The Respectability of Selling Out

If you’ve been with us awhile, you might remember that I’ve ranted a bit before about Shepard Fairey’s “obey” product line. His “Andre the Giant has a posse” and “Obey Giant” stickers started as a funky art project and grew into a guerilla marketing campaign for a clothing line sold through overpriced urban boutiques.

From an visually aesthetic standpoint, I’ve always enjoyed his art style, and so it has kind of bugged me that he has billed his work as politically subversive, encouraging reflection on speech and oppression. (Seriously, see quotes from the post linked above.) It’s really hard to make a “power to the people” claim when “the people” need to find a specialty store and shell out fifty bucks for the right to wear your political art in public—especially when plenty of the pieces in your clothing line feature no discernible visual or textual statements beyond a tiny “Obey” label over the pocket that might as well say “Stüssy” or “Volcom” for all that its fashion-conscious wearers care.

And this is why I am glad that Shepard Fairey is going legit.


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Common Typographic Mistakes

Why nitpick things like grammar and punctuation—which most of your nerdy friends are probably anal about already—when you can give people a hard time over typography?

I’ll admit, I really don’t care much about getting vertical vs. diagonal “primes” right unless I’m designing a book for professional publication, but it does get my goat when people screw up the direction of quotes and apostrophes. Remember, on a Mac anyway, it’s pretty easy to change the ‘80s (see that apostrophe facing the wrong way?) into the ’80s (ahh, much better). Don’t leave it to smart quotes when you can do Option Left-Bracket for double quotes and Right-Bracket for single quotes (and hold down shift to make them face the other direction). [Edited to be representative of how the mistake would look in Microsoft Word; apparently WordPress actually rendered the first example correctly on the first try!]

There … I’ve gotten it off my chest. And used a proper ellipsis for a change, just to try it on for size.

Design (and) Geekery

The New York Times features a useful flowchart of geekdom.

Curious about its designer, I googled “Sam Potts,” and came upon his website. I like it because it is a mockery of graphic (and web) designers’ sites everywhere. I assume that means he doesn’t need to go actively looking for work anymore.

Uh oh! It’s the Design Police!

I am constantly amused, occasionally frustrated, and even sometimes impressed by the audacity of graphic designers. Spend a few minutes flipping through a major design criticism magazine (or the archives of well-trafficked design blogs) and you might find that graphic designers seem to think themselves possessed of great powers of understanding, unseen by any who would not call him or herself “a visual person.” The most amusing and consistent manifestation of this audacity is the ruthless critiquing of other people’s design work as being somehow inferior, generally for nit-picky reasons that are about as observable as midichlorians.

All of that said, I have a certain respect for those who go all-out and just call themselves design police. Encouraging others to “bring bad design to justice,” the site offers a number of templates for stickers and labels that one could affix to bad design: “kern this,” “do not use faux bold,” “Microsoft Wordâ„¢ is not a design tool,” and “consult a graphic designer,” among others. Actually, while some of these seem kind of vague and less than constructive (“this has no personality,” “severe lack of creativity”), I must admit that others reflect stuff I’ve complained/blogged about myself (“Awful library stock photo,” “Comic Sans is illegal“).

All of that said … Design Police, I’m going to have to stick one of your own tags on you: “Idea stolen from: The Graffiti Report Card.”

Behold the Typographer, Bringer of Wonder

Holy crap, exljbris, free quality font foundry really is what it purports to be. Free fonts are easy enough to find on the web, but generally, they’re cute but half-assed novelty fonts with poor kerning and limited character sets. Follow that link to some really versatile, well-made fonts with personality. (Thanks Design Observer for the link.)

Why Web Design Is Just Vaudeville

I recently wrote a post calling for you, my dear friends, to suggest what we might consider a “canonic” or “iconic” web design—something with the aesthetic resonance, recognizability, and influence of, say, Paul Rand’s IBM logo or Massimo Vignelli’s New York City subway map. This was in response to a post by Armin Vit about why there are no “landmark” web designs. My guidelines were simple: Just suggest a damn site and don’t try to explain why the question can’t be answered, as the commenters on Armin’s original post had already hammered that to death.

Well, kudos to those of you who tried, but we didn’t get (and I didn’t offer) much in the way of suggestions. I thought I’d follow that post up, though, as The Legend of Zeldman himself—web designer and critic Jeffrey Zeldman, that is—has chimed in with the best response yet as to why the question is misguided, if not unanswerable. I totally agree with him, except for the parts where I totally disagree.


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Thoughts on Emotionally Intelligent Signage

Design Observer directed me to this interesting video slideshow on “emotionally intelligent signage.” The basic premise is that signs should be able to more effectively direct us by appealing to our emotions, either displaying empathy on the part of the sign-hangers or encouraging empathy among sign-readers. The presenter behind this, Dan Pink, has also offered some examples of emotionally intelligent road signage designed by 8th graders. (My favorite: “Slow down! You may hurt the future.”)

Some of the examples offered by Mr. Pink are amusing and clever. Of course, when he starts talking about the effectiveness of such signs in actually encouraging or altering behavior, he gets me thinking in researcher-mode. How would one fit this into existing models of communication theory? How would we define this sort of appeal such that we could test it? I haven’t devoted enough thought to the matter to figure it out, but I welcome those of you taking the “Social Psych” class this year to chime in.

My (somewhat pessimistic) guess is that there is a way we could define this and prove that it can be more effective in some situations, but that effectiveness would probably wear off if this technique were employed as a matter of course with most signage. Eventually, I think that attempts to display or encourage empathy would probably just end up looking more like ads and public service announcements, which we’ve learned to tune out pretty well already.

How to Pretend to Be Art

I have at times lamented that I think that some of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” designs—on posters, clothing, books, etc.—look kind of cool, but I can’t bring myself to pay for them. I have some kind of aversion to supporting that which is vaguely depoliticized and yet which claims to be highly political and irreverent. I used to think Shepard Fairey’s idea of mimicking ad messages in street art was kind of clever, and then I noticed that I see “Obey” logos and designs much more frequently on expensive designer clothing than on street corners. Generally I’m not inclined to accuse people of selling out because everybody’s got to make a buck, but if you strike the pose of a cultural revolutionary, I expect you to either hold it or find a new gig eventually.

This is a somewhat long-winded way of introducing an essay accusing Shepard Fairey of plagiarism and hackwork. I don’t necessarily agree with the essayist in all examples; “plagiarism” seems kind of a strong word for what plenty of artists consider “appropriation and recontextualization,” as the “Big Brother” example at the forefront of the essay seems to me. The writer acknowledges that “Despite some reservations I generally agree with that viewpoint—provided that such a process is completely transparent,” and yes, most of what follows is anything but. Most of these cases seem like Fairey just traced or copied artwork that he figured nobody would be likely to recognize.

Mostly, though, I wanted to link to this because I’m in agreement with the essay’s critique of Fairey’s depoliticized faux-critical stance, and the essayist makes the point more clearly and eloquently than I do. I’ll quote the final paragraph here because it ends on such a punchy (and, I believe, accurate) note, in case you can’t get read through something that’s almost entirely and inexplicably center-aligned:

If carefully examined, the rebellious patina and ersatz activism of Shepard Fairey’s art gives way to reveal little in the way of political imagination. Ultimately his work is the very embodiment of “radical chic”, bereft of historical memory and offering only feeble gestures, babbling incoherencies, and obscurantism as a challenge to the deplorable state of the world. Such an artist cannot provide us with a critical assessment of where we stand today.

Uncle Jesse Strictly Prohibited


Please, no Full House on the Brooklyn L train. (Link via Boing Boing.)

Infographic Round-up

Collected months ago, mostly from Jacob and Boing Boing. (Click images or links for uncropped versions.)


Extracts from Survival in the City, This Magazine


“Thwock, Gulp, Kaching! Beer Pong Inspires Inventors,” Wall Street Journal


Unicorn Threat Level, originally from Discoballearring