Successful design

A challenge to define “successful design” was lobbed by @Modenus to several of us rather cantankerous voices in response to her post on “bad design.” Not ones to back away from a challenge, we all agreed to write a blog post on each of our sites defining successful design. Mine is here; please read the others in the challenge; Paul Anatar, Veronika Miller and Richard Holschuh.

My first reaction to successful design was; “is there any other kind?” Later that day while mowing my lawn, the linkage for the self-propulsion on my lawn mower fell apart and the answer was clearly, yes. There is a lot of lazy design out there, some of it staring back at me in pieces on my mower deck.

After thinking about design through several passes of my lawn over a couple weeks, all the while staring nervously at the repaired linkage on my lawn mower, I’ve realized two maxims that have driven my design work. There are probably more, but I don’t have the patience to write more and I may have already bored you insufferably.

– Successful design applies the Dreyer Principle (my words)
– Someone has to pay for the printing

The Dreyer Principle
Back when I was young and thought I knew everything, I stumbled upon a study of Ingmar Bergman which quickly led me to Carl Dreyer. Carl Dreyer was a Danish film director from the 1920s through the 60s. As most Danes are, he was a stubborn man whose view of the world was the only one that was true. I suppose most people who have vision and rise to greatness in any field are as stubborn. Or perhaps it is mostly a Danish* trait. The story about Carl Dreyer goes as such:

Dreyer was making a movie and it included a set of a kitchen. His producers were pressuring him to shoot the scene with a modern kitchen. So, he went and got a housewife and told her ‘money was no object, just make this space the best kitchen she could dream up.’ And she did, putting in every modern convenience of a late 1920s kitchen. Then Dreyer sat her in a chair in front of the kitchen she had created and started removing items, one at a time, with the instruction that she tell him the exact point the set was no longer a kitchen. He had removed more than 90% of the set when she stopped him.

I don’t know if the story is true or not, but judging from his films, the commercial exuberance of the 1920s and my own experience with clients who wish to load up simplicity with feature bloat, I’d have to say that at least the spirit of the story is true. He probably had thousands of arguments about design throughout his career. Judging from his body of work, I’d guess he won them all.

Successful design simplifies the experience to its basic function. The easiest design solution is to bolt a feature or an attachment to the side of something, but then the essence of what that thing is gets interrupted, jarred and distracted. If the feature is necessary, it is far better to continue to work a design and integrate the feature as part of the piece rather than clutter the set. Deciding the minimum of what is necessary to define a thing is design; bolting things together is just lazy mechanics. For example, iPod vs Zune; iPhone vs Blackberry; this finished, edited post vs the 10,000 word first draft you will never read.

Paying for the Printing
Back when I worked at a newspaper, I was given the fresh artists to break in. Since the paper didn’t pay top dollar, it usually didn’t get artists with a lot of experience. Sometimes, they were fresh out of design school.

Artists are not taught print shop skills, so they have no idea how much pre-press work goes into making their designs work well enough to print on a press at 53lpi, 100dpi with a dot gain of 30% or better. They have no idea how to manage their chokes and spreads, that they can’t simply mix RGB images with CMYK and that a C100M100Y100K100 may look like a really rich black on a 300lpi coffee table book, but it will rip newsprint to shreds on the blanket. In short, nobody taught them their designs must be printable. And that somebody pays for that.

So, their first day was always in the print shop, loading paper trays, understanding how to adjust ink on the rollers and learning little tricks like wrapping a bit of card stock under the plate to force a spread on a key color to mask register when the designer did not account for dot gain. At the end of the day, their back hurt, their fingers bled and they sweat a lot. But they started to understand how to design working backwards. They started to understand how bad design decisions early on made what they perceived to be solid work unwieldy or worse, unusable.

Great designers work backwards from the physical constraints they work against. That is not to say they are limited by them; far from it. But they understand how they work and are able to extend them. Years ago, a designer was constrained by what a physical press, die cutter and binder could do. Now, a web designer has a lot more freedom from physical constraints, but is challenged by the explosion of options the user demands. But in each case, the designer knows the end product well and works from the user forward.

For a bathroom fixture designer, this means you have to be able to clean the sink. If a sink looks nice, but is not maintainable, the design fails. If a couch looks cool but can’t weather a wet dog, the design fails. If a house built on the side of a cliff slides off because the architect did not understand soil composition, the design fails. Nobody gets points for great blueprints. Successful design gets produced; art stays on paper.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve to know what broken lawn mower linkage has to do with design. The linkage solved the problem of moving the speed engagement gear on a flywheel to adjust the speed at which the mower moved. When the linkage broke, the mower went into hyper-fast mode when the default could easily have been slowest. Hyper-fast rendered the mower almost uncontrollable. In addition, the connecting bolt pushed up through the attachment arm and bolted at the top with a nut that vibrated free when it could have easily been positioned downward so gravity would assist it in staying in place should the nut vibrate free. The designer solved the problem, but clearly was never a victim of broken linkage (paying for the printing) nor did s/he choose the simpler solution, i.e., gravity (Dreyer Principle)

Does any of this make sense? Comment if you must.

*My experience with the several dozen Danes I know tend to put all of them in the upper extreme on the stubborn scale. Your experience may vary, but probably won’t by much; they are very proud of their ability to be right about everything.


Great design, but will it survive a wet dog?

Today is Nate Berkus Day, declared by Joy and Janet @moggitgirls. For those who don’t know, Nate is (was) Oprah’s designer and is now going to host his own design show on NBC in September.

Whoopie. Another celebrity interior designer with his own show.

But wait! This guy has dogs! This is an interesting twist for us out here in design-lemming-land.

What if every design episode starts off with the question, “Can this design survive a wet dog?” During the course of the episode — as the design is coming together — Nate does a variation on the design for people with dogs and people without. “If you don’t have a dog, that white Italian leather sofa is a good idea; if you do, why not consider this equally attractive but not as expensive pleather look a-like that is easier to clean?” that sort of thing.

Real people have dogs. And dogs play havoc with design. Unless you start the design with the ability to keep it looking clean and nice and work backwards. (inspired by this post by Paul Anatar. If you can’t clean it, don’t install it.)

Why marketing people are always confused and confusing us OR how random connections all link together in a very haphazardly human way

Image of Simone Grant's logo for twitter, blog

I’m a fan of Simone Grant‘s blog Sex, Lies and Dating in the City (don’t judge, just read her blog, ok?) Yesterday, I was watching FOX because that is where the Simpsons are and I saw the promo for Glee. And for a fraction of a second, they showed a cut to a pair of red dance shoes and my brain immediately zipped back to Simone’s blog. All her posts that I had read recently flashed through my brain like someone fanning a deck of cards.

And I am going to watch that episode of Glee just because my brain is now curious about how big a part the red shoes have in the production. I have to know.

BTW, here is the promo. Scan to 00:11 in case you don’t want to watch the entire thing, but it is only :30 seconds long.

Now here is the really complicated part. Not only is this episode of Glee somehow connected in my brain to a blog I read, but that blog is now connected to Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance which I bought for $1.29 off iTunes because I couldn’t get the song out of my head. If you can’t beat ’em, play the song really loud on the stereo. (again, don’t judge me! Sorry Simone, I hope you are a Lady GaGa fan or at least don’t hate her.)

And after thinking about random connections for a minute or so, a blog post by Shannon Paul was perfectly relevant and fitting. In the post, there is a link to a study by GroupM about the interplay happening here. (I think, unless I read it all wrong, which is possible.)

I will watch Glee tomorrow; I bought an iTunes track for $1.29 and I plugged two really cool blogs. And I am convinced all of this random connection of stuff happens millions — perhaps even billions — of times per day without any marketing people having a conscious hand in any of it. Simone could probably increase viewership a bit by tweeting out to her followers they watch Glee and why. Shannon could do the same. I suppose if ever presented with the evidence of these connections, many marketing-types would dismiss them as outside the model as the “science” does not support the findings. It is all anecdotal, blah, blah, blah. (or Ga, Ga, Ga? Naw, naw, naw that was too easy.)

I concede to marketing people that there is science behind human behavior, many times it is predictable and you can use this knowledge to shape and guide many people into buying stuff they don’t need. There is also a science behind SEO and you can craft it to maximize results. But that is not the entire game. Part of marketing should be in awe of these random human connections that can be explained but not predicted or controlled. But really good marketing people won’t dismiss what is happening just because it doesn’t fit the model; they’ll run with it and figure it out later.

Where is this all going and how can you use this to bring more people to your blog or buy your widget? Hell if I know! I’m just content to roll down the window, stick my head out and enjoy the feeling of the wind through my ears.

Perhaps that is the lesson; not everything is science and the most fun parts of life are the art-filled magic of random connections we all make to other human beings without having to feel like we need to quantify them on a chart or explain them as relevant.

*This blog post was written while listening to Lady GaGa at ear-shattering decibels. No eardrums were permanently harmed during the actual writing and the tune in my head has been now replaced with a more age-appropriate Dame Shirley Bassey soundtrack.

Dogwiches at JD Custard

We stopped at the JD Custard in Englewood, next to the Oinkadoodlemoo BBQ and they had a sign in the window for some Dogwiches, .39 each or 4.50 for a barkers dozen (clever, right?)

They are two dog biscuits sandwiched with vanilla custard. Me and Sallie could not wait to gobble them up.

Love this kind of thing!

BTW, JD Custard and Oinkadoodlemoo will both be at the adidas Warrior Soccer Classic on Memorial Day weekend at Thomas Cloud Park in Dayton, Ohio, so if you know anyone who is playing in the tournament or you just want to watch some really great youth soccer, stop on by and tell them you saw them at!

Relationships are not a zero-sum game or what I find disturbing about NBC’s ‘The Marriage Ref’

The Marriage Ref logo-promo

I watched The Marriage Ref on NBC last night party because I couldn’t find the remote after 30Rock was done and party because I really wanted to understand what bothers me about this show. I had already ruled out the concept, graphics and personalities because all of that is Jerry Seinfeld top-notch. There was something more visceral happening.

And then after watching the second segment where the husband wanted his wife to wear sexy clothes, it hit me*. This show treats relationship conflict resolution as a zero-sum game. Someone wins, someone loses.

Anyone who has had a relationship with another human being — marriage, business, bro — knows that lasting conflict resolution is not zero-sum. While it might make for good television to have a couple go at it and then have celebrities rule on who is entirely right and who is entirely wrong, life just does not work that way. And the format of “no give, no gray area” may intimately be the show’s undoing.

Here’s how I would save it:
Have a sliding scale of 0%-100%. The scale starts off at 50% for the husband, 50% for the wife (because marriage is supposed to be 50/50.. clever, eh?) As the celebrities deliberate the issue, the scale slides up and down for each, depending on the arguments pro or con. At the end of the discussion, the couple is then told what PERCENTAGE of right and wrong each is. The one holding the positive position past 50% for the longest period of time can be declared the “winner” if needed. Probably need that, but the decision of the ref isn’t an all or nothing.

Or we can just ride out the show until the lack of ratings tank it. I don’t care. Just don’t cancel 30Rock and find my remote.

*Rodriquezes segment. The wife shows up at the end in a dress which indicated her meeting him halfway. That was the “Ah-ha” moment.

May all your ideas be weeds


Take a good look at the photo above. What do you see?

Most of us see a dandelion, a vile weed that should be ripped up, poisoned and killed, stomped out and cursed at.

And I did too until just the other day when it occurred to me that I have been looking at dandelions all wrong for a very, very long time.

A dandelion is a fantastic example of nature that refuses to die gracefully, constantly adapting itself to insure its survival in spite of being poisoned with pesticides and maliciously hacked up. We pull the flower, we dig the root and still, year after year, dandelions find a way to reproduce and procreate quickly in abundance. When we dig, they burrow deeper; when we pluck, they seed discreetly. When we poison, they grow resistant.

And when they grow ripe for spreading, their yellow flowers form irresistible wispy orbs that entice children and adults alike to pluck the stem and blow the seeds back into the lawn where they take hold and produce more enduring plants. Before we realize what we have done, the seeds have scattered, destined to take root the next season without fail.

May all your ideas be weeds.

Hershey chocolate bar and Charm City Cakes (Ace of Cakes); Major upset

Fans of the show Ace of Cakes will know what I’m talking about when I say that the Hershey bar cake Duff and crew made earlier last year was a bit of a puzzler as the wrapper was right-side up with Hershey, but the bar pieces inside were upside-down. So, the cake was made with the chocolate bar pieces upside down.

Ever since that episode, whenever I bought a Hershey bar (about 3 times a year) I peeled back the label like I was Charlie in Charlie and the Chocalate factory. The chocolate pieces were always upside-down. Until today.

Every year, we attend the NSCAA soccer show and I buy graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars for Tim Lewis from Australia. Apparently, he had not had a s’more until 2006 where we rectified that life omission. So, every year since, he gets a s’more kit. In exchange, he gives me a bag of Minties candies. This year, I forgot to grab the chocolate, marshmallows and crackers. So, they were sitting on my desk when I got back, ready to ship. (Tim, I promise I’ll get to it right after the blizzard blows over, I swear!) and the chocolate bars were calling to me. So, I grabbed one and peeled back the label.

RIGHT SIDE UP!!! Oh, this was too good to be true. So, I had to have another.

Up-side down. Huh. Could have been a fluke and since I didn’t document the event, I had no way of proving it.

In the interest of science, I had to unwrap another bar. Dang! RIGHT SIDE UP! iPhone camera, take a photo. And the lot number as well on the back.

So, we still don’t know why the bars inside are upside-down because it appears they are right-side up as well. Anyone at Hershey have a definitive answer? In the meantime, feel free to speculate amongst yourselves in the comments.

John Nese is to soda pop what Gary Vaynerchuk is to wine

John Nese is the proprietor of Galcos Soda Pop Stop in LA. His father ran it as a grocery store, and when the time came for John to take charge, he decided to convert it into the ultimate soda-lovers destination. About 500 pops line the shelves, sourced lovingly by John from around the world.

John has made it his mission to keep small soda-makers afloat and help them find their consumers. Galcos also acts as a distributor for restaurants and bars along the West Coast, spreading the gospel of soda made with cane sugar (no high-fructose corn syrup if John can avoid it). His store is here on the Internet.

For comparison, Gary is at John is older and has a calmer presentation style, but his passion erupts as he speaks. He is what Gary will be with age.

He’ll keep calling and calling and calling….

“He’ll keep calling me, he’ll keep calling me until I come over. He’ll make me feel guilty. This is uh… This is ridiculous, ok I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go. What – I’LL GO. Shit.” – Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off


Seth Godin posted up a blog entry about businesses that begrudgingly do a “out of spec” service “just this once” and I think he gets things just a tiny bit askew.

Because everyone is a Ferris Bueller who believes that anything is customizable, that you can have your burger your way and not be expected to pay extra for it. Because Google has made everyone an expert in your business without knowing or caring about the real costs of what it takes to deliver goods and services to a market that increasingly expects custom service without additional cost. Because everyone is an expert at knowing what skills you have and how you should be applying them. (How are butchers and surgeons interchangeable? They both work with knives.)

Or, maybe because we are living in a world where there are increasingly fewer and fewer craftsmen and when a customer finally finds one, they find it less work to try and convince the provider to add this special service or do this one-time modification rather than find a new vendor who specializes in what they are asking.

Naw, I think customers are becoming a pack of Ferris Buellers who have never been told no, think the rules never apply to them and pride themselves on being able to convince everyone around them to do what they want, when they want, selfishly and without regard for the resentment it adds to the relationship.

As a customer, if you ask for something special and out of spec, be prepared to accept a no gracefully, pay the true costs of the “one time thing” or at least acknowledge you are getting something above and beyond and be grateful. By continuing to “call and call and call and..” you set up the business to relent and say “but just this once.”

But, it worked for Ferris and look how that movie ended. Cameron wrecked his dad’s car, but Ferris just got hugs and kisses from his parents, even though none of the devastation would have happened if Cameron had just stuck to his guns and said “no.” Ferris fans might argue that no good things would have happened either and they outweigh the bad, but Ferris never stuck around to clean up the messes his selfish indulgences created. Any parent who has been left to clean up a teenage car wreck knows what I’m talking.

Please, please, please, please.. just this once, I won’t ever ask for anything more, please, please….

Yeah, right. We don’t believe you. But, we still hope this time will be different and it will lead to more business, more respect, better rates, loyality or higher value, which is why we eventually relent.

Selfish bastard, you screwed me again, didn’t you?

Sharpie at Fashion Week and funky purple

Sharpie is at Fashion Week in New York. I just wish I was there. I really don’t care too much about fashion, but life in Dayton, Ohio is just dead boring. I’ve also set a new random challenge to get an invite to a fashion show in 2010. Anyone want a dog to attend a show? Front row only, people!

So Sharpie has this thing called a Sharpie Bar at the Bryant Park tents and @sharpiesusan has been tweeting out all week. Someone said something about the stainless steel Sharpie and I had to see it. As I was strolling through their web site, this caught my eye and I had to share.

Purple gets to be the “funky color swatch” I love it! It’s these little details that designers throw in just to make life a tad more interesting. A little outside the lines, enough to get away with, but not so much that you get in trouble for it. Like contractors hiding empty beer cans inside walls (another story!) or Easter eggs in software.


Ok, back to work people. Present Sharpies! Click! Write, write, left, wright, left.

Never touch your hair during the cutting/styling process

I had a hair cut appointment on Saturday morning. The rules are simple and unwritten.

1. Arrive on time, never late.
2. Chat with Jerry about social issues
3. Never touch your hair during the cutting/styling process.
4. Never touch your hair during the cutting/styling process. (Not a repeat, just a lot of emphasis.)

For the first time in eighteen years of Jerry cutting my hair, I touched my hair. The world came to a dead stop and I immediately knew that I had done. I had not just touched my hair; I had doubted his creative genius. Over time, I just hope we can get back to the level of trust we had for each other.

I read a tweet today that linked to this blog post. Very related and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Did I mention that you should never touch your hair during the cutting/styling process?

Graphic design, art, writing… anything creative at all, never touch your hair during the cutting/styling process.