graphicpush

Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Building and Extending the Content Strategy Forum Brand

Since 2013, I’ve had the privilege of designing and managing the visual identity of Content Strategy Forum, a global community evangelizing and advancing the practice of content strategy. Originally seeded from a 2010 Paris event, there is now a regular core team actively building CSF into a reputable and positive member of the content strategy community.

Because of our organic growth, the CSF brand has not exactly grown in a straight line. Slightly inconsistent naming. Occasional off-brand graphics. An unclear relationship between the event, the Google+ community, and the website. For the past few months, we’ve worked behind the scenes to strengthen the foundation in anticipation of our 2016 calendar.

Formalizing names and hierarchy

Before touching visuals, I established new guidelines for the brand names. Previously, “Content Strategy Forum”, “CSF”, “CS Forum” were used interchangeably for the steering collective, the event, the Google+ forum, and the broader community. This led to messy brand hierarchy, especially when the event was independently organized.

We aligned on the following:

Content Strategy Forum and CSF

The master brand is “Content Strategy Forum”. In any communication, we’ll ensure this full name is spelled out at least once. “CSF” then becomes interchangeable.

CSForum

“CSForum” is the brand of the annual event. I deliberately eliminated the space between “CS” and “Forum” to formalize an offering name versus a lazy abbreviation, and align, literally, to the “CSF” house brand. (And, not unimportantly, maintain continuity for Google searches.)

In 2010, the label “content strategy” was newish and distinctive among sister disciplines. Today, it’s common. “Forum” has become the keyword of our organization, the pinion tying our moving parts together. This is not a bad thing — the word boasts an interesting semantic flair straddling community, assemblage, and civil discourse. I like it.

Re-aligning the core logo

We adjusted the core Content Strategy Forum logo in two small ways.

First, we changed the tagline from “a global cooperative” to “a global community”, a more accurate and inviting description. We even changed the URL to csf.community.

Second, I re-drew the five-circle icon. The previous rotation felt arbitrary and slightly off-balance. The new positioning aligns to a five-point star or pentagram facing right, providing a sense of forward direction and more purposeful structure.

CSF logo adjustments
Original versus newly revised CSF logo.

The new CSForum conference logo

CSForum 2016 will inaugurate new event branding that extends the house brand. For the first time, visual identity will harmonize across digital and physical spaces.

The original logo and website design purposefully used an aesthetic ready-made for expansion. The wide color palette, groups of five, and circle shapes were deliberate creative keystones. CSForum 2016 provides the perfect excuse to bring those original intentions to life.

A sample of early exploration:

logo experiments
Early explorations of extending the CSF identity.

Many of these early riffs are not very good; they’re just fast sketches taking the identity in different directions. But with feedback from the core CSF crew and the 2016 organizer Content Ark, I ultimately focused on creating a mark that connoted the community interaction that makes live events so rewarding. The final logo:

CSForum logo
The final CSForum logo (in two sizes) and standalone icon.

I think it works. It not only illustrates community, but hints at sparks or explosions of ideas, diversity, and a sense of growth. Structurally, it’s also extensible for future years:

CSForum logos for the future
Speculative designs exploring possible future extension with city names and color combinations.

The new CSF style guide

Finally, we launched the Content Strategy Forum style guide. With CSF growing, adapting and solidifying, consistency in presentation is paramount.

This is, of course, a living document. You’ll see the usual suspects of color and type guidelines, but as brand conventions evolve — visual, naming, editorial — we’ll use this as our master reference.

If you’re interested in learning more about Content Strategy Forum, or staying in touch about events, visit csf.community and subscribe to our newsletter.

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2015 Reading Recap

Books read in 2015

Fiction

Harry Potter and the … (JK Rowling)

… Sorcerer’s Stone
… Chamber of Secrets
… Prisoner of Azkaban
… Goblet of Fire
… Order of the Phoenix
… Half-Blood Prince
… Deathly Hollows

In the beginning of 2015, I sat down and read all seven Harry Potter novels back-to-back, which, if we’ve learned anything in binge-watching TV series on Netflix, is really the ideal way to consume protracted stories. (How people waited for years between books I’ll never understand.)

The series did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded all expectations. The arch-story and its plotlines, the subplots and characters, the micro-interactions and scene-setting, the absolute clarity of writing over seven long books, and the ability to not only never lose focus but tie it all together at the very end, was so masterful, and so rewarding, that it’s tough to draw any contemporary comparisons.

Harry Potter is as approachable as Narnia, as intriguing as Game of Thrones, as self-enclosed and complete as Tolkien. If you haven’t read them because you think the whole kid-doing-magic shtick is for middle-schoolers, you’re shorting yourself one of the world’s great literary experiences. I look forward to re-reading them all again in the next few years.

Dune (Frank Herbert)

Another classic that I just got around to this year. What hasn’t been said already about Dune? A million readers thrilled, a thousand books influenced. This masterpiece of speculative science fantasy, set on a desert world where water is the ultimate resource and the environment is harvested by capitalism, remains deeply resonant.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The story, a survival tale of one man stranded on Mars, is a page-burning classic of hard science meets human ingenuity meets the fickleness of inter-planet environments. The movie was remarkably loyal, but the book remains the better adventure. (Also a candidate for best cover this year. What an amazing painting.)

The Vorrh (Brian Catling)

Best described as “abstract fantasy”, this looping, layered novel threads disparate narratives of industrialists, hunters, photographers, scientists, shamans and a rogue cyclops into a dense tapestry centered on an impenetrable, enchanted tropical forest. While Catling writes with unchained imagination, the words trip over themselves and often great ideas get mired in language as obtuse and heavy as the very forest that confounds the characters. In the end, the storylines fizzled away and I was left grasping for meaning that felt just out of reach.

Hollow City (Ransom Riggs)

The second (of three) in the series, this follows the story started in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The writing has graduated beyond the stilted plotting of the first, and the storyline is less dependent on the antique photography that inspired the series. A rewarding read that leaves me anticipating the conclusion.

The Paris Wife (Paula McLain)

A pleasant narrative that follows the first marriage of Ernest Hemingway. The writing was very good, but ultimately the story failed to gain momentum. Made it two-thirds through.

Kid’s Fiction

(Often I read my kids’ books just to see what they’re consuming. They’re right at that sweet phase of imaginative young adult — older than Dr. Seuss but not quite Hunger Games — where authors range free in unrestricted, friendly, colorful worlds.)

Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)

A book whose jacket would have you believe it’s about a giant imaginative cat, and it is, sort of, but the heart of the story is a husband and wife struggling to make ends meet and how drifting into homelessness and poverty affects their two young kids. Very real, very touching, very appropriate.

Treasure Hunters (James Patterson)

An adventure story of four siblings who take over a treasure-hunting operation when their parents disappear. Fun, non-stop action full of colorful characters, this romps through oceans and cities with twisty plot reveals. My son’s book of the year.

Non-Fiction

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Framed as a letter to his son, this short and poignant meditation drifts between personal memoir, societal diagnosis and historical fact-checking to illuminate, in the scythe-like language of an ex-poet, what it means to be black in America today. Timely, relevant and, tragically, required reading. It’s plainly obvious why this appears on so many “best of 2015” lists.

The Oldest Living Things in the World (Rachel Sussman)

This extended photo essay traverses the globe to capture lifeforms that have lived contiguously for at least 2,000 years. From the usual suspects (giant sequoia; 2,200 years) to the unexpected (colony of aspen, 80,000 years) to the weird (Antarctic moss, 5,500 years) to the tragic (the Senator Tree, 3,500 years but killed in 2012 by assholes on meth), the elegant photography and outstanding essays offer dozens of ways to put our own lives, and really the duration of the entire human race, into blinding perspective.

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

Ms Kolbert narrates us through a long case study of the five major extinction-level events that each killed off significant portions of the earth’s biomass and bio-diversity. The argument, of course, is that humans, and humans alone, are currently driving the earth’s sixth extinction event through environmental destruction, climate change, and sheer capitalist greed. The writing is sharp and unapologetic, the subject engrossing and fatalistic, the final conclusion as unavoidable as the cliff we’re about to drive over.

The Sound Book (Trevor Cox)

A fascinating journey into the science and psychology of sound, our author explains the most interesting spaces, the quietest place on earth, and much more. If you have any interest in recording, or the physiology of this crucial sense, this is about the best book out there.

My Favorite Albums of 2015

For the past few years, I’ve written up an annual review of books I’ve read. Interestingly, I’ve never done a review of albums, even though I’m more passionate about music than almost any other creative medium. So here we are: favorite (not “best”) albums of 2015, including a few released in 2014 but for which I was late to the party. To quote Rob Gordon from High Fidelity, these are organized “autobiographically”. Warning: hyperbole ahead.

2015 Album Covers

Top Six Picks

Swans, To Be Kind

After a 20-year sonic relationship with Swans, relentlessly absorbing every recording, all I can say is that To Be Kind is peerless. It cuts with more depth, speaks with more truth, lingers far longer. Unshackling the doom metal of the previous album The Seer, the songs levitate on complex, masterful percussion, and the hammer of guitars pounds at precisely the right moments, while relentless, propulsive bass carries the oracle of Michael Gira’s voice across the nearly three hours (triple LP!). This is what the gods listen to when they get stoned. “Screen shot” is the opening track; Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Modest Mouse, Strangers to Ourselves

Anyone who argues that this isn’t Modest Mouse’s best album isn’t listening. While older records relied on howling and accordions to make a point — and convincing points they were — Strangers to Ourselves steps into a cadence of world-class songwriting that delivers on the promise of We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank with the best lyrical and arrangement work from Isaac Brock to date. The deft, soft-eyed killer gleam of “Shit in Your Cut” is a perfect example: “When the doctor finally showed up. / Oh boy! / His fur was soaking wet. / He said that “this should do the trick” / We hadn’t told him what the problem was yet.” The layers of music, lyrics and ideas peel back deeper and deeper on every listen, and the journey never gets old.

Jamie xx, In Colour

I’ll be honest. On first listen, I didn’t get it. The styles meandered, the songs felt thin, the programming solid but not otherworldly. The soul that defines The XX felt missing. The brilliance for some may have been obvious, but I had to keep at it. It was the fifth or tenth or hundredth listen inside my headphones when it clicked: the garage underpinnings of “The Rest is Noise” transcended into something more-than-music, a sort of passage into the head- and heart-space of a guy willing to give you a trip in full color if you just shut up and buy the ticket.

Bob Moses, Days Gone By

Probably my most anticipated album of 2015 after the astounding All in All, Bob Moses (a duo from NYC, not actually a guy named Bob Moses) delivered above and beyond expectations. Elegantly weaving guitar and piano-driven pop ballads onto a vibrant fabric of the deepest house beats you’ve ever heard, these guys deliver one of the classiest and persistent dance records since the heyday of Leftfield and Underworld. “Too Much is Never Enough” may not be the best song on the record (it’s tough to choose), but it’s emblematic of their sonic aesthetic.

GoGo Penguin, v2.0

I am a jazz snob. I adhere to a paleo diet of Blue Note-era Monk/Miles/Coltrane/Adderly/etc, and rarely deviate into anything post-1969. Not that it’s bad music (often the opposite; just listen to this prodigy) but because a) the songs lack the divine fire of the greats and b) the recordings feel bleached in digital cleanliness. A few contemporary groups transcend this. The Vijay Iyer Trio are outstanding; BADBADNOTGOOD are fun as hell. But v2.0 from GoGo Penguin easily climbs into the top 5 of my jazz collection — as good as Blue Train or Mingus Ah Um or Round About Midnight or anything. The songs weave between soft ballads and full-ensemble swing, and the detail of the musicianship is incredible; every piano hit, every bass vibration, every high-hat is effortless and precise and perfect. “Hopopono” is only one slice of this tour de force, and if this doesn’t convince you that jazz as art is as alive as ever, then I can’t help you.

The Orb, Moonbuilding 2703 AD

2015 was a comeback year for electronica acts: Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin and others casually dismissed the vacuum of the past decade with new album releases. Some of these new records were even good. But The Orb’s is the only one I listen to over and over (and over). Launching off the psychedelic cue of their past discography, the album settles into long, smokey grooves that are tenderized, seasoned, and roasted into perfection across four beefy cuts of spacedub that constantly shapeshift into new flavor and texture. It’s tough to pull out one of the four tracks as “best”, because Moonbuilding 2703 AD really is better consumed in one sitting, but the opening cut “God’s Mirrorball” is a pretty compelling appertif.

The Best of the Rest

Adele, 25

Of course it’s not the breathtaking masterpiece of 21 — nothing is — but it holds its own in many ways. “Hello”, of course, is outstanding. Despite one or two flaws (“All I Ask” is unlistenable), some of the deeper cuts, specifically “I Miss You” and “River Lea”, are court-of-law evidence there is no one on her level. No samples needed; you’ve all heard it.

!!! – As If

Following 2013’s world-class Thri!!!er, !!! (pronounced “chk chk chk” for non-initiates), As If finds the band spelunking into deeper house vibes and leaving the punk-saturated noise to the earlier records. The songwriting is a bit thinner, but it would be tough to name a more danceable and fuck-you fun way to spend an hour. “I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)” is the last jam on the record, but its beats and humor are on point (“I feel like it’s just a shower of Grammys in here”).

Foals, What Went Down

Foals, along with Palma Violets, are one of the best UK acts in full-swing right now. They echo the raucous invasion sounds of Oasis and Pulp, but the serrated edge of post-punk is much sharper, and the songs end up with a fair bit of grit and shadow not found in the 90s. “Mountain at My Gates” is their single.

Heathered Pearls, Body Complex

Like the best electronic records, this one transcends the cliches of the genre and achieves a sort of abstract modern art, like an audible MoMA installation. Yes, the house beats are there, but often times they’re not. Instead, the tracks are soaked in a heady swirl of synth ambiance that challenge any definition of “techno”.

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Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions

When Twitter introduced retweets and favorites, the world was given two forms of social currency that were transparent, low-fidelity metrics for how far 140 characters could reach. Unlike retweets, favorites were complex: they could be endorsement, acknowledgement, bookmarks or even ironic swipes; they were social tips, a subtle nod, a more neutral action than the ham-fisted Facebook LIKE.

This week, Twitter retired the “favorite” action, represented with a star, in favor of “like”, represented by a heart.

Functionally, nothing has changed; only the word and icon are new. But the semantics and connotations are not interchangeable. What began as a more-or-less neutral action is no longer.

Within social media, we’re playing out a complicated social experiment where the worlds of language, iconographic abstractions, user intent and micro interactions collide. These little binary toggles, whether they be stars or hearts, are digital grunts that say nothing but communicate everything.

This intersection is where the bias of software design shapes how we interact. Twitter’s interface change shifts the user intention away from a neutral interaction. Emotion is introduced. And that complicates things.

First, the word.

On a spectrum of emotional language, “like” carries significant baggage.

Emotional weight of different interaction words

There’s meaningful difference between “favorite”, which is near-neutral language, and “like”, which is loaded with positivity and chummy reinforcement. When I see a tweet that I want to save for later, but don’t really like, how does this action serve me? What about a tweet I want to recommend, but still don’t really like? How does it serve the author? Twitter is flipping innocuous intent into one-direction reinforcement. Can we ever trust the “like” button to represent what it literally claims?

The heart icon exacerbates this.

Hearts and stars — or plus signs, smiley faces, checkmarks, hamburgers, magnifying glasses, diamonds, horseshoes, clovers, blue moons — are subject to interpretation and have to fight an upstream battle of institutional bias. For most, a red heart does not mean “like” — it means “love”. Ask any kid around Valentine’s Day. When Twitter (or others) disrupts that meaning, it smudges what we intend to communicate. If a red heart means “like”, what do we have left to represent love?

Facebook realized the limitations of a binary thumbs up and is testing a wider spectrum of micro interactions. (And to their credit, they associate a heart with “love”.) Medium has separate buttons for “save for later” and “recommend”; Vimeo separates “watch later” and “like”; YouTube has “add to watch later” and “like” (and “dislike”). Specificity of intent is needed when interacting with content.

Perhaps Twitter recognized and was understandably uncomfortable with the ambiguity of “favorite”. Perhaps they wanted to be clearer about intent. But their fix just homogenizes a user experience that is already painfully eroded from its democratic origins and smacks of appeasing short-view shareholders.

“Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions” was originally published on Medium.

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Family trees

Sometime in the 1940s, a biplane flying over central New Jersey lost control, dropped to a few dozen feet above ground, barely dodged a house built before George Washington crossed the Delaware, smashed through the top of a giant walnut tree, and then rolled into a graveyard where it all ended in a tumbling ball of fire, gravestones and debris. The pilot’s body was never recovered but the town erected a small granite marker anyway.

The unlucky walnut tree had a trunk that divided like a wishbone. The impact pushed the limbs apart and cracked the central trunk with the violence of a lightning strike. One half listed over my grandfather’s small, boxish house, the other teetered over a narrow country road. With stubborn defiance to gravity, the halves held together.

My grandfather was advised to amputate at least one half, if not take the entire tree down. As a gardener by trade, he understood when to mend a broken bone and when to sever a lost limb. As a frugal and tenacious product of the Great Depression and WWII, there was no way anyone else was touching his tree.

With two large bolts, five feet of ship-grade chain and no ceremony whatsoever, he literally yanked the tree back together.

Fifty years later, his grandson stared up at a perfectly healthy, wishbone-shaped walnut tree that had black chains as thick as wrists mysteriously sprouting out of the bark.

For evidence of divinity, I suggest a late September hike in the Adirondack mountains. This year I had the opportunity to spend a day climbing the modest 2,513 ft Jenkins Mountain, which is less a “climb” and more a really long walk through beaver-dammed wetlands, flood-washed gullies and house-sized boulders carelessly dropped by glaciers 13,000 years ago. And trees. Millions of trees. Gently blushing yellow, orange, red, brown and every other glowing shade of autumn.

view from the top of Jenkins Mountain
The top of Jenkins Mountain. In every direction: trees and silence.

The golden-green canopy from the endless groves of hardwoods—beech, birch, ash, maple—is so dense that it feels like an intermittent heaven. The sky beyond is a kind of jewel-tone blue. The silence is so complete that you can almost hear the sunlight washing over the leaves.

Jenkins Mountain is part of Paul Smith’s College, where my dad graduated with a degree in forestry. He knows everything there is to know about trees in the northeast United States: where they grow, why they die, which to burn, how to saw and sand them into beautiful furniture.

I don’t know why, exactly, but this is important to me. I often feel disconnected from nature, and seek those connections. Perhaps that’s why significant trees often appear in my timeline as shadowy but influential cast members. I wonder if others feel the same way, or if they anthropomorphize mountains, or streams, or sand dunes. Everything has a face if you’re patient enough for it to show itself.

Before my parents moved to the Adirondacks a decade ago, they lived in an ancient house in New Jersey surrounded by acres of rambling lawn and then acres more of our neighbors’ farmland, all of it criss-crossed by patches of scruffy woods. For deer, it was idyllic.

Right behind our house was a triptych of apple trees. Not picturesque, leafy, cartoon-like apple trees, but ancient, squat, sprawling, thick, twisting, grumpy old men apple trees. Every spring they shed a thousand whip-like branches. Every fall they dropped a million apples. Some years, when the apples were sweet, we made applesauce, apple crisp, apple-rhubarb pie and apple butter. When the apples were bitter, the worms and yellow jackets had their way.

A few years after my son was born, I took him to the garden shop where we bought a small apple tree sapling. We spent the morning in our Kansas backyard plotting the location, digging, planting, watering. At first, it grew nicely. But when we moved back east a few years later, the apple tree had stubbornly grown only a few inches and was drenched in a sickly, wilting brown discoloration. I never could get anything to grow in that yard—berry bushes, sunflower plants and tomatoes all fell—but the inability to grow a simple tree was particularly tough.

Someone later told me that apple trees grow best when they’re close together. This makes sense. It precisely matches the ethos of my family. We pollinate ideas and feelings and experiences, and we stand together in the most perfect summer afternoons and the bitterest winter snows.

Between my dad’s woody ways and a stint in an active Boy Scout troop, I’ve collected bits of treeish knowledge over the years. I can identify some trees by their leaf, some by their bark, and I know how to make great campfires from pretty much nothing. I don’t have a good reason for holding onto this knowledge except that it occasionally impresses my wife.

Her prowess is more in the social environment. She deftly reads others’ emotions and intent as easily as tracing the veins of an oak leaf. This is mighty handy, because when it comes to navigating a social environment, I have all the grace of a log.

After we married, we spent ten years in Kansas. Work, kids, etc. Not a bad place, but tough for people that brag about being born in New Jersey. When we moved back, I often joked it was “for family, food and the ocean, but not necessarily in that order”. It’s taken me a long time to understand I should have added trees to that list. Kansas is truly flat: geographically and ecologically. The prairie, if you haven’t guessed, is not for us.

After my grandparents migrated permanently to Florida, my grandfather’s sister moved into the boxy house underneath the walnut tree. A bit of a spinster and old bitty, she kept to herself, a bit Ms Havisham without the dramatic backstory. Our visits to the house were few.

My mom and dad found her dead in her basement from a brain tumor the size of a tangerine that had never been diagnosed. With no husband and no children, her branch of the family tree ended abruptly in a small ceremony in the same graveyard hit by the biplane decades earlier.

I don’t remember the funeral. I don’t recall much except weird licorice candy and watching 3-2-1 Contact on her tiny black and white television. But I do have a postcard-crisp memory of sitting with her on a cement bench underneath our bosomy cherry blossom tree whose vast limbs puffed up into a towering frozen firework explosion of the softest pink every April, and then in the second week of May, exhaled every petal at once to bury our garden under a snowy, rosy carpet.

Most trees are quite mortal and pass away without fanfare. Walnuts, for example, commonly grow well beyond 200, but are anything but immortal. Most birch trees have a humanish lifespan and fall before 100. Age becomes a liability as the inner core decays and the height and bulk grow more susceptible to wind. By rot or by force, nature collects its due.

Hurricane Sandy’s true damage was not from flooding, but wind. Tyler State Park in Pennsylvania lost hundreds of trees in one night—almost all of them several stories high and hundreds of years old.

Fallen tree in park
2013: A victim of Sandy in Tyler State Park, resting peacefully one year after the storm.

After the storm, my wife and I, with our kids, walked the inner paths of the park, along the main creek and over the steep ridges, where astounding stretches of trees had been laid waste by 40 mph winds sustained across almost 12 hours. We talked about the trees’ death, what it meant, what would happen next. It was weirdly emotional, like visiting a war memorial that bore names from your family.

Today, the shells and skeletons of the lost trees remain where they fell, spidery grey monuments that will decay over decades. Saplings have sprouted where sunlight finally has an opportunity to reach.

A tree’s growth is dictated by myriad vectors of genetics and environment. DNA promises potential, context limits that potential. Each apical meristem, housed in the buds in the tips of each branch, is the seed of a new branch, a tiny nub of possibility. Most wilt to nothing. Many grow into shoots and sticks. A few expand into branches that give life to countless more possibilities.

Every forest has a unique complexion of tree species. There are males and females, groves and clearings, clusters and individuals. Every tree has a unique branch pattern. Every leaf has unique vein markings. Every cell carries unique DNA. Every atomic facet is unique until the very end.

My wife and I married almost 13 years ago. We have produced two loud, competitive, sensitive, creative balls of genetic offspring. My son has his mom’s hair, builds a lot of Lego spaceships, literally runs away when his girl-crush gets close but is a habitual cuddler with his mom and dad. My daughter is the tallest girl in her grade, has the knock-you-on-your-ass fire of a linebacker but loves playing with stuffed animals, and writes elaborate stories of sleepovers and birthday parties. I don’t know how they could be more different and I cannot imagine them apart.

I don’t know how they’ll grow in this world of sun, soil, decay and beauty, or what new branches of life their future holds. But I do know that we’ll spend a lot of time consulting the trees along the path.

walking through woods with kids
Not all living things are peaceful. Photo by Suzanne Potts.

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