Rock The Spam Box

Band logos. Where did they go?

I’m thinking this is a lost art. How many bands really do logos these days? I’m not talking typography – fonts and treatments that get attached to certain albums and associated marketing campaigns – although that’s a thing and I shant discount it. But right now I’m talking about a proper logo: a real stand-out stand-alone graphic. Think Public Enemy’s Man-In-The-Crosshairs. The three boxed-up letters that shout “NIN.” Or AC/DC’s squealing thunderbolt, shot straight through the listening eye of the beholder.

Does Coldplay have a logo? Mumford & Sons? Nickelback? Of what need hath the Imagine Dragons of iconography? I dunno.

Not too long ago, there was a trend where everyone had to have a logo: Designers, celebrities, sports figures, hot shots. It wasn’t enough to have a name (like Jim Croce and his daddy did.) Personal branding was the thing. It was the “we’re all entrepreneurs” theory of career development, where no one wanted to admit they were beholden to another, playing for a team. Where no ego could submit to the commonweal.

That was a little much, though it kept a few of us side-gigging graphic designers more gainfully employed. For that we are grateful.

But band logos are sweet. I grew up with them, collected them in the form of buttons and pins, bumper stickers. Snipped them from CD long-boxes for the wallpapering of locker doors. Found them embroidered on patches in the basket by the checkout at the record shop. Brought them home and watched them pile up in bottom desk drawers, waiting for the right piece of denim with which to fuse forever with hot iron.

Punk bands did it pretty well. Alt-Rock had its moments of glory.  But no one did logos better than the Metal guys. Even the pop side could rock a black-and-white swath of pointy glyphs with pride. Def Leppard! Van Halen! It was part of the gig, part of the fun of dreaming up a band. Of course, it had to be something not too complex, something simple enough, memorable enough to be doodled on the backs of notebooks and pen-knifed into study-hall desks.

I wonder if that was a design concern. Were there consultants for such things?  Did they sit back and ask their hairsprayed clientele: Does it scale? Will it work as a tattoo? Embroidered on a bandanna?

Metal being the boys club that it is, one-upsmanship is to be expected, embraced. Can we play it faster? Louder? Take it higher? Why, yes We CAN!! Logo design has been, no doubt, subject to the same arms race of awesome. And so we go from the dangerously sharp through a creepy-crawly evolution to the absurd.

Sometimes they can even be a little hard to read, an undecipherable challenge for both man and machine. Which brings me back to the impetus for this post.

We’ve all had to fill out an “I’m not a robot” box on a website, trying to make sense of a garble of numbers and text. By using heavy metal logos for the Turing test, the new service Metal Captcha let’s you have a little fun with the process.  In one step, you can prove that not only are you not a robot, you’re a Metal Head too.

The next time I’ve got a client with a spam problem, I’ll give it a try. Suit-and-tied in a client meeting, I’ll raise a horned hand and gently suggest that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to get a little more metal up in here.

Feeling you, Wes Anderson

wes_05I’ve always been of the persuasion that a good feel goes a long way.

Facts, figures, functionality are of course necessary proof that some wispy creation has legs, that it’s lept beyond the laboratory of smoke & mirrors. You gotta make it work to get past the Kickstarter turf, that happy land of cheerleading lovers, too-kind friends, and mommies hand-cranking self-esteem machines.

Yes, yes, yes. Devilish details must be dispatched and beans must be counted, all in good (boring, tedious) time. But a good feel, man. Let’s start there. You can build a career on that.

wes_03Case in point: Wes Anderson. Sometimes his films don’t amount to much (I hope you don’t find my candor rude.) But I’ll watch his movies again and again, not to uncover truth, not to widen my horizons, nor to hear a higher harmony.

I’ll watch for the feel of it, for the vibe. Just for the way he takes you outside for a little alternative history. His is a similar spinning sphere, a globe where all of the truths and consequences are left a length more leash, freer to romp and roam and butt-sniff before heading home. Where all of the colors match, where you can toss on whatever you want and always look hip.

Like old soul records, like down-holler pickers. Like the new-car smell, or the sound of church bells. Sometimes the feel is what you want, all you want. More than words, as it were. Take your time with it, roll around in it. Let it linger.

wes_02Or quantify it, as the Tumblr of twee wonder “Wes Anderson Palettes” has done. Break it down to the tones and the hues, to the building blocks, toy with the pieces.

Enjoy these borrowed examples or click over to scroll through a few more.

I’m feeling it.

Can I Get Some Fries With That?

Hamburger Menu as Rothko, h/t BoingBoing

Hamburger Menu as Rothko, h/t BoingBoing

The Hamburger Menu – those three little lines at the top of most apps these days – seems to be here to stay. And as it’s a clean, cross-platform icon echoing modern minimalism, I suppose that’s OK.

But I confess that it took me by surprise. I must have been on vacation the week that it jumped from some obscure mobile site to a key element of every responsive view shrinking towards a thousand pixels. And now the burgers are popping up all over my desktop, jumping out of the windows and landing on other programs too. Like Arnold in The Last Action Hero, they’ve broken past the virtual 4th wall and colonized my screen.

Frankly, I’ve also never designed one, never whipped out Photoshop or Illustrator to conjure my unique take on the burger. That’s not to say I haven’t used them, specified them, cut ‘n pasted them. They seem to come pre-baked into every rendition of WordPress or Squarespace or whatever framework I’m using to hang your dapper HTML hats.

They’re a part of my design vocabulary, even though some studies show that using them leaves you misunderstood.

I’ll take the burger over the old days of javascript-empowered roll-over gifs. I’ll never have those hours back, days spent re-working rollovers to squeeze on more thing into an already designed and approved and top-heavy menu.

A click on these burgers will serve up some further concerns.

A click on these burgers will serve up some further concerns.


Ubiquitous as the Hamburger Menu is today, my bet is that they’re transitional. Some new trend, some new trick of the CSS will displace it before too long. Maybe something more like the Windows Start button (which won’t fade away) or some arrows denoting “expansion.” Maybe we’ll have some kids flipping it sideways and calling it the “Fries Menu,” good for left-right browsing, like Tindr for your navigation.

But maybe, like a pair of mall-bought Chucks or the Big Mac itself, the Hamburger Menu is here to stay. Not the best, not the worst, but something that works.  The name could be apt. But can we think gourmet here? Move beyond the basics? Kick it up a notch? Go ahead, super-size me!

Sketches of Miles Davis


In the 1980s, 30-some years since he birthed his cool and changed the shape of all jazz to come, Miles Davis began to paint. Never one to to take life by half-steps, Miles threw himself into the new discipline, sketching and brushing for hours every day. He even took lessons, submitting a raging ego to instruction, humbly taking a giant step to understanding a new form.


Miles paints the voodoo down.

“It’s like therapy for me,” he said in his Autobiography, “keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music.”

The man’s not alone in that. There’s not an elective art class on the planet that’s not at least half-full with those seeking self-help. Learning to self-love, to let go the hold of fears and frights. To give voice to still-blank canvas. To set white-space free, to crush the sterile tyranny of bleached-perfect sheets and make marks indelible. To be seen, to be known.

The virgin page must go if our thoughts are to have life, to reproduce. We must muck it up, leave our stain. Break a few things.

It’s not a kid’s game, this art. Miles waited until his 50s to try it on. It’s risky, dangerous, and it blew up his movie-star marriage. So be warned, there’s power there. Use it wisely, but get going. Because as Miles once said, “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.

New Life and Old Lenses


During one of those stretches when life was fuller with experimentation, I forever-borrowed my dad’s Carter-era 35mm camera. It had sat digitally idled and dusty for a few years, and I felt the urge to figure out how to take take pictures the right way, to learn what the heck they meant by film speeds and ISOs and f-stops.

So I ran around town and shot off a few rolls of film, doing my best to dial it all in. What I got back from the local camera shop looked like the 1970s. At the time I was disappointed in the results, but looking back I held in my hand prescient proof that I had beat the hipstamatics to the punch.  No need for me to i-philter and instagram my credentials; my limited photographic skills did it for me.

jonathan_keys_ladiesTurns out that our tools can shape our perceptions more than we know, that the past you think you’ve discovered is only another generation’s etching, a shorthand guide to the real thing in their mind’s eye. No more than notes on a page convey sound, or totems tell the whole tale.  I’ll never know how my grandpa saw the Pacific from the deck of a destroyer – vivid with chaos and uncertainty – to later generations, that fight’s always going to be black and white.

This guy took my accidental vintage snapshot experiment a notch further, and with far more purpose. British photographer Jonathan Keys resurrected a 130-year old wooden camera to take pictures of modern life the really old-fashioned way: the collodion process. This involves splashing about noxious chemicals, glass slides, portable darkrooms, and subjects that will to stand stock-still for minutes while the exposure takes hold.

jonathan_keys_planeThe results are a time warp – part past, part present. Like something Spock & Kirk would have stumbled on while seeking out new life and new civilizations. Even though the whole convoluted process is so time-consuming he can only take a few photos a day, he says that the results can outpace the editing and nit-picking-via-Photoshop rigmarole that has become the current standard. With this setup, what you get is what you get.

Now that 35mm sits shelved in my basement, returning to the cycle of disuse once again. But good gear has a way of finding purpose – I’m sure it’s not shot its last. Like vinyl, Vans, and Ray-Bans. Some summer day will come when my kids will take it out for a spin.

Doodles Vonnegut

vonnegut_drawings_cover_2Sometimes drawing comes easier than writing. Words have to mean something to be something. There are rules and conventions which must be respected (or at least willfully rejected) if connection to a broad audience is to be the goal.

Words have a public function. Although we could go on here about the necessity of a well-curated vocabulary for mental clarity, feelings and urges and gut-pains need not be pressed into poetry to get us through the day. We only need words when we hope to transmit from one mind to another, as a subtler tool than fists and spit.

So when pen hits paper and lines start to appear, I lazily drift off from legibility after a few syllables. My nub prefers to circle and underline and star instead of coming up with better terms to nail down my thinking. Why write “buy milk” when a dollar sign and carton will do? Why go to the trouble to write “urgent” when I can channel my stress into a series of underlines that bury down to the bottom of the page?

kurt_vonnegut_drawing_2And if a drawing begun falls so short of the mark as to be unrecognizable, I can term it an abstract, decide it’s no more than a “graphic element,” and guiltlessly throw it away. Not so with words. Once typed, once spoken, once tweeted to the world they live on to be mistaken and misconstrued, as often to my benefit as not.

kurt_vonnegut_doodle_2My guess is that Kurt Vonnegut knew this crisis on occasion too. Felt the weight of words to be too great, craved the ambiguity of the sketchbook where the question “What do you mean?” can be left open-ended, unanswered without one seeming dim.

Recently, Vonnegut’s many sketches have been collected by his daughter, Nannette. The collection moves through Vonnegut’s entire career – from early scribbles that wiggled their way into his novels, to his later work that took on a life of its own. Interesting stuff, regardless of which way your ink decides to flow.


The WordPress 3.8 Admin: All Jazzed Up


Last December, while we were all out enjoying (or possibly fretting) over the holidays, WordPress slid down the chimney and dropped off an unexpected present: Version 3.8.

One thing to love and embrace about WordPress is their frequent and unobtrusive updates.  They keep you safe, secure, and ready for whatever new web-trends are about to descend. With just a click you’re all set. As their updates are so frequent and seamless, I never much bother to mention it to my clients and never specifically bill for it – like checking email, it’s just part of the routine.

But you’ll notice something different about this one right away: the admin changed color! (In fact, you can change the colors of the admin a few different ways, but that’s another post.) The other, more important aspect of the admin redesign is that it is now “responsive.” This means that the layout scales to fit your screen – from a mega-big desktop monitor down to your tablet or phone. Mobile friendly is a must these days, and WordPress is all over it.

the old and the new

Around WordPress HQ this new version is known as “Parker,” named after Charlie Parker: be-bop provocateur, mentor to Miles Davis, the man known as “Bird.” An innovator in let-loose improvisation, Parker’s quick crescendos and leaping lines inspired the writing of Jack Kerouac who wanted to capture that same zeal in prose, and who famously wrote that Parker “looked like Buddha.”

I like to think that this new release is designed to help you do the same – to create quick, tight, ready-for-the-stage content, wherever and whenever you’re stuck by brilliance.

Good stuff. I wanted to blog about it in the event that you’re wondering why your admin is looking a little strange.  And if it’s not, let me know – Version 3.9 is due to land in April and it’s always best to keep up with these things.

Microsoft Pulls The Plug On Windows XP


You might not be following the latest news from Microsoft, but this recent announcement could be very important to you:  Microsoft has declared that the “End Of Support” for Windows XP will arrive on April 8th, 2014. They’re so serious about this that they’ve even added a doomsday countdown clock to their website.

This is a big deal. Earning a reputation as a reliable platform, Windows XP is still doing its duty on a third of all computers. Because of this success, there’s a very good chance that XP is still working away somewhere near you. But all things must come to end, and Microsoft has stated that XP was never designed to stand up to today’s threats and demands.

In fact, Windows XP has been in service much longer than Microsoft ever intended, recently marking its 12th birthday.  That’s a lifetime in dog years.  As the lifespan of computer gear is better measured in goldfish years, 12 years is nearly a miracle.

Now, “End Of Support” doesn’t mean that your computer will start spewing smoke or refuse to boot up on April 8th. What it does mean is that Microsoft will no longer be sending out updates for your system: critical security patches to keep you safe from hackers, viruses, and malware.

xp_logo21Running properly updated software is key to minimizing risk – it’s the smart thing to do. Failing to keep up can also mean a serious cut in productivity: You’ll find that your system will no longer be able to run the latest browsers, apps, and Office products as they are released. The result is frustration and time consuming work-arounds.  Keeping staff busy with such things is a lot more expensive than a new computer.

And if you think you’ve got problems, consider this: Most ATMs are running XP under the hood as the “brain” of each stand-alone machine. I can’t imagine the spiderwebs of financial liability, government regulation, and the chance for negative publicity that this sticky situation is about to create.  On the bright side, fixing that is going to be a heckuva business opportunity for the right guy.

Sun Ra’s Cosmic Business Cards


At least once a month someone asks me, “Do you have a card?” I sheepishly say “no no no”, then I bow my head and lie down like a gentle lamb before the slaughter of missed opportunities. Printing up that stack of cards is something I’ve been meaning to do, but a new urgency always comes up. Like designing one for someone else, often a legit client-type person.

Now a good card has two things going for it – clear catchy content and a fine use of the 3.5 inch form. Not that long ago your options were limited to type and a little logo, the best you could do to stand out was to get the thick ink and the fancy stock. Now the options are limitless, which makes getting the basics right all that much more important. If you really want a timeless card that won’t be tossed anytime soon, take a lesson from Sun Ra.


The day Sun Ra realized that
Space Is The Place!

Sun Ra was a jazzman who knew there was more to success than playing the notes right.  You had to put on a show. You had to get your schtick together if you really wanted to make your music stick. The blog “Dangerous Minds” recently uncovered a cache of Sun Ra’s cards from his early days when he was hustling Chicago with various projects including his soon-to-be-famous “Arkestra.”  Although Mr. Ra was just starting his evolution to full-blown eccentric jazz genius you can see the roots of his madness in these early artifacts. Not bad for the staid 1950’s.

So the next time you’re thinking about committing to print, don’t be afraid to do it like Sun Ra. Because really, “Why buy old sounds?”


Yahoo! Rustles Up a New Logo

Maybe you missed it, but Yahoo! has unleashed a new logo on the internets. “Yahoo!?”, You say? Yes, and the company is still worth billions, though I’m not sure why. I still have a Yahoo email account from a dozen years back that I check maybe once a week, but if I suddenly found the service to be shuttered I wouldn’t weep. I’d take it as a sign that I should have simplified my life years ago, shed it with the old identities and obligations that I’m happy to have outgrown.


The new one’s on top.

The whole idea of the “Web Portal” is so old that I can barely remember why we seemed to think it was necessary. It’s hard to fathom that you had to start surfing from somewhere, but AOL dial-up got us in the habit with our first freebie floppies. America On Line provided comfort and safety and a “you’ve got mail” home on the internet. Once we realized that there was more than one ISP in town, sites like Yahoo! provided a bit of the same security. A trustworthy aggregate of news and stocks and sports and gossip.

Which wasn’t all bad. Web Portals offered a promise of quality – some sort of check on the hodge-podge of nonsense that one had to wade through before finding what you needed. Then Google jumped in and made search so good that bookmarking has become another broken habit. Gatekeepers have their place, but we’ve grown up and the training wheels came off long ago.

I have no idea what Yahoo! offers these days. Inertia – people like me with an email account they’ve yet to fully abandon – keeps eyeballs on pages, but they’re in desperate need of some strategic thinking. Something bold, something brave. Which brings us back to the new logo and the story of how it all came together. From CEO Marrisa Mayer’s blog:

So, one weekend this summer, I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the trenches with our logo design team: Bob Stohrer, Marc DeBartolomeis, Russ Khaydarov, and our intern Max Ma.  We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday designing the logo from start to finish, and we had a ton of fun weighing every minute detail.

One weekend, eh? Now that’s hubris.

Over the years, I’ve worked with logos in dozens of different ways. I like ’em. As a kid I used to love hunting lost golf balls because every so often you got one with new corporate logo on it. They’re neat little encapsulations of identity: real or imagined, hard-earned or hoped-for.  Branding is fun and fascinating, so I get Ms. Mayer’s urge to jump in and knock it out. But dang, it’s tricky stuff and one weekend ain’t enough. Just maybe it’s even the kind of thing you need to schedule during the work week, not relegate to a little beer-and-pizza overtime.

I don’t mean to pile on. The experts have already dispatched their take-downs and I’m not worried or credentialed enough to nitpick. Frankly, I’m glad that Ms. Mayer was involved in the process, I’m glad she enjoyed it. But corporate identity is a job, a discipline, a real thing to be taken seriously by professionals. Especially when billions are on the line. Right?