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.