This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Sunday, January 27, 2008

My Top Five Albums of 2007

Ok, it's about a month too late for "best of " lists, and the idea of "best albums" seems so 20th-century in this Age of Shuffle. But I still wanted to note some of my favorites from this year.

Surprisingly, some of my favorite bands' eagerly anticipated new albums didn't make the cut (Arcade Fire, the Shins, Wilco). Instead, my list is headed by two bands I found out about just this year:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bulletin from the WTF? Department

Take a look at this:
http://blog.wired.com/defense/2008/01/army-seeks-prof.html

Perhaps the Lost Cartographers should apply. I'm pretty sure our bassist Karl is a "recognizable celebrity nationally or internationally." And at least they'd give us body armor.

Monday, January 21, 2008

How To Stay Sane On The CTA

My Roscoe Village apartment and the University where I work are only about 8 miles apart, as the crow flies. Somehow, though, I manage to spend nearly three hours a day trapped in the belly of the beast known as the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA. In between doomsday scenarios and derailments, I've used my daily public transportation sentence to get a fair amount of reading done. In the last couple of years, though, much of my commuting time has been spent listening to podcasts. Here's a quick guide to some of my favorites, listed by topic:

Music:

Paste Culture Club
- Paste is almost my perfect music magazine: heavy does of alt.country/americana and indie rock, with occasional forays into underground hip-hop and the just-plain-weird. While they may throw in a few too many earnestly mediocre singer-songwriters, I'll take that any day over the Frankenstein's monster Rolling Stone has become -- the reanimated corpses of Boomer nostalgia acts steered by the criminally insane brain of top-40 teen-pop (shudder). Paste's biweekly podcast features full-length songs, interviews, and news about new releases.

Sound Opinions - Featuring Chicago's own major-paper rock critics, "The World's Only Rock-and-Roll Talk Show" was on WXRT when I moved to town, and has since moved to Chicago Public Radio. I'm pretty sure it's one of the only shows on public radio where you'll ever hear people wax on about the talents of Ghostface Killah.


Design:

Design Matters - Sterling Brands' Debbie Millman (she designed the Burger King logo, among others) interviews some of the top designers in the field (Steven Heller, Milton Glaser, etc.), along with other cultural luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell.

Be A Design Cast - A group of young designers from (of all places) Omaha puts together this entertaining bi-weekly podcast. They too interview design big-wigs (including Debbie Millman), but don't take themselves (or much of anything, except Mountain Dew can redesigns) too seriously.

Freelance Radio - Not really a design show, but applicable to those like myself who do freelance design work. The hosts discuss things like contracts, time management techniques, and client horror stories.


Web Design:

Boagworld - Hosted by two Brits who run a web design company called Headscape. The dynamic between old friends Paul, the often-cranky designer type and Marcus, the ex-pop-star salesman/project manager is itself worth listening to the show. The fact that it's full of interesting news, reviews, and interviews is just icing on the cake.


Miscellaneous:

This American Life - Single-handedly responsible for making me a member of Chicago Public Radio, TAL is the most popular podcast on iTunes. I actually listened to all 300-plus episodes on the web before they began podcasting, which means I wait with baited breath each week to see if the lastest podcast will be a new episode or a rerun.

The Story - Kind of like TAL, but daily.

Savage Lovecast - "America's only advice columnist" Dan Savage is even funnier live than he is in his weekly column. Warning: anyone who doesn't find hilarity in the idea of elderly grandmothers inadvertently pleasuring their pet parakeets probably shouldn't listen.

So -- any suggestions for ones I should absolutely add to my list? I'm all ears.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Project Update: Sacred Art Website

One of the things I hope to do on this blog is to document the process of the freelance design projects I do both on my own and through Design:Intelligent.

Back in November, I launched a website for a great little store in Roscoe Village called Sacred Art. Owner Sarah Chazin opened Sacred Art in 2006, intending to make the art of local Chicagoans accessible to their neighbors and create an alternative to the traditional art gallery. Instead of the stuffiness of those spaces, her store has the friendliness of a neighborhood shop, and showcases over 50 Chicago artists in every medium you can think of, from photography and painting to jewelry and textiles. There are pieces to fit every budget, providing everyone with the opportunity to own original art.

I had originally designed a small one-page site for Sacred Art back in 2006, then a group of local students offered to create a slightly larger site for the store as a class project. While Sarah certainly appreciated the students' generosity in building that site, it became clear that if she wanted to continue to grow her business, she would need a more consistent, user-friendly website. Also, she would need to be able to update it herself, with few technical skills and on a young business' shoe-string budget.

At our first meeting with Sarah, my Design:Intelligent partner Katie Petrak and I worked to identify who we were trying to reach and what sort of information would be contained on the site. The goals we identified for the site were:

  • to let artists know how they can submit their art for consideration to be sold in the store
  • to promote other services that the store provides, such as art rental, commissions, and hosting private events
  • to highlight the many wonderful styles of art for sale in the store
  • to promote events, such as classes and "meet-the-artist" opportunities
  • to inform visitors of new arrivals to the store and other announcements

The first two needs could be easily solved by static webpages. The last three, however, would require some ingenuity in order to meet both the "low or no cost" and "little technical knowledge" requirements. Sarah didn't have the budget to pay for the time that would be required to implement and configure custom scripts for her site, nor did she have the time or inclination to learn the technical skills that could reduce the cost for installing those components.

So we looked for cheap third-party solutions. Her events calendar could be maintained for free on the very easy to use Google Calendar, then fed to her site via GCal's talent for producing RSS feeds. We found a similar work-around for the update feature, by using a feed from the free Blogger blogging platform. For the image gallery, we turned to image hosting site SmugMug, which gives Sarah the opportunity to easily upload and organize images; for a small yearly fee, we would be able to customize the look of the SmugMug site to match that of the rest of Sacred Art's site.

The next stage of the project was to create a new visual design that would be adaptable to these solutions, and would also more accurately reflect the character of the store than the Apple-esque gray text on a white background that had previously comprised the site. Katie devised a design with a rough, hand-made feel that manages to be slightly funky but still clean enough to not feel cluttered. The color scheme is based on the colors of the Sacred Art logo and the unique dark green that covers the store's facade.

Finally, it was up to me to build the actual pages, combining the design with the technology. The site was launched the day before Thanksgiving, the deadline we had set so that the site would be up and running for the holiday shopping season. Sarah is extremely happy with the site, and Katie and I enjoyed the process of creating something for a business that we really believe in. I think it's a great case example of how, with a little strategic planning, good websites don't need to cost an arm and a leg.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How I Became a Designer

I am still occasionally uncomfortable calling myself a designer. It’s a mantle I didn’t adopt until I was almost 30. For most of my life, I’ve thought of myself as an academic, someone whose trade was in words; more specifically, my interests revolved around story-telling, and the study of how and why people tell "the same" story in different ways, particularly when people use such stories to transmit complex religious and philosophical ideas.

This fascination with story runs deep in my consciousness. On one of my favorite podcasts, "Design Matters," host Debbie Millman often asks her guests the question (which she admits to lifting form Milton Glaser): what is your first creative memory? If I ask myself this question, I find a neatly packaged origin story for my lifelong interest in narrative. As a young child in the heyday of Star Wars mania, I had dozens of the little plastic action figures ("They're not dolls!" I insisted) based on the film, for which I would construct and act out elaborate stories that were grounded in the universe of the movies but taken in very different directions -- I distinctly remember a visit by an Imperial Star Destroyer to a fast-food drive-through, for example. Often, I would play out these scenarios over and over, making tweaks to the storyline here and there, until I either got them just right or simply abandoned them in favor of a new idea.

From Star Wars I moved on to classical mythology, then Arthurian legend, Celtic myth and Joseph Campbell in high school. At Oberlin College, I created an individual major in Comparative Mythology. One of my advisors was an expert on the Ramayana, a Hindu religious epic that has been told and retold countless times over the last two millenia. In the last twenty years or so, the story has become embroiled in Indian political disputes due to its adoption by the Hindu right as a kind of acid test for determining the boundaries of the Indian nation; these political disputes were also closely linked to traditional and modern visual representations of the story. This interest launched me into graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I earned a master's degree and put in an additional three years in the History of Religions Ph.D. program, studying the ways in which religion, the idea of the nation, and visual media overlap in South Asia.

In the meantime, I had become a designer almost by accident. Though I had grown up in a house full of art and interest in the visual -- my mother was a landscaper and my stepfather an illustrator and graphic designer -- I had never thought of myself as having much artistic talent. After all, I couldn't draw or paint. In the year between my graduation from college and beginning grad school, however, I took a job as electronic projects intern in Oberlin's Office of College Relations and discovered the power of computers for creating visual artifacts, as well as the unique challenges of information architecture for the emerging medium of the web. When I headed to grad school, I took a work-study position building websites and later designing print materials for an on-campus research center. I discovered to my delight that design was not all that different from the story-telling that I was studying in my academic life -- at it's core, all communication is about telling a story, but I was now telling stories with image and typography rather than words.

Eventually, I decided that I was enjoying doing the actual story-telling more than I was enjoying studying it, and in 2006 I decided to withdraw from school and devote myself full-time to design. Along with working full-time, I started taking on freelance projects, and in 2007 founded Design:Intelligent, a collective of Chicago freelance designers who share clients, knowledge, and resources. Still, though, I was uncertain about hanging out my shingle as a "designer." There is an ongoing debate in the design community about the kinds of training one needs to be a good designer (see this, for an example), which often leads those who understandably wish to protect their professional standing to bewail a hypothetical mob of n00bs who think that learning Photoshop makes them designers. In the back of my mind, there was a little voice that asked: "Aren't you just one of those n00bs?"

I've come to realize, however, that a designer is really a problem-solver. A degree in design is an excellent way to gain skills in solving problems of visual communication, but it's not the only way. Since the day I decided this was going to be my career, I have immersed myself in books, discussion boards, mailing lists, converstations and podcasts devoted to design -- I am constantly reading, listening, and observing the world through the lens of one who must help others communicate visually, learning through experience what works and what does not. Perhaps the best piece of advice I've ever received was from a designer friend, who said the best way to learn design was simply to “Look at everything.” And I've never looked at anything the same way since.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Confessions of a Reluctant Blogger

I swore I'd never do it.

Since I filled a hand-made journal given to me by my oh-so-artsy high school girlfriend with the painfully earnest poetry of a grunge-era teenager so many years ago, I've resisted the diarist's urge. After my brief flirtation with chronicling a life that had barely begun, a diary seemed self-indulgent beyond the point that even my less-than-abstemious twenty-something self could tolerate. When people started posting the prosaic day-to-day minutiae of their lives on the (then-new) World-Wide Web, I was even more skeptical; it was clear to me that everyone's lives were in fact a lot less interesting than they themselves thought they were. The launch of technologies -- like Blogger, for example -- that were devoted to democratizing the weblog form beyond those who knew how to make webpages seemed like just another brick removed from the crumbling wall between the private and the public -- reality tv for the web medium.

And so I sat out the beginnings of the blogging revolution, satisfied that I was missing nothing. Why, then, after so many years of resistance, have I taken up the virtual pen now?

  • Legitimate business reasons. Blogs have become an important part of the"starfish" promotional strategy of many businesses, politicians, bands, and so on, since they a) generate a lot of frequently updated content for search engines to latch onto; and b) give readers a reason to return to your site. If I'm going to use this site to promote my professional life, it makes sense to leverage this technology.

  • Organizing one's thoughts is, uh, what's that word? Oh yeah, good. In these days of information overload, keeping track of the contents of one's mental life can be difficult. I find that with so many things competing for my attention, it's easy for some of them to slip through the cracks. Writing down my impressions of, for example, new developments in design will help me remember and sort them out, regardless of whether or not anyone else reads them. Like Montaigne's essais, blog posts provide the opportunity to examine, question, and evaluate the sea of signal and noise that often threatens to drown us. And unlike a traditional journal, a blog makes one's thoughts searchable.

  • They're here to stay. Like it or not, blogs have emerged as arguably the most widespread application of the information revolution. If I'm going to position myself in the marketplace as a web professional, I need to have as much experience with them as possible.

So in this space, you'll find musings and notes on some of the things that make me tick both professionally (design, web technology and culture) and personally (mostly music, with the occasional diversion into my previous life as an academic studying the history of religions and Bollywood film). If, from time to time, you do me the honor of reading my ramblings, I hope they prove interesting and that you'll occasionally take the opportunity to leave some comments.