Mischief in Massachussetts

Over at the New Yorker, Ian Crouch writes about the “slight profundity” of the latest corporate name change: “[Dunkin’] joins a list of brands with global reach whose names have been whittled down to complete meaninglessness. Weight Watchers just rebranded itself as WW. Jo-Ann Fabrics is now Joann.”

While his sort of thing nearly always comes across as a bizarre combination of desperation and condescension to me, Crouch notes that, by simplifying its name, the company “may just be trying to market more easily a vaguely defined universe of products, or to better compete globally, but it also feels like a nod to colloquialism, and to the familiar. We recognize a Dunkin’ when we see one, no matter what the sign says.”

Maybe. Still seems dumb, though.

Quote of the Day

Carl Trueman, professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, begins his upper-level humanities course by informing the students of his “broad educational philosophy” thus:

I am over fifty. I no longer care what anyone except my wife thinks about me. That particularly applies to anyone under the age of thirty-five. You should therefore feel free to disagree with me on anything I say because it is virtually impossible to offend me. But I must also add that, old and closed-minded as I am, I have no vested interest in holding an incorrect opinion on anything. Therefore, if you think I am wrong on some issue, be it historical, philosophical, or ethical, then you are under a moral obligation to persuade me to change my mind. But when you do so, please give me an argument, not some emotional plea based on your feelings. After all, if you simply feel I am wrong and I simply feel I am right, we’ll quickly find ourselves at an impasse.

When the Boss Brings Treats

We’re always grateful when CK returns from a trip bearing gifts. This time, however, some of us might be feeling a little…

Do your best to match the correct chocolate bar with Linda, Steven, Courtney, Aaron, Michelle, and Shirlee. We promise, no hurt feelings! 🙂

Helvetica Is Human!

Back in 1967, the United Nations set out to create a set of universal wayfinding symbols. Looking at the results fifty-one years later, we can go ahead and just call it a humorous study in the human form as an icon. I snorgled at some of the restroom symbol submissions (category: toilet).

It’s no wonder the AIGA was commissioned to design the current universally adopted set of symbols back in 1974. Best of all, the ubiquitous symbol was dubbed “Helvetica Man” by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbot Miller.

Need to find a restroom quickly? Thank Helvetica.

Twelve of Thirty

This story picks up where last week’s post left off.

Though I hadn’t seen Bernard Perlin since 1995—when he visited Spokane to give a presentation in conjunction with our MAC exhibit Behind the Red, White & Blue: Posters, Propaganda & Pride—I thought of him often. In 2012, my wife Linda and I were planning a visit with our two daughters to Connecticut, and I realized we wouldn’t be far from where Bernard lived. Not knowing whether he would remember me (or even if he was still alive), I called. Turns out he remembered his trip out west fondly, and encouraged us to visit. So we drove through the picturesque New England landscape to his country home in Ridgefield, where he had lived since 1959.

At 93, Bernard was still painting. We talked, toured his home and studio, and reminisced about his life’s work. The day before, we had toured Philip Johnson’s Glass House in nearby New Canaan. Bernard mentioned that he had not only known the architect, but also stayed at his home—one of the most famous houses on the planet.

Over lunch, we expressed an interest in purchasing one of Bernard’s paintings. So he took us back to his studio, where, one by one, he placed some of his works on an easel, sharing a bit of history about each. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

There was one in particular that Bernard hesitated to show us. We asked to see it—and it quickly became our favorite. When I asked how much he wanted for it, he said, “Take it home, think it over, and send me a check.”

It was the last thing I wanted to hear. For the rest of our trip, I wondered what a fair price would be. Linda and I discussed it over and over. On the one hand, it was a painting produced in 1966 but never sold; on the other, Bernard’s work is held in private collections (including the Rockefellers’) and by the likes of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s Tate Modern. I eventually sent him a check and held my breath. The plan was that if he felt we were undervaluing his work, we’d just call it a first-half installment. A few days later, he called, delighted by our generosity. I’ve never felt so relieved.

That was the last time I spoke to Bernard Perlin. Less than two years later, on January 14, 2014, he passed away.

Eleven of Thirty

I first heard of Bernard Perlin while researching WWII propaganda posters for our 1995 Behind the Red, White & Blue: Posters, Propaganda & Pride museum exhibit. I eventually called Bernard at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut to inquire about him coming to Spokane as part of a speaker’s program related to the exhibit. He agreed. The problem was, he didn’t have any presentation materials, so I volunteered to have his work photographed (meaning I volunteered my good friend J. Craig Sweat).

A few days later, a box containing three sketchbooks arrived—books that had been stored away for more than 50 years. Dusty with mouse-bitten edges and aged, tea-stained pages, Bernard’s pencil sketches were amazing. I thought I’d received a time capsule—as if I were looking at never-before-seen artifacts. There was also a copy of the February 26, 1945 LIFE magazine, which contained an eight-page color spread featuring Bernard’s gouache paintings. Working as an artist correspondent for the magazine, he had been embedded with the Greek Sacred Squadron, a small group of former officers who operated as part of a covert British commando force fighting the Germans. Two of their harrowing raids were featured in the pages of that issue of LIFE.

We ended up filling a display case with Bernard’s sketchbooks and showcasing a few of his famous WWII posters in the exhibit. And his spellbinding presentation to members of the Spokane Advertising Federation was like listening to a real-life Forrest Gump.

Meeting Bernard Perlin here in Spokane quickly became one of my most treasured memories. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end with me driving him back to the airport. Tune into my next post to learn about our next meeting.

Just Like That, It’s Over 

It’s amazing how quickly an exhibit can be dismantled. In just one day, CX30: Creative Experiences, Thirty Collaborators—our recent exhibit celebrating helveticka’s 30th anniversary—completely disappeared.

Poof! It’s…gone.

Happy Friday!

Apropos of yesterday’s blog post, in which we noted that civilizational collapse is pretty much right on schedule, here’s more grim news: “sperm counts in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past four decades.”

So, basically, what researches are telling us is that all these twee millennial man-children are literally half as virile as their grandfathers. There’s a punchline in their somewhere, but I’ve got deadlines.

We’re Doomed

Fancy a quick look at what’s happening around the world? According to Mother Nature Network, it appears that the end of the world is on track, which might explain this giant rogue iceberg, the addition of 2.2% artificial light every year (“threatening the 30% of vertebrates and more than 60% of invertebrates that are nocturnal”), and the banning of cats in Omaui, New Zealand. Oh—and if you find this highly venomous six-eyed sand spider lurking in your bathroom, be sure to alert the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion. She’s gone missing.

I’m done now.

“Get up (get on up)…”

Francis Fukuyama is a veritable quote machine. (Sort of like this, only…different.) Here are a few choice nuggets from a recent interview published at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“We think of ourselves as people with an inner self hidden inside that is denigrated, ignored, not listened to. A great deal of modern politics is about the demand of that inner self to be uncovered, publicly claimed, and recognized by the political system.”

“What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what’s most useful to their education.”

“When you’re younger, you may think you’ve got independent ideas, but you do depend on the affirmation of friends and colleagues.”

“Social media is perfectly made for identity politics. It allows you to close yourself off in an identity group, get affirmation of everything you say, and not have to argue with people who think differently.”

Quiz Time!

To a non-designer like me, the difference between Helvetica and Arial is like the difference between competing brands of a certain crème-filled sandwich cookie. Oreos are the preferred choice—obviously—but Hydrox will do in a pinch. (And, to be quite honest, few of us could really tell the difference.)

When it comes to fonts, though, people get weird.

So weird, in fact, that David Friedman took twenty logos that were originally designed in Helvetica, recreated them using Arial, and presented the results side by side in a fun online quiz. Things got a little dicey around here this morning when Shirlee and Skooch each scored 19, Courtney 18, and CK, well…perhaps it’s best if we not mention it right now.

The real tragedy here is that, while type nerds are fighting over font supremacy in what amounts to a battle between vanilla and French vanilla, the arrival of the “world’s first genetically engineered superfont” has been largely ignored.

“The Grandfathers of Logo Design”

It used to be that logo design was “mostly utilitarian; images that represented brands often depicted either the product, the service, or something related to its manufacture, such as a factory.”

Then along came Paul Rand, who upended everything with his IBM logo in 1956. And then? Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar created an abstract mark for Chase Manhattan Bank. Logo design hasn’t been the same since. Take a look:

Stop! Grammar Time!

Jealous vs. envious. Synonyms? Not quite.

Let’s say you see Skooch roll up to helveticka world headquarters in his sweet new Honda CBR300R motorcycle, and boy howdy do you ever wish you had one yourself. So…you’re envious.

Let’s further say that you’re Skooch’s girlfriend, and you’re not at all keen on the attention he’s been getting from the ladies on account of that same motorcycle. You’re jealous.

See, envy is all about what you don’t have; jealousy comes into play when you want to hold on to that which you already possess.

I Want to Believe

“Conspiracy theories,” writes Clare Coffey over at the estimable New Atlantis, “obsesses [sic] over human history and insist that it can be known, not as a collection of data points and mass social tendencies through time, but on a human-sized stage with real human actors.” She goes on:

Cryptozoology taps into a tradition of natural history in which nature is wild, and jealous of her secret oddities. Its amateurism and eagerness towards all phenomena distinguish it from science, but it is precisely in those qualities that its riches lie. It does not assume an enchanted world, precisely, but a world that has never lost its edges, where discovery has never ceded precedence to technical tinkering.

Speaking for myself, I think she’s right. I kind of want there to exist a “large, hairy, bipedal non-human primate” lurking in the same woods I frequent. I mean, sure, yay science and all that, but “secret oddities” are kind of cool, too.

Good to Know

Always quick to remind anyone who will listen that the glass is, in fact, half full, Courtney offers up some helpful advice for the weekend: How to Survive a 10,000-Foot Fall.

Rhett Allain, associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana State University, says that experimental evidence on the subject is thin, since it’s unethical to throw people out of airplanes for science.

“Fortunately, we don’t have enough data to make a trendline,” Allain says.

Still, Allain and others have a few ideas about the factors that might determine whether or not you survive a tumble from thousands of feet in the air.

Turns out there’s physics involved—and a little luck. Plus, some sound advice from Dr. Jeffrey Bender, professor of surgery at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center: “Don’t land on your head.”

Fun for the Whole Family

Have you heard? helveticka is 30 years old. And since we never do things the easy—or, let’s be honest, normal—way, we celebrated not with a cake, but with an exhibit.

Mind if I shamelessly quote from the press release? Thanks.

“We’ve spent the last three decades building relationships with talented specialists hired to help strengthen our company’s outcomes,” explains [CK] Anderson, principal and creative director at helveticka. “So we created an exhibit that celebrates unique perspectives from 30 of those people.”

Curated, designed, written, and installed by Anderson and his team, CX30: Creative Experiences, Thirty Collaborators isn’t your typical exhibit, he says. While work from a few commercial visual artists is presented, the essence of the show is the personal stories provided by the participants themselves. “When we reached out to these 30 collaborators,” says Anderson, “we asked each to tell a story—about themselves, about their careers, about the creative experience. We were looking for tales of adventure; death-defying feats in the face of terrible danger. Maybe even one or two poking fun of clients.”

What they got instead was far more personal: They provided insights; recalled interesting, funny, or challenging circumstances; revealed breakthrough moments in their careers; offered business philosophies; and, at times, shared surprising personal details of their own creative experiences.

Among those represented in the exhibit are artists, photographers, illustrators, programmers, videographers, media buyers, printers, animators, fabricators, composers—even a cartoonist. While the majority of them are from Spokane, some hail from as far away as Los Angeles and Minneapolis.

“For those working in or around the creative industry,” says Anderson, “we think they’ll find these stories compelling and relatable. For those thinking about a career in the arts, or new to the creative profession, we hope it will be inspiring and informative. And for everyone else, we think it’s a wonderful way to showcase some amazing local talent—the sort of creativity most people just don’t realize is out there.”

CX30: Creative Experiences, Thirty Collaborators is up right now at the Washington Cracker Building, just a stone’s throw from helveticka world headquarters at 304 W Pacific Ave. Gallery hours are Thursday–Saturday, 5–7 p.m.

Can’t make it? Fear not: You can get a taste at

Quote of the Day

“The more I work,” writes London-based artist and musician Martin Creed in the foreword to Works, a survey of his career published in 2010, “the more I think I don’t know what I am doing.” He goes on:

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. It is like sweat or shit. It comes out as I go along. As you do one thing over here, something else comes out over there. It is not what you think you are doing. It is like scum on top of things or like sediment at the bottom. It builds up while you are doing other things.

Working feels like trying to face up to what comes out of you.

Art is shit. Art galleries are toilets. Curators are toilet attendants. Artists are bullshitters.

Ten of Thirty

Twenty-three years ago, we launched our first exhibit.

It happened almost by accident. I’d stumbled across several World War I and II propaganda posters in the basement of the Cheney Cowles Museum (now the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture) while researching its photography archives. A short time later, I sent them a letter suggesting that it would be wonderful if the WWII posters could be displayed, given that so many of the era’s poster designers and illustrators were prominent industry figures. I thought it would make for a nice, humble little show at the Spokane Falls Community College design gallery.

What happened next certainly came as a surprise. Larry Schoonover, then the deputy director of the museum, liked the idea—but he wanted the posters shown in its main gallery. It turns out my inquiry was timely: The 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, which brought about the end of WWII, was fast approaching. And Larry saw an opportunity to commemorate the event.

Behind the Red, White & Blue: Posters, Propaganda & Pride opened October 13,1995. To this day, the exhibit remains a highlight of my career. It opened the door for our firm’s work in experiential design, allowing us to blend our individual curiosities with history, storytelling, and the opportunity to create in three dimensions.

In the simplest of terms, exhibits are places where voices are heard, where visuals become emotive, and where one’s understanding is heightened. It’s also where we, as writers and designers, often feel the greatest impact.


So there’s a thing called the iPhone Photography Awards. And they just announced the 2018 winners.

While we’re at it, Scuba Diving magazine did something similar.

“It’s like keeping wine in a cellar instead of on the kitchen counter.” One of life’s great mysteries has, at long last, been settled. #science

The late Donald Hall on aging: “I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.”

I’m reasonably certain that every word of this is true—though, in the spirit of inquiry, I intend to seek an evidential basis for each of the claims presented. Starting right about…now.

Time to Detox Your Masculinity

This article on young men and the “new narcissism” is worth a couple of minutes of your time. Turns out they’re “drinking less alcohol, smoking less and, oddly, having less sex, perhaps because sex involves focusing on someone else”—a 21st-century asceticism that requires no real sacrifice, “just a new exciting set of powders and pills to order on Amazon Prime, while you have earnest conversations about the dangers of our consumer culture.” Plus, I discovered a new word—bumf—which, according to my copy of the OED, is slang for “toilet paper; worthless literature; (usu. derog.) documents, official papers.”

Thirty years later…

…we’re still here.

I know what you’re thinking: That cannot possibly be. After all, nobody expected it to last. A couple of graphic designers, half a generation apart, both from rural Washington towns that start with the letter C and neither with any business knowledge whatsoever, starting a design company back in 1988? I guess it proves that literally anything is possible.

So, last Saturday, we threw a party to celebrate. Not so much for helveticka, but for our families, friends, collaborators, and, of course, for our clients. Surprisingly, more than 200 people showed up. Maybe it was the free live music. Maybe it was the wine, the beer, and the gourmet hot dogs.

Or maybe it was the chance to learn about 30 collaborators who, over the years, played an integral part in helping our firm reach this milestone – each of whom shared a personal story either directly or indirectly related to their profession. The result is a body of exhibited work we call CX30: Creative Experiences, Thirty Collaborators.

And, as luck would have it, nearly all of them were on hand to mark the opening of CX30 and to help celebrate helveticka’s thirtieth anniversary.

Thanks to everyone who shared this moment with us. We’re glad you came – each and every one of you.

photographs by Chad Ramsey

Stop! Grammar Time!

When people ask me for advice on writing,* I’ll often respond with “Never use utilize. Always use use.” Sure, it’s a little smart-assy (I prefer to think of it as aphoristic), but it’s more than just snark. I’ll let David Foster Wallace explain:

[Utilize] is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. I tell my students that using utilize makes you seem either pompous or so insecure that you’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart. The same is true for the noun utilization, and for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for home, for indicate as used for say, for presently, at present, at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: ‘Formal writing’ does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

More thoughts from DFW at the invaluable Oxford Dictionaries blog.

*Don’t laugh! It happens. No, seriously.

An’ a one, an’ a two…

“In 1932,” writes Armand D’Angour, associate professor of classics at the University of Oxford, “the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: ‘Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.'”

Until now, that is.

Happy Friday!

Got a couple weekend reads for you.

First, an article in the LA Review of Books that compels me to admit that maybe—just maybe—the French are right about something:

English speakers think of their language as “open,” “flexible,” and “accommodating.” The French story is exactly the opposite. In French minds, their language is a particularly complex and nuanced tongue with no gray zones and little, if any, à peu près (approximation). Words are right or words are wrong. Every word has a precise meaning distinguishing it from other words.

Second, the Washington Post has a story about Jerry and Rita Alter, who “may have been hiding a decades-old secret, pieces of which are now just emerging”:

After the couple died, a stolen Willem de Kooning painting with an estimated worth of $160 million was discovered in their bedroom.

More than 30 years ago, that same painting disappeared the day after Thanksgiving from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.

And Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that a family photo had surfaced, showing that the day before the painting vanished, the couple was, in fact, in Tucson.

We Had a Pretty Good Run, I Guess

You know, when I was a kid, I thought there’d be a flying car in every garage by now. Or, at the very least, a personal jetpack in every closet.

But no. Instead, we have, well…this.

Just when you though 2018 couldn’t get any dumber.


This brilliant article over at The Outline is chock full of aphorisms that ought to be cross-stitched on pillows in homes across America.

Here are a couple of good ones:

“Publishing is a retail industry, not a meritocracy.”

“Just because you are fluent doesn’t mean you can write.”

My favorite, though? “Writing is hard. Writing artfully so that someone enjoys what you’re writing is even harder.”

Tomasz Stanko, RIP

Though I worked as a reporter for my hometown newspaper back when I was in high school, I never really count that experience when I think about my writing career. For me, it started when I was a music critic for a local “alternative” newspaper—you know, the sort of publication that was hip before hipsters were a thing.

That’s when I discovered the music of Tomasz Stańko, the virtuoso Polish jazz trumpeter who died over the weekend at age 76. Stańko was a revelation to me, a player whose music demonstrated once and for all that jazz was as much color and texture as it was rhythm and changes.

Spare and atmospheric—almost minimalist in his approach to improvisation and composition—Stańko, it always seemed to me, didn’t just play his trumpet. He painted with it: haunting soundscapes of quiet, otherworldly beauty. And yet, somehow, he was as deeply soulful as the best of his American counterparts.

I’d never heard anything quite like it. And now I can’t imagine jazz—or music, really—without his contribution.

We Live in Stupid Times

All this straw-banning nonsense is, well…just that: nonsense. Given that 60 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from only five Asian countries, these new laws are nothing more than virtue-signaling by career politicians. I mean, take a look at this chart.

That aside, my favorite part of this Newsweek story is the quote from Chris Milne, director of packaging sourcing for Starbucks: “Starbucks is finally drawing a line in the sand and creating a mold for other large brands to follow. We are raising the water line for what’s acceptable and inspiring our peers to follow suit.”

I don’t know about you, but I count four metaphors in those two sentences. Four:

“Starbucks is finally drawing a line in the sand and creating a mold for other large brands to follow. We are raising the water line for what’s acceptable and inspiring our peers to follow suit.”

Then there’s the clichéd language like “what’s acceptable” and “inspiring our peers,” not to mention all the questions I have about how a large brand—or anyone, really—is supposed to follow a mold. And that’s not just a PR lackey speaking off the cuff, either. It came right out of the “Starbucks Newsroom.” Which means a bunch of middle-management types signed off on it. Heck, they’re probably incorporating it into a slide deck even as I write this.

When this stuff passes for good writing or clear thinking, forget about the plastic choking our oceans and killing the fish. We’re all doomed.

We’ve Come So Far…

Apropos of nothing, really—and without further comment—let’s take a quick look at the state of American race relations in 1974, courtesy of Burger King:

“All right!”

Quote(s) of the Day

Yesterday I found myself at the Spalding Site of Nez Perce National Historic Park, where I read the following from Chief Joseph:

Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself—and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.

For some reason, I thought of something Thelonious Monk once said:

When I was a kid, some of the guys would try to get me to hate white people for what they’ve been doing to Negroes, and for a while I tried real hard. But every time I got to hating them, some white guy would come along and mess the whole thing up.

Which, inexplicably, reminded me of this, from Mahatma Gandhi:

Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time.

So what’s the connection? Beats me. Could be something about how we all just need to shut the hell up. Quit telling people what to do, what to think, how to act. Try listening for a change. And maybe—just maybe—we might be able to get along a little better.

Or it could be that my synapses are just misfiring in my old age.

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