Communications check, mate

Chess Team Billboard

Did you hear about the recent controversy spurred by a Webster University billboard (shown above) touting their successful chess team? Webster athletes who felt slighted by the tongue-in-cheek statement unleashed a flurry of tweets expressing their dismay. How did a playful ad calling attention to Webster’s academic prowess turn into an insult to the institution’s jocks? Obviously, that wasn’t the intention, but communications can be a tricky game—especially when you add humor to the mix. Sometimes no matter how well-planned your messages are, they can be misunderstood. So what’s a communicator to do? Conduct your research, know your audience and what you’re trying to say, and then make your move.

Still Standing

Ben Marcin's free standing rowhouse photo

Cruise down any avenue in Baltimore and you will inevitably run across a scene like the one above. These solitary townhomes are sometimes all that remain of formerly vibrant neighborhoods. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 one in nine housing units in Baltimore lay vacant. The city has aggressively razed abandoned properties to remove fire and health hazards, but the result is a street that looks empty and forgotten.

The row house is an unlikely Baltimore icon. It’s been depicted on everything from local beer labels to crafty painted window screens, and even abstracted into the background of indie band stage shows. Every house I lived in over the past 11 years was a row home. The icon is engrained into the psyche of nearly every Baltimorean, so it’s no wonder that Ben Marcin began photographing the city’s stand-alone buildings. What sets his photo series apart is his ability to speak about the idiosyncrasies of our city and its social and political climate. Every photograph in the series shares the same composition: one row house, front and center. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Marcin discusses what compelled him to photograph these scenes. For me, the series is a reminder that you can use one very small thing to describe one very big problem.

Good infographics can save lives

I recently finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, a gripping account of a deadly cholera outbreak that struck London in the summer of 1854. Scientists of the time were convinced that cholera was an air-born disease brought on by the appalling sanitary conditions of Victorian-era London. Yes, London was a squalid place and inadequate waste and garbage removal was responsible for the potent smell that permeated the city. However, the root of the problem was not in the air but in the water. The water-born theory was first proposed by Dr. John Snow, based on his observations of the number of victims who were clustered near a particular fresh water pump. Snow was convinced that the pump was infected with the cholera bacteria and that drinking water from the pump was responsible for so many deaths. To help visualize the theory, he drew a black line on a map to indicate where each victim resided at the time of death. The map also pointed out the location of all water pumps in the area. Clearly there was a correlation between the pump and the number of deaths near it. Superstitions die hard, but eventually the map helped sway opinion away from the air-born theory.

It’s thrilling to see how innovative thinking and good information graphics played a heroic role in solving a frightening medical mystery. Yes, good infographics can save lives.

Checking out the competition

I recently judged digital designs for the University & College Designers Association’s (UCDA) annual competition, and the experience was an eye-opener. Unlike print design competitions where judges meet on location and review entries together, the digital judging was done remotely from our office computers. I was surprised at the amount of time it took to evaluate each entry. Unlike a print piece that can be sized up fairly quickly, a digital entry may require several minutes of study before getting a well-rounded picture. All in all, it took me several hours a day for about three days to complete the judging. This meant hours of tedium that were occasionally interrupted by a few gloriously smart and moving experiences.

After all three judges submitted their results, UCDA provided us with a spreadsheet compilation of our votes. I was astonished to see how closely we agreed on the award-winning work even though we had no discussion with each other while voting.

What makes an entry an award-winner? For me, the exceptional work did one of two things—it had an emotional impact on me and/or it taught me something. When design fails to make us feel or learn, there is not much reason to pay attention. When we shine, the work we do in educational marketing stands up to the best out there. That’s quite an achievement when you consider that schools rarely have the extravagant budgets of the corporate world. It proves, once again, that throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve anything. Great ideas, however, can and do.

Here are links to several competition entries that inspired me:

Website
Vassar Admissions
University of California
Arts at Stanford

Online magazine
Brenau Window

Video
Chatham University
Oregon State University
Simon Fraser University

Here is a complete list of gold, silver, and merit award winners. The digital entries are on the last page of the list.

White space

Photographer Jonathan Bjorklund took his camera and singular vision to the Arctic to record a place most of us will never see in person. These spectacular photos showed me that the Arctic is a more colorful place than I had imagined. Take a break from the clutter in the office and follow the link to the complete photo set.

Bug On Flower

A red-sky sunset, a gull over the water, and a bug on a flower are all subjects you should not shoot if you want to be considered a “serious photographer.” Each of these genres is wildly popular on photosharing sites like Flickr and “real” photographers love to heap scorn on them. Cliche` or not, there is something refreshing about so many people around the world enthusiastically recording these simple scenes. The photos may not be considered art, but they are evidence of our collective fascination with the natural world. I’m happy to share the planet with people who can’t resist shooting pictures of bugs on flowers. After all, these are the people who will be passionate about protecting bugs, flowers, trees, and the entire natural world from increasing environmental challenges.

They’re B-A-A-A-CK!

I confess. I’m addicted to the lowest-rated cable series on earth: AMC’s The Pitch, a cringe-inducing reality show that pits two ad agencies against each other in a battle to win a juicy account. The first season’s ratings were so low that the Nielson score for the April 30, 2012, episode was 0.0% or a total of 45,000 adult viewers in the US.

Imagine my surprise to learn that The Pitch is back for another season! AMC is known for gutsiness. Perhaps the enormous successes of other AMC programs like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead have given the network space to stick its neck out for a second year in a row.

Back again are the client de-briefings, the late night brainstorming sessions, the internal tensions, the snarky assessments of the competition, the shaping of the creative, and the panicked deadlines, all leading up to the big pitch to the client. You don’t need to be in advertising to feel the chill this show is designed to bring. Anyone who has ever had to create and present an idea understands the dread, the fear, the joy, and the sorrow of exposing ideas for judgement. What makes the show so enticing is that we viewers get to size up the work of the two agencies and decide who has the better idea and the better chance of being awarded the account. Interestingly, the best idea does not always win. Check out the show to see what I mean.

Call of the wild

Do we know what daily life was like in the stone age? Is it possible to recreate that experience today? The answers are “yes,” and “yes,” according to Lynx Vilden, founder and head instructor of the Living Wild School.

The School provides hands-on experience in making and using stone age tools and technologies. Students can enroll in 7-day intensive classes that focus on skills such as tool making, fire by friction, and edible and medicinal plants. There is a two-month immersive program that teaches students wilderness survival in the manner of prehistoric people.

I’m amazed that these ancient technologies are still being taught today. If you ever get the urge to drop off the grid for a week or two, here’s a good place to do it.