Brain Pickings

Living Design

by

Ornithology is the new Adobe, happy misers, Satan, Art Deco geeks, Kenneth Cole, what Whitney Houston and monsters have in common besides Bobby Brown, how the sun can save Africa, and why inflation is a good thing.

NEST OF ART

Until recently, the main criticism of the Internet’s capabilities was that it was didn’t allow for fast and precise image editing online, at least not at a beyond-red-eye-removal professional level. No more.

AviaryEnter Aviary, a brand new suite of high-level Internet applications “for people who create” — smart, useful stuff for pretty much any kind of artist. All the tools are free, aim to inspire collaboration among artists, and come with cool bird names. Although still in Beta and invite-only, you can request an invitation — we got ours pretty quickly, and we’ll just say it was more than worth the wait.

The tools span the uber-creative, the geeky and the biz-minded, making for a comprehensive suite that helps create, distribute, manage and sell creative products. The creative side alone is impressive enough: there’s Phoenix, the image editor; color swatches and palette creator Toucan; algorithm-based pattern generator Peacock; Raven for vector editing; Hummingbird, the 3D modeller and skinner; Myna, an audio editor; music generator Roc; Starling, for video editing; Owl, the desktop publishing layout editor; Penguin, a word processor for creative writers; painting simulator Pigeon; Tern, the terrain generating minitool; font editor Horus; and Woodpecker, a smart image resizing minitool.

Geeks will have a field day with Eagle, a smart online app that reads the pixel patterns in an image and is able to identifies complex data about it, like which specific camera it originally came from.

ToucanAnd because 2.0 creativistas want nothing to do with the “starving artist” stereotype that haunts their traditional brethren, Aviary provides just the right kind of tools to propagate the business of creativity: Rookery is a free, unlimited-traffic file system network accessible to anyone for data storage and management. It’s also what powers Aviary‘s file search engine. Hawk is a marketplace for digital content, allowing artists to showcase and sell their work. And Crane is a custom image product creator.

Here’s the biggie: unlike other online image editing tools, Aviary is layer-based (like Photoshop), far more powerful than any image-processing web software, supports limitless revision, and has an entire suite of apps that communicate with each other.

Something else huge for artists: Aviary helps with copyright and royalties, tracking — forever — all sources used in a work and where a work is used by others. And that’s something even Creative Commons can’t claim. Which, come to think of it, is not surprising given Aviary is the brain child of 12 international top-notch artists who know all the joys and perils of creativity inside and out.

Phoenix screenshot

Once you get invited, you can access Phoenix — the first of the tools being made available to Beta testers. All the rest, though, are flying in soon. We’re still pinching ourselves, but it does seem to all be real — you can find out more about the individual tools on the product blog. And, speaking of blogs, we love their Idea Blog where different members of Aviary‘s team get to dish on various design and creativity topics — like this particularly refreshing take on the foundations of good design.

Enough from us, just go experience the instinctive self-pinching for yourself.

UNTRIVIA

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Here’s a blast from our psych class past: the “misery is not miserly” phenomenon — the tendency to spend more money in negative emotional states, particularly sadness — is now confirmed by a new study. Powered by researchers from four academia big-wigs (Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Pittsburgh University), the study exposed some participants to a sadness-inducing video and others to a “neutral” nature video. They then asked the subjects to spend any amount of their $10 participation incentive on a reusable sports water bottle. Here’s what they found:

  • The sad group spent an average of $2.11
  • The neutrals spent $0.56
  • The sad group used significantly more self-referential expressions (“I,” “me,” “my,” “myself,” etc.) when writing a brief essay on the seen video

What explains the glaring difference? Turns out, sadness makes people enter a “self-focus” state: an insecurity-driven self conception that leads us to believe we and the stuff we own are worth little. So, we’re willing to spend more to make our stuff appear more valuable, thereby making ourselves feel better.

Even more interestingly, this phenomenon occurs with pretty much zero awareness — subjects, despite the clear data suggesting otherwise, vigorously denied the video-induced sad emotions had anything to do with their spending amount. So it’s something different from retail therapy altogether, wherein we consciously try to make ourselves feel better with a, say, Mac Air. (Yes, we do have a tendency to go overboard — we must be watching all the sad sap of the cinematic world.)

What’s our point? Stay happy, stay rich. Meh, easier said than done — who are we kidding, it’s back to the Apple Store tonight…

THE DEVIL’S IN THE RETAIL

If you do anything online, you’ve come to appreciate the importance of tags — all those coveted keywords and labels can make or break your content’s success. “Tags” actually take their name from the eponymous little things that hang off various types of merchandise in the offline world. Fashion retail, in particular, is one place where offline tags are nearly as important as the 2.0 kind in selling stuff.

We’ve long been fascinated with label-tags on clothing, ranging from the plain bad to the plain to the mediocre to the brilliant. So we’ve been collecting ones that are exceptional in some way — a good design, a clever use of materials, an unexpected touch, you name it. And here are a few of our favorites, in no particular order of preference, plus the reasons we heart them. (Click the image to magnify.)

Tags

  1. adidas — call us geeks, but when we buy performance apparel we like to know exactly what makes it…well… perform. This little 6-page booklet managed to crunch in all the geeky info while keeping the design super sleek and adidasey. The free 3-week trial for professional online training was just the cherry on top.
  2. Hydraulic Jeans — they may not believe in search optimization, but their tags have that grungy-cool feel of hard cardboard, twine and old-school type. Bonus points for the feather-filled sampler bubble on a down jacket.
  3. Buffalo Jeans — with an edgy delicacy you can expect from a European designer, this tag for David Bitton’s denim line says it all. Too bad you can’t feel the canvas-meets-paper texture.
  4. Tyte Jeans — some of the boldest use of colors we’ve seen in a while, plus we’re suckers for non-plastic tag strings.
  5. GLO Jeans — not quite our taste here, but we have to give them props for doing something that speaks to their target of bubbly teenage girls and 35-year-olds who like to think of themselves as bubbly teenage girls in lieu of better aspirations.
  6. 7 for all mankind — boring colors, sure, but the design is clean and the texture is its own beast: a fascinating contrast between the soft matte canvas of the tag and the glossy satin string.
  7. Cosmopolitan — what better way to play off the brand name than by paying tribute to the ultimate cosmopolitan accessory, the credit card? The plastic tag, complete with those vibrant colors, is just the kind of thing a girl would have a really hard time throwing out.
  8. Jou Jou – despite the contrived and illegible type, the tag challenges the conventions of size, shape and material. The hard-canvas texture and the thick string are a refreshing touch.
  9. Tapemeasure — never mind being sold off by Liz Claiborne, never mind being unfindable online. These guys are certainly not never-minding tag design. Easily our favorite here, there’s something intangibly French about the red-white-and-black, super-clean design. Also of note: the matte texture embossed with tiny matte circles. Best touch: the miniature tapemeasure tag string. Genius.
  10. GAP — say what you will of the (RED) project, but we love the oversized metal hoop on this otherwise slim, soft tag and the understated color design. More street c(red) than the usual blah GAP tags.
  11. BONGO — neat play of space and borders, complete with a super-hard, metallic red surface that feels strangely glam-rock.
  12. Industry — yep, those are real stitches right on the cardboard and that’s real fabric. We have to respect a break from the conventions of materials segregation, but then again they’re French — it’s a whole nother conventions ballpark anyway.
  13. Levi’s — ah, the mother of all denim. There’s something strangely comforting about a pair of Levi’s, so it’s only natural the tag would exude that same vibe of approachable timelessness. A soft fabric tag with just the right amount of fringe, complete with subtle graphics, clean type, and a hung with a delicate string.
  14. YUKA Paris — we’re not crazy about the serif font, but the round black tag with silver type has a luxurious feel that really captures the brand’s signature heavy woven-silk fabrics.
  15. HOLDEN Outerwear — another favorite, and another shameful underestimation by image. The beauty of this tag is in the tactile experience of etched graphics on hard matte cardboard, although the color choice is elegant enough to be its own delight.
  16. Ymi Jean Co. — again, not exactly our taste, but we have to respect the bold use of dark denim and white lace, and in a tag of all places. Fresh. Young. Like the brand’s product.

So next time you go shopping or get a gift, stop and smell the…tag. We don’t care much about the Devil, but we do know the good stuff is always in the details.

HIGH-CONCEPT DESIGN GEEKERY

Design Museum If retail is too low-brow for you, you’ll love the Design Library at the London Design Museum. It’s a tremendous, get-lost-in- it-for-hours resource on architects, technologies and designers featured in the museum. There’s a lengthy profile on each designer, complete with images, interviews and biographies that can put both Wikipedia and your fashion textbook to shame.

You can find designers ranging from the obscure but great to the vaguely familiar to the ultra-famous, from product designer Tord Boontje to Eileen Gray, the mother of Art Deco, to the needs-no-introduction Christian Dior.

Go, dig in, brag.

SOCIAL DESIGN

And while we’re dabbling in fashion design, let us simultaneously dabble in what we call “thought design.” Take Kenneth Cole’s new Awareness Blog — a long-time-coming forum for the same issues the socially-conscious designer has stood for in the past 25 years. Out of Kenneth Cole Productions and Electric Artists, the blog churns out compelling daily takes on issues like politics, human rights, well-being, sustainability and more. Through them all runs a thread of being just the right amount of uncomfortable to really make you think.

The contributors are all big thinkers from various industries and walks of life, including the designer himself and the founder of our favorite magazine, GOOD. And it’s not just talk — it urges readers to get involved with one (or more) of 20 organizations that span everything from AIDS research to disaster relief to mentoring.

There’s also a YouTube channel chock-full of teaser videos united by the tagline-turned-platform “We all walk in different shoes.” Words that scream “word.” Refreshing to see this kind of initiative in society, and especially refreshing to see it coming from one of the most unscrupulous, whatever-it-takes industries: fashion.

THE JOY OF UGLY

Daily MonsterIf you find yourself overwhelmed by the monstrosities of the real world, why not take a break with monsters more likely to delight than derail? That’s exactly what you’ll find on Daily Monster — the talent-child of German-born, California-based graphic designer Stefan G. Bucher.

Each daily stop-motion film shows Stefan creating a new monster — he starts with a paint-dipped toothbrush, swashes a bit on a blank page, then squirts some high-pressure air on it to create a shape-defining splatter. Then, he attacks it with various drawing tools — pencil, Sharpie, fine-point pen, color marker — and draws his monster out of that shape.

Daily Monster #161Currently on monster # 161, he’s been going at it since November 2006 when Monster # 01 emerged from the fun-meets-darkness abyss of creativity.

It’s the kind of cool stuff you end up doing only after having done stuff across all levels of coolness: lived in Oregon, worked in advertising, designed album covers for Whitney Houston and Sting. And he must be doing something right — there’s a book coming out, plus the monsters have had cameos in Business Week and Wired. And, of course, Brain Pickings.

Update: The book, 100 Days of Monsters, is out — and it’s just as fantastic as we expected it to be.

SUN SNATCHER

When gadget design meets lifestyle design meets the design of Earth’s future, it’s a beautiful thing. Which is why we dig SOLIO — the universal “hybrid” charger. “Hybrid” because its powerful internal battery can be charged by plugging in the conventional socket way or by exposing the 3 glorious solar panels to the sun. And universal because it can charge anything — an iPod, a GPS, a digital camera, a cell phone, a game device, a BlackBerry and more.

Sure, it’s an enormous lifestyle treat — pop it in your hiking backpack, in your beach bag, in your carry-on to really take advantage of that window seat, in your city-dwelling purse…the possibilities are oh-so-indulgent.

But where SOLIO can really make a difference, we think, is in the third world. In poverty-ridden, infrastructure-deprived areas with no electricity, where the ability to boil water alone can save thousands of lives by preventing many an infectious disease. Where the presence of a single lightbulb could increase quality of life tremendously, help stave off crime, and extend agricultural and manufacturing productivity beyond the limits of daylight.

The simplest models run under $100, which is significantly less than many questionably effective humanitarian aid efforts spend per piece.

Then, of course, there’s the environmental angle. It’s pretty obvious — more solar power means less electricity means Al Gore likes us — so we no need to preach to the choir. Point is, SOLIO is as nifty a gadget — and lifestyle aid — as they get. We diggidy dig big time.

HIPS AHOY

Our product pick of the week — form (and boy oh boy what form it is) meets function. Salute the inflatable bikini life jacket — beyond its obvious drown-prevention capacity, it also ensures you’re the first one saved by that hunky lifeguard trampling children and little old ladies as he beelines for you.

‘Nuff said.

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