The handwriting on the wall…

Brush script calligraphy on book covers is having quite a surge of popularity these days. I’m not sure where the trend started, but I now imagine book cover designers being held captive until they agree to pick up the brush tool and swirl out letterforms. The irony is that all those handwritten covers are trying to project attributes like “unique,” “quirky,” and  “personal.”

Although design conformity can feel delightfully comfortable, you give up the opportunity to carve out your own distinctive brand position. Looking like our competitors will also be a major stumbling block if we hope to attract new prospects.

Grace’s world


Grace Weitman is a retired entrepreneur, mother, grandmother, friend, and most recently a photographer whose photos reflect her inquisitive, upbeat nature.

Grace’s interest in photography coincided quite inadvertently with her increasing loss of vision. She has 40-45% vision in one eye only. I asked her if the title of her blog, “Sight Unseen,” was a reference to her own difficulties with sight. Her answer took me by surprise. “I thought it would make a great title for a mystery novel but come to think of it, it also refers to the way I shoot my pictures. I can’t see very well through the viewfinder, so I just point the camera at a scene I think will look interesting and shoot.” Her technique has remarkable results. She has captured spontaneous moments between her daughter and grandson, the incongruity in a Palermo storefront, a warm connection inside a high-tech store, and much more. What inspires her? “I like to take pictures of things that are quirky, or beautiful, or different,” she says. “I carry my camera with me wherever I go.” I for one look forward to seeing more of Grace’s delightful world.

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.

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.

It’s not about the cards you are dealt…

The Netflix show House of Cards has received high praise for being the first successful online-only drama series. Now, they’re turning heads again. The show made Emmy history for being the first online program to be nominated for Best Drama Series, a prestigious Emmy Award category.

Television networks battle to attract the most viewers. For decades, that race was limited to four major studios—ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. The arrival of Netflix’s “House of Cards” is upsetting the status quo in spite of its comparatively limited production budgets. Netflix understands that it’s not the size of the budget but the quality of the creative concept that attracts viewers. The best way to deliver your message is simply to develop great ideas.

This fact applies not only to television. Businesses, organizations, and institutions should also take note. Instead of wasting precious dollars developing the glossiest brochure, the loudest commercial, or the flashiest website, pay more attention to finding creative solutions. You may think your luck could be better, but as Netflix shows, it’s all in how you play your hand.
David Thompson, GCF intern

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.

Seeing Beneath the Surface

Photographer Charlie Crane’s book, Welcome to Pyongyang, contains a series of stunning large format photos of one of the world’s most secretive countries. Visitors to North Korea are accompanied at all times by state-assigned guides who escort you on carefully planned tours. How can you create under such tight restrictions? Crane’s solution is straightforward: “If there is no possibility of getting underneath the surface then the answer is to photograph the surface itself.” Even though the state has carefully controlled what outsiders can see, these remarkable images speak for themselves about life in the Hermit Kingdom.

Creative block

Who among us has not stared with despair at a blank page or screen as the Very Important Deadline approaches? That dreaded feeling is the price you’ll pay for working in the world of ideas. This telegram sent by Dorothy Parker—famed writer, critic and satirist—to her editor displays her characteristic wit as she describes her bout with writer’s block.

After we’re comforted to know that we are not alone, what can we do to get the creative juices flowing again? What works for me is taking a breather and getting away from the problem for awhile. In fact, I’ve noticed that my best ideas come early in the morning after a night’s rest. The solution will hit me and I can’t wait to get to the office to explore the solution. What works for you?