Stories

  • Journeyman

    Journeyman

    I've made a catalog of varied work in the past year that never makes it to this site. It's often freelance design and problem solving that brings in a little extra income (always appreciated) or helps a friend in need.

    My Dad was a lunchbucket construction guy, and the work I do is similar to how he made a living, just with different tools and more comfortable surroundings. He climbed ladders, I scale photos. He scratched figures with a carpenter pencil, I sketch with brushes and vectors.

    It's the same blue collar work, though. We build things and put them in the world for people to use. Often, the work isn't even noticed, but that's the nature of our jobs.

    I've never been much for design awards or elaborate showings of work. The best recognition is happy customers who use what I make.

  • A spin through the ’90s

    A spin through the ’90s

    I made this in the early 2000s while a design student, but I couldn’t have if I hadn’t first started my career in the Northwest in the early 1990s.

    The assignment was to research a designer from any era, write a paper about him or her, then use the content and knowledge to design a book in that designer’s style. I chose two designers—Art Chantry and David Carson—and used their common connection to the indie music scene as a verbal and visual narrative.

    Instead of designing a traditional book, I spilled the content across a collection of DIY 7-inch vinyl record sleeves, each side filled with an image from Chantry or Carson’s work. The records were bands that had some connection to one or both designers and were intended to be played while reading the sleeves. All the records were housed in a book-shaped box that I made using skills I picked up at a workshop that semester.

    The project was a blast and deepened my immersive process. I didn’t know of Chantry when I moved to the Northwest after college, but I did know his work through The Rocket in Seattle, which I always grabbed when I was in town. And I digested Carson’s jarring typographical experiments in Ray Gun before I understood what he was doing.

    I wish my eyes were more open then. I might have jumped into the wider world of graphic design sooner.

  • Letting go

    Many of the branding projects assigned to me are short-term contracts. Companies who are working to reposition themselves in the marketplace or need outside counsel on how to connect better with their customers choose our agency for research experience and value.

    Because the creative aspect of projects like these are limited in scope and budget, we rarely get to follow through with implementation of branding systems. With that in mind, I’ve tried to make brand rationale, style guides and templates as bulletproof and as simple as possible so that clients can wear their rebranding with comfort and confidence.

    But it doesn’t always work.

    A few weeks ago, a vendor thanked me for sending a client his way, and I asked about a branding project that we partnered on a year ago. He works for a trade show company, and I  developed preliminary designs for our mutual client before the contract ended. I had not seen the final product and asked how it turned out.

    Throughout the booth was an image of the logo I designed in exploded form, which left me scratching my head. I remembered using that image in a presentation to describe how the logo facets could be used to influence structural components and translucent wall panels, but I never intended it to be used externally—in any form. It was purely illustrative, but it painted a new understanding for me.

    Art directors and designers are wired to be invested in every aspect of a project, from start to finish. It’s tough to send work into the world that isn’t fully tested or developed, but those are the parameters we often work within.

    During the years, I’ve learned to accept aspects beyond my control and have worked to master the art of letting go once projects leave the office. Moving forward, I’ll better refine the style guides, templates and assets in a more simple way. Less rationale and more nuts and bolts might better serve the people who will have to interpret and execute the work.

    Sometimes, the process of explaining every aspect of a piece can confuse instead of clarify. For some audiences, a thing is just a thing. There’s no reason to say more than that.

  • Immersion

    Immersion

    I got pulled in this week to help concept for a new client. Few things excite me more, especially when I know nothing about the company or their products.

    Immersion is my process, and this is what it looks like after two days of work.

    Our ACD and another AD are on the project, too, and it’s interesting to see how differently each of us works. They launched into logo and typography, but I can’t even begin that stage without research, moodboards and Post-It notes. This helps me create stories and uncover patterns and relationships that form a strong foundation to build from. Firm ground is essential or nothing makes sense to me.

    This process also allows me to arrange and rearrange the notes and photos. And when I’m talking through ideas with a larger group, which will happen next week with the creative director and account team, it’s more dynamic because I can write their ideas down and add them to the wall. As I develop sketches and get into the design stage, that work is pinned up on top of or next to the moodboards, which creates a literal foundation that is easy to see and understand, even if a stranger walked in and saw the board for the first time.

    If it’s done right, theres never enough wall space to contain the ideas.

  • Tearsheets // July 1997

    Tearsheets // July 1997

    DATE: Thursday, July 31, 1997

    NEWSPAPER: The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon

    ROLE: Design editor, Sports

    SIGNIFICANCE: This might have been the day I became an art director. I had no concept of the title then, nor did the job exist within the world of newspapers. But taking ownership of something, developing an idea and bringing it to life certainly qualifies as art direction.

    I had been in the department for about a year after leaving the Presentation Team with orders to elevate the design of the Sports section. I came in with big ideas and grand ambitions but ran into an entrenched management duo who preferred things just as they were. I adjusted my expectations and made small gains each week with larger imagery, varied headline treatments and more white space. But it was cover stories that I most wanted to expand because designers in other departments were experimenting every day with creative new ideas.

    Still, no go with the guys running the department. (They handed me sketches each afternoon of what they wanted and emphasized that they didnt like surprises when they opened the paper in the morning.)

    I had nearly given up trying, until this piece came along. Each summer, an intern writer worked with the staff and had to develop one in-depth piece before returning to school. Janie McCauley from Washinton State was our charge in 1997. She seemingly was quiet and no match for oversized athletes and egos in locker rooms unfriendly to women. But she had untamed drive and infectious energy and was just the teammate I needed to shake up the front page.

    We worked together to develop her story about the differences between aluminum bats used by college baseball players and the wooden ones used by the pros. It was the juiced era before the fall of McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, so she had plenty of source material. What we did differently was turn some of the information into charts and infographics.

    It might seem tame by today’s standards, but this was not done on the Sports page in those days. I got a chance to do something different because it was an intern project that no one wanted, and it was the middle of the week in the middle of the summer when no one was looking.

    The best part? We hit it out of the park.

    The effort landed us in the pages of the coveted Society of News Design annual, an award that was a first for the Sports department and one that fulfilled a goal I had since I entered the business.

    And Janie? She swung her way to the big leagues and was named the Associated Press Sports Writer of the Year in 2006. She's based in the Bay Area and covers the 49ers, baseball and college basketball.

    LESSONS: Watch the ball and swing for the fences. Always.

  • Tearsheets // November 1992

    Tearsheets // November 1992

    DATE: Sunday, Nov. 8, 1992

    NEWSPAPER: Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon

    ROLE: Design editor, Page One

    SIGNIFICANCE: This was a big deal. Treating a centerpiece story in a non-traditional way had not been done before at the Statesman, and I remember having to make a passionate pitch to the managing editor to even attempt it. In hindsight, I’m surprised he trusted an idealistic twentysomething without seeing at least a sketch. I must have been persuasive back then.

    After reading Diana’s story about domestic violence, I remember imagining a broken china cup on a tiled kitchen floor. To create that image, I borrowed a sheet of watercolor paper from the staff artist, scribed pencil lines in a grid, broke a china cup in a paper bag and arranged the shards on the paper. I tore the edges and burned them in a few places after staining the sheet with warm tea. (So arty!) I had Gerry, one of our photographers, shoot the image on the floor of the photo studio with one light to create a shadow. The type was set in Quark after measuring by hand the margins from the original art.

    Why all the handwork? This was all before Photoshop. We also were in the transition from hand composition of pages (stripping in headlines and columns of type) to film output (full-page negatives). Macs and Quark were a novelty in our newsroom then. We used them primarily for specialty output; the bulk of page copy and headlines were produced on a proprietary system on equipment that dated to the 1970s.

    LESSONS: Pre-visualization works. So does believing in an idea and doing everything it takes to make it real.

    REGRETS: OMG, the straight quotes. How in the hell did we not catch that?

  • Tearsheets // The first 12 years

    When I left news 15 years ago, I put aside all of the work I had made because it wasn’t relevant to agencies (as so many creative directors told me at the time).

    But I never tossed the tearsheets because it seemed wrong to deny all the memories made with dozens of former colleagues and, ultimately, all of the lessons I learned along the way.

    Those lessons intrigue me today.

    Then, as now, I was solving problems under deadline pressure and producing work that was consumed by thousands of people. And there are plenty of design challenges that are similar, despite changes in technology.

    The pages may be yellowing and long-forgotten by the audience and the hard-working people who created them, but I’m still proud of the work we did.

    And there’s something to be learned from that.

  • A “go bag” for client presentations

    A “go bag” for client presentations

    About a year ago, we presented logo designs to a local client. Stefan Mumaw, my creative director at the time, and I had been working for weeks on two directions, he designing one and me the other. The challenge involved a refresh of the parent brand and three sub-brands that had more market equity.

    We had the strongest of foundations for our work. Our research director had successfully presented his findings a month before, and his conclusions were well-received. Every visual choice we developed was supported by the research, and we felt like the client would have a tough time choosing between our marks.

    Stefan is a master presenter and artfully crafts digital decks that tell the story of the work. The Keynote presentation that he built for the client seemed bulletproof, and we were excited to take the client through it.

    We found out the day before that the room would include nearly 20 people, all of whom would have a voice in the decision-making. This made me nervous, but Stefan was unfazed. The show went on and seemed to go over really well with the audience.

    The hammer fell a few days later.

    The feedback was confusing and contradictory at times, but the verdict was final—neither mark was accepted. We were asked to start over and return with new work.

    This was a gut check for the account team because budget was tight, and we had over-delivered already. There was talk of leaving our original work on the table and declining to do additional exploration without a budget accommodation, but I took it personally.

    I wanted to win.

    And that meant delivering a mark that they not only approved, but loved. This was important because it was a family-owned company with a lot of inherent pride from top to bottom in the organization.

    Stefan agreed to let me take one more crack at it. It’s tough to ignore design paths you’ve explored before in situations like this, but it helped to go back to the research.

    Somewhere in the findings, I saw something new that inspired me. But what we decided to do differently this time was request that the audience be reduced to only the key decision makers, which were the two owners. And we were only showing sketches, not finished work, so that we could get a better sense of what they wanted.

    This eliminated a slick digital interface on screen and brought them into the down-and-dirty process of making a thing with pen and paper first.

    I’ve always favored presenting across a table instead of in front of an audience. It removes the theatrical nature of a presentation and makes it more of a conversation between partners, which seems more comfortable and honest.

    The owners seemed to like this approach and although they favored the new sketches, they weren’t quite sold. I could sense the meeting slipping away. It wasn’t until I reached into my bag and handed one of them a Sharpie and a sheet of tracing paper that the tide turned.

    Actively listening and including them in the making of their mark made all the difference. We were able to draw our way out of a jam together, which smoothed future meetings because there was higher level of trust between us.

    When I returned a week later with color renderings, I knew they already had taken ownership of the mark. One of the owners went to office and returned with a pair of scissors, which he used to cut out the new logo so he could better imagine it on his shirt.

    The office adage that you should never show up for a meeting without a notebook and pen holds true. For designers, though, I recommend a “go bag” with at least a Sharpie, a pair of scissors, a pad of tracing paper and some copy paper.

    Those tools might just save the day, a project and a client relationship.

  • Interactive problem solving

    Interactive problem solving

    I found this piece floating around the office last week, which brought back a flood of memories from my early days in the agency world. In 2007, clients began asking for solutions that prompted more interactivity with customers. Digital solutions were still a novelty then, so we explored novel print ideas.

    This project focused on the struggle that dogs and cats have with weight gain, and the complex and competing diet and lifestyle information that owners face in making healthy choices for their pets. Our challenge was to give veterinarians and pet owners a quick, easy-to-understand tool to help them visualize how body shape relates to health and fitness. (The flip side had a similar chart for cats.)

    The slider concept came to me one day while fiddling with a slide rule at home, and we crafted an early three-piece prototype that used channels for the sliding element. Our printing partner came back with diecut channels that simplified assembly, lowered costs and was more durable. That experience alone was a great learning moment because I better understood the value of hiring wise partners.

    What made me happy about finding this piece is that it still works (no batteries, software or WiFi needed), and the message is as true today as it was eight years ago.

  • Westar fleet

    Westar fleet

    While sitting on a patio downtown last night, a Westar Energy trucked rolled past. Instinctively, I said, “Hey, thats one of my trucks.”

    No, I don’t own an electrical utility, but I am proud of a little project I directed a few summers ago.

    Most people dont think of their electric company until the lights go out. Then, it’s all they can think about because life is interrupted significantly. If an outage occurs because of a storm, the sight of a white service truck is like a knight riding to the rescue.

    Westar’s trucks are no different than most other utility service vehichles. Theyre stock white and are customized with accessories needed to perform work in all conditions. But Westars vehicles are different in that they always are meticulously clean and carefully tended, even to the point that crews in other states compliment Westars linemen.

    When I was asked to come up with ideas to make the trucks stand out and better fit the new brand look we developed, I wanted to talk to the crews first. Everyone said they liked the trucks just the way they were and wouldn’t change a thing. These guys might love NASCAR, but they didnt want their work trucks to look NASCAR.

    The best solution was to do just enough, but not too much: Running 10-inch wide blue vinyl stripes across the hood and on the roof.

    This worked on every vehicle—from pickup to boom truck to digger derrick to sedan—and it unified the fleet in a simple, smart way that was noticeable from a mile away. We also used reflective logos on the sides for immediate recognition at night.

    The graphics weren’t pretentious, nor did they look expensive, which is a big deal for a company who measures success by customer sentiment.

    The best part of my job is solving problems in simple ways. This solution drives through my neighborhood every week, just so I don’t forget.

  • Sacred space

    Sacred space

    Although I’ve occupied desks throughout my personal and work lives, few have been positioned beneath a window. Yet, I’ve unwaveringly supported the idea that theres no better place for one.

    Those few tables in my life that have glowed with natural light are the ones I most remember. Maybe it’s because I’m a natural daydreamer, the kid in class who is paying attention, sort of, but whose mind is following that long glance across the quad to places beyond a map. Or maybe its because I just want sunlight and a breeze in my face as I write, draw and read.

    I’m fortunate now to have a drafting table for a desk at work (amid a sea of gray cubicles) that faces a sunlit alley, and a home studio that is so comfortable and ideal that it seems on some days the one, true anchor in my life.

    I was able to make perfect my home space with the addition of a small drafting table that I bought from a friend at work whose other job is buying antiques and refinishing furniture. I had asked her awhile back to keep an eye out for one and, ironically, she found this one at an estate sale while combing the neighborhood I grew up in.

    Its origin is unknown, but my Dad and I deduced that it likely was made in the 1940s or ’50s by a father for his child. The base is fir and the top is thick yellow pine with a warped corner that doesn’t bother me one bit. We wiped it down with mineral spirits, put a coat of butcher’s wax on the top, replaced the pencil edge with a scrap of black walnut, retapped and greased the bolts, and modified the adjustment screw with a pin that better holds the top at an angle.

    I now sit at it regularly, gazing at the street below, wondering if anyone notices. The table also politely props the Sunday Times and allows me to read it while standing, which is a delight. All it needs is a proper swing arm lamp, preferably one of the same vintage. That’s a search I’m happy to embark upon, athough, for now, Im content to just sit here and appreciate the moment in this very special space.

  • Trained eyes

    Trained eyes

    I’ve been taking note of the marks I see in the alleys downtown. There are some creative marks, but the best work is the rolling portfolio from artists around the country on rail cars. I spent 45 minutes shooting a half-dozen cars in a town north of here and was amazed at the richness of color, scale and mark-making.

  • Time travel coupons

    Time travel coupons

    I forget (too often) that the paths most traveled in my life are worn for a reason—because I enjoy traveling them. I’ve dabbled with lettering most of my life but have yet to devote serious study and practice toward mastery. The same is true with photography. Both nourish a deep need for expression personal, creative satisfaction, which my day job doesnt always provide because of its commercial nature.

    Side projects like the one above deliver that nourishment. I had forgotten these “coupons” I drew for a co-worker several years ago, which she gave to her kids at Christmas. I used only the tools in my bag at the time: a Moleskine watercolor notebook, watercolors, Microns and some Prismacolor markers, and her kids loved them.

  • Traces of joy

    Traces of joy

    The expressiveness of Faber-Castells PITT artists pens on tracing paper makes me swoon. They glide like nothing else and make every flick of the wrist a delight to behold. I’m practicing a simple script alphabet now but am wading into abstract waters, too. 

  • ... I believe that sensitivity is not departmentalized, and that art itself is not to be confined within hard boundaries. The inclination to see, to feel, to hear, to apprehend and understand form, to make new shapes and meanings out of the materials at hand, is simply a human capacity, and it appears in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

    Ben Shahn // Love and Joy About Letters (1963)
  • A stack from the stacks

    A stack from the stacks

    One of the many joys of living in a college town is access to a university art library. KU’s Murphy Art and Architecture Library is a gem that few students seem aware of, judging by the scant number of people I see there on my visits. Where else would I find Ben Shahn’s “Love and Joy About Letters” from 1963? Or a Swiss textbook titled “Drawing as Design Process”? Shouldering home a load of inspiring books is the sweetest way I know to work up a sweat.

    ... Later ...

    “The Vignelli Canon” completely reset me. I redisovered the fundamentals that inform everything I do, particularly grids.

    Shahn inspired me to experiment with tighter line spacing, which creates a beauty all its own, and to use new tools for lettering expression.

    Sottsass reminded me that it’s OK to be messy. The idea, in whatever form, just needs to be captured.

  • Workiversary

    About a year ago, our social media manager started snapping photos of people at work on the anniversary of their hire date. My turn came up in February, but, of course, I didn’t want to do the usual and be like everyone else. So, I took five minutes and made a mini movie with my phone using snapshots of each year of service at Callahan Creek.

    Nine years in one place ...

    Gah.

  • Handlettering workshop

    Handlettering workshop

    Living 50 miles away in Lawrence is my excuse for not taking more advantage of events through my AIGA membership. But I’ve vowed to remedy that this year and jumped at the chance to attend a sold-out handlettering workshop in Kansas City last weekend. I happily took my seat among 40 other designers and absorbed a handful of tips from Hallmark lettering artists Jim Fedor and Lisa Rogers.

    Jim, who is self-taught, showed us the nuances of the oblique dip pen, which I first used during a workshop with Spencerian master Michael Sull about 10 years ago. It’s a delicate instrument that produces surprising results (my first attempt is above). I still have a rosewood penholder from Michael and have resumed practice again this week. Some people doodle, I draw letters.

    Lisa is classically trained, and her instruction with brush lettering was more formal. I’ve long been attracted to brush lettering and its expressive qualities, but mastery has eluded me because I have trouble breaking old habits. She showed us how to better hold the brush (a tripod style balanced on the first knuckle of your pinkie) that opened up a new world to me. That tip, plus visualizing and making the gesture before putting brush to paper, was enough to inform my practice for years to come.