Friday, December 22, 2006

A Minor Plastic Debate

This week, after I sent out the zen kitchen's monthly newsletter (which you can sign up for at the tzk website), which mentioned my recent entry on turning off your surge protectors, I got an e-mail from a reader who mentioned that, while the surge protectors were a great step towards saving energy, the plastic used to make them is petroleum-based, which makes the net result not really worth it.

While I don't know that I completely agree with that (in the long run, I think that the energy saved from shutting things off can offset the amount of petroleum used to make the surge protectors; plus, you don't need that many of them to control the average-sized apartment, which makes things SO much easier - I only have about three in my place), I do agree that our dependence on petroleum-based plastics is troubling.

This tip from Ideal Bite talks a bit about the value of surge protectors, and makes some recommendations, but I do wonder if there are surge protectors out there made from non-petroleum plastic. I also wonder if there is such a thing right now. I know that there's hemp plastic being used for a whole host of things (kitchen scales and CD/DVD cases being what I most often hear about). However, I don't know if they use it to make things like surge protectors, and I don't know enough about how it's made to be able to say whether it's ACTUALLY petroleum-free in the long run.

The same thing goes with corn based plastic (called PLA). At the moment there seems to be much debate surrounding it - Boing Boing warns about the intense treatment procedure required to handle PLA, while Treehugger seems to really like the stuff. Honestly, I don't trust the stuff yet. Aside from the fact that it looks too much like regular plastic for consumers to easily tell the difference, we still don't have an easy way for consumers to actually deal with the stuff.

Let's say you get two bottles of water over two days. The first is a regular plastic bottle, like Poland Springs or something, which you finish and throw in the recycling bin. The next day you get Biota, which is bottled in PLA. It doesn't really look any different - so what do you do? Most likely, throw it in the recycling bin, where it will probably be tossed into the trash once it hits the recycling center. Or, let's say, you figure out that it's PLA and you throw it in the compost heap. But then, after the prescribed 80 days, it's still not gone. What happened? They said it was compostable! Now you don't trust them anymore.

What's the solution? Honestly, I don't know, but I think the start is to equip recycling centers to do industrial composting as well - that way, consumers don't have to think about it. PLA gets sorted with all the regular recycling, and consumers can keep their food waste in separate bins for composting pickup as well. Seems like a win-win for me.

In regards to the surge protectors, I still recommend it as a way to save energy. And hopefully the plastic thing will start working itself out soon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

web usability and social networking

So, as I read through my latest copy of Yoga Journal (which, finally, I've made some time to read), I see an ad for zaadz, a social networking site (think MySpace) for spiritually-minded, conscious-capitalism type folks. Think MySpace meets a yoga/nature retreat. Great idea, I thought. So I started clicking around, checking things out. screenshot

Overall, it's still a great idea. One small problem, though: it's really hard to use.

Don't get me wrong; things work the way they should. It's not like my issues with Gather, which kicks you out every time you leave the site even if you tell it to remember your password and makes you go through three steps to delete a single e-mail. This is more an issue of someone in marketing getting the better of the design team.

For one thing, the visuals of the site don't really say what the site is about. Instead, there's this massive pile of copy that explains to you what the site is about that you have to read all the way through to actually get it. Then, you have to deal with the navigation. Instead of just telling you what everything is with names that actually make sense, the navigation is populated with rather annoying marketing speak: "zPods." "zPages." "zaazters." (what the heck are "zaazters"? Is that a real word?) navigation

While I appreciate the desire to be unique, I have a pretty fair amount of web experience at this point in my career (after all, I build sites as part of my living), and even I didn't know what half of that stuff meant. Or at the very least, I had to think about what it could be a lot longer than I should have had to.

Mind you, it's still in its early stages; hopefully they'll be able to find and fix some of these things before they fully launch. And I'll probably still end up joining, even if I don't end up spending much time on it. But some advice for them, and for anyone building a site for that matter: if you want more people to stick around on your site, don't try to give things clever marketing names. Name them what they are.

Which reminds me, I have to change some things around on the tzk site. More on that in January.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Save energy this season; turn off your surge protectors

So, about a month ago, I decided to try a little experiment at home. Having heard from both Ideal Bite and my electrical engineer boyfriend that putting things like small appliances and electronic equipment on surge protectors and turning them off when not in use can save electricity, I decided to make a couple of minor adjustments around my apartment and try it for a month.

All I did was this: In my pantry, I have a microwave and a toaster oven that are plugged into a surge protector next to the fridge. If I'm not using either, I turn them off. In my living room, I have my DVD player, VCR, television, iPod dock and TV Antenna, as well as a lamp, plugged into another surge protector. I leave it turned off until I actually decide to watch television, then I make sure to turn it off when I go to bed.

Well, after a month of doing this, I managed to save a total of $14.67 on my electric bill. Mind you, I was gone for a weekend last month, so I do have to account for that, but even with that, I still saved an estimated 50 KWH of electricity over the course of a month just by making that one small adjustment. According to a carbon calculator provided by the World Resources Institute, that's a savings of 64 lbs. of CO2. Yay!

So there you go—a minimal amount of effort that results in huge savings both in my electric bill and my eco-footprint. Score! Now if I can just bring myself to do the same thing with my computer equipment...

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas....

Okay, so I should start by saying that I LOVE Christmas shopping. There's something about the feeling I get from wandering through shops with the specific purpose of finding something that will make someone I care about smile that just makes me unbearably happy.

That said, there are certain things about the holidays that I always find challenging, from an eco-friendliness standpoint. As much as I love gifts and cards (I make my own holiday cards every year as well, which is always one of the highlights of my holiday) and the general spirit of the holiday, the sheer wastefulness of the holiday season invariably depresses me. From gift wrap and bags to the insanity of Christmas decorations and lights that stay on for weeks at a time, the holiday season is often a time when we waste SO much more than is necessary.

Mind you, there are certain holiday traditions that I have never engaged in with any regularity; I have only had one Christmas tree in my adult life, and I tend not to do holiday-themed decorations in general (although I will occasionally get a couple of cute wall hangings or statues that will last a long time and display those during the holidays), and I've never done Christmas lights. I never really had a place where it was appropriate, for one thing, and I've just never been into Christmas lights, for another.

But I love wrapping gifts, and I love making my own cards. And try as I could this year, it was almost impossible to find eco-friendly gift wrap or card-making supplise that were actually attractive in any of the stores I went to. I have noticed that there's a decent amount of eco-friendly stuff online (a quick Google Search for "eco-friendly gift wrap" pulls up quite a few decent options), but a large part of Christmas for me is the flow of things; I tend not to plan very far ahead, but I like to get things taken care of early, and I prefer to do my holiday shopping in stores rather than online. There's something in the process of wandering through a store and finding a bunch of great stuff that will be perfect for the people in my life that makes me happy on so many levels.

So, ultimately, what all this means is that I have a bit of advance planning to do for next year. While the actual gift-buying process can remain the same, certain things (like the stock I use for my holiday cards/envelopes, for example, and the paper I use to wrap my gifts) can be gotten in, say, August or September — or even January, when it all goes on sale — and stored until I'm ready to use them. It also means that I've found an interesting problem that other folks are likely finding as well; eco-friendly, beautiful card and gift-giving options that don't fall into the same paper-with-flowers-in-it rut so often associated with eco-friendly gifts. Something to chew on for 2007, I think.

And I'm still not going to hang Christmas lights.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Blogging for your Business

Over the last few days I've been spending some time reading Publish & Prosper: Blogging for Your Business by DL Byron and Steve Broback. Now that the year is coming to a close and I finally have some breathing room (whew!), it seems appropriate to start looking at all the different ways I promote myself and the studio online, and blogging has inadvertantly become a huge part of that.

I started blogging in about 2000-2001; it was mostly a personal blog on LiveJournal, more a collection of daily rants and musings than anything else; I didn't really think much of it other than the fact that I enjoyed being able to put my thoughts "out there" and not only be able to connect with real-life friends I don't get to see often, but potentially make new friends from all over the place. But I never really thought about who I was writing for or what I was writing about; it was all what I was thinking at the time.

When I first started thinking about starting a blog for the zen kitchen, a whole new set of considerations opened up for me. With this blog, I have so much more to consider—who I'm writing for, who I want to be writing for, what I'm writing and why, and where the blog should be hosted—Blogger or WordPress, etc. It's been an interesting challenge, and I'm still working to perfect the process. If you're looking to start a blog for your business, Publish & Prosper gives a good basic rundown of your options and a very common-sense how-to, from how often you should post (3-6 times a day if you want really intense traffic—yikes!) to how to choose the right tool for your needs. It's a quick read as well — just 185 pages or so, and packed with good information.

Over the next month or so, in between finishing up a couple of projects, heading down to Florida with my boyfriend for the holidays, and dealing with the whole Christmas thing, I'm going to be taking a serious look at revamping the tzk site as well as this and my other blog, A Woman's Issues, and I'll be transforming the recipe section of the tzk site (because yes, part of the reason I called my studio the zen kitchen is because I love to cook more than is perhaps reasonable) into a full-fledged food blog, which will not only showcase the recipes I come up with in my cooking adventures, but also talk a bit about my favorite ingredients, the things I love about food, and other foodie-geek trivia. 2007 is going to be a VERY interesting year.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Feedback request: how can I improve the zen kitchen's site?

I’m gearing up, now that I have a moment to breathe, to revamp the TZK site, and I’m thinking it needs a bit of a re-design; I’ll likely keep the same color scheme, and a few other things are going to stay consistent, but I want to clean it up a bit; maybe move things around. So, in the interest of market research, I’d like to ask you, my humble friends, for your opinions on what works about the current site and how I might improve things in the next version. If you have a moment, I’d love it if you’d take a look and give me your feedback.

The site’s at; some things I’m definitely thinking about already:

• Keeping the portfolio broken down by client, but changing the way that case studies are displayed to showcase the images more than the text (haven’t quite figured out how that will work yet, but if anyone has a suggestion, it would be appreciated.)
• Changing the navigation to be more clear and text-oriented;
• Breaking up the “fun stuff section” into photography and recipes (I think I can get rid of the stuff I do for fun, since I don’t do enough of it)
• Switching the recipes into a food blog that has recipes and general foodie notes.
• Cutting some of the copy;
• making the sample sheets, resumĂ© and client questionnaire more easily accessible.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Going Back to the Creative Brief: When Clients Can't Vocalize What's Wrong

About six months ago, after a couple of client communication breakdowns that were much more stressful than I needed, I decided to implement a firm policy at the zen kitchen that all projects, with the exception of some minor production work that comes into the office on occasion, required the completion of a detailed Creative Brief. This brief, although not nearly as extensive as some others I've seen, tells me what I'm doing for the client, who the client is and how they want to be perceived, who their customers are, and what those customers need to hear from my client. The brief is still in development (I'm realizing that there are a few more abstract questions I have to add to it), but it's been one of the single best productivity tools I've found for working with clients - especially relatively difficult ones.

Every designer, at some point or another, runs into this problem: you have a client who wants a design (brochure/logo/whathaveyou). You talk to the client about the design, about their company, and all the other things that good designers talk to their clients about when you're beginning the process of creating their design. You do gobs of research and come up with what you feel is the perfect design for them. But the client doesn't like it. And they can't come up with a solid reason why - just "I'm not sure - it's just not working for me."

Recently, in the middle of a branding project that's still in development, my client, a soon-to-be online retailer of green computing products, had already chosen a logo design from the concepts that were presented to him, and we were getting ready to finalize the logo, when all of a sudden he decided that the logo wasn't working for him. He couldn't quite vocalize why, it just "wasn't feeling right." At first I was a bit anxious, worrying that we would end up having to go back to the drawing board and incur extra fees and time delays because he didn't like the logo. But after a bit of conversation, I decided to try a different approach. The following is a rundown of our conversation:

Me: "Let's go back to the Creative Brief for a moment. What about the message we're trying to convey doesn't seem to be communicated with this logo?"

Client: "I think it conveys the green message well - I'm just not seeing the computing aspect of the business represented. It feels like it's just another green company."

Me: "Okay, so what works for you about the logo?"

Client: "I like the icon you created. I like the font choice and the color choice."

Me: "Okay, now what's not working for you?"

Client: "It feels like these two worlds - eco-friendliness and technology - are two separate entities that have been forced together. They don't feel as integrated as they should be. The point here is that the two worlds aren't mutually exclusive; they can exist together."

Me: "Okay, so overall it seems like you really like the logo, but you'd like to see the two concepts a bit more connected to each other. Does that sound about right?"

Client: "Yes. Exactly."

By the end of this conversation, which happened on AIM Chat (man, I love being able to use that to connect with out-of-state clients - but that's for another entry), I was able to help him finalize the logo, and we hit on the perfect design in about half an hour, with no panic on either person's end, and no need for extra time or fees. Before I started using my Creative Brief, I found it near impossible to deal with situations like this, since I could never quite figure out what to say. With the Creative Brief, I have a specific set of criteria I'm looking to fulfill with my design, and I can start examining the design against the criteria one by one to figure out exactly where the problem is.

A good Creative Brief doesn't have to be complicated - for most projects, a few questions are enough:

1) who are you?
2) what do you do?
3) how do are you viewed now?
4) how do you want to be viewed?
5) who are your customers? what are they like?
6) what ONE message do you want to communicate to them? (the best designs keep it simple - say one thing and say it clearly)
7) how do you want them to feel when they get this communication?
8) what do you want them to do or think when they get this communication?
9) what's your budget? (yes, you should ask this)
10) who's providing content (text/images/etc.) for this?
11) what are the specific things you need done? Brochure, website, logo, etc.?

You can go as detailed or as broad as you want - just make sure that whatever you use works for the way you work. For example, my friend D'Lanie Blaze of Jailhouse Graphics has questions like "Coffee, Tea, or Tequila?" as part of her creative brief - a fun way of getting to know her clients that stays true to the personality of her business. The Brief available for download at Creative Latitude (which I think is the one that Neil Tortorella uses) has about 10 pages full of questions - more than I could ever think of asking. the zen kitchen's creative brief is available for download here - it's still in development, but it's worked well for me, it's an easily updateable Word document (which is GREAT for most clients - as nice as PDFs are, they're too hard to work with for most people), and the questions are pretty easy to answer for a number of clients. Feel free to grab it and use it for your own clients, or take a look at the Resources section at Creative Latitude and create your own brief.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Customer Service: What it Says About Your Brand

Now that the zen kitchen is starting to see an increase in clients, the issue of client management has been on my mind a lot. I like to think that I treat my clients well, and while sometimes it's hard to keep in touch with everyone I've worked with on a consistent basis (outside of my monthly newsletter), I'm always looking for ways to improve the experience my clients have with my studio. Today, I had two separate customer service experiences that I felt really exemplified the reasons why customer service is such a vital piece to any brand, and I wanted to take a moment to share them.

This week, I decided to devote my Sunday (since my weekdays of late have been filled with billable work and I'm still getting over the guilt I feel being "non-billable" during normal work hours) to some studio marketing and general life maintenance. On the to-do list: Get the newsletter ready, update some case studies and recipes on the zen kitchen website, get files and prints ready for a call for entries, and top off the fluids in my car.

After a nice breakfast with a friend at the Neighborhood Cafe in Union Square (coconut French toast: yum!), I headed over to the Advance Auto Parts at 196 Somerville Avenue in Somerville to get the fluids. Being very much A Girl, I knew I needed power steering fluid and oil, but I had no idea what kind was best for my car. A man named John was happy to help, gave me honest feedback on the types of products they carry, and pointed me to the product that was best for my car without trying to con me into getting the most expensive thing. When I went out to the parking lot to top off the fluids, I was having trouble figuring out where to put the power steering fluid, and I was able to stop John on his way back into the store from helping a fellow customer put on her new windshield wiper to ask where it went, and he was more than happy to help me.

This is the way that I should feel when I walk into a business; like the people who work there value their jobs, and value their ability to help me meet the needs I came into their business to fill. It's important when I work with someone that they understand that whatever I've come in there to take care of might not be in my area of expertise, and they're willing to help me without insulting my intelligence or making me feel like a burden. Back when I was living in Cranston RI, I had a similar experience at the Advance at 1280 Warwick Avenue in Warwick, which tells me a lot about the Advance Auto Parts brand. They hire good people who care about their job and who care about their customers, and for that reason I'll happily reccomend them to anyone who needs auto parts.

On the other hand, another one of today's errands put me in the unfortunate position of having to visit the FedExKinkos in Harvard Square to make some copies and use the self-service color laser printer. Mind you, I got my professional start at Kinko's in Providence, teaching myself design on their computer stations and jump-starting my design career as head of the computer services department in the East Side branch; however, I have ALWAYS had issues with the stores in Providence, from the way I was treated as an employee to the way I was treated later as a customer. Back in Providence, I don't think I was able to bring a single job there without something disastrous happening (including destroyed originals, lost jobs and all sorts of other nonsense), and the self-service stations were almost always in a sense of disarray with too little staff available to take care of them. As a result, I've never had the best association with the brand; however, I was willing to give it a shot, hoping that things were different here in Massachusetts.

When I arrived at the FedExKinkos location, I went straight up to the second floor to use the self-service area, and was greeted by one of the people who was working there, who told me where I could find the design station and then disappeared for the rest of the time I was there. Upon signing into the Mac rental station, I immediately realized that the station, was running versions of all the Adobe software that were at least three years old (I'm talking Illustrator 10 and InDesign 2, meaning I couldn't open the CS2 .eps files I had brought to print and had to import them into InDesign to get them to print), the custom paper tower in the self-service copy area was incompletely stocked and messy, and the self-service kiosk was out of service, which required me to go downstairs and see an employee in order to get a receipt for the services I purchased. Fortunately, the person I dealt with at the front counter was very helpful, if a bit slower than I'd normally like, but still - it's hard for me to believe the lofty promises that FedExKinkos makes when this is the experience I consistently have with them - messy, understocked and understaffed self-service areas, and computers that don't seem to have been updated since 2003.

Sometimes I worry with larger companies that in the fight for more market share, better "brand recognition" and greater profits, they overlook the cornerstone of any successful brand - building a positive experience with your business with your customers. A great logo and consistent brand communication is only part of the package; if your customers are getting inferior products or service, the greatest logo in the world isn't going to help you. Start by hiring good people, training them well and giving them fair compensation and benefits; add a strong logo and consistent brand presence; stir well and continually re-evaluate. This is how you create an experience for your customers that keep them coming back to you.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Research

One of the beautiful things about this stage in the zen kitchen's development is that I'm starting to see more interesting projects coming in - while there's still a good share of basic web production and ad layout, I'm starting to see more and more projects that I can really sink my teeth into - I've just completed one branding project, and am in the process of two others and a sustainability brochure. On top of that, I'm seeing more clients coming from eco/socially responsible backgrounds, which has been one of my goals since starting the zen kitchen almost a year ago now. Overall, I feel more accomplished and more creative than I have in years.

But a recent experience got me thinking really strongly about the creative process and the steps involved, and reminded me somewhat harshly of one of the biggest challenges that professional designers face: clients who visibly don't understand all the steps that are involved in coming up with great work. They think that you can just throw things together after a couple of hours (sometimes even a few minutes) of thought, and it will somehow magically be brilliant, because they think that's what it means to be good at what you do.

This is the thing: any significant creative venture, whether it's a website, logo, brochure, or new product, requires appropriate time spent doing research - learning about the company or product you're promoting, figuring out who their best customers are and brainstorming the best tactics for reaching them. Skip out on that, and you end up guessing your way through the entire project - sometimes you get lucky and you hit on something really great, but more often your designs end up falling flat, and do nothing for your client. And when that happens, the chance of that client coming back to you is significantly less than if you take the time to research the company and its customers, and use that information to come up with a design that speaks to them.

So often when speaking to clients - and sometimes even when speaking with people who work with creative professionals for a living (much to my dismay) - I find people who mistakenly believe that design is something that only happens on the computer - you talk about the project a little bit, jump right in and start designing away. In my experience, my best designs have NEVER happened that way. More often, I spend the first major chunk of time working on a project (which varies depending on the project's budget, but it's normally between 4 and 8 hours minimum) looking for everything I can find about the company and what it does; looking at competitor's sites and figuring out how the company I'm creating for can distinguish itself; talking to people who fit the target market to find out what they really need from the client's company. Then I start brainstorming - throwing words, ideas and quick doodles into my sketchbook, then filtering through those to find a few ideas that really fit the project's creative brief. Then, and ONLY then, do I head to the computer. Once I've done the appropriate research and sketches, I can turn around most concepts pretty quickly - if I haven't done research, or spent any time in my sketchbook throwing around ideas, it often seems like nothing will come out of me no matter how hard I try. It's incredibly demoralizing - like a permanent state of creative blocks.

Mind you, some jobs don't really require that much research - something where the layout, fonts, images, etc. is already predetermined, for example, really just requires you knowing where to find things and where to put them. Most production work falls into this category. But well-done research is essential to any truly creative project, no matter how small - skip it, and you're doing a disservice to your client, and to yourself.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I'm in a book!

Logo for Branches Fine Gifts designed by the zen kitchen

Okay, well - not really ME, but the logo I did for Branches Fine Gifts was selected among 2000 others to appear in LogoLounge 3, a collection of the best logos submitted to the popular LogoLounge site by a panel of international judges.

Jill Johwa, owner of Branches (which sadly had to close its doors in early 2006 right after I found out this logo was going to be published due to landlord issues) was my client for almost two years. She was a complete joy to work with - she knew where she wanted the business to go and the message she wanted to send, but she always trusted my creative judgement. Through the two years we worked together, I honed my skills in copywriting, branding, and illustration. I was devastated when the store had to close - in addition to the other great products she offered, her store was where I found my favorite perfume, Earth by ZENTS.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Re-Nourish Interview Part Two: Future Plans

This week, partly because the interview was long and partly because things here at the zen kitchen have been too busy for me to breathe (guess this marketing thing works, huh?), the interview with Eric from Re-Nourish continues. In this second half, Eric talks about the future of the site, as well as how he works his sustainable message into the courses he teaches.

4. What do you hope to achieve with the site as it grows?
Personally, I want to develop more in terms of my exploration of the field and apply that to renourish. I designed the site to be fairly "open source" where the information flows freely in and out. I wasn't ever planning to charge people to get this information, but instead hoped that they would spread the word or "seed" conversations with their peers and clients about sustainable design. This was the metaphor I used to develop the "bur" logo. Burs act as seeds attaching themselves to people and animals and are carried elsewhere to start new again. Just imagine what the world would be like if designers only chose 100% PCW paper tomorrow? That's one of the things I'm hoping to accomplish with renourish.5. What's been your favorite thing about seeing the site grow? What has response been like?

My favorite thing so far is the email I receive from readers. Typically they send me links to explore and also simply just tell me how much they like the site. That makes me feel all fuzzy. I'm glad the word is getting out and hopefully changes are soon to follow.

6. What's been the biggest challenge in maintaining the site's integrity and content?

The biggest challenge hasn't been finding the information. In fact it's all over the place (which of course is great). The difficult part is filtering all the information for the site to keep with my standards. Not every link people send me works for the site. Part of filtering all this content then becomes time. I have many interests (however renourish being up at the top) so it's difficult maintaining that balance. I want the site to be chock full of well organized information, but I'm finding the original quick implementation I did in grad school is quickly not adapting well to the amount of available good content. Renourish is growing faster than expected and may need a change soon. I think I may need help! Anyone willing?

7. You mentioned that you're a design professor at the University of Illinois. How have your green principals played into the work you do with students? Do you include sustainability as part of your coursework?

This is a question I have been asking myself every day. How do you get students excited and disturbed enough about the topic without sounding preachy? How do you make sustainably seem full of opportunity and not limiting? As this is my first term teaching at the University of Illinois I am attempting to begin to answer these questions though lectures and assignments. So far I haven't included sustainability as a topic (that is until my next assignment starting Monday October 23!) but instead have been building the students up to it. I've used the idea of "aware". The projects so far have then slowly opening their eyes to the power of their design work through its impact on society. Next I plan on heightening that sense of awareness to their possible environmental impacts. What I find promising is that many students already are interested in the topic and want an assignment related. I've assigned them to read "Cradle to Cradle" as a basis for the next project and hope discussion ensues. These assignments are really building blocks for me to assign more challenging and exciting sustainable design projects in the future. Thanks for asking me to be a part of your blog. Glad we could make time for this interview.

Monday, October 30, 2006

An Interview With the Eric, Founder of Re-Nourish, part the first

One of my happier recent discoveries was Re-Nourish, a repository for just about every sustainable thing you could ever want to think about, especially as it relates to graphic design . Sites like these are hard to find—so many of them deal exclusively with industrial design, a field that's been looking towards sustainability for years. Eco-friendly print design, while not new, has not started looking really sexy until recently, when the world (or, at least, the US) finally started turning an ear to the green movement. Re-Nourish has listings of green design firms (in which the zen kitchen is, in fact, listed), information on how and why to design green (including safe PANTONE swatch pallettes and paper listings), and notes on other miscellaneous greenery, including a running commentary on environmental news in the articles section. Not long ago, I asked Eric, the founder of Re-Nourish and a design professor at the University of Illinois, a few questions about his reasons for developing this incredible information repository and vision for the future of the site.

note: This is the first part of the interview, as it's a bit long for the blogosphere. Tune in next week for part two!

1. Why did you decide to create Re-Nourish? How did it get started?
Renourish really started back in the autumn of 2003, when I attended the AIGA Power of Design Conference in Vancouver, BC Canada. I heard people like Bruce Mau, Susan Szenasy, Jeff Mendelsohn and Michael Braungart speak. The all spoke about the things that were running through my mind at the time as I questioned my purpose as a designer. I was curious to know how detrimental the paper industry really was and if I could do better. I had recently read "Culture Jam" by Kalle Lasn and "Cradle to Cradle" by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and found myself wondering should designers be less consumer related and more citizen focused?
These ruminations led me to the University of Texas at Austin where I decided to purse and MFA in design and social responsibility. I struggled for two years to find a positive relationship between graphic designer and the environment. At times I felt my efforts were in vain and that our society was doomed to fail, consuming everything as it fell. I read voraciously. I spent hours in a nearby coffee shop writing, asking myself questions, and experimenting with projects with limited success. The turning point came when I asked myself these questions: "How can the graphic designer practice more sustainably in a very practical way?" and "What is the medium where the designer can be reached 24/7 at home and at the job?" At first my answer was a sustainably designed paper sketchbook, but found the web more accessible and less wasteful in its construction. Renourish was born. It was two years of research and a hurried 3 weeks of design and implementation to meet my thesis deadlines. Looking back I feel the answer was sitting in front of me a year earlier, but I needed to test my other ideas before accepting I was right all along.
2. What first intrigued you about green design? When did you start applying an eco-friendly focus to your design projects?
I think in reality I got interested in the topic when I was a teenager arguing with my dad about why (as a household) we should recycle. I would constantly pull newspapers, milk jugs and cardboard out of the kitchen trash bin and haul it out to the curb every week. It was a losing battle, but in the end I think that sparked my interest. Later, as a designer I found the direct mail, packaging, and print collateral I spent days/weeks slaving over piled in city trash bins. I wanted to do better. I didn't want my work to end up the way it was. But, it really wasn't until graduate school when I began to apply eco-friendly, sustainable principles to my work. Up until that point I really didn't have the information and techniques to do so.
3. How much research did you put into the Re-Nourish resources? How do you find information to put into the site?
I spent 2003-2006 reading about the environment, design impacts and sustainability. I wrote a number of papers and my thesis on the topics. Along the way the information came from books by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Daniel Imhoff, William McDonough,, the Sierra Club and literally hundreds of other sources. I also had the pleasure of meeting a number of people who also focused their life on sustainability. They were from different cultures (India, Mexico, England) and brought to my life a different perspective on the topic outside of that here in the USA. I collaborated with a few of them on some eco-friendly projects and used those experiences on renourish.

To learn more about Re-Nourish, visit Tune in next week for part two of the interview, where Eric talks about his vision for the future of the site, and how he works sustainability into the courses he teaches.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Solar-Powered Trash Compactors in Somerville and Boston

Not too long ago in the Somerville Journal, I came across an article about the BigBelly Trash Compactors that are making an appearance in various spots around Boston and the surrounding areas, including a few that just premiered in Davis Square, about a 20-minute walk from the zen kitchen. The compactors, created by Needham, MA-based Seahorse Power, use the sun to compact up to 150 gallons of trash, compared to the 40-50 gallons that the old bins would hold. This means that DPW staff only has to empty the bins once a day, which stands to save the city a ton of money in transportation and labor costs (the old bins had to be emptied up to eight times per day), not to mention the fact it should result in a bit less traffic annoyance on Elm Street, which anyone who's been driving through there can attest is a VERY good thing. Plus, it saves fuel and doesn't require energy from the grid to power it, which means significant environmental benefits as well. How can you go wrong?

When I was looking for more info on the subject, however, I came across this Treehugger post that makes a good point: while the environmental savings provided by these compactors is surely a great step forward, why aren't there recycling bins next to them? A good portion of the trash going into these BigBellies can be recycled; why don't we use some of these savings to start a recycling program as well? I've seen recycling bins in Porter and Harvard Square; it might be different towns (Cambridge vs. Somerville), but it shouldn't be that hard to get a decent recycling program organized.

Of course, it's too early to see what's going to come of this new environmental effort on the part of my fair city; perhaps it's already in the works and they're just waiting for the new budget year to get a recycling program started. We'll see. But at least we're making some strides forward, even if the folks at Treehugger don't think it's enough.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Female Role Models?

I took a quick break after yoga this afternoon to check out the iVillage Feedroom, which has a bunch of quick video interviews from famous women on things like business, role models, money, etc.. Hearing Martha Stewart talk about business and her various role models was definitely inspiring, but it caused me to realize something:

I don't think I have any female role models—at least, in a business sense.

How did this happen? Part of it, I think, is that I'm in a profoundly male-dominated career—with the exception of Molly E. Holzschlag, there just aren't that many web design rock stars out there, and on the owning-a-design-studio front, there's only a few that I know of that have really made it "big," so to speak. So all of my business and design role models have been primarily male—Neil Tortorella, Peleg Top, and of course, Jeffrey Zeldman (if that man only knew how much code I've stolen from him!).

But this also begs the question: does one NEED a role model? And does that role model have to be of your gender?

My thought is yes. Part of my challenge is I'm a woman in this business, and there are regrettably few women who make it to the big leagues and stay there; at least, without losing whatever femininity they once posessed. That tends to make things more difficult—your life is full of women who are struggling to do it for themselves, and you don't get to see the wild, genre-shaping success stories that you see with male designers (think Paul Rand, Stefan Sagmeister, and the like). Seeing all this glory on the "other side of the fence" makes it harder to see yourself as a successful design entrepreneur.

Perhaps this is my destiny—to become a female role model, and to find other women who are acting as role models for designers and entrepreneurs.

Of course, I could just be rambling.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Designers Unite! Another Designer Goes Green

One of the things that's been making me smile of late is the new wave of designers who have decided to make green considerations part of their practice - environmental concerns have been a consideration in product design for quite some time, but in the world of printed goodness, eco-concerns weren't really talked about as much - with the exception of a select few places where you could find the goods on green design.

But lately, I've been seeing a host of terrific writing from other designers about their committment to going green, including this post I discovered on the HOW Design Forum from Holly Castles, an illustrator from Canada (who has REALLY CUTE work, by the way - it reminds me of fairy tales), where she discusses 60+ ways to make your studio and your design work more eco-friendly. I was pleased to find that I was already doing a couple of the things she suggests (such as using shopping bags for trash instead of buying trash bags and using natural light whenever possible instead of turning on the lights in my office), and I learned a few great tips as well.

This newfound excitement for sustainability makes me happy - when I first decided to make eco-friendly graphic design one of the focuses of my studio, I worried that I would be limiting myself by having to be extra choosy about the stuff I took on; and so far, I've been getting great clients, and doing the work that I want to do, the way I want to do it. And seeing other designers moving towards greener practices gives me hope that maybe we can make a difference. After all, we are the ones who create all this paper in the service of our clients. If we don't do something, who will?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lisa Sugrue - Viaggio at MassArt, Boston

There are some clients and projects you just, well... click with. Sometimes they're startups in need of a new brand and website, sometimes they're people who just need to spread the word about a special event.

Tonight, I went to the artist's reception for Viaggio, the senior thesis exhibition for Lisa Sugrue, an artist and teacher who was finishing up her Masters at MassArt.

When Lisa first contacted me to create the promotional postcard and other graphics for the exhibit, I was struck by the way she talked about the art in the show - her walks on the beach, her fear of death, and how she used her art to express her feelings about death and the death of her father, which inspired the works in the show. Based on our discussions and the colors in her artwork - deep blues and reds interspersed with bright yellows and oranges - I was able to create something that worked perfectly for the project almost immediately, and the reception was a huge success - when I got there, the room was packed.

Lisa's collection of stunning watercolors was inspired by the period following her father's death, which she spent walking the beach in contemplation of life, death, and her relationship with her father. She uses watercolors and ocean water to create her pieces, which lends a tactile, crystalline quality to the work. If you're in the area and get the chance, I highly recommend checking it out. The show is located in the Arnheim Gallery in MassArt's South Hall, and it runs from October 10-26. Gallery hours are 10-6 Monday through Saturday. For directions, go to MassArt's Website.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Clearing the Air: When Client "Favors" go Awry

Designers, for the most part, are a giving lot. While you do get the occasional antisocial jerk (and really, what profession DON'T you get that in - have you been to the Post Office lately?), most of us got into this because we want to make the world prettier. As such, most designers, especially in the beginning of their careers, find themselves doing a bit of design work here and there as a favor - to a family member, friend of a friend, etc. Often, this isn't a big deal - you whip something together really quick, the person loved it, and buys you a six-pack (or, in one recent personal case, a fancy dinner) to thank you. No biggie.

But sometimes, and some would argue more often than not, what starts off as a quick favor turns into a nightmare of revisions, tweaks, and "could you just make this bigger? Could you make the font green?" The resulting stress is enough to make even the most generous designer swear themselves off doing favors ever again, and think of the favor-askers as someone who is just looking for something for nothing. But often, all that's needed to rectify the situation and get things on track again is a bit of open communication about what's expected from each party at the beginning of the project. And if things do start getting out of hand, a gentle reminder of those expectations is in order.

Not long ago, I ended up chatting with Kevin Scarborough, a young designer and budding illustrator who's going for his master's at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. As a "favor" to a friend of a friend (which really is a favor to the friend, but let's not get into that discussion), he agreed to do the shell of a website for someone his friend knew at a greatly reduced rate. The deal they struck verbally was for 1 home page and 1 interior page, with 2 rounds of revisions on the design. The client would then take the pages and do the rest of the build, and all the updates, on his own machine.

Well, as many things do, things didn't go that way.

"I laid out the site for him, sent along the files. He asked for tweaks, I tweaked. Back and forth for close to two months. 2 rounds [of revisions were mentioned]. We've long since passed 2 rounds."

At the point he was at, he was ready to give up - getting down on himself for being enough such an idiot to take on this job, and thinking that he was stuck in a situation he couldn't get out of. What I suggested, however, was a simple conversation to clear the air.

Okay. So what I think you need to do is sit down and have a conversation with the guy on the phone. Say that there seems to be some confusion as to what was actually agreed to when we spoke, and before you move forward with this job, it's important that the two of you reconnect to clarify what is being done for how much money. When you talk to him, impress upon him that what you verbally agreed to was 2 pages with 2 rounds of revisions. It's now been [x amount], and this job has reached the point where it is no longer feasible to continue working on it without additional compensation. This also puts you in a situation where you can get a signed contract from him that will protect both of you. Draw up a formal agreement that both of you can sign. Send him a PDF and have him fax it to you before you do any more work for him.

So, did this reasoned discussion with the client result in a magical client turnaround? Not exactly. But, it accomplished the primary goal - getting the matter resolved - professionally and without causing undue stress for the client or for the designer. When I asked Kevin how the situation turned out, this is what he had to say:

It ended amicably; we decided the situation wasn't set up properly from the beginning. Deliverables made, payments made, both parties parted in peace.

Now, one might think that this resolution is a negative thing; after all, nobody wants to lose a client. However, amicably parting ways with a client after a reasoned discussion on the phone is far better than what can often happen when issues are hashed out via e-mail. E-mail arguments are enormous time-wasters, and the impersonal nature of e-mail makes it near impossible to judge a person's tone or mood, which can lead to misinterpretation and hostility on the part of either party. By talking with the client in person or on the phone, you can avoid a whole host of potential drama.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Corporate Greasiness Report: Walmart Adding Wage Caps and Part-Timers

This evening, through a friend's blog, I happened upon this article:

Wal-Mart to Add Wage Caps and Part-Timers

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, is pushing to create a cheaper, more flexible work force by capping wages, using more part-time workers and scheduling more workers on nights and weekends.

The full text of the article can be found here.

Now this is what bothers me about this. Wal-mart has been trying to put a smiley face on their evil-corporation image (pun intended) for at least the last year, adding organic foods to their roster of products-for-cheap and pushing for more eco-friendly practices from their vendors. This I appreciate.

But this is not a company which is short on cash - and the people running the show are worth billions. So WHY are they undermining the value of the very workforce that keeps them in business? These are people with lives to lead - rent to pay, and all too often, extra mouths to feed. And what are they giving their loyalty to? A corporation that tries to push them out of whatever little advancement and seniority advantage they end up seeing in favor of the next person who agrees to 20 hours a week because they have no other choice.

I understand the push for low prices - heck, I'm on a budget too. But I'm appalled that the lower prices Wal-mart stands for are forced to come out of the pockets of the people who work there.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Greening the Office: Paperless Time Management

Every day, I thank whatever gods there be for the whiteboard that sits next to me in the office. I have two of them: one larger metal one that doubles as a magnet board and another clear square one that's held to the top of it by magnets. Since I've started getting busier (almost TOO busy in fact; I guess this marketing stuff is working for me!), I have ended up using it every day to keep track of what I need to do.

Here's the thing: when you're busy, the to-do list is your friend. Your Very Good Friend. Lists of any kind, really, are your friend, because you are always getting information that you can't deal with right away. But one of the things that always kind of irritates me is the paper generated by my various lists—between my personal journal, to-do lists, quick notes to myself, business journals, etc. I must have been going through about a few dozen extra pieces of paper a month. Not that much when you think of it in terms of all the paper ever, but still—such things add up. And, adding to the craziness, having a bunch of little pieces of paper floating around is really not that fun for someone who isn't naturally hyper-organized.

So, in the interest of saving a bit of paper, and keeping things in one place, I developed my new system. Everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) goes into my iCal, along with categories for each thing I've got to do that day. The smaller whiteboard is for the current day's tasks, and the area underneath it is for a bit of advance planning—I'll put the activities for the next two days there. The current day's appointments with times go at the top of the smaller white board, with all the activities that need to be done that day but don't have a specific time frame are listed underneath. As tasks are completed, they get erased off the board. As the day finishes, the smaller board is erased and the next day's appointments and tasks are listed on the smaller board.

Doing things this way, I've managed to keep my head above water during an insanely busy time, and I get to remind myself that I am, in fact, actually productive—I literally erase parts of the pile as I go.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Green living: Know your inputs and outputs

This Tuesday at the Boston Women’s Network monthly dinner, I had the privilege of hearing Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar and currently with Meadow Networks, tell the story of ZipCar’s success and offer suggestions on how to start and run a business based on a commitment to social responsibility.

For those who don’t know ZipCar, it’s car rental service, available in five major metropolitan areas throughout the US, that allows members to rent cars parked in a number of easily-accessed spots throughout the city for only as long as they need them. Rates are billed either hourly or daily depending on usage, and you can rent a car easily through the website and walk to a spot within 5-10 minutes from wherever you happen to be. You hold your membership card up to the windshield, the car unlocks and the ignition engages (wirelessly and keylessly), and you’re on your way. You just park the car back in the same spot you picked it up in, and the car will send the trip data back to ZipCar with the number of hours you used it for billing. Since its founding in about 2000, ZipCar has grown to about 2,000 cars in 5 major cities, and about 20 members on average end up using each car—which means 19 fewer parking spaces needed, 19 fewer cars on the road, and huge cost savings for the members, not to mention the environmental savings.

Among other inspirational tips Robin shared with the group, the tip that resonated with me the most was this: be aware of your inputs and outputs. When you make a business decision, what are you consuming? What are you putting back out there? One of the examples that Robin mentioned was that she refused to buy disposable cups/plates/silverware/etc. for the ZipCar office—if people wanted to have coffee or tea, they would have to bring their own mugs, and the same with dishes. She also had two printers in the office—one with used paper and one with new. Anything that was printed for in-house use was printed on the used paper—information for customers would be printed on the new paper.
Hearing Robin speak about the ways that she made the ZipCar office greener got me thinking about my own inputs and outputs, how I’m trying to lessen the environmental impact of the zen kitchen’s daily operation, and how I can improve on what I’m doing and make the office even greener. Here are a few of the things on my list of outputs:

  • I always keep recycled paper in the office printer, and put one-sided waste paper in the tray when I’m finished with the document.

  • I’ve instituted a primarily PDF-based workflow in the office, sending customers digital proofs instead of printing them, which saves significant amounts of paper.

  • Since it’s primarily a home office, I don’t use disposable anything, and I use cotton towels and sponges for cleaning instead of paper towels.

  • I don’t leave water running when I’m washing my hands, brushing my teeth, or doing dishes.

  • I also try to be very conscientious about recycling, and I use shopping bags to throw away trash instead of buying new plastic bags.

  • Since I moved to Somerville and opened the zen kitchen, I’ve rarely had to drive—most of my work has been in the office, and even when I have to go onsite for a client or meeting, I can often take the T instead of driving.

  • I do almost all marketing for the studio on the Web, which means that there's much less paper to be thrown away.

While I definitely think these are good outputs, there are definitely a few places where I can improve:

  • On the days when I do have to leave the office for work, I have a tendency to eat out. A LOT. This means disposable dishes and silverware. It also means I’m not eating as healthy as I should be.

  • I have a tendency to keep too much, and convince myself that I need things I don’t. That means I end up buying things I don’t really need more often than not, and those things, once I’ve realized I don’t need them anymore, usually end up getting thrown away or donated.

  • While I don’t drive my car that often, I’m not always as mindful about maintenance as I should be. I could improve my mileage vastly if I got a tuneup.

So it looks like, while so far I’ve been doing pretty good, there’s still room to make the zen kitchen even greener—remembering to bring a travel mug with me, for example, when I feel like grabbing an iced tea, or remembering to bring reusable bags when I go shopping. After all, even using them as trash bags, with the amount I cook I still have them piled up in the bag holder!

What do you put out there? What do you take in?

Change is in the air

Things have been insanely busy lately here at the zen kitchen. Since I last updated this blog, me, Persephone & Benjamin, and the studio have moved into a new space just outside of Davis Square in Somerville. The old studio, while spacious, proved inefficient for running a growing design studio, so it was time to move on to a new place with enough room to expand in the future.

Speaking of growth, the zen kitchen has its very own intern—Madelyn Madeiros, who hails from Jamaica Plain, has delightfully agreed to spend a few hours a week in the studio learning the ins and outs of green design and running a studio. I couldn’t be more pleased—not only do I get some extra help around the office, I get to help another young designer learn the ropes of doing this thing we do—and hopefully, I get to show her a more mindful way of doing it.

In other tzk-related news, my articles seem to be popping up all over the place: the “Image is Everything?” series about making sustainable design choices, which includes “The Problem of Paper” and “The Issue of Ink” has now been featured in both Creative Latitude and the Holistic Business Journal. In addition, I’m in the process of writing a new article about making green decisions in your marketing plan for the Boston Herald’s Women’s Business magazine, which should come out sometime in November. The Somerville Journal also ran a story about the studio during the week of August 30th. It looks like all the hard work I’ve put in this year has started to pay off—in addition to all this writing, I now have a number of great projects in the works. I’ll make sure to keep you posted.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Stuck for inspiration? Just look around you.

My good friend Mike Mackenzie, who does motion graphics for video and TV (and he's completely BRILLIANT at it), told me a great story about inspiration the other day when I was feeling uninspired.

He was in art school, and they gave the class an assignment to do a "get out the vote" poster. Everyone else was doing the standard cliche thing of red white and blue, stars, etc. He was railing against it in class, when the teacher told him to put his money where his mouth was. Trouble was, he had nothing.

He went out for a walk to clear his head, and remembered something he had heard from Neville Brody (he had the opportunity to study under him in the 80s-90s, which is when he went to school and when Brody was HUGE) - when you're stuck, let inspiration come from whatever's around you. He closed his eyes, cleared his head, and said that the next thing he saw was going to be inspiration for his piece. Then he opened his eyes and found it - a crumpled-up newspaper on the sidewalk.

He started taking headlines and bits of text that were relevant to the issues of the time, cut them out and formed them into the single word VOTE on his paper. His assignment was deemed the best in the class, and he ended up graduating second in his class (underneath, oddly enough, a designer I knew from Providence, even though they both went to a school in Boston).

That story was probably the most inspirational thing I had ever heard. Now, whenever I'm out, I look for inspiration in the things around me - especially trees, grass, and the seasons.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Conversations on Green Design: Getting Started

Well, it seems that I've happily reached that point in my career where other designers are coming to me asking for advice. Although I get my fair share of the "do you have advice for a new designer looking to get work in this field" questions, the larger portion of questions/fan mail (yes, one person actually called it fan mail) I've received concern how to get into green design, and how they can work with their clients and printers to make their jobs more sustainable.

Recently, I got a comment on one of my blogs from Kerri McHale, a designer in California whose site just makes me think of running through a field picking dandelions when I was six. It makes me smile. Her work is quite lovely as well. Kerri and I have chatted briefly on a couple of design communities I frequent through this particular blog, and she popped over to ask me a few questions:

I've followed you over from the graphic design community, as you've always been so helpful with very well thought out answers, then I noticed on your website that you focus on sustainable and green design practices. You also seem to have developed a very successful business for yourself. I have a question about all that... if you don't mind taking the time to answer.

My whole career I've been working as a full time employee for businesses, and I will be for a while to come (read: Bay Area, CA mortgage squeeze-- no room for the beginning draught of a full time freelance business)... but I plan to begin developing a client base to start up a freelance business, eventually going full time once I move away from California. I'd like to not only implement sustainable design practices, but also, if I have a large enough client base to choose, focus on design and marketing from businesses in sustainable industries.

So my questions for you mostly pertain to when you were starting out:
Did you, from the very start, employ green practices?
Did you (and do you) only employ green practices, or do you also use standard practices depending on the client?
Did you focus only on a certain niche of clients when you first starting developing a client base?

This is my biggest conundrum when I think about a business model, because, starting out, I imagine that I'd lose a lot of valuable clients who don't want to pay more money for sustainability's sake. Then again, if I practice these standards on a case-by-case basis, there's no credibility there, is there?

Incidentally, have you found that practicing green/sustainable design is that much more expensive for the client?

Sheesh, I might as well be conducting an interview!
This is a lot to answer, so I'll understand if you take a pass! But thanks in advance nonetheless! ;-)

After some thought, I offered this:

hey there,

I'm glad you appreciate the work I've been doing—it's a great inspiration to keep going when I hear props coming from others in my line of work.

In response to your questions, I had always thought about green practices and done my best to employ them to my limited knowledge on every freelance project I did—with my "day jobs," it wasn't always an option. But I have long been a fan and avid supporter of recycled paper, and from the very first project I was fighting to use it in every job I had some control over the printing on. After I started my studio and started searching around for a focus, my thoughts turned to green design, and it just clicked. I got in touch with a woman I knew in Providence who had a design firm that employed green practices, and asked her for advice. She happily gave me a bunch of resources to check out, and I started doing the research.

To the best of my ability, I employ exclusively green practices. Occasionally you get the odd job—a business card here or there where the client already has a printer lined up and it's just a quick one-off job from someone you're helping out for a moment or two—and you end up not being able to have the control you need to be green; but it's been my experience that most clients will listen if you explain to them why, and that you can still have beautiful design that's sustainable and reasonably priced.

As for a niche, I don't know that I focus on one particular niche, although some would say I do. I talk about green design wherever I have the chance, online and off, and I've noticed that the clients who come to me lately genuinely care about green design and want to apply sustainable principles to their jobs. What it comes down to is that, as the designer, you have the control. If you make it clear that this is how you work, the client either respects that or doesn't. If they don't, you probably shouldn't be working with them.

As far as pricing goes, I've found the majority of pricing to be competitive on going green vs. not going green. The trick is doing the research and figuring out what's entailed. The basics (veggie ink and 100% postconsumer paper) isn't going to up your cost that much (although some would claim that it's expensive compared to places like Vistaprint, but frankly, that site doesn't even factor into the equation on the vast majority of my work), but ink-saving techniques like die-cutting and embossing can. It's really up to the specifics of the job, and where you want to go with a specific piece.

What I'd suggest is to do some research—start with Partners in Design's Eco Strategies and Celery Design's Eco Guide to Paper, and spend some time on Re-Nourish. Then start talking to your clients about it. Get price quotes on recycled vs. non-recycled. Most high-end papers have at least one recycled option, and it's usually similar in price to the other sheets in the line. Make them see that it will make barely a blip on their bottom line, and the good karma they get from going green on their materials will pay for it in spades and accolades. Then make the switch and start pitching yourself as green.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Getting Rid of the Clutter? Don’t Throw it Out – Throw it to Throwplace.

While poking around re-nourish the other day, I noticed a write-up on Throwplace, a site designed to keep folks’ clutter from going into the landfill by allowing registered users to offer up their pre-loved (read: discarded) belongings to other folks willing to take it off their hands. A description from the Re-Nourish site gives an idea of how it works: encourages donors to list functional items in good condition in the Charity section. Goods with reuse or recycling potential can be listed in the Business section, along with items needing refurbishing or parts for recycling. Items of low value but with creative use potential like bottlecaps, corks, or even egg crates can be listed in the Up-For-Grabs section.

Items not claimed by Charities within 90 days will roll into the Business section, and from Business to Up-For-Grabs. After a Throw has rolled into the Up-For-Grabs section it will automatically be deleted if it has not been given away in 120 days.

What makes me happy about this concept is two things: one, of course, it keeps otherwise perfectly serviceable stuff out of landfills and offers it up to good causes; and two, it gives small business owners and non-profits the ability to furnish their offices cheaply (all items are free to throw, although the site charges a small subscription fee if you want to take things) without the inevitable waste that comes along with buying new furniture.

A quick browse of the site’s offerings doesn’t show a ton of listings; however, the site is still new, and the concept is brilliant. I’ll definitely be throwing some of my stuff there (and potentially looking to take) as I set up my new digs in September.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Greening the Office: PDF Design Workflow

One of the things I love about having my own office is that I get to make my own decisions – as the boss, I get to decide what kind of paper to put in the printer, how often to print things, what kind of notebooks to buy, and a whole host of other things that I just don’t get the opportunity to do as someone who isn’t running the show. When I started the zen kitchen, one of my primary objectives was to be as green as possible, not only in the materials I created for my clients, but in my in-studio practices as well.

Before I opened the studio, I spent about six years working in print shops, corporate art departments, and privately at home, and one of the things that always frustrated me about the places I worked outside of my home office was the amount of waste created in the traditional design workflow. In almost every art department I worked in, the average layout required printing every page of the layout, usually on a larger size sheet (11 by 17 or 12 by 18), to be passed around the office for approval. Inevitably there would be anywhere from 3 to 12 rounds of edits, and each round of edits required the printing of a new proof. The end result of this was that the average job jacket contained anywhere from 12 to 50 sheets of paper by the end of a job; and generally speaking, most of the paper used had either no recycled content or the bare minimum recycled content, and while many of the offices had excellent recycling programs, the sheer amount of waste created was disconcerting.

With the work I’ve done in my home studio and for the zen kitchen, I’ve instituted a digital PDF workflow – meaning that, after I’ve finished a draft for a client, I export the piece as a PDF and send it to the client for review via e-mail. This process has worked very well for a variety of reasons:

  • It saves time – many of my clients are ½ hour or more away, and sending them a PDF means I don’t have to deliver proofs in person. It’s also much quicker than working up a comp and mailing it to a client.
  • It saves money – by eliminating shipping and printing costs for proofs, I’m able to work more efficiently and keep overhead reasonable.
  • It saves paper and ink – by not printing out proofs after every round of revisions, I manage to save a tree or two, as well as avoid a trip to Staples.
  • It saves space on my workshelves and in my filing cabinets.

I began to fully realize the beauty of the digital workflow I’ve created in the studio while I was working with Virgin Life Care on a big layout project. The project was a 75-page manual that was being cut to about 50 pages with edits on those pages – much more reasonable, but still quite the feat. My contact at the company had the full version of Acrobat, which (because it’s brilliant) allowed him to make comments and requests for edits right in the PDF document – which meant that, through three rounds of changes, I was able to not only get his edits in a timely manner and make the edits quickly, I was able to do it all without printing a single sheet of paper.

PDF workflows can be tough to implement – in some, more established, art departments, it can be tough to get people used to dealing with Acrobat’s commenting features, as well as getting them out of the habit of requiring paper proofs. In addition, it can be tough to accurately judge things like size, die-cuts, etc. in PDF form – for things I’m using die-cutting for, or that require special assembly, I always try to do at least one paper comp, fully assembled and cut out. But once it’s in use, a PDF workflow can add tremendous benefits to both office efficiency and a company’s bottom line.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Sustainability challenge: Designing for the right size sheet

5-Trees Brochure
One of the more interesting challenges to being sustainable comes not just from choosing the right papers and inks for each job, but from making the most efficient use of the press sheet (a term which here means "sheets of paper used for said print job"). Paper for offset press comes in a variety of sizes beyond the traditional 8.5 by 11 and 11 by 17 (or A4 and A3 used in Europe—I think those are the names, anyway.), and it's often worth a conversation with the printer prior designing a job to determine the best use of the sheet.

This principle ended up coming into sharp focus while I was creating the brochure for 5-Trees, an environmental compliance documentation company in Burlington MA. The brochure, which highlights the company's expertise in education and compliance documentation for RoHS and other key environmental initiatives, needed a look that carried through the global, all-encompassing theme of their existing branding and bring something more to the table than a typical brochure, while still sending an eco-friendly message. Originally, I had concepted this as an 12 by 8 brochure, which folded to 4 by 8 with a die cut on the front flap. "What the heck are you talking about?" you might say—but trust me, it was nice. A triumph of a piece.

5-Trees Brochure Until the job went to press, and I discovered that the printer had quoted the job on an entirely different print size than what I had specified originally (and referenced an earlier quote for). In the proof stage, I got a call from my print rep mentioning this fact, and telling me that to do the job at the size I needed, they had to buy an entirely different sheet of paper, and not only would that jack up the price $400, it would end up wasting a ton of paper in the long run, as the sheets wouldn't cut quite right for this job.

The annoying part of this is that I didn't learn any of this ahead of time. The not-as-annoying part of it is that I only had to reduce the overall length of the piece by 3/4 of an inch to get it down to a doable size on the original sheet they were using, a change which was barely perceptable to the client, and actually made the brochure more elegant.

The other good news is that for my next big gig, the invitation for the Human Rights Campaign's Annual New England Dinner, I talked to the printer before I even started CONCEPTING the piece, so we were able to find the perfect balance of efficient paper use and aesthetics before I spent time designing the piece.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Back from Green Marketing Seminar with Precision Web Marketing

Well, after a long and particularly insane ride home (I swear that I93 exists to make drivers REALLY HATE their cars) I have returned from co-presenting a seminar on Green Marketing with Michelle Girasole of Precision Web Marketing in Providence. The group was intimate, but attentive, and I had a great time chatting with them about more eco-friendly ways to promote their businesses, including green printing, blogging, and e-mail newsletters. I look forward to having the chance to do that again—public speaking is one of those things I truly love to do, and it gives me a chance to use that theatre training I never thought I'd use again!

After the seminar, I stopped by to visit a good friend and took a trip to Pawtuxet Village in Cranston—my old hangout, before I moved up to Somerville a year ago. It's a beautiful, quaint little village right by the Pawtuxet River, just up the street from where I grew up. While I was there, I stopped by Little Falls Bakery and CafĂ© (please don't pay too much attention to the aesthetics of their site—ack!) to pick up a couple of their Multigrain scones, which are one of my absolute favorite breakfast items ever, and one of the things I miss most about living in Cranston. Little Falls does it right—they're an institution in Pawtuxet Village, and I think that's mainly because they don't need to market themselves all that heavily to people—they're in a very convenient location just at the beginning of the main part of the Village, they provide great food (all their scones are amazing, and their low-carb bagels are good enough to convince even someone who loves carbs to give them a try. The coffee rocks too) and great, friendly service, and they try to give back to their community. Little by little, word of mouth leads to more customers, and those customers tell other people, and so on and so forth.

The fact is that, while all the other things that business owners do to market themselves is good and valuable, there is so much to be said about just being good at what you do, and about being good to other people. When you do something nice for someone, whether it's helping them with an issue they've been having, sending them a helpful article about something they'd be interested in, or even just smiling and saying hello—they remember that, and they remember you. And getting people to remember you is half of successful marketing. So, as you go along in your workday, take some time to be good to people—it'll always pay you back.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the zen kitchen has a new mascot!

benjamin, the zen kitchen mascot
Thanks to my best friend Rae, the studio now has a new temporary mascot - Benjamin (above), a very adorable bearded dragon that Rae needed to find a home for during the summer. My cat Persephone, who has been trying to turn herself into the studio mascot for quite a while (see right) Persephone, also the zen kitchen mascot has been very cute about the whole thing—she hasn't gotten jealous yet, but she's FASCINATED by the cricket tank sitting under the stairs. She has literally spent the last three days perched next to the tank, staring at the crickets inside.

Having a bearded dragon is an interesting venture. The crickets under the stairs keep chirping pretty loudly, which gives the studio a sort of calm feeling, like I'm at my computer in the middle of the woods at night. It's all very Zen. Meanwhile, I now have two animals posing for my attention on a regular basis - Persephone has a habit of lounging strategically every time you look at her, as if she's ready for her closeup, and Benjamin keeps striking little poses for me in his tank, which is right on top of a large counter along the side wall of my office. I was a bit worried that having the two distractions—I mean loving, friendly creatures—would make me less productive, but thus far they really haven't.

This is one of the benefits of having your own studio or home office - you have the power to make the space yours. Plants, artwork, curtains, plants, even animals - you can create your own haven of productivity, however you want to set it up. This was something I always missed with full-time and contract gigs - the ability to make a space mine and only mine. Too often, there were office policies against personal stuff being in a cube, or limits on what was allowed; in some cases, I was even forced to share a small cube with another contractor, which led to consistent issues not only with productivity, but with interpersonal conflict; anyone who's ever been forced to work in cramped quarters with another person probably knows the types of issues that come up. While not all space-sharing situations are horrible, sometimes you just get stuck with That Person. You know—the surly dude who does nothing but complain about the company and his coworkers, or the girl who spends most of her time regaling you with tales of her latest dating adventure, and it just makes your work life miserable (or at least, less productive).

Why does this seem to be such a trend in companies? Is it only in New England (where I'm from), or does this happen nationwide? A happy workforce is a productive workforce—studies have shown this time and again—yet so many companies downsize staff and then force the remaining folks to work long, thankless hours, or they take on contractors without having the space to house them appropriately. If I had a dollar for every time my knees were against a filing cabinet while I was working for 9+ hours a day, I'd have a pretty hefty sum in my savings account right now.

Put it this way—people are more productive if they're comfortable. You spend at least 1/3 of your life (if not more) at work—if you can make people comfortable, keep them happy, make them feel appreciated, they'll do more for you, be more committed to their jobs and more productive. If you don't have room for another contractor, find people who have the right software at home and let them telecommute. If someone has to commute an hour or more just to get there—either pay them more or let them telecommute. If people want to bring in potted plants, let them bring in a potted plant. Let them listen to their music (as long as it's on headphones), and make contractors (especially those who are staying more than a few months) feel like they're part of the team. Some companies are already doing this—for example, my experience at CVS/Pharmacy was one of the best I've had in years; I had my own largish cube, which afforded privacy and room to spread out my work, and the manager was hands-on enough to give you direction, but hands-off enough to trust that you knew what you were doing. Let's see it happen more often, especially in larger companies.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Your personality is your business - developing healthy business relationships

Over the past week, I've found myself involved in a series of conversations with various people in my network about business relationships. Whether you're just starting out in business or you've been doing it for 20 years, relationships are the key to any business, service or otherwise. Learn how to navigate them well, and make sure to treat people well, and you can build a solid base of support - something that any business needs.

To me, the most productive business relationships are those that involve a mutual sense of support, respect and trust between the individuals involved. As a designer, I need to know that the client I'm involved with appreciates my work and trusts me to do the best job possible for them. In return, I make every effort to do my best work for them, and I become a loyal supporter of their business, using the tools I have available, including promoting them through my website and word-of-mouth, to help their business succeed outside of what I'm able to do for them graphically. I am happy to say that I genuinely love working with my current clients, and I won't accept the work unless I can say that going in.

However, if I'm dealing with a potential client and I feel there's a lack of trust or respect there, I'll work to find a solution for it, and if that sense of respect isn't there despite my best efforts, I don't take on the client. It isn't worth it to me or my business to work with someone who isn't going to respect what I do for them - a client who doesn't value what effective design can do for their business, or who will make blanket negative statements about design or designers in general, isn't going to commit to their end of the client relationship, and will often turn out to be a) more trouble than they're worth, and b) a relationship that inevitably results in substandard, ineffective work, usually because the client isn't willing to take an active role in giving the designer what they need to do their jobs effectively. Of course, this isn't what the client sees - they just see that they paid you all this money and your work didn't get results, and that confirms their already negative view of the design industry in general. Clients can be funny that way.

In one of the conversations I had this week, I was told that, like most people who work for themselves, I sometimes let my personality lead my business instead of letting my business thinking lead it. My answer to that, although I couldn't quite articulate it at the time, is why wouldn't I?

The fact is that any business, despite what people want to believe about corporations being soulless and evil, is based, first and foremost, on humans. Not machines, not products, not processes and policies, but humans. If you're selling toasters, you're concerned with the humans who are buying those toasters and making them happy. If you're a banker, you're concerned about the humans that are going to your bank, and making them happy. Business is 100% a human endeavor. To overlook the part that personalities play in that endeavor is, in my opinion, sorely misguided.

This holds especially true in service businesses. In the case of a big corporation, you have a chance for more anonymity, and often, the only people you'll be dealing with is your coworkers. While I wouldn't advocate being an antisocial jerk there either, the shy, timid, and less social creatures of us will often find themselves a bit more at ease in in-house situations than in the often scary world of working-for-yourself. But even in that case, it's important to find room for your unique personality wherever (and however) you choose to work.

In the case of those that have made the self-employment leap, your personality becomes an even more important part of your business, because frankly, you ARE your business. The more authentically you present yourself, and the more effective you can be at navigating different people's personality differences while still remaining true to who you are, the more effective you'll be as a business owner, and as a fellow human.

For example, my personality (as many will attest) is very strong and very outgoing, with a tendency towards stubbornness. If I believe in something strongly enough, I'll argue it till the death, and this can cause problems with people who aren't open to other opinions (or who just don't like people who aren't afraid to speak their mind or ask tough questions). I also, however, tend to be very friendly, and I love to help people. My clients range from non-profits and entrepeneurs who have never dealt with a professional designer before to the design directors and content managers of mid-size to large companies, who are very used to working with designers.

As a result, depending on the client, I can find myself dealing with very different situations and very different personalities on a given day. In addition, during the feeling-out process in the beginning of a potential client relationship, I find myself assessing the client based not only on whether the work will be a good fit for my style and my interests, but whether the person I'm dealing with is a good fit for my personality. This, to me, is the ultimate in business thinking leading my business - if I'm not working for people I like and can get along with, I won't do my best work, and I won't be able to sustain the client relationship.

Another key thing I've learned about client relationships is patience. As I mentioned earlier, a number of my clients were not accustomed to working with professional designers before they came to me, and as a result, I often find myself in a situation where what I take for granted is something that the client wasn't aware of, and has resulted in a number of interesting learning experiences in the realm of client-designer communication.

But this is another key thing I've learned: effective communication and conflict resolution. Over the years, I've gone from situations where I found myself so frustrated by a client or boss that I've found myself bursting into tears or getting nasty with the person; over the years, I've learned not only to see the other person's point of view whenever possible, I've learned to almost immediately recognize people that are going to press my trigger points, and AVOID DEALING WITH THEM!

This, in my opinion, is the absolute most important thing for service professionals to remember - go with your gut. If someone is giving you a vibe that makes you think you're about to flip out on them, walk away. Walk away quickly, do not pass go, and do NOT collect $200 (which is often about what you'll end up collecting from said individual in exchange for your hard work anyway).

Another important thing I've learned (alas, the Very Hard Way) is covering all the bases right away. A good contract or proposal should lay out everything that should reasonably expected of you as the designer, and everything that you, as designer, expect from the client. The client should know whether they're providing content, and what form that "content" needs to take. They should know whether proofreading or spellchecking of content is a service that's being worked into the quote. They should know how many revisions they're entitled to, and what happens if they go over that. They should also know what happens if they all of a sudden decide to move on. If something gets missed in the communication attempt, don't kill yourself over it - but do make sure to clear up any misconceptions as they arise.

Let's face it - we're all human. Mistakes and conflicts will arise from time to time, in business, as well as in life. We can't control how other people are going to behave, or whether we're going to get along with everyone we meet. What we can do is stay true to ourselves, treat people with fairness and equanimity, and not invest our time or energy in people that just aren't a good fit for us. If we can do that, we can then build a network of people who enrich our lives, and our businesses, and whose lives and businesses we enrich in turn and everyone's happy.

By the way, yes - I am an optimist.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reason #564 to love my iPod

My iPod is a wonderful thing. Aside from the fact that it has all my chick rock, Beatles records and yoga music on it (among others), my favorite feature is this: it saves me paper.

That's right—in its brief life as mine, my iPod has prevented me from printing out countless sheets of directions to various places, text from websites, and it's occasionally served as a replacement jump drive in times of need.

For those who might not be aware of this feature, those of us who are on Mac OSX already know that the iPod is set up to sync with iCal and your Address book. What I do is cut and paste directions to wherever it is I have to go from Yahoo Maps into the "notes" section of the iCal event (it's important to note that when you do this, you have to manually type in the R's and L's that normally appear in circles in the Yahoo directions, as they don't show up in your iCal text). In doing this, I have managed to save about a half a ream of paper thus far that would normally be used to print directions from Yahoo Maps.

Another handy little feature I've found is that you can also move text-only files over into the "Notes" section of your iPod and read them on the screen. This works well if you have BBEdit Lite —I've found that Text Edit leaves funky characters in the text.

Designers vs. NotSoMuch: The DIY Debate

Lately, on several of the various design blogs I visit, there's been a heated debate over this book, DIY: Design it Yourself. It's a collection of do-it-yourself design projects and inspiration compiled by students and faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art and edited by Ellen Lupton. The comments on the AIGA debate seem to mostly indicate a separation among the designers into two camps: those who think that a bit of design education is good for the masses, and those who think that putting design tools in the hands of amateurs is the ultimate Bad Thing.

To be honest, I have a few opinions on the subject. For one, I think it's rather silly to treat this book like it's a new idea: doing a search for DIY on Amazon nets over 6500 results, and the first several of them are really not that far off from the book in question.

I had a chance, at a recent ICA mixer, to check out a bit of the book, and I have to say: some of the stuff is pretty good. At the same time, however, I really don't consider the techniques in the book an example of what genuinely constitutes effective design. DIY is a book that teaches you how to make things that look cool, but it doesn't teach you how to come up with a good concept, or to think of design in terms of the specific business challenges it's meant to address. It doesn't even run the gamut of all the things you REALLY need to know about how to do a successful project/campaign. It is simply a resource for people who want to express their creativity in new ways, just like a thousand other books before it. It is not a substitute for formal design training. So why all the fuss?

Honestly, I think it's a matter of ego. And I can understand it from my own experience - we're in a world where access to the "tools" of design is unprecedented, and the marketplace is overflowing with people who call themselves designers because they downloaded a copy of Photoshop last week. We spend our days being pulled between being appreciated for the value we bring to our clients' businesses and defending our livelihood to the myriad of potential clients who can't seem to understand the difference between what we do and what their secretaries can throw together in Word. I'd like to think that with experience and establishing a solid practice, the ratios will change and we deal with more appreciation than misunderstanding, but that only seems to happen to the rare individuals that actually work in or run larger agencies. The rest of us, who remain smallish (and decidedly so), find ourselves dealing with this frustration day in and out. So on that level, I can understand the annoyance.

But given this, who is DIY really speaking to? Certainly not the secretary who's going to be doing the uneducated client's newsletters in Word, but the individual crafty person who wants to learn how to make things that look really cool. Perhaps the person who, like me, couldn't afford to take out $90K in student loans to attend RISD and found herself just "playing around with things," and from that developed an unending passion for design that has turned into a fulfilling career. And what, I ask, is wrong with that?