A dose of perspective

Things are getting pretty real.

Next week is my last week of college classes. The week after is my last finals week. That weekend is graduation.

It’s a terrifying time, definitely putting the last four years of my life into perspective — a perspective that is about to totally change.

So when I was scrolling through my Instagram feed today, I wasn’t surprised that I got stuck on Nuno Assis.

Assis is an architect living in Macau — one of China’s administrative region — who I found on one of those “12 people you should follow on Instagram” lists I turn to whenever I get annoyed with yet another picture of a well-lit cocktail from a subpar restaurant. I liked his work immediately, enjoying how he plays with geometry and scale. But today, I stumbled upon his image of a sky in Seac Pai Van, Macau, and was taken aback.

Nuno Assis

It’s a simple picture, showing high-rise buildings demarcating the sky with jagged edges. The pale blue mass above is trapped, reigned in by these man-made creations.

The image itself is gorgeous. Assis composed the shot perfectly, taking full advantage of the geometry of the situation. The snapshot takes the mundane and gives it life and interest. I am a firm believer in the importance of perspective in photography, and Assis plays with it masterfully.

Today, the image was exactly what I needed. My future seems like the blue expanse of the sky: unknown and unbounded. The possibilities are exciting and also frightening. But for now, I have a path. I have an internship for the summer and an idea of what I want to do after. These plans are giving me the security I need, structuring my journey much like the high rises in Assis’ image give structure to the otherwise limitless sky.

His other pictures are similarly geometric, often placing people in the midst of grand architecture that leaves them dwarfed. He never goes for the obvious, always drawing the viewer’s attention to a detail he or she probably never considered.

Looking up at the sky is a tricky task. Sometimes, it can be entirely overwhelming. It’s so obviously significant compared to our fragile, tiny selves. But then, the sky contains everything possible, anything we can or will be. It blankets our every move, protecting us from what lies beyond.

On the brink of perhaps the greatest change in my life so far, looking up at the sky as Assis found it gives me comfort. I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, but it’s out there somewhere. All I have to do is find it.

Famous figureheads get clever letterheads

If there’s anything I’m a sucker for, it’s design and history. And the fabulously named Moo.com stationery company just won my heart with a promotional collection they created that combines both.

Their Famous Stationery collection features business cards and letterheads for a bunch of famous folks like Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin. The structured each design around the figure, letting the individual’s work and personality guide the aesthetic.

The results are a total embodiment of the influential figures, but with a fresh, modern touch:

Charles Darwin’s set looks like it could have been torn from one of his notebooks. The business cards feature delicate pen drawings of animals like cheetahs and butterflies that have a scientific feel. The animals are split in half — matching up with others in the set — which hints at the evolutionary process.

Moo.com Darwin business cards

Jane Austen’s are printed on muted pastel paper. Both the stationery and business cards feature silhouettes that are reminiscent of the Victorian times. However, some include Austen quotes in the shape of her silhouette. The text is curvy and thin, exactly what I would imagine her script to be.Moo.com Austen cards

I think the designs really excel here because it manages to create a recognizable brand for each of these individuals in a subtle, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Vincent van Gogh’s set doesn’t include any of his paintings, but the simulation of his painting style is unmistakable. Albert Einstein’s cards are stark and simple, a nod to his scientific mindset. The only hint of Einstein’s accomplishments is the bolding of e = mc2 in his address.

Moo.com Einstein cardsMoo.com van Gogh





Everything from the iconography to the font choices reflects the people in question. Many of Moo.com’s designs don’t even list the people’s titles, but it doesn’t have to. Even if I had no idea who these people were, I’d get a pretty good idea by looking at this collection.  That’s exactly what business cards should do. But somehow, in a world obsessed with personal branding, most of the cards I’m handed are painfully generic. Customizing stationery is a huge undertaking, but Moo.com shows just how worthwhile it is.

And that, my friends, is why this is a brilliant advertising strategy on the website’s part. The company shows what’s possible with carefully crafted design work and lets customers know they can have it, too.

As someone who has struggled through designing and redesigning business cards and resumes, I’m majorly impressed by Moo.com’s design team. Now, to come up with the unmistakable Shayna aesthetic…

Comic Sans gets neue update

All right, as an art and design blogger, I think it’s probably obligatory that I discuss the biggest controversy in design news this week: the redesign of Comic Sans.

Comic Neue is the work of Craig Rozynski, an Australian digital designer. It’s inspired by Comic Sans, arguably the most-hated font of the Internet.

Doge is a popular meme that includes a dog’s internal monologue written in Comic Sans.

The pushback is derived from how childish the font is. I tend to think of sans serifs as a little more serious because they lack the loopy feet that give serifs a sense of whimsy. But Comic Sans, with its round, bold lines, is anything but formal. It does a good job mimicking the look of comic books, but how often do you think, “You know what this headline really needs? A touch of Spider-Man.”

Comic Sans has gotten a terrible reputation among both font devotees who spend hours debating whether using Helvetica is too mainstream and casual redditors alike. Putting text in the font is essentially the online kiss of death, ensuring your words will be giggled at, regardless of their quality.

After scrolling through the rather fun Comic Neue website, I think Rozynski does a great job fixing its predecessors flaws.

It’s definitely still a casual text, not meant for government documents or controversial propositions. But it’s a little more refined than the original. The letters, while still rounded, are less silly. They’re simpler and more contained, without the almost serif-like curves that sit on Comic Sans’ a’s, h’s and n’s. There’s also an angular version with sharp instead of rounded edges.

Comic Neue

I’m not sure if I’d use it myself, but then again, I tend to prefer my fonts thin and narrow. I can see it working well online because the font is so easy to read. I notice that even with fonts I like, scrolling through page after page can end up leaving my eyes burning. Scrolling through the Comic Neue website is quite pleasant. The kerning is wide — though not as wide as Comic Sans — and the letters clean. It would be a great option for a webpage with a lot of text and a good sense of humor.

Now, as far as Comic Sans, I have to admit I might just be jumping on the hater bandwagon. I can’t remember back to the time before the Internet poisoned Comic Sans for me. I have no idea whether I liked it at some point in the past. Anything’s possible. But, I think we can all agree: Sometimes, you just need a little upgrade.

Much update. So font. Wow.

Women hiding in plain sight

I guess I’m on a little bit of a photo-project kick lately. I keep finding thought-provoking photographs online that thankfully distract me from opening yet another Facebook tab. Maybe this is growing up?

Today, I stumbled upon a beautiful series by Hossein Fatemi for The New York Times. As is typical for the paper’s Sunday Exposures, “Veiled Truths” is gorgeously photographed and smartly designed.  It depicts Iranian women through the fabric of a hijab, a head scarf that some Islamic groups require women to wear in the presence of men.

At first, I was struck by the beauty. The link opened on a full-screen image of an impeccably made-up woman in a hijab behind a film of red. The piece’s title cuts across her neck in a slash of bold white, seemingly separating her from the outside world. Her defiant expression is far from helpless — more like detached.

"Veiled Truths"

She and the women who follow look like dreams, caught behind a film of tradition and expectations. By showing them behind hijabs, Fatemi makes the statement that these women are rendered unreachable by mere pieces of fabric. Interestingly, most of the hijabs match the women’s makeup or outfits, depicting the garb as an extension of themselves. They are not complete without it.

Of course, some of the women choose to wear hijabs because of their beliefs. However, the other women are forced to live lives clouded by their government’s views.

"Veiled Truths"The text explains the project was inspired by Fatemi’s friend who was held by police in Tehran because she wasn’t wearing a hijab, which is required in the country. She told him he shouldn’t just take war photographs but should show what life in modern Iran is really like. Though Fatemi explains that Iran’s new, more moderate president has said that women should be encouraged by education to follow clothing policies, women still face police action for their defiance.

Fatemi uses powerful imagery to show the reality of these women’s lives. He uses the fabric of the hijab to represent the governmental control that denies the women of Iran the right to choose to whom they reveal themselves. I have read about hijabs many times over the years, but this series really drove home the experience for me. The title says it all: These women’s true selves are a mystery, shrouded behind a collection of thread.

Capturing humanity in the passing of time

What happens after we’re gone?

It’s a question that plagues generation after generation. Humans have always been concerned about the legacy we’re leaving behind. Will we be remembered for more than global warming? Will our contributions matter to anyone but our relatives? Will the people we respect miss our presence?

It’s hard to know, but photographer Romain Veillon makes a beautiful stab at it.

"Sands of Time" by Romain Veillon

The artist spent a week in a town called Kolmanskop in the Namibian desert. Now abandoned, the village was once home to German diamond miners who settled in the area in 1908. The article that led me to Veillon’s work explains that settlers said diamonds were so easy to find, they sparkled in the sand at night. The town grew and along with it, the accouterment of settlement: a bowling alley, a casino, an ice factory. The town hospital was home to Africa’s first x-ray machine, which Veillon says was used mostly to make sure miners weren’t swallowing their findings.

But with World War I came a decrease in diamond prices, and by 1954, Kolmanskop was abandoned.

Veillon’s series of photographs, titled “Les sables du temps” (“The Sands of Time”), shows the reality of the town as it now stands: A collection of buildings filling slowly with sand. Once brightly painted rooms are now peeling walls boxing in mountains of desert.

The results are hauntingly beautiful, dreamlike even. The play of light on the sand is almost welcoming, but it’s clear that humans are no longer welcome.

These works demonstrate that the fleeting constructions of man are no match for the quiet strength of nature. Though humanity has tried to impose its will in this quiet corner of Namibia, the earth — which has infinite time — simply outlasted the settlers and took back control.

At first, I thought the images were a little disheartening, a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we ultimately fade into irrelevance.

"Sands of Time" by Romain Veillon

Then, I went to Veillon’s website. He explains that to him, the photographs capture the inevitable passing of time. The fact that one day there will be nothing reminds us of the importance of enjoying life right now.

Maybe we won’t be remembered. Maybe our contributions won’t mean much. Maybe the people we respect will slowly forget us. But right now, we’re here, and Veillon’s photographs urge us to make the most of it.

Smart advertising can be serious and sassy

People are so gosh-darned clever sometimes.

One of my favorite things — a bold proclamation from a girl who abhors committing to favorites — is great advertising. When it’s done right, it combines snappy writing, clever design and bold art to make the familiar provocative or the new compelling. There’s nothing that earns my respect like being able to say something witty in a handful of words and make it look pretty.

Save the Children adThe other day I stumbled upon a fabulous ad from Save the Children. It’s a speech bubble stuck onto a trashcan, emblazoned with a statement: “I eat better than 60% of the world’s children.”

Everything about the concept works. Putting that statistic on a trashcan gives it the context it needs to be truly heartbreaking. The advertiser didn’t overwrite the copy or complicate the design with crazy graphics. It’s simple and to the point, which — in my uneducated opinion — drives the point home like nothing else. (If you have to think too hard, the ad’s not doing its job.) This ad is immediately understandable, and by making it something city-goers have to interact with, it forces viewers to consider the message: The random leftovers thrown into this random trashcan in a random city are more substantial than what the majority of the world’s children eat. If that doesn’t give you pause when you’re tossing an apple that’s a little too soft for your taste, nothing will.

Taking a very different approach to getting people interested in a good cause are some ads I found when looking through my computer files. (Full disclosure: I have a folder called “Art and Ads” on my laptop that’s been there as long as I can remember. Yes, I recognize this probably isn’t normal. No, I don’t care.) A few years back, UNICEF did a series in support of their Tap Project, which is all about giving kids access to clean water. I don’t think it takes much convincing to get people to agree that everyone deserves clean water, but getting people to donate is a whole other story.


UNICEF agents ad

Instead of bombarding viewers with sad statistics or tragic photos, the designer breaks out the wit. My personal favorite reads: “Hipsters, if it helps, nobody else is doing it.” It’s timely, tongue-in-cheek and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think it works so well. They take something pretty standard and make it memorable. That’s great design.

The Save the Children and UNICEF ads are nothing alike, except for being minimalist graphically, but that’s what I love so much. Together, they show the potential of advertising to make you stop and think — all the while disguised as an everyday object or a silly one-liner.


Meet me halfway

As much as I hate to admit it, I rarely take on projects that aren’t assigned to me. I always intend to break the Mod Podge out of the craft closet or teach myself how to code a brilliant website, but I never end up making something until I need a last-minute gift, and I didn’t start learning how HTML works until I enrolled in a class. For some reason, I need that voice of authority to bully me into putting my half-formed dreams into action.

This week, my friend sent me the perfect get-yourself-in-gear YouTube channel. I’m not a huge video watcher, though I can sure get sucked into cat antics when responsibilities roll around, but with a name like “The Art Assignment,” I thought I’d give it a shot.

The show is a weekly PBS production that revolves around curator Sarah Green and author John Green introducing different American artists who propose a project for viewers to complete. It’s a great concept, giving those of us who desperately want to be artistic a way to join the dialogue. In the first episode, the Greens bring Douglas Paulson and Christopher Robbins (not of “Winnie the Pooh” fame) to talk about meeting in the middle.

Robbins is a proponent of international growth and has built structures all over the globe. Paulson tends toward collaboration, finding people passionate about design projects like creating a city for kittens. The two met when Robbins started reaching out to artists who were “using art for an excuse to have an adventure.” One day, Paulson got one of Robbins’ emails and responded with a proposition that the two meet halfway. Robbins, being devious, said the two should meet literally halfway — Paulson was in Serbia, and he was in Copenhagen. To his surprise, Paulson was in, and the men agreed to meet at the exact middle point: the center of a lake in the Czech Republic. They set some rules, and all communication stopped until the men found one another.

That’s the assignment they propose to the viewer: Find someone, draw a line between you, and meet in the middle.

John Green steps in, wondering how this can be considered art, which leads Sarah Green on a discussion about art that doesn’t end in a tangible object. She points to a quote by Roy Ascott, a British cyber artist: “Stop thinking about art works as objects and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” The project forces participants to turn a place that’s taken for granted into an adventure and, by extension, an artistic experience.

It all reminded me of a class I took a couple years back in a relatively new art movement called relational aesthetics. It’s all about human interaction as art, begging the age-old question of whether putting something in a gallery setting suddenly makes it worthy of the label. The prime example in the class was a show where an artist set up a spread of Chinese food in a gallery and invited people to eat. That was the artwork. Trying to explain the concept to people not in my class always got a little dicey, but I found it fascinating. If art is meant to capture the human experience, then why can’t the experience itself be art?

So, as the show ends with Paulson and Robbins cracking open a beer on the rooftop that’s the halfway point between their stateside homes, I felt the itch of wanderlust. Anyone in? I’ll meet you halfway.

What is art? Man Ray’s ‘Gift’

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” / Photo from greynotgrey.com

Way up there in the list of artistic concepts that have traumatized, appalled and downright confused the general population is Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp was a surrealist if there ever was one, creating somewhere in the space between dreams and reality. His readymades were found objects that were often placed in the gallery, separated from their original context and marked with a signature. He argued that by placing these objects in a gallery setting, they were now art. It was the ultimate in sassy, challenging the notion that art objects had to be grand, meaningful works that have received the seal of approval from those in the know. Perhaps the most famous is his “Fountain” from 1917. He hung a porcelain urinal the wrong way, signed it “R. Mutt 1917” and drove the art world crazy.

Deriving from the readymade is a work we just talked about in my history of photography class: “Gift” by Man Ray. Bringing this up is making me realize I have no idea what this sculpture had to do with photography and how it fit into that day’s lesson, but I suppose that’s a concern for my grade on the midterm and not this post.

Man Ray's "Gift"
Man Ray’s “Gift” (1921) / Photo from moma.org

The sculpture consists of an everyday iron with 14 brass tacks glued down the center. Apparently, Man Ray made the piece the afternoon before one of his shows opened in 1921, leaving it unlisted in the catalogue. It’s typical of his work, which used unusual juxtapositions to comment on social issues — see “Le Violin d’Ingres.”

But the simplicity of “Gift” has stayed with me. Man Ray took something functional and rendered it unusable. It’s now an impossible object. Since it doesn’t serve any practical purpose, it has to be art. With this, he refutes the concept of high art as the only kind of art in a definitive way.

Beyond the obvious juxtaposition of two objects with very different uses is the name Man Ray has given the work. This is the sort of gift a spouse has to sleep on the couch for giving. But deeper than that, the work can also be seen as a comment on middle-class values. An iron is firmly the domain of a woman, who is told to derive satisfaction and contentment from running the home. She should be gentle and kind, dutifully doing her tasks. By adding the tacks, Man Ray shows the frustrations of these standards. Women at the time were entrapped by the very role they were supposed to cherish, which is reflected in the violent spikes protruding from the iron.

Of course, I’m not sure Man Ray had these feminist ideals. Regardless, the plight of women was probably not his main crusade. But art is blissfully open to interpretation, and for the modern woman, “Gift” certainly makes some interesting comments about the usefulness of the roles forced upon women for so long. So to Man Ray, I say thanks. You’ve gifted me a work I can’t get out of my head. Touche, sir.

Snarky stitching and the joys of irony

My sentiments exactly. (Photo from subversivecrossstitch.com)
My sentiments exactly. (Photo from subversivecrossstitch.com)

I didn’t realize until right this very moment how hard irony is to define. It’s a risky phenomenon, a sort of elitist’s inside joke, requiring intelligence instead of friendship to crack the code, but also leaving the ignorant laughing (at you because they think you’re the dumb one).

While it boasts noble beginnings as an Ancient Greek rhetorical device, perhaps one of irony’s most entertaining uses is as a method for modern man to save face. Doing something totally unhip? Don’t worry. As long as you’re doing it ironically, you’re golden. A quality example is YOLO. In a recent “Saturday Night Live” episode, Drake gave his mea culpa for coining the phrase, which has since become a mainstay of teenage girls, hashtags and frat tanks everywhere. But, for outsiders, a YOLO slip is the ultimate faux pas. Unless? Go ahead: Slap that life-saving adverb on, and you do you.

It’s the ultimate way to make something uncool cool, which brings me to the actual design-related part of this post: ironic cross-stitch. Now, let me preface by saying cross-stitch isn’t square (though it can be — don’t give in to the circle-background convention). My mom did it all the time when I was a kid, and she tried to teach me, and it’s super hard, and I think it’s awesome that people can make it happen. But, I happen to think the entertainment value that accompanies embroidering foul language or rap lyrics in dainty X’s bumps the whole situation up a notch.

A prime example of sassy stitching. (Photo from kksmagiclist.blogspot.com)
A prime example of sassy stitching. (Photo from kksmagiclist.blogspot.com)

In some ways, it highlights the ridiculousness of some of the trappings of modernity. Take the lyrics: “Y’all gon make me lose my mind/ Up in here, up in here.” When I see it stitched out, I start to notice how silly the song that’s gotten me through lifetimes on the elliptical is. And nothing says “trite” like a few little hearts.

But at the same time, turning hip-hop into a decorative craft gives it a whole new life. The words fit so nicely into the medium, creating a pleasant piece that looks like it belongs on the wall of a cozy, wood-floored home. Immortalizing the words in something less fleeting than sound puts them on a pedestal, quoting them as something worth remembering.

Both halves of snarky cross-stitch gain something from each another. The collision of the old-fashioned and the modern gives cross-stitch a little edge and pop culture a little clout. The results are a little like snickering at a childish joke, but it totally works. Who says those curved cream canvases are reserved for kittens and flowers and houses? Dressing for your age is dumb (see this cool project by photographer Qozop and the grandfather cardigans that make up the majority of my wardrobe), and crafting for your age is, too. Sometimes, you just really need to throw the world a “Bite me,” and as we discussed, what’s the best way to salvage the situation?

Good old irony saving the day, a couple cheerful curlicues at a time.

Curlicues to the rescue. (Photo from gliha.blogs.com)
Curlicues to the rescue. (Photo from gliha.blogs.com)

In support of weird vending machines

Live crab vending machine
A man stares at a crab vending machine in Nanjing. (AP photo)

I have an unnatural fascination with vending machines. Not normal ones. When it comes to chips, I’m always going to choose the one that involves the most cheese, and when I’m choosing a soda, it’s always going to be Diet Coke. I never said I was interesting. But without fail, whenever I see a mention of a machine that dispenses gold bars or make-up or cupcakes, I have to know more.

It’s a fascinating example of clever design, particularly when you get into the truly bizarre. Of course, french fry vending machines are cool, but they’re too viable to catch me off guard. I’m not quite sure why Belgium needs a fry vending machine when I bet they have McDonald’s or the equivalent up the street, except maybe for those moments when the social interaction it takes to relay your order to the cashier is just too much. But, all tangents aside, I’m sure when you understand technology and science and things, it’s not too hard to make a box heat up potatoes and dump a sauce of your choice on them.

Then, there’s China’s live crab vending machine. What? How are they alive? Who feeds them? Does someone feed them? Do they just fend for themselves? Is the machine so popular that they’re purchased before they have a chance to think about kicking the bucket? I’d like to take that designer out for coffee – well, maybe sushi – and pick his or her brain because that’s creativity right there.

Farmer's Fridge salad
Farmer’s Fridge salads are made from organic ingredients and packaged in jars that can be returned for recycling in the machine itself. The machine is located in Chicago’s Garvey Food Court. (Photo from fastcompany.com)

But what inspired this whole post was an article I found about a salad vending machine. It’s called Farmer’s Fridge and looks like it belongs in an Urban Outfitters, if Urban Outfitters decided fake grass was the hot new way to bridge the gap between trendy and hipster. The salads are packed in a recyclable jar and look beautiful, not words I ever thought I’d say. The ingredients are layered to keep them fresh, with lettuce and kale sitting gently on top of crisp corn and bold strawberries and supposedly protein-packed quinoa. In a world where there’s always a tempting Taco Bell around the corner – or a burrito vending machine – a salad dispenser sounds like a life-changing proposition. Just today, I spent 20 minutes in line for a salad at a create-your-own place, and while I was happy with my Tex-Mex creation, my willpower is wearing thin. Farmer’s Fridge combines clever engineering and smart design to meet a real need. Plus, you get to eat salad out of a jar, which infuses a simple salad with a heartening dose of whimsy.

Growing up, I always thought New York’s automats of yore sounding like the coolest thing ever. They tried to bring the trend back in the mid-2000s with an automat called Bamm, and I was totally committed to getting there one day. Unfortunately, while “researching” for this post (aka having a little too much fun clicking through galleries and gasping at what mechanically inclined people can make a machine dispense at will), I learned Bamm closed in 2009. I’m a little heart-broken my childhood dream is no longer – I know, dream big, Shayna – but you’ll be relieved to know I did get my chance to try out the vending-machine meal phenomenon a couple years ago when I took a weekend trip to Amsterdam during my semester abroad. We went to this chain place called FEBO, and I nearly tripped over myself shoving Euros in the machine. Now, I’m not going to lie to you: My burger was not the best I’ve ever had. But it was definitely one of the most fun. Not-quite-crispy-enough veggies can’t put a damper on the delicious taste of novelty.


Hungry for more? Here are a couple lists of innovative vending machines worldwide: