Beyond Underwear

There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.
— Milton Glaser
eames chairs

eames chairs

In my last blog post, “Let’s Talk Underwear”, I attempted to show the importance of design at a most basic level. If you’re a designer of Ralph Lauren’s notoriety and scale, how do you come into the studio one day and say, “We’re going to design a pair of men’s boxer shorts so amazing it will be worthy of our signature polo player embroidered on the garment.” I guess it’s the attention to detail.

Now, thinking bigger: is there anything we see, use, play with or consume (afterall we are “consumers”) that has not been designed?

Design fascinates me. Because, it is built of some of my favorites things: inspiration, ideas, creativity, motivation, trial, error, success, failure, beauty, function and simplicity.

Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.
— Paul Rand

In addition to mentioning underwear in the last post, I made a glancing reference to the #2 pencil, specifically the Ticonderogo Dixon. Look at the beauty and complexity of its design! A wooden shaft hollowed and filled with lead, just the right lead to make a #2. Shaped on a lathe and cut to a hexagon so it won’t roll off the desk and comfortable in the hand. Made of wood that can be sharpened extending its use. With an eraser on the other end, because stuff happens.


Let’s think about ultimate design—big C, Creation. Everything we know about the creative process and the inspiration behind it we know from the Creation process. Some will think me narrow-minded because I believe in Divine Creation. Frankly, I see myself as being so open-minded that I believe I am creative because I am made in the image of the Creator. 

There is so much to learn here when you dream on this scale. Let’s take a look at just one element of design: integrity. For certain, one of the elements of great design is integrity. Here’s the test: It is what it purports to be, it delivers what it promises, it is honest and reliable.

How does Creation show the integrity of design and the Designer? Consider a banana. Have you ever peeled a banana and found anything but banana inside? This wonderful, self-packaged, portable fruit is well-designed for a number of reasons, but the one we’re considering right now is its integrity. It promises to be a banana and it is—every single time.

Just a suggestion or two: 1. Have a banana today. 2. Pay attention today to the design of the things that are a part of your life. Imagine the design process of the designer behind it.

The Canvas

Think broadly about the idea of a "canvas", something you would do art on. IT could be an actual canvas, a board, a piece of paper, the side of a building, a boxcar in a rail yard, any blank slate. I have this theory that sometimes the canvas matters more than others. For example, I was invited recently to contribute to a project--a creative collaboration. It is a book that will pass from artist to artist, creative to creative, and each person will make an entry of sorts. This canvas matters. I didn't want to make a mess of it. I thought about trying a sketch, or maybe a watercolor, but decided to write something. This is what I wrote:

DOES THE CANVAS MATTER? Maybe it shouldn't but it does. When I was handed this book, this "creative collaboration", I thought, "I'm not worthy", especially for page two, right behind one of Molly Hennesy's wonder-full drawings. This canvas matters; for some reason.

There was a day when we got our coffee at diners in heavy porcelain mugs. Maybe we would have a piece of pie from the lighted display case. We occupied our hands and minds (at some semi-conscious level) by doodling on a napkin. Now we get it at Starbucks® in a paper cup while diddling on a smart phone.

Photo by nano/iStock / Getty Images

Were those paper napkins potentially a valuable canvas: where dreams were sketched, where a poem was written, where a song lyric was begun, where a young girl tried out the surname of her current boyfriend paired with her first name?

Not long ago, my Amazing-Missus was visiting with a sister-in-law of Woody Guthrie. YES, that Woody Guthrie. We were in Tulsa for the grand opening of the Woody Guthrie Center. Woody's sister-in-law was telling how Woody would come to visit and was constantly writing on little scraps of paper, like the backs of envelopes. She said that when he would leave, she would gather them all up and throw them in the trash. She had no idea that at some time people would buy tickets to come to a museum to see scraps of paper like the one where he wrote the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land."

Writing in my own journals can be cathartic for me, but the paper in that journal, the pen and ink used to write the entry, and even the words themselves don't have much value to anyone else. But sometimes, if I'm writing for something like this book, I'm more careful of the choice of words, my penmanship, and the message. It's because, to me at least, the canvas matters; sometimes.

Think about this: if I asked you to write a word on a napkin while we were sitting in a diner having coffee and pie, what word would you write? Now if I said, if you'll choose a word to have tattooed on your body, I'll pay for the tattoo. What word would you choose.

Diner napkin. Your own human flesh. Does the canvas matter?

If you would like to keep up with this project, there is a page on Facebook® SKETCHBOOK CREATIVE COLLAB.

The Thing is

“It’s Your Thing—do what you wanna do.”

That’s the title and first line of a 1969 Isley Brother’s song. It has a sort of live and let live vibe to it, doesn’t it? The zeitgeist. More on that in a minute.

The other day I was sitting in a “waiting” room at the AM/PM; waiting. That’s what you do. I overheard this conversation between a lady and her brother-in-law who had driven her to the clinic:

HER: What are you doing on that phone; Facebook?
HIM: Candy Crush.
HER: You really like that, huh?
HIM: It’s sort of my Thing.

Your THING?! What kind of guy makes Candy Crush his Thing? Maybe I’m judging too quickly. I don’t actually know what Candy Crush is. Maybe if I tried it, it would be my Thing too. Probably not.

Then I had this moment where I imagined asking the guy, in a condescending manner, “What do you mean, Candy Crush is your Thing? How can that be? Is it your only Thing? Or is it just your Thing when your sitting in waiting rooms with your sister-in-law?”

Then I imagined him saying, “What’s it to you, wise-ass?” I imagined him to be the kind of guy who would use a word like that, while giving you a look like maybe Candy is the only thing he would like to Crush.

Then I imagined him saying, “So, what’s your Thing?” And I panicked, because I couldn’t think of a Thing right then. I mean I had already scrolled through Instagram for new photos of the Grand-Girls, and now I was pretty much just checking out the people in the waiting room trying to guess their ailments and wondering about my chances of getting out of there without catching whatever it was they were spreading. But that’s not a good, manly Thing really, is it?

So for the rest of the time in the waiting room I occupied my mind in a kind of transcendental survey of noble Things I could adopt as my own. That kind of stuff has always been important to me—well for at least as long as I can remember. I believed I wanted to pursue noble things, worthwhile things, at least as I understood them to be.

I worry sometimes about becoming irrelevant—not having a Thing, one of those old guys who has been bypassed by the pace of technology and popular culture and the vitality of life. I used to know stuff. There was a time when I could have told you for instance, which artists were up for the top Grammy awards. Now I recognize few of them. I don’t stay up late enough to see them on Jimmy Fallon, so I’m out of touch. And frankly, I’m becoming so geezerish that I’m of the sincere opinion that most of them are not truly Grammy worthy musicians anyway.

I used to have a utilitarian understanding of the kids’ slang and could use some of it in sentences in a way that seemed natural and credible. You might say I had my on fleek moments.

Maybe being able to converse with the kids isn’t a worthwhile Thing for me anymore. Maybe I’ll keep trying though, and that will make me one of those corny old, cardigan guys. I’ll say stuff and the Grand-Girls will roll their eyes and say, “Oh, Pops, you’re silly.” And maybe I’ll say, “That’s sort of my Thing.”

There was a time, not so long ago, I would have said my Thing was being a “creative catalyst”. It all started when I attended a meeting in New York City with a group called the International Arts Movement. I became a part of the movement and even served on their board of directors. It gave me a language, a vision, and a plan to encourage young creatives, and to look for ways to bring them together in a catalytic way to collaborate and to work as only artists can. It was my Thing for several years and I loved it. I cherish the friendships and memories of that experience.

I am convinced, more than ever, that our world needs the beauty, goodness and truth that art and the creative processes alone can bring. We need creatives to do their Thing and we need it more desperately every day.

There’s another line in that Isley Brother’s song that says:

"I'm not trying to run your life, I know you wanna do what's right."

That brings me back to the start of this post—the 60s zietgiest; or my version of it. The live-and-let-live kool-aid was sweetened for me as a journalism major at the University of Tulsa. We were taught that news reporting, REAL news reporting was objective. “Don’t make value judgements,” we were taught, a guiding principle I tended to think applied to life beyond the reporting of news as well. This synced with my desire to not have my values judged, and my Judeo-Christian upbringing to “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

Maybe that’s the part of the current zeitgeist (as I perceive it) that is so disconcerting for me. It seems that “lines” are being drawn so hard, so furiously, so emotionally. Maybe a better song for the day is Tina Turner’s mid-80s hit, “What’s love got to do with it?” and her cynical lyric, “what’s love but a second hand emotion?”

Don’t get me wrong I am still hopeful and a bit idealistic. I do believe that there is something within us that will prevail. After all, we are created in the image of a Creator, who created us with a capacity to understand that it all comes down to love, ultimately and eternally.

So, my apologies to waiting-room guy, if you’re listening, “I’m sorry for judging. If Candy Crush is your Thing, crush it my brother, crush it!”

Wise Words in Ink

I have a friend named Molly who is contemplating a project that involves letterpressing good quotes on cards, so we were talking about people that are quotable, but maybe not in a ubiquitous way; like, say, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Not that they aren’t extremely quotable, but maybe there are others who are less known but also have good things to say.

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

Here are some that fit that bill for me:

Anne Lamott.

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Wendell Berry.

“This, I thought, is what is meant by 'thy will be done' in the Lord's Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God's will may not be the same. It means there's a good possibility that you won't get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

Homer Simpson.

“A roadside barbecue stand? Everything tastes better when it's near a road!”

G.K. Chesterton.

“A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things.”

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

Hank Hill.

“You can't just pick and choose which laws to follow. Sure I'd like to tape a baseball game without the express written consent of major league baseball, but that's just not the way it works.”

Woody Allen.

“Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television.” (Case in point: the current presidential campaign.)

Erma Bombeck.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me’.”

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Back to Molly and her project: If I were going to commission her to letterpress a quote on a set of notecards for me, which quote would I choose? That’s tough because I love a good quote. I’m sort of a quote collector, and a hoarder of aphorisms.

Who doesn’t love: “Not all those who wander are lost” from a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien?

How could you go wrong with John Muir? “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten C.S. Lewis. “I have found a desire within myself that no experience in this world can satisfy; the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Maybe all those are too obvious. After all, if I’m going to have custom cards made, I don’t want them to look like they came from Mardel or a Hallmark store.

Like so many who came of age in the 60s, song lyrics were my poetry. I could definitely find ongoing inspiration from some song lyrics pressed into just the right paper.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
—IMAGINE. By John Lennon

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence
—The Sound of Silence. By Simon & Garfunkel

That one may be too long, but I like the idea of having the ampersand character pressed on the card as in the name Simon & Garfunkel.

Just the right verse from scripture could be apropos, not so that I would seem holy, but because of the human honesty there. Definitely, my choice would be Mark 9:24. It is the story of my faith journey in six words:

“I do believe, help my unbelief.”

I had a fleeting thought, and I realize it sounds as arrogant as Donald Trump to even verbalize it, but why let humility stand in the way? What if—I used a quote of my own. What if—I had ever said, or could possibly say, something quotable? What if—one of these days, at my funeral, someone could read a eulogy: “He loved his family and music, and as he would always say: ‘blah, blah, blah, blah and blan’,” And people would knowingly nod and turn to one another and murmur in whispers things like: “That sounds like him,” or “If I’ve heard him say that once, I’ve heard it a hundred times”.

The lines I say often somehow don’t seem notecard-worthy, carefully letterpressed one card at a time by Molly or anyone else.

  • “I prefer thin crust.”
  • “Did you notice how all the pictures on their walls were crooked?”
  • “I will never vote for Donald Trump.” (But I’m haunted by the old aphorism, “Never say never!” because I once said out loud I would never vote for Hillary Clinton. That was before I could fathom the day that a cartoon character would be the candidate of the “Party of Lincoln”.)
  • “Dang allergies!”
  • “Yes, my Grand-Girls are beautiful and amazing!”

How about you? If Molly were going to letterpress your favorite quote on a lovely notecard, what would it say?