Whiteboxer Blog

Five for Friday 2008.04.09

I have grossly neglected posting for awhile, but things have been a bit busy lately. To try and get into a routine of posting, I will attempt to at least give a weekly posting of other links that caught my eye from the past week.

Blue Flavor Redesigns

The folks at Blue Flavor, a Seattle-based interactive agency, have redeisgned there site. Keith has a great write up on the design and latest happenings there.

British Royal Mint Coin Redesign

Just beautiful. Compare that to the changes on the U.S. five dollar bill.

2008 Logo Design Trends

Nothing too surprising, and honestly, I think some of these were getting dated in 2007.

99designs: Bullshit 2.0

Scary post by Kevin Potts on the latest design service. Freelancers beware!

30 Must See Comment Designs for Web Designers

Nice collection of comment designs from Blog Design.

Design in Crisis

I’ve been noticing lately an alarming trend of horrid design and advertising. This is more than just your typical, idiotic car dealership ad. This is permeating even the upper levels of advertising. Think about it, can you really remember a single ad from this past year’s Super Bowl that blew you away by its creativity? Hell, I can’t remember a single ad over the last three or four years, much less anything of quality. The web is especially sensitive to bad design, but othes have written about it more recently, so I won’t touch on that subject.

One area of design and advertising that’s been alarmingly bad lately is outdoor advertising, whether its billboards or vehicle. Some bad trends I’ve noticed, primarily with the latest LED billboards is the cramming of anything and everything possible into the screen. And with both print billboards and vehicles especially, the abuse of vanity numbers … where someone uses the phone numbers to spell out a word. What some people don’t seem to understand with outdoor advertising, is that your audience has somewhere between two and five seconds to pick up your message, and that’s competing heavily with environmental distractions, like traffic. Too many businesses approach outdoor advertising the same as print, thinking the same rules apply. They don’t. People have less time to take in the message, and usually have to recall it from memory. This is where vanity numbers hurt. Unless its something easy to remember, they won’t. Vanity numbers that don’t follow the standard flow of phone numbers (3-3-4), will be quickly forgotten.

Why is this becoming more and more of a problem? This is all speculation, but I think the ease of access and cost to design and multimedia software is a big part of it. Go back 10-15 years ago. A lot of design was still put together by hand (paste up, lettersetting, etc.). Design software was limited, at least compared to today, and expensive. I am in no way blaming companies like Adobe, Quark and Microsoft (alright, maybe we can blame Microsoft a bit). I’m glad they’ve produced the software they have over the years, and that its getting more and more affordable every year. In this cost-conscious era, being able to afford quality design software is one less reason to think companies can do it themselves instead of paying huge fees to agencies. That didn’t used to be an option.

What’s the solution then? Honestly, I think the burden lies on the true professional designers. We need to do a better job educating and communicating with businesses about strategy, execution, and trends, as well as the quality of good design. We need to convince businesses that even though they probably know there business better than anyone else and they can afford to do certain design and marketing themselves, going that route can do more harm than good. This is where Return On Investment (ROI) comes into play. Does the money companies save by going in-house or to the lowest bidder translate into better communication to potential customers and hence, more sales and profit? Those of us that can do this are the ones that will not only survive this crisis, but be far better for it.

Determination Reaps Rewards

This past Saturday in the business section, The Columbus Dispatch ran an article about troubled tanning-salon chain under fire. I have very little interest in the legal issues of the Hottie Body franchise, but something did catch my eye. The article began talking about a woman who wanted to open a franchise and ran into problems:

Cindi Colley was on track to open her first business this spring, a Hottie Body tanning salon franchise. She had retail space arranged in a prime location in the South Campus Gateway development and had invested thousands, including a $25,000 franchise fee to the parent company of Hottie Body, a Columbus-based tanning salon owner and franchiser. But midway through construction on the site, “it became apparent that the parent company wasn’t going to keep their end of the bargain,” Colley said, leaving her unable to open her salon.

The article then preceeds to describe the Hottie Body legal issues. But like good writing, the article comes back to our “heroine”:

Colley, who had planned to open a Hottie Body location on N. High Street near the Ohio State University campus, has since made arrangements to open a tanning salon there under a different name, said Steve Sterrett, spokesman for Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, developer of the South Campus Gateway. Her salon, No Tan Lines, opened yesterday.

If you’ve seen my previous post, you probably now know why this article caught my eye, and I am blogging about it. About two months ago, I was introduced to Cyndi and learned not only of her dilemma with Hottie Body, but also her determination to open her business under her own name. I have had the fortunate pleasure to put together for her new tanning salon, No Tan Lines, a simple, one-page web site, business cards, and promotional flyers over these last few months.

However, the biggest pleasure was to meet Cyndi and help her dream come to fruition. Congratulations on the grand opening, Cyndi! I know No Tan Lines will be successful based on your determination and hard work alone. And if anyone is in the Ohio State area, stop by No Tan Lines and say hi. To celebrate their grand opening, No Tan Lines is offering one free tan with any purchase (see store for details and restrictions).

New projects

Things have been extremely busy here for the last several months, to say the least. I’ve started and completed a lot of new projects over the last six months as well as attended SXSW 2007. Blog posts have been too few and far between to my liking, but when it comes between client and personal work, the paid side of things usually will win out. If you’ve frequented my portfolio occasionally these last few months, you may have noticed a few additions. This entry is purposed to give a little info about those. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been up to (based on timeline):

Yahoo! Small Business
Services template designs

I actually completed this project back in the Fall of 2006, but I had to keep it under wraps until it went live in February. I designed three different templates for this project, but only one, “Mansfield,” is up there at this time. I will post something once the other two are live as well.
This project was great to work on and I’m really happy with the results. Thanks to Dirk Knemeyer and the staff at Involution Studios for bringing me into the fold on this. They are a great crew and were a lot of fun to work with. I’m also proud to mention that the two online ads that I’ve seen on the Yahoo! site has featured Mansfield in promoting this service.

tattletale Alarm Flash presentation

Launched in March, this project was a unique challenge for me because it pushed my familiarity with ActionScript to a new level. Many thanks to Paul Mayne for unduring countless emails in helping me navigate through some of the tougher areas of ActionScript.

The WaterMan web site

If you’ve frequented my portfolio section in the fall, you may have noticed this site under the web design section. The site has been under development for a number of months, and after a couple of rounds of content editing, finally made it live in March. This is one of those projects that are fun to work on because you learn so much about the product in the process. I’ll never look at water the same way again.

No Tan Lines web site

A single page web site for a small start-up tanning salon in the Ohio State University area. The goal was to market the salon more like a hip retail clothiers than another day-glo tanning store.

Inspired or Stolen?

The online design community has been in an uproar this week (and rightly so) over the apparent thievery of Dan Cederholm’s logo design for his design studio, Simplebits. There are several opinions on the matter, and I felt compelled to share mine.

Innocent coincidence?

Was the Simplebits logo stolen, or was it pure coincidence that the company in question, LogoMaid, happened to have a logo very similar? This is the same question that software giant, Quark, was asked over a year ago about their new logo design. Not long after it was unveiled, the creative community uncovered a number of similar designs. The public reaction to Quark was similar to the reaction LogoMaid is receiving. Did Quark, or more specifically the agency that designed the logo, steal the idea from someone else?

I think this is a good spot to examine the business model of LogoMaid. LogoMaid offers pre-designed logos to businesses for a modest price. The selling point is that you can save a lot of money by getting a premade logo as opposed tousually spending more with a design studio or advertising agency to custom-design one for you. Their parent company, Vilords Media Network, operates another company with the same principle, Design Galaxy, but with the slant on web template design.

LogoWorks, another mass-produced logo manufacturer, has run into similar accusationsover the years of stealing ideas from established logos. Their mantra is to pay freelance designers a small fee to design company logos that they resell at modest prices as well. It begs the question, is it coincidence or theft? If theft, who’s to blame, the company itself or the actual designer?

Let’s face reality. The number of self-proclaimed graphic designers in the world are staggering. People will seek out other professional work to get inspired. Some will even go so far as to steal a design from another as a quick solution to a cheap buck. Companies like LogoWorks (and I assume LogoMaid) use a large number of designers to do their work. Can you honestly expect them to know if each and every design they buy is legitimately original?

Who to hold accountable

They say the true character of a person is shown when faced with diverse circumstances. With that in mind, let’s compare the responses between the Quark and LogoMaid situations:

Within six months after the logo contraversy, Quark unveiled a new logo. According to Glen Turpin, the company’s director of corporate communications:

“Quark listened to the feedback we received from the design community in relation to our re-branding initiative in September and decided to create a new logo that is both an evolution of our visual identity and a strong representation of the new Quark… Changing the mark to avoid any perception of similarity enables us to further define our unique identity.”

Compare that response to that of Paul Viluda of LogoMaid:

“The main shape according to our designer is a font symbol and you do not have the rights to claim ownership to freeware font symbols. Other than the actual shape, I see no relevance. Our logo was registered at c-site, the registration has been approved. According to c-site, we own the copyrights to that actual logo. We do not need to steal anyones ideas.”

And this:

“According to (Simplebits) website, you did the rebrand in December, correct? Please check the screenshot for RH Restyling (company from Holland) we did in October I believe. Hmm, I am just currious how it would be possible to “copy” your logo when your “rebranding” was done in mid December. You’ll find out the logo we sell at logomaid.com is one of the concepts the customer didn’t choose to use. We are strongly considering a lawsuit against simplebits not only because of the logo, but also the fact that you are harming our goodwill.”

Designer Nathan Smith, who has a similar issue with LogoMaid wrote that he received “a series of rude emails from Jan Kalvan and Peter Olexa of LogoMaid.” I don’t presume to know exactly what the people at LogoMaid are thinking or how they conduct their business, but the words and tone of their response in this matter casue me to be very suspicious of the legitimacy of the work they sell. Quark, in my opinion, had no intent of stealing someone’s logo design, and wanted to salvage their reputation and credibility with the very people they serve. This is evident by their willingness to redesign their logo without slinging mud at anyone else.

The reaction to companies like LogoMaid would have been completely different if their response was similar to Quark’s … apolgize for the coincidence and remove the logo under question. What would it have hurt them? Certainly removing a handful of questionable logos would not have hurt their bottom line and their “amazing collection of 3700 pre-designed logos” would it? To respond in such a defensive and threatening way questions their desire to be viewed as a legitimate design resource.

The solution

Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer to design thievery. Regardless of how much the design community tries to regulate it, there will be people out there trying to profit off the hard work of others. I also, don’t think that lawsuits, as appealing as they seem, will solve the answer either. Copyright violations are difficult and extremely expensive to prosecute. The reason large corporations like Apple can do it effectively is because they have the resources to make it possible. Small studios and individuals like Simplebits, quite frankly, don’t have the time or resources to carry it through. And with the global nature of the internet, international enforcement of copyright is next to impossible. So what can we do?

I was asked last year about my thoughts on gas prices reaching $3.00 per gallon and what I felt should be done about it, especially when oil companies reported record billion-dollar profits. As much as I believe that the prices were the result of corporate greed, those prices were also being dictated by demand. As long as consumers would not change their driving habits (more fuel-efficient vehicles and public transportation), things would not change. Why should they? Consumers need to collectively bring the change against corporate injustice. Only then will companies truly listen.

I feel the same way about dealing with shady companies like LogoMaid. When businesses refuse to work with a company that has questionable ethics and practices, then they will either change or go out of business. Paul Viluda of LogoMaid said it himself:

“It’s about the market…if people wouldn’t be interested in our products, we wouldn’t provide it…as simple as that.”

This call is to all businesses out there that seem intrigued by companies like LogoMaid. Do your research. If they have a reputation of questionable business practices like this, avoid them. If you do buy stolen work, your company can be held liable as well if it would ever get to that point. Why would you want to risk your company’s reputation to something like that?

Books for Starting Web Designers

I’ve been asked to do the difficult task of recommending books of how to learn good web design by a few people lately. It’s difficult for several reasons. First, there are a number of quality books out there, it makes it hard to keep the list short. Second, this industry has changed and grown so much during the time I started designing web sites (late ’90s) that a lot that I read starting out is dated and no longer considered “best practices.” Lastly, the particular knowledge of the reader needs to come into play. Does the reader have any experience at all with designing web pages? Is their background more design or development?

To keep this short, I’m limiting my selection to only three books. With that said, here’s other criteria I heavily weighted in making my selections:

  1. Books aimed toward the designer and not the developer
  2. Assume the audience has very little experience with web design
  3. The three books should give a well-rounded exposure to good web design
  4. Limit selections to books I’m personally familiar with

With those factors in consideration, here’s what I recommend:
DWWS cover

Designing with Web Standards by Jeffery Zeldman

A must have for anyone wanting to learn the proper way to design and build web sites. This book does an excellent job of explaining why web standards and CSS is vital to effective web site design and development. Once you understand the “why,” the “how” falls into place nicely. It compares the options out there and how web standards and CSS are vastly superior to them. The second half of the book gives a nice walk-through of the basics of CSS and how to properly execute it.

According to Zeldman, the book is aimed toward the company decision-makers and why they should embrace standards. I believe anyone associated with designing, building or making any type of decisions regarding web sites needs to read this book.
Web Designers Reference cover

Web Designer’s Reference by Craig Grannell

This book is exactly what it claims to be — a step-by-step approach to the different aspects of building a web site. this book covers everything from basic layout, typography, working with images, and adding multimedia. There are several CSS reference books out there. To me, what makes this one stand out is that it’s written with the designer in mind instead of the programmer. Meaning, it’s easy to read, follow, and find what you’re looking for. Another thing that stands out from this book that I find missing in others, is that Grannell covers the little things that make a difference in a well-built site. A few he covers are robot visits, using PHP for mail forms, and comments. These things won’t necessarily ruin a site if not present, but it adds those little things that are often overlooked.
Web Standards Solutions cover

Web Standards Solutions by Dan Cederholm

Web Standards Solutions has its origins from the entries posted on Dan’s personal web site, where I personally learned a lot of the nuances of web standards. Its not surprising, then, that I found this book a great tool for CSS-based design. Dan uses a lot of what I like in the previous books I recommend. Like Zeldman, he begins with explaining the why of using web standards. And like Grennell, he writes with the designer in mind and uses a step-by-step approach in explaining the execution of standards in web design. What I like about Dan’s book is that he covers some areas either missing from the first two, or covered in much greater detail (forms, image replacement, print styles).

There’s my top three recommendations for learning web standards and CSS. Again, there are a number of other books out there that are helpful as well, but these three are a great place to start. If you get a good handle of the material covered in these three books, your skills in designing and developing web sites will put you in a small, elite class of designers.

For the web designers out there that are using CSS and standards currently, I’d like to hear which books have helped you or that you would recommend in addition to these three. Leave a comment and let me know.

Lithik Systems in GRAPHIC make-overs

lithik website

I’m proud to announce that the redesign of the Lithik Systems Inc. web site was recently featured on Creative Latitude’s GRAPHIC make-over section. Lithik Systems specializes in providing regulatory compliance and security services for IT systems. In short, they develop top-of-the-line systems to keep your electronic information safe and secure. And more importantly, if you’re a financial institution, they keep you in great standing with the FDIC.

This project was particularily enjoyable for me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve know Karl Fox, the man behind Lithik Systems, for a number of years. Not only is he a great guy with loads of integrity, but he’s an outright master at running an IT business. Not only does he know what he’s doing, but his staff is a clone of him, in both knowledge and values. It was a great opportunity to work with a company that has such an upside like Lithik does.

Secondly, they provided me tons of creative freedom to do what I do, and trust to do it well. Karl and Ron Kremm (the two I worked with directly) had a great vision for what they wanted the Lithik site to accomplish. With their vision and direction, I was able to explore ways to execute their goals visually. I think the end result speaks for itself, and everyone involved is pleased.

Lithik is a great example of a company that isn’t afraid to let people do their job well, and they provide the environment to allow that to happen. I’m not advocating that businesses be uninvolved in their communications and marketing materials, whether its web, print, or other. Those things are the face of the company, and it’s important that they have a voice of what that is. What I am advocating is that businesses should not micromanage the creative process. To me it seems pointless to spend money on creative services, whether staff or outsourcing, if you don’t trust them, and give them the freedom, to do their job. I’ve seen, and personally been involved in, enough projects that fall flat because the creative force isn’t allowed to be just that — a creative force. Let people do their job, that’s what they’re paid to do. Then you will learn if your money was spent well or not.

Thanks again to Karl, Ron, and the entire Lithik staff. It was a real pleasure working on this project for me.

Up and Running

It took awhile, but the redesign, and especially the blog, is working. Thanks to the many people that prodded me into finally blogging, and the input to get it operational. A big thanks to Austin Matzko for his help with the PHP subtleties that were completely escaping me. I’m still making a few adjustments to the layout when I get little breathers between client projects, so things will be tweaked over the coming weeks.