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

New Music of Note, February 2016

Bloc Party, Hymns

After the disastrous, self-parodying album Four, I approached Hymns with thick rubber gloves and expectations lower than the bottom of the Thames. However: faith renewed. I don’t know if it’s great because it’s actually great or because it’s just different, but I give Kele and crew credit for creating something totally divergent from old Bloc Party. Gone is the frantic, stabby whirligig of anthemic post-punk, replaced by mostly quiet, mostly introspective, mostly legible ideas of spirituality, relationships both divine and mortal, and the value of honoring the present moment. Forgiving the shockingly bad (ludicrously bad) opening song, which I’ve just gone ahead and deleted from every device, this is the album we knew Bloc Party had the musical and emotional intelligence to write.

Savages, Adore Life

There is little grey area here. If you liked Silence Yourself, you will like Adore Life. Full stop. But if Savages’ unapologetic, gaunt, alley-fighting sound didn’t jive with your musical aesthetic the first go-round, I can only tell you that Adore Life is a genuinely better record. It still cuts deeply, but there’s also tangible love, a willingness to listen, a sense of humility that doesn’t so much muzzle the bite of their debut as much as exacerbate the pain via contrast. All that aside, it kicks ass. Worth the wait.

Beacon, Escapements

Beacon’s debut The Ways We Separate from 2013 remains one of my favorite electronic albums of the decade. Their quiet, breathy, bassy meditations unfold into a complicated symbiosis of vocal-driven pop and abstract progressive house, creating tinted watercolor compositions perfect for headphones. Escapements picks right up where they left off. The sounds and delivery are well-tread, and teeter on redundancy, but there’s just enough urgency to lock your attention into a synthpop freeze-ray. Beats are snappier. Tracks are tighter. Vocals aren’t always the focus. Beacon’s sound is refined, cleaner, more accessible, and it’s a more-than-worthy sequel.

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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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