The power of authenticity

maier

Vivian Maier was an intensely private street photographer whose work was discovered by accident in 2007, two years before her death. Since her discovery, writers, historians, art collectors, and the public have fallen in love with her work and are burning to learn more about the enigmatic person behind the Rolleiflex. Although she shot over 150,000 images, only a few were ever printed. In fact, over 2,000 rolls of film were left unprocessed in the canister. In spite of that, her work matured in concept and quality over the course of her life. How does a photographer improve without seeing the photos? How does a full-time nanny find time to become such a masterful observer? Those are the kinds of questions I and thousands of other admirers have about Maier. I think our fascination is rooted in Maier’s authenticity. She had a genuine passion for photography—a passion that she followed without the need for critique by others or audience approval. Her creative drive was an end in in itself. That authenticity is enormously appealing. That is the quality we all should aspire to in our work for education. The closer we come to authentically capturing the essence of a place, the better we will communicate to our audience. Do the photos feel real or staged? Are the words honest or are they institution-speak? These things matter a great deal if you want to be seen and remembered.

Mixed messages

I noticed this eye-catching display outside of a restaurant in Rome. What a great idea! Too bad the cigarette butt and ashtray were left carelessly in the scene. Suddenly the idea of dinner here is much less appetizing. What a great reminder about the importance of minding the details when we reach out to our audiences. Happy marketing and buon appetito!

Passport fail


I just received my new passport in the mail. I was horrified—not over my photo, for once—but over the document’s overblown redesign. Gone are the flexible covers that allowed me to flip easily through the pages to admire all my entry and exit stamps and gone are the understated backgrounds that allowed clear legibility of those stamps, my personal data, and my photo. A passport is an official record of our travels to other lands and cultures. It seems contradictory to me that the redesigned pages are so obsessively focused on our own country’s culture and landmarks, as if our government is afraid we’ll forget where we come from.

I am surprised to write this, but not everything needs to be redesigned or rebranded. I like some things to remain unchanged by the whims and trivialities of the real world. Don’t redesign my passport, my license plates, or my money. But, if you must redesign them, please hire a professional who understands the importance of legibility, aesthetics, audience, and concept to do it.

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.

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.

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.

the scary truth about monsters university

The creators of the movie, Monsters University, have done their homework. To help promote the film, they built a Monsters University website with links to admission, academics, campus life, and faculty and student profiles. The site delivers familiar college marketing language with an amusing twist. Phrases such as “a history of excellence in shrieking,” “developing the whole monster,” and “a relentless pursuit of monster potential” abound. Here’s the introduction to the academic program:

As a renowned institution of multidisciplinary scholarship, Monsters University holds its faculty, staff, and students to high standard and ongoing commitment to discovery and learning. Students of every shape, size, color, and texture arrive from every corner of the world to take their places among the best and brightest students in the world. Whether your talent is causing screams or designing the canisters that capture them, MU is a place to find your truest calling and reach your highest potential.

How much does your college marketing resemble MU’s? I’m sure we will all see a similarity or two. The beauty of satire is that it makes us laugh at ourselves while pointing out the things we need to change to improve.

Cutting edge, not class

Millennials love being at the cutting edge and, for the most part, they are the ones pushing the technological envelope. However, when it comes to education, they have not abandoned the traditional classroom.  

Even though online classroom enrollment has increased by 25% in the past four years, a recent survey found that 78% of college students still value the in-class environment. Although 80% of students use technology while in class, only half of them felt that technology is essential to their education.

What does this all mean? As a millennial college student, I suspect it means that we love our technology, but even more, we value the up-close and personal interaction that you can only find in the traditional classroom.

David Thompson, GCF intern