What is Art Direction (No. 9)

Alive Day Memories - Home From Iraq

This outdoor ad, newly posted on a phone kiosk, arrested me as I strolled down Lexington Avenue last night. Its explicit content can be summarized as follows:

A young woman, facing the viewer, holds what appears to be a prosthetic arm—her own prosthetic arm, one infers. The young woman is casually dressed in a sweater and jeans. Her expression borders on neutral. Where her right arm should be, the sweater has been pinned back. The poster also contains words advertising a new HBO documentary, executive-produced by James Gandolfini, concerning the difficulties faced by a new generation of American war veterans returning home from Iraq.

That is a pictorial inventory, but the poster contains more content than I have listed. Most of that content is externally located. For this poster has been framed and shot, and its subject styled and posed, almost exactly like an American Gap ad.

Consciously or unconsciously, an American viewer will almost certainly make an uncomfortable connection between the disfigurement and sacrifice portrayed in this ad, and the upbeat quality of the Gap’s long-running, highly successful clothing slash lifestyle campaign.

That connection is content. And the non-verbal information that triggers that content in the viewer’s mind is art direction.

Wordless and full of meaning

What is the art direction saying? What is it adding to the content that is already there? Surely the sight of an attractive young woman who has lost her arm fighting in Iraq is loaded enough as an image. Surely a non-combatant, far from Iraq, safe at home, already feels plenty of complex emotions when confronted with this one veteran and at least some of the visual evidence of her sacrifice. What additional statement is being made by the art director’s decision to style this poster like a Gap ad?

Here is a possible reading:

While many Americans are well aware that their country is at war, many others are doing their best to blot that thought out of their minds. In this effort at collective amnesia they are abetted by many retail advertisers and TV programmers, including not a few TV news programmers. Ratings-wise, the war is a bummer. Sales-wise, it is a drag. America wants to shop and move on. (Interestingly, the fashion industry is the one segment of America’s consumer culture that is paying attention. The 691 pages of the new September Vogue are filled with skirts, shoes, dresses, and jackets that obviously resemble armor or in other ways clearly invoke awareness of war and warriors.)

In conceiving the way this poster would be shot and styled, the art director was not holding the Gap responsible for the war in Iraq. Nor was he or she blaming the viewer. But by carefully echoing the imagery of an ad that epitomizes our comfortably shallow consumer lifestyle, the art director does indict the complacent among us and challenge us to think about something besides our next new sweater or iPod.

The placement of type ensures that the words are the last thing we see on the poster. We absorb and are discomfited by the rich, non-verbal text for several beats before our eyes take in the explicit, written content announcing a documentary.

That is art direction. It is not art. It is not design. It is something else. It makes us feel. It makes us think. It holds up the mirror to our desires, our regrets, ourselves.

[tags]artdirection, whatisartdirection, alivedaymemories, iraq, gap, veterans, advertising, iraqwar, wariniraq, posters, thesis, antithesis, synthesis [/tags]

No end in sight

Now playing in New York and Washington D.C. and opening “everywhere” later this month, NO END IN SIGHT is the story of the American occupation of Iraq. The film explains how a military victory in 2003 descended into a seemingly endless nightmare of war.

Political scientist and first-time director Charles Ferguson in not a propagandist, and his film is not a left-wing tract. It is an attempt to chronicle U.S. policy decisions, told by the people who implemented or advised on them.

Ferguson’s camera captures the candid recollections of high-level insiders including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Ambassador Barbara Bodine, in charge of Baghdad during the Spring of 2003; Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell; and General Jay Garner, in charge of the occupation through May 2003.

Interspersed with these interviews, footage shot in Iraq shows what life is like on the ground for Iraqi civilians and American soldiers as the country spins into chaos.

NO END IN SIGHT somberly chronicles the principal initial errors of U.S. policy in Iraq: insufficient troop levels; allowing the looting of Baghdad; purging professionals from the Iraqi government; and disbanding the Iraqi army. With relentless logic, the film shows how Iraq descended into insurgency, warlord rule, criminality, and the anarchy that now borders on civil war.

It also reveals how the advice of military commanders and strategic analysts—advice that might have saved Iraq—was consistently ignored or trivialized by a small cadre of ideologues who thought they knew better.

NO END IN SIGHT offers much truth and little hope. It is a glimpse into a terrifying abyss—and a film every grown-up American should see.

[tags]noendinsight, iraq, war, charlesferguson[/tags]

Gender and ethnic imbalance in web design

Gender and ethnic imbalance in web design speaker conference lineups reflects a wider such imbalance in the industry as a whole. This imbalance bothers me as much as it bothers Kottke. I am glad Kottke raised the issue in his recent post, although I think it is a mistake to hold conferences accountable for deeper problems in the industry they serve. But that doesn’t for a minute get conference planners off the hook.

The problem is visible at the top because it exists at the bottom. There are barriers to entering the field and barriers to doing well in it. Some of these barriers are economic: not everyone has access to needed tools and training. We are interested in systematic and permanent change in the field, not merely the appearance of change as represented in a conference speaker lineup. Soon we will announce real steps to put these concerns into action.

Design Relief: Katrina Corps

The Katrina Corps is a grassroots effort to accelerate the return of Katrina-affected families to their homes. Its initial goal is to send 25,000 college students to New Orleans over spring break as house-gutting volunteers. The prospectus (PDF) explains:

At the current rate of volunteers, the workforce on which rebuilding rests, it will take years to gut the 10,000 currently wait-listed homes in New Orleans. Gutting is the critical first step towards rebuilding.

Displaced families want to come back to their homes. Each wait-listed home represents a family that longs to return, and needs to return.

Beckon a generation to demonstrate that “IMPOSSIBLE is NOTHING” while experiencing hands-on citizenship by taking on the Katrina Challenge and contributing to the rebuilding of New Orleans—a place of extreme reality, extreme challenge, and extreme opportunity.

In addition to hands-on help, the fledgling organization also needs web design help. And they need it fast.

They’re not looking for a six-month build with three months of testing. They don’t need fancy design or flashy features. They just need a good, simple website.

If your skills are up to snuff and you’d like to help, holler.

[tags]katrina, volunteer, help, neworleans, Katrina Corps, webdesign[/tags]

Gas

When I walked our dog this morning, two muscular officials were urgently pressing our young doorman to rouse the building’s superintendent on the phone.

The super is a Romanian with a warm heart and an unfortunate resemblance to Saddam Hussein. His voice came blaring up on the intercom.

“The gas leak is in the school,” I heard him say, meaning the high school that abuts our apartment building. “Everything here is hunky-dory.”

“Nothing is hunky-dory,” said the younger of the muscular officials into the intercom. “The leak is in the Chinese restaurant, too. It’s definitely in this building.”

As I worked through the early morning morning, I heard many fire engines.

The Wife called to tell me that a natural gas odor was being reported all over the city. We decided not to panic, and to phone each other again when we knew more.

A while later we knew more. We knew the “smell of gas” was being reported from Battery Park to upper Manhattan, and in parts of New Jersey.

We knew that the smell was not natural gas but mercaptan, a chemical that is injected into natural gas to let people know when there’s a leak.

We knew that some trains to New Jersey were suspended. Some buildings had been evacuated. The subway was still working.

We discussed sending our two-year-old to Brooklyn with a baby-sitter, in case Manhattan blew up.

If we were going to do it, we’d better do it while the subways were still usable. If a state of emergency was declared, the underground would clog with terrified human beings, trampling each other.

We decided, on the basis of no evidence one way or the other, that Manhattan was not going to blow up today.

A little while later, the mayor said the same thing.

Train service to New Jersey was restored before lunchtime.

Nobody knows what caused the smell.

Tanks

During his time in the military, a man I know served in Psychological Operations, or as it is better known, PSYOPS. Psychological Operations are designed to attack the enemy’s morale, undermining confidence and introducing fear.

Stationed at South Korea’s border with the North, my friend’s job was to create soundscapes. By mixing sound effects loops, he created the audio illusion of an apparently endless procession of armored vehicles. To the North Koreans, who could not see what was on the other side, it sounded like an immense army was mobilizing at their border.

My wife recalled this story during a dinner last night at an elegant restaurant. At least, it was elegant until we showed up. Our two-year-old daughter had missed her nap and was conducting a series of terror attacks on the linen, cutlery, and staff.

In an effort to save the restaurant from destruction and our family from shame, we tried bribing, coddling, and various distractions. When nothing else worked, we resorted to an escalating series of empty threats. Eventually, if only for a moment, we prevailed.

Gently removing sauce from her delicate blouse, my clever wife observed that parenting is like PSYOPS. You want them to think you have the tanks.

Inflamed linkazoidal tissues

The Economist profiles Mena Trott
Of late, The Economist has been paying greater attention to the web, undoubtedly because investors are doing likewise. The magazine even gets some things right. It’s great to see a hard-working innovator like Six Apart‘s Mena Trott get profiled in the magazine’s business section. I only wish the journalist who profiled Ms Trott could have laid off the condescending sexism. (“Girly whim?”) Why don’t they tell us what she was wearing?
Jubilee Center
This free after-school program for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade is “the only after-school and summer safe haven for children in Hoboken’s public housing neighborhood—a neighborhood with a history of violent crime and drug-related arrests.” ’Tis the season for giving (not that poverty ever goes out of season); support the Center!
simplebits redesign
Gorgeous.
Ten Worst Internet Acquisitions Ever
Amusing.
IconBuilder 8.1 (free update)
The Photoshop plug-in for favicon makers and icon bakers. Released 16.Nov.06. Free upgrade for registered users.
Things Designers Want for Christmas
Greg Storey of Airbag Industries builds hisself a Christmas store using Amazon’s new “astore” technology. I’ve been longing to do the same thing.
Judge: Make Bills Recognizable to Blind
“The [U.S.] government discriminates against blind people by printing money that all looks and feels the same, a federal judge said Tuesday in a ruling that could change the face of American currency.” Hat tip: Sean Jordan.
Slashdot reviews DWWS2e

Trent Lucier writes:

If you’ve browsed the web design section of any bookstore lately, you’ve seen him staring at you. The blue hat. The mustache. The blinding neon background. He’s Jeffrey Zeldman, publisher of the influential web development magazine, ‘A List Apart’ and author of the book Designing With Web Standards (DWWS). The first edition of the DWWS was published in 2003, and now 2006 brings us an updated 2nd edition. In a market flooded with XHTML, CSS, and web standards books, is DWWS 2nd Ed. still relevant?

I love it that they think I have a moustache.

[tags]links, sixapart, menatrott, hoboken, afterschool, simplebits, dancederholm, design, web2.0, accessibility, airbag[/tags]

Crash Boom Bop

The path the plane took
Interactive graphic shows path taken by single-engine plane registered to New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle that crashed into a residential high-rise on East 72nd Street, yesterday, killing Lidle and his flight instructor. It’s amazing how disasters lend themselves to the creation of cool infographics.
Subtraction + Zeldman
Khoi Vinh (AIGA/New York board of directors, design director for nytimes.com) should interview himself, but instead he interviews me on the cusp of my AIGA New York talk next week. As previewed in the interview, my talk will focus on how to build relationships that let you sell clients good work.
Web 2.0 Validator
Hilarious. (The score for 37signals.com is 7 out of 52.)
Meyerweb: W3C Change
The third (and most radical) of Eric Meyer’s proposals to save the W3C from irrelevance: “Transform the W3C from a member-funded organization to a financially independent entity.”
Fireside Chat
Cederholm, Sims, Santa Maria, and Storey tell 37signals what they think of the state of web design. (Things I did not know before: no boxes, grids, or columns were used in web design until web standards came along to ruin everything.)
Daring Fireball: Qualcomm ends Eudora development
I’ll stop using Eudora when they pry it from my cold, dead, one-button-mouse-clutching fingers. Oops, maybe sooner than that.
UsedWigs Radio Podcast 18
He could have been a radio star: Greg Hoy of Happy Cog Philadelphia is interviewed.
0sil8
Jason Kottke’s first website. Take that, Ze Frank!
Class Critique
Jason Santa Maria takes it on the chin.

[tags]design, AIGA, webstandards, happycog, jasons[/tags]

Five years

I’ve dug up some things I wrote from New York City and posted here on September 11th 2001 and in the first days following:

9 1 1
“My part of New York City is not burning.” Written 11, 12, and 13 September 2001. Posted about a week later, when telephone and internet service were restored.
Day four
“Tonight, for the first time since Tuesday, we were permitted to cross 14th Street.” 14 September 2001
The angry flag vendor
“The peaceful vigil at Union Square has turned into a carnival of sorts.” 23 September 2001

These mini-essays are not art. They are not reportage, either (but what is?), and may not even be accurate. We were all a bit dazed—although not so dulled as now. The shock and sorrow were fresh. The events of September 11th had not yet been branded, nor turned into tools of partisan rancor, nor made into a mini-series, nor used to justify atrocity.