Category Archives: Design

Design Week Vancouver Blew.

Last week, I was at Design Week Vancouver, sponsored by Icograda and the GDC. It was a fantastic event—two days of alternating inspiration and provocation on design’s value in our current culture.
There were a lot of personal gleanings—and sometimes the event’s speakers blew my fragile mind—but mostly I’m left with a glittering bag of silver gems that I’d like to share. These mostly derive from five different speakers, all of whom connected me to a deeply personal drive to do better work for better clients in better ways.

  • If you can’t do surprising, delightful work, it’s probably not going to be very good.
  • Allow a client to be the best that they can. Don’t second guess them, especially at the start of a relationship. Enter new client relationships as if you were right out of school.
  • Listen—and then listen some more.
  • Don’t be afraid to piss people off. At the very least, surprise them.
  • Find a way to think about and talk about and then help the billions of people who are simply without.
  • Mark-making is a critical component of graphic design that has been lost amongst pixels, grids, and the strategy sessions of the mundane and mendacious.
  • Not drawing is like not showering; it’s where the best ideas happen.
  • Related, stop using stock unless you absolutely need to. Get clients to pay for the way your eye connects to you hand not just the way your mouse connects to your software.
  • Skip market strategy and the concomitant silliness. Get the audience and you’ll have the client.
  • Open source your ideas, designs, and plans. In some cases, such as architecture, not doing so is tantamount to withholding expertise that can change lives.
  • Hold complexity but aim for simplicity.
  • Sustainability in design is more than about not printing an email or using FSC paper. The entire lifecycle of design should be infected with sustainability—approaching a client, thinking about their work, defining a message, and finding the medium.
  • Do what you can to reduce the human burden on the planet. At the same time, recognize that not all ideas around sustainability are fundamentally sustainable.
  • @FChimero “As designers, we are gift givers. We’re asking people for their time and should reward them for it.” via @Rethinknow
  • Slow down. And don’t let markets and marketing stop you from asking the hard questions of yourself and your clients.

Oh, those five speakers: Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, artist and designer Marian Bantjes, illustrator and designer Frank Chimero, Ali Gardner of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and strategist Brian Collins. Thank you one and all. And thanks to the GDC organizing committee that made it real and great.


I’ve been mulling the future of design for the past few days, as I’ve had a few brief but turbulent encounters with clients around cost and deliverables. Most of my worries have been around this incredible rapid race to the bottom. Every day I receive emails from (semi-legitimate or real) companies in India, Russian, or Romania that, in essence, are offering web design and/or development services for $8.00 per hour or less. I fully understand that, in this race, everyone is hungry, everyone need to make money and that developed countries (e.g. Canada) has an inordinate leg up on against developing countries.
Where it gets incredibly messy and grotesque, in my opinion, is on sites like There, clients don’t need to argue with designers to provide a lower price for high quality service. That’s simply the modus operandi. Clients go to 99 because they only want to pay that amount and, from my observations, it looks like they’re all getting a good deal. The designs are competent, the quality is quite high, and the timing may be on. But what’s missing is that inexplicable construct which comes with truly great design – a personality, a spirit of assurance or a logic that escapes the traditional. Does this mean that only well-heeled and monetarily blessed individuals and organizations can afford enlightened or unique design? It does. And the reality is that this is how design (and aesthetic production more generally) has always worked. Because nearly anyone with a computer today can be a knowledge or culture worker (or both), the playing field is level. The same goes with video editors, journalists, and programmers. But, because this has happened so quickly, we still don’t have mechanisms to rule out what is merely good from what is great.
Sites like Haystack, recently launched by 37signals, make an attempt at helping people choose a design firm that matches their requirements. But their model, where some agencies and designers can pay for an elevated position on the site, belie and undermine their intention. Taking money from companies that may or may not be better at communicating prospective client needs and showcasing those companies is not a useful proposition. Instead, Haystack takes the model and turns it around; the wealthiest and most marketing-focused design firms are provided leverage in the competition. In this way (and in this way only), I believe that the latter is, ethically, on more solid ground;, at least, honestly allows multiple entities to compete for a given (albeit low) amount of business.
What is missing here, in this novel short-sighted design context, is the relationship. I’ve always said that, for my little company, the relationship is everything. The auctioning or advertising of services (two sides of the same ugly coin) won’t buy long-term design, unique imagery, or usable and accessible production. In this supposedly “democratic” connectedness, it’s not connection that buys good design, as nearly everyone has that. Rather, and simply, the best design today stems from relationships and the unfolding of solutions through dialogue and time.

The Last of Newsweek.

I promise that this will be the last post on Newsweek (probably) for some time, but I figured it was worth following up after having attempted to redesign a few pages of the magazine.
First off, a number of other sites picked up on the design and their reviews are worth reading. In particular, writes in Newsweek relaunch: “Unless I’m missing something here, this is a bit of of tricksy over-design that doesn’t suit a magazine claiming depth and intelligence.” I think this sums up the entire experience of the magazine. Further down the page, a commenter writes “I feel like I lost a close friend.” My sentiments exactly. Great site, magCulture, by the way.
Second, it appears that the design was executed (my word) by Number 17. I can’t speak to their other work, which looks fine enough, but they have a lot to answer for with this project (or their client does). (FYI, Number 17, your site doesn’t work on the iPhone and isn’t accessible.)
Next, I found some interesting commentary by James Robinson about the size and losses of the magazine, which is sad on top of sad. Writer and art director Mark Porter writes about the design’s fundamental randomness on his site. As well, a really nicely crafted new design blog called idsgn writes Newsweek, can a redesign save the dying magazine? and pick up my redesign.
Font identification update: It appears that the redesign uses Village’s Flama for headlines. Most of the magazine’s new text itself appears to be using Christian Schwartz’s Farnham. And then there’s Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ Archer used for much of the body text in the front of the book. On their own, each of these typefaces are elegant, unpretentious, modern, and extremely legible. Mixed into the cauldron of the Newsweek redesign, they look like hell.
Finally, some inquired as to where I work. I run a small design firm called MANOVERBOARD. I’d be happy to hear from anyone with thoughts or questions.
Oh: I cancelled Newsweek and I was kindly sent a check for the remainder of my two-year subscription.

Redesigning Newsweek.

A few weeks ago, I kidded on Twitter that I was redesigning Newsweek because I was so utterly disgusted with the publication’s recent redesign. You can read my full venting on the subject, if you’re interested.
Newsweek‘s new design takes relatively staid stock imagery, some very well written content, and a few strong typefaces and somehow manages to ruin all of them in one fell swoop. The totality of the presentation is a mess, with sloppy layout, poor typography, inconsistent styling, and a seeming lack of interest in engaging the reader.
So, I decided to redesign to Newsweek—or at least a few pages of the magazine.*
I had the following overarching objectives:

  • Use the same or very similar fonts
  • Make use of the general look and feel of the magazine that I’ve known for many years (and even capture some of the nuances of the current magazine)
  • Ensure that the presentation could actually be used by the magazine

These objectives were defined to better put myself in the shoes of the art director and to feel that the assignment would have a result that would be useful and utilizable.
Concomitantly, I set up the following limitations:

  • I would not spent more than 2 total hours on the project
  • The redesign would use exactly the same copy as in the original magazine
  • No truly new graphics (e.g., icons, textures, etc.) would be introduced

These restrictions would ensure that I felt that I didn’t have free license to do whatever the hell I want. Rather, as the Fake Art Director, I had to make use of the same basic resources available to the real one.

The Original

I chose to use the Crazy Oprah issue of Newsweek (June 8, 2009) because, in part, the cover felt so angry, and even mildly racist. Here the magazine used an unflattering photograph of a powerful and influential person and subjected her to an unsubtle and unsophisticated visual presentation.
Newsweek cover from June 8, 2009
I also chose two interior pages from this same issue that interested me. These were Fareed Zakaria’s “Boom Times are Back”, a piece about the potential decline of influence of the United States, and an back-of-the-book article on Elvis Costello by Seth Colter Walls entitled “He’s a Little Bit Country.” The latter also had a strange column at the bottom of the page called “The Prognosticator”.
page of Newsweek featuring article by Fareed Zakaria
page of Newsweek about Elvis Costello

A Revision

I started the revision by reworking Zakaria’s piece. I wanted to try to use, as much as possible, the exact same font families that are in the original design. Included was Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s beautiful slab serif Archer for headlines, which does not work at all for the magazine. I believe the main font used for the body is a grade of H & FJ’s lovely Mercury Text, but I’m not sure. I wanted to see if I even had a chance of making it work.
first redesigned page for Zakaria article
As you can see, I failed. It’s no better than the original.

The Revision

I looked through my toolbox and found that two relatively new font families would work beautifully here: Christian Schwartz’s Stag for headlines and callouts and Veronika Burian’s fabulous Karmina for the body. Stag is a sturdy but smart slab face with roots in the magazine world; it was originally commissioned for Esquire. Karmina was developed for difficult print conditions and it reads crisply and elegantly at small sizes.
Using wider margins and gutters and larger images and these typefaces, I restyled the same copy with cleaner, clearer headlines that actually spoke to me.
second redesigned page for Zakaria article
I then replicated the general styling of this page for the piece on Costello and “The Prognosticator” section.
second redesigned page for Walls article
Finally, I tackled the cover. In some ways, this was the easiest part of the redesign. Through the power of Google, I found a much more flattering photograph of Oprah Winfrey. If the editors wanted to insult her or her fans, at least they could do it in a more subtle way. Using DINSchrift for the knocked out headline, I placed it over the mouth, which is also the central spot of the book. The sub-header is less important but I gave more prominence to the byline, which to my eyes should have more weight.
I found an older version of the Newsweek logo for the masthead, which I prefer. It’s chunkier, thicker, and feels more honest, somehow than the leaner, Slim-Fast version on the newsstands. Related, I extended the red masthead left and right to bleed off the page; this makes the cover feel more full, more serious, and brighter. Finally, I centered the dateline above the logo and placed the coverlines at the top that showcased top stories within the magazine. (While I appreciate the simplicity of a minimalist magazine cover, by not indicating featured content, I’m not sure what I’m buying in a magazine besides for a cover story.)
redesigned cover of Newsweek
The end result is not perfect by any means. My revision, if anything, feels a bit too colorful and too People-magazine for a Newsweek audience. At the same time, I can honestly say that I’d rather read my redesign than theirs.
If you’re interested, you can download a PDF (quite large at 2.6 MB) of the redesign to see some of the details.
*Disclaimer: the logos and all content used in the redesign are copyright Newsweek, Inc. Photos of celebs and other images used in the redesign were gained via Google and are copyright their respective authors.

I Want You Back.

It didn’t get much better than this: the Jackson Five play for the first time on Dick Clark’s Bandstand. I’m guessing this is around 1970.
R.I.P. Michael.

Video Spectacle III.

Third in a series of videos that I feel represent a change in the way motion pictures are working online, via The Ministry of Type, I discovered this beautiful reel of the recent works of Rob Chiu. (AKA The Ronin, Chiu is a photographer and videographer based in London.)
What makes this short video compilation of stills and motion so compelling are two things. First, the extraordinary use of Radiohead’s “Videotape” song, which has the following lyrics:
This is one for the good days
and I have it all here
In red, blue, green
Red, blue, green
Second, unlike the high-speed and high-drama of most videos today, this one focuses on the slow human motions of walking, sleeping, eating, reading, killing, and watching. In a few short moments, we watch days go by, words fly by, people working and collapsing, as they themselves watch the world watch them go by.

Video Spectacle II.

A new magazine about Judaism and Jewish contemporary life has launched. It’s called Tablet and I quite like the idea of the English-speaking world reading a more thoughtful approach to thinking about Jewish thinking (pardon all the redundancy).
My peronsal hope for Tablet is that it fills the gaps between the often hilarious in-jokes of Heeb, the earnest progressivity of Tikkun, and the newsiness of the Jerusalem Post.
The two designers who crafted the over-arching and specific identities around Tablet speak about their decision-making process, their research, and their presentation of designs in this video (I can’t seem to embed it herein). I don’t particularly adore the aesthetic of “big ideas in the 70’s” but I identify with the designers’ approaches to the task and their efforts to present strong design, good typography, and reasonable client access to their thought process. It’s something I aim for in every design project, as well&#8212large, small, and in between. Nice work all around.

Video Spectacle I.

Video has exploded and has become the most interesting medium on the Web for me, though I am just learning how to use it, produce it, and edit it.
Over the next week, my goal is to show spectacular examples of video from around the globe.
I. I-Movix SprintCam v3 NAB 2009 showreel by David Coiffier.
1000 frames per second on a supremely high resolution camera pushed to slow motion. (Via daringfireball.)

I-Movix SprintCam v3 NAB 2009 showreel from David Coiffier on Vimeo.

Hint: Check it out in HD at this actual link to video.

Weak Newsweek.

For many years, I’ve been a fervent subscriber of Newsweek magazine. Started in the midst of the Great Depression, the magazine always felt, to me, like a more settled yet liberal version of Time. Its stories were rich in detail, its editorial passionate, its photography and illustration solid. I always enjoyed getting my copy of it in the mail, and even after our move to Canada a few years ago, I kept up the subscription, despite the hefty additional cost and the extra time it took to arrive on these northern shores.
I eagerly waited and was very excited to see the new design that Newsweek, going through its own fits of journalistic and financial challenges, orchestrated. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham, on Charlie Rose, a few weeks ago spoke eloquently about the need to reinvent journalism, to ensure that the magazine survives amidst the oncoming shakeups and shutdowns, and to find a new way to build circulation and revenues. I saw the website and, while it was less than stellar, I figured that the magazine had put most of its efforts into creating a new print style that would match its new editorial outlook.
Then “it” arrived. I call it “it,” because my first and ongoing reaction to the new print edition of Newsweek is one of profound disgust and mild horror. The thing is just ugly, from beginning to end. Here’s what’s wrong with “it”:
It’s almost impossible to discern (even with these discerning eyes) the editorial content from the advertisements and the advertisements from the advertorials. Everything, and I do mean everything, is fused into a wall of non-hierarchical content.
It’s primary new typeface used, Hoefler & Frere-Jones otherwise lovely Archer, is so over-used and inelegantly styled that reading the magazine is an exercise in futility. I started reading one article – and about half the way through I put the magazine down and closed its pages. I became so focused on the slabs and dots of Archer’s slab serifs that I could no longer focus on the meaning of the words. To me, it’s like reading a garden. (I even own and often use Archer for clients; it’s a great display face, but it doesn’t work for Newsweek.)
The cover is so tremendously overwrought, I thought I was looking at a 1980s throw-back. Putting the red solid banner at the top and center, lurking above the content looks wrong. The large photo beneath it is nice, but the transparent overlay of text is either illegible, cute, or worse, both. Oddly, I typically like this treatment of transparent text over color photographs; in this case, the designers took it too far.
I don’t know if Newsweek changed its printing facilities or is using a new paper throughout, but it doesn’t work. It’s a bit nicer quality of print and that is appreciated. But it goes against the grain of the entirely advertisement-like cheapness of the interior.
As a newsweekly with the name “Newsweek,” there’s no News section. As Jeremy Leslie writes in his review in “Unlike rival Time, which relaunched last year, this weekly news magazine no longer has a News section. Brave stuff, and the decision is getting plenty of comment online, including a withering comment from US editorial design guru Roger Black to the effect that the magazine could now afford to change it’s name as it was no longer about news nor needed to be weekly.” In fact, Time did an utterly stunning job in its recent redesign; while the content is more shallow and temporal, the design is extremely functional and elegant in its use of space.
This brings up the last point: space and time. Given that, as citizens of the new world, we all feel cramped against so little time, it’s critical that the “idea space” our magazines provide is clear, compelling, and pleasurable to apprehend and understand. Most of us need help making sense of the world’s newsworthy complexity – and a newsweekly helps summarize and punch up what might be forgotten amidst the headlines on and the increasingly boring As a Michael Kinsley writes his in his review of the newsweekly at TNR, Meacham says about the new magazine:

“We are not pretending to be your guide through the chaos of the Information Age,” which concedes a lot of ground from the get-go. Why not at least pretend? Why else would people pick it up, let alone subscribe?

I, for one, will give Newsweek one Newsmonth to get its visual and editorial act together. If it doesn’t succeed, I’ll be giving myself the gift of Time.