Yellowstone, nature and perspective

Photograph from Artist’s Peak at Yellowstone National Park Two weeks ago, I stood at a vantage point aptly labeled “Artist’s Peak” in Yellowstone National Park. I looked out over the winding water, following it backwards with my eyes to the magnificent, billowing waterfall rich with strokes of white and green. I saw the shape of it’s path, cut over millions of years into the gold canyon rock, supporting any tree stubborn enough to endure the steeps lope. I shifted my viewpoint multiple times in an attempt to throw off the balance of the landscape, the color, the composition, and failed to do so. I couldn’t help but feel completely humbled by the splendor of the scene laid before me without the touch of human hand.

Today, I sat at a desk above a sketchbook rapidly brainstorming concepts for a logo I’ve been commissioned to redesign, and the sights continue to fuel me.

All creative professionals grapple with the challenge of conjuring divergent thinking on cue. It is potentially the most mysterious aspect of aesthetic professions, but that enigmatic quality is typically what keeps us insatiable creatives from turning the other direction and pursuing a more reasonable occupation. However, to avoid stagnation we must continue to hone our ability to observe and subsequently transform and synthesize sensory stimuli.

A still from Shadow of the Colossus alongside a photograph of a male bison in Yellowstone National Park
A still from the PlayStation 2 game “Shadow of the Colossus”, baring resemblance to a the real-life male bison.

Pablo Picasso famously said “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.” While this idea is often and easily abused, it is entirely sound; creative people are always taking ideas and making them their own. The concept is a celebration of the observation and transformation skills in our mind’s toolbox, and it gains effectiveness the wider we cast our observational net.

I visited a gallery in Cody, Wyoming called Traces of Light, showcasing the nature photography of husband-and-wife Jim Wilson and Leslie Slater-Wilson. All of the photographs were stunning in their beauty and attention to the dichotomy between subtlety and magnificence, but what struck me the most was a collection taken of crimson, cavernous formations.

The photograph “Rushing Water’s Design” alongside a desktop wallpaper design by Apple
Jim Wilson’s photograph “Rushing Water’s Design” looks as though it could have inspired the sweeping pathways of Apple’s default Mac wallpapers.

The intricate, fluid designs of the canyon walls possess a thrilling combination of spontaneity and calculated balance, with extraordinary color that gives the imagery an ethereal quality.

The world needs artists like Jim and Leslie, not solely for their amazing work, but to remind us that inspiration is everywhere, so long as we maintain our curiosity for it.

Alternative Inspiration: interactivity beyond the web

Paul McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” Deluxe Edition (Detail)

I have a confession to make: I love web design minutiae. My Netvibes is full to the brim with feeds subscribing to every aspect of the ever-growing series of tubes, from upcoming document types undergoing constant revision to the latest means of thwarting Internet Explorer’s troubling box model. One of my favorite elements of this industry is the continuous sea of progress, but I can only enjoy it having reached a very important realization.

The average user really doesn’t care. The user cares about two things primarily, and it’s these two questions that the devoted web designer must concern themselves with over every step of the process:

  • Does it work?
  • Does it affect its intended audience?
We are accustomed to the concept of web design as a sandbox, a singular craft operating under an exclusive set of rules, flaws and conventions. These elements are extremely important and not to be marginalized, but otherwise passionate designers run the risk of drowning in them at the expense of the user experience. For this reason (and possibly those of sanity), I find that looking beyond the internet for interactive inspiration can be a rewarding experience.

I’m a big fan of rock and roll. While I love the concept of digital distribution, I still buy CDs for the permanence and the frequency range. Its no secret that the quality of album art has been in decline since vinyl fell from the mainstream, but recently there has been a concentrated effort to deliver something special to the common consumer. Though this packaging generally involves little more than paper, cardboard and/or a jewel case, it is still unquestionably interactive.

Paul McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” Deluxe Edition

Paul McCartney’s new album “Memory Almost Full” was released this week, and while I have yet to listen to the record I can attest that the deluxe edition’s packaging is superb. Encased in a cardboard, digipak-style case roughly the size of a typical DVD case, the box opens up through a series of simple flaps moving in opposite directions. Though the construction is as straightforward as you can get, the experience is satisfying; pink, serif words on subtly-textured black reveal themselves only when the flaps are overlapped, dissipating to reveal the next word in the title until the album itself is presented to you. Though the process is simple and linear, it succeeds as a very basic example of interactive animation with nothing but folded cardboard.

Menomena’s “Friend and Foe” Booklet and Jewel Case (Detail)

Friend and Foe” is the Portland-based group Menomena’s latest record, and it’s a beauty. Illustrated by Eisner-award-winning cartoonist Craig Thompson (also Portland-based), the album features an intricate, interweaving series of cartoons on a die-cut booklet. The compact disc within contains a series of various eyes and images, allowing you to turn the disc in it’s case to alter the cover art as it shows through the die-cut spaces. The fun is multiplied when you take into account that the booklet folds out for four possible scenes. I love the music, but I was happy I bought the album from the moment I took the shrinkwrap off. The passion and dedication for the construction exudes from every inch of the art, making it easily one of the most creative, well-executed CD packages I’ve ever seen.

Another obvious example would be the “do-it-yourself” packaging for Beck’s “The Information,” but after Wired has devoted a cover to something I consider it standard interactive design canon. Album artwork is just one of a myriad of art, design and entertainment niches that serves to remind me that computer-based aesthetics are not an island, but affect and are affected by traditional aesthetics to the point where such labels are rendered ineffectual. It’s also great to dance to.