8 APRIL, 2013

Beware of Dog: Embarko, Twenty-Four Years Later

The San Francisco restaurant Embarko opened in 1989 when I was twenty-eight. Slated to be called Trudy’s after the owners’ dog, I was so uninspired by the name that I proposed multiple alternatives, Embarko among them. The new name referenced both the restaurant’s bayside location on the Embarcadero as well as the owners’ canine empathies.

The Embarko trademark takes the form of a rebus which requires the reader to decode conventional symbols of language—letters of the alphabet—in the company of a pictorial element representing sound. Inherently playful, the rebus is common to children’s puzzles but is less frequently found in trademarks. (One notable exception: Milton Glaser’s 1977 I♥NY.) An important development in the history of writing, the rebus is believed to have been invented by the Sumerians around 3000 BCE and subsequently adopted by the Egyptians.

My intention was to render the dog (which represents the onomatopoetic sound “bark”) as a glyph to visually approximate typography. I began by setting the letters E, M, and O in Raleigh Gothic Condensed, a geometric sans serif designed by M.F. Benton for the American Type Foundry (ATF) in 1932. By matching the stroke weights of the dog to those of the letterforms, the dog visually groups with and “reads” like the text. Happily, the dog’s “bark” also corresponds with the natural stress of the restaurant’s pronunciation: Em-bark-o.

The yellow Post-It note shows my original sketches for the trademark. I ultimately hand-inked the dog and rule with a Rapidograph technical pen; the type was set on a typositor by the San Francisco office of Andresen Typographics. Final art was a black and white “stat.”

My work for Embarko was selected for inclusion in the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ “Under 30” national competition in 1990. Some of the other young designers whose work was represented in “Under 30” includes Carol Devine Carson, Chip Kidd, and Alexander Isley. [MF]

See the Embarko rebus under Design is Play Studio Symbols Trademarks Food & Drink.

14 FEBRUARY, 2013

Play at Play: Happy Valentine’s Day!

If love was a train I’d throw my body right down on her tracks. —Michelle Shocked

Our most recent labor of love features two hearts with targets juxtaposed with a bolt. We drew the heart glyph; the bolt was lifted from a warning sticker marking high voltage on a Canadian ferry. As we love ink on paper, we screen printed our design on hefty chipboard to render the ephemeral greeting a bit less so.

Kevin Giffen from Wranch Studio in Santa Monica, California, printed the art: two hits (wet on wet) of fluorescent pink followed by one hit of black. Mark worked with Kevin at Wasserman Silk Screen Co. thirty years ago, and we are thrilled to be working with him again. Angie set the Michelle Shocked lyric on the back of the card in Marian Black, a monoline blackletter that we customized for readibility.

11 DECEMBER, 2012

Play Press: University of California monogram

When the general public became aware that a new UC monogram had been launched to represent the University of California and its ten campuses, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Carolyn Jones contacted me for an opinion.

Both Angie and I earned degrees from the University of California: Angie has a degree in Japanese from UC Berkeley, and I have a degree in Fine Arts from UCLA. As alumni of the UC system, the new monogram represented us—as well as hundreds of thousands of other alumni, current students, and faculty.

While I understand that the University of California needs a new symbol separate from its historic “seal,” the proposed monogram was not the appropriate solution. Branding statements or strategy documents become moot when the resulting visual identity doesn’t accurately reflect the company or institution, or “speaks” in the wrong “voice.”

The pedagogic approach of the Graphic Design department at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco where we teach is predicated on the idea of critique. Work is judged, publicly. I encourage my students to ask the following questions so that they can determine for themselves the merits of their work. For example:
Who is the audience?
What is the intended message?
Is it the right message?
How successfully does the piece communicate the intended message?
What elements contribute to the piece’s successful communication?
What elements detract from it?
Are there unintended messages?

The San Francisco Chronicle article ran on the front page on Tuesday, December 11, 2012. My comments were offered from the perspective of an instructor who believes that informed, perceptive critique can only sharpen—and thus benefit—the practice of graphic design in our culture. My quotes from the article are below. [MF]

“Utterly forgettable”

Mark Fox, a graphic design professor at California College of the Arts who designed that school’s logo and has done work for UC in the past, panned the new effort.

“The visual language is generic, commercial and utterly forgettable,” he said. “It is a complete mismatch for the university's history and reputation. (It) has no visual or conceptual gravitas.”

A good logo should be distinct and memorable, create positive associations, reflect well on the company and work easily and inexpensively in all media, he said.

“The new UC logo,” Fox said, “fails in most of the above criteria.”

The entire article by Carolyn Jones can be found here. Three days after the article ran the University of California withdrew its support for the new symbol.

29 OCTOBER, 2012

Dogpatch Boulders Identity

Touchstone Climbing is at it again, this time adding a new bouldering gym in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco, south of downtown. Slated to open in early 2013, the gym will feature prefabricated walls manufactured by the Bulgarian company Walltopia.

Our design is a conceptual no-brainer: dog + “eyepatch” = dogpatch. The colored X behind the dog was created with climbing tape, and reinforces the cruciform design of the dog’s face. Touchstone wanted the new identity to feel “urban.”

See other trademarks we have designed for similar clients under Design is Play Studio Symbols Trademarks Sports and Entertainment.

5 MARCH, 2012

Play Press: Graphis Logo 8

Four mongrams and one icon system we created are included in the new logo design anthology curated by Graphis. Included are symbols for BlackDog, CCA’s Graphic Design BBQ, Four Barrel Coffee, and Group MB, as well as a system of icons we designed for Wired Magazine’s iPad app. The BlackDog monogram is a Platinum award winner, one of only ten.

The work of a number of our CCA colleagues is included in Graphis Logo Design 8 as well, including symbols designed by Jennifer Jerde and Scott Hesselink of Elixir Design, Christopher Simmons of Mine, and Michael Vanderbyl of Vanderbyl Design. This volume also features an interview with our friend—and Mark’s “boss” in 1985—Michael Schwab. Michael is one of the few designers we know of who still uses a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph inking pen in the development of his final art.

See more examples of our trademark designs under Design is Play Studio Symbols.

21 NOVEMBER, 2011

Studio Climbing Identity

Touchstone Climbing is opening yet another gym, this time in downtown San Jose, California. Located in a former movie theater called Studio, the building features a classic 1950 channel lettering neon sign. As part of our visual research, we took photographs of the signage while atop an electric scissor lift 30 feet above the street so we could capture the images without distortion. These photographs ultimately became the basis of hand-inked studies with which we created custom lettering.

The eye and gear symbol we designed references the history of the building as a theater, and is inspired by ideas of projection and seeing. The art was meticulously crafted to optically pulsate: it both radiates outward as it simultaneously contracts inward to the center. Noted speed climber Hans Florine summarizes the new Studio identity on Facebook with the phrase “I got my eye on your gear.”

30 MAY, 2011

CCA Craft Forward Symposium 2011 Applications

We recently completed a section on our site featuring applications of the Craft Forward identity. To create variation within the system, we utilized a range of reproduction methods. We combined foil stamping, letterpress printing, offset lithography on a web press, laser printing, and screen printing with a mix of substrates, including chipboard, newsprint, DayGlo paper, and cotton organza. Photographer Mark Serr documented the work for us.

See the complete Craft Forward project under Design is Play Studio Systems.

21 MARCH, 2011

MetalMark Naming and Identity

Touchstone Climbing is opening a gym in Fresno, California, and we were asked to develop its name and visual identity. We named the new gym MetalMark after a native California butterfly with distinctive, metallic markings. We were inspired by the simple idea of metamorphosis, by the physical and mental changes we undergo as rock climbers. The form of our butterfly symbol is transformed as well: it is modeled on the engineered aluminum cams used in outdoor rock climbing.

The MetalMark logotype is set in Rockwell Antique, a slab serif typeface issued in 1931. As a cast-metal typeface, we like the connection between the materiality of the original type (metal) and the name MetalMark. The typeface is not available commercially, so we redrew the letters by hand before creating the art digitally.

See a proposed application of the MetalMark identity under Design is Play Studio Systems. (More applications to come….)

21 FEBRUARY, 2011

20 Years Ago: Bomb the Pentagon

For a 1991 AIGA San Francisco event, Steve Tolleson asked fifty Bay Area graphic designers to create posters addressing an environmental issue of their choice. My topic? The tendency of the US military to avoid environmental scrutiny—and, at times, responsibility—by invoking the so-called state secrets privilege. According to Project Censored, “the Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment.” The design parameters were tight: one color on a recycled stock at a size of 18 x 24. A number of the posters went on to win awards in national competitions, including my poster and those designed by Doug Akagi and Michael Schwab.

I hand-inked the arrows, target, and Bomb lettering, and built the constructivist-inspired typography with an early version of Adobe Illustrator. Final art was a black and white “stat” from which the printer shot a Kodalith film positive; he then screen printed the design using black enamel ink on corrugated cardboard. For any designer who remembers the prevalence of bright white, cast-coated papers such as Kromecote in the 1980s, printing “high end” work on an unbleached and uncoated substrate was unorthodox.

Twenty years later, given our post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 mind-set, Bomb the Pentagon has become both visually and politically jarring: a year or so ago I watched a young museum curator’s body literally recoil from the poster. 1991 was a moment in American history that now seems strangely distant, when calls to bomb anything were rightly understood as hyperbole. Unlike much graphic design which is subject to visual trends, the “look” of this poster doesn’t appear dated, at least to my eyes; rather, it is the message—and its stridency—that dates the piece. [MF]

24 JANUARY, 2011

Minniti McMurtrie Identity

We designed this identity for San Francisco fashion designer Jennifer Minniti and architect Darren McMurtrie. The letterforms are modeled on Banjo, a titling face released by the French foundry Deberny & Peignot in 1930. The wide versions of the letters provide cues to the pronunciation of their names as they roughly correspond to the stresses. (For example, the first R is held longer than the second R in McMurtrie.)

See more examples of our identity designs under Design is Play Studio Trademarks.

5 JANUARY, 2011

CCA Craft Forward Symposium 2011 Identity

Craft Forward is a forthcoming symposium at California College of the Arts that will explore the boundaries between craft, art, design, architecture, and writing. We were engaged to create the identity for the symposium and to design its promotional materials.

Our solution juxtaposes two square glyphs: a circa 1909 typographer’s ornament (symbolizing craft), and a QR code (symbolizing forward). The QR (or Quick Response) code can be scanned with a smart phone which then directs the user to the Craft Forward website. In this context the QR code functions as a modern ornament, but one with embedded content.

See the Craft Forward identity applied to a foil stamped postcard under Design is Play Studio Systems. (More applications to come….)

1 NOVEMBER, 2010

Michael Schwab at Play

David Sedaris’ agent called me with a request. Because David has never been comfortable with the publicity photos for his book tours and speaking engagements, he wanted me to create a logo he could use in lieu of a head shot. His concept was clear and succinct: ‘A monkey reading a book.’

“I immediately began studying monkeys—the way they sit, the way they hold objects, their tails, their postures. The David Sedaris Monkey is a simple, bold, graphic icon of which I’m proud. The process was fun and, like a good book, I didn’t want it to end. David likes it, too.”

Michael Schwab is a Bay Area illustrator and designer. We invited him to share a moment of play with us.

18 OCTOBER, 2010

Steve Lyons at Play

“For this net neutrality mark I made for CREDO Action, I was attempting to take a geeky tech policy issue and make it playful. The essential idea behind net neutrality is one of keeping the internet open and free from corporate control. (For more on the topic I suggest you visit Save The Internet). How better to convey freedom than to give the internet some wings? Lightning bolts add a little zap to the composition and complete the labor union retro feel. CREDO took the playfulness a little farther and made temporary tattoos as a giveaway at the progressive blogger conference Netroots Nation.

Steve Lyons is Design Director of CREDO Mobile. We invited him to share a moment of play with us.

11 OCTOBER, 2010

Play at Carbon Five, 10.06.2010

In October we were invited to present our work to Carbon Five, an agile software development company. Our presentation was notably analog, and involved a number of small scraps of paper. (Yes, we still use paper at Play!) Our design of an identity for the startup BO.LT provided a vehicle for us to discuss our process of form development and refinement.

Our preferred method of creating imagery is to draw by hand—without the “aid” of computer software. We find this allows us great freedom and, surprisingly, speed. Repeatedly drawing the same forms also forces us to look at those forms closely—to become conscious of their physical qualities in relation to each other. After creating a rough sketch we like, we make a tight inking of it using a Rapidograph technical pen. (You can see one of our BO.LT icon inkings above.)

As Angie notes, “the computer shouldn’t dictate our manner of thinking and working, nor should it displace our ability to pick up a pen and make marks on paper.” Although we use the computer to generate final art in a digital format, we relish the opportunity to work by hand in the earlier stages of our projects.

23 AUGUST, 2010

Intel AppUp Center Identity

We recently worked with Razorfish San Francisco to conceive a new identity for Intel's AppUp center, a web initiative devoted to enhancing the functionality of Intel netbooks. Our identity features a star pattern and custom typography whose forms are based on the rounded square found in app icon silhouettes. The pattern is endlessly repeatable in a reference to the extensive range of apps available as well as to the idea of “cloud” computing.

See more examples of our proposed AppUp center identity under Design is Play Studio Systems.

09 AUGUST, 2010

Cengage Learning Book Cover

We designed the cover for the latest edition of Concepts of Chemical Dependency, a text for undergraduate and graduate counseling classes. Prior cover designs for this title tended to be literal and almost encyclopedic in their attempt to illustrate myriad drugs. Our approach is metaphorical and minimal, and relies on our photograph of a single, iconic hook. The image is both seductive and dangerous, not unlike some addictive substances.

See more examples of recent cover designs for Cengage Learning under Design is Play Studio Covers.

19 JULY, 2010

Anson Mills Identity and Packaging System

Anson Mills of Columbia, South Carolina, is unique in contemporary food culture: they specialize in cold milling organic heirloom grains—all of them dating from the antebellum South and bred exclusively for flavor. They are zealously committed to regional authenticity and, as a result, have garnered a devoted following among America’s best chefs.

Grain is life: our logo is derived from the merging of the Hopi breath glyph with a stylized seed (the enclosed diamond). Our approach to Anson Mills’ packaging labels is similarly direct: the type-only design is flexible enough to accommodate twenty-eight separate products in varying sizes.

03 JUNE, 2010

Wired Magazine iPad App Iconography

Wired Magazine asked us to develop two sets of icons for their groundbreaking iPad app which launched in May, 2010. We designed the app's global user interface icons which function at a size of 20 × 20 pixels; we also created interactive icons to navigate this multisensory edition of Wired. (Interactive icons include Play Video, Play Audio, Swipe Left to Right, and 360° View.) The covers of the first two issues feature our Play Video icon.

Read an interview with Wired's Scott Dadich by Joshua Gorchov from The Loud Cloud. Download Wired's iPad app from Apple.














Published Interviews

Published Writings