#100Signs Project: No. 2

“Legends Of The Hidden Temple” was one of my favorite shows as a child. It was an adventure-soaked game show with an Aztec-inspired theme: team names were based on alliterative animal names and a setting grounded in natural, earthy textures and structures. The essence of the show was a mix of adventure, history and myth.

As contestants entered their final feat – to enter the temple in search of tokens – the following message emanated from the rock figure known as “Olmec” – a message limited to the context of the challenge at hand.

It’s possible that the show’s producers were communicating a larger message to its childhood audience. The connection between imagination, creativity and childhood has been celebrated by artists (e.g. Picasso) and writers (e.g. Robert Fulghum). It is this connection that is evoked by Olmec’s message set in the context of an adventure-themed game show. It’s a message we can carry past childhood.

100 Signs - No 002

The Paradox of Time Management Apps

I actually spent 3 hours last week testing time management apps and reveling in the irony of it all. Each app had its own attractive life-saving combination of promises and features, user interfaces and API integrations. None of them offered to actually do my work for me and none was obviously more helpful than the others.

The one valuable discovery I did make during this otherwise complete waste of a morning was the Pomodoro technique which is actually a concept not a proprietary product. In other words it’s useful (and free). The idea is you work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. Repeat.

The concept of 25 minutes is easy to visualize, especially if you grew up watching TV sitcoms. During a standard 30-minute TV show a dramatic problem is both introduced and resolved. An entire family can learn a valuable life lesson (e.g. Full House). A dynamic duo of teenage youth compete to get the shit scared out of them by surprise attacks from evil “temple monkeys (e.g. Legends of the Hidden Temple). You get the point.

The Pomodoro technique works because it forces you to do the following:

1) Focus – Suddenly you’re on the clock and you only have a relatively short amount of time to actually get something done. Yet it’s long enough to be considered a waste if nothing comes of it.

2) Prioritize – Working within concrete, regular intervals enables you to conceptualize projects into individual tasks. You ask yourself ‘What can I get accomplished in the next 25 minutes, that will move my project forward?’

3) Stay sane – We’ve all been there; you’re so overloaded you don’t know where to begin. Because the Pomodoro technique includes taking a break, you’re left with no excuse but to simply Start. Somewhere. The break gives you a chance to either remove yourself from the task or take a step back and evaluate your approach.

So give the Pomodoro method a try using your watch or phone. During your first 5-min break, watch this 4:41 artistic interpretation on the meaning of Time. Take the remaining 1:19  to scrape your thoughts from the ceiling. I warned you!

“Beauty Is Power”: How One Woman’s Entrepreneurial Taste Redefined ‘Beauty’

helena rubinstein "beauty is power"

A strange sense of familiarity welcomed me while I stood on line for the coat check. I felt obligated to internally review the reasons that fueled my visit.

I had gone to the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit “Beauty is Power”, a look at the legacy left by Helena Rubenstein (1872-1965) on the beauty industry.

I was also there to check out the aesthetic of the museum itself, which underwent a rebranding this year by the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh.

Yet waiting on the line for the coat check, I realized another layer of significance embedded in the place itself. The lobby evokes a modern, minimalist synagogue, with a list of donor names carved into the white walls. The gift shop sells Judaica, with a modernist edge. It’s a very secular space, with delicate hints of tradition, like a mosaic made of mostly white with a few specks of rich, bright colors.

This is a very special space.

A Dramatic Entrance

The cherry on top was the free iPhone app, a custom-designed exhibit audio guide. A blended experience of art, culture and technology? Let’s do this.

Rubinstein-Mosaic

I pushed open the heavy doors to the exhibit and was immediately swirled into a slow-moving current of fellow museum-visitors: heavily perfumed ladies, decked out in furs and covered in layers of makeup and jewelry. None of them was using the iPhone app…yet their presence played a role in the experience of the exhibit.

The rooms were as luxuriously designed as the crowd they contained. Lavender walls with velvet tuffets in a deep shade of crimson produced a sense of decadence. The moment you enter the exhibit it is impossible to not feel transported into a sort of parlor, where an appreciation for style and taste is celebrated.

Eclectic Taste & Multiculturalism

interior

Rubinstein left Poland and moved to Australia where she opened her first beauty salon in Melbourne in 1903. Later, she expanded her business into London and Paris and eventually New York. “Beauty Is Power” includes over 200 objects taken from Rubinstein’s personal art collection (which included work by Picasso, Matisse and Ernst) in addition to travel keepsakes, jewelry and a few garments. Her exposure to and appreciation for a diverse aesthetic led her to expand definitions of what made something “beautiful”.

She “delighted in mingling ‘western and nonwestern works’.

She appreciated African art around the same time it was inspiring Cubist artists, like Picasso and Braques. She opened salons in Paris, whose clientele included Josephine Baker, a personification of the new “beauty” and a sort of muse for Rubinstein. In Mexico she met Frida Kahlo, with whom she felt an “immediate personal connection”.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

fini-and-me

Left: “Two Women” by Leonor Fini (1939); Right: Self-reflection in mirror owned by H.R.

In early 20th century Western society, beauty was something to “aspire” to. It wasn’t something you could capture; it was an ideal against which you would measure yourself. The wealthy and the powerful determined what was in style, and makeup was deemed appropriate only for actresses and prostitutes.

Rubinstein challenged this by championing the cosmetic use of makeup for the everyday woman – as an expression of femininity, power and individualism. She democratized beauty, celebrating it as limitless and undefined.

Rubinstein stated,

“There are no ugly women – only lazy ones”.

Rubinstein built an empire selling products and beauty advice to women everywhere. She envisioned salons as places of education, where women could study color, makeup application techniques, as well as general health and beauty advice. Her line of cosmetics, which was eventually bought by Lancôme, included the first waterproof eyeliner, and the introduction of the mascara wand.

My grandmother, who has a strong eye for the aesthetic and is herself an avid art collector, recently shared that in sixty years of marriage, “Your grandfather never saw me without my makeup on.” Nana stated this as a proud declaration, describing a daily decision she made out of a place of strength.

Rubinstein’s eclectic style and taste, cultural sensitivity and business prowess made her a key player – almost a composer – in the symphony of 20th century beauty, art and fashion.

The “Beauty Is Power” exhibit is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City through March 22, 2015.

Book Review: “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman

Brand Thinking is a collection of interviews conducted by Debbie Millman, veteran brand consultant, host of the podcast series Design Matters and co-founder of the Master’s in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The book explores what branding means as a concept and a profession through a series of interviews with industry leaders in advertising, marketing, design, business strategy and anthropology.

Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman

I found the first half of the book to be much more enlightening and inspiring than the latter half, but this is probably just because many of the core themes were revisited across several interviews. (Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell’s interview was last, which involved a discussion as to why he doesn’t use the term “brand” in books that explore that very concept. He also points out the fairly obvious yet simultaneously enlightening — classic Gladwell — by stating our love of social media speaks to our biological need to connect to others by communicating our thoughts.)

I highlighted and underlined a lot of this book. Below are a few of my favorite tidbits and quotes pulled from what were the most memorable interviews for me:

Brian Collins – Discussed branding as a source of connection with others, and introduced the concept of “archetypal” brands and Jungian psychology which led me down a serious rabbit hole from which I hope I never emerge…For example, Apple plays the role of the rebel, offering consumers a way to assert their individuality or “coolness” without explicitly stating this (“the art that conceals the art” as Virginia Postrel puts it). Apple is the proverbial “Eve” – a temptress, a seductress, a rebel. By choosing Apple, we gravitate toward this cultural concept known as an “archtype” with which we are all familiar.

Wally Olins – Stresses the importance in possessing a combination of strategic and design capabilities. His advice to young brand strategists or those considering a career in branding is to consider whether they truly want to join what’s a very demanding business. Not everything is quantifiable; he’s highly suspect of analysts who quantify everything with neat metrics. We can see what has not worked in the market, but we cannot quantify what will – which is what the most successful brands predict. And you have to be OK with that.

“In order to be truly imaginative, you must possess an unusual level of self-  confidence and creativity . . .”

“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment.”

Grant McCracken – Sees designers as vehicles for corporations to take culture seriously. Has a PhD in Anthropology, and points out that while most of the world perceives the passage of time as circular, Western culture uniquely decided at some point to consider time as linear, symbolized by an arrow. We therefore find ourselves in an endless projection forward, for what’s next. He sees designers as uniquely able to “create and interpret” culture within a business that is otherwise focused forward. Designers are like messengers from the holistic, universal, cultural world into the bottom-line-driven world of the mundane. (I particularly loved and identified with this.) It’s an interesting challenge to marry the two sides of the brain and I got a sense that the best designers are also strategic thinkers – which Wally Olins says as well.

“What I’d rather hear from designers is, ‘These are the twelve cultural meanings at issue here, and this is where the world is – this is what the world wants. This is how we’ve crafted the brand out of these twelve meanings. This is how we’ve combined them, and this is how we’ll manage them over the next six or twelve months.'”

Dori Tunstall – A “Design Anthropologist” currently teaching at a university in Australia. She views design as a lens to interpret what it means to be human – and a key element in creating products and services that accomodate our needs, as opposed to imposing them upon us. Just seeing the words “design anthropologist” together made me feel I was meant to (a) read this book, and (b) participate in this field. I actually found Dori on Twitter and she offered to help me find people in New York who are involved in this type of discussion.

“Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the  world a better place.”

Virginia Postrel – Everything this woman said was mind-blowingly interesting and articulate to the point that it was intimidating just reading her words. She’s a cultural critic, essayist and journalist and has written extensively about “glamour” and its relationship with beauty, fashion and style in our culture. She also points out that the internet mimics our brain’s natural “associative” state, making it easy to quickly bounce from one thing to the next. While this is the way we naturally think or daydream, it has led to extreme overstimulation and a serious deficit in attention; this directly leads to the need to compete for the attention of others, which is why our culture values “outrageousness”.

Your outside self projects something to the world and also reflects back into you. The image of you in specific attire helps you imagine yourself as the person you would like to be.

Other enjoyable and noteworthy tidbits:

David Butler – VP of Design at Coca Cola – An early proponent of user-centric design and an appreciation for design thinking/design strategy. Believes in the ability of large corporations to improve the world, with their reach, networks, infrastructure, etc.

Stanley Hainesworth – Former VP Global Creative, Starbucks, Former Creative Director, Nike. Hainesworth is responsible for creating the five pillars of Starbucks’ brand: handcrafted, artistic, sophisticated, human and endearing. Talks about the challenge for brands to retain authenticity (which is definitely a buzzword, but this book was written in 2011.)  He says in order to recapture one’s audience, you must stay on brand, digging deeper into its essence/history/story/mission, rather than creating something new and off-brand that won’t communicate.

Dan Formosa – Co-founder of Smart Design and proponent of user-centered design which designs for people at “the edges”; the democratization of design. He describes himself and his colleagues coming out of college in the 60s and 70s and wanting to change the world, as an impetus for him to focus on people, design and how the two relate, at a time when designers didn’t yet care about concepts like usability or user-friendliness.

The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes.

Joe Duffy – Celebrated creative director and founder of his own independent branding studio, Duffy & Partners, which prides itself on carefully selecting which clients it works with. They work to establish each client’s “branding language”, a full identity system which serves to inform every design decision made by the brand.

“I don’t want to work with clients who are successful in spite of their lack of design or in spite of their bad design.”

“…Design is really so damn simple. It’s so straightforward. Anyone who tries to make it convoluted or complicated does a disservice to designers everywhere. Anyone who buys crap gets what they deserve.”

Seth Godin:

“Brands must build on past associations but go beyond nostalgia to novelty.”

The Power of Art on Social Consciousness: Social Media & Peacebuilding – Part II

Last week I wrote about discovering meaningful work and left off with an allusion to social media as a peacebuilding platform. I want to try and explain my vision for this path through a series of well-timed events I attended/watched/discovered this week. I’m a big believer in synchronicity and “connecting the dots”; noticing patterns and trends of concepts that seem to pop up from various directions is not something I attribute to coincidence. It signifies a deeper meaning.

 

I. Ai Weiwei at the Brooklyn Museum

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” – Ai Weiwei. This quote eloquently summarizes Ai’s view of his work and the world.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most (in)famous contemporary artists. He’s a multi-medium artist who is as controversial as he is hard to categorize. He’s a sculptor, photographer, architect and activist who forces us to reconcile ugly truths about political and cultural values and the rights of the individual in modern-day China. He’s an avid Twitter user and a staunch supporter of digital and social media as a massively powerful platform for activism and raising social consciousness.

In 2011, he was detained by Chinese authorities and held in a secret location for eighty-one days, with no official charges filed. The arrest caught the attention of international human rights groups and art institutions who fought for Ai’s release. Despite this and his continuous surveillance by the Chinese government over his daily life (his phone is tapped and there are cameras outside his house monitoring his every move), he continues to produce confrontational art focused on themes of freedom of expression and social (in)justice.

II. Graphic Advocacy: International Posters for the Digital Age

Think creative advertising at its very best — in terms of deeper purpose.

Graphic Advocacy

This exhibit of 120 posters is on display at the Art Director’s Club of NY through August 13th. They were created to raise awareness around a variety of causes: a series was dedicated to aid for Japan following the 2011 earthquake, remembering 9/11, global warming, geo-political issues like landmines, oil control in the Middle East and the Occupy movements…each totally unique and visually impactful with inventive compositions often articulating a message through creative, subversive elements. An apple with a worm inside represents the “hidden disease” of cancer. A dove covered in oil representing the fight over oil control in the Middle East destroying lasting attempts at peace.

Two aspects of this exhibition stuck with me:

  1. I noticed a pattern in the little blurbs next to each piece by the artists: doubt in the power of a poster to elicit any real change. For instance, one of them said she knew her poster wouldn’t cure AIDS. Yet, she felt it was better than doing nothing and just standing by. These artists expressed hope in the power of messages and images to raise consciousness over important issues. Their raw honesty inspired me. These artists chose to express something important to themselves, despite the probable helplessness of their efforts. They felt compelled to act, using their creativity and power of expression to make something rather than sit back and remain silent. It reminded me of this insanely powerful op-ed piece by Israeli author David Grossman on choosing hope, not despair.
  2. There was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were posters about the control over oil in the Middle East, protesting tyranny in Iran and Russia…but nothing about the Palestinians’ lack of a country or about Israel’s right to exist free of rocketfire – issues at the forefront of media today. I’m sure there are artists who focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I intend to research them, but I was somewhat disappointed to not find that issue represented here. I am curious whether this was intentional; the exhibition was dated 2002-2012, but there were skirmishes between Israel and Hamas (and Hezbollah) during those years.

 

III. “Countering Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilding Lens” Forum

I attended (virtually, via live streaming) a discussion panel at Johns Hopkins University held by the Conflict Resolution and Prevention Forum – a collection of organizations dedicated to conflict resolution and public policy.

I signed up for the forum on a whim and was glad I woke up early to tune in. Rather than preaching to the choir (promoting peace to the peaceful), the discussion was focused on engaging influential leaders who have the power to change the narrative within their respective communities.

What struck me about this discussion was the similarity between peace building efforts and social media marketing for brands (what I do for money). Some common obstacles to peace-building efforts include: How do you measure success? What metrics do you use? How do you find and engage with influencers? How do you inspire them to promote your message? All of these concerns are integral to devising solid social media strategies, and are the types of tough questions asked by savvy strategists throughout a project. We’re dealing with strategic communication, a fascinating and highly relevant area of expertise. See Columbia University’s MS in Strategic Communications, a relatively new program and the first advanced degree of its kind among Ivy League universities. I’m sure the tools and methods taught in this program are highly applicable to conversations about constructive peace-building efforts.

 

IV. Joining Seeds of Peace & Soliya

I recently became involved with two organizations focused on dialogue and communication among young people in areas of conflict as a peace-building activity:

(1) Seeds of Peace provides leadership training for young people and educators around the world in areas of conflict. Each year since 1993, they’ve sent “Seeds” from 27 countries to an International Camp in Maine as an opportunity to meet one’s “enemies” face to face and work together toward a better future. I will be visiting Camp in August for two days (blog post to follow!).

(2) Soliya provides cross-cultural exchanges by hosting weekly online group discussions among university students from different countries. Each week for a semester, a small group of eight to ten students meets with two facilitators in a virtual group video chat. Soliya’s Connect Program teaches “21st Century Skills” to university students, like the ability to see things from the perspective of others and engage in cross-cultural dialogue. I should be starting Facilitator training in a few weeks (and plan on sharing my experience there as well).

These two organizations are inspirational for their peace-building strategy: cross-cultural communication among young people. Starting to see the pattern here?

V. Starting Classes at Pratt

This feels like one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself professionally and personally.

Graphic Design at Pratt

I am beginning classes at Pratt toward a Certificate in Graphic Design in the fall. I’m beyond excited to start this new chapter and to find ways to integrate it with my digital strategy work for clients, as well as my personal interest in conflict resolution.

It also feels like the most serious declaration of myself as an artist I’ve made so far. I have always used words and images to “connect the dots”; it’s about time I celebrated rather than shied away from that ability.

 

VI. Operation Protective Edge on Social Media

Facebook is overflowing with visual messages from both sides of the Israel/Hamas war, churning out what looks like “branded content” complete with hashtags and logos.

Operation Protective Edge

Pro-Israel examples include the #IsraelUnderFire hashtag, the IDF’s Facebook Page and Stand With Us. Pro-Palestine examples include the #GazaUnderAttack hashtag, this Tumblr account and Ads Against Apartheid.

I’m interested in analyzing those visual messages in order to create ones that bridge the gap rather than encourage polarization. Which ones receive the most engagement? What types of content are most successful? Is it the ones that educate? Enlighten? Cause controversy? Or inspire hope? How much does aesthetic value add? Do posts made from creativity and beauty perform better than straightforward, hate-infused content? What principles from traditional advertising and branding can be applied to maximize the reach and impact of socially conscious content?

 


 

What This All Means

By fusing together things like creative advertising, digital strategy, cross-cultural communication and graphic design…I think I’m onto something. These are the topics I’m fixated on these days, and “these days” are actually months and years worth of contemplation, work experience and personal interest. Stay tuned to watch as I unfold exactly what that entails.

As always, please feel free to leave comments/criticisms.

 

 

Finding Meaningful Work: Peacebuilding & Social Media Part I

Home office with Basquiat portrait in top left.

Home office with Basquiat portrait in top left.

Finding Meaningful Work

Meaningful work shouldn’t be so hard to find. Meaningful work that also pays the bills seems like finding a needle in a haystack next to a group of horses who haven’t had any hay in a long time (horses eat hay right?) and don’t care about you or why you don’t just order a new needle online.

There is one line of work that holds promise in terms of longevity and sustainability, in an ironic kind of way: global conflict resolution. There’s a ton of conflict out there. At the risk of sounding opportunistic — or as one friend called it, “industrializing” the issue — there is more work than there are jobs in the field of peace-building.

Information Anxiety in a Global, Digital World

You know that self-righteous attitude your co-worker assumes when he or she enlightens you with a major news story you haven’t yet heard about? Working in digital communications, the noise of the internet makes its way into IRL conversations constantly.

“Did you hear about Facebook’s new algorithm that detects when you’re about to sneeze and advertises a brand of tissue based on the type of fabric softener your mom used to use? No?  Good luck making it in the media industry without staying ahead of the curve. Even if the curve is actually a line Mark Zuckerberg peed onto the sand somewhere.

This anxiety can be multiplied when it comes to national tragedies. We all have constant access to information, so there’s no excuse to not be informed. It can feel like you’re a bad Jew if you haven’t heard about the latest horrible skirmish with Gaza. This leads people (and the media) to focus on obtaining the most heart-wrenching nugget of information to share with his or her social circle; it’s like tragic currency.

Remember the stories from 9/11 about the phonecalls made to loved ones from the planes? They were exchanged like trading cards. It’s human nature to narrow in on such stories because they are how we relate to the human aspect of otherwise overwhelming, complicated events.

Peace In The Middle East ?!?!

The Middle East conflict doesn’t impact the daily lives of your average American. And yet discussing it can feel like an important form of gossip. This “tragic currency” phenomenon runs rampant in conversations (more often arguments) about the issue. It’s like watching ‘Keeping Up with Israel’ on Fox and NBC. It’s sad, frustrating and unfair. It’s tragic.

It’s also scary to voice my opinion on the subject, because I want to be part of the solution. Which means I want to participate in conversations about the topic without coming across as biased. I’m a Jewish American who lived in Tel Aviv for four years, but I am also many, many other things at the same time. I also want these words to be read and not glossed over, so I’m going to stick to short pieces and see where the feedback takes me. Like the conflict itself, several challenges present themselves.

I have tapped into some “meaningful work”.

Stay tuned for Part II: Peacebuilding & Social Media!

Thoughtful comments/arguments welcomed.

 A Content Strategy Rallying Cry

The internet makes it simultaneously easier and more difficult to have your words heard.

The trash heap of shitty content increases by the millisecond. We all have the ability to write (technically speaking) and access to the marketplace (social media, blogs, ads, etc.). Because of this radical democratization of communication it’s more crucial than ever to start with why when considering whether to produce content.

The distinction between ads or “sponsored content” and editorial content is becoming so blurry it’s like we’re all swimming underwater, and we all need to clean our goggles with that goggle-cleaner fluid but no one wants to miss out by taking the time to emerge on the surface, clean his or her goggles, and see more clearly. Brands instead choose to churn water, pushing forward with mediocre, unnecessary, uninspiring and even self-defeating content that actually does more damage than good (and is an incredible waste of resources).

Brand managers and content strategists are generals in the battle for authenticity in modern advertising. Social media is where the bloodiest squirmishes are lost, in the form of dull content that falls on deaf ears; no one sees it. At least no one valuable to your bottom line sees it. If they do, they aren’t persuaded to do or think in any meaningfully different way.

If a shitty Facebook post gets no reach, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes – in the form of a digital footprint. It’s easy for competitors or prospective business partners to check out a brand’s Facebook page only to find tumbleweeds. You don’t delete posts that fall flat; they remain there for all to see.

Savvy and strategic thinkers already know this; the problem is getting through to the masses. Fortunately, this means there will always be work for content strategists. Unfortunately, everyone with opposable thumbs and an internet connection fancies him/herself a content strategist.

All we can do is stay calm and carry on.

Check out the (7!) books closely/loosely relevant to this topic I bought yesterday. Reviews to follow!

books on branding