Linked: The Rationality Paradox

I’m a big fan of Seth Godin and I feel like most of his posts speak to me as a designer and creative professional. And one of his most recent posts — The Rationality Paradox — reflected something I’ve seen along my entire career.

Every time you assume that others will be swayed by your logical argument, you’ve most likely made a significant, irrational mistake.
— Seth Godin

I’ve seen designers try to present a logical argument why a design looks a certain way… Explaining white space, color palette, type selection. But clients aren’t often swayed by those arguments. They’ve got their own influences. They’re looking at their competitors, materials that have worked for them in the past. And they don’t understand why you as the designer can’t translate that. This communication struggle is one of the things that is most challenging about our profession. And now, thanks to Seth Godin, I know what to call it...


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.

02/52: America the Minimal

A simple twist on the stars and stripes

02_america_minimal.png

Each week for a year, I’m going to be designing a shirt and releasing it on my Threadless store. This is the second design of fifty-two.

 

In honor of the Fourth of July, I wanted to design a shirt that’s a little patriotic… with a twist. I wondered what the stars and stripes would look like if it had designed with modern design sensibilities and restrictions. Is it refined and simple? Can it be easily reproduced in small sizes? Will it work as a social media icon?

How minimalist can you make the American flag and still evoke the feeling of the stars and stripes?

And so my second design is America the Minimal, a simple take on the stars and stripes. But what started as a funny little speculative redesign triggered some thoughts about redesigns, minimalism and more.

First some history about the American flag. I knew that the Betsy Ross origin story was widely considered a myth, but I didn’t know much about who was credited with designing the original U.S. flag. Turns out a guy named Francis Hopkinson is credited with the design of the flag and many other American symbols. He actually requested payment from the Congress in the form of a “quarter cask of wine” in exchange for designing the American flag, the Great Seal of the United States and other symbols. Long story short, he never got paid.*

The current flag has been in use since 1960 and is actually the 27th version. The number of stars have changed as states have been added. In early years, there was no prescribed structure for the stars so it varied based on who was sewing the flag. Only the number of stars was mandated. (The original stars had six points, but it turns out five-pointed stars are easier to produce.)

As I sought to create a minimalist version of the U.S. Flag, I started with the stripes. My first drafts had four stripes, but that didn’t look quite right. The regular American flag has an odd number of stripes and the top and bottom stripes are both red. Three stripes were too few. And while both five and seven stripes worked nicely, I eventually settled on five stripes for my design.

The stars were a challenge because they don’t work well at small sizes. My first thought was to use one big star in the blue field, but a single star was too prominent. (Plus, it looks like the Liberian flag.) As I was driving home one afternoon, I noticed that when you look at a flag flying at a distance, the stars almost disappear into the blue field. And after experimenting for a little bit, I came to the conclusion that maybe the best solution to keep things minimal was to eliminate the stars and go with a plain blue field.

And what I ended up with is a minimalist version of the American flag with five stripes and a plain blue field. I think it successfully feels like a more simple version of the American flag and not the flag for another country.


As I wrapped up the shirt design, a couple of lessons resonated with me.

First, it would be impossible to redesign the American flag in today’s environment. As I focused on designing a “new” flag, it occurred to me how frustrating this process would be. Every single item I removed or changed had meaning. And as I changed those things, every alternation would be scrutinized. I can hear the comments now…

Why aren’t there 13 stripes? You know, the ones that stood for the 13 original colonies. Do you no longer care about history? And where are the stars? Removing the stars is a sign that you care more about the federal government than the states. This is clearly the work of socialism! This is clearly the work of facism!

No one would be happy. And as I thought about it, redesigning the American flag, or any U.S. political symbol, has to rank as one of the worst, most impossible jobs in the design world. Which is why the flag won’t ever change. (I might argue that one reason Puerto Rico won’t become a state is that there are people who would be uncomfortable adding a 51st star.)

But here’s the bigger takeaway for me… Sometimes, minimalist solutions are unnecessarily limiting. In this case, it was a fun exercise, but every revision took away meaning. The 13 stripes do stand for the 13 original colonies. The 50 stars stand for each of the states in the union. Slavishly removing those things in an effort to make it more simple destroys the meaning of the symbol. And the quest to be minimal adds an additional challenge: with every detail you remove, the design becomes less unique. The “new” flag looks more like other country and state flags. One benefit of more complex designs is that they often seem more original than simpler ones.

Get your America the Minimal shirt over at my Threadless store. I’ve included kids shirts for this week and a long sleeve “baseball” tee. Remember that for the first week a new design is on sale, the price is discounted, so get your shirt this week and save some money.

One additional note. I realize that it’s too late to order shirts for the 4th of July this year. For future seasonal shirts, I’ll release them earlier so you’ll be able to get them in time.


* That's what you get for doing spec work, I guess... even in the 1790s.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.

01/52: Designasaur

A new side project to postpone creative extinction.

01/52: Designasaur

01/52: Designasaur

Each week for a year, I’m going to be designing a shirt and releasing it on my Threadless store. This is the first design of fifty-two.

 

Almost 20 years ago, I attended a lecture at the University of South Carolina School of Art hosted by the Columbia Communicating Arts Society. I was a young designer and trying hard to network with other designers and CCAS was the hub of the Columbia creative community at the time. The speaker was a designer from Atlanta, Bob Wages from Wages Design. Like most designers who came to speak at events like this, Bob showed his work and talked about his creative process. I distinctly remember him mixing in a fair amount of career and business advice, giving tips about how small the design world was and how important it was to be fair to everyone you worked with. But one offhand comment has stuck with me since that lecture...

Bob Wages introduced me to the concept of the “designasaur.”

A designasaur is a designer that never evolved. Someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t adopt new technologies or new styles. A creative who hasn’t embraced the changing world and risks “extinction.”

Since the advent of desktop publishing and the creation of the internet, the design industry has grown and changed in amazing and unbelievable ways. Technology continues to evolve at an absurdly rapid pace. It’s hard — maybe impossible — to keep up with it all. The struggle to figure out and incorporate new tools and trends is constant. And it feels sometimes like extinction is just around the corner.

Almost two decades later, I realize that all my side projects have been about continuing to grow as a designer and to avoid becoming a designasaur. Trying out new challenges and delaying creative extinction as long as I can. I figured the perfect shirt to kick off my new project was a designasaur shirt.

I sketched out my designsaur* over the course of a couple of days in pencil. Once I’d refined the sketch, I took a photograph of it with my iPhone and then reconstructed it in Illustrator on my Mac. This is a pretty normal workflow for me and that familiarity actually bothered me a little. For this new side project, should I put more restrictions on the production process? Should I only use non-Adobe apps like Affinity Designer? Should I actually use the sketch instead of rebuilding it in a vector format? In the end, I decided that the challenges of production mattered less to me than the process of creation. I’m okay relying on more comfortable production processes, especially at the beginning of this project. I hope to extend a little more out of my comfort level on the production process as the project continues.

If you want a Designasaur t-shirt of your own, head over to my Threadless store and order one. It’s available in a bunch of colors and in three different styles: a unisex classic t-shirt, a men’s tri-blend shirt and a women’s tri-blend shirt**. (And as a bonus, for the first week a new shirt design is available, the price will be discounted.)

If you are interested in the project and like the shirts, please follow along and share on social media. Let me know what you think. You can reach out on Twitter and Micro.Blog.


* My 9-year-old says I should name him Bob. Or Inky.
** It’s my wife’s favorite kind of t-shirt.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.


Fifty Two Shirts

Every week for the next year, I'm going to release a new shirt design. You can purchase the shirts from my Threadless store.

Fifty-two shirts

One shirt a week for an entire year

I was sitting in a coffee shop, hyped up on way too much caffeine. I’d taken the day off to spend some time thinking about what I wanted to do with Sketchbook B for the next year. What side projects did I want to tackle?

I pulled out my new sketchbook, a massive Leuchtturm 1917 Master Slim that I purchased at the Atlanta Pen Show. I’ve been working on a new typeface for the last year or so and I intended to make some progress. But as started to sketch, I realized that most of my recent sketchbooks are filled with notes and smaller, less ambitious doodles. I struggled to fill the (admittedly massive) pages and this bothered me. As I sat there sketching, trying to clear the cobwebs off my creativity, I drew a simple little doodle of a coffee cup and thought, that’d look good on a shirt. And for whatever reason, that opened the floodgates.

So there, in the middle of the Wired Goat in Chapin, I decided on my next project. I quickly started working out the details. Researching production options. Sketching ideas. I continued to work on the concept for the next couple months. And now, I’m finally ready to launch my new side project… 

I’m going to design a new shirt every week for a year. 

I’ll post a new shirt for purchase on Sundays with different design styles and content each week. One week, it might be something silly. Another week, it could be an invented restaurant or coffee shop. A fake band. Something seasonal. Each week will be different, but every Sunday, there will be a new shirt inspired by the world around me.

Every design will be accompanied by a blog post explaining the story behind the design. The post is a major part of the project. I’m looking forward to writing about my creations as much as I am designing them. My hope is that these will be more personal than my usual posts. I want to focus on the thoughts behind the design, my creative process and reflect about my experiences as a designer.

 

So why shirts? 

The shirt sketch that sparked this project was completely random, but the more I thought about it, designing shirts was the perfect challenge. I wanted to create something tangible. I didn’t want to just build an image for sharing on social media. I needed a challenge that would give me a defined canvas and a set of restrictions.

I briefly considered designing coffee mugs instead of shirts. I love coffee and hot tea. And the idea came to me in a coffee shop. But what would I do with 52 mugs? My kitchen cabinets aren’t big enough. And while 52 shirts are a lot, too, I don’t have to order all the shirts for me. I can order shirts for my wife and my kids. Everyone loves shirts.

I decided to use an on-demand service for printing my shirts. All the shirts will be available on my new Sketchbook B Threadless store. There are numerous on-demand shirt printing services and they are all very similar. After (way too much) research, Threadless seemed like the best storefront for the project I wanted to create. 

One of the benefits of on-demand, direct-to-garmet printing is that each shirt design can be available in a range of colors and shirt types. Every design will come in three styles: a lower cost classic t-shirt, a super soft men’s tri-blend shirt, and a women’s tri-blend shirt. I’ll also offer other versions when they make sense… long sleeves, kids shirts, sweatshirts and more.

I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to sell a lot of shirts. Some of my designs may have broad appeal, but a couple will probably just appeal to me. And that’s okay. I’m not doing this to make a ton of money. It’s more about the creative process.

I’m excited about the project. I’m sketching more than I have in years. I’ve already got a rough schedule for the next couple months and literally hundreds of concepts in my sketchbook waiting to be refined. And in addition to the shirts themselves, I’ve got some ideas with what to do at the end of the project with my collection of 52 shirts. I’m looking forward to where the project takes me.

The first shirt in the series, Designasaur, is available at my Threadless store. The design was inspired by a lecture I attended almost 20 years ago… a lecture I now realize still influences my outlook on things today.

If you are interested in the project and like the shirts, please follow along and share on social media. Let me know what you think. You can reach out on Twitter or Micro.Blog.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.

Remember the Sony eMarker?

Of course you don't. What we can learn from design and product failures...

In 2000, the potential of digital music was uncertain. There were a handful of limited MP3 music players. And Napster was the main way that people shared digital music (illegally). iTunes and the iPod hadn’t been launched yet. Everyone knew that the Internet could revolutionize the music industry. No one really knew how…

Sony released a product in 2000 that tried to bridge the gap between the old music world and the new digital one. The Sony eMarker solved a legitimate problem. It would let you mark songs that you heard on the radio so you could buy them later. This $20 keychain had a button and a small LCD display. When you heard a song on the radio you wanted to remember, you pushed the button. You could save up to 10 “eMarks.”

When you got home, you plugged your eMarker into your computer and fired up a Flash app that cross referenced your time stamp with the radio stations that you said you liked in your area and told you what was playing at that time. It then offered you a link to purchase a CD from Amazon or CDNow. 

The eMarker worked surprisingly well. I know because I was one of a small number of people that actually owned one. It’s mostly a forgotten experiment, though. The service was discontinued in 2001. It’s even hard to find a good picture of the eMarker online.*

Here’s the thing about the eMarker. It was a relatively well-designed and reasonably effective solution to a real problem — music discovery. But the product was a failure because it wasn’t where the market was headed. The eMarker was based on the assumption that radio would still be the main way people discovered new music. And then users would pay to buy CDs from Amazon. iTunes and the iPod destroyed that world. (The problem of figuring out how to purchase music that you heard around you was eventually solved by Shazam, the iPhone and iTunes.)

Often, we see projects fail because they are based on a flawed strategy or approach. Look at Apple’s recent admission that the design of the new Mac Pro was a misstep. Apple “backed themselves in a thermal corner” because they bet that the future of professional machines was multiple, lower-powered GPUs. They designed and built their concept of a professional machine, but the rest of the industry charged ahead with large, power-hungry GPUs. Apple’s design couldn’t accommodate where the market needed them to be. No one doubts the skills or abilities of Apple's designers, but the new Mac Pro wasn't able to serve the pro audience because it was based on a flawed concept.

Even the best designs are only as good as the assumptions they are built on.


* It occurs to me that it's impossible to find a high quality images of the eMarker because there weren't any high quality digital cameras in 2000.


Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. In his spare time, he is trying to figure out how to use all the ink he has purchased. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.