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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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Designing Money: Reimagining Printed Currency

The design of the physical money in our pockets says volumes about us: how we see ourselves as a nation; what we value as a nation (or at least what we say we value); what we consider to be quintessential elements of our national identity. It’s a daunting task to create a design that captures the essence of a country well enough to represent that country on its currency. In the last week we’ve seen two highly imaginative treatments of currency, one real and one hypothetical.

The real…

Norges Bank, the central bank of Norway, unveiled a new set of design concepts for their printed kroner. The final concepts for the currency redesign were chosen from submissions by a number of design agencies.  In a somewhat unusual move, the final designs will be a hybrid of two different teams’ concepts–the front from one design team and the back from another, according to a press release from the central bank:

Norges Bank has decided that a combination of two proposals submitted will go on for further work. The obverse sides of the notes will be developed on the basis of the proposal from The Metric System, Norwegian Living Space. The basis of the reverse sides will be the pixel motifs submitted by Snøhetta Design, Beauty of Boundaries.

The teams involved took visual elements that represented the country and created a series of compositions, one for each denomination– 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 kroner. One of the challenges was to create a set of images that were easy to differentiate at a glance, but also hung together as a cohesive set. On top of that were all the requirements put in place to foil or frustrate would-be counterfeiters.

Scheduled for a 2017 release, the final designs may look differently than these initial concepts, but the overall approach has been chosen. Here are the combined obverse and reverse of the proposed bills:

You can see more images of the winning designs and read some more of the thought behind those designs in Fast Company’s behind-the-scenes article. You can see also the “B sides” from each design firm, as well as some of the other concepts that were considered in this PDF from the bank. (If you read Norwegian and would like to write a synopsis, I’d be happy to repost it here.)

…And the hypothetical

Just as compelling are these hypothetical redesign concepts for US currency submitted to the public by a Redditor sometime last week. It’s a beautiful reimagining of the printed currency that I would be equally glad to spend or to hang on my wall. I appreciate the subtlety of the set, and the strong geometry in each composition.

I don’t have any illusions that there will be a major redesign of the US currency anytime soon, but they’re beautiful to behold and I’m glad they’re out there.

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Why You Need a Good Design Brief

Try this next time you’re at a restaurant:

–What can I get for you, sir?
–Well, I’m hungry but I’m not sure what I want.
–Do you want me to give you more time with the menu?
–No, why don’t you just make some things and bring ’em out. I think I’ll know what I want when I see it.
–Oh. Um…are you thinking something light, like an appetizer? Or dessert? Dinner?
–I’m not sure–let’s just get the process started and I’ll let you know as we go.

That sort of exchange in a restaurant would probably end abruptly and you would leave hungry. Why should you approach a conversation with your creative team in the same way? Before the designers start their work, make sure everyone on both sides of the table has a clear idea of what they’re going to be working on. One way to do that is to take some time before diving into the project to develop a design brief.

What to include in your design brief

There are a lot of ways to approach it, but here are some things to consider when developing a good design brief:

Purpose

Before you answer any other questions, you should know why you’re even talking with a designer. What do you want this proposed project to accomplish? How will you know if it’s working?

Target Audience

Who is going to be reading or viewing this piece? How is the audience going to receive this piece? Will it be something to give to them in a face-to-face meeting? Or is it sent through the mail? Through social media?

Context

Nothing is produced in a vacuum.What other materials will accompany this piece? Unless you’re considering a complete rebrand, your current project is going to be used alongside your existing materials. If you are rebranding, your rebrand is going to be layered on top of the perceptions your audience currently has. Both clients and the designers should work to understand the context around the new project.

Style and Tone

What should this piece feel like? Is it informal and friendly like a warm cup of coffee? That might lead your designer towards a more casual look, perhaps with hand-drawn elements and organic textures. Should this piece feel formal and precise like a luxury car? Your designer might create a piece with a sleek gloss finish, crisp lines and dark colors. In this conversation, identifying what you don’t want is as helpful as what you do want. It’s also extremely helpful if you can provide your designer with examples of other materials you’ve seen that have the style and tone that you’re going for.

Color

It’s always helpful to have very specific color information about your brand. There is an infinite variety of shades of blue, for example–if the blue on this new piece is going to match the rest of your materials, your designer will need to know the exact color information for your brand–hex codes for web projects, and Pantone colors or specific CMYK values for print.

Content

What is this piece going to say? It’s especially important to define 1) who is going to be developing the content and 2) how much content there’s going to be. A 3-page Word document won’t fit on a business card, and shouldn’t fit on a billboard. The content should be finalized before the project moves to layout, to save on design time and costs.

Production Specifications–Size and Quantity

It may seem like the most boring aspect of the brief, but both the designer and the client need to have a clear understanding of what size the final deliverable should be. Be precise, down to the exact pixel dimensions or the exact trim size. Even small changes to the dimensions after the project has gone to layout can result in a lot of extra design hours. If you’re creating a physical piece, make sure that you talk early in the process about how many you’d like to produce–your designer may be able to lower your print costs if they know your quantities from the beginning.

Timeline and Milestones

You should both agree on when each phase of the project should be done (initial concepts, first drafts, revisions, etc.) as well as when the final materials should be delivered.

A good design brief means good expectations

One advantage of taking the time to create a design brief is that everyone’s expectations will come out in the process. Expectations are funny–you only realize that you have expectations when they haven’t been met. It’s invaluable to have a document that you can both refer back to as you develop the project. That common reference point will make future conversations about the project more productive.

You only realize that you have expectations when they haven’t been met.

Developing the design brief may mean a slower start initially, but it’s worth the time. The process will go smoother, with less wasted time and frustration on all sides. You’ll save time and money by communicating clearly from the beginning.