Incite by Design

Caustic visions and shared thoughts on design, marketing, creativity, philanthropy, pop culture and business philosophy by Toronto design firm, Ricksticks Inc.


Woman Offers Cat for Advertising

Okay, that is not really true. Although I envision the bags and bags of free cat food, treats, and catnip filled toys for my favorite cat.

This is actually just my sarcastic reaction to this CNN headline:

Mom to advertisers: Place your ads on my baby

The headline speaks for itself and is causing a bit of expected commotion - ethics, ethics, ethics. I have to ask, being the devil's advocate that I am, what's the difference between this and dressing your infant in visibly branded clothing? In other words, she's asking for remuneration in exchange for what lots of parents pay to do. Where is the ethical line?


On Power

"Power comes and goes. It can vanish in the twinkling of an eye, like smoke dissolving in the air."
--Archie Fire Lame Deer, LAKOTA

A colleague of mine in the US used to say that the only thing you can count on with people is that they will eventually let you down. He would follow up that statement with his assurance that he didn't think that was a negative attitude, and how he knew that he, too, had and will let someone down, whether intentional or not. His basic attitude was that if you see humans as flawed, you are able to deal with the minor upsets along the way.

At the time I shrugged his attitude off, attributing it to a general malaise he was facing after a divorce and a poor business environment.

Now I see the freedom in his thinking, only I would add that there are TWO things you can count on, that people will let you down AND that people will surprise you with generosity. There has to be room for both.

When I read today's quote, I am reminded that nothing in our career or business is static. Trying to hang on to things with clutched fists is counterproductive. Understanding that your power is transient is the only way to successfully navigate business and life.


The Thrill of the Unexpected Find

We just returned from about 6 hours of yard sale hopping in the Beaches area of Toronto. The point of the sale was to raise money for breast cancer research, so the traffic and rain didn't deter many committed shoppers.

I must confess, I love yard sales - but not for the usual reasons. I know you can find some great deals and the euphoria some people get from finding the perfect ____ for a dollar, that is nice. However, the enjoyment I get from yard sales is the adventure of not knowing what items await me.

The unknown is exciting to me. I would have been the unfortunate soul who chose curtain #3, even though I had a guaranteed item of value, only to find a goat on top of a dirt pile behind that curtain. Still, I will always go for what's behind the curtain.

There are thousands of thrift stores across North America, but what if you aren't in to buying old or used items, and still like the idea of the search? Are there any retail stores out there that do not carry any specific products, but bring in new and unusual stuff every shipment?

I would definitely shop at a retail store where I might find a hula skirt and a monkey wrench in the same aisle. It would be a brilliant concept, and I know plenty of people whose curiosity would take them there every few weeks.

Is this something that would work, or would it go belly up because of the mercurial nature of the stock and the fact that some people might be put off by not having the comfort of knowing what to expect?


Quote of the Day

And why do people who read Dostoevsky
always look like Dostoevsky?
~ The Go-Betweens/ Here Comes a City

Make Me Laugh

Pork Tornado has found the top ten 'Worst Album Covers' of all time...

Orleans is my personal favorite.


Smug Celebrity - The New Nihilism

Everywhere you look there's Paris Hilton in the news, coupled with an onslaught of screaming teenage girls. I happened to catch a brief segment on Paris recently. Upon her arrival in some unknown city, a local teen was asked why she likes Paris so much. The girl replied without pausing, "Because she's so hot and she just doesn't, like, care ... She doesn't care about anything or anyone."

Elsewhere, ongoing talk continues about Lindsay Lohan, touted star of Mean Girls, and her rivalry with Hillary Duff. Mean Girls, by the way, encapsulates the back-stabbing, rivalry of teen girl life in the way that 1980's Heathers did. I confess, I will never watch Mean Girls, but have overheard young gals discussing the movie and the point they seem to be missing is that it isn't good to be a nasty person.

Parents and media continue to focus their righteous censorship rhetoric against acts like Marilyn Manson or other neo-punk bands for their influence over kids, but ignore when their kids are watching Paris and Nicki act like spoiled brats by mucking up the most basic forms of responsibility - suggesting that it's funny and cool to be incompetent.

The underlining values being challenged by 70's/80's punk nihilism were materialism, capitalism, and allegiance to country. The nihilism was rooted in Marxist thinking, taking it to the next level - antisocial behavior as the benchmark for challenging political and social constructs.

Now nihilism has been replaced by simply having enough money and fame to not give a shit. I'm not suggesting the previous punk ideology, or lack thereof, should be the better of the two; I am simply arguing that Marilyn Manson is only one example of irresponsibility as chic. He's just easier to spot in a crowd.

Bad behavior in and of itself is not what's important for us to examine. What's more intriguing about this blend of bad behavior is that it is coming from those who are supposed to dazzle us - the entertainers of mainstream media (Paris, Lindsey), the pirates of capitalism (Donald, Martha), the "normals."

Of course we expect the fringe scene to embrace odd, antisocial behavior. This has always been the case. I am certain that every generation had its odd mix, the artsy fringe, the controversial folks who threatened the status quo. Parents and media have lived to talk about these people and how they threaten to corrupt our moral fabric.

But what's happening now is the bad behavior, once reserved for only the antic of the rebels and artists, exists in the mainstream celebrity world. And what's worse, there's no real underlying social or political message - They are bad because they can be.

Our fascination with Michael Jackson's ongoing trial is a good example. Whether innocent or guilty, Jackson obviously has lived with the arrogant notion that he is above the rules society follows. Celebrities are, after all, often served by the legal system. Whether dealing with drug, tax evasion or murder charges, most celebrities have a less than harsh sentence. When they do get time, it's not at the big, bad, ugly prisons of notoriety.

But bad behaviour is generally displayed and celebrated in attitude more than in action. The nonchalance of the wealthy or the mean spiritedness of the stars is the typical headline of the day. Shows that support nasty behavior and rivalry are commonplace (America's Next Top Model, Survivor, etc.) Mean, manipulative behavior is rewarded - Every man/woman for his/her self. But we hate it when our kids listen to rap or punk.

I know most young people are hungry for the bling other people seem to have, and the wealth that forgives everything - even crime. There's an air of "I made it on my own" superiority going on that really makes me want to crank up the Clash.

Perhaps the best lesson we can give our youth is that it is cool to be both driven and socially accountable at the same time. It is possible to work really hard to make it and not lose your ability to give a shit about other people and the world; That the best among us are humbled by success and use wealth and experience to better serve humanity.

And a bit of advice for parents: Don't assume the images, although wrapped in pretty packages, are positive ones.


If It Works for Companies, Should it Work for Cops?

Wooster Collective points to Scotland's use of a giant sized projected image of a woman who was recently murdered....

The haunting image is being projected on an abandoned row of buildings in Glasgow in hopes of obtaining information that might lead police to the woman's killer.

Of all the billboards we have lining our roadways, I wonder how this type of tactic would benefit our own unsolved crime rate in North America. Companies could sponsor these boards, if it came down to money. Certainly the "milk carton / missing children" campaign was successful.

What do you think?

Words That Turn Your Mental Wheels

Over at Fast Company, Heath Row puts the question out there - What are your favorite business blogs? Yesterday he focused on branding blogs.

The answers are always interesting. I enjoy seeing what other people consider good reads, informative, entertaining. Branding is tricky because the jury is and always will be out on the definition of brand, so you'll see a lot of what I consider to be advertising or PR blogs thrown into the mix. Branding swallows all of these, so no use in arguing semantics (although there are scads of books out there that do just that).

I'm always intrigued by what readers like to read. Overall, the appeal of a blog seems to be rooted in two key areas: information and personality.

I'm the type of reader who goes for the informative, unless it is a friend or someone with whom I share a common interest. Personality blogs turn me off completely.

What sort of reader are you? What do you look for? What turns you off?


Whirl Wide Web

I love NASA's new World Wind.
It's like what we were expecting to get when the terms "global village" and "information superhighway" were coined, but instead we got chat rooms and dirty pictures.


A Warm and Steady Glow

Blogs are a fickle medium. Scratch that, blogs are simply a medium - people are fickle.

I have always argued that the blog would lose its charm some day - and although they will never leave us entirely, they will definitely be filed in the back of our heads as another tool to use in the ever flowing stream of new technology.

I suppose that is why I have always been a reluctant blog cheerleader. They get press now, sure. Hell, we are so interested in blogging as a trendy way to communicate, we're even reading the memoirs of a tailor! Granted, a cool tailor, but the suit making biz is not the orgasmic profession of my wildest dreams.

Some people have managed to cleverly utilize the newness of the blogs to triumphant heights of PR. Some have used its journal-like nuances as a place they could air their dirty laundry to a handful of people. Employees use it to satisfy the demands of their job. I use it to talk about the ongoings at Ricksticks, this small but fierce design firm I have the pleasure of being a part of...Still at the end of the day, I know that we will tire of blogs in the way we tired of that super-duper cool toy we wanted as a child. In the way that IPod will lose its charm, too.

The challenge we face is in questioning what our motive is for writing in the blog to begin with - If it is something you force yourself to do, then your blog will likely turn into the ghosttown remnants of a blog (like I have been seeing from once popular, now RIP blogs).

If, however, you really do enjoy the writing process and the newfound brand of journalism, you'll probably hang on for the ride and take up the next call to action when the blog evolves into something new and fantastic (again).

It's easy to become disillusioned. We are fickle because we can be - but if you feel you're contributing to something more important than a trend, you'll keep the flame burning when all the other windows of communication are dim.


Keep your sex to yourself

I'm not a huge advocate of mass censorship - not because I don't appreciate some of the aspects of anti-porn discourse - but I am concerned about just whose morals we'd be upholding and using as the backdrop of censorship. Namely, what wingnut would want to censor legitimate sex ed in schools or outlaw gay and lesbian magazines.

The concept of censorship in the case of how sexually graphic materials are used to market a product, however, is completely within my understanding.

Regina Lynn's 'Put Smut in Its Place' article on Wired is a great exploration of the use of sexually graphic images in our shared space - either through spam, advertising, commercials, etc. The saturation is enough to make even the most sexually liberated say, "Enough!"

"Right about now I can sense some First Amendment hackles rising. Let me assure you, this is not about eroding our civil rights. It's about upholding them.

When you live in a community, you have to make some adjustments that aren't required if you live 10 miles from your nearest neighbor. It's rude to let your car alarm blare all day, to play your music at top volume late at night and to send your dog down the street to defecate on someone else's lawn.

Likewise, it's rude to force your sexual expression on folks who don't want to see it. I doubt you would be thrilled if I barged into your house and wallpapered your dining room with Michael Brandon posters without your permission.

Yet that's what it feels like when you drive down a city street and every billboard leers or propositions you. Or when you check your e-mail and you have spam sporting subject lines about incest, bestiality and statutory rape."

Amen, sister. I have been appalled by the virtual smut that shows up in my mailbox, and without the subject line to notify me of what I am about to see. And it isn't just some giant penis or pair of breasts, anymore. Oh no - it's usually illegal or violent. Apparently, we are no longer impressed with plain old sex.

Parents have been discussing the topic for a while now, trying to figure out the impossible feat of keeping their kids from getting pornographic materials online, or even being exposed to sexually graphic materials on television, etc. But we as childless adults should also be joining in on the discussion. I am personally tired of the visual assaults. I mean, at least send me a coupon for a free dinner if you want me to look at that!

It's entirely within our power to legislate how the online porn biz operates. There is money in finding ways to monitor it in the same way we pander it. Coming up with basic domains, as Regina suggests, for xxx content is a great start - and really find ways of tracking and penalizing spammers.


Pretty People Doing Ugly Things

If you have ever caught an episode of Fear Factor then you probably have noticed there are no obese or pockmarked individuals. In fact, they use every opportunity to get attractive men and women into bikinis and swim clothes, or as little covering as possible. It's part of the schtick.

You might be unimpressed with the use of pretty people - as so many shows and ads do - but what is fascinating about this show is that people watch it to see the pretty people doing very unbecoming things. On any episode, they will be asked to consume some nasty food item or lay down in a tank of tarantulas, etc. When they are not doing that, they are asked to perform acts that would scare most of us. Some are successful, some screw up royally. (And we secretly hope that they will screw up royally.)

The infatuation with beautiful people being humiliated is not new. Celebrity trash mags have always been popular, as people peruse the headlines to get the latest dirt on the celeb of the day. Tragic things happening to successful people fascinates us.

I wonder why ads have not capitalized on this - rather than focusing on beauty for the sake of beauty?

I cannot think of one ad that features someone gorgeous in an embarrassing or compromising situation - let alone, something gross. I think combining gross humour with gorgeous people would be greatly successful in ad campaigns.

It all goes back to adolescent humour, doesn't it?


Double DOH! Woman Caught Trashing Boss...

Before I head out for the weekend, thought I'd share this little video about what NOT to do or say at the next office party...

A young woman starts trashing her boss on camera.

I'm not sure which is more embarrassing, the woman or the poor way the boss handled it.


The Sound of a Pin Dropping....

It is QUIET around here. Maybe I am boring. :-) Suggest some topics of interest, or I will have to start recruiting soon.


Designers and Social Accountability

Anna over at Speak Up blog bravely tackles the responsibilities designers face when creating ads that promote junk food to kids...

"As an aspiring designer and an ardent believer in the adverse affects of misguided advertising, I believe we as an industry need to stand up and take responsibility for our actions. If people are fat, and they are fat because they are eating unhealthy food, then we are responsible for making that unhealthy food appealing. How do you convince someone that eating a burger that comes out of a tube is not only healthy, but also tasty? Well we did, and now it is our job to figure out how to reverse this appalling trend."

Here is my response....


I think you have a valid point and we, as the creators of advertising, do, in fact, have a unique responsibility in this as we directly benefit ($) from ads. The same responsibly rests on the companies, marketers, printers, etc. as we all directly make our living promoting "stuff." That DOES differentiate us from other professionals: doctors, police officers, teachers etc. That does not mean that society as a whole is not also accountable for social change, but it does award us more responsibility when it comes to advertising images/messages.

The only problem I see in your call to action is this: What issues do we tackle? Childhood obesity is just one of a myriad of problems loosely associated with false messaging. I am curious if you extend this philosophy beyond food marketing and youth?
What are your thoughts? Should we be held accountable for advertising potentially harmful products? Should we be involved in creating new standards for advertising and marketing?


If You Want to Make Friends....

Don't be quoted saying this....

Michael Treacy, founder of consultant's Gen3 Partners, told a ship full of senior marketing executives, sailing off the coast of Manhattan, that they must look to the boundaries between different business disciplines for great new ideas.

"Marketing needs to more aggressively embrace and change whether we have compelling value proposition, not put the message around a flawed proposition. We can't bet on the stupidity of the customer."

As a consumer and a marketer, I am always aware of the strange "us against them" divisions being made by marketing industry folks. Perhaps the wording of this statement bugs me...Maybe because we are also consumers. It's a little presumptuous and haughty.

Is anyone else feeling ambivalent about the statement and how it was made?

Jeep's Sneaky Little Commercials

I was flipping through the channels last night and caught the beginning of what I thought was a wildlife org's informational, only to be introduced to the new Jeep Liberty (cannot recall the exact model since I am not a fan).

To put this into context, the beginning of the commercial shows a couple of large cats in a zoo setting - coupled with the voice of a scholarly sounding man explaining that the facade of the wild is in no way a substitute for the actual freedom of the wild. Kind of a cool message there upon first listen...

Until they pan into the new Jeep SUV model.

Good maneuver to use the imagery of wildlife and nature to create a pseudo-environmental message. Very tricky.

They had the seal pup commercial, too, if my memory serves me...anyone?


Small Firms Look Elsewhere

The Register has a little article on small firms in Britain and their newfound global focus.

"It seems that the stereotypical small business operating in the local community for the local community, is no more," said Pete Ferns, director of NatWest Business Banking.

"Nowadays, entrepreneurs look further afield for business and the internet has opened up a world of opportunity for them to operate across the globe."

We have been contacted by companies in the US and abroad - and the frequency of these contacts is increasing. Businesses, once determined to use local vendors, are seeking cheaper, faster, and / or better equipped business services outside of their own backyard.

As with expansion on any level, there are good points and bad points. Globalization in the form of acquiring cheap labour comes to mind as one of the less than fine aspects of solvent borders. On the positive side, quality firms are no longer restricted by city limits - companies are more than comfortable doing business via teleconference, travel, and email.

I am convinced that blogging has been a key factor for us in bringing in numerous leads and attracting the attention of business professionals from many parts of the world. It has afforded us the opportunity to be involved in exciting new ventures and connect with other small business owners.

It is our goal to cast the net and reach prospective clients all over the world. The world just feels so cozy now, don't you agree?


When You Have to Find a Washroom Just to Think

Sometimes at the office I feel like a wild dog trapped in a steel cage. You know the feeling. The phones are ringing, the emails are pouring in, and everybody wants something.

Your eyes drift over to he window and there it is - sky, wind, freedom.

But according to Cliff's beyond bullets succinct post, the problem we face today is information overload and its impact on our ability to think.

It seems we cannot escape the amount of who, what, when, where, why that bombards our brains - too quick for those synapses at times - on a moment by moment basis.

Information Overload Makes You Dumb

One recent study at Kansas State University reported that the MTV-inspired scrolling tickers and headlines on television screens reduced the ability of people to remember information by 10 percentage points.

Another study reported that people who were bombarded by email and phone calls suffered an IQ drop of 10 points - double the drop in IQ that has been attributed to marijuana.

The smarter solution? Strip away the distractions and aim for simplicity.

I agree with Cliff. That's why I do not own a cell phone.

It's no coincidence that we have those "AHA!" moments in the middle of the night, in the shower, or while driving. We are finally able to process when the screaming of information is dulled.

The last place a person can expect to do some creative thinking is in the office - precisely where we should be doing our creative thinking.

For me, some of the following have been helpful in reducing info-saturation:

1. Set specific times to check email. Close Outlook and resist the urge to check your email during unspecified times.
2. Go for a 10 minute walk. I have been having a great discussion with Dave Pollard about the power of just being outside, in silence, surrounded by nature. You don't need a woods, either. A local park or a wooded street would do.
3. Turn off all unnecessary ringers and noisemakers. (yes, even the radio)
4. If you can, ask others to give you quiet time for the morning or afternoon, some uninterrupted time to complete a project.
5. Share a real, face-to-face conversation. This can be incredibly grounding if you've been on the phone and email all day.

It really is about the choices you make. Not only does simplifying your life improve levels of stress, it also improves your ability to think...and improves health, relationships, etc, etc.

Compels you to stop and pause for a moment, doesn't it?


Massive Response

I have just recently visited the Massive Change exhibit. My response ended up quite conflicted. I loved seeing a dialogue about design brought into the public realm and this work definitely brought up some points that need addressing. However, as someone who has launched an exhibition before, I felt the design of the space compromised usability and I would argue that usability is the most important aspect of what we do.

Descriptive text was tucked into corners making visitors either crowd together or stand in line to read it (think of tour groups). Often the text was attached well below sight lines forcing one to crouch down on the ground (think of older visitors). The audio device could have compensated for this but didn't. I was a pretty determined viewer but sometimes the text was too far behind a rope barrier and too small to read. In addition, I found the wayfinding disturbingly absent. Where are the washrooms? Which room do I go to next in order to view the whole exhibit? The message was an essential one, and if you want people to hear it, you need to address all of the above. Free exploration just can't cut it. There, that's my rant.

Despite these issues I still enjoyed the exhibit. Designing space creates a whole new set of problems and it was interesting to see so many different approaches hinging on a common theme. Also, the content was intriguing and perhaps this will further the dialogue raging over the responsibilities we have as designers. Is it up to us to seek out environmentally friendly options for our clients? What is the new role of the corporation in the fight for the planet? Has Bill Gates become the 21st century version of Greenpeace? Or is this a concern for ones corporate image and just another method of advertising? Where do we as designers fit into this? Will there be any response and will it envoke massive change?

What do you think?


Ideas for the Better (for a change), Part 1

The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy. ~ Ezra Pound
If the fixation with image has such a grip on the individual, can we persuade change on a societal scale by constructing an image based on desired change?

Marketers infuse product with metaphor and value to create Image - the Image convinces someone to buy.

Shifting Image from the control of familial and church/state rules, we now have greater control over self-definition. Our individuality has more weight than tradition.

In this void, marketing fills the spaces with products that help facilitate self-definition - which we crave.

My thinking is this: Rather than try to preach recycling, for example, we create an Image of recycling that is so tantalizing, individuals will want to integrate that Image. Make it sexy to drive fuel-efficient or electric cars and live in solar powered homes.

Investors could switch their focus to new forms of clean energy. With the proper reconstruction of Image, their investment would return tenfold.

This is just one small example of how change can occur on a significant level without the uncomfortable resistance associated with change. And really, is it any less ethically muddy than any other form of marketing to date?