Today is my birthday. I turn 23. For most people, I think, this little note would be one of celebration, a note that the past year has been stupendous and I carry nothing but hope for the next twelve months. Sometimes, I picture the people who write about that kind of thing as staggering drunks, dancing with a half-full bottle of champagne. In reality, I think birthdays, at their best, are more like this:

For me, birthdays are more a chance to reflect than they are to celebrate. My birthday falls close to Christmas and the New Year, which makes it doubly a chance to reflect, especially since so many of us already do during this season. It’s a lot of reflection to do at once, made all the more so by the fact that winter birthdays are notable not for a lack of gifts, but for the fact that so many friends disappear to warmer climates.

I don't wish they'd stay for my birthday alone; they deserve a warmer climate as much as anybody, but it's a fact. It’s not necessarily a lonely birthday, although like many people, I’ve had one or two of those, but it’s almost always a quiet day.[1]

It’s exacerbated a little further because you get to hear songs like Auld Lang Syne on the radio a fair bit, asking “should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” Not a bad song — an odd Christmas song though, to be sure — but it also adds to the contemplation.

So to the point: what have I done in the past year? I started a company. I finished school. I went on a lot of dates, and I spent a lot of time wreaking havoc. I sprung for a good gym membership. I made some new friends, lost old ones, and burned a few bridges. I’m taking my first vacation in two years. I saw a lot of movies, most of them terrible (anybody else think 2012 wasn't a good year for movies?).

And furthermore to the point: what will I do this year? You know, maybe I would have said that I want to turn a larger profit a couple days ago. I don’t know. But I think I’d like to go hiking. I need to go ice skating before the snow melts. I definitely want to wake up stupidly early so I can go fishing and really just sit and enjoy that time on the water. I want to take pictures of the horizon from the top of a hill during a sunset, which is probably worth doing every year. I want to ride a mountain bike on a real mountain, snowboard during a blizzard, and go camping in the sweltering summer heat. I want to find a piece of fiction that compels me to read and buy the nicest edition I can find of it, and maybe even get a cheap paperback copy for travelling too.[2] I’d like to play more guitar. Maybe fall in love — I don’t want to get married yet or contemplate settling down, but really just experience the rush of it.

We're all people. We're all pretty similar. I don’t want to keep doing the same old things. Like everybody else, I want to try new things. Sometimes, life is better when we do the opposite. Because nobody wants to just survive. We want to live.

For now, I’ve survived another year. For that, I'm very grateful. Cheers.

  1. I had one birthday where I treated myself to McDonald’s and talked with a homeless man for five minutes; apart from a short family visit (also five minutes), that was the most interaction I had all day with people. It wasn't a bad day — it’s just a strange time of year for a birthday.  ↩

  2. I don't remember the last time I got truly absorbed in a good fictional story; I'm always reading non-fiction these days. I also usually read on a Kindle, which is often great but just as often not as nice as the real deal.  ↩

How to Design a Brand Identity in Two Weeks

This post is also appearing on the website for my new creative firm. If you have the time, I'd love it if you checked out Wildfire Studios.

There's nothing worse than having a time crunch on creative work. The process takes time. From an idea's conception to the finished product, what seems like a simple task can take hundreds of hours. It gets worse when ideas are few and far between. With the launch of Wildfire Studios, in order to fit the company's launch into some free time away from the firm's regular duties, I had a time crunch of two weeks.

That's two weeks to design a logo, build a website that's responsive on every modern computing device, and write all the copy on the site. Even little decisions, like what typography to build the brand on, had to be made in a very short period of time. In other words, it was a very busy two weeks. I tried something new with it and documented the majority of the visual work on my Instagram account, which has been a fun experiment in open and honest design (one which I plan on continuing with my other projects). In that spirit, I wanted to walk you through the creative process in a longer form.

First of all, I have a couple confessions to make. I have been operating this business under the Wildfire Studios name for a few months now. I spent almost five months contemplating the name for the business, and nearly as long after that just sitting on this domain name. I also need to confess that I didn't hand code this site. The day I sat down to start working on the site's design, Squarespace announced Forte, the template I'm using as a backbone. I couldn't resist. I think it's lovely.

The time saved designing and coding a website (which would have put me way behind schedule) was better spent working on the logo for me. I spent more time on the logo than I did anything else, simply because I wanted a solution that was transferrable across many platforms — digital, print, and even watermarked photo portfolios were considered. All I knew was that I wanted to incorporate W.F.S., my acronym for the studio.

The first design I really liked, even in a simple doodle format. (View the original on Instagram.)

The first design I really liked, even in a simple doodle format. (View the original on Instagram.)

I spent almost a full week doodling different logo designs, both in a Moleskine portfolio and in the Paper app on my iPad. I shared a couple pictures of this process on Instagram, but no picture can do justice to the amount of conceptual work I ended up doing. I filled more pages of my Moleskine portfolio book than I'd care to admit. The answer came from doodling on the iPad one night, when i started messing with circles and watercolours. All of a sudden, I had the basic layout.

Every single designer I know has a very different process. Some of them like to wireframe every detail before they turn on a computer. I like to wireframe and doodle until I come up with a concept I like. After that, I find my creative process is a lot more fun on the computer. Often, I find I'm inspired by happy accidents. Sometimes, it's easier to be informed by the limitations of digital.

I quickly realized finding fonts that matched what I imagined would likely be impossible.

I quickly realized finding fonts that matched what I imagined would likely be impossible.

The logo quickly reminded me of the limitations of the digital world. The problem was that I couldn't find a font that had the curved f like the one I had drawn, and I started resorting to other options. I even tried creating my own letter f but even after that, I was disappointed by the results. Sometimes, a finished product looks much worse than a doodle.

I'm really happy with the final logo, seen here in black and white.

I'm really happy with the final logo, seen here in black and white.

After going back to the drawing board, I ended up using a font called Manteka. I was a little nervous about it, since it was free, but for the most part I was very pleased. I'm not a fan of the S, so if you're wondering what font I used for that letter in the logo, it's Memphis Std Medium. It took a little fiddling to make sure everything looked properly balanced in the circle, which is one of the reasons the F in the logo is backwards, but I think it turned out really well. This is one of those cases where the limitations of digital typography really aided the design.

The Watercolours

Setting up the lettering in the logo ended up taking a couple days and well over 100 different combinations of fonts. Setting them up in a white circle was easy, and I really like how changing the circle's transparency allows it to work well within multiple mediums. The simple "WFS" logo works well in print, as a watermark on a photo, and even in black and white.

But for the brand's purposes, I wanted something a little more colourful. I wanted something that revealed my interests. The watercolours did that for me. That sounds like a bit of an odd design decision — after all, for most people, paint splatter is never going to be more than dolloped flicks of the wrist. But for me, it was a mission statement.

Here's the thing: I love taking pictures. I can't believe people will pay me to go to their weddings with cameras. I love writing, and I'm always shocked people are willing to pay to have me put words to paper. Design is a passion of mine, and I'm thrilled whenever somebody needs my expertise. But my favourite thing in the world is brand development. I love how it presents the opportunity to bring my photography, copy, and design skills together. I love how much focus there is on storytelling in branding. It's a dream-come-true sort of task for me.

And every business, including my own, starts as a blank canvas.

So the paint splatter was the story of brand development itself. At the risk of sounding very pretentious, watercolours, all of them blending together, were symbolic of creative work to me. I thought it was great.

My initial design was all over the place, but it helped get the ideas down. (View the original on Instagram.)

My initial design was all over the place, but it helped get the ideas down. (View the original on Instagram.)

It turns out that it's just a pain in the butt to get that to look right. The process of applying watercolours on top of one another and layering them took over a week. Initially, the design was a little lop-sided in a couple different directions. Later, I think I reacted a little too strongly in the opposite direction.

Now that it's all said and done, I can tell you I have seventeen different watercolour designs on my hard drive right now. I went through a lot of variations, often getting too abstract or too off-balanced. I feel I struck a nice middle ground with my current design. Like most of this site, I was working on it until six in the morning the night before I launched the business.

This visually coherent branding was a stroke of dumb luck.

This visually coherent branding was a stroke of dumb luck.

Part of what happens when you have two weeks to design and develop a brand identity is an extreme lack of sleep. But sometimes, that sleep results in accidental luck. In a moment of total idiocy, I mistakenly used the Paint Bucket tool in my design program and accidentally dumped a huge coat of red all over the background layer. Thanks to the way I was diffusing light through all the watercolours, I ended up with the effect you'll notice on all the different logo variants and colours as you peruse my branding. I got lucky here: There's enough variations for this blog, the About page, business cards, and any print advertising I'll ever need done.

In other words, designing on very little sleep has its advantages.

The Typography

There's one final aspect I wanted to talk about. A lot of work went into this site, but I imagine most of it is obvious. The copy didn't write itself, and somebody had to put together an assortment of appropriate photos. One thing that isn't obvious, though, is the choices people make behind typography.

A lot of businesses like to pretend that their typography choices are secrets, but I don't see the point. Font geeks will recognize the fonts I'm using right away. But for those of you who aren't font geeks, I'll let you in on a few secrets.

The first is that W is a very difficult letter, especially in headings or titles. Not a lot of fonts have a great capital W, which makes sense if you think about it. It's both an ugly letter and a difficult one. Most w's look like somebody took two v's and stuck them together. The next time you're writing yourself a note, take a look at the way you write the W. I'd wager a guess it's different than the way the letter appears on this page. So that was a problem.

Another problem was that it's hard to choose fonts that look good without choosing boring fonts. Letters haven't changed much recently, so there isn't a lot of room to innovate in this field. As a designer, I run the risk of being either too boring or too absurd every time I select a font.

For the firm's title, I'm using Futura PT, which is a little old-fashioned. But it's geometrical, which I really like. Again, check out that W. Futura PT has what's called an overshoot, which means that the middle of the letter is a little higher than either end of it. I think the effect is subtle, but very nice.

For the headings, I'm using JAF Facit right now. It's well-balanced and I think it looks good, and it's not as typical or humdrum as Helvetica. It also renders really well on every computer in the world, which is a rarity for a font on the Internet. In other words, one of the main reasons I'm using it is because I know it looks good on Windows computers.

Finally, I'm using FF Tisa Pro for the body text right now. I like how Tisa reads well on all the devices I own, but I'm also considering implementing Lapture in the next couple days. Both are very lovely fonts. I don't think I could go wrong with either of them.

Playing with typography is a geeky pastime of mine, and with the exception of the logo, I'm certain you can expect me to make changes to this site semi-regularly in the future. I've got my eye on a few different heading fonts I'm considering, like Stratum. That being said, I haven't quite decided what fonts really reinforce Wildfire Studios as a brand yet.

How long did I spend deciding on these three fonts for Wildfire Studios? Eleven days. If you do the math, that's 3.6 days of thought for each font choice, which means I spent 90 hours thinking about each selection I made. You might tell me that's impossible; after all, I at the very least slept for many of those hours. But I don't think you understand: I was literally dreaming about typography.

Two Weeks Later

Today is precisely two weeks after I started my journey. In those two weeks, I wrote every word on every page of this site. I designed a logo. I experimented with over 100 fonts. I rewrote the About page twelve times and I rewrote my overview about my writing twenty-seven times. I kept track of these things because I've been getting only five hours of sleep (or less) every night, and my eyes feel like they're carrying bricks.

If you want my advice, it's very simple: don't design and develop a brand identity within two weeks. Give yourself much more time than that, and if you're working for a client, make sure you're paid well. These decisions are not made easily, and it will take much longer to do this than you think.

I do have one other very important piece of advice. Designing on a timeline, or doing anything on a timeline really, can be dangerous. The mentality is to ship a product as soon as possible — especially in the digital age, where it's easy to "patch it later." This is dangerous thinking. First of all, it means your initial product or design is going to be subpar, which is damaging to any brand's overall reputation. Trust has to be earned, and it's not just about "fixing it later." Second of all, bad design begins because people make bad, compromised choices under pressure. Bad design affects a lot of people, including the industry itself. I'm not entirely perfect in this regard; my indecisiveness regarding my brand's typography is one major holdout decision that I haven't made yet.

So what's my advice? Take your time, doodle, and spend as much time as you can staring out the window and daydreaming. Don't rush, and take pride in what you do. That's the only way to develop a brand identity.

If you like what you've read and have a project you'd like to work on together, don't hesitate to check out Wildfire Studios and get in touch. I'd love to chat!