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The era of homepages

2015 April 26
by Matt

Twas a good era, for me at any rate. Mostly.

It seems to be very gradually fading out, now. Once or twice per year, another of my go-to news sites redesigns to get rid of the old “big board” homepage, jammed with a few dozen headlines at once. Many switch to a kind of single-column blog format, like NPR.org and cleveland.com. (In the case of the latter, I discovered recently that its current hideous format is shared by other Advance Publications tendrils.)

Then there’s what I think of as the Slate model, which is kind of a bastard hybrid; instead of a single column story feed dominating the homepage, there are many multicolumn sections sort of like the old big board format, except more space and pictures mean that you still only see a handful of headlines “above the fold,” i.e. without scrolling and scrolling. In addition to Slate, its preppier offspring Vox, as well as sfgate.com are examples of this type.

I’ve concluded that this trend is probably now solidly beyond its tipping point, following ESPN.com recently adopting a blog format homepage. This is particularly disappointing, as it was relatively recently that I switched to ESPN.com as my primary sports guide, from its long-time predecessor Sports Illustrated. As SI.com has a kind of bottomless Slate-format homepage, these days, I doubt that I will bother switching back.

Instead, it seems like just one more thing toward which to sigh, and then resign myself.

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Japan’s URL alternative (not QR codes)

2015 April 17

I feel like I had already learned quite a bit about Japan before visiting for the first time, recently. There were, nonetheless, surprises. (Probably either a reminder of how distant Japan is from north Atlantic culture despite surface familiarity, and/or a sign that my knowledge was much more shallow than I thought; Japan disclaimer.)

Two discoveries stand out, from lots of other interesting experiences. In both cases I was mildly shocked, honestly, not only because I had never learned of these seemingly basic cultural practices before, but also because it still took about three days walking around Tokyo before the penny really dropped.

For days, I was surrounded by advertising, signs and other messages that were largely familiar in style and some times in content, even if most of the specific text was lost on me. Throughout those days I grew more and more puzzled by the rarity of URLs; here and there I saw what was obviously an internet address, but the great majority of advertisements, brochures etc., seemed to lack any discernable internet reference.

Then, at last, I figured out (I think) what I had been missing. While relatively few layouts included a URL, nearly all included something like the following:

Web resource… thing… from ad on the back of a Roppongi map

I think this would direct you to www.midlands.jp… perhaps.

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New portfolio entry, Lumivia

2015 March 28

Months in the making, I recently completed a new product brochure for DuPont Pioneer. I have added the cover and a sample spread to Modern Alchemy’s online portfolio.

I am rather happy with the appearance of this, from a straightforward standpoint, not to mention in light of various challenging circumstances for all involved.

As usual, I am limited in terms of what I can share, where, and respectful of client wishes. But do click through and have a glance.

Desktop Publishing & “Bring Out Your Dead”

2015 March 17

I hope most people are familiar with the “bring out your dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (And familiar with the whole movie, really.) I’m reminded of it, a bit, by “The 7 Signs That Desktop Publishing is Failing You” by Amelia Salyers, which argument I stumbled upon the other day.

Ms. Salyers’ comments are mostly, and openly, a sales pitch for the offerings of her employer Inkling. Unsurprisingly, there are large holes in many of her assertions. Her overall thesis that “most desktop publishing software has reached the end of its useful life,” meanwhile, seems rather like the villager insisting that the old man slung across his shoulder was fit for the corpse cart, despite the old man’s quite audible protests to the contrary.

I make this comparison not only because it amuses me, however; I think it’s also apt in more ways than one. True, traditional desktop publishing platforms are hardly so near death as someone interested in seeing them off may want you to believe. At the same time, though, I think there is a further resemblance to the old man, who was alive enough to insist that he felt happy and might go for a walk… but was at the same time so feeble that he remained flopped over the younger villager’s shoulder, unable to mount any more vigorous defense.

I confess that at least one or two traditional publishing platforms do seem, like that old man, ready to be put out of their misery. Or at any rate, out of our misery.

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Information Design of the 1950s

2015 February 26
by Matt

This is one example of why I enjoy historical research: you find all kinds of cool things. Here’s a low-tech but very adequate information graphic from 1954:

From folder 27, box 4, Hilton papers, Iowa State University Special Collections

From folder 27, box 4, Hilton papers, Iowa State University Special Collections

Apparently this was prepared by administrators at dear auld ISU back in the early days of President James H. Hilton.

This object delighted me because, while it’s so charmingly basic, it’s still very like what I do 61 years later. The tools are different today, and the results probably a bit more professional in appearance. But for all of its near-steampunk material origins—apparently colored pencils and a typewriter—this gets the job done in a fairly neat and efficient fashion.

Nowadays, of course, we have so much automatic digital precision that you occasionally see something like this as an effect, to suggest “authenticity” or something. Usually, though, it’s simulated using software filters and textures.

This is the pure stuff, here.

Costume Quest & the uncanny valley

2015 January 20
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So, I’m a bit behind the times. I bought a PlayStation3 after the PS4 came out, and—while the PS3 still sees new titles released—my most recent acquisition for it is from 2010. It’s so old that the promotional web site has apparently expired.* I do think this is kind of chintzy and lazy, actually; you can’t be bothered to pay the pennies it would take to keep this online? I’m planning to keep www.brilliantdeduction.info live, and Costume Quest is probably still more profitable in 2015 than Brilliant Deduction will ever be…

This aside, I commend DoubleFine for a delightful, delicious game.

As much of the gaming community has already recognized this achievement and moved on, however, I’ve decided to direct most of my comments to some aspects of the game’s design. (Which is why this post is here rather than at my personal site.)

Prominent among its merits, Costume Quest is a feast of design. Keen-o costumes, the icon system of “Battle Stamps,” plus the whole set of “Creepy Treats Cards” (presumably inspired by Garbage Pail Kids) which serve negligible function in the game besides ornamentation. The design element that has prompted the most fascination for me, though, is the built landscape.

Costume Quest's Autumn Pines suburb

Screen shot from Costume Quest’s Autumn Pines suburb

Most of Costume Quest takes place in a suburban neighborhood, a shopping mall, and some kind of rural setting that I can’t even describe effectively without going into it at some length… Before getting to that, though, I’ve wondered why I have wondered so much about this scenery, and today I had an idea. I think maybe the locations in Costume Quest hover in some kind of uncanny valley.

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The Cotton library fire comic

2015 January 17
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Time I posted a few notes about this, my most recent comics work.

As regards inspiration, the original idea to create a promotional comic of some sort resulted from a specific opportunity (I thought) to get a little free exposure. That did not pan out, in fact. But I think it was a great idea because I had much fun making it.

Once I began thinking “what if I made a comic,” I had plenty of ideas. The story of the Cotton library is, I (obviously) think, full of entertaining if often tragicomic episodes. Cotton “picking” his collection from any source that wasn’t nailed down… the intrigues of the rival librarians… the frequently exasperated Sir Frederic Madden… but fairly quickly, I settled on the 1731 fire as the best place to begin.

It just seemed to offer both the best “hook” as a promotion—hey, did you know all these amazing documents are part of one collection and that 300 years ago it was nearly incinerated despite being formally entrusted to Parliament by that point?—and multiple opportunities for jokes amid the greater narrative.

Essentially none of which are made up, either. Dr. Bentley attempting to move the shelves outside… tossing volumes out a window when that first idea wasted too much time… and, yes, even Bentley’s bizarre suggestion that the fire was ghostly punishment for the library’s neglect. All drawn from historic accounts. The literal appearance of Cotton’s ghost is invented, obviously, but it felt like he deserved an opportunity for rebuttal. So, voila artistic license…

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End-of-year card design 2014 & Twitter

2014 December 20
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Making up your own holiday cards is difficult. It’s even more difficult when you make it into a kind of creativity-craft challenge, and strain to work in a new handmade feature each year. Some years the effort produces very nice results, occasionally it produces something near spectacular.

This year, like last year, was a bit more like “deadline’s here, this will have to do.”

I can say that 2014’s design does feel a bit more interesting than 2013’s (which was as nearly close to generic as I’ve gotten). The craft component was, this time out, not really a feature at all, but not for want of trying. Oh, I tried. I definitely set a new record this year for sheer amount of time and effort expended on exploring designs and techniques that I just could not get to work up to my standards. I pursued at least three significant, different lines of concept/technique. All of them came close to working, and I think some of the experience will yet be useful in years to come.

This year, though, I was down to the afternoon of the very last day before I planned to start mailing… and while I could have pushed back the schedule, it seemed unlikely that a few more days would dramatically raise the odds of making any of my lines of experiment work.

Instead, at the last, I had another idea that emphasized concept over technique, and I ran with it. Each card still involved a good deal of cutting, gluing and hand-assembly, but the central “art” element was created with computer software and printed on an inkjet; oh well. I like the idea of taking a break once per year to design with some other media, but at the same time I don’t think it makes sense to be completely rigid about made-up rules for an exercise in creativity.

As for the concept, well, it was basically a Twitter post in paper. Which I can’t claim is all that clever, but I haven’t seen one before.

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Drawing 2014: Harley-Davidson

2014 December 19
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Another Christmas, another commissioned drawing:

Harley-Davidson motorcycle in front of bridge

No, I don’t know anything about this bike; the bridge is somewhere around Savannah GA

USPS informs me that this was delivered today, and so (since I doubt my brother has ever visited my web sites anyway) I think it’s safe to post it here.

I think it’s okay. Unlike last year’s drawing, this was much more a direct rendering from a source photo. I did have to convert from color to black and white (which I might have done in Photoshop, but I didn’t), and I also added the clouds. The sky was basically an overcast blank in the original photo, and it felt like very awkwardly trapped white space between the bridge tower and the tall tree.

Otherwise, I think the original composition was pretty good for an amateur snapshot. As is common in amateur photography, though, the light was behind the subject, so a lot of bike detail was just lost in shadow. Frankly, I just decided to declare this okay, and roll with it. Unfortunately graphite pencils are not ideal for large, solid black areas; try as I might I was unable to eliminate some degree of reflective texture, as evident above. Oh well. Ink might have been better in theory, e.g., but in practice I just don’t have a lot of skill or comfort with wet media.

I also did not especially love drawing all of that foliage in the background, let alone stippling the road texture, for what that’s worth. I think the road at least does look nice, but stippling has not gotten any more fun since the last time I did it. :)

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

2014 November 22
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Here is a portrait I drew of Sir Robert Cotton, English courtier, antiquary and founder the Cotton library that I wrote a book about. Here is a high-resolution versionYou can do whatever you want with them!

Sir Robert Cotton, and his beloved Book of Genesis manuscript

Based on an engraving by George Vertue

 

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