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How Design Makes the Intangible Tangible

Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, you’ve heard of Miles Davis. His landmark album, “Kind of Blue,” is arguably the greatest jazz record of all time (and one I never tire of playing).

But this post isn’t about that Miles. It’s about someone else who shares his name. An artist who never recorded an album or played a single show, yet still left an indelible mark on the jazz world.

Reid Miles.

This Miles was a graphic designer and art director for Blue Note Records, one of the most respected labels in jazz. From 1956 to 1967, he designed the covers of nearly 500 Blue Note albums, including recordings by the likes of Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, and countless others.

Miles’ designs were modern, playful, and dynamic. His style was distinctively Swiss (like our namesake, Helvetica), incorporating asymmetry, generous negative space, minimalist shapes, bold typographical elements, and photography. You can see these elements in the cover he designed for Lee Morgan’s popular album, “The Sidewinder.”

The Sidewinder Album Cover

This design took the intangible qualities of the music – trumpeter Lee Morgan’s energy, drive, and precision – and made them tangible. And ultimately, that was good for business.

Because, as marketer Steve Woodruff says, “People buy tangibles.”

It was especially relevant in 1964, the year Morgan’s album released. Buyers had likely never heard the recordings, so they chose the album based on its front cover design and (sometimes) back cover notes.

“Miles made the cover sound like it knew what lay in store for the listener.”
– Felix Cromey, The Cover Art of Blue Note Records

“The Sidewinder” was a massive success. It became Blue Note’s best-selling record and kept the company out of bankruptcy. And Reid Miles’ cover art played a part in that success.

Yet, for all his creative genius, Miles earned a fixed commission of just $50 per album cover. After all, his work with Blue Note was only a weekend side hustle. During the week, he was employed full-time in advertising.

Nonetheless, Miles’ designs captured not only the unique sound of each artist and recording, but also the look and brand identity of the Blue Note label itself. He managed to make the intangible tangible.

To see more of Miles’ album covers, visit the Museum of Modern Art online.

Do Icons Improve User Experience? It Depends.

Which would you find more maddening…

Shrinking your favorite wool-blend sweater because you couldn’t decrypt the hieroglyphics on the label?

Or attaching the legs of your new IKEA chair upside down – despite scrutinizing the illustrations – because you (apparently unwisely) chose to get a degree in writing instead of engineering?

Personally, I think it’s a toss-up. And I may or may not have experienced both.

The point is, in each example, simple graphical elements that were meant to make a task easier complicated it instead. Graphical images – icons, symbols, and illustrations – will either add to or detract from a design. It’s a principle we see not just in the physical world but in the digital world too.

An iconic problem

When it comes to digital design, few elements are more popular than icons. They’re everywhere, from site navigation to application toolbars to product descriptions. Many companies use them for purely aesthetic reasons or to reinforce corporate branding. But they may be missing the real value of the icon.

In digital design, an icon’s purpose is to represent an action or idea in an easy-to-digest way. It’s like a visual shortcut. Unlike laundry symbols or IKEA illustrations, however, icons in the digital world don’t have a physical counterpart. A scissor icon can represent the task of cutting text, and an envelope icon can represent the concept of email. The best icons will add to a design, be easily recognized and universally understood, and ultimately make life easier for the user.

The problem is that it’s hard to convey complex ideas or tasks with simple graphical images. As a result, confusing icons clutter the digital landscape – distracting and even frustrating the end user. Icons are often subjective and context-dependent, conveying different meanings to different users in different situations. Take the simple arrow icon, for example. It could have multiple meanings: undo, back, reply, share, or forward. How does the user know which meaning to apply?

But icons don’t have to be boring, confusing, or frustrating. The right ones can be aesthetically pleasing and improve user experience. It all comes down to good design.

Some practical solutions

Aaron Robertson, one of our senior designers, believes that iconography has two main purposes in the digital space. He offers design tips for both.

(1) Action or Navigation

“These icons should be simple, clear, and concise. In this case, it’s all about universal recognition. The goal is to help someone find their way or complete a task.” Aaron says. “A great example is the shopping cart icon on a commerce website. It’s basic, and everyone knows what it means.”

“Here’s where it also helps to add labels or alt text to your icons,” he adds.

(2) Concepts

“It’s different when you’re talking about ideas or product features. That’s where the icons can be more unique, creative, and expressive,” Aaron explains.

“These kinds of icons work well with explanations, infographics, and statistics. They should be interesting, engaging to readers, and summarize the concept well. An example might be an umbrella icon that represents the concept of insurance because it protects you from risk like an umbrella protects you from rain.”

To learn more about iconography and how graphic designers help organizations create great icons, check out AIGA’s universal transportation symbols.

To avoid shrinking your favorite sweater, see Tide’s explanation of the laundry symbols. And to assemble your IKEA furniture, just consult directly with the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Is There a Downside to Digital Shortcuts?

I used to think math was fun. But that was before fourth grade, the year that math went from cool to cruel. All because of two simple words.

Long division.

I can still feel the frustration of being trapped at the kitchen table, long after dinner ended, solving row after row of division problems on ditto paper. I just didn’t get the point of all that busy work.

“Why can’t I use a calculator instead?” I asked my mom.

She gave me the standard (and totally unsatisfying) parent answer that long division was good for me. That it was teaching me how to solve problems. I didn’t buy her reasoning then, and I’m not sure I buy it now. But – as Murphy’s law of parenting would have it – I’ve run into the same question with my sixth grader this year.

Except his struggle isn’t with long division. It’s with handwriting.

Many nights, my son finds himself stuck at the kitchen counter, long after dinner has ended, writing paragraph after paragraph on lined notebook paper. He just doesn’t get the point of handwriting.

“Why can’t I use the laptop instead?” He asks.

It’s a fair question. For years, people have predicted that handwriting (especially cursive) will soon become obsolete – replaced by a keyboard or smart phone. However, that hasn’t been my experience at all. If anything, these days I write more notes, sketch more concepts, and jot down more ideas. Sure, I get around to using technology. Eventually. But it’s never where I start.

For me – and the rest of our team, I’ve noticed – the creative process begins with writing and drawing by hand. I’m convinced it’s because these kinesthetic tasks force us to slow down. And think more deeply.

There’s research to support that idea. A 2020 study from Frontiers in Psychology found that writing by hand is a more complex mental task than pressing keys. It requires a combination of visual, fine-motor, and processing skills. Compared to typing, handwriting and drawing stimulate a larger portion of the brain and produce more complex neural networks.

So, there really is a benefit to writing by hand. It makes us smarter.

I can’t wait to share that revelation with my son the next time he complains about a handwriting assignment for school. Just don’t expect me to believe that long division works the same way.

 

antique penmanship books

The penmanship books above belong to our own CK Anderson, who spent hours as a kid, practicing his penmanship. He’s obviously very smart, and now we know why.

The Sixth Sense of a Copywriter

Truman Capote quote with scissors graphic

With Halloween coming up, I’m going to reveal something spooky.

I hear dead people.

Well, to be exact, I hear dead person. It only happens when I’m writing. Or rewriting. Or re-rewriting. (What can I say? It’s a process.) Whose voice do I hear, reaching out from beyond the grave?

Dr. Erwin Steinberg.

Oooo. The very name sends chills down my copywriter spine.

Before his passing in 2012, Dr. Steinberg was a distinguished professor of English and rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University – my alma mater – for 60 years. Yes, you read that correctly. Six, zero. Longer than any middle-aged writers like me have walked this earth.

I took Dr. Steinberg’s graduate-level class in style (writing, not fashion) when I was enrolled in the professional writing program. Twice a week, I’d join a dozen other anxious souls to endure the dismembering of our latest writing assignment.

It was a red-penned bloodbath.

Those memories still haunt me, more than 20 years later.

Nearly every day, I hear the voice of Dr. Steinberg, admonishing me to be clearer. More precise and succinct. To choose language that’s plain and straightforward over clever and intellectually impressive. Whenever I encounter the worst style offenders – passive voice, noun strings, and (gasp) nominalizations – I’m right back in class, listening to Dr. Steinberg’s meticulous correction.

It’s scary how much he’s shaped my writing career.

And I’d thank him for it, if only he could hear me too.

Turning Creativity Into a Meaningful Career

What sparks creative passion? It could be something as simple as a Polaroid camera. That’s what first inspired Antoni Carlson, our 2022 Helveticahaus scholarship winner. As a kid, he got an old-school instant camera, and it went everywhere with him.

“I was always taking pictures with it,” says Antoni. “I’ve done photography my whole life.”

These days, his creative passion extends to graphic design too. And he’s building a future career on it.

The spark was different for Shirlee, one of our senior designers. Her creativity was ignited by an art exhibit that featured a series of Clint Eastwood posters.

“I went because I love Clint Eastwood,” she says. “But the poster designs were so cool. That’s when I discovered graphic design and realized I could make a career out of creativity.” (You might even say those posters were the good, the bad, and the ugly start of a 26-year career in graphic design.)

But it takes more than a spark for creativity to grow into a meaningful career. It requires fuel too. And that’s why CK and Linda started Helveticahaus in 2015.

Through the sale of merchandise inspired by Helvetica – arguably the most famous typeface in the world and our company namesake – Helveticahaus has been able to award a total of $11,500 in scholarships to 17 students. One hundred percent of the profits financially support students who are earning graphic design degrees at Spokane Falls Community College.

You can help us fuel the next generation of designers.

And you might as well pick up some cool merch while you’re at it.

Visit Helveticahaus to shop or learn more.

Helveticahaus merchandise

Never Underestimate the Power of a Logo

Psst. Here’s something I’m embarrassed to tell the rest of the team.

I used to think logo design was simple.

Admitting that to my talented coworkers is – as my kids like to say – super cringey. But hey, I’m a copywriter and not a graphic designer.

Granted, I only believed that before I’d ever actually made a logo. In truth, all it took was a single design disaster to learn that I was dead wrong. It happened several years ago, when I was fresh out of college. A friend asked me to design a logo for his new side business. And I, of course, replied with those famous last words.

“How hard can it be?”

Well, I found out. It’s exceptionally hard.

I’ll spare you the gory details of ugly font choices, bad kerning, and cheap clip art, and I’ll skip right to the carnage at the end of the story. The logo was terrible, and my friend’s business closed within six months.

Which just proves the power of a bad logo.

Recently, I asked one of our senior designers, Aaron Robertson, what goes into logo design. His answer was, I kid you not, a full 45-minute discourse on brand research, strategy, analysis, design, and refinement. That’s a heckuva lot of work. And it shows – in his logo design and his clients’ branding success.

Which just proves the power of a good logo too.

What You See is Not What You Get

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a downtown boutique at lunchtime, when I saw it.

There, on a low table by the door – tucked into a cluttered display – was my next purchase: a perfectly imperfect hand-thrown mug. It was beautiful and one of a kind. The irregular shape and uneven glaze gave it just the character and charm I love in a funky coffee mug.

And to top it all off, this mug was the work of a local artist.

It was a find, for sure.

Or at least that’s what I thought until I got back to the office and hand washed it in the kitchen sink. I peeled the price tag off the bottom of mug, expecting to see the artist’s initials carved in the rough surface. What I found instead was a printed brand logo above a “made in” location.

And to top it all off, this location was decidedly nonlocal.

My one-of-a-kind mug was a scam. Just another mass-produced piece designed to look like an original.

Hey, I get it. Manufacturers are shrewd about consumer preferences. They know that people care more these days about where and how products are made. And many of us want to support our local artists and communities. It’s easy to see why a company would mass produce goods to look unique and handmade.

How can we avoid being deceived? Here’s what I learned about being a savvy shopper:
1. Shop at art galleries, arts and crafts fairs, and farmers markets – where you can meet the artists themselves.
2. Buy online at reputable websites for local shops, galleries, and artists.
3. Ask questions about the origin of a piece, so you know exactly what you’re getting before you buy.

In case you’re wondering, I do use the mug once in a while. Though not handmade, it’s still totally functional.

But I swear my coffee just doesn’t taste the same.

A Warm Welcome to Our (Sometimes) Chilly City

After several weeks of searching, we’ve found a designer we’ve been looking for – one with talent, experience, attention to detail, and a collaborative spirit. That’s why we’re pleased to introduce our new senior designer, Aaron Robertson.

Aaron hails from San Diego, where he led the web and graphic design team at a publishing house for the last several years. His family searched the entire Pacific Northwest for a place that offers the quality of life they wanted. Even without connections to Spokane, they chose to settle here in our backyard (which should be big enough for all ten of his family’s pets).

San Diego, of course, is known for its consistently pleasant temperatures year-round. Spokane…not so much. But we expect that Aaron will soon own a parka, snow boots, and a closet full of flannels. In the meantime, we extend to him a very warm welcome to Spokane and to helveticka.

Aaron, we’re thrilled to have you on our team.

 

Good Design Can Live in Surprising Places

Recently, I discovered good design in an unexpected place: a video game.

Yes, I’m serious. And no, gaming is not my thing. Or helveticka’s, for that matter. Don’t expect to see our team heading to the next Lilac City Comicon, dressed like characters from Zelda.

My husband, on the other hand, is a bit of a gaming nerd. Sans the costumes and conventions. A few days ago, he got me hooked on the indie game “Spiritfarer.” And I do mean hooked – I’ve already put several hours into this game.

For me, that doesn’t happen. This isn’t my first gaming rodeo. I’ve tried video games before, and they just didn’t stick. (Okay, okay. Except “Animal Crossing,” and that’s one I chalk up to early pandemic boredom and those annoyingly cute characters.)

“Spiritfarer” struck another chord altogether. It’s slow-paced and relaxing, with a bittersweet orchestral score and a surprisingly moving storyline about death and the afterlife. But what I enjoy most is the hand-drawn art and detailed animation.

They’re skillfully done.

In a video game. I had no idea.

It turns out that, not only have I been ignorant, but I’m also late to the game (pun intended). This month, MoMA opened an exhibit on video games and interactive design. You can read about it here: http://www.wired.com/story/video-games-moma-art/

You can also see “Spiritfarer” at https://thunderlotusgames.com/spiritfarer/  Just remember, you may end up hooked on it too. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.

40 Years of Inspiration

Artwork by Don Weller

We don’t often get to meet our heroes. That’s why I jumped at the chance to meet one of mine last year.

His name is Don Weller, and he lectured at SFCC in 1981, just as I was finishing my last year of design school. At the time, he was an acclaimed designer and illustrator, winning impressive commissions and receiving accolades from prominent publications. At one point, I even tried to get an internship with Don. He kindly rejected my inquiry, and I soon realized I should stick to design and leave illustration to the professionals.

Don grew up in Pullman, graduated from WSU in 1960, and spent most of his design career in Los Angeles and Park City, Utah. The latter was home to The Design Conference that just happens to be in Park City (that was its full name, by the way), which Don co-founded. Later in life, inspired by his childhood in the Palouse hills, he began painting Western art.

A couple of years ago, I purchased a piece of Don’s art as a gift for my wife, Linda. It was an older painting, produced in his heyday style using his signature Dr. Martin dyes. That purchase started a conversation with Don and his partner in life and business, Cha Cha. When I expressed an interest in seeing and possibly purchasing a few of his older commercial pieces, the Wellers graciously invited Linda and me to visit their ranch and studio in Peoa, Utah, near Park City.

Last November, we made the trip. They were gracious hosts, and Cha Cha’s home-cooked meals were amazing. Don’s stories reminded us of his lecture from 1981, revealing an astonishing career and a healthy dose of humor. The Wellers allowed us to look through their flat files, and – like kids in a candy store – we selected a few sketches and finished paintings. Those pieces have since found a place of honor in our home.

It’s a rare gift to meet someone who’s inspired you for 40 years. This one was made even more special by the kindness of Don and Cha Cha.

To see Don’s work, visit his website at http://www.donweller.com.
You can also read more of his story at http://www.cowboysindians.com/2021/09/western-watercolorist/

The Report of My Death Was an Exaggeration

Maybe you’ve heard the report that our blog is dead. Well, like Mark Twain before me, I get to correct the news.

I’ll start with the obvious – the blog has been silent for a while. That’s because it takes time to work through all the resumes, inquiries, and interviews required to find not just any copywriter, but one with the experience and talent to work at a firm that has high expectations. Where clients are accustomed to clear, concise, and engaging writing.

Today, I’m pleased to announce the addition of Denise Wilson to our creative team. She’s got just what we were looking for: copywriting expertise, strategic thinking skills, and – perhaps most importantly – a sense of humor, which comes in downright handy when you’re surrounded by persnickety graphic designers.

This means we’ve found a pulse again. And the blog lives on.

Welcome aboard, Denise.

Farewell

After 6,205 days on the job, I’m hanging up my spurs. Which means this blog post (number 1,627, for those keeping track at home) is my last. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing.

I’m not really one for goodbyes, so I’ll just leave y’all with a little advice from the great Eubie Blake: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind—listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.”

Forget Everything You Learned in School, Part 17,593

On a flight home from grading hundreds of the 280,000 five-paragraph essays submitted for the Advanced Placement Test in English language and composition in 2007, an exhausted Edward M. White realized he’d had enough. He wrote a response—a five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay. Here’s the fourth paragraph:

The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.

Over at Aeon, David Labaree explores the “five-paragraph fetish” and how it came to be. “As so often happens in subjects that are taught in school,” he writes, “the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. As a consequence, form trumps meaning.” Which means content and style are secondary—if not entirely unnecessary.

My Kind of Deadline

The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—the 600,000-word “Victorian phenomenon” that is, in fact, my favorite lexical record—was published in 1989. The plan was to complete the third edition by 2005, reports Pippa Bailey, but “17 years later its editors are just halfway through.” In fact, Bailey adds, “it is unlikely that the third edition will be in some way complete within many of the lexicographers’ working lives.”

Nevertheless, if you’re a writer or aspire to be one, you’ll need some form of the OED. The 20-volume second-edition can be purchased for $1,215; a more practical two-volume “shorter” version (the one I use) is practically a steal at $170—though I found mine for only twenty bucks at a thrift shop. If you’re one of those weirdos who streams music and listens to audiobooks, there’s an online option as well.

But trust me: A good dictionary—even (or especially) one that takes decades to put together—is an indispensable tool for even the most casual of writers.

Miscellany

Elizabeth Corey praises the slow, humble work required of true scholarship: “Though it can be fun to act as an impresario or a firebrand—to write with confidence, erudition, and verbal swagger on the hot topic of the moment—the most meaningful writing takes place when authors do not call attention to themselves, but to truths concealed beneath the busy surface of everyday life. These insights are best conveyed in language that is crafted carefully and at leisure, with the overgrowth of pride and self-concern cut away so that the prose itself stands luminous.”

John Horgan ponders the profound philosophical questions raised by derealization: “Sages ancient and modern have suggested that everyday reality, in which we go about the business of living, is an illusion. Plato likened our perceptions of things to shadows cast on the wall of a cave. The eighth-century Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara asserted that ultimate reality is an eternal, undifferentiated field of consciousness. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta says our individual selves are illusory.”

Alec Marsh explains why the English love lazy sports: “The fact remains that getting out of breath playing cricket is like breaking a sweat on the golf links: it’s your body’s way of telling you you’ve got bigger problems to think about than your batting average. It’s time to visit the GP.”

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