Three of Thirty

Remember these? No, millennials, these are not drink coasters, but that’s about all they’re good for these days. 3.5″ floppy disks were commonplace in the late 1980s and early 90s. With a capacity up to 1.44 MB, it would take only 711 of them to equal a GB. New software would arrive on several numbered floppies. And up to four new fonts at a time on a single disk. Crazy, huh? And sharing our digital art files with printers on what we called a “transfer disk” was pretty amazing.

Ever heard of Bitstream? QuarkXPress? And imagine our excitement when we first downloaded Adobe Photoshop—version 2-POINT-O. Or when we took a digital tour of our brand-new Apple Macintosh SE/30 computer in 1990 (that’s the disk in the lower right). I guess it’s one of the reasons I’ve never gotten overly excited about buying new tech equipment or gadgets. It seems they’re almost as fleeting as the ephemera we design for our clients.

Weekend Miscellany

I have good news and bad news. First, the good news: The end of the world isn’t happening any time soon. The bad news? Well…let’s hear it from an actual time traveler who’s totally, definitely for real.

The birth of ambient music: “I started hearing this record as if I’d never heard music before. It was a really beautiful experience, I got the feeling of icebergs, you know? I would just occasionally hear the loudest parts of the music, get a little flurry of notes coming out above the sound of the rain—and then it’d drift away again”

It’s happening.

The average profit margin among U.S. companies is 7.9 percent (6.9 percent when you exclude the financial sector). The public thinks it’s 36 percent.

“Facts are facts and truth is truth,” wrote Thomas Stuart Ferguson. Unfortunately for him, the truth he found wasn’t the truth he was looking for.

Two of Thirty

In 1989 we purchased our first computer, a Macintosh CXII. We borrowed the money from my business partner’s mom (thank you, Virginia!) to pay for the CPU, large monitor, and printer. Our second computer, an Apple SE/30, was used mostly to type letters and make lists—and served as our first poor-man’s laptop, as I recall taking it home on several occasions in its not-so-sleek carrying case.

We purchased our first mobile phones locally from Cellular One in 1991. They were expensive, but we bought them for half off their regular price ($450 instead of the usual $900) since they’d been used by firefighters during that year’s Fire Storm. Back then, they came with an eye-catching short- and long-form antenna.

We actually did business with these things

Our firm’s first real laptop arrived in 1997. It was an Apple PowerBook G3: At 2.5″ thick and weighing a sturdy six pounds, it was much easier to transport than the SE/30. And back then, Freehand was our preferred design software.

Technology has, and will continue to have, the single greatest impact on our industry. Ironically, it has little to do with original ideas. One only has to review the great work produced prior to the mid-80s to see that creative thinking and its execution never relied on amazing tools.


There’s a chapter in Leszek Kołakowski’s wonderful Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (Basic Books, 2007) entitled “Faith: Why should we believe?” in which he outlines an argument from the Pensées by Blaise Pascal. Here’s the money quote:

“It is remarkable, Pascal says, that people don’t think about the things that most vitally concern them: their deaths, immortality, salvation. They do not think about them because they do not want to think about them; they would rather not be reminded of what awaits them. They flee from what is most vital, escaping into amusements of all kinds, anything to forget; their entire life becomes a series of amusements, a way of escaping. We invent all sorts of ways to avoid confronting the fundamental issue: hunting, theatre, parties, intrigues—even wars—all these are just ways of anaesthetizing the pain of existence.”

Happy Monday.

The Blind Delight of Being

“Poetry,” writes Christian Wiman in today’s New York Times, “is the deepest expression, and the best hope for survival, of a culture’s very soul.” We need art, he explains, not only “to explore the darkest recesses of our lives and minds,” but also “to tell us why this world is worth loving, and therefore saving.”

As with anything Wiman writes, it’s well worth your time to read the essay in its entirety.

Multiplicative Idiocy

The Oatmeal has, as usual, nailed it: “Two half-wits do not equal a full-witted person. They equal a quarter-witted person.”

Of course, the problem runs much deeper than a meeting attended by half-wits. It’s the whole idea behind “there are no bad ideas in brainstorming,” which is not only demonstrably false, but also quite obviously dreamed up by someone who’s never participated in a group brainstorming session. (My conservative estimate, after 16 years in this business, is that, of all the ideas generated by three or more people in a room at a single time, roughly 98.5 percent are terrible.)

I think some of the misunderstanding comes from the mythos surrounding creativity. There’s no single proven method, because we all approach our jobs in different ways. I prefer the quiet of solitude, where I can think through a problem, uninterrupted, and try to come up with multiple ways of solving it. Others feel the need to express themselves to anyone who will listen, gauge feedback, and adapt their solutions accordingly. But because we as a society seem to be obsessed with consensus-building—not to mention the idea that collaboration is always better—the latter approach almost always wins out.

I’m not so sure, though. There seems to be a single-mindedness behind most great ideas. While you can bet that committees are responsible for stuff like this.

One of Thirty

Shortly after July 5, 1988, John and I received a letter from The Washington Water Power Company inviting us to prepare a proposal for their upcoming annual report project. It just may be the single most important letter ever sent to our firm. Then called Anderson Mraz Design—and only five months into our new venture—we went on to produce 14 annual reports for the company known today as Avista Corp.

Thumbnails and a half-size annual report dummy with placeholder imagery were created with pen and Pantone markers. Interestingly, the printed 1988 book looks amazingly close to these studies.

Who knew we’d be fortunate enough to still be working with Avista thirty years later? Our work for them today includes not only print, but also traditional and digital advertising, videos, television and radio, and environmental graphic design, as well as comprehensive marketing campaigns.


On January 1, 2018, helveticka will celebrate its 30th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, over the course of this coming year I’ll take a look back to when we first began, share some memories, and wonder where all the time went.

We might as well begin with this photograph.

John Mraz and I founded Anderson Mraz Design on January 1, 1988. Eight days later, we walked into J. Craig Sweat’s photography studio to get our picture taken so we could promote our new venture. I was just six months married and four days into my 28th year (what’s with all the 8s?).

These days, the big glasses and skinny ties—not to mention the slender physiques—are long gone. But the adventure that we began so long ago continues.

“As for man, his days are like grass…”

The two or three of you who regularly follow this blog will no doubt have noticed that we’ve been somewhat quiet of late. I have no excuses, other than that CK is a merciless tyrant who insists on meeting deadlines. (Okay, maybe “merciless” is a bit unfair. He does allow bathroom breaks every six hours.)

It’s pretty much always like this in December: a mad rush to get things done by the end of the year—and with the added challenge of working around holiday schedules. Yet we always seem to make it. And we always seem to wonder where the time went.

Which, naturally, brings me to this one-minute video on the life of a worker bee. It’s the perfect encapsulation of how I feel as we approach Christmas and the last week of 2017.

Happy holidays, y’all. Thanks for reading.

“The course of Nature is the art of God”

So this guy went out and captured 10 terabytes (!) of raw data last summer with a $110,000 Phantom Flex4K high-speed camera. His gift to us? Three minutes of lightning shot at 1,000 fps. It’s…beautiful. Be sure to select the 4K option and watch it in full-screen mode. (Hat tip.)

Understanding the Essence of “Jerkitude”

Hey kids! Are you “surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention, by people who can be understood quickly by applying a broad and negative brush—creeps, stuck-up snobs, bubbleheaded party kids, smug assholes, and, indeed, jerks?”

The problem isn’t them, it turns out. It’s you. And since “nothing is more central to your moral character than your degree of jerkitude,” maybe it’s time you took stock. Luckily, Eric Schwitzgebel is here to reveal How to Tell If You’re a Jerk.

“Whoa. Check out the tailfins on this year’s Mongoose Civique!”

In 1955, Robert B. Young, of Ford Motor Company’s marketing research department, sent a letter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Modernist poet Marianne Moore. “[W]e find ourselves,” Young wrote, “with a problem which, strangely enough, is more in the field of words than in car-making.…Our dilemma is a name for a rather important new series of cars.”

Given that Ms. Moore’s oeuvre is characterized by “linguistic precision, keen and probing descriptions, and acute observations of people, places, animals, and art,” what could possibly go wrong?

Moore agreed to help out, and, over the next several weeks, sent 43 suggestions to Young (or hundreds over the course of an entire year, depending on the source). My favorite? Honestly, it’s a toss-up between “The Intelligent Whale” and “Utopian Turtletop.” Not surprisingly, Ford went in a different direction, ultimately deciding on “Edsel.”

Let this be a lesson to you, folks: Naming things is hard.

Stop what you’re doing right now and buy tickets—stat!

Got any plans for Wednesday, November 29? Yes. Yes, you do: You’re going to go see the encore presentation of the November 18 HD simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s American premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating AngelI know, it’s a mouthful. I’m just that excited.

Anthony Tommasini says if you’re going to see one opera this year, this is it. (He’s wrong, of course. You should see it regardless of whether you were planning to go to an opera at all.)

Alex Ross calls it “a huge, hyper-complex creation” whose “vocal writing borders on the outlandish.”

I say—after having seen it with the missus over the weekend—that it’s an apocalyptic nightmare; a spectacular display both of Adès’s compositional skills and of no fewer than 15 (!) solo singing roles. It simply has to be experienced to be believed.

I mean, if nothing else, you’ll see Cynthia Miller perform on ondes martenot. And coloratura soprano Audrey Luna will hit a note so high it’s never been sung in the 137-year history of the Metropolitan Opera. Win-win.

No Ordinary John Smith

Last week, the Spokane graphic design community lost one of its pioneers. John Carroll Smith passed away November 6. He was 69 years old. John spent several years operating his own design firm—Smith Graphics—which is where I first met him while on tour with fellow design students from Spokane Falls Community College. Later, in 1984, he became a full-time design instructor at SFCC.

John, left, and SFCC design instructor Doug Crabtree, June 26, 2015

John’s easygoing manner and real-life design experiences where a perfect fit for his calling to mentor aspiring graphic designers. Whenever I gave presentations at SFCC, he was always engaged, and his quiet sense of humor and patience served him well during a 30-year teaching career. He retired in 2014.

Thanks for all that you have done for our profession, John. We’ll miss you.

Words of Wisdom

When people have their writing “corrected,” they usually discover that their long, complicated sentences receive the most correction and criticism. So they resort to—guess what?—writing short, simple sentences. This is called the “my puppy syndrome”: “My puppy is cute. He has a long tail. He wags it a lot. I love my puppy.” All of these are accurate sentences—but not ones at the adult level. Please don’t give up on long sentences. It’s just that as you increase your sentence length and complexity, you also need to increase your vigilance and the care you take to revise.

from One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook,
by Frank L. Cioffi (Princeton, 2015).


In Germany, police detain a man with a python in his pants. Meanwhile, 400 miles south in the Austrian Alps

By opting for two burgers rather than one with a side of fries, “you’re nearly doubling your protein intake while reducing the amount of fat and carbs you’re eating,” a trick that “could help steady your blood sugar levels.” So…eating two burgers in one sitting is…good for you? Yes. Yes, it is. #science

“The fact is,” write Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson, “contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies.”

Taking a gander at Chopin’s pickled heart: “With a feeling of mystery hanging in the air, they worked in total concentration, mostly whispering, as they removed the heart from its resting place and carried out the inspection—taking more than 1,000 photos and adding hot wax to the jar’s seal to prevent evaporation.”

This must be why I excel at Trivial Pursuit.

What Goes Around Comes Around

It’s kind of funny when you think about how project opportunities come about. Especially the connections made along the way. Just take a look at the current work for our Colorado clients, which actually began right here in Spokane:

• Gonzaga University contacts us to refresh their school’s logo and tagline.

• More GU projects follow.

• The university hires a new marketing and communications director, with whom we continue to work.

• The director departs for the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

• A year later, he calls us for some brand-related work for UNC.

• Later on, he volunteers to serve on the City of Greeley’s marketing committee.

• Greeley issues an RFP to create an image campaign for the city.

• Our UNC contact calls the RFP to our attention and asks us to participate.

• We decide to pursue the work, though we’ve never even heard of Greeley.

• Surprisingly, we’re chosen over four other firms.

• We begin a six-year working relationship with Greeley.

• The city’s image campaign is called Greeley Unexpected (“GU” for short, ironically).

• That work leads to a project for Greeley Water and Sewer…

• …which leads to work on yet another project, this time for Greeley-Evans School District 6.

• All of this means, of course, several trips to Greeley over the years.

• We learned it’s home to some of the nicest people on the planet.

• Not to mention the best-tasting tap water in North America.

• And the Chophouse, my favorite Greeley Restaurant.

• Here’s the crazy thing: It turns out the owner is a graduate of Whitworth University…

• …whose athletic logo we also happened to design. (Go Pirates!)

This Is a Real Thing

“What you take away from standing in front of the dark, musty expanse is what you bring to it.” And what, pray tell, is this dark, musty expanse? Just “an otherwise empty, white, second-floor thirty-six-hundred-square-foot loft filled with 140 tons of dirt.”

It’s Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room. It was meant to last three months. It turns forty this year.

Halloween Miscellany

“Anthropomorphic pumpkins, mirror divination, and space-traveling witches”: a collection of vintage Halloween cards.

In addition to my annual plea to read The Willows, allow me to recommend a Lovecraft novella: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Sarah Bond explains “how to be a bit more erudite in your candy selection this year by choosing candies that correspond with Roman historical figures.”

In case you were considering swinging by helveticka world headquarters with a gift of candy, know that Abba-Zaba is my weakness.

Finally, courtesy of Linda, the answer to the question we’ve all been asking…

A Top 10 List Worth Reading

If you’re looking to watch a scary movie on Halloween but are unsure where to start, there’s no shortage of advice on the Internet. The thing is, though, it’s mostly nonsense. My advice, on the other hand, is not only trustworthy but also correct. Which is why you should pay very close attention to Aaron’s Top 10 Scary Movies of All Time™.

Note that I didn’t say scariest movies of all time. That would be something entirely different. No, these are, for various and sundry reasons, the best movies that could—somewhat arguably, in some cases—be placed within the horror genre.

So here it is: the only list you need. (I’ve organized them by release date because, quite honestly, which is best depends on my mood at the time.)

The Wicker Man (1973)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Halloween (1978)
Alien (1979)
The Changeling (1980)
The Shining (1980)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

What did I miss? (Nothing, obviously. But feel free to add your own in the comments.)

Not Just for the Game Grid Anymore

This suffix, applied to nuclear physics, modern biology, and early AI—and even a certain carnival ride—was “a totem of high modernism, the intellectual and cultural mode that decreed no process or phenomenon was too complex to be grasped, managed and optimised…displaying to all our mastery over matter, life and information.”

That’s right, folks. It’s “A Tale of ‘Trons’: The Suffix that Tells the Story of Modern Science”—though I’m a little disappointed that there’s no mention of my favorite tron of all.

It Was 20 Years Ago Today…

Entering the 17th and final race of the 1997 FIA Formula One World Championship, held October 26 at Jerez, Spain, Jacques Villeneuve, in only his second year in F1, was trailing Ferrari driver and two-time world champion Michael Schumacher by one point. Schumacher, of course, went on to become the greatest the sport has ever known, but this day—and the season—belonged to Villeneuve. Watch him as he recounts his dramatic, title-winning performance.

Quote of the Day

“A smart person who is given a five-hour job by their boss at four o’clock in the afternoon will get to work, expecting to finish at nine and get some brownie points. But people like me, who hate working, have better things—like dates—to do on their evenings, so they will rack their brains for ways of getting the work done early. And that’s when innovation happens.”

Haruaki Deguchi
chairman & CEO, Lifenet Insurance Company

All Hail Professor Toor

Everything about Rachel Toor’s column in Saturday’s Spokesman-Review is absolutely spot-on.

Well…almost everything.

Toward the end she writes, “As a professor, I’ve learned no longer to be shocked…”

Anything seem off about that? What if it were “As a professor, I’ve learned to no longer be shocked…”?

I’m not sure whether Toor chose the former construction so as to avoid splitting the infinitive—doubtful—or whether it just sounds better to her ear. Or heck, maybe it’s legit and I’m just not smart enough to know it. (FYI: You’ll never lose money betting on the Aaron-is-an-idiot side.)

Doesn’t really matter, though, because two sentences later she gives us “Writing well is hard, hard, hard, hard, hard.” Forget everything else in the column. If just one person I know reads that line and remembers it, Ms. Toor deserves to be canonized.

Word of the Day

simultaneity (noun) The simultaneous representation of several aspects of the same object.

Linda had heard of the concept of simultaneity before; she just didn’t dream she’d have the chance to witness it. Yet there he stood right in front of her: Aaron the witty raconteur, Aaron the devilishly handsome rogue, Aaron the selfless and caring idealist. It was almost too much to take in all at once.

Odds and Ends

Based on this interactive map from the good folks at, Utah is a terrible place to spend your childhood. (Though, to be honest, I’m not sure we should trust anyone whose ranking of Halloween candies is as fundamentally flawed as theirs.)

“Look, anybody can write a book,” says Jason Raish. “That’s not the same as saying it’s easy, only that writing is the one truly democratic medium because the use of a language as craft is available to all who speak it.” It’s also not the same as saying that anybody should write a book. Consider the unholy mess that is Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks…

If anyone out there reading this would like to compensate yours truly for the hard work I do, day in and day out, to provide you not only with what you need to know but also what to think about it, this would be a good place to start. Pretty sure it’s tax-deductible.

Run, Don’t Walk, to Your Nearest Theater

I saw Blade Runner in 1982 at the Liberty Theater in Lewiston, Idaho. (Apparently, there weren’t that many of us who bought tickets to the original, since it grossed only $27.5 million.) It mesmerized me then; it remains one of my favorite motion pictures of all time. So it was with some trepidation that the missus and I took out a small loan to pay for a pair of tickets to an IMAX showing of Blade Runner 2049 over the weekend. I mean, let’s be honest: Most sequels are terrible. And a sequel released 35 years after the original? Gotta be a cash grab playing on audience nostalgia.

I hate to admit it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Visual feast, cautionary tale, morality play, character study, pop art, plot-driven action flick: Blade Runner 2049 is all that and more. I’ll need to see it again to confirm my suspicions, but I think it might actually be better than the original. For reals.

This is a great film. You need to see it. Right now.

Music Recommendation

Back in 2001 when I was writing music criticism for the Local Planet, my editor gave me a copy of Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down. He didn’t necessarily want me to review it; he just wanted to know what I thought. If I remember right, I ended up including the album in my year-end best-of list. (Trying to be clever, I wrote something about how it sounded like a cross between 1970s-era Pink Floyd and the Hezekiah Walker Love Fellowship Choir. It really doesn’t.)

I still have that CD—and a whole lot more from Spiritualized that I’ve picked up in the years since. And while I wholeheartedly recommend Let It Come Down, I’d rather you started with the band’s 1997 masterpiece: Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Pitchfork does a nice job explaining why:

Bolder than the term Britpop might suggest, more focused than the term psychedelic might imply, Ladies and Gentlemen is one of the great triumphs of the 70-plus-minute CD era. Alternately chaotic and meticulous, thundering and quivering, Ladies and Gentlemen finds power in conflict—between restraint and excess, addiction and isolation, and ultimately, love and hate.

For some reason I dusted the album off yesterday (figuratively, of course, since it’s in my iTunes) and gave it a listen. Then I listened to it again. And then a third time after that. Maybe it was the timing, maybe it’s this crazy mixed-up world in which we live, maybe it was just the mood I was in. Who knows? Either way, damn. It really is that good.

“In 1973, I invented a ‘girly drink’…”

“The initial thought behind Baileys Irish Cream took about 30 seconds,” writes David Gluckman in the Irish Times. “In another 45 minutes the idea was formed.” His captivating tale has it all, from a crazy gamble on “a lovely May morning” to the initial label designs to the worthless focus groups (seriously, why does anyone do these?) to the billionth bottle sold in 2007.

There’s one part of the story, though, that hits a little too close to home for me:

“Names can be tough and often really easy to reject with a comment like ‘I just don’t like it’. Being words, not graphic designs, they are within everyone’s purview so anyone can reject them.”

Boy howdy, is that ever true.


“Fears are growing in Sweden over packs of radioactive wild boar moving north, ravaging forests and farmland.”

We should probably just go ahead and ban pumpkin spice.

The Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press is “something like a top-of-the-line Canon camera: it’s wonderful, but most people will still just use their phone.”

“People in their 20s and 30s…are ‘constantly striving for individualism’, which is reflected in what they spend their money on.” Naturally, then, we now have “hackable furniture.”

Here are the 70 best horror movies on Netflix right now, according to Paste. Since number 68 is Zombeavers—which is about “toxic waste-spawned zombie beavers”—I have no doubt whatsoever that the list is totally legit.

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