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Singing with the Sirens

In all of my graphic design classes, I require students to thoroughly document their problem-solving process from start to finish. Not only does this allow patterns and insights about one’s process to emerge, it ensures that young designers aren’t trying to skip steps. As one matures in the visual communication design profession, a deep and thorough process becomes second nature. With much experience, the process of solving a client’s problem may come much more quickly and efficiently. Yet most designers have learned through years of presentations to clients and partners, that documentation of explorations and decisions made can prove quite valuable to explaining and justifying a solution, both conceptually and formally.

Recently some students expressed curiosity about my process, I suspect wanting to confirm whether I went through the rigorous process that I expect from them. A recent freelance project is a prime case study to provide that confirmation…

Siren Nation is a a unique arts organization that showcases and creates performance and exhibition opportunities for women throughout the year. They are the only women’s collective that produces an annual festival showcasing the original work of women working in music, film, performance and visual art. A friend on the board of directors approached me about redesigning the Siren Nation identity. What follows is an outline of that process.

Orientation & Information Gathering

Of course, the first step is getting to know your client, their values and vision, and their goals for the materials being designed.

Siren Nation’s values are to:

  • Promote women making a living as working artists.
  • Provide showcasing opportunities for women artists to increase their visibility.
  • Expose audiences to a diversity of art by women working in film, music, visual and performing arts.
  • Honor and pay tribute to groundbreaking female artists of the past and present.
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration among artists.
  • Empower and inspire women and girls through educational opportunities.
  • Raise visibility and create dialogue about women in the arts.
  • Create community by bringing together diverse audiences.
  • Actively work towards parity in the arts.
  • Collaborate with and support like-minded non-profit and community organizations.

Much of the impetus for re-branding was a feeling that the image was outdated, or too specifically referenced Portland landmarks or graphic styles that didn’t speak to the broader scope of musicians and artists being celebrated through their events.


Sample of previous identity and promotional materials

Sample of previous identity and promotional materials

The first two meetings were critical for ascertaining what the Siren Nation board felt they needed to project, and for learning any aesthetic or stylistic affinities they had individually and might agree on. Listening and note-taking are essential skills for designers, and there are many tools for assessing client’s objectives that they can’t necessarily articulate. I chose to create a morphology using a few terms and sample festival logos to explore variables, to see where there was consensus about how they saw Siren Nation being projected.






Research of precedents is an invaluable step, as a designer needs to familiarize herself with the client’s industry and competition within. Music and arts festivals are as diverse as people are, so it provided a broad framework from which to start. What these initial discussions revealed were that they were somewhat interested in putting forth a Portland or Northwest flavor, wished to stay away from any particular music genre or style association and embrace eclecticism, and they were very concerned with being perceived as a strong, stable and high-caliber organization.





A series of typefaces gathered by one board member was circulated to determine what was striking the right chord with the others. This was extremely valuable for me in establishing some key descriptive words to return to while I worked on custom lettering and with digital fonts alike.



























Conceptual Development / Divergence

As ideas and images began to form in my mind, and in my sketchbook, continued research was focused on gathering inspirational images.

























I worked steadily on sketches for hours at a time, over several days. This is the time when a designer can explore, through any means available, associations and invented forms, with no judgement. While I recommend working fast and loose, with no preconceived notions limiting the process, many iterations here centered around a few concepts:

  • bold but organic type with slightly retro or nostalgic connotations
  • slanted, strong type shapes referencing Russian Constructivism, revolutionary messages, megaphones
  • slightly nautical themes in connection to the Siren and in support of the Pacific Northwest
  • abstract reference to the experience of music and rhythm expressed typographically
  • icons pointing to the diverse activities of the events, exhibits, performances
  • self-contained block form (like a Chinese ‘chop’ or stamp)























Design / Convergence

Typically, all that was explored in the ideation phase is analyzed and narrowed down to roughly 3 to 5 conceptual directions to share with the client. More than a handful of sketches can overwhelm and confuse some folks. I decided to go a slightly unorthodox route and share many more options with the Siren Nation board, knowing they are design savvy and would appreciate being more fully involved in the creative process. It was a calculated risk to bring so many visuals to the next meeting, but it paid off greatly in the chance to listen to individuals critique some concepts and justify others, ultimately reaching consensus on three concepts to refine.



color-palette_small meeting-notes



















Leaving visual studies in sketch form (although cleaned up in Photoshop) not only saves me time (which is, of course, money), but also allows the client to judge ideas on their conceptual potential without getting bogged down in issues of detail or polish. At that meeting we also discussed potential color palettes and desired revisions. At the next junction, developing the three chosen concepts, I moved to Illustrator to trace my most effective sketches, import colors swatches generated with Adobe’s Kuler tool, and explore typefaces and arrangements for the tagline.





The three finalists included these conceptual and formal ideas:

  1. slanted, strong type shapes referencing Russian Constructivism along with icons for music, film, art, fashion
  2. heavy, curvy type (both strong and feminine), somewhat retro in a mid-century modern, geometric way
  3. organic, forward motion script and frame element that may recall Marshall speakers & amp, the Gibson guitar logo, and old name-matches on workclothes

Logos almost never exist as a one-off but, in actuality, must be developed as family of several variations to fit diverse contexts and media. I also believe, to quote Milton Glaser, that “a logo is the point of entry to the brand,” and while it can’t communicate everything, it should have flexible and versatile components that can expand into a broader visual language. So after showing the Siren Nation logos in relative isolation (like above), I also showed demonstrations of how each might play out in unique ways, how I envisioned they fit within a larger context:

SirenNation3finals_Page_1 SirenNation3finals_Page_2 SirenNation3finals_Page_3 SirenNation3finals_Page_4 SirenNation3finals_Page_5 SirenNation3finals_Page_6































































































Our final meeting was to be one with many more board members and Siren Nation folks, so I was excited to share these final three and find out what would resonate with the most of them. I devised a simple and fun voting system of 3 small objects given to everyone and, once I presented each solution and took questions, I asked every person to cast two votes for their favorite design and one for their second favorite. The consensus was evident immediately and the new Siren Nation identity was born.



One variation I wanted to propose was a distressed, stamp-like aesthetic. To create this I used a favorite, low-tech method of printing the image reversed on a black and white laser printer or photocopier and then using a colorless marker on the back to transfer the toner to another substrate. It’s important to embrace and explore methods that don’t involve the computer.

























I’m happy with the selected design, especially because it was created without benefit of a digital font but rather with custom lettering, which is fun and rewarding to create.




























Of course, the work doesn’t stop there for the designer, especially when working with a small start-up or nonprofit organization that isn’t likely to have a brand manager, designer, or technology specialist on the team. The files need to be prepared in every imaginable way, for print and screen. This often entails preparing spot and process color versions for print, RGB or web-safe versions for screen, and making multiple copies in different files formats to anticipate the many diverse applications and software programs that might be used by others down the line.


































It has been a pleasure to be involved with this great organization, from participating in past art shows and craft sales, to attending inspiring musical performances, to now helping refresh their public image. I’m honored to have been chosen to show some personal artwork in a show on November 7. For more information about Siren Nation, and for details on upcoming music and art shows, visit or find them on FaceBook. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Reflections on an Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences Academic Conference

In my 15 year tenure in the academic world – either as graduate student or professor – I’ve attended several conferences. Typically they entail themes explored by the design profession, sponsored by professional organizations or industry publications with significant funds put into bringing ‘rock stars’ of the design profession from all corners of the United States. This month, I traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii to attend my first international, and multidisciplinary, academic conference – a very different experience altogether.

My research, presented both in paper presentation and poster session format, contributed to an on-going conversation in the communication design world about the changing nature of graphic design. I shared some thoughts on the limitations of the name ‘graphic design’ via historical changes, contemporary observations, and an infographic timeline, which I shared in an earlier blog post. The topics I attended presentations or poster sessions on include:

• a ‘neutral breath’ technique for cleansing of unwanted emotions, presented by a professor of voice and theatre

• a case study of teaching typography in a hybrid setting, keeping grad students engaged despite the limitations of online hybrid instruction

• research on identity formation among women football players, the thesis project of a PhD. candidate in Kinesiology

• designing children’s clothing for biodiversity education

• a studio artist’s body of work exploring identity and the tension between being rooted in community and the desire for freedom found in personal movement and travel

• a service-learning case study through which graphic design students in South Korea worked to revitalize a traditional Korean market

• using improvisation to foster creativity in college students with background in the arts

• teaching design to non-designers

• collaboration between art and literature programs, specifically re-imaging and re-framing Shakespeare’s Othello in a print-making workshop in Venice

• historical segregation in the K-12 schools of Hawaii

• historical examination of the emergence and evolution of dance at the Burning Man festival, and the transformative, spiritual nature of dance at that festival today

• conversation patterns in native English speakers for the purpose of teaching ESL, specifically looking at the frequency of topic management strategies

• techniques for conquering the “I can’t draw” dilemma in students who believe themselves to be uncreative


While some topics are seemingly esoteric and unrelated to my role as graphic design educator, I was inspired by the passion and intellect of these presenters. Informal discussions with others between presentations continued to open my eyes to fascinating developments at universities around the world. More importantly, I was struck again and again by the connections to communication design, or the exciting ways these content areas might be integrated in design problems I give my students. Design, after all, is everywhere and involved in everything. Fostering not just creativity and critical thinking but curiosity is immensely important in design education. Surprisingly, the beautiful Hawaiian beach was not the only place I found a breath of fresh air.

Sweet & Savory Design

My most recent–and most ambitious–self-initiated project, the Eating Local Made Easy campaign, brings together two things I’m passionate about: seasonal food and graphic design. So, these days, it’s hard not to notice this intersection portrayed in inspiring ways around me. Some images and designs, like my own Eating Local guide, serve to make complex information more accessible by visually and verbally explaining the myriad of reasons and ways to eat more sustainably.

Others, while also enhancing communication, serve first and foremost to get attention and delight the viewer. Following is a small collection of such images I recently encountered and wanted to savor a bit through sharing. Bon appetite!

Nader Khouri, photographer; Ellen Zaslow, art director; Fanny Pan, stylist.

Chalkboard menus, and the small restaurants we love that use them, spring to mind through this clever photograph. It accompanied “Artisans Bet Big,” a story about commoditization of artisanal food, companies staying small and making quality products.

Design by Chen Design Associates.

Branding for People’s Harvest, a new fresh-cut food processing center located in the North Bay, combines war-time growing propaganda references with a fresh, optimistic look. People’s Harvest creates jobs for people who have experienced barriers to employment and helps bridge the gap between small family farms and local schools, hospitals and other institutions looking to buy fresh-cut produce.

Darren Braun, photographer; Eric Capossela, art director.

This simple yet effective photo-illustration was for “Food Fight,” an article about what’s keeping local produce out of school cafeterias.

Michael Crichton, photographer; Nathalie Cusson, art director; Leigh MacMillan, photography director.

Jaw-dropping Photoshop skills were used to realize this cover for Air Canda’s enRoute magazine’s tenth Annual Food Issue, illustrating a deconstructed recipe for carmelized onion soup.

Domtar’s Lynx paper advertisement.

Domtar’s latest campaign for their Lynx paper line resonates with the microbrew lover in me. The vernacular language of bottle caps is playfully employed to show that we’ll find their products refreshing and satisfying.


a little healthy competition…


“Crowdsourcing”, “Contest”, “Competition”, “Bid”, “Spec”… all bad words in the design industry of late. For too long, and seemingly rampant in our current financial climate, artists and designers have been asked in multiplicity to share their hard-earned skills and creative energy and ideas so that businesses and organizations can choose the ‘best’ solution among many submitted. It’s not a difficult argument to make that this undermines the value of creative process and the ideas themselves, that it simply rewards solutions, and does not repay any of the others for time lost. It has become a contentious subject among designers and business people alike. [Look no further than this very recent debate on the AIGA website for more eloquent arguments against it in many situations].

But there can be an upside to competitions, if done right.

I try to stretch my creative legs from time to time by seeking out new challenges, and contests can be a great way to do that. For example, last year I submitted designs to several competitions, using skills ranging from graphic symbol design to painting/assemblage. The “Embracing our Differences” celebrates diversity, and exhibits the inspiring works on large outdoor billboards. This really isn’t any different from a juried exhibit, something many artists take part in. My 2010 submission didn’t get used, but it was enjoyable for me.

“Art Moves” is a festival and display of billboards designed to bring awareness/raise questions around a theme. In 2010 it was “Together or apart?. I chose simple pictographic representation of many ways in which our lives are enhanced by togetherness.


The Bioplastic symbol competition allowed me to flex my graphic symbol design muscles. Unfortunately, in the end, this competition proved unfavorable, not because of bad intentions, but because they were ill-informed and ill-prepared to host a competition of this magnitude online, and because public opinion was used to narrow down the selections. (I don’t need to tell my informed design readership, of course, that the public is not educated in the right experiences to set design criteria). Still, I learned a lot in the process.


I’ve just finished coordinating 3 different projects with my students, all of them working with a real client that selected one of the finished designs to implement. This models the contest/crowdsourcing activity so despised by many design professionals. The difference, however, is that the projects being executed are first and foremost designed to meet my course learning objectives and serve the student well in their growth, as well as in their portfolios. Secondly, the organizations are NOT corporations looking for profit and would, otherwise, not have the resources to brand themselves while doing the good work they do for the community, the planet, etc. Thirdly, the student chosen will be performing  some work after the deadline, and for which they will be paid by the client.

Though my junior level students had little if any prior logo design experience, this one-week charette better prepared them for the extensive identity projects that are coming down the pike in our curriculum.


The senior level solutions are shown here, with the selected design highlighted.

Logos by Leslie Martinez, Scott Knees, Amanda Olsen, Danyon Satterlee, and Kasey Orr.

Logos by Juliann Roth, Sara Rushby, Jacob Nicola, Yilun Wang, and Rebecca Miller


Unfortunately, there are many contests out there that are not equitable to visual artists, whether knowingly or not. Be selective, do some research, but don’t automatically write them all off. To find out about ongoing competitions, visit the  “Graphic Competitions” site.


What’s In A Name? The Fate Of “Graphic Design”

An intriguing question was recently raised by Rick Poynor [A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design, PRINT October 2011]. What term could properly describe a profession that has expanded far beyond the limits of the term “graphic design”? Rick points out that “Graphic design stopped looking like graphic design, as we once knew it, several years ago.”¹ Indeed, the discipline that began for so many of us with type and image arranged on the printed page, or even the web page, is undergoing a significant evolution. This is a profession that has never been easy to define. I appreciate Victor Margolin’s broad explanation that graphic design is “the production of visual statements”.² But nomenclature within professional fields [and educational programs], like in any system, is essential. Naming things gives them meaning and provides a basis for communication about them.

The term “designer” has been used contemporarily to describe the professional activities of others from as far back as Medieval days. It’s important to recognize, though, that the graphic arts were separated into individual specialties for centuries before our notion of a graphic designer emerged. For instance, in the beginning days of printing, producing a book with text and images required a typesetter, an artist, a woodblock cutter or copper engraver, and perhaps an illuminator who applied color to the printed pages, beyond those involved in the type-casting, paper-making and printing processes. One could make a case that renaissance man Geoffrey Tory (1480–1533) exemplified what became later known as a graphic designer, for his skills included type design, illustration, ornament and trademark design, book layout, and close collaboration with printers.³

Throughout history one can point to such men and women, reputable for their contributions to design and printing. However, it is the Industrial Revolution that ultimately lead to the recognition of new professional definitions. As the practice of design and production separated, and the range of typographic and photographic printing greatly expanded, a new practitioner was called upon to concentrate on the design of visual information. Competition caused by growth in manufactured goods and the decline of prices called for branding and packaging. Increasingly more literate and urban populations necessitated advertising and editorial design. The year 1841 marks the first advertising agency, and the 1850s saw the emergence of pictorial magazines, and thus art editors, later to be known as art directors.4

Evidence of the development of nomenclature regarding this profession is hard to unearth, but there are some clear contributors. In 1849, Henry Cole became one of the major forces in design education in Great Britain, informing the government of the importance of design in his Journal of Design and Manufactures.5 Beginning with William Morris and the Art & Crafts movement, designers in the 1890s pushed for works of graphic design to be recognized on the same plane as fine art, and they proved that a market existed for such works.6 Across the ocean in the United States, two of the most important educational institutions were established: the Rhode Island School of Design (1877), and the college that became later known as Parsons (1904) started up with a “commercial illustration” degree, later changed to advertising and graphic design.

It is hard to say exactly when terms such as “commercial art” and “graphic arts” emerged or came into favor, but the AIGA–originally an acronym for American Institute of Graphic Arts–was started in 1914. A few years later, in 1922, William Addison Dwiggins coined the term “graphic design”. A 1927 book simply titled Graphic Design, by W.G. Raffe, is said to be the first book with graphic design in its’ title. As Rick Poynor reflects, “There was a period from the 1930s to the 1990s when the idea of the “graphic designer” as a term of professional self-definition and identity took hold and flourished.”7

Naming trends around and beyond that period lean toward the multidisciplinary, and perhaps more intellectual, “communication design,” “visual communication,” and today “design thinking.” The AIGA, in 2006, changed their name to “the professional organization for design” and proposed to the Standard Occupational Classification Policy Committee to change the title “graphic designers” to “communication designers.”8 A collaborative effort is under way to define the designer of 2015.9 Designers today are engaged in very diverse activities–from deep research to designing mobile applications to constructing experiences to very individual entrepreneurial pursuits. In design education, there is a slow but steady movement to redefine how we educate designers as well, and Meredith Davis has made a strong case for why this is critical.10

Will our profession require a broader name to encompass all (Poynor suggests the Rietveld Academy’s MFA course name, “Language and Image” as better than the outmoded graphic design)? Or multiple new ways to describe the specializations emerging that no longer fit the traditional notion of graphic design? Either way, as my “Design/Visual Communications” program fostered in me many years ago, I choose to reflect on this question visually, and offer the following diagram to ponder some of the many events that inspired or signaled a change in the way we identify ourselves.



Download and print your own 10″ x 13″ version.


1 Poynor, Rick. A Report from the Place Formerly Known as Graphic Design, PRINT magazine October 2011
2 Margolin, Victor / Béltran, Félix. Toward a History of Graphic Design, an Interview with Victor Margolin, 2000.
3 Meggs, Phil. A History of Graphic Design, copyright 1998 Wiley & Sons
4 Meggs.
5 Wikipedia. Graphic Design,
6 Wikipedia.
7 Poynor, Rick.
8 Sihan, Chia, [Re]Graphic Design[ated], TAXI –
9 AIGA –
10 Davis, Meredith, Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…, AIGA Presentation 2008

©2011 Jen Bracy

Wedding Design

Being a designer (and a bit of a control freak), I couldn’t imagine turning over the design for my wedding to someone else. Though it was a lot of work, I enjoyed it and thought I’d share.

It started with the engagement announcement, and the ‘J + J’ graphic and brown & blue color scheme with which I ‘branded’ the union of two people with names that both start with ‘J’.

Invitations followed suit, but with the addition of new elements to make details clear for the many out-of-towners. A modern pictographic language was layered over a historical Portland map, tying in with my love of maps as well as our desire to put down roots in this awesome city.

In some of my other my explorations, I loved the way the overlapping J’s could symbolize our union, while simple pictograms could represent our individual and shared interests. A larger poster came out of this; it was framed and displayed at the reception.

We decided on favors that consisted of wildflower seed packets, and cds of our personal wedding music playlist. I made custom brown craft envelopes for both, which tied into the craft brown inside the invitation envelopes.

The wedding and reception flowers followed the brown/blue color scheme, but for some lively orange thrown in for a pop of color against white chairs. The brown fiddleheads were a perfect way to tie these to the cupcake decorations, which extended the subtle nature theme.


And, just when I thought it was all over and my xacto knife stash safe from being depleted… we remembered that we needed an announcement and a party invite, for all those far and near who we couldn’t invite to the main event.

Following My Own Advice…

I try to frequently impart this message to my graphic design students – design what you love, love what you design. This summer I’ve had the luxury of doing a lot of that, researching and crafting a significant campaign on a subject I’m quite passionate about: Eating Local. In fact, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent much of this summer obsessed with this and one other noteworthy design project: my wedding (I’ll post images on that later).

I’ve long understood the reasons to focus on sustainability and responsibility when making food choices, but it never translated to significant action until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle ( The impetus for a major lifestyle change was just too compelling, and the local food resources in this area abundant. Whether it’s for the environment, your health, support of the local economy, or all of the above, making responsible food choices is way of life we all need to adopt.

It’s still a work in progress and how it will be published and distributed is as of yet unknown. But I’m working on it…  and I hope my project brings awareness to the issues surrounding our food culture, and perhaps inspires someone to join the ‘locavore’ movement, as the Kingsolver project did for me.

The first of two infographic posters explains several of the most compelling reasons, supported by statistical information that make the need for change undeniable.


The second poster shares resources for going local, including harvest timetables so one can know what seasonal produce to expect at the farmer’s market and local groceries.

Most of the same information is included on the monthly guide package. The twelve 5″ x 7″ cards list seasonal veggies and feature one or two, for which meal ideas, recipes, and preserving strategies are given.

Sustainable eating isn’t just about food-distance. The three basic components of responsible eating are to favor food grown in an environmentally responsible way, delivered with minimal petroleum use, in a manner that doesn’t exploit the farmers. It can be more expensive, yes, but not when you consider the outrageous government subsidies to industrial farms, the cost of health care needed to combat diet-related illness, and the great environmental sacrifice.

Since the project’s inception, I’ve been more adventurous than ever, trying out the recipes with produce form my own garden and nearby farmer’s markets. Food has never tasted so good!



Type Is/As Art

JB – fun with collage and doodling

It’s no secret to those that know me… I’m a typophile. I love typography, and especially those examples of cleverly expressed type that at once make the message clear AND move you in some way. And yet, sometimes, it is solely for that latter purpose. Here’s a small sampling of drool-worthy type…


amazing pencil sculptures of letterforms by Dalton Ghetti

Kumi Yamashita has a gift for turning shape and light/shdaow into haunting typographic installations

the breathtaking work of Yulia Brodskaya

the remarkable Marian Bantjes

… Ork Design”]

“Branding” and Community

“Branding”, or identity design, has many important functions: it helps an organization establish a positive connection and value-relationship with those that it serves. It also serves to build brand equity and value. Recently, some of my graphic design students have gained valuable real-world experience, and helped shape their community, through branding two important organizations at Western Oregon University.

Abby’s House, Western Oregon University’s Center for Women and Families, is an on-campus resource center and meeting place, serving students, staff, faculty and members of the surrounding community. The center’s services include a resource library, educational programming, peer advising and mentoring, and support services. Abby’s House provides time and space for support or networking groups to meet in a nurturing, comfortable and confidential atmosphere. Abby’s House received an ‘extreme makeover’ to establish a consistent look and feel among their communications.

WOU’s  Program for Undergraduate Research Experiences (PURE), has also received a logo and other designs for consistent application across numerous promotional applications and publications. PURE works to facilitate and enhance undergraduate research experiences at the university. For example, they co-sponsor the annual Academic Excellence Showcase in which hundreds of students present their best scholarly works. PURE is also creating an undergraduate research journal that will include peer-reviewed research, scholarship, and creative arts contributions from undergraduate students in any academic discipline.

Some of the resulting designs follow:

BIOPLASTICS symbol design contest

VOTE FOR ME – help me reach the finalist round, and maybe even take home $25,000!

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The challenge: a symbol to represent Bioplastics, and an alternate symbols for end-of-life instructions – some are compostable some are recyclable.

Bioplastics are an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional plastics because they are made from plants instead of petroleum or natural gas.

The symbols should be able to be used in similar fashion to how the recycling symbol is used, which means SIMPLE and works without color on plastic containers. Some of the other entries may look cool, but won’t work in these conditions….

(See photoshop sample).

The voting is a bit odd… you visit and choose between whatever two designs are shown at a time; you’ll have to sift through a bit and watch for any of mine to come up. I appreciate your support!

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