Visible Design

Posted on November 26th, 2009 in making things

As opposed to the somewhat invisible design of things like book guts.  I’m talking about things like covers, t-shirts, wall prints, mugs, website headers — the stuff that’s meant to be seriously looked at.

And here’s the thing:  I’m not an artist.  I’ve got a couple of artistic bones in my body, sure — I’ve won a couple of games of Pictionary and I can usually decipher kids’ fridge drawings, so I’m not completely without artsy skillstuff.  I’m just not an artist.  Really, I don’t even know if I’m a designer.  The internet tells me that designers are people that sit around bitching about how clients are all idiots that insist on ever bigger logos, and I’m of the apparently unpopular opinion that logos should all be so damned sexy that everyone wants them bigger and on a t-shirt.  So, y’know, So I just don’t know if I (want) get to be in that fancy designer club, either.

But just last week Warren and I sold a week’s worth of apparel with nothing but a giant imaginary logo on, so, y’know, could be I know what I’m doing.

Of course, I really can’t tell you how to design a cover or a t-shirt or a logo.  Pretty much everything I do kinda starts out with a plan and quickly becomes “season to taste and then cook with some amount of fire until it’s done but not burned” or “hit it with a wrench until it stops making that noise and apologizes or it at least starts making some more pleasing noise” or “if nothing seems to be working that probably means it’s time to pop open another Red Bull.” None of which really works well for instructions or documentation.  Besides, I strongly doubt you want to make things that look like things I made, anyway.

What you want, probably, is to make something that you know looks good, and it’s going to be a really nice bonus if other people think it’s pretty, too.

And that I can sort of help with. 

A lot of my (design or otherwise) instincts stem from intent. By that I mean before I really start thinking about how I want something to look, I spend some time thinking about why I want it to look.  A cover has one job, honestly: It’s there to make you want to pick it up and look inside. The old “don’t judge a book by its cover” chestnut was really very likely started because people didn’t know that a cover has that job – they probably thought its sole purpose was to keep a little spill of Red Bull from seeping into the inside pages or something. 

When we make things look pretty on the outside, we increase the perceived value of the inside.  That goes for pretty much anything.  And yes, yes, there are as many definitions of “pretty” as there are stars in the sky, of course. But that’s something you should absolutely keep in mind whether you’re wrapping an album or a book or a magazine or even making a t-shirt, yes (because that’s a “cover” too): whatever your cover is going on, it needs to make the insides look better, before anyone even looks at them.

If you can’t do that – and don’t worry, if you’re on the internet someone will tell you so, and, really, you can ignore the first person that says “that looks a bit crap,” but you might want to listen to the third – if everything you make seems to get nothing but crit and no love… well, you know, that’s all right, actually. There’s a LOT to be said for staying plain and simple.  I love plain craft-paper wrapping, me.  If no one wants to touch your cover with a twenty foot pole, you might want to scale it back to just the title and the author on a solid color. Dialing it back down to basics never hurts.

The one thing I’m certain that 90% of first-time designers (and more than a handful of “seasoned” ones) never think to do is step back from their design and take a look from a distance.  And I mean that absolutely literally: set the thing to full screen, stand up and walk across the room, and actually look at the thing, from some real distance.

Hell, if you’ve got something you’re working on right now, go ahead and do that: pull it up in another window, stand up, and look at it from across the room.  Hell, leave the room – go make coffee or something – and then come back and look at it again.

What does your design look like, at a glance from a distance?  If it’s a book cover, can you even make out the title?  How about the author, or what’s going on with the colors and images?  Does it look like a book or does it look like a blob of colors and nonsense with nothing really going for it?  Because that’s what people are going to see on a shelf or in a thumbnail image. Whatever you see from across the room – if it doesn’t catch your eye or make a lick of sense, it’s not going to do any better for anyone else.

This is even *more* true of wearable or wall-hanging designs.  I mean, look, it may look great to you when you’re a foot away from the monitor (or design on the desk) – but those things aren’t meant to be held up right next to your face.  T-shirts need to look good from five feet away (fifty if you’re marketing to the restraining-order demographic), and wall art should really look as good when you’re on the couch as it does when you’re right up on it with a magnifying glass.  And if you want to sell it online, again, you’ve got the thumbnails thing working against your lovely design – there are a ton of people that just will not click through to “view larger” if they can’t make any sense of the teensy thumbnail image.

And if people aren’t even going to invest a click, they certainly aren’t going to give you a sale, right?

There will be, I’m certain, people screaming about the crassness of my commercialism and how design exists in a perfect and magical bubble of art that transcends the base desire to make money.  And I’m… not really talking to those people because, as I said at the beginning, I’m not part of their fancy club.  I’m chock full o’ base desires, not least of which are my desires to pay rent and Make Stuff that people want, and the best days are the ones where I can kill two birds with one well-designed stone.

Now, if you didn’t click that inline link up there in the middle, I’m going to send you there again, here at the end. You really should go here and read Warren talking about Designing To Be Wanted, two years ago.  Because, yes, he says “magazine” a lot, but that’s just what he was on about at the time.  What he really means is “Stuff.”

Be Biopolitical At Home via Jamais Cascio

Tuesday December, 01 2009 05:31 PM PST

IEET has announced that Friday's Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar (referenced here and here) will be live-streamed for those folks unable to attend in person.

Those unable to attend the event in person will be able to follow along in real-time.

In order to make all of the valuable information being presented at this week’s “Biopolitics of Popular Culture” seminar available to as many people as possible, the IEET has arranged to have the entire event live-streamed online.

It will be shown at this page on the IEET site, and can also be viewed on TechZulu.

Times are from 8:30am to 5:30pm PST (11:30am to 8:30pm EST) on Friday, December 4, 2020.

Nifty.

Pigeon: Impossible via Lee Barnett

Tuesday December, 01 2009 02:32 PM PST

Haven't seen this doing the rounds, but it will...
A rookie secret agent is faced with a problem seldom covered in basic training: what to do when a curious pigeon gets trapped inside your multi-million dollar, government-issued nuclear briefcase.
I was sent it by a friend, and it's... well, watch it:

Induced Epidemics via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 01:09 PM PST

I have a couple of friends in this one, if you’re in the LA area:

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You just keep on trying, until you run out of cake. via Wil Wheaton

Tuesday December, 01 2009 12:54 PM PST

Yesterday, I wrote:

Well, the power just went out, so it's time for me to pack up my Mac and head out to a cafe with WiFi where I can work on my novel in front of people and get this posted. The weird thing is, while it's likely going to take an hour at least from the time I finish writing this paragraph until it actually posts on the internet, there is no perceived delay from whoever reads this, because as far as you're concerned, the post didn't exist until it was published, though it already existed for me.

Um. Yeah. I'm sure someone who's actually studied physics is going to knock me around for that, but since my knowledge of the field is limited to what I've picked up on my own, it's a fun thought exercise.

Okay, little post, go sit in an eigenstate for the nice people.

Reader Gevmage says:

Your analogy is reasonable. The post existed on your laptop while you drove to the coffee shop, in a state such that it was stable but not portable. Once you got to the coffee shop, by connecting to the internet, you promoted it to an energy state where it could slide easily through the intertubes to our screens.

Since quantum mechanics describes ONLY the behavior of the very small, it has problems when extended directly to the macroscopic (which the idea of Shroedinger's cat is an illustration). You extended the notion as well as it could be.

The eigenvalue then is just a scalar logical value indicating if the post is visible to the world. Every eigenvalue has to have a corresponding operator; the operator is a complicated set of tests of whether or not if you point our browser at wilwheaton.typepad.com, you get a certain character string that's in the post.

Why yes, I am procrastinating, why do you ask? :-D

Even though I don't understand the math behind quantum physics, I have a good enough grasp of the theory behind quantum physics to allow me to follow along when the math is discussed. Put another way: I know enough French and Spanish to put together what someone is telling me, but not enough to actually sit down and compose a letter in that language.

I'm sure I've just oversimplified the whole thing, and insulted a lot of actual scientists and mathematicians, so let me apologize for that before I continue, because I think I'm about to make it even worse.

I was easily bored as a kid. I wasn't athletic, strong or coordinated, but I was smart and I loved to read. I still enjoyed playing tag, hide and seek, and riding bikes, but none of that stuff satisfied me the same way that exploring imagined worlds in my mind did. Those imagined worlds were usually delivered in the form of Science Fiction and Fantasy books, within D&D modules, and occasionally created (or spun off from existing imagined worlds) using action figures. (I guess it's no surprise, then, that I make my living and found my place in life using my imagination.)

I always loved exploring strange new worlds in books and magazines (Dear Asimov's, I never thought it would happen to me, but ...) and there was even a time in my late teens when I actively sought out all the weird conspiracy, occult, UFO and supernatural stuff I could find (I truly despise that crap today) because even though I knew it was bullshit, it was yet another weird and fantastic imagined world to explore.

As I wrote in an old Things I Love post, it was the book Hyperspace that fundamentally changed my worldview:

[S]omeone (I think it was my brother) suggested that I read A Brief History of Time. I picked it up, read it in just a couple of days, and realized that my life could be divided into before I read it, and after I read it. On my next trip to the bookstore, I went straight to the science section, and looked for something ? anything ? to continue my education.

My eyes fell on a book with an interesting cover, and a provocative title: Hyperspace: A scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension. It was written by a guy called Michio Kaku. I pulled it off the shelf, and after just a few pages, I was hooked.

There's a story in Hyperspace, right at the beginning, that I'm going to paraphrase. It's the story that grabbed my attention, captured my imagination, and fundamentally altered the way I thought about the nature of existence. I already had "before and after" with A Brief History of Time, and when I got to the end of this story, I had "before and after I read about the fish scientists." The story goes something like this:

In San Francisco, there's this botanical garden, and near the entrance there is a pond that's filled with koi fish. Dr. Kaku describes standing there, looking at the fish one day, and wondering what it would be like if the fish had a society as complex and advanced as our own, but the whole thing was confined to the pond, and they had no idea that there was a whole other world just beyond the surface of the water. In the fish world, there were fish scientists, and if a human were to pluck one of them from the pond, show it our world, and return it to the pond, it would go back to the other fish scientists and say, "Guys! You're never going to believe this. I was just doing my thing, and suddenly, this mysterious force pulled me from our world and showed me another, where the creatures don't need gills to breathe, and walk on two legs!"

The other scientists would look at it, and ask it how it got to this new world, but it wouldn't be able to explain it. They'd want the scientist to recreate it, but it wouldn't be able to. The fish scientist would know, however, that the other world was there, and that there was something just as complex as life in the pond on the other side of some mysterious barrier that they couldn't seem to penetrate.

I'm sure I've mangled the story, but that's essentially what I remember from it. I thought, "Well, shit, if there could be a world like that in the pond, maybe we are in something else's pond!" I didn't know if it was possible, I didn't know if it was just science fiction, but I didn't care. It was this incredible possibility, and my world opened up again. I felt like I'd been granted membership in a secret society. I devoured the book, and I began to think about the nature of existence in ways that I'd never even considered before. When I finally read Flatland a few years later, I was blown away that Abbot had written essentially the same story a hundred years earlier, in 1884, and I was thrilled that I could actually understand it.

My elementary school teachers were real good at putting the fear of God into us kids, but they were just horrible at teaching us math. I tried and tried, but I never understood it, and "you have to learn this because you have to learn it" wasn't the type of inspiration that worked for me. Even today, I'm not very good at math, never having found that teacher who could translate it into something I could actually use and appreciate. 

Growing up, I was a creative kid, an imaginative kid, and while I loved reading and learning about scientists and mathematicians, I never had a teacher or tutor who could help teenage me understand their work the way I understood their lives. (NB: My tutor while I was on Star Trek, Marion, who took me through most of high school, did everything she could to help me get excited about math, but to borrow from a parable: that ground in my brain had never been cultivated, and it just wasn't fertile enough to bear fruit.)

My lack of mathematical ability held me back in science, and it prevented me from ever studying physics or astronomy at anything exceeding the "for dummies" level. Here's a sad and embarrassing truth: I still can't sit down and develop equations for things, I struggle to calculate simple problems that my kids can do in their heads (they were taught math in a fundamentally different way than I was) and few things make me feel as stupid and frustrated as a simple algebra problem.

But when I sit down to read books like Hyperspace, articles about the LHC, anything my friend Phil Plait writes, or comments like the one I quoted above, I understand what they're talking about. I get excited, and take a look at a world that seems fantastic and imagined, but is actually real and right here.

I seem to have wandered away from the reason I sat down to write this post, so let me try to bring it all back together: I love exploring fantastic worlds that only exist in books and my imagination. But I also I love exploring the real world, which is so amazing, it just seems imagined.

(I once read a story about this for an audiobook. I forget the title, but it was about a kid who wanted to leave Earth with a dimension-hopping guy to explore the universe, and the dimension-hopping guy tells him that he shouldn't leave Earth for parts unknown until he really explores all the wonderful and incredible things that Earth has to offer, because due to the laws of dimension-hopping, it's a one-way trip. I wonder if that's still in print? I'd love to listen to it.)

I still wish I had a better understanding of the science and math that makes understanding and exploring the most fantastic parts of our real world possible, but until I do, I'm happy I have a pocket phrase book and a tourist map to help me get around a little bit.

Laurenn McCubbin: Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 11:09 AM PST

Laurenn’s new art project, a massive thing:

In February, I’ll be presenting a gallery show that I’m calling Speaking to Las Vegas in the Language of Las Vegas. This is going to be an art installation that combines sculptural elements, performance, audio, video, photo documentation, and illustrated portraits of Las Vegas sex workers. The purpose of this show is to investigate the connections between the Las Vegas economy & the legal & illegal sex work that happens there….

Laurenn McCubbin

Links for 2020-12-01 via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 11:00 AM PST

  • Archaeologists find a 10,000-year-old weapon at site of new Ontario arena
    "She said the artifact comes from Paleoindian hunters often called the ?first people of Ontario.?"
    (tags:history )
  • World around us: Prohibition of death - There are really some places where death is illegal
    "Prohibition of death is a political social phenomenon and taboo in which a law is passed stating that it is illegal to die, usually specifically in a certain political division or in a specific building."
    (tags:history culture )
  • Rainbow trapped for the first time - physics-math - 26 November 2020 - New Scientist
    "Oh, to catch a rainbow. Well, it's been done for the first time ever ? and with just a simple lens and a plate of glass at that. The technique could be used to store information using light, a boon for optical computing and telecommunications."
    (tags:sci )

Do Projects via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 10:34 AM PST

Do projects. Books and art and things. Available as paid print object or free digital object.

Do is Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield, "accompanied by a loose network of friends and collaborators", and I love their statement of purpose:

Some of our ambitions are to:

- develop words and images that make the people who encounter them re-see themselves and the world around them;

- find the most appropriate containers for our ideas;

- craft the kind of books that please their readers in the details of their conception, design and construction as much as in the things they say;

- and figure out what ?do-it-yourself? might mean in an age when new production technologies, informational and logistical networks give the independent amateur producer unprecedented power to reach out and make things happen.

First up is Nurri’s TOKYO BLUES:

Now available for purchase or free download, Tokyo Blues is a photographic record of Nurri Kim’s 2002-2003 investigation into this humble industrial material and the very wide variety of uses to which it’s put in the everyday life of Japan.

From construction sites and homeless settlements to cherry-blossom viewing parties in the park, the ubiquitous blue tarp is a constant of Japanese life and a bearer of multiple registers of meaning. In sixty-four images from the boulevards, alleys, sidestreets and interstitial spaces, Tokyo Blues explores these dramatically different contexts, returning something ?we see too often, and then forget to see? to full, vivid visibility.

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Things I Do Not Want For Xmas via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 09:40 AM PST

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(thanks to Andrew Ducker for making me look at this, you fucking bastard)

Matt Fraction: Autodidact via Kelly Sue DeConnick

Tuesday December, 01 2009 07:58 AM PST

Matt Fraction: Autodidact, originally uploaded by Kelly Sue.

Happy birthday, my love.

SHIVERING SANDS: Ebook via Warren Ellis

Tuesday December, 01 2009 07:46 AM PST

Well, a bunch of people asked for SHIVERING SANDS as a download edition. So we’ve turned it into a PDF and put it on sale for USD $7, a little less than half the price of the print edition. And you can find it here at the IEU/Lulu storefront.

last shot via Trixie Bedlam

Monday November, 30 2009 09:16 PM PST

trixiebedlam posted a photo:

last shot

Night Music: Xela via Warren Ellis

Monday November, 30 2009 07:31 PM PST

Discovered Xela just the other day. If you come across an EP by Xela called THE DIVINE, grab it. This is from the album THE DEAD SEA:

?Ayn Rand Assholism? as Institution/Ideology via Meredith Yayanos

Monday November, 30 2009 06:26 PM PST

Ayn_Rand_Dominatrix
GQ link via Tertiary, thanks.

If you read any rant today, make sure it’s “The Bitch Is Back”. (Be warned: should you happen to think Objectivism is nifty, you may not appreciate it quite as much.) Andrew Corsello’s essay for GQ concerning author/philosopher Ayn Rand’s followers and her work’s lingering influence over global economics and politics is a raw, rambunctious, damning piece of work. Here’s a choice excerpt:

In the end, it’s not the books but the smug, evangelical certainty of Ayn Rand Assholes that causes me to loathe Ayn Rand in a personal way. The thing I liked most about college was being around so many young people who were as earnest as they were dauntingly smart. People who didn’t (yet) feel the need to own every room they walked into. People who knew how to ask questions. That was it. All that elevated question-asking, and the pliancy of temperament it entailed.

We were children. Then came Rand, “the Rosa Klebb of letters,” as entertainment journalist Gary Susman calls her, to body-snatch some of the best of them. Rhetorical question: Is there anything more irritating than a 20-year-old incapable of uttering the words “I don’t know”?

Actually, there is: an 82-year-old Alan Greenspan admitting in October 2008?at least ten years too late?that he’d found “a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”

WORD. Wish I still had the email address for this kid in my high school econ class who used to carry Rand’s photo around in his wallet and habitually referred to people as “subnormals”, just so I could send him the final, frothing paragraphs of Corsello’s essay.

See also:


Post tags: Books, Crackpot Visionary, Opinion, Politics, Uber

November 30, 2020 via Cherie Priest

Monday November, 30 2009 04:56 PM PST

Hey. Guess how many words I wrote today? NONE! HAHAHA! THAT’S RIGHT, NARY A SINGLE SYLLABLE OF FICTION, SO THERE. Ladies and gents and everyone else, I’ll have you to know that every single Draft Zero in my queue has officially been composed. And this morning I sent “Reluctance” off to its editor (squeaking in under deadline, BOOYAH), which means that my deadline list is looking MIGHTY FINE.

Of course, any minute now editorial feedback and rewrites are going to come down the pike for Dreadnought, Clementine, and Fort Freak … but please — let me enjoy the moment while it lasts. I can scarcely tell you what a leisurely day this has been, with no obligations except my day-job work. This must be what it’s like to only have one job! It’s been so long, I’d nearly forgotten the sensation.

To celebrate the occasion, I shall give you links!


  • First up! Mark Henry - As you know Bob, Mark is our Chief Male Member of Team Seattle (which somehow sounds filthy, but ’tis only fitting). In short, his books are absurdly awesome — irreverent, hilarious, disgusting, and intensely perverted. Something for everyone! I swear, his Amanda Feral stories are a guaranteed recto-stick-ectomy. So please click the link and go show him some love … some dirty, dirty love …

  • Because Subterranean Press is evil - Bill is offering 50% off preorder titles. This is your chance to pick up some great reading material at unbelievable prices - just click that-there link and follow the directions to textual bliss. Offer lasts until end-of-day Friday, December 4th. Merry Christmas, y’all! (Sorry — Clementine isn’t available for preorder yet, so there’s nothing of mine to be nabbed. But I’m sure that even the most casual browser among you will find something of interest.)

  • Kyle Cassidy and Crew - Yesterday, Kyle and his lovely wife (plus two lovely guests) came to visit, and it was just plain amazing. He even took some shots for the Where I Write series, of which you can see an iPhone outtake right here. I don’t know why I look a little pissy, staring off like that. I was listening to/looking at Trillian over on the couch. It’s hard not to look at her. She’s really pretty. Anyway, I know for a fact that Kyle has about a jillion pictures of me laughing and looking like my usual cheerful dork self, on account of how he had me laughing most of the time he was holding the camera :)

  • Steampunk Exhibition Ball — Right here in Seattle, at the Museum of History and Industry, Saturday night. I SHALL BE THERE. I won’t have any books for sale, I’m afraid; but if you bring me yours, I’ll be happy to scribble all over ‘em for you, at your discretion. I believe I’ll be reading a bit? Details remain a little fuzzy. But trust me to be there, bedecked as a shipwrecked steampunk pirate — via a costume I’m building around this gob-smackingly lovely corset (which is even more gob-smackingly lovely in person, believe it or not). Anyway, if you’re also at this event — do stomp up and say hello! I love meeting new people, and will talk your ears off if you give me half a chance.

SUPERGOD #2: Preview via Warren Ellis

Monday November, 30 2009 03:50 PM PST

Out from this Wednesday, several pages up for your inspection at this link.