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, resumé 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.