What is Miriam currently wearing?

One day I got a phone call from a former workmate asking if I’d be interested in taking photos for her fashion blog. I was kind of blown away because most of my photography had been just a personal hobby and passion. Of course I tried to do something more with it a couple of years ago with my 2013 photo project and book without thinking too much about where it would go – it was just fun to do! While I’ve only sold a couple of books (so far), what was more rewarding was to realize that by getting other people involved with project encouraged someone else to follow their passion.

Miriam, one of the models in the November theme, started her fashion blog called ‘Currently Wearing – Chic with a positive attitude‘ which has been hugely popular within the Swiss fashion world and she even has a large and dedicated following on Instagram.

This ethical outfit now on Currently Wearing (direct link in bio). Hat and jumpsuit via @amafillech

A photo posted by Miri Ramp (@currently_wearing) on

While most of my photo gear is a mix of digital and film rangefinders and SLRs, I was glad to test out Miriam and her husband’s gear (the regular photographer) even if it was only for 15 minutes. I don’t own a Nikon so it was a pleasure to shoot with their Nikon D3200 and especially fun was taking the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1-1.8G lens for a spin. I used my favorite shooting mode on these DSLRs which is Aperature Priority where I can choose my aperture setting (blurry backgrounds anyone?) while the camera picks up on the shutter speed.

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If you’re interested in mix high-street fashion with luxury and vintage accessories from Swiss and African designers that’s unique, or as Miriam calls it “Afropean”, check out http://currentlywearing.com/.

The characteristics of a ‘design thinker’

I normally see lots of emails asking to “beautify” things at work. It’s one of the biggest insults to designers, a profession that looks to not only make things aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately functional and useful whether it’s in technology or communication. It’s a discipline that spans all areas because at its essence is not so much tools or platforms, but a strategic way of thinking that creates value. Back in 2008, Tim Brown, the CEO and President of IDEO and author of the blog ‘Design Thinking’, wrote a detailed article in the Harvard Business Review of how the thinking that goes into designing products or things can actually be used for all sorts of industries.

Simply put, design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity… Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.

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The October 2014 issue of Wired magazine was all about design and editor Scott Dadich’s fascination and interest in design and the way design thinking can be used for innovation while making mistakes along the way, or what he considers “Wrong Theory“. While designers are often known or asked to ‘make things pretty’, it’s this process of making something pretty that holds the most value – the insight that comes from this process is what gets designers to take notice of what works and doesn’t work. But in order to do this, as Dadich writes, “You need to know the rules, really master their nuance and application, before you can break them.” By getting things wrong or off-balanced, a designer’s perspective of a challenge or problem helps him/her learn how imperfection can lead to perfection.

Designers touch and shape every single part of your day; they are a constant presence in your life. Your smartphone, glasses, activity tracker – someone made them, worrying over the details that turned those things into indispensable companions.

Lucky to be working with Sarah (http://sarahroxas.ch), a talented designer who really loves her work!
Lucky to be working with Sarah Roxas, a talented designer who really loves her work!

I’ve found that sometimes the best ideas and thinking comes from people who don’t consider themselves designers. Again, thinking design isn’t so much a thing as much as a way of seeing a problem and finding a solution. So what does a “design thinker” look like? In his Harvard Business Review article, Brown highlights five characteristics to look for in a design thinker:

  1. Empathy. They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.
  2. Integrative thinking. They not only rely on analytical processes (those that produce either/or choices) but also exhibit the ability to see all of the salient—and sometimes contradictory—aspects of a confounding problem and create novel solutions that go beyond and dramatically improve on existing alternatives.
  3. Optimism. They assume that no matter how challenging the constraints of a given problem, at least one potential solution is better than the existing alternatives.
  4. Experimentalism. Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.
  5. Collaboration. The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has replaced the myth of the lone creative genius with the reality of the enthusiastic interdisciplinary collaborator. The best design thinkers don’t simply work alongside other disciplines; many of them have significant experience in more than one.

OCHA hosts UN Designers Group in Geneva

A few months back, I wrote about how Geneva is a melting pot of communication professionals with plenty of active groups meeting to exchange ideas, challenges, and solutions to a constantly evolving field of work. I’m proud that ITU brought together the UN (graphic) designers group late last year with an inaugural meeting in November. Among the UN participants, it seemed that OCHA was ahead of the curve in integrating design into their work and so we were asked to host the second meeting. In May, we were finally able to get our butts in gear to host the meeting. While the first meeting was informal and over lunch, this time around lunch was still on the table, but we also wanted to put a little bit more structure and decided to focus on a key element of how design is used in OCHA’s work, particularly in times of emergencies. This usually means turning lots and lots of data and information from natural or complex disasters into easily accessible and understandable formats that can be used for advocacy, awareness-raising, planning and decision-making.

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We explained how design is integrated into the humanitarian response process and how more and more visual design and communication is becoming an area in which other technicians (i.e. information managers and communication generalists) need to understand and be involved in despite the lack of knowledge and know-how. The basic idea is that there’s now so much information that comes through in times of disasters and emergency, it’s hard to make sense of it all and for it to tell a story that can help people understand the severity of the situation or to use this information to make the best decisions possible.

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Not only is timing, data-reliability and access a challenge, but so is the issue of standardization and consistency. This means being able to do quick designs based on templates and standards because different people get involve in the design process at difference times during an emergency. But this also has an impact on the branding and consistent communication by the organization. One of the main challenges is to ensure that products meet a certain standard to ensure that an organization’s ‘brand’ is upheld and that people can trust the source of information because, in addition to the quality of the content, the visual identity and look/feel is also what provides value to the reader/user.

Thanks to the OCHA team for a great presentation, and to all the ones who attended the second lunch / meeting!

Posted by UN Geneva Graphic Design Community on Friday, May 22, 2015

There’s also always the constant challenge of “making things pretty”, which is what most people think of designers in this field, vs. “making things useful” – why would you take a 20-page document and turn it into something “pretty” only to have people read it… does that mean if it wasn’t pretty then people wouldn’t read it – what does that say about the document? An interesting discussion point around this was the fact that designers are always asked to help on ‘formatting’ which is actually different for ‘designing’ something. If you’re interested on the influence design (not formatting) has on our lives, “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is a must read…

There is no need to sacrifice beauty for usability or, for that matter, usability for beauty.

The most interesting part of the meeting was still over lunch where we talked about how people got into design (a lot of people didn’t come strictly from a design education), the challenges/stigma designers face in and outside of the office, and how visual communication is now part of ‘mainstream’ communication and what that means for designers. Like the Facebook page to get info on the next meeting and to stay in touch with the group and get news about design stuff.

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Show Don’t Tell – what I learned from Malofiej’s workshop

In March, I had to make a choice between going to Sendai, Japan for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction or to Pamplona, Spain for the 23rd edition of Malofiej. It was a tough choice… Japan was something that I’ve been involved with and following for the past few years, while Spain was something new and a great opportunity to learn from and meet some of best in the business when it comes to infographics…. also another tough choice was sushi or tapas. I opted for tapas.

The theme for Malofiej23 was Graphics Straight Into the Vein and the gory yet enticing program cover highlighted the fact that it takes 23 seconds for blood to flow through the human body. With this kind of creative communication, how could I not be intrigued to go and find out more? And while the actual infographics world summit takes place over the final two days of Malofiej, the most interesting part of the week was the three days before with its Show Don’t Tell Workshop.

Participants from the Malofiej23 Show Don't Tell Workshop
Participants from the Malofiej23 Show Don’t Tell Workshop

The workshop was an opportunity to learn from three of the best infographics leaders in the business (John Grimwade, Geoff McGhee, and Alberto Cairo) and work with 19 professionals in the world of journalism (ex. BBC), corporate communications (ex. McKinsey), and design. The participants came from various backgrounds, including illustration, web design, data analysis, editorial, and communications with one purpose – how to develop an idea and improve the process of designing and communicating information visually.

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Every year the workshop has a field trip and this year was no different. Instead of going to historic or artistic places like was done in the past, we went to some place more interesting… a factory! Actually it was the Volkswagen Navarra factory, one of the main factories in the world that makes the Volkswagen Polo – one every 55 seconds. Our instructions were simple: take one issue (i.e. the tour of the factory grounds) and find a innovative, creative, and visual way to communicate its story.

Participants working hard on their ideas. One of the instructors said that it smelled like a design studio. I didn't get what he meant until I left the room. It was like a mix of humidity, sweat and stale air.
Participants working hard on their ideas. One of the instructors said that it smelled like a design studio. I didn’t get what he meant until I left the room. It was a mix of humidity, sweat and stale air.

With such a vague goal, it was interesting to see what groups came up with and it had nothing to do with pretty colors, the kinds of tools used, or what the finally product looked like. Instead the instructors wanted participants to go beyond their normal thinking and to focus on the idea. One group developed a infographics poster that showed the distribution and carbon footprint of Polo parts, another analyze the robots that put the cars together, one came up with an interactive website on the history and details of the factory, and another group came up with an interesting website that showed how a Polo was made.

We were called the "Super Group" from the start since we started with three members while everyone else had at least four people. The group ended up being four guys, but we still thought of ourselves as being super. Here we are taking a break after lunch.
We were called the “Super Group” from the start since we started with three members while everyone else had at least four people. The group ended up being four guys, but we still thought of ourselves as being super. Here we are taking a break after lunch.

My group was comprised of an infographics editor from Amsterdam, an illustrator and designer from Berlin, and a corporate communications consultant from Dubai. We came up with the idea of using the Volkwasgen’s data and the factory tour to develop an app that would provide a new Polo owner with a unique and personalized real-time update of the assembly of their car. Even though this was just about the idea, Volkswagen had us sign a confidentiality agreement so I probably can’t say more. However, I’m proud that my group’s idea was eventually voted the winner of the group activity… and doing it all with paper and pencil – our group was the only group that didn’t use a computer to put together the final presentation.

My personal symbol
My personal symbol

It was great to work on the group project, but the scariest part of the whole workshop was that we were given an individual project and with only an hour to work on it. Not only was I intimidated by all the people who were fabulous artists, but also that we had to present our own idea to the whole group. The project? To come up with a personal symbol, which could be inspired by an interest, experience or interpretation. The results varied with mostly hand-drawn illustrations, like mine above (eek!). In the end the person’s symbol who received the most votes integrated an origami structure with simple icons that represented her life – this was her first “infographic” showing that an engaging and innovative way to communicate can come from anyone as long as the idea is simple and clear.

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There’s more to getting the job done than having the right tools.

Learning a new skill requires time, patience, and a genuine interest to do it well. This can go for languages, sports, art, cooking, etc. This goes the same for any kind of skill required for communications, whether it’s, writing, drawing, photography, videography, etc. In this day and age, you can do just about any of this on a phone, tablet, or laptop. Yet, just because the tools are readily available to us doesn’t mean we are skilled at using them. I like to write, but that doesn’t mean I can be a poet or novelist without some hard work, training and lots of practice.

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A perfect example of this is from a recent article form WIRED magazine “Here’s What It Looks Like When You Replace Photographers With iPhone-Wielding Reporters” highlighting the issue that with cutbacks in new media, journalists are expected to do more than just write. While I don’t believe communications today is all about writing, I believe that people are professionals at what they do – whether that’s writing a story or photographing an street scene. This takes skill, training and, if you’re very good, some talent. Compare the images above taken following the Stanley Cup (i.e. hockey) win by the Chicago Blackhawks. The iPhone-wielding reporter who took the left photo had the right tool at the right time, but instead of taking an interesting photo, what we get is a small, poorly composed photo of one player lugging the cup around. On the other hand, the one on the right was a dynamic shot by a pro-photographer that captured the excitement of the win as players and fans celebrated together.

Yes, a quick snap by an iPhone might capture the moment, but just because you have the tool doesn’t mean it does the job. Beautiful and engaging photos are possible with a phone or camera – what really matters is understanding how and what makes a photo great, which takes training, practice and even the talent or “eye” for it.

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David Ramirez’s pencil case – An illustrator I met at Malofiej23 who has both the right tools and talent – Follow him on Instagram

 

The first unified theory of branding

There’s a lot of talk in the business, marketing, and communications world about branding, strategy, and design but not always (well, most of time) in the same breath. There seems to be rift between the right and left side of the brain so it was a such a surprise to find a book that bridges this gap between strategy and design.

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The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier, from Liquid Agency, is not only a quick read, but a deeply insightful book presenting the first unified theory of branding – a set of five disciplines to help companies bridge the gap between brand strategy and execution. There are plenty of powerful statements Neumeier sets out from the start to the end of the book. It seems that he wanted to make it perfectly clear that you can’t have strategy without design, communication without dialogue, and brands without focus.

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The five disciplines of branding

  • Differentiate
  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Validate
  • Cultivate

Think you know what your business is all about and think you have a great marketing strategy? Try to find unambiguous answers to these three little questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?

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Working in visual communication, I found it also to be a great example of also linking business content (normally boring and stale) with visually stimulating typography, graphics, and layout. It actually makes you want to read this book, which is categorized as “marketing and management”.

Your time is valuable, so my first goal is to give you a book you can finish in a short plane ride. My second goal is to give you powerful principles that will last a career.

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If anyone works in communication, branding, or strategy, this book should be the first thing to be read. In addition to the book, you can download for free a PDF that summarizes the concepts and ideas from The Brand Gap in a nice visual storytelling presentation – the images from this post are from the presentation.

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Technology isn’t going to solve all our problems, just ask Johnny Depp

A couple of weeks ago I watched Johnny Depp’s new movie Transcendence – spoiler alert: it’s a love story (kind of) – and found the issues the movie touched on quite intriguing. A lot of it focused on people’s reliance on technology and how it was suppose to give us all the answers to life. The premise in the movie was that there were two opposing perspectives on technology: one was to give ourselves completely to technology and artificial intelligence (AI), while the other was on balancing human vs. machine decision-making where we/humans are in the ones in control. Well, all hell breaks loose when Depp’s consciousness gets uploaded into an AI… just watch thetrailer below to see what happens.

The topic of humans vs. machines has always been around (remember 1984’s Terminator?). It’s just that now, it’s actually happening with more and more technology infiltrating our lives. I don’t have to go very far to think about how often I jumped to attention when getting a Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter notification on my phone – isn’t the beep from our phones kind of like a master calling his dog?

Nice to see that life can still be entertaining (and distracts us from our phones) like this drummer asking people to play with him.
Nice to see that life can still be entertaining (and distracts us from our phones) like this drummer asking people to play with him.

While these scenarios are scary (otherwise how would Hollywood make more movies??), more insightful thinkers like Clive Thompson makes the argument that it’s still possible, even necessary, to blend humans and machines together to actually evolve and help society. This doesn’t mean turning everyone into cyborgs, but really looking at how we can use the best of both worlds. In the early chapters of Thompson’s book ‘Smarter Than You Think’, he provides examples of how chess grand masters worked with computers to not only improve the speed, but also creativity of play. I’ve just started the book, so definitely more insights to come.

My favorite quote so far:

“At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.”

Update: Thx Mr. Thompson!

Designing a logo is like giving birth

Working at the United Nations, there’s a tendency to relegate design to “making things pretty” or as a last resort in a communication plan, where presentation and usability (i.e. design) take a backseat in a lot of cases to other more “important” work. When in actual fact, having a clear plan, strategy, content and design are all one in the same where each part has a purpose. For example, having great content doesn’t necessarily mean people will pay attention, and designing something without content and knowledge (“the meat”) just doesn’t work.

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Design is about how something looks and functions, as well as a way of thinking that can impact our lives – look at how the above photo of the ribbed vault in the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Snanque is both beautiful and functional or watch the below interview with graphic designer Michael Bierut on his mentor Massimo Vignelli and logo design.

“What people don’t understand, and I think some designers don’t understand, designers only make a vessel to hold things that have to be filled in over time… It’s just a newborn, it doesn’t know nothing. We don’t even really know what’s it’s going to look like when it grows up. And thus it also is with symbols and logos too.”

One of the most interesting points in the 7-minute video is where Beirut talks about how Vignelli saw the chance to design the iconic signage for the New York subway as “the opportunity to do something of consequence”.

This video is part of a documentary series called the Creative Influence, which gives a cinematic look into the lives and work of creative professionals and how they find inspiration from the world they live in.

Time for spring cleaning and a change for this blog

Every so often I get the urge to revamp/redesign this blog. Having setup the blog over 8 years ago as a way to keep a log of my travels, experiences and work and to share with my family and friends, it’s natural that as life moves on so should this blog.

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Change is good and almost always needed – even for the UN building in Geneva.

It’s gone through waves from a personal diary of sorts in its early days to a place to highlight work-related topics and projects. Since 2011, I’ve written a lot (almost once per week) about my interests in communication, marketing, advertising and design. It’s been great to express my ideas and thoughts on these topics over the last three years, but I think it’s time to refocus… for one, to post more of my photos and maybe not to be too strict with the my one post per week rule – I have plenty of other ideas I need time to work on!

Moving apartments means taking down all the decorations we've had for 3 years.
Moving apartments means taking down all the decorations we’ve had for 3 years.

All this focus on cleaning this blog (and my brain) is probably also because I just started a new job last month and need to move from our apartment of three years next month – courtesy of a “little” renovation like building two stories above our apartment and a seven-story building against one of our walls. Change is always good and here’s looking to another one for this blog in both design and content.

My new job with OCHA is mainly about designing and visual communication - how cool is that!
My new job with OCHA is mainly about designing and visual communication – how cool is that!