Monday, November 29, 2010

The Color Of Yum

Color, or lack thereof, inherently changes a design because color is its own language. It speaks to people emotionally, physically, and socially. Colors have certain deeply ingrained societal definitions, and if a designs’ color is at odds with what its’ social definition would otherwise be, that design is doomed. Arguably the most important area where color must synch with design is in food.
From an aesthetic standpoint, people don’t eat unappealing food. Studies have proven visual appeal to be a rather significant factor in the taste of food. Following this evidence, fast food companies who allow their billboards along the freeway to fade with sun and age do themselves a disservice; nobody wants to eat a purplish gray slab of meat on a gray-brown bun. From an evolutionary standpoint, food that is a different color than normal, it is suspect, and should be avoided for health and safety reasons. These ingrained assessments still dictate how we choose food today, and is why commercially available food is or isn’t artificially colored.

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss

Consider, if you will, the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs And Ham. Outside, perhaps, of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, who in their right mind would eat green eggs which should rightly be colored yellow and white? Nobody would eat those eggs, because the color is so vastly different from what it is assumed it should be. In fact, what the public assumes is the correct color for a food is so important to sales and marketing that many non-organic products are dyed in processing. The colors aren’t changed, merely enhanced; more red to bacon and salmon, more green to vegetables, yellow in butter, colored wax on apples and other fruit. For me, natural is the right color for food. If my produce is a little duller in color, or a little more orange, or green, or red, it’s fine, and if it’s severely off from what I know the color to be I eschew it. I don’t need artificial colors to make my food taste better.

A Shot At Utopia

Guns don’t kill people, they kill opposition. The invention of the gun stemmed from the evolution of warfare, a practice meant to forcibly remove an enemy from their land, possessions, and ideals and wipe out a strange and possibly conflicting culture to your own. When one nation goes to war with another, it usually is to enforce some utopian concept that the second nation has impugned. The country which most on paper resembles a free utopia, the United States, had its founders specifically mention guns (the second amendment) into the framework of the nation. Guns and firearms have not only revolutionized utopian concepts on a political level, but they have on a personal and popular level as well.
The gun, nearly since its invention, has been romanticized in pop culture. From swashbucklers to bank robbers, from gangsters of the 20s to gangbangers of today, guns have a utopian appeal as the perfect tool. Perhaps the most glorified example of a gun-slinging utopia is how society depicts the Old West. Quietly riding the range, 6 shooter in tow, cowboys used firearms to their romantic fullest, killing their food, protecting themselves, and settling disputes with one glorious object.

Guns are so romanticized in our society that they have become incorporated into jewelry design.

Today, guns are as romanticized as ever, dominating pop culture visually and musically. Gun violence rings out more frequently than ever, causing more calls for citizens arming themselves for safety, ever increasing the number of firearms in society. Guns themselves are styled and precision made in unprecedented ways. The gun has not only has made its own mark on society as an instrument of change, but has spawned all sorts of dystopian enforcers like missiles, laser weaponry, and nuclear weapons. With guns being so tied into American and even global life, the question becomes, are they helping people preserve their small segments of life which may be considered utopian, or are guns tearing humanity away from any sort of utopian society into a dystopia of misery and death?

Warning: Design Content!

Design is quite dangerous, especially in the hands of the wrong people. Mass society has been led astray into chaos, in large part due to actions and creations in the general realm of design. As America emerges from the brinks of economic meltdown, it is clear that design (choices, branding and imaging), and the subsequent implied status statements, have proven confusing and detrimental to mass America. As irresponsible design continues to run amuck, the obvious (yet controversial and tricky) solution is to legislatively remove marketing from American culture and media. Advertisement has more negative effects than good in almost any context, and has been especially egregious in the past years. Consider the following examples:

2007, 2008, and 2009 radio commercials barraging the airwaves claiming listeners are crazy not to refinance their house to an A.R.M. with criminally low initial interest rates which locked into much higher rates at the end of the adjustable period.

A Jack In The Box commercial where upon returning from shopping and hearing that Jack In The Box has a $3.99 value meal, Jack’s wife says “I get it, it’s cheaper to eat at your place than at home.”

"Does Jack in the Box Server the Most Unhealthy Burger" article from LA Times

All of the technology advertisements, like those for cable, iPods, cell phones, and movies, products and services which constitute over 5% of the American consumer unit’s earnings.

Slick graphics and a great price make this gadget hart to pass up at

The financial costs of this madness is staggering, and nearly collapsed our economy when strings were pulled and sham markets supported by false advertising and greedy, conspicuous spending unraveled. When the numbers are added up, over 35% of the American income is spent directly or indirectly in heavily advertised markets, like cars, healthcare (much more than any other industrialized nation because of our cheap ingredients and morbid obesity), and techno-tainment. If you add in housing and the fact that millions of guppies swallowed baiting advertisements and over-financed to live greedy dreams, the number is 70%. The average household doesn’t have enough wiggle room in the budget to be led astray by overwhelming misleading advertisements.

I’d like to think that it shouldn’t be the place of government to completely control advertising, but as the collective gluttonous stupidity of capitalism is threatening to destroy the world, strong action must be taken. By legally banning advertisements, companies must rely upon word-of-mouth recommendation for success, helping ensure the triumph of smart, responsible business and the failure of the rest. It would also force the consumer, who is inherently lazy, to work to be stupid with his money, instead of have opportunities to squander it thrust upon him.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Too Much Trust

In the two weeks since the midterm elections, I have found myself thinking about the nationwide swing towards conservative, anti-government, pro-business candidates, and how this may affect me as a designer. As a principle, these politicians talk about less oversight and taxes coupled with more corporate freedoms, ideas which in this day and age can affect the emerging/independent designer much more adversely than the average person. One of the worst ways designers such as I can be affected is if large commercial interests can persuade Congress to further loosen regulations and entirely abandon any concept of net neutrality.

In a country where corporate sponsorship is not only encouraged but widely regarded as the best and easiest road to success and recognition, net neutrality, which Columbia professor Tim Wu defines as “…a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally" is vital to the on-line First Amendment rights of Americans. What already feels like a good old boys club of corporations like Apple, Clear Channel, Comcast, Corning, Inc., AT&T, and Motorola will become infinitely tighter if internet neutrality is abandoned. Search results would be allowed to be ranked in a tiered system by price paid for proximity to the number one search result (with top dollar going to be listed as the number one result in a given search engine) instead of by relevancy to the search.

Such rankings by payment would spell disaster for those unwilling or able to pay for a good search engine ranking. As an independent and emerging designer, my freedoms would be severely limited. I would be unable to ensure fair on-line exposure to my artistic postings, or get to see the full array of content my peers have posted unless they have paid for ranking. Furthermore, and more dangerously, allowing a tiered internet search system would give technology companies far too much power to censor ideas unfavorable to them by burying those ideas at the very end of a search listing, or refusing to list those ideas in search results whatsoever.

As with so many other facets of life, large corporate interests are trying to further consolidate their enormous power, this time at the expense of all internet users. There is too much trust in laissez-faire concepts, and there is too much trust collusion going on between so-called industry competitors. It is imperative that government takes a strong hand, even adopt a Theodore Roosevelt approach when dealing with technology firms, busting up cozy corporate relationships to ensure the freedoms of the average American are not severely encroached upon by the richest and their allies. If you disagree with me, name one instance where completely unrestricted capitalism (because that is really what this whole debate boils down to, government’s role in business) has worked out entirely successfully.

Wu, Tim “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 141, 2003


Why, if contemporary tools and technologies are so refined, capable, and readily available to fully flesh out concepts before production, do consumers still have to suffer poor design? Along with substandard visual appeal, the largest victim of inferior design is the ergonomics of products. From textiles and clothing to vehicles and appliances, and everything else in between, chances are that throughout the course of your normal daily activities you will encounter an object whose design gives a back seat to the principles of ergonomics, or doesn’t consider them whatsoever. When I think of ergonomically poor designs that I frequently encounter, headphones are at the top of the list; in fact I have been using various headphones that suffer ergonomically in the 15 or so months since my deluxe ones disintegrated and I have refused to shell out hundreds of dollars for another pair.

I am, while writing this, listening to music through white Apple iPod earbud headphones, one of several pairs of crappy headphones in my apartment that fall into the $20-$40 price range. While Apple clearly spends a lot of time in the design of their products, the headphones that I am using suffer in that area, and in my opinion do not stand up well to many of the five principles of ergonomic research: aesthetics, performance, safety, comfort, and ease of use.

Apple iPod earbuds

First, what Apple is doing completely right with these earbud headphones in regards to ergonomics: aesthetics. The visual appeal of the earbud is obvious; it is compact, streamlined, and inconspicuous yet being manufactured in an eye-catching clean white. The color made for very appealing marketing, helped establish brand identity, and is mild and neutral such as not to clash with anything else the owner of the headphones is wearing. After their aesthetic appeal, however, the attractiveness of these Apple earbuds falls off sharply.
The other four principles of ergonomic research are reflected as a jumbled mess of sub-standard ideas in these earphones. Regarding their performance, the iPod headsets play the music just fine, without crackling or static, but they can fall out of my ears rather easily. Furthermore, the volume control included on the headphones is redundant, causing irritating needs frequently to adjust the sound level on either the headphones or the device it’s plugged into. This unnecessary volume control also affects the safety, comfort, and ease of use of these earbuds. It’s annoying to have to constantly be adjusting two different volume controls, and uncomfortable if the sound blasts too loud; I have to rip the headphones out of my ears or frantically hit the volume down button as quickly as I can It happens semi-frequently with these headphones that my music is either significantly too loud or too quiet because of the volume levels on my earbuds and the different devices that I use them with.

Headphones in general, and earbuds specifically, which lack any noise-cancellation technology, aren’t the best for auditory health. Despite being buried in my ear, I can hear even very faint surrounding noises unless the volume is cranked way up, and on a bus or in a car the volume has to be higher still. Even at relatively low volumes, I can occasionally feel the sound waves bouncing around in my ear canal. They feel uncomfortable being jammed into my ears, they get lost easily, the cord is too short, and they, like all earbuds, tangle much more frequently and severely than traditional headphones.

Skullcandy headphones priced at $149.95

Readers of this blog may ask themselves “why is she still using these headphones?” Well, they aren’t broken. They aren’t (currently) lost. Most importantly, headphones are incredibly overpriced and over-marketed, even with their state of the art technology it is completely unreasonable that the only well functioning headphones cost well over $100. Designers must take it upon themselves, whether they are creating haute couture or employed by a low-price driven corporation such as Wal-Mart, to design green, quality, appealing, and ergonomically thoughtful products; otherwise they are poor designers, or at best, designers producing sub-par designs. For those curious, my ideal headphones from an ergonomic standpoint-jet black, wireless, noise-cancelling earmuff-style headphones connected with a thin, collapsible headband, sourced as much as possible from glucose-based plastics.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In early September, I was in Los Angeles assisting with the opening of a small, independent record and vintage goods store owned by a relative. As I tend to be slightly artistic, and as there was a shoe-string budget for the opening, my boyfriend and I were determined to would climb up on a ladder outside the store and hand paint the façade with the name of the establishment. Called the Wonderland Pop Culture Emporium and featuring goods primarily from the sixties and seventies, we decided to do the name in a swirly, curving, and “psychedelic” style font. After completion, I stood on West Pico Blvd looking up at my handiwork and contemplating what the font I’d drawn implied about the contents of the store, and the overall atmosphere that it would provide.

Wonderland Pop Culture Emporium in Los Angeles sign by Becca Price and Chris Larson

First, a handmade sign obviously signifies an independent store. The “psychedelic” font that I painted most strongly represents a mellow, free-thinking, and laid back establishment. Unfortunately, a stranger on the street could possibly surmise from the above description that the store is cheap, or poorly run, but I feel that the way the lettering was done conveys an openness or friendliness that a handmade sign in a different text might imply. In addition, the stenciled name on either side screams "PUNK ROCK!" to anyone familiar with the genre.

This got me thinking more about the visual impact of fonts, and how they can help or hinder the message being presented. For example, consider the phrase “I Love You.” If I were to type that in, say, the font “Edwardian Script ITC” it would appear as:and convey to the reader a sense of romance and formality. However, if I were to write that same phrase in the font “Earwig Factory,” it would appear: completely altering the feeling of the message and perhaps making the reader feel stalked by an obsessed acquaintance. Remember, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

emotiCON :(

The first written “language,” it can be argued, was Neolithic pictorial narratives carved into cave walls. Egyptian and Asian characters also were and are to this day heavily image-driven. It is often said in conversation that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Clearly, there is a long, rich history of the union of word and image, dating back to the earliest days of recorded storylines. However, the twentieth century, and its “digital revolution,” has spawned a bastard hybrid of text and depiction.

examples of emoticons from

As can be determined by my title for this piece, the bastard hybrid that I refer to is the emoticon. Emoticons are a sickening, “cutesy,” combination of keyboard characters like colons, semi-colons, karats, and parenthesis which are typed in a manner that the eye views as a recognizable image. For example, a left-pointing karat typed before the number three makes a sideways heart. <3 (before I was aware of this new language I thought it was supposed to be a pair of scissors.) Oftentimes, a colon is paired with an end parenthesis to make a sideways smiling face. In my opinion, emoticons are frivolous, and furthermore, visually displeasing. These typographical chimeras are the modern version of writing “BOOBS” on a calculator. If you have a full, conscious thought, type it, or else don’t bother.

Unfortunately, many who do attempt to express themselves aren’t even able to do that properly. The grammatical comprehension of my age demographic is woeful, due in part to internet short-hand, made popular by internet provider America OnLine and its chat service AIM in the 1990s. People spent hours typing away, and a large number of us used horribly inaccurate short-hand in our instant message communiqués. Emoticons have their origins in the abbreviated on-line exchanges described above. It may be a coincidence, but it appears that instant messages and their resulting condensed grammar are at least partly responsible for the decline in English comprehension, and as emoticons are a part of that short-hand, I have no use for them.

Razzle Dazzle Zazzle

Earlier this year, I became aware of the website, an on-line marketplace that allows users to customize apparel, accessories, and more by uploading their own images. Users can choose what product any image goes on, design the layout and image placement, and alter variables like color, scale, and materials. Once the design is finalized, the product can either be posted as private (viewable and purchasable only by the creator) or public (viewable or purchasable by anybody), and is fabricated by a professional manufacturer when ordered. On the whole, there are many positive services that provides, but it has several major drawbacks.

On the positive side, it is completely free to use Zazzle, and the site allows users to set their desired commission, up to 99%, on public items. They also provide widgets for online-self promotion, and track referrals, granting additional commissions when sales are a result of traffic directed to Zazzle through an individual user’s promotional efforts. To minimize offense to sensitive visitors to the website, before being published a user rates their creation as “G,” "PG-13,” or “R.” Zazzle has many eco-friendly product options, and contracts with high-quality professional manufacturers, such as Pro-Keds for shoe designs. My boyfriend has designed and ordered 2 pairs of Pro-Keds shoes on, and is thrilled by them. More importantly, provides an invaluable option for emerging designers and artists to have images manufactured on items professionally, quickly, and without cost.

"Parallel Universe" ProKeds available at

Unfortunately, there are a few major flaws that Zazzle suffers from. Base prices of customized prices are slightly high, so setting a large commission can negatively affect sales. Also, with over 35 billion customized or customizable products in their virtual marketplace, is a vast ocean of competition or distraction to any one item, so in order for any sales and exposure the user has to do extensive on-line promotion. Though there is flexibility to customize design and placement, certain elements of the Pro-Keds shoes cannot have their colors change and it is not possible to place a design on the side of a shirt. Censorship also adversely affects Zazzle, as was recently demonstrated with a product that my boyfriend recently designed and attempted to publish. The image in question was an abstracted nude that he had drawn on a psychedelic background, and Zazzle refused to publish the design, only saying that “products may not be obscene or pornographic, and may not contain overt drug references.” Zazzle did not respond when told that there is a difference between artistic nudity and pornography/obscenity, or when asked what constitutes an “R” rating on their website if not a tasteful nude image.

Despite these drawbacks, I would recommend that anybody who is curious should check out, and make up thier own mind whether or not to use it. There is a “Zazzle University” series of videos on YouTube that explains all of the sales and commission process and helps users maximize all of the tools that Zazzle provides. I feel, despite their shortcomings, that the service provided by Zazzle outweighs their defects.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Forked Up

More often than should happen, designers do not fully consider the usability of their product. Often where design aesthetic negatively affects functionality is with products which are unsuitable for left-handed people. There are many instances where southpaws have a harder time because of poor design, but one especially taxing area is that of flatware. Particularly common in vintage silverware sets are forks and spoons which are molded with a curvature that contours nicely with the inside of the right hand, but curve in sharply and stab when held in the left hand. An especially prejudiced flatware design was Wallace “Ballet Pattern” Stainless Steel Flatware, a series first begun in 1955. In effect, a left-handed person has to hold a Wallace “Ballet” fork in an entirely new manner from how he/she normally does when using flatware such as this. Numerous issues have arisen from such poor design, including one sad example where a left-handed child was forced to endure years of slightly uncomfortable family dinners because using the Wallace silverware which, in the family for decades, was more important than procuring equally accommodating forks and spoons.

Fortunately, it appears that Wallace designers have finally learned their lesson, as they discontinued the “Ballet Pattern” in 1983. Its legacy, however, is a part of a much larger cultural insensitivity to lefties, which includes among many things scissors, cameras, and many of the desks of this very university. Fortunately, we have hope that history won’t repeat the Wallace mistake. Some pioneers for the left-handed, both real (like Mundial Ambidextrous Sewing Scissors), or fictitious (e.g. Ned Flanders’ Leftorium on Simpsons – where everything stocked is designed for left-handers) are helping ensure that lessons have been learned from the erroneous design of the Wallace “Ballet Pattern” Stainless Steel forks and spoons.

Ned Flander's "Leftorium" on The Simpsons

Brain Bender

How large a role has design played in the evolution of humans and the formation of society? A tremendously large part; so large that humans could not have accomplished what we have without design principles from the very beginning of our evolution. We looked at raw goods, and somehow on an instinctual level, saw that those goods could be more useful if we refined them. At the beginning, all design was utilitarian in nature, but anything that was consciously manipulated by people has been designed; without imagination and design we never would have refined tools, or manipulated flora and fauna into clothing, shoes, and shelter.

primitive stone tools

As we progressed as a species and our more basic needs were met, we became more able to indulge the imaginative process which gave rise to the first designs of tools, cave paintings, language. We imagined, then created cities, infrastructure, industry; all of it originally a concept designed by somebody before it existed. Today’s world is reliant upon study and speculation in the past. Will the same hold true for the future?

Do the fanciful, impossible, imaginings of today literally design the future for us? Authors such as Bradbury and Asimov, through their flights of fancy, are responsible for designing the concepts for countless staples of modern culture. Through their ingenuity we now have a full spectrum of goods, from the useful (fiber optic cameras on long cables used for surgery, etc.) to the useless (wall-sized TVs), all of which owe their concept design to speculation in a time long before such things were possible.

In nearly all science fiction depictions, if one looks far enough into the future, society has evolved into a dys/utopia where nearly every inhabitant wears the same thing, and objects and buildings are angular, streamlined, and muted. Is this the future for society merely because we predict it to be? Is speculating ahead in time a self-fulfilling prophesy?


Tonight I revisited Gary Hustwit's film, Objectified. One of the interesting things that a few of the designers mentioned was the fact that people often notice bad design more than they notice good design. With this in mind I couldn't help but notice that for a movie about design, this film made some very poor design choices. It was nearly impossible to read some of the designers' names as well as some of the subtitles. If one of the main goals of design is communicating shouldn't we at least be able to read the words that are doing that communicating? In this way the design of the text in this movie does a great deal to detract from the content of the film.

Screen shot from Objectified. Text recedes into the background.

Some of the best desinged objects are those that dont apear to have been designed at all. The design is so well integrated into form and function of the object that acording to Apple designer, Jonathan Ive, people may think to them selves "...of course it's that way, why would it be any other way..." With resepect to the iPhone the design is so well integrated into the function of the phone that you may not really think about it. The thing that people will notice is the software and how they interact with it.

Apple iPhone

With all the technology available to us we often take it for granted until it fails to perform seamlessly. When pulling up Objectified on my television through Netflix's instant function for Nintendo Wii, I was instantly frustrated by the interface. While it was an innovative concept, it was different enough from everything else that I am used to working with that I was not intuitively able to navigate it. While I do apreciate good design, I find myself more often than not asking why things are designed so poorly.