The Fourth Wall

2.11.15 May the Force (of iBooks) be with You.


I had the distinct pleasure and thrill to work on an exciting exhibit developed by the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibtion Service (SITES), in a partnership with Lucas Films. Rebel / Jedi / Princess / Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume opened last month at Seattle’s EMP Museum to much excitement, fanfare and terrific press.


designfarm was responsible for the design and production of the interactive/digital exhibition pieces including 3 mounted slide shows, and 4 interactive iBooks residing on iPads built into the exhibit panels. Giving visitors a fun hands-on experience, the iPads deliver auxiliary content such as video, audio, extensive image galleries, pop-up images and quizzes as shown on the pages you see in this post.

The video above provides a fantastic overview of the entire exhibit, with iPads seen in use at approximately 2:43.


Affordable kiosks to securely house interactive iPad exhibits are available for the small museum seeking to use this technology without custom building. Access to the home button and internet are disabled in the exhibit setting while still providing an engaging touch-pad experience for users.


Engage your visitors, young and old… entertain and inform with dynamic content… educate by offering memorable interactive quizzes… so much is possible in using the iBook delivery format in the museum and gallery setting, or as a sales tool in business meetings. Not sure whether you need an ePub or an iBook? Need details about device compatibility? Get in touch to learn more and consider bringing the force of these creative tools to your exhibition or collateral materials.


2.27.14 Large v. Small, Left v. Right

This post is reprinted with permission from So Charmed.


In my work as a designer, both my professional communications design and jewelry design, one of my very favorite aspects has always been the toggle between big picture thinking and small detail management. I’ll assert that having a love and capacity for both aspects of design is a rarity for the creative soul. For me, it took decades to reconcile the fact that I feel most deeply satisfied when both left-brain (creative) and right-brain (reasoned) thinking come into play. I like to make a mess, but I like to clean it up too. I love big ideas but I love tiny little decisions as well. I believe this series of new necklaces exemplifies what I’m talking about. Click on the images to see them much larger or visit with them on my flickr.


My strategic communications work is always in service of a story; whether about meetings for healthcare professionals or the annual findings of a trade association… a narrative unfolds in words and pictures, often with an actionable objective: Enroll, donate, attend.With jewelry, I’m up to the same kind of storytelling, although it tends more toward abstraction. Nothing compares to the excitement of ideas and meaning. I believe this is what we think of when we talk about design. What is the story we are telling, and, importantly why, and to whom?


Making connections is part of this concept process, in communications I connect text with images in creative ways and with jewelry, I make, source, and bring together disparate elements… often from countries thousands of miles apart, and decades that now fall across two or even three different centuries. An early plastic button from the 1940′s or a glass Victorian one, beads from Africa, tassels from Asia, mid-century American toys, the tin lid of an oil can from India… how can these things possibly tell one story? With jewelry, the stories are sometimes gathered over years and finally come together unexpectedly. This is the part that seems magical (but isn’t, imho).


Once the elements are selected, located, obtained or made, the right-brain engages as I work out actual construction issues. Whether I’m creating style sheets in InDesign, or linking fine threads to metal… problems must be solved at a more micro level. I find this to be the most challenging place in the process; the place where I may want to turn away from the project and find something new to conceptualize, because that’s just so much more fun and flows more fluidly for me. That said, this construction place is also the land of greatest reward (soldering, for example!). When I stick to it and make something impossible work, I am so damn proud of myself! the storytelling comes easily and readily, like breathing. Am I lucky or cursed?


The final stage, or production, is the most micro of all. This is the time where most of the big picture problems are solved (though sometimes these can change even at this point) and where I buckle down to wrap tiny strands of thread around and around for hours, detangling as I go, or sit quietly and sew on minuscule beads one at a time, perhaps I’m styling text for hours on end, bold, italic, larger, smaller. I generally and truly delight in the zen of this work, though too much of it becomes boring and my mind will start to itch. This is why it’s great to have several projects going at once, a brochure being designed, another being produced… necklace concepts coming together, materials arriving from distant lands, pieces being made and photographed and shared.

Which stage(s) of design and making do you love most? Where do you have to push through difficulty or boredom? How does it affect your work? I’d love to hear from you!

9.13.12 The Name of the Game… is Design?

This is a blog post about a word. Should you read this article? Clue: If the name of your marketing communications practice contains the word DESIGN, or you are a client who hires communications professionals that you generally call DESIGNERS, this may be relevant to you.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition of the word DESIGN:

de·sign [dih-zahyn]
verb (used with object)

1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), especially to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge.

2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.

3. to intend for a definite purpose: a scholarship designed for foreign students.

4. to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan: The prisoner designed an intricate escape.

5. to assign in thought or intention; purpose: He designed to be a doctor.

I would argue with the language and ordering of the five parts of the above definition ( But that’s only a fraction of the problem. It’s abundantly clear, if you read these five statements carefully, that defining DESIGN is difficult. It’s blurry, unclear. Is it art? Form? Structure? We don’t see the word strategy, but we do see the words planning and forming (perhaps gentler terms for strategy?). Probably the most powerful word used in this definition is conceive.

The same line, number 4. also states that design engages the mind. I would assert that this is the heart of the matter of defining DESIGN, but is in fact sadly obscured in the marketplace/space.

The best (most effective/strategic) tagline I’ve ever heard for a design firm, developed around the same time as safe-sex condom messages were abundant in the public sphere: Practice safe design, use a concept. (Editor: Quote attributed to Petrula Vontrikis). Even condoms can be conceptual: pictured above is the measuring condom by Condometric (sorry, not available in the US).

There are many disciplines of design. Fashion, architectural, interiors, landscape design. And, the business I have been engaged in for over 25 years, graphic… design. Some of these practices have licensing bodies, and one — where the safety of human life is at stake (architecture) — has extremely rigorous licensing. Licensing in graphic design has been a long conversation with no definite conclusion. From where I stand, a license will not make the difference needed in shifting perception. Nothing less than a complete redefinition, repositioning, and yes, marketing strategy for the practice of graphic design is called for.

No one has ever died from a misuse of Helvetica. On the other hand, it could be argued that a certain presidential election was won/lost due to a certain ballot DESIGN. Remember the butterfly? (Wallet pictured above available from wedraw).

So, what’s a business owner / practitioner of DESIGN to do? Is it necessary to change the name of my practice from designfarm to marketfarm? thinkfarm? brainfarm? Nah, I don’t think it’s really the issue. Right now, this morning, I do want to put this conversation out there into the marketspace. What do DESIGNERS do? If you are a designer, what do you really sell to your clients? Are you choosing helvetica over ariel? Really? Is that all?

If, as a communications director, you hire designers, what are you asking of them? Can you or a young staff person choose helvetica over ariel? Of course, you most certainly can (and should!), it’s right there in your font list! And may I kindly suggest that if this is primarily what you are demanding of your designers — in-house or independent — you are probably (hopefully) getting your budget’s worth.

But, consider for a moment that you could be doing so much more for your organization, its mission, its goals. Consider hiring a designer as a marketing partner, an experienced communications strategizer, who researches your position, crafts your message, defines your goals and then exceeds your expectations for executing powerful visuals that inspire and motivate your audience… and, get RESULTS. It isn’t apples-to-apples with your font-chooser or image-arranger, and you will pay more for these services. My next post will address how to hire designers, exactly what to look for to make certain that you do get the proper ROI.

8.24.12 Make Stuff? Or Make a Difference?

Subtitle: Not that there’s anything wrong with stuff!

As an independent designer, I’ve been watching (and parsing) a slow, steady paradigm shift in my beloved communications industry. Our clients — mostly nonprofits and associations — have long supported “boutique studios” all across the DC Metro area, developing decades-long partnerships that have included us as key adjunct creative personnel… that special kind of personnel who buy their own health insurance, don’t get paid for holidays, have their own complex technology set-ups, and perhaps offer these things and more to an empowered team. What defines a boutique studio? Small, independent (1-10 staff). Niche or specialty (healthcare, museums, annual reports). Personal (you work directly with the principal). Collaborative teams (clients, staff, and vendors). Mom & Pop. Pop & Pop. Maybe Mom & Daughter. (Above, logo design for a Mom & Pop business).

But why, you ask, am I sort of speaking in the past tense? Because over the last decade and a half or so, many of my colleagues in the local boutique studio community have closed offices to pack up and move the practice home (sans staff), or left the field entirely… starting new, unrelated businesses, becoming painters or pursuing fine crafts, raising families. And, please know, most of these former commprofs are happy, successful, and still making a difference in the world. It isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing and worth analyzing. (Above, Web site design for the writer’s jewelry business So Charmed).

With client attrition at an all-time high for the boutiquers still sweating the big and small stuff (the stuff of all sizes that must be sweated in order to run a business), this boutiquer has been examining the phenomenon seriously, analytically, and strategically. Because type, color, imagery… playing with these delicious tools still makes me very happy… but it’s the thinking, about my own and my client’s goals that really is my thing. There are trends to track, opportunities to be found, shifts to make; yes, even in my own corner of the marketing world. And this week, as I’ve worked on projects, interacted with clients, read articles and thought about the past and the future, and then worked on projects some more, it came to me.

Yes, like a lightbulb going off! All too often these days, clients of boutique studios are hiring us to make stuff. A logo, brochure, conference collateral. And the stuff itself only has a certain (lowered) value, especially with Web sites and freelancers offering “stuff” for cheap (or free!). . But what those of use who got into this long ago — and stayed despite crazy ups and downs — have always done and must continue doing (and selling) in order to sustain our hearts and our profession is the act of making a difference. You know, fighting cancer, promoting Internet freedom, changing the world…making. a. difference. (Pictured above, a membership brochure.)

So, it’s not that I don’t love the stuff, the artifacts of my practice; and trust me, with 25+ years as a marketing communications professional, I’ve got a jaw-dropping portfolio crammed full of stuff. It’s just, well, that’s simply not why I do this. A brochure is not a reason to juggle schedules and deadlines all day long, to patiently help clients understand the difference between CMYK and RGB, or to assist them in embracing new channels of delivery such as email and social marketing and blogs. (Above, book cover, below, logo for fundraising event, used across digital and print platforms.)

But you see, thing-makers are a dime a dozen. This is both the problem, and…

…the opportunity. We don’t have to stop making gorgeous objects, whether as independents or as a part of a high-functioning organizational team. Clients and organizations don’t have to stop requisitioning and purchasing these artifacts. But, if we pause to examine the objects we make and buy, assessing their power to support greater missions and to affect change, if we look for relationship and collaboration in our processes, we all can become much more effective communicators. We’ll stop making stuff and start making a difference.

11.15.11 Old Skool Tools

What the heck is that thing pictured above? If you know, please comment! Personally, I can’t believe I still have this artifact; and that, my friends, lets you in on my pack rat collector tendencies.

Generally speaking, my life as a graphic designer has gone 80% digital. But it hasn’t always been that way. I’m old enough to have been skooled on production processes that involved hands… and tools… some of them so sharp as to cause serious blood-letting accidents/emergencies. Recently, I had the all-too-unusual opportunity to create HANDCRAFTED printed “comps,” or comprehensives, for an upcoming client meeting. This meant I had to drag out all manner of dust-gathering equipment here at the studio. Such as the tape dispenser above which I believe dates to 100 BA (Before Apple). Anyone remember what the black tape was for? Clue: colored gels…

Here is another relic, a life-saving technology for its day, the proportion wheel. Used primarily for “sizing” photos into correct proportion for publication. I used this once recently (although can’t remember why) and was still delighted by its simple effectiveness, not to mention elimination of a need to do math.

A little less old-skool, but truly revolutionary in its day–is the Schaedler Precision Rule–which allows for measuring in a variety of systems from picas to points to metric and agate… while LOOKING THROUGH the translucent plastic. Also, these are flexible enough wrap around a curved object (cool!). Back in the 80’s when these came out ANY professional worth their salt had a set of these super-expensive tools (each ruler now retails for $20+). They sort of separated the pros from the hacks, if you will. I still love and use mine, although some of them are older than… well, dirt.

Ok, this is a little off topic, but I had to include it. This 70’s wooden name thingee has been on my desk since I scored it at Value Village Thriftstore many years ago. I love it because it’s so hilariously UNcorporate. And, it’s not even the right spelling of my name, which makes me laugh every time I see it. Anyone want to name that font?

But back to those comprehensives. Before Apple, we made these all the time! There were no files or pdfs, and in order to show clients design solutions, we purchased lots of colored papers… hand-cutting, taping and folding, to produce a tactile/visual experience of the final printed piece. Rather than just… (wait for it)… a MAGIC MARKER sketch! Yes, young people. Magic freaking Markers, which were not so magic after all.

The day I was making comps, 13 yr old daughter Molly was home and she too joined the fun. Crayons? DEFINITELY old skool.

So, why WAS I making comps again? Well, in the case of this project, I wanted to explore aspects of design and manufacturing that just aren’t visible on-screen. I know, can you believe that?? But the fact is, if aspects of your communication problem-solving rely on the pacing (literally and figuratively) or unfolding of information, or on special techniques such as die-cuts, it’s important to share these ideas with my client fairly early on in the process. Pictured above are 3 of 4 comps produced to show various brochure sizes, folds, and proposed die-cuts. Once we narrow this down, I’ll be able to focus on all of the refinements to typographical, color, and image details.

There are times I  do miss those days of handcrafty goodness in graphic design. And I think this at least partially explains the proliferation of designers-turned-knitters/potters/jewelers… insert-craft-of-choice here. Ultimately though, I love designing on the computer and wouldn’t trade it for the old days of messy wax and tracing out fonts by hand. Still, I welcome the opportunity to sit on the floor and hold an xacto knife… it really is fun.

7.13.11 Around the Home Office

I know… long time NO blog! It happens, you know?

So, it’s been about 7 months since I left designfarm’s old World Headquarters in the Takoma Business Center, moving less than a mile (but emotionally it may as well have been cross-country!)… to my cozy basement home office. Yes, the ceiling is a little low, and I miss that amazing view of the entire DC area from the 8th floor. That said, I am a verrrrrrrry happy little graphic designer. And yes, that is a deer antler on the window sill. I hope to make it into a purse handle at some point.

It was super challenging to figure out what would fit in one room vs. three, but all of my favorite things are here with me… from the ancient collectible piece of Studio 405 signage (the Mrs. Eaves font ligature for the letters s & t, top of image), to my vintage typewriter, and little collection of radios including an 80’s boombox reconfigured to run off my ipod!

Look closely at the metal printing plate on the wall… that was the image used on my very first piece of stationery as a freelancer… doing biz as  simply: BLOOM. My furry pink pillow (d is for designfarm, or flip it and b is for bloom) which was featured in the book REGRETSY, (where DIY meets WTF!). Yep, that’s Miss Peggy Lee at the far left of the image, one of the BF’s fab collection of framed b/w music photos.

The schedule here is rigorous, yet relaxed. I’m at the computer at 7:30 a.m., coffee in hand, answering emails and even doing some work at that crazy hour. After the BF vacates the elliptical (yep, a gym right here at the office), I jump on and return to my desk at 10, all shiny and clean and ready to tackle the day’s most challenging work. Remarkably, I’m really a morning person and tend to do any creative problem-solving (as opposed to say, bookkeeping) in the a.m.

Here is my employee, Bernard, doing what he does best, relaxing and/or sleeping on the sofa. He follows me upstairs for lunch, then back down for our afternoon of hard work. It’s tough being a dawg.

Occasionally (very!) I am joined by daughter, Molly, who will read a book and keep me company too in the afternoons. All told, it is an incredibly lovely working life. The quietude, punctuated by a dog bark to announce the mailman, allows me to focus and really enjoy my projects. And, if I feel antsy or lonely, I just head down to Old Town Takoma… my old stomping grounds, to visit MacLab, grab lunch, (BEST tofu gyro, EVER) or poke around the vintage shops (Polly Sue’s is amazing). Life, my friends, really is sweet.

3.18.10 Sweatin’ the Small Stuff


My commute to work is short. Very short. About 1/2 mile in my car, a total of maybe 8 longish blocks with loads of hills. Yes, I should be walking but I’m always shlepping WAY too much stuff. Yes, I should reduce the amount of stuff in my life. Yes, I live/work in The People’s Republic of Takoma Park making all of this driving and stuff-shlepping very ironic, but that’s not the subject of this post.

I’m also a morning person, and at this time of day, well-caffeinated and hyper alert, I’m bound to find myself thinking hard about something, noticing things I might not otherwise, or having a wild creative idea or two or three. Pardon the pun, but today I was STOPPED in my tracks by the above image. Such a simple problem, thought I, a STOP sign cocked to an angle. Yet it looks so incredibly wrong; the entire landscape suddenly taking on a crooked through-the-looking-glass kind of feel.


Knowing you might not quite believe me, I shot an image of the Stop sign on the opposing corner of this 4-way. See? We are restored to balance again. But what does this mean? Is one of these Stop signs right and the other wrong? If so, why? What if I like a jaunty Stop sign... it is Takoma Park, after all! And the fact is, arguments could potentially be made for the effectiveness of either. One sign fits our expectations, but doesn’t the other really make us notice even more and isn’t that the point of a Stop sign? The whole scenario got me thinking about design, of course. About how the smallest decisions can add up to a very large impact on the viewer. Don’t get me wrong… designers sweat the big stuff too. I love to sink my design teeth into a conceptual problem, a messaging problem, or even a tough layout challenge. But I honestly get just as much pleasure from sweating the small stuff.


Font choices are arguably not at all a small aspect of design, but suppose we’ve made a (very good, imho) decision to use Helvetica on a city’s street signage. It’s a nice start. But within that font family there are oh so many choices. Medium, bold, light and black. Condensed, regular, italic. And now with these fancy schmancy computers we can even do MORE things to the type, squishing it, drop-shadowing, outlining. WHEEEEEEEE… so many choices! Above is the signage at an intersection I probably pass 50 times a week.


Remarkably, this intersection shows not only a plethora of type choices (weight, kern) but also editorial choices. Av? Ave.? Yes, I know… I’m sweatin’ the small stuff here.


Is one typography solution better than the other? Arguments could be made for both. If I had to choose, I believe the older sign, Tulip Av, is superior to the newer sign for Holly Ave. Tulip is kerned better (more on kerning later), fills the space better, and is simply more readable… the main design criterion here. Holly is too tightly kerned, is difficult to read, and although Ave. is more correct, the period seems fussy and unnecessary.


On the very next block over, Holly gets a type treatment that is all together different from the earlier version. Oh my, what to think about this?? The font size and choice is much better. Still tightly kerned, but this time there’s a reason… our designer has generously provided MUCH more information on this sign. Not only Ave with an E and no period, but the block number, 7300. I could write an essay on all of this, but I’ll spare you. Just noticing it is really enough for now, don’t you think?


So… what should the typographic standard be for consistent, readable street signage in Takoma Park? Above is the most egregious of the decisions made. Here, the word Dogwood has been horizontally scaled (that’s squished to you lay people), so that the block number information would fit! Consistent with its companion at the intersection? Yes. Hideous, and wrong, wrong, wrong? Yes, yes and yes!! No self-respecting designer EVER uses this feature of his/her software. Why? Because the design of fonts is one of the most careful, specific, and beautifully architectural things known to man woman. And b/c that’s why god type designers invented condensed versions.


Now, what is this thing called kerning? Kern is the space between letters of a word. Yes, the empty space. And it matters greatly with regard to both readability and aesthetic. Above, Barclay has a very open kern; compare this to Holly in the previous images. Which is more desirable?


Sigh. I love kerning. I love worrying and fretting over something so infinitesimal, something so obscure, yet so important to effective communication. The only thing I might love a little more than the act of kerning is my KERN sweatshirt, designed by Veer (just ask my family how sick they are of seeing me in this thing at home). Not only is the Kern sweatshirt a lovely reminder of a cherished aspect of my profession, but ingeniously… and humorously, it allows for an instant demonstration of the meaning of kern. Unzip… open kern… zip… close kern. Get it? Get it!

1.20.10 Fonts that Rock


What’s better than a leering, sugar-coated, petrified heart candy on Valentine’s Day? How about a FREE FONT designed by none other than Kelley Deal! Yep, ya read that right… Breeder, identical twin sister of Kim, crafter, and all around super cool girl has designed Saltwater and it’s yours for the downloading. I actually discovered it for use in an embroidery project I started last weekend… . I love the weird emotional aspects of it. Is it crying saltwater tears? Reminscent of the omnipresent emigre font, Remedy, it has an edgier appeal… wobbly, and a little psychotic.


It’s working out well for the embroidery; I’ll post pics when that’s a little further along. Like in 2011 or something. I’m not so fast at getting these projects done, you know? In the meantime, you can also enjoy Saltwater on the So Charmed home page, along with another shot of this piece of candy that has been sitting on my desk for two years.


And, just what has your favorite Breeder and mine been up to? Knitting, felting and writing a how-to book. You can also buy her very lovely scarves on her web site but be warned, they sell out super fast. GO Kelley!

7.30.09 A Beautiful, Intimate Affair

While some events are high-tech, designed for the cutting-edge Internet policy crowd (see the post before last) others are steeped in gorgeous, late 19th century art. The Phillips Collection Annual Gala is one such event.

The first step in the process is a Save the Date postcard, designed and printed many months before the other materials. At this stage a visual language is established, one that is flexible enough to carry across multiple pieces in a campaign. On the the photo above, taped to a press sheet of the postcards, you can see  sketched ideas for two invitation formats. . The vertical booklet format became the program, while the more dynamic, horizontal became the invite.

Held in the beautiful galleries on 21st street, The Gala is the museum’s major annual fundraising event, affording patrons an incredible opportunity to dine amongst the masterpieces, including Dancers at the Bar, by Degas, this year’s key image for the event. designfarm‘s challenge in working with an intensely iconic, highly recognizable, and undeniably gorgeous painting, was to find a way to both respect and bring a fresh context to the work.

Of course, in my mind, it seems tough to go wrong when working with the palette of a brilliant master. Ultimately though, I’m proud of striking that perfect balance and I believe there are many years of experience behind these kinds of confident decisions.

Did you know that when The Phillips Collection opened in 1921, it was America’s first modern art museum? I highly recommend a visit where you will “encounter superb works of modern art in an intimate setting.”

4.16.09 Chucks Rock Pt. 2 + Good Design Travels

Everyone knows I’m a freak for Chucks (sneakers). I wear ‘em, I blog about ‘em, I love ‘em, and I even found a way to incorporate them into a designfarm project for Friends of the Library, Montgomery County.

This week I received an email from my client at FOL in which she forwarded the following email from Ms. Virginia Hale, President of Friends of Hall County Public Library down in Gainesville, GA:

“I had the pleasure of attending the Friends of Georgia Libraries program last fall which featured much great information about organizing, improving and “growing” Friends groups.

I picked up your beautiful Montgomery Library County Friends’ brochure at the meeting. Now my local Friends’ group is redesigning our brochure, and getting inspiration from many sources. Our brochure committee is very partial to the blurbs on your brochure. May we borrow your verbiage on our new, improved  Friends’ brochure?

Your website is also an inspiration and will soon become a great source of ideas to help our group create its own website. Last May we opened our first ever coffee shop, with merchandise, and are seeing increased profits that go back to helping staff and programming…plus help us pay for the new brochure.

Thanks for what you do, and for how you do it!”

No, THANK you, Virginia!