An Opine about Design

More Postcards from the Future

When all the university classes went online this spring, my oldest came home from Texas State to spend the rest of the semester with us sheltering in place. Thankfully she did not bring home any Covid-19 with her, but she did bring home her Netflix account. She set it up on the TV downstairs and I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed the heck out of it. Especially Abstract and some of the crazy-ass anime me and the kids have watched.

By far the best documentary I’ve seen, though, has been Dr. David Eagleman‘s “The Creative Brain“. I was first exposed to Dr. Eagleman’s incredible, yet easily digestible work, in a promotional book Rigsby Hull did a number of years ago (gorgeous design — love the Didot!) for Sappi. Since then, I’ve become a big fan of neuroscientist. I was pissed, though, when “The Creative Brain” wasn’t broadcast on PBS: it was only on Netflix. So if anything good has come out of the pandemic, it as that I got to see his program.

“The Creative Brain” is fantastic. Of course I’d delight in it. The program includes interviews and insights from Michael Chabon, one of my favorite writers, Bjarke Ingels (nice URL), one of my favorite architects, Grimes, who I find interesting, and Robert Glasper, among others. I’m listening Glasper to while writing the first draft of this post. To say my little-boy-heart exploded watching this show is an understatement.

The funny thing is, that after a few minutes in, I ran got a notebook and pencil, and found myself taking notes. There were so many ideas, perspectives, insights and pearls of wisdom scattered throughout that I did not want to forget any of them. When the show ended, I read through my notes and had an idea — why don’t I share my notes. But not in some boring way — do something more fun with it.

I chose a few of Dr. Eagleman’s thoughts, and designed a series of banners that were broadcast on Instagram a couple of weeks ago. My own thoughts accompanied Dr. Eagleman’s words. For those who do not follow me, here is the series:

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Try Out Ideas

It has never been easier to make something; send it out into the world to see if it works. Try out as many ideas as possible. See what will work best.

Push Boundaries

I used to work for a creative director who always offered three solutions to answer a client’s problem. The first direction would be solid, but within arm’s length of where they were, while the second direction would push them a little further out of their comfort zone, and finally the third would be way out of left field. This approach helped our clients see where they were and where they could be. This technique pushed ideas further as clients rarely went with the first (safe) option.

Consider What Does Not Exist

My fifth grade teacher said there was no such thing as “What if…?” questions. Although she’s a very nice lady, nothing stifles creativity faster than not questioning the status quo.

Aha Moments

Sometimes ideas pop in your head while in the shower. Sometimes they show themselves while out on a run. Sometimes they appear on the back of a napkin. “Aha!” moments are everywhere happening all the time. Be prepared to receive one.

Try Something New

Doing something new is hard and fraught with risk and the chance of failure, but this is the only way to make progress.

Get Off the Path of Least Resistance

It’s easy to quit when the going gets tough, but creative solutions require hard work.

The Balance Between the Familiar and the New

Early in his career, David Bowie pushed all kinds of boundaries with his music, appearance and attitude. No matter how weird things got, at its core, Bowie’s music was grounded in straight-up rock-and-roll. He was able to push boundaries while still being accessible to a wider audience.

The Power to Imagine the World Not Yet

You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future. Creative people look deep inside themselves to see how things can be.

Creativity Does Not Equal Comfort

No great idea ever came from laying around on the sofa.



I posted a piece on LinkedIn about a year ago entitled “Postcards from the Future”. I nicked that headline from something Rosanne Cash said on an an episode of Freakonomics Radio called “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” (Ep. 368). Here’s what Ms. Cash said:

Problems can be inspiring. If I can’t work something out in my life, I take it to language. I take it to melody. And sometimes, well, it all can be going to the Met and standing in front of that painting of Joan of Arc. That painting has inspired me. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, you think, and then it turns out that they came from the future. And I call those songs postcards from the future.

Isn’t this is exactly what Dr. Eagleman has been doing: sending us postcards from the future.

Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant


In 2015, I was working on a project commemorating the 90th anniversary of Schlumberger. My boss dug up an old brochure done from the company rebranding efforts in the late 90s. There were some really cool images in it he wanted to use for a multimedia presentation, so he asked me to track them down.

I knew who had designed the brochure: Milton Glaser.

Milton Glaser was one of those designers whose work you had seen, but unless you were in the know, you had no idea he had done it. Record and book covers, logos, posters, you name it. I happened to know Mr. Glaser had been engaged by Schlumberger for the rebranding, so I called him.

The studio took my call, but of course, I did not get to speak with Mr. Glaser. His assistant asked me to jot down a list of what I was looking for and they would go through their archives to see if they had what my boss wanted.

I scratched together an email with all the details, and finished off the note with some gushing. Hell, how often do you get to communicate with one of your idols.

A day or so later, I got a reply from the man himself. Mr. Glaser wrote me back. He said that unfortunately his archives did not go back quite that far and he did have the material I was looking for. And he graciously thanked me for the kind words I shared with him.

This really struck me. Here is one of the preeminent designers in the world, taking some time out of his day to write me a note. Even though he was a rock star, he was not so big that he couldn’t take a few minutes to ping a designer down in Houston. This speaks volumes about the kind of person he was.

I have a constant reminder of Milton Glaser’s greatness sitting a few feet away from me on my bookshelf — one of his monographs I bought while in design school back in 1986. That book, and his others, along with countless interviews and articles had a huge impact on me and my work. But this simple gesture of reaching out to me personally tanscends all of that.

Rest in peace, Mr. Glaser.

The Numbers


As of 27 June 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of 124,325. Please help protect your fellow Americans: Practice social distancing, wear a mask in public and be sure to wash up when you return home. Please do your part to help curb this scourge.

Identity Crisis

The 3rd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

There is a common misconception that a logo is a brand. Although important, a logo is only a visual representation of the brand. However, if done properly, it can also be the foundation for everything — informing how the brand goes to market and communicates in addition to leading the development of the overall look and feel. Pretty powerful stuff. No, a logo is not the brand, but it is a crucial piece to building a strong one. And, for whatever reason, logos sure are undervalued nowadays.

If logos are so important, then why are they undervalued? Is it cost? Is it because sites like 99 Designs offer buyers five design options for a 100 bucks? Or Fiverr, where you can farm out the logo to a hungry designer in some far off corner of the world for $10.00 or less?

Then there’s the Nike mythology. As the story goes, Phil Knight paid an art student at Oregon $35.00 for the Nike swoosh, and they seem to have done pretty well with it over the years. But how many times in the history of branding has there been this kind of wild success?

Sure, cost is one thing, but this leads to another misconception — that logos are easy to make. They’re so small and simple, logos should come quick and be cheap? That’s hard to argue with when you look at many of the latest designs on sites like Brand New. There are a lot of logos out there that look like they were thrown together, lacking in overall quality, and haring a certain sameness. Why should you pay good money for an ordinary logo?

Along those lines, a logo can indeed be a very simple image. So as logic dictates, certainly if it did not have taken THAT long to create, it shouldn’t cost that much.

But here’s the misnomer, it’s not about the time spent on creating the logo; it’s about how valuable the end product is.

An example from design lore: Paula Scher was engaged by CitiBank after they had merged with Travelers, to design a new identity. Legend has it, Ms. Scher drew the initial design for the logo right then and there in the conference room while the meeting was going on. That design now graces their cards, business papers, signage, sites, and virtually every piece of marketing material they produce.

I’ve had a similar experience. We had just landed a new account, a start-up called Environmental Effects, or EFX, for short. While my boss was giving us the assignment and talking about the company (they were in the business of collecting and selling weather data and how it might affect commodities), I doodled what would become the finished logo later that day.

In both these instances, the design came quickly. Does that mean there is any less value in the design? No. In fact, when Ms. Scher talks about designing the Citi logo she acknowledges that it only took seconds to draw. But she goes on to say that it took over 30 years to gain enough experience to be able to create the logo in a matter of moments. That’s some serious unseen value.

No matter how fast or obvious the outcome, the creation of logos is never easy.

I’ve always thought designing logos is like making a roux. Picture Emeril Lagasse throwing a few ingredients (BAM!) into a sauce pan, turning on a flame and stirring the mixture together. And stir and stir and stir, whisking out the clumps while the roux thickens. As he stirs, all the goodness from the bottom of the pan he had been cooking with adds to the complexity and flavor. Stir and stir until it is nice and thick, ready to make whatever he is preparing all the more rich, deep and yummy. That’s logo design. A good logo makes everything better.

Urban Harvest is a non-profit in Houston, Texas, who plant community gardens in inner city neighborhoods to grow fresh produce in areas where wholesome food can be hard to come by. The studio I was at was asked to design a logo for Urban Harvest back in 1995. Being a freebie, my boss passed the assignment to me.

The design took a while. With paying projects taking priority, the logo took a back-burner at times, and when I did have time to work on it, nothing looked or felt right. Sketches here, tighter drawings there, but nothing seemed to stick. Weeks passed.

Finally my boss gave me a deadline — get it done.

I scrapped all my previous thinking and started over from scratch. I remember seeing a illustrated poster in an old design annual (back when art directors looked at books) where an ear of corn stood in the midle of a metropolitan skyline full of skyscrapers. That was all the inspiration I needed.

I simplified the forms, breaking down the a tower to it’s purest form, a set of blocks. The structure not only took the form of a skyscraper, where the blocks looked like windows, but also came to represent rows of corn. The outer leaves created an organic shape of a “U”, giving the tower a place to grow.

The logo became a perfect reflection of Urban Harvest — growing fresh produce in inner cities while also growing communities. The logo is still in use 25 years later. That’s value. although in recent years, someone changed the building’s color from the original warm gray to a bright yellow. In my opinion, with this one tweak to the original design, it loses the double-entendre. But even with that change, it is a unique form that has stood the test of time. Again, there is tremendous value there.

This leads me back to time as an issue. When talking about value, we’re not talking about the amount of time it takes to create something, but rather how long the logo lasts. Will the design remain relevant over the years? Will it be able to be flexible over time to adjust to different tastes, mores, and media for that matter?

That is where quality comes in, and why clients should not jump into a logo lightly. A logo is an investment, one that will pay huge dividends for years to come. When talking about the value of a logo, it is hard to put a dollar figure to it. Something so small can have such a lasting impact on a business. Or an idea.

So how do we ensure logos are valuable?

First and foremost, the design should be appropriate. The right look, feel, tonality to best visually represent the brand.

Be unique to the brand. Plenty of designers design logos to fit their style. A logo should not be a reflection of the designer, nor a competitor or anyone else, it should simply be about your brand it represents.

Strive to be timeless. Don’t follow the latest trend or reside with the herd. Where others zig, make sure the logo zags. When it comes to a logo, being different is everything.

Take the time to work through the design, instilling inherent quality and careful craftsmanship This is a two-way street — the client carefully considering how the design will affect their business and the designer responding to those concerns. Fret over the details; they will make all the difference.

Lightning Strikes Twice

The 2nd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Some ideas are so big that if they work once, surely they will solve other problems, too.

I’m not opposed to recycling ideas for different clients. In fact, a creative director I worked for years ago encouraged it. Now, I hate to think we would commoditize our creative output, but when you’re in the business of generating lots of solutions, you start to see how the same answer can solve multiple problems. This approach saves the agency time and money when the same answer solves multiple problems. But is this good for clients?

Back in my agency days, we landed a plum account, doing national recruitment advertising for Compaq Computers. For younger readers out there, Compaq was swallowed up by HP back in 2002.

Compaq made solid hardware that did nothing flashy, but their products worked well. And all the computers, printers and other bits they manufactured were all a lovely shade of beige. What’s funny is that their industrial design was a mirrored reflection of their own corporate culture. Not a lot of sizzle, not a lot of sexy, but that is exactly who Compaq was looking to recruit.

Our assignment was college recruiting. Because it was a new account for us, one of the bigwig CDs from the New York office sat in on the initial client meetings where strategies were discussed. Since Compaq was local to Houston, it was decided to bring me and my writing partner, David Morris, in on the project to add a little local flavor.

So this jack-wagon from New York calls to brief us. In the meeting with Compaq, it was decided the “theme” for that recruiting campaign would be “water.” Dave and I just looked at each other, rolling our eyes (good thing there wasn’t any Zoom back then). Then Mr. Jackwagon instructed us to not show him any of that trite, predictable, low-hanging-fruit crap — or else! (I don’t recall if he actually threatened us, but we’ll say he did just for dramatic purposes.)

So Dave and I banged our heads together. After some brainstorming, doodling, crying, hand-wringing, fist fights, a few beers and the like, we agreed the coolest thing about “water” had to be Aqua Man, especially pre-Jason Momoa. In fact, we really liked that over-the-top drama from the mid-1960s DC Comics.

For our initial comps, we went to a comic book shop, bought an old Aqua Man, scanned it in and created a story about an underwater superhero who used Compaq technology to defeat the forces of evil. Captain Q was born. No one saw this concept coming. Our CD loved it so much that this was the only idea pitched to Compaq, and they jumped in head first.

I won’t go into all the production details because that is not the point here – and that is an adventure in and of itself – but I have to mention the immense talents of the dearly-departed George Toomer, the illustrator who helped bring our vision to life. Using George’s art, we crafted  messages for mailers, a 12-page comic book, ads, handouts, booths, banners, and all the usual campaign trappings. It all worked extraordinarily well. So much so, the campaign exceeded all projections and goals way ahead of schedule. A big win for Compaq and the agency. A big idea in action.

When I first decided on writing this post, this is where the big idea ended. I was planning on going into excruciating detail about how the Compaq project went. But then I had another idea:

Does lightning strike twice?

Before we go any further, let me clear the air. I’m not above stealing, even from myself. Austin Kleon is right, but I am a professional and do not condone outright copying or plagiarism.

Maybe the big idea is not about the success we had for Compaq, or creating a superhero, but more about using a medium again for another project.

Comic books are surprising versatile. As a medium, you can do just about anything with them because they are both visual and verbal. You can cheat the boundaries of conventional narrative, play with the defined spaces and create entirely new universes. What’s even better, rules and conventions keep getting broken as artists push the boundaries even further. Comics are an amazing art form.

Since most of my work is in the B2B world, seeing comics in a corporate environment can be downright shocking, and the unexpectedness creates both impact and memorability.

*COE = Center of Excellence, PR = Project Request, POS = Point of Sale

While at Sysco, I was charged to come up with a new position that would help the Brand Managers’ push their heavy workloads more efficiently through the design production process. We created a position replicating what the agency world would call an “Account Manager.” Briefly, the role would be like the account executive you’d call at your agency to get your projects knocked out, but for our purposes, this would be an internal position, not outsourced one.

This was not the big idea. How the Account Manager was introduced to the marketing staff was.

What we wanted to do was be able to show the Account Manager in action so that the Brand Managers could see how much easier their lives would be with this person’s guidance.

The initial presentation took the form of a skit, where I played the role of the Account Manager, and four of my peers played various characters who would touch the project as it went through the production process – the client, a coordinator, designer and Quality Control. To support the story, I created a comic book, where each frame described a step in the process.

After the presentation, each member of the staff was given the comic in the form of a puzzle, something colorful and fun that they could keep at their desk as a constant reminder of how the new Account Manager was going to help them.

There was no room for ambiguity. Understanding was crystal clear. A couple of Brand Managers told me this was hands-down the best presentation they’d ever seen at Sysco.

The big idea here is about using mediums differently. There are always opportunities to recycle ideas, turning them into something fresh and new. As these two stories started coming together, it occurred to me: maybe Marshall McLuhan is right – often times the medium is the message.

Ratcliff Creative is an independent design consultancy specializing in big ideas to connect people with brands.

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