Today’s Creative Morning was a treat. Liz Danzico hosted and the virtual guest was Swiss Miss herself with newborn Swiss Mister. Allan Chochinov of Core77 was the guest speaker and he kept it short and sweet with a song and a talk.
The song was “There A Hole in My Bucket” and Allan dedicated it to the virtual guests. Who knew that this song traces back to 1700, from a German collection of songs Bergliederbüchlein as a dialogue between an un-named man and a woman named Liese? Thanks to Wikipedia we find out that later versions were called “Heinrich und Liese” and credited as a folk song from Hesse.
Allan used the song as a metaphor for the design problem. A “cascading sequence of contingencies and consequences.” Who is the user? Is it @henry? We might call the bucket a container, or a vessel. We might say that the bucket is “a liquid containment and conveyance system.”
So what exactly does Henry need? What is the context? What about ergonomics? Ethnographics? And what about that relationship between Henry and Liza? Maybe “the bucket is the last thing we should be worried about.”
All important questions we ask when confronted with the design problem.
The client brief: “There’s a hole in our bucket!” Allan showed typical designer responses:

  • The systems approach (Honey Bucket)
  • The solution that doesn’t solve the problem (Lucky Bucket Brewing Co.)
  • The branded experience (Yankees-branded buckets)
  • In the end Allan called out for sustainable design: maybe all we need to do is re-imagine the good old-fashioned bucket. The old wooden one that’s been engineered to last forever. Sure it’s got a hole, but maybe the solution is right in front of us and needs rethinking (he showed great examples: the hippo water roller and the GRIP rake by Scott Henderson). Sometimes as designers our instinct is to add more design, more solution — stacked up solutions that are conceived as a patching together of more and more design. Perhaps we need less “might do,” less “can do,” and more “ought to do.”
    A thoughtful, important message for a snowed-in morning.


    Bill and TED’s excellent adventure.

    Here are all 28 slides used in Bill Gates’ “Innovating to Zero” talk at TED on February 12, 2010.
    Why are they so good?

    • They tell the story, even without his narration.
    • No chart junk.
    • Exactly the right amount of information. No more, no less.
    • Every graphic element has been considered, and has a purpose. Every graphic element works.
    • Color, emotion, drama. Human faces.
    • Most of the slides have 10 words or less. The most powerful slide has one number. The second most powerful slide has two words.
    • Only 28 slides.

    Don’t hesitate to watch the talk itself. But also consider how the visuals have been carefully constructed and choreographed to help a powerful man deliver a critical message (some say the most important climate change message you’ll hear this year). I plan on returning to these graphics again and again to remind myself, and my clients, how slides are really supposed to work.
    Ironically, from the man who made chart junk such a problem in the first place.


    How exciting it is to be stupid.

    Richard Saul Wurman spoke to a crowded room at the New School last night about beginnings, learning, listening, remembering and being open to the unknown.
    It was a brilliant conversation about his journey to zero, from a man who’s been around the circle a few times. Richard commands the room with a wit that somehow manages to be both self-deprecating and larger than life, leaving me to wonder at times if he’d gone too far. (He sort of makes Sarah Silverman look sweet.) No, in the end I was in awe: someone genuinely curious and generous and willing to share. A crazy old man at 75 who is so enthusiastic about spreading what he’s learned in life that he’ll take over the room and turn the evening upside down with maximum storytelling.
    Wurman is famous for his disdain of note-taking so I felt a bit self-conscious about scribbling during the talk. He says that writing something down is permission to forget, and that a better kind of learning occurs when you listen and make connections without the crutch. I don’t always agree, but I love the sentiment. I also have a really bad memory.
    So as an experiment I tried to jot down the concepts only, with the idea that I would make the connections later. This works for me. I need an artifact so I can put the narrative back together again, later on. Rather than try to tell Richard’s story for you, I present my notes. Fragments of words and ideas that caught my attention during the talk. The connections are all there, between the words.
    Click on the image for a larger, more legible version.


    A modular system has been devised.

    Re-creations of the cover and a few pages from Unimark’s 1970 masterpiece, the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual.
    Letter spacing / Page 9 (larger)
    Letter spacing / Page 10 (larger)
    Helvetica and the New York City Subway System / Paul Shaw
    Cover (larger)
    Type face / Page 4 — grid (larger)
    Type face / Page 4 (larger)
    The AIGA talk a few nights ago got me thinking about the 1970 NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual that’s supposedly buried somewhere here in our office. In its absence I found myself coming back to page 46 of Paul Shaw’s book, totally in love with Vignelli’s presentation, wishing for the real thing. Basic lessons in modern typography — letterforms, spacing, sizing, grid. And the insane kerning chart on page 10 that pre-dates “shift-option-]” by thirty years.
    Then I had the totally crazy idea to reverse engineer the grid and create one of the pages in Illustrator. I tried not to question it — half dare, half therapeutic exercise, I quickly set up “Type face / Page 4” and kept going.
    It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do — we’re really busy here at Soulellis Studio. Spending a day engulfed in the study of something you love — for no other reason but to see what you’ll find — is a luxury I can never afford. But I was able to get away with it today and it slowed my heart rate and I got a chance to absorb something I thought I knew in a totally different way. Highly recommended.


    Vignelli works it out.

    Last night’s AIGA event started off with a Bob Noorda tribute by Jan Conradi (author of Unimark International: The Business of Design and the Design of Business), but then Massimo Vignelli took the stage and the show really began.
    As reported: “he’s jaded, bitter and hilarious — all important ingredients for a modernist maestro.” Apparently Vignelli suggested the conversation, upon publication of Paul Shaw’s impressive book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, which documents the evolution of the system’s graphics from the mid-1960s on. I bought both books at the event — each meticulously designed, beautiful, full of juicy detail.
    Vignelli began the conversation, moderated by Shaw and Conradi, with an overview of the Unimark design process. The highlights:

    • Put the signs at the point of decision, not before or after
    • Standardize the support (the black bar at the top of the white signs)
    • Standardize the graphic modules (1 x 1 for arrows, 1 x 2 for information, 1 x 4 for directionals, 1 x 8 for station ID) — “You could make any message by putting these panels together.”
    • Three type sizes only
    • “Design is not embellishment — it’s about solving the problem.”
    • “Non-visual people panic when they see a map, so we have to take care of them too.” (the never-realized “Directory”)
    • “When working with a huge organization like the transit authority, how brilliantly you make your design is not as important as how brilliantly you master the implementation. The huge client will destroy it — they’re huge destroyers.”

    So at this point I realized that Vignelli’s got a bone to pick.
    Next up on stage is Michael Hertz and colleagues. Hertz was awarded the subway work in 1979 when the MTA decided not to work with Vignelli any longer. Hertz is responsible for the NYC subway map we use today. Until last night, the two had never met. Hertz began by saying that Vignelli’s famous 1972 map is immortal, and beautiful. So how did the current mess happen? During the next hour it was battled out — reasons ranging from ADA requirements, the expansion of the system, “giant client” problems and MTA gems like “Marketing was high on the list of things to do” and “There was a lot of thinking going on” (??)
    But Vignelli really said it best — with MTA decision-makers on stage and in the audience:

    • “The transit authority was never aware of what it meant as a system, which is why it could never be implemented properly. When there’s a problem, why not go back to the original consultant? That’s not the way intelligent people solve problems.”
    • “A diagram is a diagram — don’t cheat me. The current map is a by-product of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

    At the end of the discussion the tension between Vignelli and Hertz was as clear as the differences between their respective maps. By the time an MTA guy stood up in the audience to plea his defense (to laughter and applause), I realized that so much more was happening. We were getting a taste of:

    • Design vs. operational bureaucracy
    • Abstraction vs. literalness
    • Clarity vs. clutter
    • Systemic change vs. incremental tinkering
    • European elitism vs. American pragmatism, etc.

    As enthused as I was leaving Bierut’s client talk a few weeks ago, I walked home from this talk kind of down. I was looking for inspiration but found discouragement — big clients who don’t “get it” are bad, smart design legends are good. I guess in the end everyone’s happy: we’ve got a subway system we (sometimes) love and Massimo is still worshipped and Michael Hertz still has a client who keeps him busy. Life goes on.


    Good clean typography.

    Some quick Google research reveals that the bag probably hails from Torrington, CT where F. L. Wadhams & Sons produced coal at the turn of the last century, so it hasn’t traveled too far in the last 100 years. Amazing that it hasn’t been destroyed or even used.
    I thought I could date the bag with the 4-digit phone number but this only tells me that it’s probably pre-1920 (when 2- or 3-letter city exchanges started to come into use) but that’s about it.
    The bag itself is branded — “Bull Dog Sacks” by Miller, Tompkins & Co., Rutherford, NJ in the small circle at top.
    I’m sure someone who really knows their type history could pin-point the date more accurately. Anyone?


    Some really good advice.

    Just came from a brilliant short talk by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut at the SwissMiss Creative Mornings. His slides were great and so very tweetable (on purpose?) — short summary statements in giant type that filled the screen.
    The topic was clients.
    I was going to tweet during the talk. But because the bits really add up to a good story and a very specific philosophy about the client/designer relationship, I think it’s worth presenting them all together. So here they are. It’s some of the best designer advice I’ve ever heard and I want to share it, but I’m also putting the quotes right here on so I can come back and read them over and over again. Every day.
    Michael Bierut talks about clients.

    • Clients can be the best part of the design process.
    • Clients are the difference between art and design.
    • My clients are the same as yours.
    • The right client can change anything.
    • The best clients love design, or don’t give a damn about it. (i.e., they have confidence)
    • The worst clients are somewhere in between. (i.e., they have fear)
    • Never talk about “educating the client.”
    • What makes a great client? Brains, passion, trust and courage.
    • “You’ll never go wrong when you work with someone smarter than you.” (Tibor Kalman)
    • Warning: Your great client may not be my great client.
    • Great clients lead to more great clients (and more great work).
    • Bad clients lead to more bad clients (and more bad work).
    • Bad clients take up more of your time than they should.
    • Meanwhile, we take great clients for granted.
    • The trick is to reverse this.
    • What do I owe a great client? Loyalty, honesty, dedication and tenacity.
    • Once you find a great client, never let them go.
    • If you can find five great clients, you’re set for life.
    • “You’d better find somebody to love.” (Jefferson Airplane)
    • Good luck.

    Why not — let’s call them Bierut-isms.
    I can honestly say that I also share Mr. Bierut’s love of the designer/client relationship (point #1) and that I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard (and enjoyable) way during the last 15 years. It’s immensely satisfying to hear it reinforced in such a clear way by someone you have respect for and someone who’s been at it for awhile.
    Mr. Bierut ended his talk by saying that he was very lucky — he could name not just five but ten great clients in his career so far (“These people are why you’ve heard of me…”). Moving and inspiring to hear work so closely associated with the designer dedicated to the people who made it possible. He mentioned Fern Mallis (7th on Sixth), the architect Robert Stern, Terron Schaefer (Saks), Laura Shore (Mohawk Paper), Chee Pearlman (I.D. Mag), David Thurm (New York Times), Christy MaClear (Philip Johnson Glass House) and others. Proof that design is best when it’s a collaborative effort.


    The colors of Le Corbusier.

    From the book’s Postscript 2005:
    "In 1996-97, Birkhäuser Publishers undertook a risky experiment when publishing a new edition of Polychromie architecturale. From the beginning it was clear that the reproduction of colors in art book printing would not suffice. At the time, a partner was found in the Alsatian company of Adrien and Robert Marx; not only were they manufacturing monochrome wallpapers using glue printing in accurate colors but they were also able to assemble the "claviers de couleurs" by hand using the original technique. The three-volume publication found a large circle of interested readers worldwide, and — most gratifying of all — left several traces in contemporary architecture."

    "Soon after the publication of Polychromie architecturale, the paint chemist Katrin Trautwein became enthusiastic about the possibility of Le Corbusier’s color rows, and she began to work with the natural and synthetic mineral pigments that had originally been used. She succeeded in establishing, with the agreement of the Fondation Le Corbusier, production of colors that has meanwhile proven its worth not only for exhibitions and restorations — especially for the work of Le Corbusier himself — but also for contemporary architecture and furniture designs. It therefore made sense to use this approach for the second edition of Polychromie architecturale and thus reconstruct Le Corbusier’s color definition, which was based directly on traditional mineral pigments that were the commercial standard in his day. The luminosity and stability of the shades under changing light conditions inherent in this method cannot be surpassed."

    I found the 3-volume set at the Urban Center Books sale (40% off the entire store until they close on January 23). It’s an extraordinary thing. These are painted papers, based on two collections of Salubra wallpapers produced with Le Corbusier in 1931 and 1959. I made a quick attempt to translate the “Salubra II” 1959 palette onto the screen, more for a first impression than anything else (above). Somehow I’ll find a way to use these colors. I’ll try to get the 1931 colors up too. This deserves attention and some way to make the remarkable color combos more relevant for designers today.


    Berlin surprise

    Last weekend I stayed in an apartment in Berlin with a magnificent library. Thousands of books lining the walls in each room. I started looking closely and realized that there were some real treasures in here, like a Josef Müller-Brockmann designed book from 1960, der Film. His poster of the same name is one of the most famous of the 20th century, but I didn’t know about the book.
    And I started pulling out dozens of small paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s, all published by dtv (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). The designer is Swiss-born Celestino Piatti, who designed 5,000 books for dtv from 1961 until the mid-90s. I wish I’d brought my Nikon with me but the iPhone shots aren’t too bad.
    An Akzidenz Grotesk dream-come-true.