The Tao of design

In February, this space reviewed a pair of sites related to the often overlooked world of Industrial Design - sites which reminded the reader that even a lowly railroad spike is the result of someone's vision being translated into reality. Of course, when we normally think of "Design," we're thinking of the graphic variety - the look of this website's layout, the logo on your computer, the colors and textures on that paper cup of take-out coffee. Which is to say, despite its ubiquity, we generally don't think much about graphic design either.

This week's offerings are guaranteed to raise that graphic design awareness level, at least temporarily. And though it might not be long after re-entering the real world before your senses are once again overwhelmed into desensitization, for a few moments at least, these sites might help you appreciate that even the look of a single letter can be a work of art.

Launched in March, the AIGA Design Archives spotlights winners from the American Institute of Graphic Art's annual selections of design excellence, along with the work of designers singled out for special recognition. Featured projects range from items as ubiquitous as multi-national corporate identities (FedEx being a particularly successful example) to design exercises that you would have never seen but for this site (unless you're a secret collector of Tupperware Annual Reports) - but all are considered by the Institute to be worth this online distinction.

On loading the home page, visitors are presented with a randomly selected collection of thumbnail images from the Archive, and the choice of exploring either the 2004 "Year in Design" selections (which represents work created in 2003), or the online archives of works from previous years. (I couldn't find official word on how far back these entries date, but in terms of volume, there are more than 1000 images in the latter option.)

To take the smaller collection (180 images) first, the 2004 Annual divides its winners into 11 categories (Book Design, Illustration, Brand and Identity Systems, etc.), and arranges them in a horizontally scrolling exhibit - reminiscent of a typical interactive timeline. While the entire collection is gathered into a single, very long, 'scroll,' surfers can move quickly from one location to another via a choice of Category links above the thumbnails, or coarse and fine scrolling tabs below.

Place your pointer over a thumbnail and the requisite popup box reveals a few basic facts. Click on a selection and a new page opens - with such items as credits, comments by the jurors and creators, and the ability to zoom in to the item all the way to life size. In addition, much of the information here is linked to the archives' database, so if you like a particular piece, you can click on the name of the artist, photographer, design firm, etc. to see more of their work.

The long-term Archives use a different navigational format to handle the greater volume of exhibits. In this case, the visitor can either browse the entire 1066-image collection through a series of 18-image grids, or jump from one cluster to another using a string of dashes situated below each new set.

The collection can also be filtered to only return results from one or more of twelve categories (the previous eleven plus "MotionGraphics"), or selectively view specific collections - including the last four annual anthologies. As before, a mouseover reveals an info box (and,in this case, an enlarged thumbnail) and clicking opens a feature page.

Both collections also offer access to a flexible keyword search and the"Lightbox" - a personal album which allows surfers to create their own sets of favorite works, make personal notes about individual items, and share choices through slide shows. Icons at the top of the screen allow backtracking to previous pages, and this is recommended over using your browser's Back button. While the latter usually works, it can (with this Flash-based content) lead to unpredictable results - for example, going directly from an enlarged image back to the grid or timeline, and skipping the item's home page in between.

Unfortunately, a quirky Back button wasn't the site's only idiosyncrasy.

In an 800x600 browser window, text links at the bottom of the home page sit on top of introductory text, making both illegible. The site also seemed to need occasional poking and prodding to get it to work. In Explorer, I had to 'prompt' the loading of the home page's main content (even after th eFlash components were apparently loaded) by clicking on the Archive's homepage icon, and some thumbnails in the 2004 'timeline' never loaded at all -displaying a rotating arrow 'progress' icon until I gave up and moved on. In Netscape, the full archives had serious problems with loading thumbnail grids until after I had chosen a specific category (after which the system worked fine regardless of settings).

More aggravations than you'll find on most sites reviewed in this space, but with luck you might not encounter them yourself, and if you have even a passing interest in the material, the content will compensate for any irritation. From a redesign of the Comedy Central network logo, to the cover design for the 2001 Charles Schultz retrospective, "Peanuts," to packaging for everything from iPods to Star Wars merchandise, this site will be a valuable resource for the student of design - and for the rest of us, an entertaining spot to do a bit of poking around.

Further design appreciation and awareness can also be cultivated from a very different -and potentially much more frustrating- source. (But in this case, the frustration is intended.) The Retail Alphabet Game presents players with a completely unremarkable collection of 26 letters -unremarkable except that each letter has been lifted from the wordmark of a well known company or product. Many, if not most, will look instantly familiar but the question is, can you recognize the letters' origins when they're taken out of their context. (Could you recognize the "o" from the Coca-Cola logo?)

Below the grid, each letter is assigned a text window into which the surfer can type his or her guesses, and a click of the "Try" button will reveal which guesses were right. (Incorrect entries will be blanked out for subsequent attempts.) There are four sets of alphabets currently available,and if you just have to know the origins of some particularly frustrating characters, answers are available for the first three editions. As to the most recent, in the words of creator, Joey Katzen, "Requests for hints will not be addressed."

If you're prone to hair pulling, you might want to put on a hat before accepting this challenge. While some letters will be easily recognizable and others complete mysteries, the truly maddening examples will be those that you know that you know but just can't put your finger on. Of course, if you can instantly produce the correct parents for every orphaned letter, you'll have to decide for yourself whether this is due to your astounding observational powers, or a mind fully commandeered by Madison Avenue.

The AIGA Design Archives can be found at with the Retail Alphabet Game at

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