Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I don’t want your art.

I wrote this a while ago as a journal entry while I was an art teacher at Kiley Middle school. I'm posting it here, having found it again, as an impetus to keep posting regularly.


One of the frustrating things with teaching art in my situation is what to do with it when it is done. There are two key situations that I find disconcerting. First, that the kids always want to give me their art when they are done. In a sense it is flattering. I have a sense that I’ve show a student how to do something neat, and they want to share the fruits of that experience and knowledge with the person that brought them to it.

In a way, I’m happy to have it. One of the difficulties in my first year of teaching was that, for my most successful lessons, I had the exemplars that I created to show how to do it, but no student samples. With so little storage space, and no sense early on as to how to organize and store the work, I didn’t think until nearly the end of the year to simply take pictures of the products in class. The only product that I created were ones that I’d use to create the single art bulletin board, in a back hallway in the school. And part of my job was to try and get the kids to value their work, and take it home.

But that’s the essential problem. Kids in the class, it seems, are used to looking at finished, polished pieces of art, completed on a computer, airbrushed intricately and with nary a ragged edge. As such, when they created amazing pieces of spontaneous art (that type of work which is possible with an abundance of talent and inspiration and the constraint of little time that is the hallmark of younger minds), they thought it messy, ugly, imperfect and unworthy. The kids have a hard time seeing something that they have created as having an inherent value, of being something of and with quality.

So I’ve taken to collecting their art.

It’s a bit of a problem, as I am operating off of a cart, and don’t have a space of my own in which to store it. From past experience, a spectacular piece of kids art has a shelf life of only about two years, before my shedding of a pack-rat mentality forces me to clean house. Unless the art serves as an excellent exemplar of a great lesson, and I actually file it with the lesson plan for that lesson, sooner ir later it’s going to hit the same recycling bin it was destined for, months or years earlier. And that makes me sad.

So I am redoubling my efforts to get the kids to take their art home. A piece of art brought home is good for the kids, in their ability to grow an appreciation for their own abilities through exposure. It helps them see that they can do something cool, and maybe inspire them to something new, next time. But more that that, a piece of art brought home also exposes parents to that art. While an average disinterested parent might be baffled by algebra homework, or disinterested in seeing the answers to written reading comprehension lesson, they can instantly take in and become engaged by a piece of art. A parent might feel intimidated by content that they never learned themselves. But, in my experience, no one is intimidated by kids art. And, as with all visual art, no one is without an opinion of it, nor shy about expressing it.

So it is in my enlightened self-interest in two ways, to assure that the art goes home with the kids. But how to do it is the key problem. And one I’ve not yet begun to address satisfactorily.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Preschool Demographics 3: Parents and Reading.

I said I was going to talk about the words next, but something else occurs, first:

To get kids to read, parents are told to provide provide preschoolers with plenty of books and other reading materials that they can explore at their leisure, in any down time. Further, they are told that reading to their child from this collection, excitedly, helps communicate that reading is fun. . In short, kids want to do what parents tell them is fun to do. If parents ‘ooo’ and ‘ahhh’ over their vegetables, there is the potential preschool kids will want to eat those, first. I can speak to this from my own experience.

Reading helps preschoolers identify mechanics like capital letters and small letters, and sentence elements like periods and commas, and also basic sentence structure. Parents can also help kids learn specific words by sight. But this secondary step should not take the place of the first.

By way of illustrating this, I remember an open house with my children’s second grade teacher. There she emphasized to a class of parents, sitting in too-small chairs, that we need to read to and with our kids, as an avenue to helping them get these sight words. One of the busier mothers commented that she did not have time for this in a structured fashion, but that she did help identify words on the street, like STOP on a stop sign, or words on street signs. I stifled back the urge to call out “That’s behavior you’re supposed to teach to a pre schooler, or first grader, M’am. This is second grade. Read him a book.”

Anyway, for preschoolers, illustrated storybooks are most relevant because the child can follow along with the story as the parent reads, Parents help foster reading comprehension by asking questions about the story and about the pictures. This is picked up in later books as the art of reading and writing for context.

One of the products I worked on at Great Source Education Group was called the Readers Handbook, and another was called Reading Advantage. Both dissected the reading process, helping students to break down critical reading strategies and tools to use in reading (such as imagining what would happen next in fiction). They also had reading tools and organizers, and an outline that distinguished different types of text. It was amazing as an adult, to realize that at some point I was taught what was fiction versus non-fiction, what the structure was for a newspaper article versus a magazine feature article, etc. that’s all stuff that’s so ingrained, I never thought to question how it got to be so. It just always was—because I was a reader from an early age. These book, intended for grades 4 through 12, presents teachers with tools for helping students who are not early readers develop the skills to understand what reading was all about, dissecting what was essentially (for me at least) a transparent process.

But the goal for the demographic at hand is to teach them this through the first course, that is by teaching them to read and to love reading. And, again, the best path to this is through their parents. And the best way to get the parents to communicate that reading s fun, is by making it so in the books they read to their kids.

I heard a report the other morning that Reading Rainbow, a show that’s been on the air for 26 years, and is the third-longest children’s programming on PBS (Behind Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood) is ending, because the former sponsors, PBS or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or any station, will not front the several thousands of dollars to renew the broadcast rights. The reasoning behind this, in my own filtered nutshell, due to a shift in public policy and governmental focus from shows that talk about a love of reading to shows that focus on the basics of phonics and spelling—the “building blocks” of reading.

It occurs to me this leaves an inspirational, aspirational vacuum. Kids will learn to read, because schools require it. But my experience has been that you need first to teach kids to learn to read, then read to learn, and lastly love to read. The first and second are the basics that are being tackled in school, but the third is being left as a big hole, which will need to be filled.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Preschool Demographics 2: Magical thinking

Initially, I have defined the ideal type of book to produce by my previously outlined criteria—the type that does the most good to early readers—as being the read-to-me type. The goal is to produce a book that entertains the kids, on a kid level, but also, more importantly, entertains the parents. Because, as I started out the last entry saying, ultimately, if you’re selling a book to a kid who can’t read and can’t pay for it, you have to know you’re selling to the parent. So, on some level, the book always talking to the parent.

But the book also is not. The book is also talking to, and aimed at, kids that are able to think magically, a gift that a lot of parent’s have lost. This is why you can make a balloon a main character, why animals talking makes perfect sense, and why the illustrations become so important in communicating multiple layers of subtext that the content cannot.

So how do you speak to magical thinking, which is ideal for the target, without the parents getting in the way? In other words, how do you make something magical enough to capture the kids, without making it so alien that it turns off the parents? First key is to understand to some degree, what magical thinking is, how it relates to preschoolers, and how they interact with their parents.

Preschool age kids are going through a lot. They are growing physically, at an exponential rate. They are just beginning to learn independence from their parents, for the first time at this age starting to have an appreciation for their parent’s as separate entities, rather than somehow additional external appendages to themselves. And as such, they are beginning—just beginning—to assert their independence, in baby steps. They are testing the world, as they explore it, and learning to differentiate how many other external elements are within, or out of their control. In this, the boundaries of imagination and reality are interchangeable to a large degree. This is the age of the development of the imagination, and it coincides with their brain growth.

Children’s brains at this age are likewise developing at a rapid rate. It’s amazing to think that, conglomeration of cells that could only carry out autonomic functions four years ago have, by age four, begun to think abstractly. While all this development is going on, it’s important to realize it’s within an egocentric atmosphere. Preschoolers are learning about their world, but within the context of how it relates to them. For example, they may understand that it gets dark because the sun goes down, and they have to go to bed. That may translate into an understanding of the sun, that includes the sun having to “go to bed.” And on an overcast morning where they don’t feel like getting up, and don’t see the sun, it may seem perfectly reasonable that they are mad at the sun for not getting up, and mad at the parent for making them get up, and grumpy without explaining why, until and unless the sun comes out. These and a hundred other complex “I shouldn’t have to do this” scenarios reflective of egocentric thinking, mixed with magical support, make up some of the problems parents can run into with their kids without even knowing it.

Parents (often) “grow out” of the ability to think magically, and therefore have a hard time making these connections. Therefore parents, while supportive of the magical thinking, are also working to pull their kids more into the concrete of the parent’s world. And kids are frankly, just as anxious to go. The key becomes how to use and allow for kids magical thinking, while allowing for the introduction of realistic, rational elements, in a mix that parents find palatable, acceptable, and will want to pass on to their kids.

And publishers are aware of this push and tug. Therefore a story like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, so popular it was just turned into a major motion picture, would frankly have a difficult time being published, today. The idea of a book making it okay for a kid to climb out a window and sail across the world would set off alarms. Similarly, Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat: The idea of letting a stranger in when you’re alone in the house, or even being left alone in the house, would be a hard sell today. This is because publishers are creating a third firewall, in front of the parents, who are the initial firewall in front of the kids. All this without any of these bulwarks necessarily appreciating the element of magical thinking, and acknowledging that kids can know not to let a strange man in the house with no one home, while still letting it be okay that a giant talking feline with a haberdashery fixation is perfectly fine. Magical thinking allows for both options.

There are a few studies out there (most notably in England), studying the connection between children's magical thinking and perception of reality. These studies have rested on three main pillars of study; parental input, children's inherent beliefs and children's responses to "magical" events. Obviously these are inter-connected. Parents encouraging a belief in Santa Claus play on inherent beliefs, and have a response that is reinforced not only by society (television specials, movies and mall Santas) but also be perceivable events (Christmas morning). The gist that I got out of it are the 3 main points I presented above; 1) magical thinking is natural part of development, 2) parent's encourage magical thinking while also working to educate children beyond it, and 3) most children and the luckiest adults still use creative and magical thinking. That, then, is my target.

Understanding, and really being able to take advantage of this, is the area that produces the best read-to-me children’s literature. So with that understanding, we move on to the language, and the imagery.

Next: What’s the words?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Preschool Demographics 1: Introduction

I'm working on a children's book, as viewers of this web site over the past year...or two years...may be aware. But, though I do many things very slowly, I do few things half way. So, there is some target audience research involved here. The first thing I realize is that you are not selling a children's book to children, but to the parents of children. But. that said, it is still essential to understand kids at the Pre-K level. Here is the first of a series where I explore that target audience.

In defining what is a good idea for a children’s book, we need to acknowledge on truth: that ultimately, if you’re selling a book to a kid who can’t read and can’t pay for it, you have to know you’re selling to the parent.

And what does that parent want? Hopefully, what’s best for the kid. They need a book that will entertain the child, capture the child’s imagination, and ideally teach that child something. But finding that balance is the key, and doing it with a product that is actually unique, playful, fun and at the same time mature, educational and meaningful is the challenge.

So let’s save that for the end of the exploration. Let’s start with easy questions.

First, we need to narrow the target—initially, by age group. We’re talking about kids who cannot read or are just-beginning readers, again, Kindergarten or Pre-K kids. This is the age group that is key to reaching, in terms of making the most significant and early difference to their lives.

There is a program called the Harlem Children’s Zone, which the Prez talked about during the election, and is putting into action:


This successful program has been the subject of much media coverage, and one book

The gist of the discussion point here is that kids need to be read to. The more kids are read to, the greater their minds are stimulated, the greater their vocabulary becomes, and the more open they become to more knowledge. Reading to kids makes them smarter. The more you read to them, the greater their potential becomes, simply in the fact of increased vocabulary, increased exposure to more words, and increased susceptibility to new ideas.

Having defined my ideal goal for creating a childrens book is to produce it for the age it can do the most good, Next, I'm going to discriminate two categories: read to me, and read to myself. The read to myself books (I can read, and a whole slew of early reader titles) are much more limited and limiting. This is the type of book we see much more of, and frankly, IMHO, too much of. Maybe it's just because I come out of educational publishing. But it seems every reading program develops it's own slew of trademarks readers all of which have the correct parts, right language, and the same amount of imagination (or lack thereof). One or two simple books (or even book series) like this are enough to give kids a sense of accomplishment, and in that they are important. But man, there are already too many series of these out there.

In the end, I think the author and the reader is getting more bang for the buck with the "read to me" kind. Maybe I don't have the research to support that assertion, but I bet if you ask adults their favorite books to have read early on, you might get some books from the "I Can read" series, but you aren't going to get too many saying "I just loved the McGraw-Hill Leveled Readers series!" You're going to get Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Whistle for Willie, and the Polar Express. You're going to get stories that stuck.

So, for my ideal, I want a project that will inspire parents to read to their kids, by capturing the adult imagination, in a subject that is energized and interesting to the child, trusting that, where the parent goes, the child will clamor to follow.

Next: Magical Thinking.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Adventures in logo development
(3 of 3)

The end result of the logo development was determined and fine-tuned with the President of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, through the Corporate Communication office. My next step, coordinated with other Design Directors and Designers at HMH, was to develop usage guidelines.

At the time I started this project, I thought existing usage guidelines would be provided for me to work with, redesign, or update as necessary, with the new logo suites. To my surprise, however, discovered that no such usage guidelines existed. This was reflected in the previously disparate Houghton logos that existed across the various business units at the time, as outlined below:

The goal was to start with a clean slate, to develop a clean suite of logos across all the business units, and then provide the usage guidelines for implementation. Because this seemed too possible a task, a time element was added—the usage document and the cohesive logo suites had to be created over the course of four days, in order to be ready for the upcoming Education conference season. Keep in mind, design studios typically have months to prepare a usage document, with multiple versions and revisions as every particular usage is considered, dozens of people are consulted and have input, and the document is fine tuned. I had four days between go-ahead and final delivery of both the usage document and all the final files. And two of those days were around my regular day job as the Design Director for Great Source. The Corporate Communications department was garnering heat from al the divisions, which needed to have the usage guidelines, and more importantly the logos themselves, in time to get large convention-sized banners created. And, fool that I am, I hesitate to say “die”, even when the bullet’s gone clean through the cerebellum.

So, I pulled all my experience in corporate usage documentation, which had for previous years been on the user-end, rather than the provider end. Corporate entities from United Healthcare to Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA), among others, had provided me with extensive usage guidelines for products I’ve produced for previous employers. And, for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on at the time, I‘d collected and filed them all. Now I pulled them all out and spread them out in my Boston home office to try and determine what would be needed for the HMH Usage Guideline document.

I fully expected that the simple, rough document I put together would be heavily edited and reworked, But I was pleasantly surprised when it came back with minor structural edits—the content that I had written outlining usage was virtually unchanged. With great attention to detail, but also under intense time constraints, I worked personally with Corporate Communications to fine tune the final documentation.

See, in working through this process and needing to turn on a dime, I had taken on the project myself. In fact, I had all the files on my personal laptop, ad only there (though backed up on a backup drive) ready at any and every point to turn them over to another design house of Corporate Communications choosing. But that call never came.

I worked on them over a final weekend, after which I was to attend one of the first conferences of the season, in Florida. So it was that I found myself making the final changes to the Usage document at Logan Airport at 5am, paying for WiFi internet access to upload the final files to the corporate server for distribution to all the business units. I was literally the last one to board the plane, as it required me to close my laptop and break the WiFi connection, and I wanted all the files uploaded to the server for use.

It was an exercise in dedication. Later, the corporate communications director I’d been working with promised to bring me out for a drink in Boston, which never materialized in the days before I left HMH. But all significant exercises require breaking at least a little sweat.

All told, I developed and prepared multiple files (for usages from everything from conference banners to book spines)for multiple business units, including Corporate, School division, Religion division, Trade and Reference division, Learning Technology, International, Supplemental division (of which Great Source was a part), Holt McDougal, and Riverside. These had to be created in the three standard PMS colors, Black, white and PMS 293, and had to be provide in .ai (illustrator) .pdf (Acrobat) and .eps formats. Later, corporate asked me to take away all the editable .ai versions.

Below are a very few sample pages.

Afterword: These are indeed pages from the corporate usage guidelines for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, used through 2008. However, I recently learned that this document was revised and replaced with one that was (as anticipated) outsourced to an external design house, which was paid a number with several more zeroes than I recieved to produce it. It's a pretty thing, with additional an PMS color palette, developed to complement the corporate approved colors.

But I'll bet they didn't do it in four days, in their pajamas. So there.

Then again, I'll bet they got their beer.

Logo production under the gun ain't for pansies.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Adventures in logo development (2 of 3)

So, though we explored many examples of blending the two logos, we had to be aware of the actual existing colophons, and ensuring that we maintained that resonant identity into the new Below are some early studies of the logo development.

For giggles, here is one of the sheets With some very early sketches, with some of the notes I got from phone conference critiques from the head of Corporate Communciations. Such scattershot approach is essential early on when you;re working on tight deadline and in multiple directions at once. You need to see what they like about A and B and C, when all three choices are radically different, so that you can see which of the three directions you should move forward into. More often than not, it will merely be an elimination of one of the several directions (which still means a ton of work in different directions. But sometimes its about getting to what you want, by crossing out other directions.

This series was built off the existing colopon, the dolphin. There is a story behind the boy riding the dolphin with the flute, but the fact is that 99% of the public out there does not know it. The dolphin colophon IS recognizable though, and so it was important early on to explore how much it could change, and yet remain. The foal with this series was also to play with bits of the Harcourt logo that could be incorporated into the dolphin colophon. Could talk for hours about the intent of each of the following, but the reality of logo communication is how you react to it in the first few seconds. How you react to it the next day is also important (that is, which logos stayed in your mind) but the truth is that neither instance requires a long monologue accompanyment. I will say, I especially liked the simplicity of the bottom three.

This group tried to bridge the strength of the Harcourt logo with the light elegance of the identity of the existing Houghton Mifflin logo. The direction is decidedly different from either pre-existing logo, and for that reason these were the least likely to be considered. Nevertheless, I do see some strengths in the identity and direction.

In the end, where we ended up was not so very different from where we started, which is often the case with corporate development. Here is the final logo, from the usage document I created:

This logo, arguably, is merely an extrapolation of the existing Houghton Mifflin logo, with the addition of the Harcourt name. The decision was made at the top corporate level—though I never was part of the discussion, I had the feedback funneled back to me from the head of the company himself. My own choice, had I been able to express an opinion at that level, would have been different. But then, I rooted for the Red Sox for a lot of years that they lost, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Adventures in corporate logo development
(1 of 3)

Houghton Mifflin merged with Harcourt in January of 2008. Of course, it was in the works for months before this. In fact, it was in the works, unbeknownst to me, before I was even hired. But that’s a story for another day.

For the months before the merger, Corporate Communications had been doing prep work with several design firms and focus testing groups to determine what the new identity for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt should be. They’d collected a wealth of information, but hadn’t yet seen anything they liked. That wealth of discussion and information was the pile that was dropped on my desk in November, when Steve Tapp, then President of Great Source, tapped me as new Design Director of Great Source, a division of Houghton Mifflin, if I and my group would take a stab at it. Of course, we did.

At Great Source, I managed a staff of Senior Designers, spread over a volume of five disciplines; Math, Science, Social Studies, Reading and Language Arts. Given this workload, and the fact that this logo work was spread on top of it, I didn’t feel comfortable assigning the work of logo research, development and sketching, so I presented it to them as an opportunity that they could participate in, but not a requirement. One Senior Designer stepped up to the idea, and delivered some solid sketches. In addition, I dug into this myself.

As food for this, we studied the results of several focus group reports, as well some competitors logo suites (examples below).

We also did research into corporate branding in general. There are many areas to balance in logo branding; history of the corporation, symbolism inherent in the logo, and what the logo is intended to evoke or communicate. We studied a wealth of great texts, such as Fresh Ideas in Corporate Identity, by Mary Cooper and Lynn Haller. But at the end of the day, we weren’t starting with a blank slate-—we were working on blending two well established and vested corporate identities, into a new form of life.

Part of the issue was that combining the Harcourt logo (below)

with the Houghton Mifflin logo (below).

was too deceptively simple. The Harcourt logo symbolized ripples on water, the ripples reflecting the effect of education, literature, et al. The Houghton logo was a boy on a dolphin, which is a mythological reference that’s a mystery to 8 out of 10 people. But the colophon was nonetheless memorable and easily identifiable to many customers. Therefore it might seem combining a boy on a dolphin with rippling water would be a no-brainer…except for the fact that the resultant logos were reminiscent of Sea World.

Next: Some of the final sketches