January 30th, 2012

For the best creativity, go it alone.

In “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, a recent opinion article by Susan Cain in The New York Times, she introduces new research that shows the commonly accepted theory that people can be more creative in a group environment may not be accurate. The research showed that “people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.” She goes on to point out that studies by psychologists have shown that “the most spectacularly creative individuals in many fields are often introverted.”

I’ve been working professionally in the creative field for my entire life. Thirty-eight years in advertising and design. I’ve always enjoyed working with people who could stimulate my creative thinking. Copywriters, creative directors, other art directors, and even an occasional account executive have all provided sparks that get my creative juices flowing.

In an agency environment, we were always encouraged to collaborate with other creatives. Usually this meant an afternoon brainstorming session where we would all sit around in comfy chairs or on the floor and sling ideas at each other. Some of these were very constructive. Other times, I left the session with nothing.

When I worked at agencies, and even at my own medium-sized design firm, I always found my most creative time to be early in the morning. My day would begin with a nice long shower around 4:45 in the morning. I’ve always found the shower to be a great solitary place to generate ideas. Upon arriving at my office around 5:30 in the morning, I’d make the coffee, grab a tracing pad and a pencil and start the ideas flowing. Usually by 9 am when everyone else was starting to arrive, I had already pursued a half-dozen ideas or more. This “alone” time allowed me to formulate complete ad concepts, layouts, headlines, and even copy, with no interruptions from people or telephones.

About ten years ago I decided to scale down to a solo act. I built a really nice work environment adjacent to my home, and began virtual affiliations with copywriters, illustrators, photographers, other designers, and web-developers who assist me with a lot of my projects. So now I’m working alone without the extreme early morning schedule. I still find mornings to be my best creative time, but now I can start at 6:30 instead of 5:30.

Sure, there are times when I need some living, breathing interaction. For that I have a few creative friends that like to meet for coffee in the morning or later on at happy-hour. When it comes to inspiration, just getting away from the computer for an hour or so and going for a long walk works wonders. I also enjoy going to a museum or just traversing the crowded streets when I’m in New York to see clients. The city provides an intense blast of inspiration around every corner.

Creating alone provides the ability to really think an idea through and to explore many avenues without having them shot down immediately by the proverbial “devil’s advocate” who lurks around every creative department.

In her article, Ms. Cain reminds us of a quote from Pablo Picasso, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”


September 22nd, 2011

A type specimen book filled with wooden wonders.


Before digital, before photo lettering, before metal, there was wood. Today it’s hard to believe that craftsmen sat and carved these wonderful fonts from a solid piece of wood. Then sanded and polished them to be sold to printers in towns all over the world.

We’ve seen a recent resurgence in the use of wood type. Designers are discovering the beauty of these typographic relics and creating wonderfully textured stationery, posters, invitations and more from these old wooden fonts. The wood type look is now imitated in digital fonts so we designers can capture the same effect in print and on the web.

I believe the catalog above dates from around 1930. Hamilton Wood Type was a wood type manufacturer in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Their 68 pages of type specimens is a truly inspirational work of art.


September 3rd, 2011

Before digital, there was film. Before film, there was glass.


I got bit by the photography bug in the early 1960s. I had an uncle who was a professional photographer living and working in Washington, DC. Once every summer he’d bring the whole family up to our house in Chester County, Pennsylvania for a visit. I always looked forward to their arrival. Of course it was great to spend some time with my cousins, but the real thrill for me was watching my Uncle Gus take photos and movies of all of us. His camera’s were the big, bulky professional kind, not like my Kodak Instamatic with its rotating flash cube. He shot mostly with a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex using 120 format film, and always in black and white. When we went down to Washington later in the fall, he’d show us big 11 x 14 prints that he processed and printed himself.

I took photography classes in college, owned numerous 35mm SLRs, and shot my fair share of Kodachromes. I learned to process black and white film and discovered the magic that could happen in the darkroom. Today I own a Leica D-Lux 4 that lets me shoot extremely sharp digital images. And it’s small size lets me carry it everywhere I go. And the darkroom magic now happens in Photoshop. Although I use my camera occasionally to shoot something for a project I’m working on, I’m still just an amateur photographer wanting to walk in the big shoes of guys like Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, capturing images of everyday life.

A few years back, I started to find glass negatives at flea markets up and down the east coast. They vary in size from about 4×5″ up to 8×10″ and can be difficult to print with standard darkroom equipment. When I discovered that you could scan them with a large bed scanner with a transparency option, I started to buy a few. A few turned into many, and today I look for various subjects that appeal to me. Above is a 4×5 image taken in 1907 of an amateur baseball player – a catcher named James Sanders. I found this on ebay where I now find most all of these wonderful early gems.

While most glass negatives were taken by professionals with professional equipment, I find early snapshots taken by ordinary people using the early box cameras to be wonderfully appealing as well. So I buy those when I see unusual subjects or well-composed images.

My Uncle Gus is in his mid-eighties now, and on a recent visit, we sat in his living room pouring through binder after binder of well-organized photos of our summer visits. I doubt that he knows how much he influenced me. And now it’s too late for him to understand.


March 30th, 2011

Monster type.

A few years ago, while attending the AIGA design conference in Boston, we were offered an opportunity to tour what is unquestionably one of the most storied baseball venues in America, Fenway Park. That cool morning’s steady October rain provided a wonderful backdrop to linger in the aisles and sit in the wonderfully worn wooden seats of this historic baseball cathedral. Built in 1912, Fenway is the oldest functioning baseball stadium in America. Chicago’s Wrigley Field is number two.

We gathered in the new “.406 Club”, a glass-enclosed luxury box high above the field, behind home plate. This air-conditioned, flat-screen studded isolation room has 406 seats that provide a comfortable place to watch a game. However, it’s not the place to experience baseball. To really appreciate this game with all of your senses, you need to be in the stands, inhaling the aroma of the freshly-cut grass as it mixes with the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, beer and sweat. Now that’s baseball.

After enjoying a somewhat lengthy introduction, our much anticipated tour finally got under way with an informative look behind the scenes. After a stop in the press box, we made our way through the ancient stairways of this brick and wood structure to the left-field stands. As I followed the group up the stairs and around a corner into a dark hallway, some rather large white type illuminated by a single light bulb caught my eye. While others pushed their way past, I stood mesmerized by this extraordinary typographic directional sign showing me the way to of one of baseball’s most enduring legacies.

For those of you who don’t know, The Green Monster is the thirty-seven foot, two inch high wall that dominates Fenway’s left field. Just 310 feet from home plate, the wall’s height prevents easy home runs by right-handed hitters. At its base is the incredible hand-operated score board. In 2003, the Red Sox added 269 seats atop The Green Monster. Wow, what an incredible place to watch a game. Now let’s play ball!


March 1st, 2011

Typing more than just words.

In the 1940s, Remington Rand introduced the Remington 5 portable typewriter. It was a thing of beauty. A work of art. Smooth, rounded contours in polished black steel. Touches of chrome encircle each key, adding elegance to each modern, sans serif letter. The typewriter was the modern invention that composed letters from the alphabet into a novel, a letter, or even a poem and required some dexterity and strong fingers in order to transfer the letter impression onto the page.

The QWERTY keyboard, first created by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1873 and sold to Remington that same year can be seen today on every computer and smart phone.

And while a novelist works diligently at his keyboard to create his next best-seller, millions of other creative people use the very same keyboard to create code that explodes onto our computers, televisions, and smart phones. Web sites, interactive tours, movies, smart phone apps, music and more are made possible by the 137 year-old keyboard.

As a creative person, I feel like the keyboard is an extension of my hands. These electronically triggered chicklets are a far cry from the mechanical rivets and springs of that old Remington 5. By touching just a few keys, I can make the same novelist’s alphabet spring to life on the screen, change it’s colors, spin it around and dissolve it into oblivion.

The keyboard has become a gateway to expressing our creativity. And while it will always remain just a tool, like a pencil, pen, or paintbrush, it’s helped us realize the inner workings of our imaginations.