Saturday, April 23, 2011

George Nelson and Fire Hydrants

verywhere you go, there is an immense amount of visual information in the built environment competing for your attention. Most of the time you tune out the “irrelevant” information. If you didn’t block out some of the information, you would never get to your destination on time. (Or you might drive off the road.) An interesting book that addresses this subject is “How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment” by George Nelson, the prolific architect and designer. The book is out of print, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon among other places.

I bought the book a few years ago from Design Within Reach (this was actually within my reach at $30, unlike their sofas) when the company reprinted the volume. Just as the title promised, it provided a new perspective to how I look at the built environment. I had no idea how much I was ignoring each day.

If you happen to live in an urban area, take a look at any given block and try to count the number of signs. There will be parking signs, traffic rules and warning signs, street name signs, address numbers, store and office signs, menus, advertisements, newspaper boxes, graffiti, and posters. Unless you are looking for something specific, you likely ignore most of this visual clutter. If you are driving, it is always a good idea to pay attention to some key road signs, but it can be tough to catch everything when they put up to 4-5 signs on each available post or utility pole. Nelson gives good examples of the types of driver-related visual information overload.

Nelson suggests there are some universal patterns in elements of the build environment, like the fact that manhole covers are generally round, metal and must have an opening so you can pick them up when needed. He also mentions fire hydrants as being universally the same. I have to say that I have run across some variations in hydrants. (OK, it took me a half-hour to find two hydrant photos in my collection, but I knew there was a reason I kept them.) The blue hydrant, which seems more aerodynamic than any fire hydrant needs to be, sits in Bristol, Tn. The red hydrant, which is super skinny, is on guard in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Both are deviations from the standard hydrant I grew up ignoring in upstate New York. Anyone else seen any unusual fire hydrants? Am I the only one who now takes notice of fire hydrants?

The "E" at the start of this post is from Charleston, S.C. Sadly, I have no South Carolina hydrants to offer. But in a few weeks, I will be using this and other "E"s as I launch GDL Studio. Just a few more Virginia bureaucratic hurdles to clear. I think I can see the finish line.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

lowercase love in d.c., w.v.

esigning good graphics seems to pose a serious challenge for many municipal government agencies. As I explore the region, I try to pay attention to what cities and towns are doing on the design front. Usually, nothing really catches my eye. Once in a while you run across a snappy slogan. (Ashland, Va., has banners declaring itself the "Center of the Universe," which is no doubt backed up by some iron-clad astronomical measurements.) But Washington, D.C., and Bluefield, W.V., managed to make me take notice in small ways. Both cities offer interesting examples of designs that force you to think for a moment before realizing what information they are conveying.

The first time I saw a "d." hiding along the streets of D.C., I
wondered what exactly I was reading. A "d" and a period seemed like someone had made a mistake. Then it dawned on me that it should be read "D-dot," which is short for District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Fresh out of college as a newspaper reporter in the late 1990s, I wrote occasional stories on NYDOT, so it was a little embarrassing that it took me so long to decipher "d." I guess you could argue that a good logo shouldn't leave you wondering what it is trying to do. But I still love the minimalist simplicity and the choice of using a lowercase letter.

Bluefield's exa
mple is along the same lines. I am not sure if the city came up with the design or if the Bluefield Chamber of Commerce is responsible. Either way, it is a fun design. I first walked by this banner wondering why someone would just write the word "field" along the bottom of a rectangle. Once I remembered what city I was in, it hit me that someone had come up with simple way of conveying the name Bluefield without resorting to writing out the whole name. I also applaud the use of lowercase letters.

Anyone out there have other examples of interesting government/civic graphic design?

The "d" that opened this entry is from Easton, Pa. While it is not part of a great design, I felt it was in keeping with the lowercase letter theme for today. And this "d" will be in the mix when I open shop in the next few weeks. More details to come.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chasing Letters in Southern Virginia

hoosing a road trip destination is an art form. This past weekend I wanted the chance to further explore my new home state of Virginia. I spent a while staring at the map on Friday trying to decide what town might hold the next great letter or number for my collection. The town that kept calling my name was a little place called Bristol. I thought it was cool that the state border splits the town's main street down the middle. One side of the street is Virginia and the other side is Tennessee. Bristol held a healthy dose of mystery for me. I had high hopes of finding some great photos.

As soon as I set foot on State Street, I realized Bristol is not so mysterious to a large number of Americans. In my defense, I am not a NASCAR fan or country music afficiando. So I was unaware that Bristol hosts a famous car race each March. I also was not aware that Bristol lays claim to being the birthplace of country music. Despite my lack of knowledge about Bristol, it turned out to be a great photo destination. This "C" was hiding on a fabric store sign on the Tennessee side of town. I harvested a healthy number of letters while wandering the walkable downtown area.

While I spent a lot of time driving this past weekend, going from the northern end of the state to the southern border, it was a fun trip. I stumbled across several interesting sites along Lee Highway as it winds its way toward Tennessee.

Just before sunset on Saturday I found the Moonlite Theatre, an old drive-in movie theatre near Abingdon, Va. As darkness fell, I broke out my camera and flashlight to do some "painting." I quickly learned people are pretty friendly in southern Virginia. At least 5 people pulled over to ask why I was walking back and forth shining a flashlight at a broken theatre sign. I tried to explain how setting my camera to a 60-second exposure and spotlighting parts of the sign could create a cool effect. But all I got was blank looks.

One driver told me he watched the original Star Wars at the Moonlite. I can't tell whether the theatre is still open. The website says it is closed for the season. You can see one of my Moonlite photos on my new Flickr photostream. If the Moonlite is going to open this season, I hope they get the "O" and "E" back in place soon. Keep watching my Flickr account as I share my various road trips and local photo excursions. And I am inching closer to getting GDL Studio up and running. Thanks for your patience!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

B's of Buffalo

uffalo, N.Y., is home to one of my favorite “B”s. This letter was part of a sign for an abandoned drive-in movie theater I stumbled upon a few years ago. Despite growing up in nearby Rochester, I never had many occasions to visit Buffalo. While just 80 miles of interstate separate the two cities, the gulf between the two felt much larger.

In my youth, Rochester seemed to live in Buffalo’s shadow. Maybe it was because Buffalo landed the bigger concerts, fielded major league sports teams, and gained culinary fame for its wings. Rochester did get some decent concerts. We cheered on our minor league teams, like the
Red Wings and the Amerks. I suppose Rochester’s white hots are well-known to true hot dog connoisseurs. But Rochester still felt like a second-class city.

As an adult, I have come to terms with the differences between Buffalo and Rochester. As part of this growth process, I took some time to explore Buffalo a few years back. The city has some interesting examples of faded glory to photograph, such as a massive decaying rail depot complex near downtown. Buffalo offered a wealth of letters and numbers to help me bulk up my photo collection.

I don’t know that I would have appreciated what Buffalo had to offer when I was growing up. Today, I savor the feeling of seeing a downtown or main street with fresh eyes. I love the mystery that lies around every corner. Buffalo was no exception. There are many places on my “must visit” list I hope to hit this year. I am optimistic many of these towns will be worth photographing. Keep your eyes on this website in the coming months as I prepare to make GDL Studio a reality and share the images I have found.