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Tristan Rader campaign work

2017 November 14
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Much of the 11-month interval since my last post, here, went into my work on the Tristan Rader for Lakewood City Council campaign.

This was not entirely design work. I made a lot of contributions to the campaign, honestly. The bulk of it on a volunteer basis.

But a lot of it was design work. Looked at another way, basically all of the campaign’s design was my work, at any rate.

Rader for Council literature

The main campaign literature

Did I mention that the campaign was a tremendous success?

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Hancher vs. Hilton: ebook

2016 December 5
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by Matt

I recently began some work for a new client, Pineapple Press, including an ebook edition of their upcoming Hemingway and Bimini. As a result, what would otherwise have been my third time out creating an ebook file was the fourth, instead. The requirements of their book differed a little from those for Hancher vs. Hilton, but it was a useful warm-up anyway.

In combination, I find that not a whole lot has changed since my second time out, for good and bad.

Mostly, the same styles and process I used two years ago worked again, this time. Annoyingly, that includes the complicated workaround for some elements of an InDesign-generated epub file which does not like, even though the files are perfectly valid. At least I had the notes which I made on that workaround, which were a godsend. As a result, even with this bother, I only went through a handful of iterations before the finished version, compared with about two dozen for Cotton’s Library.

All in all, it seems like “reflowable” epub has settled down, as a format, relative to my first foray. (Apparently there is now a fixed-layout epub format also, which seems essentially like a PDF, but I’ll deal with that some other time.)

I had a few more notes in mind, I think, which I should have written down sooner; let me see, though. On the freelance project, I discovered that you can include an index in your epub. It’s kind of weird, because it displays page numbers which scarcely even apply for a (reflowable) epub, but they’re all hotlinks so it ultimately works.

Amusingly, for the first time in three books I actually had a few photos available which weren’t originally black and white. But they seem to work just the same in the epub format. I did find that InDesign CC offers some improvements for epub creation which were useful for the Hemingway book. But those improvements don’t include resolution to the objections, so I stuck with InDesign CS6 for my own book.

Same thing with the Kindle format ebook; Amazon seems to have abandoned updates to its plug-in for InDesign, but it also still seems to work fine, so I stuck to what’s familiar for now. This was a brief process as well.

Really, at the moment the biggest note I feel like making for myself about this latest ebook outing is the remarkable number of cover files I had to create:

  • cover image for epub
  • “marketing image” for
  • cover image for Kindle
  • skinny aspect ratio “marketing image” for Amazon

I swear that this last one was new to me, and the combined list seems just absurd, but oh well. In a broader sense, this kind of thing is not a feature of ebook publishing so much as it’s just a feature of publishing.

Hancher vs. Hilton: cover design

2016 December 3
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The cover design process for Hancher vs. Hilton was less trying than the interior design. I mocked up several ideas, worked on a few, then sent two or three refined designs to a small “committee” for feedback, and ended up getting enough positive responses to my own emerging preference to go with it:

Front cover of Hancher vs. Hilton

Front cover of Hancher vs. Hilton

In some ways, I had a number of effective “givens” this time out. I had two protagonists, and wanted to include a photo of each. I also had a very strong argument for one particular color scheme: since Iowa State’s colors are cardinal and gold, and the University of Iowa’s are gold and black, I never really found a compelling reason to go someplace other than cardinal, gold and black.

I suppose that this turned out simple in theory and somewhat more complicated in practice. As I often do, I prepared my designs in monochrome, and then tried to “colorize” them. Having a strongly preferred color palette might have made things more difficult, here, vs. just fumbling around for whatever seemed to best complement each design.

In the end, though, I’m very happy with what I came up with. I think the strong diagonal “slash” communicates the element of conflict. All three colors are present, yet essentially divide up the cover between the top half (Hancher’s photo, his name, and Hawkeye colors) and the bottom half (Hilton’s photo, his name, and Cyclone colors).

I like these photos, too. President Hilton looks slightly miffed; photos with a broad grin are probably more representative of the man, but this expression works here. Hancher has a more mild expression, and I could have chosen one or two other photos in which he looked more mean. But the Hilton photo was perfect, and I think this Hancher photo is a good complement within this layout. Hilton faces right, and his head leans that way while his eyes peer back to the left; Hancher’s photo is just the opposite.

One other argument which emerged in favor of this cover was that the layout seemed to demand something in the upper, black bar… which is what prompted me to include the quote from the junior Dr. Hilton. I didn’t factor it in on any of my other designs. But, after seeing it there, I did begin to like it quite a bit.

This is kind of another topic, but it was an honor and a thrill to speak with that wonderfully courteous gentleman… as direct a link as exists to one of the greatest figures in the history of my alma mater. Getting this praise from his son, well… it does feel like sufficiently rare an experience that I might as well make the most of it.

Hancher vs. Hilton: design notes

2016 December 2
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I have a third book, now, Hancher vs. Hilton. You can find information about the book over here. Please have a look. Meanwhile, I’m blowing a bit of dust off the old studio blog to post a few notes about design and production.

My third book was at least as much a challenge to design as its predecessors.

The hardest part should, seemingly, have been the most basic. Working out the base typography was almost a nightmare.

I wasn’t trying to do anything fancy. With the direction established by my cover design (of which more in another post), this interior was the most simple and unembellished of all three books. Granted that simple is not always easy to do well, but in this case the layout and overall design were relatively painless.

I absolutely sweated the type, though. Page after page after page of laser-printed experiment, adjusting first typeface and then margins and point size and leading and it just wasn’t working. Eventually I settled on something that seemed adequate, ordered an early proof copy from, and decided that it would not work.

That was tough. Nonetheless, I concluded that I had to revise, resulting in more experiment but finally some useful realizations.

  1. Sabon was not going to work for body copy. It was just too heavy, at least in the printed book from lulu. Its printing seemed to make Sabon just slightly heavier than a laser-printer, just enough that what had looked okay on a test print seemed too dense in the production book form—which of course was the real standard to measure against.
  2. All of the trips up to Lakewood Library for laser-printing might have been counterproductive. Ultimately I concluded that my inkjet printer was on balance a better preview of the product from lulu than the library’s laser printers.
  3. Meanwhile there’s probably a reason why “book weight” fonts are so-named. While not everything else seems too heavy for a proper trade-size book, plenty of ordinary undistinguished “roman” fonts from basic roman/italic/bold/bold-italic font families probably are too heavy.

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Print has power, even in virtual form

2016 July 26

A novel experience, recently, related to print vs. electronic media in 2016.

Several weeks ago I designed a new web site for that particular pro bono project without end. I also wrote nearly all of it, which I suppose is indirectly relevant to the story. Anyway, more recently I was asked to adapt most of the copy into a print brochure. This was perhaps a first for me, and posed some interesting challenges. That said, more curious is that I had asked people to provide feedback on the web site, and got a few small suggestions from one person—but I received extensive comments and suggested revisions to the same text in brochure form.

Here’s the really funny thing. The brochure has not been printed. It was and as of this moment still is electronic media like the web site. But the response to a PDF of the “print” document was much more extensive than the response to the web site.

I can make various guesses about what may explain this. To be completely accurate, first of all, a larger group of people was directly invited to comment on the PDF brochure, compared with the web site. Still, all of the same people who had extensive comments on the brochure were made aware of the web site. One might imagine that at least some of the eager-beavers among them would have looked at it with a similar measure of editorial interest. Nope, not really.

Beyond that, I guess the brochure has more of a specific limited audience in mind, where as the web site was just posted “out there.” So maybe that prompted more concern. It’s also possible that I’m a better print designer than a web site designer, and that even in electronic form the “print” layout drew people in better than the web site.

I suspect, though, that some inherent features of the two formats were at work.

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Logowatch: DC Comics (again)

2016 May 17
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by Matt

Apparently DC Comics have redesigned their logo. Again.

DC Comics logo, mid-May 2016 edition.

Bleh. Meh.

I feel strange posting about this; I update this blog very infrequently nowadays, and I’m also not really a close observer of the comics “scene” any more. I suppose what notice I do take is mostly just habit.

Yet it also feels like I ought to make some kind of note, here, as I have been “on this story” through two previous redesigns.

Which is mostly all that I can say, perhaps all that usefully can be said, about this latest bit of graphic tail-chasing: DC Comics has now rolled out three logo redesigns in just 11 years. Three. I noted the lameness of the 2005 “swoosh” design on a now-defunct blog, then republished some of those comments in this 2012 post on the “toilet seat” design. I’m not sure what there is to add about the latest revision that I didn’t say about one or other of the previous two. I would say that it’s possibly the worst of all worlds, at once 1) gesturing back toward the pre-2005 “DC bullet” design without actually capturing its nostalgic appeal, 2) lacking the shallow but shiny corporate gloss of the swoosh, and 3) abandoning the overeager conceptual and graphic approach and of the most recent design in favor of a very dull approach on both counts.

Yeah I think that about says enough.

That, and “this company has major things capital-W Wrong going on that no logo should be allowed to distract from.”

Modern Alchemy Turns 10

2016 April 5
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by Matt

Amazing, but true: today marks 10 years since the official incorporation of Modern Alchemy LLC.

It’s difficult to believe. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was celebrating five years. This seems like it should be a much more impressive milestone, but I don’t really have anything in me like the series of reflections I produced five years ago. I think I had more time on my hands, then, plus perhaps I have been there and done that now, and repeating the same kind of hoopla feels a bit tired.

The one feature which I find particularly striking about this 10th anniversary is that Modern Alchemy has now been around as long as my last, brief full-time employer had been when I went to work there. That feels notable, certainly.

It’s also an interesting point of comparison for evaluating what I have to show for 10 years.

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The Pixma iP5000 goeth into the night

2016 March 23
by Matt

Hard to believe it has been several weeks, now. It was the very end of January when an old friend left me…

…i.e., my inkjet printer died after more than 10 years.

Not just pinin' sadly

Canon Pixma iP5000, 2005-2016

Annoying though it is, I can’t help but keep thinking of that Liberty Mutual insurance commercial, because this printer left “Brad” in the dust. I bought it so long ago, I had to spend several minutes digging around through documents just to work out how long ago. The answer was “back in August 2005.” Since then I lost a job, worked in umpteen contracting roles, started a freelance studio, went through a couple of health crises, traveled the world (okay, a bit of Western Europe), moved three times, wrote three books…

All the while, an inkjet printer that I probably bought for a couple of hundred bucks has kept chugging away. I think every computer component around this veteran has been replaced at least once since then. You would expect so, certainly. Ten years!

So I am, even now, saddened a bit to see the iP5000 go.

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El Capitan (2016 edition)

2016 January 25
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I bit the bullet weekend before last and upgraded my production Mac to OS X 10.11, i.e. OS X v11, i.e. “El Capitan.”

I’ve been around long enough that this is my second Apple “El Capitan” product. A bit over 13 years ago* I purchased a G4 PowerMac with the El Capitan case design, which had been introduced a few years earlier in more colorful form. (That particular model was, I notice, codenamed “Yosemite,” so apparently Apple has been on this whole Yosemite National Park kick before… cue mutterings about the company immediately getting stuck in the past since Steve Jobs powered down…)

The El Capitan case was a pretty great design, aside from the fact that it was a giant boat-anchor, like many computers before 2005 or so. How about the El Capitan operating system?

It’s okay. In truth, I think my biggest complaint may be the redesigned Finder icon (which took place in 10.10, actually). It could be that I’ll appreciate this with time, but right now it just seems ugly and stupid:


On the left, my old friend. On the right, ugh.

Seriously, though, that’s my main complaint after a week.

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Lakewood & the biggest pro bono project of my career

2016 January 2
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by Matt

I have spent not quite a year, now, contributing creative services to grassroots campaign Save Lakewood Hospital. The jury is still out on whether or not the campaign succeeds—right now we could really use your help, even one minute’s worth, particularly if you live in Lakewood—but it’s always going to be an effort I recall with pride. As a grassroots organization, the reality has by no means been complete control of every detail, but in a way I have been gratified most by seeing something I designed take on a life entirely its own:

July 4, 2015 parade photo

Lakewood Independence Day parade, 2015

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