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A Brief History of Optotype

You’re sitting in your eye doctor’s office and they pull out a chart of what appears to be a random selection of letters. You breeze through the first few lines, but by the bottom you’re starting to second-guess yourself. Is that an F or a P? Or maybe an R?

At this point you may be wondering: Where did these letters even come from? And who chose them?

With curiosity as our guide, we decided to dig deep into the history of optotype and how the Snellen Chart went from medical innovation to standard practice and all the way to pop culture ubiquity.

The Origins of Optotype

While glasses and other corrective lenses have been around for thousands of years, it wasn’t until more recent history that doctors have a had a standardized system for determining prescriptions.

The idea for the modern eye chart began with German ophthalmologist Heinrich Küchler. In 1835, Küchler cut images of various objects and animals from calendars and almanacs and pasted them onto a sheet of paper in decreasing size. Because it was difficult to control the consistency of the style and weight of these images, Küchler also published a version of the chart using blackletter text set in single lines in decreasing size in 1843.

Küchler’s chart was not widely adopted and, in 1862, Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen developed his own version of the chart that is still the foundation of what is used today. Snellen’s first chart consisted of dingbats (squares, circles, plus signs, etc.) but, like Küchler, he eventually decided that letters would be easier for patients to identify and describe consistently. Unlike Küchler, however, Snellen believed that monoline letterforms of consistent size would be easier to read and he developed his own typeface, now referred to as optotype.

Herman Snellen built each letter of his optotype on a rigid 5×5 grid so that each letter is mathematically consistent and takes up the exact same amount of space.

While traditional letterforms use varying widths and heights to give the appearance of consistency, Snellen built his optotype on a rigid 5×5 grid so that each letter is truly mathematically consistent and takes up the exact same amount of space.

In 1959, Dr. Louise Sloan designed the 10 sans serif letterforms that are most commonly used in eye charts today.

In 1959, Dr. Louise Sloan of Johns Hopkins University created a new optotype with a cleaner sans serif design. Like Snellen’s, Sloan’s letters are formed within a perfect square. Both the Snellen and Sloan optotypes contain letters that were chosen for their easily identifiable verticals, horizontals, and diagonals—C, D, E F, L, O, P, T, and Z for Snellen and C, D, H, K, N, O, R, S, V, and Z for Sloan. Sloan’s letters are considered better for equal legibility and are particularly effective at identifying astigmatism. Sloan’s letters and variations on them are still commonly used in eye charts today.

How To Read a Snellen Chart

Modern Snellen charts can vary in the number of lines, length of lines, and typeface used, but most charts typically contain 11 lines that decrease in size by 25% each line. The lines of text are sized based on what the average person can read at a distance of 20 feet. Someone who can only read the top line of text can see at 20 feet what an average person can see at 200 feet, meaning they have 20/200 vision, which is considered legally blind. While 20/20 is often considered “perfect” vision, it actually means that someone is on par with what the average person can see at 20 feet. Some humans actually have 20/15 vision and many animals have 20/10 or even 20/5.

The lines of text on a Snellen Chart are sized based on what the average person can read at a distance of 20 feet.

Today, many eye doctors prefer to use the LogMAR chart developed by Ian Bailey and Jan E. Lovie-Kitchin in 1976. The LogMAR Chart uses Sloan letters in an inverted pyramid and is considered more precise than the Snellen Chart. Most doctors have also traded in their paper charts for backlit displays that provide better contrast.

Other eye charts include the Tumbling E and Landolt C charts that are used for children and adults who aren’t able to read and the Jaeger chart which measures near-vision acuity and features paragraphs of text rather than letters.

While the original Snellen chart may be falling out of use, it has taken on a new life outside the doctor’s office. The simple design makes it endlessly riffable and designers continue to find new ways to reinterpret it. So whatever form the eye chart takes next, it’s certain that Snellen’s optotype will remain a memorable intersection of medicine and design.

Sources

“Who Made That Eye Chart?,” New York Times
“What Are Optotypes? Eye Charts in Focus,” I Love Typography
“What’s an Eye Test? Eye Charts and Visual Acuity Explained,” All About Vision

Reflecting on Recent Experiences

It’s been said that to craft an excellent experience for your customers, you should think of a specific person and craft the experience with them in mind. The exercise helps identify the sort of things that solve pain points or create delight for real people. As a team, we often recount experiences we’ve had with brands that have been remarkable. The end of the year is a great time to reflect on those good experiences. And learn from them for the year ahead. Below, find a few reflections on experiences that provided value to our team this year.

Kirstie

Terra Shepherd

I have always loved fashion, but the actual experience of clothes shopping? Not so much. For the past 15 years, I’ve been shopping almost exclusively online for all of my clothes. But I decided to brave the IRL shopping experience when I heard about one of Downtown’s Sioux Falls’ latest boutiques: Terra Shepherd. Like me, they have a commitment to sustainable fashion and conscious consumerism, so I thought it was worth a shot. I was the only person in the store, which normally fills me with dread because of hovering salespeople, but the staff was so warm and welcoming and made me feel like I was just trying on clothes with friends. They suggested things I would like and, much to my surprise, I actually did like them! That combined with the shared values make this an experience I will be returning to.

Brady

Wirecutter

Before becoming a father of two young children, I had much more time to thoughtfully research gift ideas for family and friends. As those margins of time have vanished, I’ve appreciated the methodology that Wirecutter applies to their product reviews. And that they explain their process with each roundup of reviews. Christmas shopping this year would have been much more stressful and incomplete without referencing their Holiday Gift Guide. When I don’t have the time to do the level of research I typically would, it gives me greater confidence to give something as a gift knowing a little about the people who are reviewing the products and what makes them uniquely qualified to do so. And as it turns out, they are usually far more qualified to do the research than I!

Cindy

Amazon Prime Online Shopping

Like many working adults, my time is at a premium. I value being able to shop online from home and not have to get into my car, find a parking place, go into a store, make a selection and then wait in line to check out. However, I think there is a price to pay for this convenience.

I have to confess I do love going onto Amazon Prime, pressing a few buttons, and having an item shipped to me for free (yes, I did pay for the membership so it’s not really free). However, I am cautious about the future of big data, protection of personal information, and changes we can anticipate as a direct result of limited competition. Is it too good to be true?

Courtney

Earthscapes Landscaping

My husband and I decided this would be the year we invested into landscaping for our backyard. We received Earthscapes name as a recommendation from another friend that had used them, and after our awesome experience, I can see why. Shane, our landscape designer, was awesome from the start and put up with all of my questions along the way.

But the one point in the process that really stood out was when we were nearing completion of our project. We had an existing retaining wall, that wasn’t a part of the project scope (other than making small repairs to the existing wall), but it didn’t look amazing. One morning, he called and told me they had some left over materials from the rest of the project and he would like to put those towards replacing the existing wall. He felt it would enhance the look of the backyard, and while it might be a few more hours of labor, it would be something they would like to do for us within our current scope. Of course I said “Heck yeah!” and now we have an even more amazing backyard and I am willing to tell all my family, friends, and co-workers about this awesome company. Such a small gesture made a huge impact on the experience we had with Earthscapes and now I can’t stop bragging about them and their work!

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.

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

Accessibility for All: Why Accessibility Matters and Where to Start

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Web accessibility has been on a lot of people’s minds recently as everyone from presidential candidates to grocery stores have come under fire for websites that don’t comply with ADA standards.

Because we work with several eye care clinics at Matt Jensen Marketing, accessibility is doubly important because the chance that someone with a visual impairment will visit the site goes from a probability to a certainty. Because of this, I’m going to focus mostly on visual accessibility, but web accessibility actually encompasses visitors with many different needs. These users could include someone with limited mobility because of a disease such as cerebral palsy, someone who is learning English as a second language, or someone who is temporarily disabled by an injury.

In short, web accessibility is as broad and diverse a topic as humans themselves. Making a site accessible can seem like a daunting endeavor, but hopefully these suggestions will get you pointed in the right direction.

Building Accessibility from the Ground Up

While I’d love to say that we can make a few easy tweaks to make your existing site accessible, the truth is that meaningful accessibility begins in the earliest planning stages of a website. But the good news is that you can make any site more accessible without learning a bit of code.

One of the most important considerations for accessible websites is making having well-structured content. You should approach organizing content the same way you would an outline for a research paper when you were in school. There should be a clear and direct hierarchy and page names, headings, etc. should be descriptive but skimmable. This makes it easier for screen readers to scan pages and makes for a better user experience overall.

Making the Invisible Visible

As web design has advanced, it has become more and more reliant on big, splashy visuals. This is great for a lot of us who were bored looking at pages and pages of plain text, but it does make it difficult for people who rely on screen readers to get the full experience of a website.

Enter alt tags. Alt tags are descriptive meta data that are used by screen readers to describe an image on a website to someone who is visually impaired. People with full vision often don’t understand how much information we get from visual cues. So while alt tags can’t suddenly make someone who’s blind see that stellar photo of your office, they can help provide context that can be helpful for understanding the rest of the content on the page.

Along the same lines, it’s important to avoid burying text within images, especially text that conveys important information such as dates of events or how-tos. Often, people try to call out important information by turning it into graphic, but that may actually hinder many people’s access to it.

Providing Adequate Contrast

While optimizing for screen readers is important, many people who visit your site may be temporarily or only moderately visually impaired and may not require the use of screen reader. These include people who are color blind, suffering from cataracts or glaucoma, or even someone viewing the website in poor lighting conditions.

For these cases, it’s important to make sure the visual elements on your site provide adequate contrast. This means that all text should have a 4.5:1 color contrast ratio with this background. There are many tools to check to make sure your website adheres to these standards, but suffice it to say that the light gray text that has been the trend all over the internet recently probably won’t cut it. (Learn more about text readability in our blog about choosing fonts for cataract patients.)

Along with contrast, it’s also important to consider text size and whether or not it’s scalable, consistent standards for links and buttons that don’t just rely on color, and whether there’s enough room between clickable elements.

We All Need an Accessible Web

Accessibility remains a murky area and unfortunately, there are no clear-cut standards that will definitively prevent you from a lawsuit. But if you’d like to dig deeper, you can start by taking a look at the full Web Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) established by the W3C.

But while accessibility may seem like a lot of extra work just for edge cases, the truth is that all of us will benefit from accessible websites at some point or another. Maybe you break an arm and can’t use a keyboard. Maybe you have a slow internet connection and can’t load images. Or maybe you just got bifocals and are having a hard time reading on a screen. By making the web accessible to anyone, we can create a better experience for everyone.

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

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!

How to Fall in Love with Your Audience

I love being a graphic designer. But there are days when I find myself feeling listless—like everything I make is nothing more than meaningless, ephemeral “stuff.” To combat this problem, I’ve been trying something new: falling in love.

I don’t mean the fairytale romance kind of love. I mean the love that comes from genuinely caring about someone other than yourself. The kind of love that allows you to see the world from a different perspective.

Whether you’re a designer, content creator or business owner, falling in love with your audience can help reignite the passion for your work and allow you to do work that can actually make a difference in someone’s life.

1. Be Interested

Note that this does not say be interesting. Remember that this is about them, not you. Resist the urge to rattle off qualifications or experience and instead just listen. Treat every interaction with your audience—whether face-to-face or virtual—like a first date by giving them the gift of your full, undivided attention.

Ask them about their day, their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their dreams. The more you’re able to see your audience as a complex, beautiful person and not just a customer or a patient, the more motivated you are to provide useful solutions to their problems.

2. Be Observant

If you’re meeting someone in-person, take notice of their surroundings. If you’re meeting in their home or office, pay attention to how they’ve created their environment. What people choose to surround themselves with can say a lot about them.

If you’re meeting someone outside of their environment, you can still pay attention to their mannerisms—the way they speak and carry themselves. Pick up on the little quirks and mannerisms that make each person unique. Hold onto these little gems and pull them out whenever you feel yourself getting frustrated and losing sight of who you’re working for.

4. Be Empathetic

As the creator of your message or service, you have the benefit of much more context than your audience. This divide is particularly striking when handling criticism or complaints. If someone comes to you with a problem, you likely already know that problem exists and have an excuse at the ready.

But rather than begin on the defensive, try to see it from their perspective. Reframe the problem and try to solve it in a way that most benefits them and not just in the way that is easiest for you. This will not only give you more compassion for your audience, but also provide you with greater insight into how to make your product or service better.

4. Fake It

Of course, there are many times when you don’t have direct access to your audience or it’s simply too vast to get to know them on a personal level. If that’s the case, you may just have to fake it.

Glean whatever information you can from customer surveys, user comments or social media followers and craft personas of who your audience might be. Think about what their lives might be like and consider how that will affect how they interact with your content or service. Find stock photos and stick them somewhere you can see them so you can put a face to your audience. The decisions based on these personas may not be authentic, but they will at least be sincere.

Remember that love is a choice. And when we choose to love the people we serve, it changes all of our lives for the better.

Designing the Future of Downtown Sioux Falls

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When you grow up in a place like South Dakota, you grow up with a pervasive belief that if you really want to do “something” with your life, you had better go do it somewhere else.

But what if instead of focusing on all of the things we can’t do in Sioux Falls, we were to focus on all of the things we can do?

Clock in Downtown Sioux Falls

I have lived in Sioux Falls my entire life and I’ve spent most of that life desperately wanting to be anywhere else. But recently—in one of the most difficult and most exhilarating decisions of my life—I’ve made the choice to stay.

One of the most exciting things about living in a small city is that there’s still so much room to grow. Sioux Falls has yet to really figure out who it wants to be in the world. While bemoaning the lack of opportunities in the region, many miss out on the biggest opportunity of all: to shape the future of a city.

Man taking a photo of the Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls has already grown tremendously over the past few decades. I’ve watched with pride as it has developed into a more inclusive and diverse city. Nowhere has this been more apparent than downtown. What used to be one of the more run-down parts of the city has become a vibrant hub for local culture and businesses.

I’ve lived and worked in various parts of the city at various times, but with MJM’s relocation downtown Sioux Falls and my own personal relocation a block away, I’ve had the opportunity to really immerse myself in the ideas that are brewing there and what they might mean for the future of the city.

One of the ideas that energizes me most is walkability. If you have talked to me at all in the last few months, you have probably heard how much I love being able to walk to work. ARUP recently published a pretty thorough report about the domino benefits of designing walkable cities and it’s a great read for those interested in the topic, but my benefit is a simple one: happiness.

“As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy.”—Enrique Peñalosa

Even in the bleak South Dakota midwinter, I’m still more excited for a 10-minute walk than a 20-minute drive. We’ve written on the blog before about how instances of human interaction are dwindling and I think the biggest benefit of walking is that it has made me feel more connected to the community and the people in it.

While sitting in your metal box on the highway, it’s easy to forget about all of the other people sitting in their own metal boxes. But it’s a lot harder to ignore someone when they’re walking by you on a sidewalk.

A piece from the Statue Walk in Downtown Sioux Falls

Unfortunately, downtown is one of the few places in Sioux Falls that is pedestrian-friendly. But, there’s still time and space to change that. Will it happen? I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out.

And even if it doesn’t, I’m will continue working toward building a life and a future to be proud of. And I wouldn’t choose to do that anywhere else.

White Space

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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.