El Pato Falso

This is my publicly-accessible business registry information as retrieved from the web site of the Czech Statistical Office. The line I’ve highlighted in yellow shows my previous address in U.S. Everything’s okay through street, street number, city… until you get to ‘Spojené státy mexické,’ which is ‘United States of Mexico’. ¿ Um… que ? That’s right: according to the Czech Statistical Office, I’m Mexican. I guess the person entering my info saw the ‘San Francisco’ part and felt confident completing the rest of the entry on the basis of logical association.

This is exactly the sort of situation where I ought to get busy leaping headlong into the pool of Czech bureaucratic magical realism to resolve the error this right away but instead will summarily ignore until it jumps up to bite me in the ass at some key moment (‘Señor Mayer, we cannot remove your appendix until this discrepancy about your home country is resolved‘). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that I at least wait until I’m done with the design project for the Czech Burritos– that would be a suspicious contradiction to try and explain away to the authorities. I guess one humorous silver lining to the whole situation is that my son is now officially ‘Czech-Mex’, according to the powers that be.

Assorted thoughts on Buy Nothing Day

  • Yesterday was a nice occasion to stop and reflect on all the things we’re grateful for in life. Unfortunately, it was also the nine year anniversary of Katherine Harris certifying George W. Bush as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes. Well, isn’t that a kick in the teeth. Happy ‘Angst-giving’.
  • Having a spiral staircase in your apartment seems like a really cool perk until you sprain your ankle playing basketball and are hobbling around on crutches. Then: not so perky. I know I mentioned this feature of our flat as a hazard to our kiddo already in the Obecni Dum post, but hurting my ankle really brings the point home. Every time I need to go upstairs to get something, I feel like I should have a team of sherpas with me.
  • I had plans for a classic food-laden, rowdy Thanksgiving with fellow expats, but wound up getting snowed in the entire day by a combination of bum ankle and rush project for work. Not the most festive of holidays. Sitting marooned in my arm chair, I got so hungry at one point that my infant son started to metamorphosize into a plump turkey before my eyes…
  • Finally, if you’re a designer and reading this, you must read this glorious email flame war between designer and client. There’s nothing quite like mocking a would-be client through libelous pie charts (hat tip: reader KF).

More from 'The Book'

Another batch of spreads below from my just-finished mammoth book project. Previous installment yesterday.

Classic production crisis story: our writer walked away halfway through the project (justifiably, given that the book mushroomed from 120 originally-planned pages to three times that), leaving me and the managing editor, Tom, to cobble together the rest of the copy in a manner that resembled two guys running around a field with flaming beehives on their heads. Also, we were the only native English-speakers on hand to proof it. During the last frantic production push, I spotted a reference to the town ‘Cerhovice’ in western Bohemia on one of the dozen or so maps included in the book. Stupidly, I somehow convinced myself that it’s supposed to be Čerhovice, which sounds more correct to me in Czech (the accent changes the pronunciation to a ‘Ch’ sound). Normally, I would cautiously triple-check any foray into Czech diacritics, but in this case– no doubt due to overall project fatigue– I somehow convinced myself that the ‘Č’ spelling is right, barged ahead and changed it.

Fast-forward to two days later: we’ve sent the final files off the printer and I’m sitting in the car– a quivering mass of frayed nerves– heading towards Austrian Alps R&R with my family. Suddenly, on a highway sign, I spot ‘Cerhovice’. With no little hat accent over the C. Abject panic. I phone the office and reach our production lady who nonchalantly informs me ‘Oh, we caught that last night. Enjoy your vacation.’

(Click on any thumbnail for larger image. All images copyright 2009 Dept. of Design.)


The first copies of the CTP Yearbook (the project I’ve been ominously referring to as ‘The Book’ in this blog) came back from the printer on Friday night. This is the 360+ page book that I’ve been working on since April for an industrial developer and wound up designing every last millimeter of. For perspective’s sake, I’ve been working on the book since before my son was born and since before I started this blog. My two immediate reactions to seeing the printed version (above) is ‘Jesus, it looks like a phone book!’ and ‘Wow, the paper we chose really helps’– we used a heavy kind of rough paper which makes the colors look dark and saturated and helps fend off any unwanted cheesy corporate sheen.

I wanted to show photos of the actual physical book, but the intensely bright lamp we use here for product shots literally caught on fire a few minutes after I turned it on (at least, a horrifyingly noxious smoke started rising from it). Also, the book is so big that it’s almost impossible to pull open in a way where you can get a nice even shot, unless you have several minions helping you to tug it open. So, these are from the digital files we sent off to the printer instead….

(Click on any thumbnail for larger image. All images copyright 2009 Dept. of Design.)

I’ll post another batch of spreads tomorrow.

Unsettling info graphics of the day

Patent diagrams by Donald Spector from 1988 and 1999 respectively:

The top one is for an inflatable doll that expands when taken out of its test tube. The bottom one is for something called the Mommy Box that provided a ‘soothing’ video link to mother for distressed babies. These diagrams make a lot more sense in context, of course, but with all the mimicry going on (baby <> doll, real mom <> video mom), it’s not surprising that the initial effect is highly disconcerting.

(Via Thingamababy).

More bogus/silly info graphics here. More on unintended consequences of creepy robot doubling here.

Mad Men and Doyle Dane Bernbach

Believe it or not, I’ve just started watching Mad Men. I’m all the way back at Season 1, Episode 4– so far behind that I can read TK’s posts on the current episodes without spoiling anything for myself as the plot has moved on to completely alien terrain from what I’m familiar with.

I was delighted to see Episode 3 open with Don Draper looking at the Volkswagen ‘Think Small’ ad— a campaign that changed advertising to the degree that I show it to my graphic design history students— and thought that the campaign was cleverly used in the episode to amplify some of the larger points of the show. I should hedge this last comment by saying that I haven’t really seen enough of the show to weigh in authoritatively yet on what the larger themes of the show actually are, but so far I take it as a snapshot of the last days of trying to have a top-down, hierarchical society in America before pluralism stepped in and turned everything on its head. If you accept that as an underlying theme of Mad Men, you can definitely say that the appearance of Doyle Dane Bernbach– the agency behind the VW campaign– marked a tipping point in the real-life narrative.

Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors in 1949 and became known for its determination to ‘take the exclamation point out of advertising’– meaning, among other things, less nuptial script, grinning Stepford wives and long-winded copy stuffed full with promises (1940s ads were really, really long on copy). By the early 1960s, removing the exclamation point had become imperative: the murmurs of a civil rights movement and engagement in Vietnam increased the public’s appetite for real reportage and decreased its tolerance for Eisenhower-era fluff. TV revenues, meanwhile, had cut into magazine revenues to the point that budgets and physical formats were smaller, meaning the exclamation points couldn’t ever be as large or glamorous again as they had been in the past. Finally, I imagine that TV, by the nature of its very medium, probably inspired a move towards intelligent advertising: in print, you can keep making the same corny over-promises over and over again and never get called on it. But, in the world of TV, you have to have an actual live person making these claims (‘gum that cleans and straightens your teeth!’). I’m guessing that the humiliation gleaned from this experience- for all parties involved- partly inspired a move towards more intelligent advertising on some psychological level.

DDB was the first agency of note to try selling stuff by leveling with the audience and appealing to its intelligence. The ‘Think Small’ ad spoke directly to a potential product liability and used a white space in a surprising way to stand apart from the crowd:

Subsequent ads in the campaign– which I just noticed was voted best of the century by something called AdAge.com– included the car with a caption ‘Lemon’:

… and a play on the homeliness of the lunar module:

I loved the verdict delivered in the Mad Men episode, where all the characters basically dump on it (‘They only used a half-page ad for a full-page buy… you can’t even see the product!’) but then Draper points out, ‘Love it or hate it, we’ve been talking about it now for 20 minutes’.

The corporate structure in Mad Men was also typical of most ad agencies of the day: as is shown several times in the first few episodes, account execs and writers develop the concept, then hand it off to the art department which is responsible for bringing it to life without any creative input. Again: top-down, hierarchical. DDB pioneered what became known as the ‘creative revolution’, where project teams including an art director and writer would brainstorm together to develop the idea, effectively forcing a synergistic relationship between word and image.

My favorite DDB campaign is one they did for Levy’s, an account they had held for several years without highlighting the ethnic angle until this poster appeared in subways in 1961:

Update: for serious type nerds, reader MM passes on this typo analysis of Mad Men from Mark Simonson’s blog.

Czech Mex

A rejected directional sketch I did for our client who’s selling burritos in Prague:


For such an indispensable and delicious foodstuff, the burrito sure is a difficult thing to make look good. It often winds up looking like an amorphous blob when illustrated and downright repulsive when photographed. There’s a real need in this project, moreover, to show it in a way that’s both appetizing and readily identifiable, as lots of central Europeans are somewhat fuzzy on the whole concept. We discovered that my fellow designer here at the studio, a Ukranian fellow, had no idea whatsoever what they’re about.

I kinda like this pseudo-woodcut look, but we collectively resolved to go in a more diagrammatic ‘Tech Mex’ direction, which is fine with me. I would happily sign the rights to this over to anyone who would overnight FedEx me a Mission burrito in exchange. All this burrito-related design work is making me really hungry.

Obecní Dům Cherub

dobre_dan 202

I’m really fond of our flat here in Prague (and, yes, I know that ‘flat’ sounds pretentious to my American readers, but that’s just how we do things here, so it sounds normal to me now… much like cooing ‘ciao’ to acquaintances). It’s big, cheap, in the attic of a villa and has all sorts of strange quirks and features. Unfortunately, it’s also a deathtrap-in-waiting for our young son as soon as he gets older and starts moving around, with splintery beams, abrupt ledges and – worst of all– a spiral staircase with no bannister. So, facing the reality that we’ll have to move out once our ticking time-bomb of a child gets older, I’m already starting to nostalgize the place a bit. Consider this the beginning of a series: ‘Weird, Quirky Old Aspects Of Our Flat That I’ll Miss Once We’ve Had To Move.’

WQOAOOFTIMOWHTM #1: Obecní Dům Cherub

With all the hurly-burly of finishing The Book and my subsequent visit to an Alpine sanatorium, I forgot to mention that the wife and I had a chance to go to Obecní Dům (Prague’s Municipal House) two weeks ago for a friend’s upscale birthday party. Obecní Dům is one of the architectural landmarks of Czech’s brief one-of-the-ten-richest-countries-in-the-world phase between the wars: Art Noveau masterpiece, houses works by Alfons Mucha, blah blah blah…


This was the first time I’d actually been inside the Municipal House, and the visit was significant to me for one thing because we’ve actually had an artifact of Obecní Dům hanging in our flat this whole time, although I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. When we originally moved in, this giant cement baby head was there to greet us, stonily starting at the floor from his (?) wooden beam perch:


(Note: I realize the balloon spoils the effect a bit, but it’s left over from our Halloween party and the kid likes it. So, it stays).

Being generally intimidated by babies, I avoided making eye contact with the thing for a while and wondered if I would come downstairs someday to find it mysteriously vanished in the same unaccountable fashion that it had appeared in the first place. Eventually resigned to its presence, I thought to ask our landlord about it when he gamely showed up at one of our parties for a few minutes. A semi-retired architect, he told me that he had been involved in a restorative face-lift of Obecní Dům at some point and had managed to pinch it from the site!

While I was at it, it thought I might as well ask him who the previous tenants were. This is the kind of flat where you wind up being sort of curious about your predecessors, given that – as explained above – the place is sort of oddball and only conveniently set up for young-ish, child-less couples. This led to the following exchange:

Landlord: Oh, they were a very nice couple. Much like you, actually: the woman was Czech and the man was an American. And they liked traveling quite a bit.

Me: [starting to get creeped out imagining exact doubles of us living here before us]

Landlord: (after a pause) Except they were quite old. Older than us, in fact.

Me: [radically recalibrating my mental image in light of the fact that my landlord is about 70 years old]

So, there seems to be sort of a ‘Benjamin Button’ dynamic happening with our place. Whether the magic powers of the Obecní Dům Cherub has anything to do with this phenomenon can only be guessed at.


I attended two events last weekend that left me with the sense that my generation is overly nostalglc. First, on Friday night, I went to see the Pixies on their “Doolittle 20th Anniversary Tour.” I was an indie rock groupie in Boston in the late 80s, and this record was something of a watershed event in that world; on top of that, I had blown all of my opportunities to see the Pixies in their heyday, so I was very excited at the chance to see them play the record, even 20 years later. As I soon learned when I arrived at the third consecutive sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium – a venue they never could have filled in 1989 even for one night – I wasn’t the only one: the club was jam packed with adoring Pixies fans in their 30s and 40s who went completely bananas when they took the stage. pixiesdoolittlecd As my friend who accompanied me pointed out, “Both the band and everybody in the audience want to pretend it’s 1989.” It was very redemptive to see them deliver a completely amazing performance of all of their old hits, and get the adoring crowd response they deserved, as they were relegated to opening for the Throwing Muses or U2 back when the material was new, despite the fact that it would be largely responsible for chart-toppers like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and many more. It was weird, though, to realize that it isn’t just the baby boomers who are aging rock fans anymore – there is now a whole new generation of aging indie scenesters to pay the $60 cover charge to a show like this to transport them back to the halcyon days of 1989.

Then, the next night, I saw “Where the Wild Things Are.” I suppose that the book is neutral as to which generation it’s about – it’s just a fantasy of childhood escapism. But I couldn’t help but see Spike Jonze’s treatment, with its indie score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as aimed, once again, at the 30- and 40-somethings from Jonze’s generation who now have kids themselves. wildthingsAlthough the film did eventually succumb to the criticism that I, and doubtless many others, thought of even before we saw it – “Is this 20-sentence book really going to lead to a satisfying feature-length film?” – it was nevertheless very powerful at times, especially in the opening scenes where we see how isolated Max is in his childhood world, and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, when we see how the petty jealousies and resentments from which he is fleeing exist even in his new wild kingdom, leading him to sail away back home to his still-warm supper.

As mentioned at the outset, the cumulative experience left me with the sense that I’m in a generation – or maybe a sub-group in a generation? – that is extremely, perhaps excessively, nostalgic. But I wonder if this is just what happens to everybody when they reach a certain age, or perhaps to everybody that age who doesn’t have kids yet …