Thursday, June 24, 2010

Live Urban Jacksonville Weekly: O (Urban) Pioneers!

I was very excited to watch the Urban Jacksonville Weekly podcast live tonight. The guests were Dr. Wayne Wood of RAP (Riverside Avondale Preservation) and Steve Lovett of  ELM (Ervin Lovett Miller). Most of the hour and a half show dealt with downtown Jacksonville development and ELM's architectural designs for the Laura Street Trio. Hopefully Steve Lovett wasn't too annoyed with my question about the conflict of many architect's desire to design innovative new buildings and preserve or reuse old buildings. Mostly I wanted him to address the hostility against historic classical form and the bias for new architectural forms taught in architecture schools. I want to make it clear that I am for projects like the Laura Street Trio and the adoption of New Urbanist principles in Jacksonville and smart growth zoning laws for the city as a whole. Mixed-use street-level urban design are the way of the past and hopefully the way of Jacksonville's downtown future.

Dr. Wayne Wood was the biggest surprise of the night. I was expecting anti-new stuffiness. He came across as an affable, progressive, civic-minded, funny guy (note to self -- take the Riverside historic house tour). In addition to historic preservation he's also a proponent of architecture that is old as well as new. Of the four proposals for the main library he preferred the more contemporary design by European firm (Hammer & Larsen of Denmark?) than the Robert A. M. Stern design we have now. He bemoaned the faux classicism of Stern's library design. I'm sure Mayor Peyton (who knows his constituency well) picked the design that would be most tolerable to Jacksonville sensibilities. Wood was right in complementing the library's interior program. Though any criticism he had about it's exterior aesthetics are mitigated by the bustle and energy that it creates in an otherwise empty downtown.

Guest co-host Melissa Ross of WJCT's First Coast Connect was cut to the chase with her commentary about downtown's need for adequate workforce housing. An audience member mentioned a need for a grocery store in the downtown center. Grocery stores want to make money and won't make an investment until they get census data that shows significant growth downtown to warrant  a Publix, Whole Foods or God-willing a Trader Joe's. History shows that it's these urban pioneers, willing to resettle abandoned city centers, to fix up and make downtown alive. There presence on the street at night will make downtown feel safe. Even though it's comparably safe already, negative perception is a reality to overcome. Ultimately it's not government or business that will make downtown happen but urban pioneers that make the blocks of Jacksonville their homestead.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Suburban Zoning + Graphic Design = Cartoon Architecture

Here's a quiz for you. Can you guess what three buildings are depicted in the image above? The answers are at the end of this blog post. You probably know what businesses are housed in these garish buildings even though they've been motion blurred. This post isn't intended to be some diatribe against the fast food industry. Jaimie Oliver (TED Prize) and Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) have that covered. I went to Google Street View hunting for what New Urbanism proponent James Howard Kunstler calls cartoon architecture. Road engineers design design our streets and boulevards for maximum speed. So when you're driving by at 45 - 50 MPH you can't easily read restaurant sign. Marketers, graphic designers and architects are cleaver people and if you pay them enough they'll come up with a solution. A few commonalities with the various building are bright colors and simple shapes in the building and logo markings. Noticed that the further the set back the bigger and taller the front sign is. When traveling down the Boulevard at 50 MPH you can't turn sideways so businesses have to orient their front sign perpendicular to the street and very high in the air. Gas stations along the highway have signs that rise several stories high to signal your attention from miles away. Is there a correlation between the cartoonishness of a building and the merits of it's products and services?
  1. McDonald's
  2. KFC
  3. BP Gas 
Disclosure: To compensate for Google Street View's image compression methods these images have been color corrected. Using Photoshop the images were auto leveled and given a saturation of +40 to better simulate reality. A 0 degree, 40 pixel motion blur was then applied to 640 pixel wide image.

Still Life Series Medicine Cabinet Shelf

I've been playing with an economy of action in painting. Less flourish, less color, less depth. Not necessarily in a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe sort of "less is more" but a way to find richness in other design elements like texture and composition. I limited the palette to a cobalt blue, yellow ochre and red oxide. All the objects were essentially white. It's surprising to see how much color exists in white scene. I treated the bottles like actors to be blocked on stage. Some are in shadow some are in full light and some catch just a sliver of light. But maybe I'm just anthropomorphizing the bottles. I wonder if artist William Bailey thought of them that way or Giorgio Morandi even. You can see more of my paintings here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Laura Street and St John's Town Center Comparison

People of Jacksonville. There is plenty of parking downtown. I submit for you as evidence. Even if you're too cheap (or poor like me) to pay for a garage, you can walk two or three blocks to a meter after 6pm or on the weekends, and park for free. Don't tell me it's too far to walk you walk either because the parking lot at the town center is several blocks long as well and you don't seem to mind. Someone should write a letter to Cheesecake Factory and PF Chang's and tell them we have plenty of parking and it's just as close as their parking in St. John's Town Center. I drove to the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Downtown and still managed to find a really close parking spot near the Shrine Auditorium. Walking's good, it makes you skinny. Skinny enough to eat more cheesecake.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Better Jacksonville by (Information) Design: Message to AIGA JAX

In an article from EU Jacksonville, Joey Marchy, Co-Chair of AIGA Jacksonville, misses an opportunity with an argument made about the following dialogue.
“Graphic Design in the city will continue marching forward, elevate the city in ways we haven't experienced”

To which a reader responds,
“What, nicer ads being put up?”

Graphic Design or Visual Communications as some call it, can address problems in fields other than marketing, commerce or even city ambiance. What about Information Design? Take this image of London in 1954. It was drawn by physician, John Snow who had a theory about the death rates due to cholera as correlation to contaminated water from a communal pump on Broad Street. The black bars represent deaths from cholera and the dot in the middle is the Broad Street water pump. Clearly there was clustering around the suspected pump, but it was the outlying data points that revealed the answer. A woman who lived closer to different pump preferred to have water carried to her from the Broad Street pump contracted cholera. And the beer workers who lived and worked near the pump were saved because they drank almost exclusively beer and not the well water which it turns out was contaminated with sewage. Saved by great design (and possibly beer).[1]

While this story is a seminal moment in modern epidemiology it also goes to prove that graphic design is not frivolity. It saves lives and transforms our cities. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about brain drain, we need to find ways to connect people of all professions here in Jacksonville. Better design in this case can be information dense and interdisciplinary. I wonder how many Information Designers belong to AIGA Jacksonville.

Watch this lecture by Stephen Johnson explain this better than I do. Steven Johnson tours the Ghost Map | Video on

[1] Tufte, Edward R. “Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions.” Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 1997. 27-37

Edward Tufte is a genius of information design whose work has made a profound influence on the design of our visual world.

Get Arts and Crafts Sold: Merchandising 101

With summer in full swing it's the season for outdoor markets like the Jacksonville Farmers Market, the Riverside Arts Market (RAM) and my personal favorite Art Walk sponsored by the Downtown Jacksonville. There is so much great stuff out there being produced by homegrown talent. Sadly browsers aren't always being converted into buyers. So let go back to school for a second and learn Merchandising 101 for Arts and Crafts Vendors. Follow these inexpensive (some are free) and easy methods for closing the deal.

If you're hanging two dimensional artwork keep it organized and neat. Group items together of similar size and shape like in a grid pattern. People will see this as an organizing narrative that helps them understand your work.

  • (A) Arrange images by importance, priority or quality. Works at eye level are what will be easiest for people to see. Hold a painting's center at eye level. That's the height where you should hang it on the wall.
  • (B) Works that are not your best or less of a sales priority should progressively be moved to the bottom. Small paintings at ground level are practically invisible when viewers are up close to the wall or looking past a crowd. Alternatively painting exhibited very high are also difficult to see.
  • (C) Don't crowd your artwork. Giving them space to breathe is crucial. You want people to be able to appreciate the composition individually. Any work you can't fit comfortably on the wall can be stacked against the wall or in a box. Just remember these are works that wont get as much exposure, especially works in the back of the stack.
  • (D) If you're selling small things like jewelry, they don't read as well from a distance and can't catch the attention of passers by. Try putting accessories on a mannequin (you could even cut out a head and shoulders form out of thick cardboard and prop it up). And be prepared to sell things directly off the display. It will catch a lot of attention. Having this item will take up precious space on your table but you will reap the benefits of greater attention.
  • (E) When selling clothing and accessories people like to try them on and see how great they will look. Give them access to a mirror. It will reinforce their confidence to buy.
  • (F) The table and wall are organized into sales priority zones. Red zones are the areas that will generate the most sales. Make sure these areas are always full. Keep the product pulled forward and neatly spaced and you sales will boom.
  • (G) Elevate the rear part of the table top or use blocks to vary the heights of the display. Items toward the back are harder to see and reach so help the customers out. Keep in mind that the people who come to the display have differing abilities. People in wheelchairs, or who use crutches and canes may not be able to reach the back of your table or see paintings placed high. Bring items forward or down for them. Disabled people have money to spend too and they are happy to give you their business.

Salesmanship is also of critical importance. Selling yourself is just as important as selling your work.

  • (1) Have your elevator speech ready. As an artist people want to learn about you and your work but they don't have all day. Rehearse what you and your work are about and be able to recite it naturally in about the time it take to ride an elevator (about a minute or two). If the look bored scale it back. If they're still interested keep going, you've got a live one.
  • (2) Make eye contact, people want to meet you. So be open and ready to talk (and sell) to them.
  • (3) Don't be a carnival barker. If people are far away just keep smiling and be ready for them. The best way to call attention to yourself is to be active. Work on arts and crafts. Just remember to keep looking up periodically so that people can see your face.
  • (4) Don't stand behind your table. Stand next to your table (if you have space) or in front. Try not to sit the whole time. That way people can see and hear you when you speak. The table can become a literal barrier between you and the customer. Also don't spend all your time talking to your friends, sitting down, or turned away. You're at the market sell. You only have a few hours to make money, make the best of it. If your friends and family insist on being around, tell them you have sales priorities. You could even put them to work selling your merchandise.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Walking Dream of Laura Street: The Path to City

A new and improved Laura street is coming with wider sidewalks and the promise of foot traffic for downtown business. Let's imagine that vibrant city street to be. But first, play George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on your iPod, YouTube, or your brain if you remember the tune (United Airlines uses it in all their commercials if that helps). That's the sound of a bustling progressive city. The yawn of the clarinet is your entry on to the street. It doesn't take long before the syncopated rhythms of people walking, cars honking and flashing lights signal, the start of something great. Last week was the Jacksonville Jazz Festival and it was a reminder of how great crowds are. Walking down the sidewalks through crowds of people was like a little fantasy. Imagine for a moment that it wasn't an annual festival but rather your daily walk to work. Not so much the crowds sitting but the people walking with purpose and destination. 

At this point, if you've fired up of Rhapsody in Blue you should be filled with that enthusiastic sound of progress and optimism. Pretend that your standing in line not at that booth for funnel cakes but at vendor's truck window parked along the sidewalk and your buying your first cup of coffee for the day. The old guy in the truck leans out the window and growls in a thick Albanian accent “dollar twenty-five, you want cream and sugar?” Somehow you manage to lift the lid, blow on the coffee and nod no thanks without a word. You fish two bucks from your pocket, pay and walk up the street.
This feeling is familiar, you've been there before. It's Georgetown in DC at lunch hour, South Beach on a Friday night. It's walking down a sidewalk with people behind you and in front for a moment sharing a path before you go reach your separate destinations. You know your not in a stale shopping mall because you the trees are still wet with the morning dew and dogs on leashes are great each other with sniffs and licks. It's the feeling of CITY!
Back at the festival sitting on the edge of a planter listening to jazz you watch people in a narrow line passing each other going to the left and right through the sea of portable lounge chairs on the street. And again you start to imagine being on break from the office, walking down the sidewalk eating a hot single slice of cheese pizza, being careful not to get any grease on your white dress shirt. People pass and you glimpse each face, a teacher, an electrician, a mayor, a hippie. It's a parade of the everyday. Sometimes smiling, sometimes grouchy, sometimes speeding past the slow line, late for an appointment somewhere. You remember you have a have box of proposals ready at the print shop. Turn on a dime and head back up the street past the cafe tables; past the tiny grandmother squinting and at the sign hanging over the ophthalmologist store; past that giggling group of girls clearly to young to be downtown in the middle of a school day; past that fire hydrant you always bump into and through the glass doors of the print shop. There's a line at the counter. Where's that girl that always takes knows what she's doing? You give her one of those toothy grins that says; hey, remember me? I need those prints from yesterday, go get them 'cause I'm a regular customer and I'm in a rush. She smiles back politely with the look you give someone who has a regular account.
Now we're at the part of Rhapsody in Blue that earns it's name with the big emotional pay-off. We feel ecstatic with the kind of emotional exuberance that comes from one good thing happening after another. This is it this is the moment where incremental achievements realize big intentions. Laura Street is that energized path that leads to a great Main Library and bustling plaza; a thoroughfare that aligns itself with a corridor to nightlife along Bay Street to remind you that there's more to do when the sun goes down. What really makes a great street is that it's more than just a path to get from one place to another. It's a destination in and of itself that isn't the place of home or work but a great civic space that has more people than cars.
Laura Street is going to be what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls the Third Place. It's where we can be social, interactive, and democratic in a way that home and work can't be. Festivals, parades and fireworks are all very thrilling but they come once a year. Imagine a little bit that thrill every weekday, walking through a swirl of community. What a great place that would be away from the increasing isolated primary place of home or the demanding secondary place of work. Jacksonville already has a street called Main. But when it's finished Laura will become the main street. Our main street.
Listen to your ears ringing with the crescendo of Rhapsody in Blue the hurried pace of the city slowing down but your hearth still beating fast as you cross the threshold that turns into home or work. You wake up from your happy little urban dream of a city coming true.