Homework Assignment #2: I Suck At Illustrator

The Assignment: Smell a smell, and design a logo for that smell.

The Medium: Adobe Illustrator, which does magical things to such an extent that it makes me understand how my father feels when I get directions via a Bluetooth connection from my cellphone to a rental car.

The Source: An aerosol can covered with masking tape.

Tasting notes: Heavy, cloying floral top note, with secondary notes of baby powder and citrus. Very long finish. Overall effect is reminiscent of scented cat box liners and fabric softener sheets deployed as dorm-room air freshener.

Upon Reflection: Powerful oily sweetness is not an air freshener, but a cover-up to mask more unpleasant odors.

The Context: The initial ad campaign draws a two-pronged inspiration for the branding.

1) From Jeppson’s Malort we take the tactic of embracing your perceived weakness. In the proposed tagline, “It’s What You Don’t Smell That Matters,” we tacitly acknowledge that this is not necessarily a 100% pleasant scent while redirecting the customer’s focus to the real purpose of the smell’s heaviness.

2) From Absolut Vodka (among many others) we customize the long sweep over the lettering, the background image of the ads, and possibly even the product packaging, to reflect the intended use of the new product, but with only subtle alteration to the base logo. (Rough-sketch examples of this below, following final marker concept and the first Illustrator draft of the proposed base logo.)

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Homework Assignment #1

The assignment: Capture six photos, taken by yourself, of three good designs and three bad designs. (There was more criteria, including a wishlist that left me with eight photos, but it’s not germane to you people.)

Good Physical Design

hearing aids

Let’s just start at the pinnacle.  These are the best-designed anything I’ve ever had. I can use them, my toddler niece could use them (she doesn’t need to), and both my parents can use them (they do). That spread gets an A-plus under normal circumstances, let alone for a piece of technology this sophisticated. Volume up, volume down, and three channels, all on two plastic curves half the size of garlic cloves with one button on each. Comfy, too. You come up with something that people have to wedge in their ears (or any other orifice) but that is so well-designed that the wearer can forget about them for fifteen hours.

Bad Physical Design: Sneeze guards

saladbarI realize I am at risk of Designation turning me into a low-rent (no-rent) Jerry Seinfeld impersonator, but who thought of these?  I’ll tell you who: A short person. A goddamn evil tedious germophobic short person who can reach the good stuff in the back row without having to slump sideways and slouch. These things work perfectly for a five-inch adult height range, from the short end of being able to juuust rest your chin on it to the point a very small window later wherein your shoulder rotates above the plane of the glass and you keep jarring your upper arm on the beveled plastic edge. I hate these so much I try to sneeze on them, because it leaves a cool blast pattern for the next person to examine while reaching uncomfortably for the banana peppers.

Good Digital Design:

Stop.  Do not click this link on anything besides a phone.  Just trust me; this is brilliant. Go get your phone. I’ll wait. It’s worth it.  See?  It was totally worth it, wasn’t it?

Bad Digital Design:

meetupMeetup makes you rewrite your bio every single time you join a group.  Also, when joining similar groups, the secondary tier of questions are often similar or identical, and you have to rewrite those answers over and over and over too.  Not my favorite, especially when it’s professional sounding stuff instead of the usual Hoyo! Heya! Yaroo! blather I get to write for fun.

Good Local Design: 


Some things we take for granted, and yet, this is such an upgrade over the way DON’T WALK worked for many years that it defies description.  And all it took was somebody to look at a sign that two hundred million people saw every day for thirty years and think “Y’know…”

Bad Local Design:

Little asterisk on this one, not just because my picture came out too blurry to bother posting.  But when you ride the CTA, and you pay with a Ventra card, the card simply says “Go ahead!” when you pay, without telling you how much it charged or how much is left. The asterisk is for the fact that the CTA and Ventra people probably consider this good design. I, as someone who reloads his Ventra card with cash, don’t.

Good Service Design:


It’s not the offer that I like here–though I do–or the email layout or anything, I just needed a picture to rep for Southwest.  Southwest has designed a whole service experience around flying Southwest. You’re saving a little money, though less than you used to, and they have shielded themselves from you noticing that fact by very carefully staying homey and rough-edged. SWA is a titan now, but it still acts like the unsure, eager to please new guy, and it works, and it’s fun.

Bad Service Design:

This email almost gave me a stroke:


It is an email “welcoming” me to audit protection, which I bought and paid for when I filed my taxes two weeks ago, and the abrupt appearance of which a few days ago gave bleary morning me the impression I was being notified of an audit, which did not leave me in a good mood.

We Get Letters

I don’t understand how people can hate a font. It’s like hating a specific golf ball or a particular line on a tax form. It’s too much work to hate so many things, and that one’s easy enough to change. People don’t hate fonts. People hate Diet Coke, or Lindsay Lohan, or Communism. Those I get.  But not a font.  Not even Comic Sans.  So, in Design class last week, I said so.

At around 2:35 in this vid, you get a very, very good approximation of what happens when you say “I don’t get why people hate Comic Sans” to a bunch of aspiring digital designers. It’s been a week and people are still taking friendly digs at my empathy for Comic Sans fans. I feel like a sixth grader who admitted to still occasionally watching Sesame Street: It may be a while before this is forgotten.

In fairness, the explanations grew thoughtful fairly quickly, once I was able to convincingly explain that I wasn’t throwing shade. (The mob-hate for CS is such that anyone questioning that hate is initially presumed to just be fucking with you.) The consensus explanation, I believe, was that 1) It is inelegant, 2) It is displeasing to the eye of self-appointed sophisticates, and 3) It is super In to hate Comic Sans right now. (I was proud of the student who admitted that last one.) I got what I needed from the topic, anyway. I don’t need to hate Comic Sans, I just need to understand why some people do. (I already understood the millions who don’t hate it, and there aren’t any of them here anyway.)

But during the discussion, someone told me the story behind the invention of Comic Sans, and “Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman” quickly became my favorite design epigram. (I didn’t have a favorite design epigram before this class, but it’s clear I need one.) Vincent is my kinda guy; he made an unpopular piece of art, and now he stands by it as justified then and perfectly fine now. And he’s certainly an upgrade on the maroon in that article who gets sniffy about people not appreciating typography and whose huffiness put me in mind of Margaret Dumont.

Plus, he’s right. Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.

Stand your ground, sir.

It Always Comes Back To This

Been a while.  Lots to cover. Mostly good; the shark lives, y’know?

I suppose I should make some kind of announcement or offer up a revelation or excuse or something. But there isn’t one, and I didn’t have one, and I don’t need one.  Let’s get going.

Ninety days as a designer at CFIT* was rough in the short term and positive in the long term. I was brought in as a specialist, with the express purpose of fixing the communication problems between warring departments. The right brain and the left brain weren’t getting along. I got that straightened out, because that’s what I do with intractable problems. There was (and is) a LOT more to be done there, but, at bottom, they chose not to have me do it.

Why not?

Imagine you own a dog. Imagine taking your dog to the vet, to have a bump looked at. Imagine that you think the bump is nothing, but your spouse is worried about it. Imagine the vet telling you that the bump is actually the first visible sign of an advanced illness.  The good news is that it’s painlessly treatable for the dog. The bad news is that it will be expensive and inconvenient for you. Now imagine you don’t give a shit about the dog.

The vet is me. The dog is CFIT.  You are CFIT management.

You didn’t want to treat the dog, and I was unwilling to give the dog sugar pills and feign confusion as to why he wasn’t getting better when your wife called. So we parted, by mutual accord. I have not ruled out the idea of the CFIT brass having a change of heart–the longer I am gone, the clearer it becomes that they made a poor choice. If nothing else, the CFIT stock price reached its all-time peak on my last day. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy that.

So what have I been doing? Swimming, for one. I needed a break from running, so I’ve been taking that break in the pool. 10,000 meters a week. So much swimming. I don’t know what they put in the pool, but in the last five weeks my suit has changed from black to green and I’ve gone blonde. Presumably this is a harmless chemical reaction. I mean, my new tentacles look fine–no peely skin or anything.

I also learned something important from CFIT: I have a skill. A rare skill, and one in demand: I am really good at helping linear thinkers (engineers and developers) communicate with creative thinkers (designers and artists) and then translating both of their positions for management. I have other skills, I know–I’m not minimizing. I can do the hell out of this writing thing, for one, and I’m naturally inclined toward something called ‘design thinking’, and I can organize and focus the naturally disorganized, and plus I can hang a spoon on my nose for whole minutes at a time. But the doozie, paycheck-wise, is the communication thing. So now I’m in a boot camp for designers, to get some minimal proficiency in coding, UX, and visual design, but also to learn how the people who are much better at one of those three than I could ever be think.

Which is how I would up starting a twenty-five minute, slightly heated class conversation about Comic Sans.

But that’s for tomorrow.

* Company name changed to protect anonymity and also to be considerably more appropriate.

Ain’t Workin’ Here No More

Back in 2011, still reveling in the glow of my wholly-unexpected appearance in the “Best Food Writing” anthology and the success of writing comedy for “The Roe Report,” I decided to ride the overwhelming wave of public encouragement and make a go of it as a professional writer.  The result of this was that something that had been a source of joy and pleasure, writing what I wanted to write for a small audience of people I knew and loved, became a tiresome chore that was mostly about mastering the stress of constantly rallying from rejection and “keeping my chin up.” I wrote some things I liked a lot, but I also spent a lot of time unsuccessfully pleading with people who didn’t know me to give me a chance.  Mostly, they did not.  (Missouri Life is a welcome counterexample, but also the only one.) I have sent out hundreds of pitches to magazines, and sent book proposals to scores of agents, and the result was…nothing. A couple of kind e-mails and one condescending phone conversation.

And yet I tried. I wrote a dozen magazine articles, six plays, and eighty percent of a non-fiction book no one is willing to publish. I was and am happy with all of them, but the only proof of talent the world accepts is in how much money one is paid, and that proof is, in my case, nowhere to be found. I tried my ass off to sell them all, and to turn them into money and a career. But despite what is indoctrinated into all of us by books and television and school, not everyone who perseveres wins. Perseverance isn’t enough to turn talent into money and success in publishing. You also need luck, and of that I have had none.

In May, when I found out about my likely second appearance in “Best Food Writing,” I started to think about going out the way I came in. When Perseus Books, publisher of this most prestigious food-writing anthology, paid me the astonishing sum of $150 for the right to reprint the piece, I let go of the remaining doubts I had. I don’t need to tilt at this particular windmill anymore. I have proven to myself that I am good enough. I am as good or better than the (rapidly dwindling number of) people who do make a living as entertainment/pop-culture writers. I am not quitting because I failed; I am quitting because I am trying, at this point, to accomplish a goal I don’t even want, just to live up to some idiot schoolchild platitudes and the hopes of everyone I know who always wished they could be writers. Winners do quit. Quitters do win. They don’t always win at the first thing they try, or the second. Nor, it should be noted, do winners go on winning forever.

So on I go to the next challenge.  After having spent the last year-plus also being rejected for full-time employment — most hilariously by both Ameriprise and WLS — I have finally convinced someone to let me have a chance as an independently-contracted Product Designer. I don’t know exactly what the job is, though it has something to do with apps, and I believe it is to what I did ten years ago as the Internet Director at WLS as birds are to dinosaurs: the same thing, a million generations later. I do know that the five people with whom I have interviewed all think I’ll be really good at it.

I’m of deeply mixed feelings about this shift. I never wanted to go back to a cubicle, because my experience with that environment was so awful. Perhaps things will be different this time. I will also be giving up the hope of returning to Florida more than once a year. Life is often sad that way. This is a large and unhappy sacrifice of something I had hoped to accomplish, the ability to split time between Chicago and Florida. It sucks, and I am angry. But it is time to give in to how the world works, and the way the world works right now is that companies prefer constant physical monitoring of employees. I’ll survive. I might even thrive, but that it yet to be seen.

The appeal of the job is easy to categorize: I get to return to the cutting edge of technology and represent users, something I liked a lot the first time around. Someone has to look out for the end-user, and that is something I am very good at doing. I enjoy trying to see the world through other people’s eyes and communicating how it looks from in there to those who aren’t as good at it as I am. It’s not terribly unlike theater in that way — comedy is mostly about empathy and commonality, at the end of it, and so is this. So perhaps some inadvertent good has come of the Miscreants after all.

I came in with a publishing triumph, and I go out with a publishing triumph. I start the new gig Tuesday. Wish me luck.

Show Me That Secret Handshake

I was having a cup of coffee with someone I don’t know terribly well a few weeks ago, and we had this exchange:

Me: How’re you?

Person: Meh.  Having a hard time getting out of bed lately.

Me: Tough week?

Person: <wry laugh> No, everything’s great.

Me: <grin> I know exactly what you mean.

And I did. What I realized then is that there’re kinda…codephrases, maybe, for people who’ve been depressed in their lives.  They might not be conscious, but they’re perfect little hints, things that would slide right by someone who’s never thought, “Why bother eating today? The Earth’ll crash into the sun eventually so who gives a shit?” If the person you’re talking to has never wrestled that Black Thing, they wouldn’t notice, but it stands out like a marked card to those of us with the decoder ring.

Throwing out an oblique reference to avoiding sad movies or struggling to get out of bed for no apparent reason or a faint acknowledgement of familiarity with antianxiety drugs (or SSRIs) is a feeling-out, our version of a “Friends of Bill W.” listing on a church conference room schedule.  Dropping a mention of your mental health professional into a conversation with a new person is similar but more advanced; a signal to a person you think is in the life that it’s okay to talk freely.

I suppose we could have used colored handkerchiefs just as easily. Black for clinical depression, grey for Seasonal Affective Disorder, red for panic attacks, white for situational depression, camouflage for Social Anxiety Disorder. Right pocket means you’ve had it in the past, left pocket means you have it right now. Front pockets mean you have it under control, back pockets mean you could use some help.  It’d be nice to be able to pick out the people you should talk to, no?

See You Real Soon

In Orlando this week while Luna’s at a conference. Wound up next to some Disney folks the other night in a bar, and I asked them about something long-rumored among Floridians: Talking, interactive characters. They said it was true, and told me that the interactive characters require two puppeteers, one for controlling the body and one entirely devoted to controlling the head, including the voice.    The one doing the interacting will be a remote operator, and connect to the suit via wireless technology: Cameras in the eyes, preloaded facial expressions, voice synthesizer, etc., all operated from miles away.

This is much what I expected the future to look like, and it will be a great thrill for the little ones to be greeted aloud by Mickey and Minnie. (I remember being six or eight and coming to Disney with my grandparents and thinking it odd that Mickey didn’t speak.  He was normally such a garrulous fellow.) But the whole time we were talking about this, what kept running through my head was “The system goes on-line in the Magic Kingdom on August 4th, 2017. Human decisions are removed from family entertainment. Disnet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug. Mickey fights back.”

And that got me really excited for the new technology.  A relentless army of Disney characters coldly slaughtering anything that stands between them and their objective was very much my experience of the company when I worked for ABC/ESPN. Doing it with ruthless bloodstained animatronic animals instead of MBAs and accountants would be a tremendous upgrade. I’m giddy with pleasure at the images in my head. Let me start you with this image: Donald Duck impaling Linda Hamilton on a wingtip and calmly quacking: “Call to John. I know this hurts. Call John. Call to John now.”


A Dick Move at Best Buy
(featuring bonus commentary track)

Me: Hi.  I need to return this hard drive reader.1

Customer Serviceperson: I can help you with that. Are you exchanging it?2

Me: Great, thanks. No exchange, just returning it.3

Customer Serviceperson: No problem. Was there a problem with the unit?4

Me: <grave face> Sadly, it didn’t do what I hoped it would.5

Customer Serviceperson: I’m sorry about that.6

Me: Thanks. Nothing to be done.7

Customer Serviceperson: Sign here.  All set.  Thanks for shopping at Best Buy.8


1. That I bought here, from you, two hours ago.

2. Please say yes, because that’s way less effort for me.

3. Because I already used it to rescue the files off my old laptop.

4. Please say no, because that’s way less effort for me.

5. Function dually as a flux capacitor and window air conditioning unit after I finished using it successfully for its intended purpose.

6. Never has this sentence been uttered less sincerely.

7. Well, not anymore.

8. I totally see what you did here but who gives a shit because I don’t work on commission.

Won’t You Cleanse My Soul

Okay.  So.  After six years of pretty devoted running, I have lost the faith.  I haven’t been able to take any joy in running at all since Barney Fife and his crew illustrated something I kinda already knew, that doing everything according to plan and meeting expectations is no guarantee of being allowed the win.  So instead of beating myself up about it, I’m changing pace.  I ran 5Ks, 8Ks, ten-miles, and two half marathons.   Time for a break.  It’s summer.  I’m going to the pool.

I mailed my favorite expert on these matters for some idea of what the swimming equivalent of a 5K is, just so I have a target.  I got back 7500 words, which was lovely and generous of her and boiled down to this:

2500 meters going hard, four times a week.

Okay then.  Here’s the workout she gave me to get there.

Warm Up
(rest 60 sec between each):
100 Swim
100 Kick
100 IM
100 Pull
100 Swim

<<rest 2 minutes>>

Work Out:

5 x 150 – 50 free hard, 100 free moderate (rest 30 sec between each)
<<rest 1 min>>
5 x 50 kick – 25 hard, 25 easy (rest 30 sec between each)
<<rest 1 min>>
5 x 50 pull – 25 hard, 25 easy (rest 30 sec between each)
<<rest 1 min>>
5 x 50 moderate (rest 30 sec between each)
<<rest 1 min>>
4 x 25 hard (rest 30 sec between each)

<<rest 2 mins>>

Cool Down:
200 swim  – easy
<<rest 30 sec>>
100 kick – easy
<<rest 30 sec>>
100 swim – easy

If I die trying, it’s on you people to remind her it was my idea.

Away we go.  I’m skeptical, because what I mostly remember about swimming is that it makes me hungry.  Wish me luck.