Color your world

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Can you paint with all the colors of the…pantone?

In my current job at an online eyewear company called Eyemusement, I often have minor assignments designing basic promotional materials–newsletters, postcards, press kits, etc. The founders of Eyemusement chose chocolate and turquoise as the main colors, which seem pretty straightforward. I’ve found out, though, that there are approximately 1 million shades of brown and 10 billion shades of turquoise (forget you, EL James–I’m sure there are at least 51 shades of gray!) I know this because I’ve spent many an afternoon trying to match one Hershey’s-chocolate brown logo to a Dove-chocolate brown box. Let’s not even get into the variations between “pool” and “Tiffany’s turquoise.”

Of course, this would all be easier if we chose one Pantone code for each of the two colors and stuck to it. Pantone is the bible of colorists and designers worldwide, offering color charts and palettes, forecasting which colors will be popular in a given year, even making up new colors. (Apparently, making up colors isn’t such a novel thing: a 19th-century British Prime Minister studied every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad and found no mentions of blue. In this Radiolab segment, a linguist and neuropsychologist discuss why, across cultures, blue is the last color to appear in human understanding).

While you or I might not associate 2009, for instance, with Palace Blue and Rose Dust (the colors forecasted that year), perhaps in some later year we’ll be able to see a pattern in the popular colors of the 2000s. I found a complete list of color-palette-by-decade since the 1880s, and there are some recognizable trends: the muted tones of the 1920s, the war-inspired colors of the 1940s, the neon-hued 1960s. And, of course, nothing is more iconic of the 1950s than Avocado and Harvest Gold. May they rest in peace.

After so much time spent matching colors, though, I was feeling pretty cocky. I thought I was pretty good at identifying when my chocolate brown needed just a little more red, or my turquoise needed a bit more yellow. And so, when I came across an online color challenge, I was sure I would get a great score. The challenge consists of 4 rows of 20 hues which you must arrange in order, from rose to turquoise to lavender and back. I lined them all up, checked my results…and found out I am terrible at distinguishing hues, except for in a few cases. I was shocked. But heck, even Monet got his colors off a little bit, especially near the end of his life. Maybe this test just signifies that I’m a genius.

Try it yourself.

What score did you get?

Monet: wrong? Or brilliantly right?

PS. Since everything relates back to books for me, here’s a list of 13 authors with corresponding color palettes. Lovely.

Judging a book by its…

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I’m a lifelong bibliophile, a perambulator of bookstores and libraries, wont to picking up books at random and taking them in on a whim. So, of course, I’m a lover of book covers.

And, except for those of us who judge books only on their e-readers, covers matter. A lot. Female British author Lionel Shriver wrote a scathing piece for The Guardian of the gender inequality of cover designs. She rightly complains that the pastel images of wistful women that her publisher’s designers suggest for her are based solely on her gender and have nothing to do with her books–intense narratives, even “nasty,” as she calls them. No one wants the label chic lit, even those who predominantly write for a female audience (I’m looking at you Jodi Picoult).

Book buyers tend to form judgements about unknown books within 10-20 seconds of seeing them. Which is why the hardcover copy of last year’s The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt:

 

 

makes such a better first impression than the paperback version:

 

 

The hardcover version is a visual double entendre, the paperback a pastel banality that makes me think I’m picking up a dry history of the wild west. Pass.

It’s pretty amazing when a book cover makes you do a double take, gives you a complete summary of the book in a single image. Designer Jenny Volvovski is currently creating new covers for books she’s read, and I love her take on Bradley Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist:

 

The main character has four wives, each with several children, and somehow the letters alone give you a sense of his life. There he is, the lonely O at the center of it all.

I could go on forever about amazing book covers, because there are so many good ones (and several blogs devoted to them). In case you’re interested, here are a lot more awesome book covers. And here’s a list of 30 books that “you should buy for the cover alone.”

But in the age of the e-reader, is the book cover an endangered art form? Chip Kidd, one of the most famous book cover designers of all time, thinks not. NPR quotes him as saying, “[Books] need some kind of visual representation, whether you’re going to be seeing them the size of a postage stamp on a computer screen or a smartphone, or sitting on a table, or on a shelf, or in a bookstore.” Of course, he’s banking on that assumption, given that that’s how he makes a living. I hope he’s right.

Here’s his TED talk on the art of designing a book cover:

 

 

 

How to be a graphic designer

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What you’ll need: at least 2 monitors, Adobe creative suite

Songlist: anything by Bauhaus, Written in Reverse by Spoon

Further reading: um, a graphic novel? No wait, something about graphic design.

McKayla Maroney is not impressed with this logo.

Ok, last post about the Olympics. I swear.

Now, were you surprised at seeing an image as horrifically ugly as the logo above in a post about graphic design? I don’t know a whole lot about graphic design, so I didn’t follow the unveiling of the 2012 London Olympic logo or the subsequent typeface associated with it, and thus wasn’t aware of the outrage that predated my own. Because, for all my love of the Olympics, and for the million hours I spent watching TV over the past 2 weeks, I just could not get over that horrible, clunky, graceless font. (Last time I checked, the Olympics are not exactly a celebration of clunkiness).

Unfortunately, I didn’t rally any of my fellow Olympics-watchers to my cause:

“Isn’t the typography awful?”

“Eh.”

“I mean, seriously, doesn’t it just make you angry?”

“Shh, the girls are hitting the ball now.”

To console myself, I tried outlining a logo of my own, and quickly noticed that the first two letters of the host city’s name are quite similar to the current year. With a little work, something interesting could be done with that similarity. My own attempts weren’t great, but you’ll see what I mean in the following logo, created by British graphic designer Richard Voysey:

Ahhh, that’s more like it

I felt vindicated both by the Brits’ selection of Mr. Voysey’s design as the “favourite alternative logo” of the games, as well as this design blog’s list of the 8 worst fonts in the world. The London Olympics typeface, called 2012 Headline, ranks #1, worse than Papyrus, worse than Comic Sans (which didn’t even make the list). It can’t get any worse.

But I don’t just want to be one of those Debbie-downer-negative-Nancy complainers. I’ve become much more interested in graphic design over the last year or so, after a) reading blogs that frequently link to lovely infographics* and typefaces and b) having to do very basic graphic design myself for one of my jobs. On Saturday I lugged home 5 enormous history-of-graphic-design books from the library, and I mean to make a serious dent in them. At least by leafing through the pretty pictures.

Look out, world.

*The best infographics I’ve seen are by Nicholas Felton, who produces his annual Feltron report, and Warby Parker’s annual report. Here’s a sample of Nicholas Felton’s work:

Data done right.

Happily ever after

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The closing ceremonies of the Olympics are almost unbearably sad to me. Unlike the opening ceremonies when everyone dreams of winning a medal–realistically or not–the closing ceremonies are defined by the victories and defeats of the past 2 weeks. But whether or not they got the gold–and the majority of them didn’t–these athletes will be retelling their stories for the rest of their lives.

As I said to friends on Friday night, I feel so bad for most of these athletes who will spend the next 60 years wishing they’d gotten the gold medal. One friend responded, yeah, and we get to spend 80 years wishing we’d gotten a gold. Touché. Psychologically, however, it’s hardest on silver medalists. While bronze medalists are generally happy just to be on the podium, and non-medalists are generally happy to even be a part of the Olympics, silver medalists are those who missed out by a thousandth of a point or a thousandth of a second. Just ask Lashinda Demus, American hurdler who vowed to never quit until she bumped up her silver status to gold, or McKayla Maroney, whose sour expression on the second-tier silver podium spawned the meme McKayla is not impressed.

Not impressed.

And for those who did get the gold? What happens after the end of the fairy tale? What will Michael Phelps and Misty May Treanor do, for goodness sake, without swimming or beach volleyball?

The second half of the musical Into the Woods wonders what happens after “happily ever after,” and the answer is not a rosy picture. The show ends with the Children Will Listen, a song which cautions that wishes do come true, but “sometimes the spell may last / past what you may see / and turn against you.”

Hopefully that won’t be the case for the Olympians now returning to their home countries. Because, even if McKayla isn’t, we are certainly impressed with our fairy tale heroes and heroines, and hope that “happily ever after” really can come true.

Grimm and grimmer

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A few weeks ago I checked out Coursera, the website that grants access to free online classes in a range of topics led by professors at top universities. Pretty good deal, right? Several of the imminent classes sounded interesting: Introduction to Sustainability, for instance, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. However, knowing nothing about either of these subjects I decided to sign up for a class that I have some background in: a literature course called Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. After signing up, though, I realized I didn’t really have an extra 10+ hours a week necessary for all the readings, lectures, and essays.

In fact, the main reason I was interested in the class was the first reading, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and thus I decided to just read them on my own.

As you might expect, the tales are odd. We know some of the famous ones–Hansel and Grethel, Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella (called Aschenputtel in German, a decidedly unattractive name). And while there are several tales of beautiful maidens being rescued from evil stepmothers by kings, there are many more with talking animals and and lies that are not always punished. Most of the stories, really, seem written by children, with a child’s wandering logic and miscellaneous details and rules.

In the woods

Children’s tales are generally fashioned to teach lessons, but Grimm’s lessons are often puzzling. In Hansel and Grethel the poor father is loathe to leave his children in the forest, but agrees with his cruel wife. When his children reappear at the house after Hansel’s flint stones lead them back, the father is overjoyed yet must agree once more with his wife to bring them out into the woods. For, as the story asserts, “he who says A must say B too, and when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.”

In some stories, young girls who make promises are forced to make good on them (such as in The Frog Prince). Yet, in other instances, cruelty is rewarded. Cat and Mouse in Partnership tells the story of a cat and mouse who save a pot of fat to tide them through the upcoming winter. The cat can’t wait to eat it and steals away three times to eat it by himself. When the winter finally falls and the mouse discovers the cat’s duplicity, the cat eats the mouse. The final sentence of the story simply reads: “And that is the way of the world.” Hardly comforting. Likewise, in The Wolf and Seven Goslings, a wolf asks a baker to cover him in flour so that he might disguise himself and eat the eponymous goslings. The baker at first refuses, not wanting to collude with the evil wolf, but finally agrees. The story gives us this wisdom: “And that just shows what men are.”

Perhaps the strangest two stories I read, though, were The Death of the Hen and The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. In the first, a hen dies choking and several animals join in to carry her body to a burial site. While crossing a stream, though, they all drown. Her husband remains, buries her, and then buries himself alongside because he’s so filled with grief.

In the second story, a straw, a coal, and a bean escape a woman’s stovetop and set out together on a journey. They, too, come to a stream and the straws lays himself across it so that his new friends might pass over. The coal stops in the middle of the straw out of fear, but the coal’s heat burns the straw and they both fall in the water and…die? Can we say that about a coal and a straw? Meanwhile, the bean finds his friends’ demise so hilarious that she literally bursts with laughter. A kind tailer sews her up with black thread. So, Grimms, what are we to make of it all? Only this: “All beans since then have a black seam.”

Ah yes, an important lesson to teach the children.

 

The Olympic fairy tale

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More confessions: I love the Olympics. I love them a lot. I get surprisingly emotional during sports that I ordinarily don’t pay attention to. Heck, I even get emotional while watching Olympic-themed commercials.

It’s only day 2 of the games, but already dreams are coming true and dreams are being crushed. After Michael Phelps’s fairy-tale success in Beijing, so far London has only brought disappointment. And after the huge hype around gymnast Jordyn Wieber, today she failed to qualify for the all-around competition. But in their tragedies lies the potential for others’ fairy tale endings to materialize. So far in London there hasn’t been that one moment that will stand out in the record books, but moments from previous Olympic will remain in our memories forever. And, lest we forget, there’s always Morgan Freeman to make the games feel just a little more dreamlike:

How to live in a fairy tale

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What you’ll need: fairy godmother, magical animal friends

Songlist: When you wish upon a star

Further reading: Household stories from the collection of the brothers Grimm

Beauty and her Beast

I have a confession: I spent three hours last night watching the finale of The Bachelorette, in which the lovely Emily Maynard got engaged to her Prince Charming. The man she chose as her fiancé had previously said of her, “Emily gives me the feeling that people write fairy tales about.”

The Bachelor franchise has an obsession with fairy tale endings. Contestants often speak in fairy tale terms as they describe their dates of dining in castles or swimming with dolphins in the world’s most gorgeous places (actually, they more often speak in ridiculous metaphors such as “Today we jumped off a helicopter together into the ocean, because, you know, love is a leap of faith”). It’s a natural comparison to make because fairy tale endings are romantic, simplistic, and, oh, they don’t last.

On Saturday night I went to a brilliant performance of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, and Rapunzel to their happily ever afters…and beyond. For the initiate, intermission is confusing since the characters have each already accomplished all they set out to do–what more do we need to see? In the second half, though, we find out that while Cinderella has stopped running, her prince hasn’t given up chasing. Jack slew a giant, but now the giant’s wife is hungry for vengeance. And characters start dying. After a frivolous first half, the second half is surprisingly sobering.

Which is like that time I watched the non-Disney version of The Little Mermaid and found out the original Ariel committed suicide to spare her beloved prince. Ouch.

Fairy tales are not particularly happy places to live in. Sure, a lot of the Grimm Brothers’ tales end in marriage, but first there are deals with the devil, murders, severing of limbs, and disowning of family members. In one particularly gruesome story, a stepmother feeds her stepson to her husband so that her daughter may be the only heir. And then, of course, a magical bird drops a millstone on the evil stepmother and the son is returned to the father, happy and whole.

Moral of the story: don’t try to live in a fairy tale unless you’re really good at communicating with birds. Emily Maynard, start working on your songs.

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