Talking Boxes

I sometimes wonder at the ad world where we have animated objects speaking to us either directly or indirectly, as though a talking dummy or marionette has our complete attention. The idea has me thinking of Chuck and Bob from the 1970’s TV comedy, Soap. In that show, Jay Johnson plays Chuck, a ventriloquist, whose dummy, Bob, has the other characters befuddled with his sharp wit. The main actors find themselves (especially Billy Crystal) talking directly to the dummy.

And I think we are no more intelligent than those actors in that show listening to Bob. At least, some of the time.

There are a few more examples of talking boxes than the ones shown above, but these are the most prominent. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cologuard commercials. Here we have what appears to be the actual product kit—or at least a facsimile of one—speaking directly to us about the rather private process of submitting a sample for the screening of colon cancer. The box is personified by an unknown actor whose voice has a muted, understated quality suited well to the product.

The ad series was developed by Precisioneffect, whose nickname for the kit is “little CG”. A company called Exact Sciences produces the screening product, and according to their marketing director, the aim is to bring attention to a personal choice for addressing an important issue in a less confrontational way.

I’ve seen perhaps three different Cologuard spots. Each has a soft demeanor, and is instructional. So we listen.

On the other hand, the Progressive Insurance talking box is another story. Here we have what so far appears to be a series of around a dozen spots featuring this smarmy, conceited box which in a series of circumstances speaks about his ennui, his heartfelt travels around the world, his travails getting through airport security, and even his trouble finding speaking engagements while addressing elementary grade students at “career day”.

I have to say that this box is well-designed, and the facial expressions are dead-on, especially that wide angular mouth that spouts off anything the brain behind it wants you to hear.

The ads for Progressive are done by Arnold, the big ad agency known for many other TV commercials, including Jack Daniels and Ocean Spray. Here the box is personified by Chris Parnell, the comedian from SNL and 30 Rock, whose voice is highly suited for over-reaching personalities. He’s one of the best in television.

Nothing against Parnell, but only a few of the ads are funny and after several viewings they get boring and tiresome. Which is a shame because the production is well done mixing animation with real-life actors. Plus, we have no idea what the box is supposed to represent. One source I came across tells us the box is supposed to be the Progressive Insurance policy. (We’d seen scores of them on shelves behind Flo’s desk in previous commercials, and even then wondered if those were representing case studies as in a law library, but knowing how wacky Flo can be, throw that thought away.)

Which brings up another thought: Progressive seems to want to outdo itself buy promoting with Flo and her “working” cohorts and also with this goofy talking box. Do you feel the two series are competing with each other? Or do you feel that it can work, such as in the Geico series (caveman versus the gecko)?

A Little Clarity, Part 2

I am designing an ad in InDesign with a color photograph. The ad specs given by the client specify a line screen of 150. I’m not sure what they mean by “a line screen of 150.” I usually place photographs at 300 dpi in my print ads. Does this mean that the photograph should be prepared (in Photoshop) at 150 dpi instead? Do I need to do anything special in InDesign for the rest of the ad (the text)?

All that passage is from a blog I read a few years ago, and the entry was from a person whose job it is to prepare art for print, yet he/she doesn’t know digital resolution from print line screens. And he/she mentions “300 dpi”.

In the first place, “dpi” is a printing term, meaning dots per inch, which sometimes is substituted with “lpi”, meaning lines per inch. They mean the same thing. You may be wondering why those two terms are interchangeable. DPI usage came about because we see dots in the line screen used (above images, middle). Those dots are arranged in rows, or lines.

In order to understand the printing of images, one has to understand screen tones. Reproducing photographs in commercial printing is done by using line art conversions of each color (it can be done using a “digital” method, but that’s inferior). Because printers use four-color process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) each of those colors must be separated out from the original continuous tone photo (examples, left) to make the separate four screen tones.

You may have come across the term halftone sometime in your career. “Halftone” refers to the fact that the dots, such as in the one-color screened image, cover only half of all the tonalities in the image. Those dots create a semblance of the tonalities and come close to replicating them when fine line screens are used for print.

Sections of the left-hand images above have been enlarged to show the conversion in line screen dots (middle) and pixels (right).

In looking at the screen tones above, you can easily see that smaller dots reproduce lighter tones while the larger dots reproduce darker tones. Newspapers and magazines still use images like this, but with much finer screens. Depending on the quality of the paper used, those publications will use a line screen of anywhere from 85 LPI to 150 LPI. I could go on about what dot gain is, but I’ll save that for a later discussion.

In the digital world, pixels (picture elements) are single-colored (or toned) squares which reproduce photographs on computer and digital television screens. On Windows computers, the native resolution is 96 ppi, while on Macs the native resolution is 72 ppi. When viewing a 400 pixel-wide image on a Windows screen, the picture is 4.166 inches wide. On a Mac, that same image is 5.555 inches wide.

When viewing photos in newspapers and magazines, you’re looking at dots. When you view photos on a computer or TV, you’re looking at pixels. When you scan a photo or transparency for display on your computer screen, you set the resolution at the scanning stage, thereby digitizing the image, which is the digital conversion process. The image you save has been converted to pixels.

Please do not confuse the two. The term “dpi” is not a computer term. When we’re talking about pixels, the term is “ppi”—meaning pixels per inch.

And by the way, the rule of thumb in preparing a photo for print is 1.5 to 2 times the line screen used. Therefore if the screen will be 150 dpi, then the photo should have a digital resolution of between 225 and 300 ppi.


A Little Clarity, Part 1

I come from the advertising/print industry originally, though I’ve been in the advertising/digital industry for the past twenty-three years. And I’ve seen some terminology transposed from one to the other. Sometimes that terminology works in the translation while other times it does not.

And so, being the nit-picker that I am, I’m starting a new category on those terms that bug me the most.

The one that bugs me the most is “dpi” in this digital world. But I’m going to save that one until later. Right now I want to talk about this “#” symbol.

It’s been called a “number symbol”, a “pound symbol”, and lately a “hash symbol”. I have news: it’s all of those. But first, let’s not confuse this symbol with a few others that are very similar in appearance, such as the sharp symbol in music, that being ♯, or a Chinese character, that being .

A little history: the Romans had a symbol denoting pound weight, that being “℔”. Over time, this symbol was simplified to look like the featured symbol pictured above. Usage of the symbol for pound weight goes back to at least 1850 in this country. By the second half of the 19th century, there were typewriters in the United States equipped with the # key, and the user’s manual reflected the use of that key being specifically for expressing both number and pound weight, depending on placement of the symbol—just before a number to denote the ordinal number itself, and just after a number to denote pound weight.

Printers and paper salesmen (salespersons in the PC world) have long used the “#” symbol after a number to denote the pound weight of paper in text and cover stock, such as “24# text”. Manufacturers of pencils refer to the ratio of graphite/clay used in the writing instruments by a number designation, such as “#2 pencil”, an example of an ordinal distinction.

This traditional usage prevailed until the advent of digital telephone keypads, where the symbol became known as the pound sign. Today we still refer to that as the pound sign on phone keypads. The font used on your specific phone for that symbol may vary, but the designation is the same.

In the United Kingdom, the symbol has been referred to as a “hash”, a derivative of the word “hatch”, meaning cross-hatch (artists will recognize that reference, those of us who’ve done pen & ink sketches with a cross-hatch technique to add tonality to the basic black and white medium). That likeness is probably the best reference we have as to how the term hashtag came about, and was introduced by Chris Messina, a noted advocate for open Internet standards, in 2007 to denote a metadata tag for group use on social networks such as Twitter (but even he referred to the symbol as “pound” when first trying to establish the tag). You know the symbol is a hash when it precedes a word or phrase.

So it depends on circumstance as to the name of the pictured symbol.

Next week, I’ll dive into that “dpi” thing.


More Gimmicks

There’s a trend in recent TV advertising in which what you see onscreen does not necessarily have any significance to what the delivered message is. And Geico Insurance is using it. I believe there are a few other advertisers using a similar gimmick, although right now I can’t recall them specifically.

The ads run like this: two people in the space (scene 1 above is a commercial gym while in scene 2 below we have a painting classroom) are talking about the benefits of Geico Insurance, but in succeeding camera cuts there are changes occurring to the point of ridiculousness.

The ad at the top ran during much of 2016 and 2017, while the ad at the bottom is running currently. Most viewers have seen these two ads and probably have the same reaction I have—that what you see has no bearing on the message being delivered.

It’s just a gimmick.

My college roommate Howard often cited gimmicks in advertising. He would point one out as soon as he saw it.

Mascots are one such gimmick and have long been a staple in advertising since early in the 20th century. Morton Salt has had a girl walking with an umbrella while pouring salt (“when it rains it pours”) on their cardboard canister since 1914. Speedy Alka-Seltzer, the little character made from an antacid tablet that everyone saw on ’50s and ’60s TV is another. Mascots made the TV ads memorable because each mascot was different. Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal is still being used today.

But of course times change. And sometimes advertisers will now take chances that they would not have done decades ago. Take for example the mascot used by Diet Dr. Pepper—the miniature character who comes on in any given scene, uninvited, to proclaim that whatever you’re doing can be aided by the sweet taste of Diet Dr. Pepper, saying in a falsetto sing-song, “It’s the sweet one.”

Why is he so small and why the falsetto? We don‘t know. But you remember it. And that‘s all that some advertisers really care about. It works for a soft drink because the product has little else going for it but taste, and because there are so many different ones to choose from, a little differentiation here goes a long way toward your memory of it.

In Geico‘s case, insurance is a pretty dry subject. Why not a gimmick?

What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

Some Things You Can’t Overlook

Having been in and around design my entire creative life, I cannot unsee mistakes in anything related to it. All I want to do is correct them. But I can’t. All I can do is try to ignore them, which I also cannot do. Catch that.

One of my close friends sent these images to me the other day, and they impressed me so much I felt I had to make examples of them. Literally.

Remember that in type design, readability is key. The examples above don’t all have the same issues, but they all suffer in readability.

In the first example at upper left, I can’t help but realize the type design in the yellow sign was intentional. But I can’t see the reason for it. There is no play on words, no “bucket list” correlation. It’s just a gimmick to make you stare at it and piece it together. A promo for, it’s just a cheap idea.

Next we have one of two things: Spicy Soy & Garlic, or Sp & Soy Icy Garlic. Look at it. Are you kidding me? The other design thing that makes me cringe is the pepper overlapping the type at left but the garlics at right do not overlap anything. An example of non-parallel design thinking.

Another tenet of good type design is that things generally read from left to right. We are conditioned to read things that way because we learn to read from books and other publications where the copy is in sentences. Make sense?

Next: a mug with copy reading “Take THE Time”. Except here the type is sitting against texture too complex for the chosen font and tone not contrasting enough to make it readable. And the word “THE” has its own texture competing with the background. Terrible. What—no art direction?

The last two examples are just laughable. The one at left is on an entrance to a park, and is supposed to read, “PUT PETS ON LEASH”. But the first two words have commas after them (one misplaced), possibly added after the sign was spray painted (you can see the stenciled letterforms) trying in vain to make the word spacing evident.

The signage on the restaurant facade is so funny, it’s ridiculous. BBQ Ribs on a bison silhouette is OK, I guess (ribs from a bison are easily questionable), but fried catfish from a moose would make Bullwinkle question his DNA. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but alongside the bison it isn’t parallel design thinking.

You can bet I’ll make an issue for parallel design thinking in the future. But right now just enjoy staring at these goofy examples of horrendous type design.



This Is Genius

I had to laugh the first time I saw this TV commercial. I wasn’t really laughing—I was snickering. And shaking my head—marveling at its genius. The name of Nectar’s ad is “Sleep Like a Baby”.

The Nectar Sleep mattress (“Sleep” in the name got me: what other mattress is there?) is a memory foam mattress that, according to the ad promotes you “sleeping like a baby”. Hence the ad whereby we see babies moving on the mattresses, but with adult heads.

This tends to make some viewers feel a little put-off. They look at it and are a little repulsed by it. But I like it. A lot.

From a simple design standpoint, the idea is right on message. The visual idea was probably a whim from the ad agency. They probably kicked it around for maybe a day, thinking and rethinking it, probably wondering if Nectar would be turned off by it.

People are funny about such things. The public gets conditioned by things they see in movies, and although I can’t immediately recall a movie with this kind of baby-adult juxtapositioning, the mere thought of such a vision might bring about nightmare scenarios in some people’s minds.

But none of the antics that the figures do in the TV commercial are devilish or horrific. They’re just as innocuous as a baby squirming and fidgeting on a changing table, because the bodies really are babies and the actors’ facial expressions reflect mere comfort, albeit in a very infantile way.

The fact that Nectar bought the idea was just as genius as the ad agency’s idea itself. It takes two to tango, as they say, but in the ad world it’s entirely essential. I’ve worked in ad agencies where we had great ideas the clients didn’t like, or more to the point, didn’t feel were appropriate to their marketing plan. To have a successful relationship, the arrangement has to be like a marriage, and like in a good marriage, both have to bring something to the party.

If the ad executive with Nectar sees endless possibilities of a promotion presented by the ad agency, good things happen.

A Nectar queen-size mattress, which allows a 365-day trial period, sells for around $795, although I have seen a site that has it for around a hundred less. Its construction is such that the top layer has memory foam stitched into it, plus an additional layer that wicks away the heat retained in most other mattresses of this type. It gets very good reviews.

And for such a simple and engaging idea, this ad probably took weeks to produce, in both pre- and post-production. I can easily imagine the hundreds of videos of babies moving around on the beds, and then finding the right actors whose facial expressions lent just the right emotive movements to marry with the babies’.

And the result is so damned enjoyable to watch. That’s what it is about good design: no matter how often you look at it, it’s always pleasing to see it. And each time you see this ad, a smile will come to your face.



Contemporary Design Landscape

I’d been applying for freelance work recently, and one of the sites posted had a reference to an application I hadn’t been familiar with: Sketch.

In my digital career, among the tools I’d become proficient with were Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator; Strata 3D; and a bunch of photo RAW things like and including Capture One. I’d also dabbled with a few photo editors and filters that add effects to bitmapped images. So when I saw Sketch listed in the posting for freelance work as a desired attribute by the agency, I was curious as to what it is.

In searching for it, I found it is just another tool in the current landscape of communicating with other places and “teams” when collaborating on given projects.

There are other well-known applications to use for this kind of communicating. Slack is one. Sketch combines that kind of communication with added things like digital asset management, interface development, website building, and icon tools. But it’s anything other that what its name implies: sketch.

What about creating the art in the first place? It’s fine to come up with all this digital asset management and sharing across teams. Using all that stock imagery. What about the actual artwork creators? Where are those artists these days?

A close friend of mine recently was messaging me through Facebook about where we, as artists and designers—and also educators—coming from a generation before digital was even thought of as the way to do artwork, stand in today’s realm of art and design. She was taken aback by noting that art and design students currently do not know how to draw, and are not required to learn so.

And she’s right. One of the classes we attended as formative students in the discipline was anatomy. It was necessary to know anatomy for proficiency in figure drawing. And although it was not necessary to have that talent to totally succeed at the college, the ability to draw—to sketch—was.

She mentioned that her son in his capacity at a firm which employs several designers was one of a bare handful who could actually draw, even now considered an asset at that place. But it’s largely true that most art schools these days do not teach students to actually draw. And I find that unbelievable.

It’s like that grade schools do not teach students how to do handwriting. Cursive handwriting hasn’t been taught in elementary education for years. Those kids do not know how to do their own signatures.

Are we totally that different from baby-boomers to millennials? Apparently. We can easily see the way small children have learned how to manipulate gaming devices and smart phones. It’s part of their early learning now. And that kind of instant interactivity has become the norm.

It does not matter to them what they are missing in the process of getting from point A (or zero) to point B (winning the game); or the process of getting from point C (having a blank canvas) to point D (having a piece of art). They never learned the value of actually making the art, seeing the picture developing from their own hands.

Years ago when I was an illustrator, I was visiting a photographer friend of mine and admiring his work. After listening that I was interested in developing a skill for it, he looked at me and said, “I don’t know why you as an illustrator find this so fascinating. I admire your ability because you make something from nothing.”

That insight stayed with me for a long time. It made me value the talent I had more.

Maybe drawing and sketching is not valued any longer. I certainly have not seen it used in any form in the last twenty years on the job, in the last four positions I had in the design industry.

I remember learning the digital way back in the early 90s, learning how to “draw” in Adobe Illustrator. Even then I felt the name of that application was a misnomer.

To this day, I feel more akin to Leonardo DaVinci than I do to any digital artist. I still draw and sketch my ideas on paper. I will visit this subject again.


Not Real Photography

When iPhones first came out, I remember listening to a radio program where I lived near Chicago at the time about advances in technology, which was the focus of the show. The moderator was talking to a tech rep about the new item from Apple, and the discussion eventually came to the numerous apps the iPhone had. The moderator said at the time about how he wanted just a phone the way his flip phone was, being merely a calling and receiving instrument. And the tech rep went on to say why he wanted his phone to do everything.

That conversation has stayed on my mind all these years. I also tend not to forget the computers we had years ago and how far we’ve come since, what we have now in the ways technology has taken us. We can do a lot of things just with our mobile devices.

Of course, not everything we can do with them is first rate as far as some things go. One of the things I have an issue with is the camera. To be sure, the lens on these devices is good, especially for being such a tiny lens. Kodak would’ve loved to have such quality with their Brownie when it was introduced back in February of 1900, believe it or not: 118 years ago, Eastman Kodak came out with a consumer camera, making it the first mass-marketed picture-taking machine.

That camera, finished in what they then referred to as “leatherette”—a texture heat-pressed into the cardboard body and painted black—cost buyers $1. Of course it merely took pictures, called “snapshots”, also a new word. But it did pretty well as a camera.

Thing is, nobody thought of it as something to replace real photography. The same thing about Polaroid cameras when they were introduced in the late 1940s. Snapshots.

And now we have mobile phones that have cameras. Ditto.

I think what the public does is gravitate to equipment that can 1) do multiple tasks, and 2) have instant results. That’s just what these miracle mobile devices can do: supply us with almost anything we need to have and do it all in a matter of seconds. That kind of value is under appreciated, in my mind. Once we have it, there’s almost not enough time to appreciate and use everything the phones can do before the next version comes out. Every year. There’s almost no end to the competition from manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, Google, LG, etc., to bring out the newest and most versatile.

But make no mistake: they are not first-rate photographic machines. They are merely snapshot taking gadgets. Yes, they process the photo right now. Yes, you can send it to your family and friends, right now. You can print it and enlarge it (somewhat) and frame it if you want. But can you enlarge the image to what is referred to as poster-size? No.

They will not ever displace a full-fledged camera, such as a Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, or Olympus. Not a Hasselblad or Leica, for certain. Those cameras, in conjunction with such fine tuning things like light meters and remote triggers, strobes, and items like scrims and light diffusion boxes, all make art. It is still an art to make photographs. Directly making the lighting just right, the angles, the shadows in studio photography.

Even outdoor nature and landscape photography, without all the peripherals I just mentioned, is still art. Waiting for the light to be just right for the kind of shot you want, the wind against the leaves in that tree, the birds overhead, the deer in the glen.

You might be able to do it once in a great while—to a small degree—with that iPhone. But you can’t control it. And you can’t repeat it.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple and the other tech companies have nifty phones that can indeed take decent pictures. But please don’t say that these mobile phones take outstanding ones. TV commercials to that effect are very misleading.

Selfies. Huh.