UnSquaring Transformation Revealed

The great fun of being a publication designer is that you get to experience the amazing creativity of a wide range of people. Innovative people get out of bed every morning excited to communicate real life-improving benefits to their customers. Being invited to design the visual bridge for that communication is what gets me up.

North Lime Coffee & Donuts

I have been considering adding an Apple Pencil/iPad Pro combination to my graphic tool set for awhile and I finally broke down and did it. What pushed me over the edge on the tablet is the redemption of time that a single mobile screen gives me. Drawing, digital painting, comping, calendar, Feedly, Olive tree, Evernote, email, text, etc come at me all in one interface.

Sell all thou hast, and buy Photoshop

Deadlines. They are never just another day at the office. Just when you think you’ve planned far enough ahead, bluffed and cajoled to get things in on time, something gets added to the pile. It is then that one of my mantras seems extremely useful. “Sell all thou hast, and buy Photoshop.”

The story goes like this. My friend is a warm, decent, friendly guy who has suffered the ravages of age like we all do. He was the newly minted president of a large organization. As the figurehead an announcement and some photography was in order.

Now, I am usually happy to see him, but when he “dropped by” the office and the boss scheduled an impromptu, (zero planning) photo shoot, I was a bit panicked. Clearly he wasn’t any happier than I … “I only have 5 minutes” he growled.

Portrait photography should be handled by a pro. A photographer’s fees are well worth it as he/she can really do wonders with pose, light, etc. However, when your boss says “get a photo” you do it. I got him to relax and laugh, got the exposure right, outdoor morning light from behind him with a flash fill to take care of the shadows, blur the shrubbery background…yada yada.

The pressure continued to ratchet. “Let’s announce this position in the next issue” (the magazine was within hours of the deadline). IT WAS A GOOD PHOTO of an upper-middle-aged white guy. What I needed though, was a visual image of the warm, affable guy he is. Seriously, he’s funny, intelligent, has great instincts and insights … but age creates a lot of distractions. So I pulled out the magic art director’s shoe horn and went to work.

Success in these situations depends a bit on skill and a bit on judgement. You want the person to look better than they do, but you don’t want anybody to easily see what you did. It’s rather like makeup…when it’s done right, the face is what you see, not the makeup.

I blew up the high-resolution photo and I moved the lapels of his coat (cut and clone) to hide his middle aged spread. Then, I cropped enough of the photo so that the really incriminating evidence went away.  His smile has the normal number of teeth that are a bit crooked, one eye doesn’t open like the other, etc etc, so I just generally did the sort of touchups that make a photograph a bit more pleasing without removing the character of the person in the photograph.

I knew that I had a success a couple of weeks later when a staffer from his new organization’s in-house magazine called me with a question. “Hey Bob, can we use your photograph? We just can’t seem to get a good photo of this guy and yours looks great.”

I laughed and for the sake of full disclosure I then walked them through what I had done in the photograph. Before my explanation, they didn’t see it and neither did their new president.


  1. In most cases, it is better to make the ask before you make changes even if it is just the off-hand remark during the shoot, “I’ll touch this up and make you look great.”
  2. ALWAYS be honest about what you’ve done and care for the feelings/permissions of the person involved…(hence the photo isn’t here for your enjoyment).

And if you are a beginning art director, sell all thou hast, and buy Photoshop.


Hire Cartoonist

SCBowlingcopyWhen you use a brand character, that brand character should be the personality of your company plus perhaps some feelings or attractions that you want to project. These feelings/images may be a bit nuanced to be in the written version of your brand promise. This may be a great opportunity to say “hire cartoonist!”

Some people are ready to count brand characters out because they are “old-fashioned.” Actually they are very old as far as advertising goes. If you are willing for a bit of a stretch, the use of icons and idols as talismans of power go back much further than that.

But that doesn’t mean that icons or characters have lost their usefulness. Brand characters have stood the test of time and are just as useful and powerful today as when they were first introduced. The Michelin tire man and the Maytag repairman are absolutely fantastic in connecting the personality and promise of their respective company, its product and the desires of their customer.

This notion of connecting the personality/promise of a company with their product surfaced when I was asked to help make a bowling shirt. The Scott County Kentucky bowling team won the 2012 state championship. Needless to say, folks in Scott County thought there should be something commemorative, and they approached a local company to create a shirt.
The school’s logo is the cardinal and it is incredibly close in looks to the University of Louisville Cardinal mascot.  Mascots are great, especially in terms of establishing on ongoing brand personality. If that mascot is repeatedly associated with positive experiences, the mascot becomes iconic for that set of memories. Reinforced long enough, the familiar becomes the historic and can even move on to veneration. Scott county has a long, and well loved sports tradition.ScottCountyHighbannerlogo
My job was to associate that tradition (a personality actually) with an emerging sport that had done extremely well for it’s first year out. My thought was that two things were important, (1) a fresh take on typical bowling ephemera (2) a connection with the school’s logo, (and hence their tradition), without being seen as “redoing the logo.”

Rather than repeat the kitsch solution of bowling ball through bowling pins I pushed the concept of connecting a well-established logo with the emerging sport of bowling at Scott County High. The snarling look on Scott County’s cardinal was the brand personality I brought across. The notion of aggressive as a visual adjective morphed into a bowling ball face

The inspiration for this solution came from another standing tradition. Artists have been wrapping faces and other designs around custom-painted bowling balls for some time, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to source this as an idea. As I worked with the concept, it occurred to me that the crest of the cardinal could simply be the motion lines.

Somebody will point out that the type came from one of the more ubiquitous elements of the bowling genre, beer. I will stipulate to two things. First, I don’t want to encourage under-aged drinking. Second, its hard to go wrong in a bowling design to pick a font with “brew” or “beer” as part of its title. For me, its a tasteful use of a well understood type style that evokes the feeling of bowling without being salacious.

Hire Cartoonist

When is it a business advantage to think of using a fictional portrayal of something? The advantage is that it creates a visual portrayal of a company or product’s character. A company’s personality is somewhat intangible and an illustration can help. Other times, a reference to the brand’s history or a specific visual identity that is attractive to the audience in question can also be helpful.

So if the boss screams “Hire cartoonist now!” how do we get it right?

Obviously, it has to be appropriate. A cartoon of a drooling doctor with a chain saw isn’t selling plastic surgery any time soon. However if you are putting on a haunted house, bring on Doc Saw!

It should avoid ongepotchket (too much complication) but take advantage of commonalities. For example, not all doctors wear stethoscopes, but one hanging around the neck of a character forces recognition as a doctor. The difficulty with using the stethoscope is that EVERY cartoon doctor has one so the device tends to disappear in the clutter. If you compete in a crowded field your customer’s eyes are already glazed over with similarity.

A creative example

My friends at Leading Results compete in the area of online marketing and needed to differentiate themselves. Part of their solution was the use of a brand character.

The original rendering of Roco (Leading Result’s content monster) was creative and well executed by another artist and serves his purpose well. More importantly, Roco clearly connected Leading Results’ attention to content as a core value within the brand character.

The assignment for Amazingly Creative was to keep Roco as Roco, but put Roco in different poses and activities to illustrate the key points that Leading Results would be making in other print and web materials. The turnaround time was accelerated due to various factors and Amazingly Creative was happy to comply.

The challenge in any such assignment is that activity equals mobility and all of the attendant issues. The original Roco is well concepted and executed, but the feet don’t look as capable as the hands. Thinking through hands and feet, posture and grip, stance and dynamic motion requires creativity and a healthy dose of “what if?”

However, you have to stay close enough to the original character that (he, she, it??) is recognizable and ultimately you have to ask, does it really look like (Roco in this case) is really surfing? Mining? Teaching?

If this has piqued your interest, contact me. Send me a creative brief and I will send you a rough draft, no obligation. The only caveat is that you can’t use the rough in any publication internal or external. If we decide to move ahead with an engagement, we can always formalize the agreement.

What BRAND are you smoking?

Every discipline has its language, a verbal shorthand to pack paragraphs of meaning into single terms relevant to the specialty. Those terms speed communications but can lead to banal statements if the definitions aren’t kept sharp. This post seeks to reel in some bad habits that have cropped up in my life and the lives of others. In particular I’m feeling bad about some of the verbal flair, the hip-shot opinions and quick assessments that lack substance. If you don’t suffer from any such problem, congratulations. I am truly proud of you.

Too often, rather than say what we mean, we use terms that sound a bit more important, a splash more encompassing. For instance, if you can’t decide on the pictures and type that are going in the next web ad, you don’t say:

“I can’t decide on the pictures and type that are going in the next web ad.”

Instead, we use the more important sounding:

“I am still processing through the branding implications”
or “I don’t think that we’ve settled the verbal cues that will truly create a brand connection.”

I’ll save the problem of posturing for another post, but maybe we could make a little progress on this one term, branding. If you use “brand” as a synonym for design, layout, logo, type or color (or some combination like that) I question your use of the term.

Well “So WHAT?” you may ask. Yes, we are all a tad insecure and I should be understanding and if you’re not guilty of this, AWESOME! But at the risk of being pedantic, I want to say, “words have meaning.”

Too often I’ve caught myself using ill defined words….exercising a vague hope in fairy dust I suppose. This fairy dust attempts (since I’m using terms with no definition) to make people nod their heads, rub their chins and consider me a sage.

My biggest fear is that the improper use of “brand” or “branding” is actually worse than posturing as it leads to an improper understanding of WHY we do WHAT we do. Those of us in the graphic arts community tell our customers that they need to “differentiate” or stand out as “unique.” We pass on the common knowledge that the marketplace is crowded – massively crowded with products, choices, features and all the clutter of advertising and logos that go with it.

Then we sell them a logo, a redesign or a website and they JOIN THE CLUTTER. They may look sharper, BUT they don’t think differently, they don’t act differently and that all but guarantees little change in their visibility to customers.

So what is branding? I haven’t found a better definition than Ted Matthews’:

“Brand is what people think of you, it’s everything. It’s every touchpoint that anyone ever has with your business. And when the Brand is this important, it can’t be delegated away, but must be owned by the CEO – the only person in the organization with the clout to make sure that employees are delivering the Brand at each and every point of contact.” — Matthews, Ted  (2011-04-10). Brand: It Ain’t the Logo* (*It’s what people think of you) (Kindle Locations 172-174).

Ted Matthew’s book is important for several reasons, not the least of which is this nifty quote. (If you don’t have a good sense of brand, I thoroughly recommend it. His company website is instinctbrandequity.com. I may not be able to get you to stop thinking (and speaking) of “brand” as a logo, type and some colors. However, could I at least encourage you to start thinking and speaking of your brand as “every touchpoint that anyone ever has with your business.” Design can be part of the clutter of our modern world or part of building an intelligent, multi-faceted strategy to influence  “what people think of you.”

One methodology helps dilute people’s attention and the other enforces your uniqueness at every point of presence.

Branding – Black and White

Geez….color doesn’t cost anything on a website, so why not put color on everything? Blue headlines, green subheads, chartreuse backgrounds, etc. And then make it flash enabled, and give me some dancing squirrels and a picture of my cat.


Why not? Well, because people need to actually use your site to accomplish a purpose.

There are lots of people out there who want to sell you the website equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron. “It’s hand coded, its custom built, its one of a kind…very cool design.” But honestly, do you actually want the “hand built Bugatti” of a website if you are an ordinary carpenter, brick layer or plumber? Wouldn’t a “pickup truck” of a website more accurately reflect your business and actually do a better job of introducing you and your business?

Granted a Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Toyota, or Nissan, pickup truck won’t do 250 mph plus, but try hauling 20 sheets of drywall, screws, mud and all your tools to a job site in a Bugatti.

If you don’t need a “hand coded wonder” don’t pay for one.

To say “don’t spend too much” may seem counter intuitive for a guy who builds web sites to say, but I am completely convinced that only what makes your business brilliant matters. If the core of your business is a guy with a dream and a pickup truck, you need a website that reflects that.

Amazingly Creative, Inc. revolves around one core offering: we believe in your amazing creativity. Our core competency is to listen for and discover what makes you and your business unique. We then study your market space and collaborate with you to create a design solution that expresses why your business offering is superior in light of your customer’s desires.

We offer design solutions for print and web. We succeed by creating marketing vehicles that tangibly express why your business offering is preferable in light of your customer’s desires.

Having a solid marketing plan that includes a budget for print collateral and a web presence is money well spent. Having a clean, professional look is simply one of the basics of business.

What may we do for you?

Black Canyon Consulting Group

The Black Canyon Consulting Group has three different practices. In complete distinction from the average consulting firm, their methodology works in all aspects of strategy and business modeling, sales effectiveness, and customer experience. Even during the recent downturn in the economy, BCCG’s customers were turning profits while turning their companies around.

Rather than choosing a the usual take on the amorphous buzzwords of consultant speak, Black Canyon Consulting Group chose strong landscape and navigation concepts to point out their ability to equip and enable their clients to create and strengthen a sustainable competitive advantage. A real privilege to work with Wayne Peterson and his team in both their original entry into a web presence as well as the current version which went live in April 2011.

Another fun feature was putting a Prezi into a permanent format as a landing page presentation