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Notes from Design Camp 2019

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.

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MJM Designers Participate in AIGA South Dakota Stamp Show

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

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Thoughts on Design Camp 2018

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

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Designers Tackle the 36 Days of Type 2018

#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!

MJM’s New Space Is Helping Us Grow and Explore New Ground

It feels a little like we just moved out of our parents’ house and into our own place. We had to buy our own microwave, scrounge a toaster from a friend and buy a couch or two. And some plates. And a broom.

MJM is growing up.

The front entry of MJM's new space

Welcome to MJM’s new space! And thanks to Alison for the great hand-lettered sign!

Meeting rooms in MJM's new space

Dedicated meeting rooms have helped improve our workflow and collaboration, and provided spaces for meeting with clients or for smaller team meetings.

Where we’ve been—the MJM origin story

Once upon a time, MJM was a loose collection of freelancers and collaborators gathered to tackle specific projects. We all worked from our homes or coffee shops and checked in with each other with on a regular morning video call.

As we began to tackle larger and more complex projects and started representing national brands and well-known nonprofits, we grew and began to feel the need for a shared space. Because of our unique relationship with Vance Thompson Vision (beyond being one of our first clients, we also share Matt Jensen as CEO) it made sense for MJM to build out a portion of VTV’s overflow space to house our growing team.

Work stations in MJM's new space

We have lots of room to spread out and work, and whiteboard walls to collaborate and work through ideas together.

Stadium seating in MJM's new space

In what we affectionately call the Theater, we have our virtual morning meetings with the rest of our team around the country.

Moving into our own space

We loved being part of the VTV community and sharing life with them for a season (not to mention their well-stocked break room and great coffee). But as VTV and MJM both grew, VTV was ready to expand into their overflow space and MJM was at a point where we needed more space to work, create and collaborate.

MJM was at a point where we needed more space to work, create and collaborate.

And now we have it! Late last year, we moved into our new digs downtown and we’ve been settling in. We did feel a little bit like college kids moving into our first real apartment. We bought a microwave. We hung some of our posters up on the wall. Got some great coffee (thanks Corey and Wes) and then bought a coffee maker of our own, just like real grown-ups.

Kitchen in MJM's new space

We moved out and bought our own microwave and coffee maker. But we still plan to take all our laundry back to VTV every weekend. (Just kidding, Dr. Thompson.)

Space for creative collaboration

Like most organizations, we rely heavily on digital tools to organize our thoughts and collaborate (Slack, Redbooth, Dropbox and Paper make up the four walls of our digital workspace). But one of the things we’ve enjoyed most about MJM’s new home is that we have a lot of physical spaces set apart for creative collaboration. As much as we might be tempted to forget it, we are physical beings and we think and work in physical space. There’s no substitute for spreading out a stack of papers and images on a table or trading ideas back and forth on a whiteboard.

“The dedicated rooms are really nice—no more juggling meeting spaces!” –Brady

In the past we haven’t had a separate meeting space of our own to use—now we have four, each with room to work and whiteboard walls to work through our ideas together. As Brady said, “the dedicated rooms are really nice—no more juggling meeting spaces!” We’re also developing a dedicated making space, with room and tools to work on mockups to show clients how their materials will look and feel.

Sound control and a state of “flow”

I’m not sure it’s the same for everyone on the team, but my concentration isn’t very durable. I’m distracted easily, especially by other people’s conversations. One of the hardest things about sharing space with other people is that they sometimes need to talk to each other. (If you can imagine.) When your focus is as fragile as a soap bubble,* it doesn’t take much to break your concentration.

Animation of a bubble popping

*I actually made this animation in the middle of that sentence, as an accidental and delightfully appropriate case study.

Our new dedicated meeting spaces help our team create and maintain a state of flow in their daily work by eliminating distractions and helping us stay immersed in the work. (Heaven knows, some of us need all the help we can get.)

Phone booths in MJM's new space

Phone booths help everyone on both sides of the glass concentrate better. Also we have mannequins next door. They’re good neighbors, pretty quiet.

Doing good work in an old building — feeling connected to the city

One thing several members of the team have mentioned is that moving into this new space has given us a renewed sense of MJM’s relationship to the community. When we need a brain break, Falls Park (the city’s namesake) is right outside our door and some of our favorite restaurants and coffee shops are now within easy walking distance.

“I like the historic feel of the area…it feels more like we’re a part of Sioux Falls.” –Shannan

There’s also something grounding about working in a building with solid bones and a deep history. The beams that hold this place up are massive and the brick walls are easily 18 inches thick. For the MJM team, “we love good work” has become something of a mantra—we value craftsmanship and place a premium on doing our work well for the sake of the work itself.

This reclaimed industrial building is a wise old mentor as we create new, well-made work for our clients.

Finding a new sense of ourselves

As we go through the process of settling into our new home, it has given us even more of a sense of who we are and what we want to be. We value learning and curiosity; being present where we are; we value guts, taking risks to grow and try new and hard things; we value being accountable to each other and to our clients, and at the same time we value having a strong sense of fun and mirth.

“I feel like having this empty space to fill has pushed us to really evaluate who and what MJM is.” –Kirstie

As we continue to develop this our sense of where MJM is headed, our brand and identity will continue to develop as well, to reflect who we are. And if you haven’t seen the new space, get in touch with us and we’ll pour you a Fernson or a coffee and show you around.

We’ve come a long way, and we’re excited to see what the next few miles hold for MJM.

Bookcases in MJM's new space

We now have a home for our library of design and customer experience books, and a comfortable place to read them.

Fernson keg in MJM's new space

If you haven’t seen the new space, get in touch with us and we’ll pour you a Fernson or a coffee and show you around.

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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.

The Value of Creating Distinct Social Media Channels

Mass Media vs. Personal Relationships

There are two general approaches to how people and brands use social media channels. The first is to broadcast, trying to get as wide a distribution as possible for each piece of content. This is the way people approach traditional media like print, radio, and television.

The second approach to social media is relational—using social channels to know and be known. In the past this type of interaction only happened face-to-face, or in letters and phone calls. The people and brands that understand social media best realize that social media is a new animal—a hybrid of traditional broadcast media and personal relationships.

“Social media is a new animal—a hybrid of traditional broadcast media and personal relationships.”

Broadcasting on All Frequencies

Most people use two or three different social media platforms. Some people connect to each other and brands on only one social media channel. But most users connect to the same people on multiple platforms, which can lead to a lot of redundant content. If a brand shares identical content on each channel, they miss an opportunity to add value to their audience. There are times when it makes sense to repeat the same message on every social channel—an event cancellation, for example. More often though, your audience will be better served if you create content that is unique to each channel.

Let Your Audience Choose the Channel

I appreciate it when people I follow create focused, curated streams of content. I like to see what other designers post about design, but I’m not interested in family photos or inside jokes with people I don’t know. The opposite is also true—there are some friends I follow because I want to see their family photos and hear their jokes, but only have a passing interest in their particular industry. If I have the option, I subscribe only to the channels that interest me the most. The same is true for brands.

Screenshot of United social media channels

At one point, United Airlines gave a lot of thought to how they structured their social media channels. Each platform had a clear purpose. Because United used each platform in a unique way, they created a focused stream of content in each channel. People can ignore channels they aren’t interested in and subscribe only to the content they want.

  • Facebook: to send out updates, and to promote deals and contests
  • YouTube: a behind-the-scenes view
  • Twitter: specific, targeted travel questions
  • Instagram: to share travel photos
  • LinkedIn: to talk about new products and services, and career opportunities

Each social channel reinforces the brand and offers something unique. United customers can subscribe to the channels that are relevant to them, which means they’re more likely to find value in the content they receive. (Thanks to Matt Bailey of Site Logic for showing me this graphic some time ago.) The benefit for United is that they are able to offer content that is valuable to their audience and connect better with the people they are serving.

Saturation vs. Service

The mistake that many brands make is that they blast out the same messages on all their social media channels. That assumes that 1) all the channels are the same and interchangeable, and 2) that the people who are in those different social communities are looking for the same types of content in each channel.

In my experience neither one is true. I look on Instagram for beautiful and interesting images, and I don’t expect those images or the communication around them to be time-sensitive. On the other hand the element of time is very important to users of Twitter. Tweets are lightweight and easy to create in a moment, which is why Twitter is many people’s source for up-to-the-minute updates. (Oreo “won the marketing Super Bowl” in 2014 by creating and sending a tweet within minutes of a power outage during the game.) Use each social media channel the way your audience is using it and don’t try to shoehorn in content that doesn’t fit the channel.

If you’re a company or a brand, you should realize that you are a guest at the party—an overwhelming majority of people say they want to use social media to connect with friends and family. Don’t try to saturate your audience with your content. Instead think about how to create channels of content so your audience can find content that’s relevant, interesting, and helpful to them.

Automated “Social” Media

The Handshake Machine

Imagine setting up a machine at your front door to shake hands with everyone who comes to visit. (This would actually be a great gimmick for the first person to do with it, but bear with the analogy for now.) This marvelous handshake machine greets your guests automatically as soon as they walk in. The machine shows your clients and friends that you’re great at automation and savvy about gizmos, but it doesn’t create much of a connection. Automating social media interactions can have the same effect–they feel inauthentic and forced, and can actually alienate your audience.

The Impersonal Autofollow

Consider these two automated “social” interactions: some time ago I mentioned Typegenius in a tweet. Typegenius is a website that suggests font pairings—Brandon Grotesque goes well with Petrona or Merriweather, or Lato would look really sharp with Roboto Slab. In the tweet, I compared them to a “sommelier” who suggests wine pairings. Within minutes, I was followed by a wine distributor—their automated follow mechanism obviously didn’t understand the simile. (They have since unfollowed me, probably automatically. I do see the irony in referencing an automated font pairing resource in this context.)

Screenshot of Typegenius

In a similar way, I posted this to Instagram a while ago, and got a “Like” by a selfie stick manufacturer who also later unliked (disliked?) it. Neither of those tone-deaf interactions is much of a problem for those brands, especially since I’m probably not their target market. But it does point to the inherent problem with automating your “social” interactions–you’re not actually being social. Instead of building a relationship, you’re highlighting the fact that your “relationship building” is inauthentic.

Screenshot of Instagram photo of selfie stick

Autoposting Across Channels

Automatically reposting can be done well, if you’re intentional about creating something of value for your audience. A clumsy autopost from one social channel to another tells your audience in the second channel that their platform of choice is second tier to you. You risk alienating or annoying them, especially if the posts from the first channel don’t repost well. Don’t post a link on Twitter to your post on Facebook, for example. “I just posted this” followed by a link isn’t very compelling. Instead give careful thought to how you use different social channels for different audiences.

Antisocial vs. Social Media

There’s a case to be made for letting an algorithm take care of the mundane tasks in your online life, but go too far in that direction and you’ll miss out on a chance to connect to the people on the other side. Social media gives individuals and brands an opportunity to connect to a wide variety of people in a meaningful way. This opportunity is unprecedented in history and creates unique possibilities to engage with people who you would otherwise never meet.

Harvesting “likes” or getting a high follower count isn’t a great end goal. Don’t waste those possible connections by having your algorithms and autofollower do all the work. “Automated personal interactions” is an oxymoron, and a wasted opportunity.

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Selective Reduction as a Creative Act

There are a lot of choices that go into making a photograph–the moment and angle you take the picture, what you include in the background and what you crop out, the distance from the subject and the focal length. We tell the story we choose to tell in our photographs, and this short video from Canon illustrates that truth well.

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it. To prove this we invited six photographers to a portrait session with a twist. ‘Decoy’ is one of six experiments from The Lab, designed to shift creative thinking behind the lens.”

From Canon’s The Lab

To take a photograph is an act of creation, but it is also an act of curation, of simplification and reduction. Out of an entire situation or scene we select one small portion of, and we hold that small slice of the moment up as a representation of the whole scene.

We have a sense that the photograph is a truth-teller, that images don’t lie. But each image is the product of a selective reduction of a complex moment in time. A photograph can’t help but be “lower resolution” than the real moment, and so something is always edited out.

What Are All These Image File Types my Marketing Team Talks About?

What is a raster image? What other kind of image is there?

You might think that a picture is a picture but when it comes to using your images in print or on the web, there are some very important distinctions to be made. The most important of these distinctions is between vector images and raster images.

Vector images appear smooth and clean no matter what size they are displayed.

When a raster image is scaled up, you begin to see the individual blocks of color.

What are vector graphics?

A vector graphic isn’t an image so much as a mathematical recipe for building the image and doesn’t have any limitations in terms of size. Vector graphics are infinitely scalable–if you have your logo in a vector format, you can use that file for a business card or for a billboard and the image quality will be the same. (Common vector file types include .AI, .EPS, .PDF (sometimes) and .SVG files.

So what is a raster image?

Put simply, raster images are built out of blocks of color (pixels), and vector images are built out of a series of mathematical instructions. A raster image only contains enough information to display the image of a logo (or a cat, for most of the internet) at a certain size. If you display that raster image at a larger size than it was created to cover, it begins to appear as blocks of color rather than smooth shapes.

A raster image is built of small blocks of color. When scaled up those blocks are scaled as well and look pretty rough, especially on curves.

Pixels: Little blocks of color

Most images used by most people are raster images, and are pixel-based file types. The raster image file types that I use on a daily basis are GIF, TIF, PSD, RAW, JPG, and PNG. Each one was developed for a different reason and each file type has it’s own hidden superpower. (Some were developed in an unsuccessful attempt replace the others.)

GIF

The Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, was one of the earliest image formats but is still a mainstay of the visual internet. Of all the schisms in the design world, the divide over the pronunciation of this file type is possibly the most bitter. This might be the best answer.) Limited to 256 colors, the GIF can’t display images in a way that takes advantage of the full range of most modern screens. That limitation, along with a patent issue, was one of the main reasons for the development of the PNG format. Unlike the other image file types listed here, GIFs can be strung together into short video animations. Animated or still, the humble GIF remains one of the most common image types on the internet. Avoid using GIFs in print, though–especially the animated ones. That’s just not going to work.

Superpower: Movement. GIFs can be animated, creating compelling or inane little repeating videos.

TIF

Tagged Image File Format is a less common image type, but it’s a powerful tool in the toolbox. The TIF is a “lossless” file format, meaning that no image information is lost when saving. TIF images can also be layered like a PSD, and can contain vector clipping masks making them an ideal format for high resolution print production. The downside of all that uncompressed information is that TIFs are often massive files, and can’t be read by many devices and users.

Superpower: Memory. The TIF is a high resolution, lossless image format. Also layers!

JPG

The JPG (or sometimes JPEG) is named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group who created it and is one of the workhorse image types in use today. It’s the default image type created by digital cameras and is used widely both in print and online. The JPG is capable of rendering images in a “Lossy compression”, and this compression is both its strength and its biggest weakness. (Let’s all reflect for a moment on this metaphor for the dual nature of our own strengths and weaknesses. Done? Great–on we go.) These images show both the advantages and downsides of the JPG compression:

This image (with the same pixel dimensions) when compressed from 5.6 megabyte (on the left) is 900kb (center) and 185kb (right). In the context of a complicated image, especially in high contrast images, the compression artifacts are not as apparent, and the savings in terms of file size might be worth the quality loss in some situations.

If this image were going to be used at larger scales, the artifacts would be distracting.The JPG compression algorithm is especially harsh in areas that should be smooth gradients and subtle variations in color.

Even in a simple gradient the way that the compression algorithm averages areas of color creates banding at first and then large unsightly blocks of color at the extreme end.

Superpower: Adaptability. Variable compression and a jack of all trades. When in doubt, use a JPG–they’re versatile and can be viewed by most users on most devices. 

PNG

Portable Network Graphics, or PNGs, Transparent, more common on the web. The first image here is a JPG, 600px x 300px at 150ppi (pixels per inch), and there’s nothing wrong with the image, especially if you like white boxes around your logos. The second image is a PNG, also 600px x 300px at 150ppi.

Both the images are the same size and present colors and gradients equally well, but the PNG file type supports a transparent background. No unsightly white boxes, thank you.

Superpower: Invisibility. PNGs can have transparent backgrounds.

RAW

The RAW format is not as common for most casual image users, but it’s a go-to file format for serious photographers. Digital cameras are essentially little computers equipped with a lens and a sensor. The lens can gather infinite amounts of information, and the sensor receives and allows the processor to record some fixed amount of that information. Even in a simple image, there is a vast amount of information available—the amount of light, the tone and color of the light, the degree of detail present, etc. When those images are recorded as JPGs, the default for most cameras, the majority of the visual information the lens and the sensor gather are discarded. This creates a manageable file size and still produces a decent image.

The advantage that the RAW format has is that it records and retains a much larger range of that original image. The photographer can then access that original information later when they are processing the photo. If the captured image was too dark, or if the white balance was off, they can adjust those settings almost as if they were retaking the photo.

Superpower: Time travel, basically. RAW files contain scads of information from the moment the photo was taken, allowing photographers to go back and “retake” the photo using different settings.

PSD

The Photoshop Document, the mighty PSD, is the godfather of all other image types. You begin by defining the resolution and the size of your document in pixels, but there the line between vector and raster image begin to blur a bit. Adobe Photoshop, and therefore the PSD format, has gotten more and more complex–recent iterations of the program handle vector graphics (as “Smart Shapes”). Users can compose and create just about any image they can dream up. Users can edit a PSD in layers (and layers and layers and layers) so it’s easy to go back and edit and compose with separate elements and effects. They can also have transparent backgrounds.

Photoshop documents are only accessible to users who have, well, Adobe Photoshop, but once the composition is made those images can be exported as any of the other image file types. There’s a good chance that many images in circulation have spent time as a PSD at some point in their story. For designers, the PSD’s capabilities make it the ideal vehicle for most image art assets.

Superpower: Composition. PSDs contain layers.

PSB

The Photoshop Document we just talked about is pretty amazing, but it does have its limitations. One of those limitations has to do with the image’s size. A PSD can only be a maximum of 2 gigabytes, which is usually plenty of digital elbow room for most projects. There are times when you have to go beyond that, especially in large format and grand format printing, and for that you’ll have to convert your PSD to a Large Document Format, or PSB. (PSB may actually stand for “Photoshop Big”, which sounds ridiculous, but is accurate enough.)

Superpower: Giant. PSBs can be massive, supporting images up to 300,000 pixels in any direction.

For more information on these image types, and to read about the more esoteric formats check out Adobe’s file format guide.

So what about vector image file types?

I’m working on an equally nerdy article about vector file types, which talks about the difference between them and which formats are best for which situations. (Why I often use .EPS files instead of .AI in my normal Illustrator workflow, for example, and how the .PSD blurs the lines between vector and raster images.)