Archive for Identity / Systems

Design for Art’s Sake

University of Washington School of Art, Sand Point studio door window sign concept; approx. 3.25 x 6n.; plotted output on foamcore / 2003

In my younger scholastic career, I often charged headfirst through the parametric walls of an assignment to ensure that my work would be noticed. In a drawing class I took early on at university, the professor told me that the way I worked was like writing an English paper in Russian. I chalked up experiences like this to standard-fare artist plight and soldiered on. Ironically, my head full of steam soon chugged me right on out of the School of Art. Upon my return some years later, I had a clearer head, but I also had a much keener sense of the power of boundaries. I understood that it was actually keeping the rules recognizable that revealed the cleverness of their kneading, pushing or rearranging.

As I was making my comeback into the University of Washington, the School of Art was pushing its own boundaries, acquiring gallery and studio space for select students and faculty in a building of the former Sand Point Naval Base in Seattle. Then edging myself toward the sharp end of the student body, I was commissioned to design a way-finding sign system for the building.

Sign systems are often droll affairs, so bound by their function that they are stiff and invisible. There are good reasons for not getting too editorial in this discipline, of course: you don’t want anyone to get lost in the cleverness of the sign before they find where they’re going, especially in emergency situations where one might need to know exactly how to get to the bathroom, or worse, get the hell out of the building.

Overseen by School of Art Director and Visual Communication Design Professor Chris Ozubko, I came up with a few concepts that I was pretty confident would get people into the restrooms and out of the building as necessary, but also expressed a bit of the unique personality of what was going on in the space while they could appreciate it… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Identity / Systems, Signage / Display


Building, A Brand

Washington State Convention and Trade Center building (back/garden) / photo taken 2003

Sometime in the 1940s or ’50s (I’m not sure of the exact year), the term “corporate identity” was coined by Lippincott & Margulies—one of the first major design firms in the world—to describe both the idea that even large businesses have inherent, relatable characteristics, not unlike human beings, and the practice that could express their character through a fitting, comprehensive and consistent design program. An organization’s identity is expressed in every way they communicate, from their name and logo to their brochures and web site, to the way they answer the phone—whether those “touchpoints” are designed by professionals or not—so this was an important “call-to-action” (to use another industry term) for organizations to pay attention to everything they were communicating, and, ideally, to pay top-notch professionals like L&M to help them make sure they were doing so effectively.

Sometime in the 1990s, the term “brand” began to take over as more formal business strategy was becoming more prominently integrated into large-scale identity design programs, and it quickly went from buzz word to industry category, on which uncounted firms jumped. I have always found this nomenclature shift ironic. “Branding,” literally translated, is the superficial process of stamping a logo on your property (livestock, originally); this superficial logo stamping is exactly the perception that the “new” practice of “branding” was supposed to be rising above. Meanwhile, the word “identity” could already encompass every aspect what an entity is, from what they do to how they express it. But like many P/C nomenclature shifts of late, whether rational or not, “branding” has taken hold, and “identity” (preceded by “corporate” or not), has been deprecated.

Whatever it’s called, my formal introduction to the process of figuring out what an organization stands for and expressing it in a fitting design program was in a class called Identity Systems in the Visual Communication Design program at the University of Washington, sometime in 2003. Like a few other courses in the program, this one was broken into collaborative group and individual phases. Three-person groups were assigned one of four or five major local entities and tasked with research and analysis of the entity, en-route to the creation of a strategic brand platform. Based on this platform, we were then set about designing a fitting logo and building a supporting visual identity system, individually… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Copy / Writing, Identity / Systems, Industrial / Product, Interactive / Web, Signage / Display


Wanna Make Something of It?


Materials symbol set promotional poster; 20 x 30in. / 2002

There is something very primal and essential about building things. Behind our most basic needs is the need to build something to facilitate it. Before we can put food on the table, someone has to put the table together. Before we can sleep under anyone’s roof, someone has to put that roof over our heads. And, in order to afford such things these days, most of us need to go to work, which, more than likely, is in a building.

But modern technology and evolving divisions of labor have rendered the notion of building even the most trifling gaff foreign and anxiety-filling to most. Hardware stores (big-box and corner-shop alike) are stocked floor to ceiling with too many confusing answers to even the most basic questions. For our Marks and Symbols class in the Visual Communication Design (VCD) program at the University of Washington, we were set out to develop a universal language of icons that would help de-mystify this environment and enable people to fulfill their basic need to put stuff together.

The class was divided into two phases: research and development. In the research phase, we worked in groups to look into issues facing the hardware customer, decide upon the problem we felt had the most potential for amelioration by a concise set of symbols (ten or so), and present our process and findings to the rest of the class. In the second phase, we each developed symbol sets on our own to respond to this problem.

Our research group, comprising mates Devon DeLapp, Jesse Graupmann, Narith Hoc, Sarah LaMont, Shaun Tungseth and myself, began by thinking of and assessing the potential (and drawbacks) of six possible options: A set of symbols for connectors, which could help people figure out what fit with what else (but seemed too broad to spawn a useful set of just ten symbols), electricity symbols, which could help people figure out the ins and outs of amps and volts (but we couldn’t figure out how to boil this subject down to ten symbols, either), how-to symbols, which could help people with standard tasks like building a deck or installing a light fixture (but, we quickly realized, would be nearly impossible to describe in mere icons), function/action symbols, which could help explain what a particular tool might do, such as “twist” or “strike” and might have made for a cool set of symbols (but seemed too basic a concept to actually be of any use to any adult not born on Mars—”a hammer is for hitting; fancy that!”), or warning symbols, which could help deter someone from doing stupid things with those tools—like strike themselves with a hammer (but had already been done to death, so to speak).

After much debate, we decided that materials had the most potential for new exploration of symbols that could enjoy real utility, potentially touching a range of applications within the context of hardware, such as way-finding (“Where is the wood?”), contents listing (“Is this made with wood?”), and proper use of tools (“Can I use this on wood?”)… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Copy / Writing, Identity / Systems, Packaging / 3-Dimensional, Photography / Film, Signage / Display

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Prosophobia promotional poster; 24 x 36in. / 2002

The most celebrated role of the designer has always been that of creator of positive change through innovation, but battling the public’s inclination to treasure the old and suspect the new has historically been tough going. The current of ominous world events (especially at the time of this project’s conception, painfully close to 9/11) only serves to shore up such public reservation. For many people, the comfort of the familiar is too valuable to risk on new ideas. This promotes a homogeneous, retro-centric design market in which the new is often merely another iteration of the old.

Prosophobia (“fear of progress”) was a concept for an international design conference that would explore why many of these constructs exist and how we as designers can continue to champion progress in this environment. Featured presentations were to be given by historians, behaviorists and economists, as well as a diverse range of design leaders successfully implementing progressive work, despite this prosophobic culture.

Being a design event (and a design school project, no less), a promotional / informational poster was a critical application, and set the visual theme for the balance of the comprehensive identification and communication suite. After several dramatic, antagonistic early concepts, including a God-like hand pushing down the sunrise, a Volkswagen “New Beetle” reversing into the viewer and even a revolver loaded with antiquities and ready to fire, an approach more considerate of both sides of the matter prevailed. The front presents the issue in a re-contextualized image reminiscent of the silent film era, showing a figure literally hanging onto the past for dear life, while the flip-side speaks to the present (signified by digital visual language) offering information on the voices on offer in the conference, and an invitation to participate in the future… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Content / Architecture, Copy / Writing, Identity / Systems, Industrial / Product, Interactive / Web, Naming / Words, Print / Editorial, Signage / Display


VCD Phone Home


phone card set; series of four fronts (top); one back (bottom); 3.4in. x 2.125in. each / 2002

It seems that there are (or were) two major markets for long distance phone cards.

One is (or was, I’m guessing) Europe, where long distance on a phone plan, in comparison to U.S. phone plans, would span relatively little actual distance, and wanderlust runs rampant. In the days before near-ubiquitous mobile phone proliferation, I imagine there was much use for a card that would get you in touch with another country, or back in touch with home when you got there, without costly service charges from one’s domestic carrier. Even with a mobile, a roamer could easily outbound their domestic plan with a quick clip on the TGV.

The other market I’ve seen for such cards is quite different, and still as vibrant as ever. Having lived in New York for several years now, I’ve been confronted by gangs of international phone cards, shouting at me from behind so many raised bodega counters, each garish explosion of bling and atrocious typography shouting louder than the next, like a traffic jam in the South Bronx. This city, it seems, has the requisite population of aliens without the means for a long distance plan (or even a phone, in many cases), needing to reach out and touch their homelands, such that the cacophony of prepaid, foil-stamped minutes is warranted.

But, having lived in Seattle almost my entire life as of 2002, with its relatively scant collection of migrant workers (or Europeans), I’m not sure I’d ever even seen a phone card until I designed my own. This project, another in the Advanced Typography class of the Visual Communication Design (VCD) program at the University of Washington, was the novel creation of our professor (fresh from an extended European vacation). Here, we were to design a series (or multiple series) of ten-Euro calling cards… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Identity / Systems, Industrial / Product, Type / Fonts

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Back to School Time

University of Washington School of Art, main entrance

University of Washington School of Art, main entrance / photo taken 2008

Like most epiphanies, one of my most life-changing ideas came to me suddenly when I was in the bathroom. It was September 2nd, 2001. I had been working full-time as a designer since 1999. In July of that year, I had indulged in a very expensive but amazing vacation, following the Tour de France. Three days after my trip, I returned to work to rumors of massive layoffs. Within a week, tours of the company’s one-year-new building revealed empty desks that quickly multiplied into empty floors. By August 20th, it was clear that the in-house design department, too, was going dark. September 14th was going to be my last day. I had no idea what I was going to do, and then I did.

Two years and change earlier, I had made a rather precarious exit from the Visual Communication Design (VCD) program at the University of Washington. I was disheartened for a while, then embittered, then dismissive, then all-but-forgetful of the whole experience. And then, on that day in September, it came to me: I would go back and finish school. Or, rather, I would try to finish school. After all, I was going straight back to the horse that threw me, and, if anything, it was more fierce than ever (bad economies feed schools with lots of accomplished and motivated applicants). Any prior thoughts of repeating this wicked roulette were momentary lapses in sanity. But, upon my decision that day, my resolve was unshakable.

About a week and a half after my decision, I took one of my final vacation days. An hour or so after I woke up, I checked my personal email program, which showed news stories in one of the frames. The Twin Towers and half of the Pentagon had been obliterated within the span of a few hours. Luckily, I did not know anyone personally who was involved in these catastrophes but it seems strange to tell a story about that time without mentioning it. To be honest, it was all quite disaffecting considering the ever more improbable absurdity the country had been subjected to in the year or so leading up to the events. It was all just more impervious steel turned to dust. My decision was unmoved… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Identity / Systems, Print / Editorial, Type / Fonts

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There is No “Inc.” in “Team”

UBC monogram mark for Union Bay Cycling / 2001

A competitive cycling team, like all other kinds of teams, is a of a group of people with a similar interest; in this case, the team’s chief objective is to win bike races. The primary vehicle of a cycling team’s identity is the uniform that team members wear out racing and training. This identity is complicated, however, by the fact that competitive cycling is one of the very few sports in the world based on a sponsorship model, whereby commercial interests pay for some aspect of team operations in return for visible recognition on these uniforms. Almost invariably, this leads to a team’s identity being inextricably intertwined with the identity of their lead sponsors, which can change relatively frequently.

For example, most people would say that Lance Armstrong raced the last season of his career with the Discovery Channel team, and that, before that, he was on the U.S. Postal Service team for six years or so, even though these were, for all intents and purposes, the exact same team, managed by Tailwind Sports.

Union Bay Cycling (UBC) is a large Northwest cycling organization built around an elite-level team that races in local, regional, and national events at the pro/am level. UBC has been around, with the same leadership and core group of riders, for over a decade, but major sponsorship changes had made it seem like three or four disparate and relatively short-lived teams. For UBC, I worked with the team director to develop a long-term solution: a core identity system that accommodates prominent and unique recognition for lead sponsors, but embodies the unique heritage and dynamism of the team riders and stays consistent even with major sponsor changes.

I began with the UBC monogram mark (above) that would immediately identify all communication touchpoints of the team: stationery for proposals, press releases and other correspondence, the web site, T-shirts, gear bags, and so on, and, of course, the all-important team kit, including jerseys, shorts, socks, water bottles, gloves, helmet graphics, and several other tertiary clothing articles.

Union Bay Cycling jerseys (long-sleeve front | short-sleeve back) / 2003; I also happened to have designed the Holcam logo on the jersey shoulders (but not their web site) / 2001

The blue grid, an established device of the team, was reworked and became the foundation of this flexible system. The title sponsor was rewarded not only with the most prominent logo presence, but also with an expressive element emerging from the grid (in this case, the hands of Ashmead College, School of Massage), and other sponsors fit into pre-established hierarchical slots based on their respective levels of contribution…
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Filed under Content / Architecture, Copy / Writing, Identity / Systems, Interactive / Web, Packaging / 3-Dimensional, Print / Editorial, Uniforms / Apparel

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Fat and Invisible at the Same Time

FatPort logo (revised)

FatPort logo / 2001, 2008

Though the Internet has been around, in one form or another, for many decades, it had little public awareness until about twenty years ago. By the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web had been plotted by a smattering of amateur “home pages,” which generally consisted of some “lite” personal information about the site’s owner (or “webmaster”) and their hobbies (one of those invariably being “the Internet”). By the late 1990s, these folksy homes were being overwhelmed by the sprawl of “dot-coms” from corporate startups and stalwarts flocking to the new marketplace, and Internet tools like email were beginning to make their way into everyday practice. But, until the early 2000s, the only place in the whole wide world that one would likely experience these sites and services was from the office, or through their droolingly slow modem at home, which made anything but the most formal or mundane tasks a bit difficult for most folks.

Soon enough, though, many public establishments started offering wireless Internet service, enabling the populace to get out into the world and peruse the Web at office-like speeds from their own laptops at places that they already liked going, like coffee shops or bookstores. This service is often referred to casually as “Wi-Fi,” which is a contraction of ‘Wireless’… um…’Fidelity’??, a name created by those wacky kids over at Interbrand for an actual alliance supporting the “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence” specifications (I’m not making this stuff up).

Whatever the protocol may be named (or numbered, or whatever), one of the first Wi-Fi service providers primarily for consumer usage in public establishments was FatPort, a Vancouver, B.C. startup established by a few programmers, including my good friend Ingy, who hired me to help develop the venture’s visual identity (but left a relatively short time thereafter).

Before I was brought in, the name of this service had been established by the founders. A “fat port” is sort of programmer-slang for a good, wide-open connection. Ingy actually had the idea for a ‘fat’ radio tower mark, which I thought was good, so I basically just did it. I then set the type in “fat” and “open” weights to reinforce the idea in a distinctive word-mark. The strong, simple palette of red, white and black hints at the Canadian roots of the program and is highly versatile for any number of applications… Read the rest of this entry »

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The Perfect Job

Sometime between the day I decided that I needed to get a real design job and the day that that happened, I realized that I should probably build some kind of portfolio. I picked up just about any project I could get my hands on and basically hoped for the best, since my relative inexperience denied any assurance of success (or financial compensation)… Read the rest of this entry »

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Just What I’m Going Through / They Can’t Understand*

DPJ racing Volunteer Park Criterium

Here I am racing in “The Whites” at the Volunteer Park Criterium; Seattle / 1999 (photographer unknown)

In a lot of ways, 1999 was an awful year for our young Mr. Daniel P. Johnston. I had a steady job that I hated, basically because I had no idea what I was doing (this job will remain unnamed – it’s not on my résumé). My long-term girlfriend had left for another city. I had parted ways with the cycling team with which I had last raced, primarily because I felt that both my racing and managerial contributions had been under-appreciated. After quite a bit of initial work, I had lost a job to create the identity for a very prominent new bike company (to the client’s girlfriend – while I was on vacation). And, most unfathomably, I had dropped out of college after not being accepted to the Visual Communication Design major. I also got hit by a car (again).

About the only aspect of my life that hadn’t come crashing down on me (or into me) was my passion for bike racing. At this point, I was a precocious wheelman, racing in the top echelons of the northwest’s pro/am ranks, and I was getting faster by the minute – without hardly trying. The idea of going professional at some point even seemed possible to me. But I didn’t think any of the local teams could help me in this pursuit. Indeed, after taking such a hail of blows from so many different directions in such a short span of time, I felt like there was only one entity on which I could truly rely, and that was myself. So I set about creating my own team for the ’99 season, comprising just one member: me… Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under Identity / Systems, Uniforms / Apparel

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