. There’s a good chance that I would recognize and associate a font with a brand more quickly than I would recognize the handwriting of a close friend. (I don’t exchange much handwritten correspondence these days.)

Until now I’ve been exploring typeface design on my own by sketching, researching and trying to build a few different fonts, but next week I’ll be attending the Crafting Type workshop in Boston to explore it in a more systematic way.  I’m looking forward to it, and to the new creative directions that will come from this trip.

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Why Eye Care Clinics Should Consider Instagram

Every business these days is scrambling to engage audiences via social media. They’re asking how to use Twitter, how often they should be posting on Facebook, and what sort of content they should be sharing. If you’re an eye care clinic, and your business is vision, then your choice of social media outlets really ought to include Instagram—the inherently visual platform for sharing content.

Think about the potential uses. Here are a few quick ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Grab a quick photo with a patient after their follow-up appointment showing their ecstatic smile and satisfaction with their now 20/20 vision. Share a testimonial quote along with their portrait.
  2. Collect and share inspiring photos from staff and patient vacations, highlighting all the things you’ll see with clear vision.
  3. Hold a nature or sunset photography contest to appreciate the beauty vision affords us. Share the top photos on Instagram.

With a collection of striking images on Instagram, there will be plenty of content to share on other social sites—Instagram photos can be instantly pushed to Facebook and Twitter, among others, and even embedded on a website. So there’s no need to worry that content will be unseen by your other social media connections.

Sight is arguably our most powerful sense, and visual stimuli grab attention quickly and hold our interest. Instagram is a great way to show your community that you celebrate the gift of vision.

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The Graveyard of Good Ideas

Years ago I read in the preface of a collection of a photographer’s work about a book that was impossible to make.  The book he was describing would never exist because it was a collection of  images that had never been created.  This photographer (whose name I’ve forgotten) was referring to the missed images–the moment when a spectator walked in front of the lens, the moment his finger missed the button, the moment just before the picture was taken, or just after.  The idea intrigued me enough that it’s stayed in my mind ever since.

I have a similar body of work.  In the process of creating logos, or layout projects, or web designs, a lot of decent material hits the cutting room floor and is never seen by anyone. In a logo design, for example, we create a series of initial concepts, and a small selection of the ideas generated are shown to the client.  The client identifies one or two as possibilities, and then we refine those further.  The final logo is chosen and the art is finalized.

The process works well, but at each phase a lot of good ideas are discarded.  The question is what to do with those good ideas?  Some of the general ideas may apply to other projects, but if we’ve done our job well, those concepts and design solutions are unique to that client’s situation.

Unlike the collection of the photographer I mentioned earlier, the ideas in this collection aren’t lost–they’re on my hard drive gathering digital dust.  It’s hard to imagine a context where that collection might be displayed.  Most clients would not like to have a handful of alternate, non-approved design pieces floating around with their names on it.  Because the concepts are inextricably bound up with the names and identities of the organizations they were created for, it’s impossible to make them anonymous without destroying the idea.

I’ve thought about ways to present this collection in the future, either on our site or in print, but for now our graveyard of good ideas is closed to the public.

(If anyone knows who this photographer is, please let me know.)

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A Complete Brand Identity Should Be Useless for Anyone Else

Creating a brand identity is often limited to developing a logo, defining a color palette, and choosing a typeface or two.  These elements will go a long way to give an organization a unique look and feel, but often that unique look and feel could just as easily be applied to other similar organizations, or even companies in entirely different industries.

This design for Orchestre Symphonique Genevois is much more complete.Logo for Orchestre Symphonique GenevoisBeginning with the logo design, they created a custom display typeface that incorporated musical notes. That custom typeface is used in all collateral material, giving the Orchestre Symphonique Genevois a unique voice that is recognizable even after reading only a handful of words. From the typeface and logo design, they created grids and layout guides that unify all their materials.

To enhance the connection between the form and the content of their message, they created a system of translating a line of text into a melody.   That system was used to develop web and smartphone apps that allowed users to send and receive text messages accompanied by the melodies that were dynamically created by the message itself.

I love everything about this. Custom typeface design, using the available media to its full capacity, an identity that is inextricably bound up with the organization it represents–I’m glad that this was made.

The most powerful thing about this identity design is that it grows organically from the values and activities of the organization it represents.  These elements cannot be “reskinned” to promote an athletic shoe or a cell phone carrier–they are a natural extension of the Orchestre Symphonique Genevois.

I’m looking forward to applying this complete approach to our upcoming projects.

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An Old Approach to a New Design Brief

When I’m first handed a design brief, I generally dive in and start sketching and laying out pages and hunting down interesting images that fit with the message of the copy. I do these things because I have forgotten some of my first lessons on design and creative communication. Before you start talking, you have to decide:

  1. What ought to be said.
  2. How to say it.

What To Say

I wrote in a recent post about eliminating the extraneous information and ideas that often clutter and cloud printed materials. Organizations sometimes see their flagship brochure or their website home page as their only opportunity to tell their audience all of the information they think is important. The result is an encyclopedia on a tri-fold brochure.  While all the information is there, none of it is really accessible.  You’ve tried to give you reader one resource that will answer all their questions, but all you’ve given them is a headache. First you have to decide what to say. Then…

How To Say It

It’s ineffective to say the right thing in an unfocused, uninteresting way.  Designer and blogger Mark Boulton offers one remedy to this problem.  He suggests approaching a new design project by choosing one unifying image or concept for whatever piece you’re working on, and letting that idea inform and shape every aspect of the design, even if that idea is never explicitly stated in the piece itself.  He calls this unifying concept, “a statement of design intent.”

These statements of intent are a tool. Used to communicate, guide, as a springboard for ideas. A central theme on which to build. They’re a star to sail your ship by.

Years ago, one of my creative mentors referred to this as a matrix—a guiding image that unifies and focuses your creative decisions.

What would a brochure look like that was based on the matrix of Connecting People? Or a poster design that views the client’s business through the matrix of Opening Doors? I’m going to try putting this idea into practice on my next few projects and see where it takes me.

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Tell Your Story Well

My work as a professional artist started on the stage. Or more accurately, behind, under and above the stage. Scenography–visual design for the theatre–was the focus of the more financially viable half of my university coursework (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.) This course of study included a lot of drawing, sculpting, and painting, as well as the technical arts: lighting, sound and scenic construction.

My courses also taught me the more conceptual work of design: to understand the director’s vision and create a design that supports that vision within the parameters of the story, the space and the budget. The director is trying to tell a good story. The work of the scenic designer is to determine what is essential to that story, and what is extraneous.

As graphic artists our work is the same: to understand the client’s vision and create a design that supports that vision within the given parameters of their narrative, the space available to communicate their message, and the budget. It also means that many times we have to be discerning about how we use the “script” of the client’s current materials. Our job is communicate and support the vision clearly, without letting it get muddied up by imagery or color choices that conflict with that vision. We have to determine which elements of the current messaging are essential, and which elements are clutter.

Take a look at your current messaging and decide what is essential, and what is just clutter. Strip away the clutter, and tell your story well.

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S4G MSP – Strategy For Good

On April 28, 2012, MJM participated in the 6th Strategy for Good session held at CoCo St. Paul. Strategy for Good is an opportunity for non-profit groups to work with top marketing strategists from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area at no charge. Teams of 2-5 strategists work with each non-profit, learning about their organization and offering feedback and solutions on some of their most vital challenges around awareness, social media, event strategies, media strategies, and building a strong brand.

Strategy for Good is hosted in the MSP area about 3-4 times a year. If you are a marketing strategist, consider joining us and giving of your time to help non-profits. If you work with a non-profit group, we’d love to serve you!

To learn more about the Strategy For Good #6 event held last weekend, visit http://s4gmpls6.eventbrite.com/

You can also sign up for more information when Strategy For Good #7 is announced!