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  • Writer's pictureAshley Ehman

Week 9: Message Delivered

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

This week has us looking at the medium we're creating our designs with, as well as the overall message being portrayed in our pieces. While there are certain elements of design that are formed by rigid rules, the content from this week reminds us that sometimes the best thing to do is to play around with your work and see what sort of witty response your brain can come up with!


Lecture Reflection

The lecture for this week consisted of a conversational podcast between Susanna Edwards and Sam Winston. The main topic of conversation was how designers can use the form and function of a design to contribute and elaborate on the overall message of the piece.

The first part of the lecture that caught my attention was when Sam began talking about how a lot of a designer's work is based on screen-based media. He went on to elaborate on how it can be good to get away from the screen and work with physical tools. As he continued, he said...

[Physical design] isn't a linear journey. It involves active reflection (Falmouth Flexible 2020).

I had never realized this before! When you're working with physical tools and materials, each decision you make as you work your way towards a final product is active reflection. If something doesn't work at the moment, you can make the conscious decision to try a different tactic. This isn't always present when working on a computer, since it's easy to become consumed by what you think your final result should be. However, when you leave your computer or tablet out of the equation, it's easier to tune into your "gut feeling" and make choices based on what feels right for your design. As Sam elaborated,

When doing projects, it's useful to not be carried away with the outcome (Falmouth Flexible 2020).

If you become too consumed by the outcome, you could lose out on making something so much better than you originally imagined. Sometimes, trusting yourself is the key to a job well done. In fact, Sam explicitly said in the lecture that,

You have to trust that you'll come up with something useful (Falmouth Flexible 2020).

I think this is a hard concept for me to grasp. That's not to say my designs don't end up being useful. Rather, I think I can end up holding myself back by not "playing" more. I'm a very task-oriented person, so I'm often focused on the end result and how I can get there in the most efficient way possible. While efficiency gets things done in a timely manner, it can detract from varying levels of creativity. This pairs wells with the idea that "one of the hardest things is having time management to make time for yourself" (Falmouth Flexible 2020). First, by not making time for myself to have fun in design, I'm taking away the opportunity to have fun and "let loose" with our creative briefs. Second, by not including time for myself when I map out my time each day, I've gone from making design about doing what I love to doing what I HAVE to do. It becomes a task, not a chance to explore. After this week's lecture, I hope to carve out more time to have fun in design and not just check a box in my planner.


Resource Reflection

"A Smile in the Mind" by Beryl McAlhone proved to be a fun resource for this week's topic. The book was focused on the wit and creativity of various designers and creatives, and how they apply that to their work. However, the book exudes such wit before you even open it! Embodying witty design from the cover to the stories it holds, "A Smile in the Mind" literally has a smile in the mind. By turning the "D" on its side, the word "Mind" looks like it contains a smile. Combined with the title of the book, "A Smile in the Mind", the designers were able to create a double entendre of sorts.

If that design choice isn't witty enough for you, the stories told within the book's pages were definitely ones that made a person think. Out of the creatives mentioned, I felt myself most drawn to Shigeo Fukuda. His technique for starting any job was what originally drew me in. As he describes,

...First I wash my hands with soap. Then I sharpen ten or more pencils with a cutter-knife. This is a sort of ceremony aimed at putting the ideas I have into shape (Mcalhone et al. 2016)

I liked that he took the time to ready himself to work. I'm very big on putting intention into things, such as self-care baths, my Lyra workouts, or even things I'm cooking. However, I don't have a process to start my design work as of late. Prior to the pandemic, I imagine my "process" would look something like this:

  • Find a coffee shop

  • Sort out a corner near an outlet to spread out my supplies

  • Order a beverage

  • Put on my headphones

  • Get to work

Nowadays, my intention is lacking, and I don't have much consistency to organize my design around.

Another part of Fukuda's blurb that I smiled while reading was this:

I have liked making things every since I was a child and I still do. Age does not come into the question (Mcalhone et al. 2016)

I recall making things myself when I was younger, from paper dolls to sewing pajama pants. This "maker mentality" paired with the idea that age doesn't matter was a refreshing thing to consider. As we all inevitably get older, it's nice to know that with age comes experience. In the design world, that experience can spur your next great idea! Age is not a hindrance in this field, rather a unique perspective to pull upon.

Lastly, upon further digging, I found myself enjoying Fukuda's cartoon style and his ability to create optical illusion type pieces. The thing I found most interesting about his pieces was his unique skillset in making two different things look realistic by themselves, while also combining them into one piece.

As exhibited in the piece to the left, Fukuda is able to create a striking balance between the heeled shoe and the men's dress shoe. Both styles of leg look as they should even when taken away from this picture. However, when combined, they work together and create the optical illusion artistry that Fukuda is known for.


Workshop Challenge


As a means to spark some sort of inspiration for this week's challenge, I found myself driving around downtown Madison. While I would have liked to simply sit in the area, like Sam Winston had mentioned, the downtown area is currently a raging hotspot for COVID cases. This is partly due to the university students that call the locale home during the school year, as well as the businesses that are open for service right now. These, in combination with loosened mask protocols, makes it hard to feel safe in the heart of the city. With this in mind, I examined the area as best as I could from the safety of my vehicle.

Downtown Madison is unique in a few different ways. First, the capitol building is situated at the center, with all the streets in the area running toward the impressive piece of architecture. This required some strange arrangements on the City Planner's end of things, so now the road that circles the Capitol is a one way. If you really wanted to, you could simply drive around the building all day, until finally turning on to one of the many streets that branch off from the Capitol square.

Another thing I noticed during my drive was the amount of inspirational signage in the windows of various buildings. Some were geared towards thanking essential workers, while others spoke to the sentiment that "we're all in this together." This would play into the selection of the word I eventually decided to work with.

When I got home, I started to create a list of emotions that I felt would adequately describe Madison. Some of those words were:

  • Welcoming

  • Stressed

  • Diverse

  • Tired

  • Burned Out

  • Hopeful

  • Anxious

  • Dynamic

  • Determined

  • Wounded

From there, I chose a few different words that I felt I could have fun working with since they lent themselves to fun medium ideas.

Burned Out

For the first emotion, "burned out", I had the idea to literally burn something. The idea behind this one was to work with a Wisconsin-based liquor, such as Minhas distillery vodka. While this may seem like a strange medium to work with, Wisconsin is a very booze-centric state, and actually has the title of the most Alcoholic state in the country.


This emotion was interesting to think about and I came up with a few different ideas on how to adequately portray it in a unique medium. If I had pursued this one, I would have perhaps made some sort of signage out of goose feathers, since that's often what's in pillows. Another idea was to create a sleeping mask that had references to Madison as a city.


The diversity within Madison is also noteworthy. Between the university students that are attracted to the city, to the businesses that recruit individuals from beyond Wisconsin borders, we are lucky to have a wide array of populations represented. To represent this idea, I had the thought to outline the word "Diverse" in a removable material, such as tape. From there, I would use melted crayons to create an outline of the word, as well as allude to the diversity we have here through the various colors of the crayons.


While the city has calmed down some since the election, there's still a certain level of anxiety that can be felt. As a county, Dane County, and therefore Madison, is very much a bubble of liberalism. Outside of the county, you're more likely to encounter Trump supporters, anti-maskers, racists, and other unfortunate individuals. In fact, Dane County is a large reason that Wisconsin ended up going to Joe Biden, since an overwhelming 77% of the citizens voted for him. The rest of the state had more Trump leanings.


"Hopeful" was the word I ended up choosing for this project. First, the signage that I saw was inspiring and reminded me that even though we're apart, there's still a sense of community in Madison. There's also a mask mandate within the county that doesn't extend beyond the borders, making it easier to recognize those people who are looking out for the more at-risk populations. Beyond that, with Joe Biden securing the election, a lot of the views shared by the citizens of Madison will now be shared with the individual in office come January. This has reinvigorated the city as a whole, giving it some of the same vibrancy and energy it had pre-COVID.


Since the focus this week was on medium, I started to think about different materials I could use for the project. "Hopeful" itself spurred ideas of flowers growing through cement cracks, lights at the end of the tunnel, and rainbows after storms. I began thinking about ways that I could portray these ideas in the final piece. Because of who I am as a person, I became interested in how I could use fire as an element in my work.

Pyrography was the first art style that caught my attention. Pyrography is...

...An age-old technique where a heated metal pen is used to burn wood, leaving behind a decorative pattern (Stewart 2018).

While I didn't have the special soldering pen to make this type of art happen for myself, it inspired my project, so I decided to dig deeper.

It was during this point that I came across fire artist, Ellis Gallagher. His artistic process includes spray painting a surface, or tagging it, and then lighting the wet paint on fire before it dries. The flammability of the paint makes it possible to leave ashy remains behind

I liked how he used the fire to his advantage, so I began thinking of ways I could do that in my own way. At this point, I felt drawn to the idea that there's "always light at the end of the tunnel." Originally, I attempted to "paint" a word on paper using rubbing alcohol. I was going to try to use the dyed alcohol mixture to artfully paint some calligraphy, and in turn, light it on fire. Unfortunately, the paper itself also burned, so this idea was quickly discarded.


When I discovered that my alcohol idea wouldn't work, I began looking at other options. I knew from my own experience as an amateur fire-hooper that extended shutter times on cameras allowed for certain trails of light to show in images. I also remembered that in the past, people would use sparklers to write fun 4th of July messages and post them to social media.

Being that it's almost December, I couldn't find sparklers at my local department store. Thankfully, my roommate and I are avid hemp wick users, since we have some oddly shaped candles and don't enjoy burning ourselves as we attempt to light them.

Hemp wick in hand, I locked myself in my room to (once again) play with dangerous substances. I adjusted my camera's shutter speed to 10 seconds, and later to 15 seconds, after a few test shots. Once the camera had started capturing the image, I began writing "Hopeful" to the best of my ability in the air. Since there wasn't a way to end a letter, the word took on a flowy, cursive look as all the letters were connected. A sampling of some of the images I got is below.

As you can see, the words came across backward since I was spelling things according to how I would see them. I had tried to do my word in the opposite direction, but my lack of hand-eye coordination made this too hard. I opted to flip the image in the editing part of my process.

When I finally got an image I thought would be legible and easy to work with, I moved from lighting things on fire in my bedroom to editing images on my computer. Within Photoshop, I added a vignette to the image in order to mask the distracting background. I also used some of my own Photoshop wizardry to remove various elements of myself from the image. Something about my blurred face just didn't seem to add to the whole "Hopeful" message. When I was done strengthening the appearance of the image, I was left with the following:

I was happy with how this looked but thought it could use more Madison added to it. Inspired by my drive around Capitol Square, I incorporated a photo I had taken of the capitol building. Since all roads in the city seem to lead here, I thought it served as a good beacon of hope. Even when we're all spread out and kept away from one another, we know that one day we'll be able to sit on the Capitol lawn again, watching the bustling city pass by.

As such, my final piece looks like this:

I liked how the word ended up being a balanced addition to the building, as it stretches the width of the Capitol. I also thought this was a good spin on the cliche I had visited earlier, there being a "light at the end of the tunnel" when it comes to COVID and the tumultuous presidency we've endured.

Update: Post-Crit #3

I opted to take out the Capitol building that I had as my background. As my classmates said, it seemed to detract from the glow and power of the word, which I didn’t want.

Final Thoughts

This was a fun project for me to make and I'm happy with how it turned out! If I had had better access to resources, I would have definitely explored the realm of pyrography more. Honestly, I might still investigate that art style in my free time, as I find the use of burning material intriguing. I think it would be fun to do a piece centered around the phrase "Burned Out" with it actually being burned into the material.

Another thing I might do differently with more time would be to create an animation of the actual word being written. However, I wasn't quite sure how to make this happen. Perhaps through a collection of photos taken of the individual action needed for each letter? Again, lack of knowledge and lack of time to sort through the problem had me explore the more manageable process that I came up with.

If I were given the opportunity to display this, I imagine it being on a large canvas in a well-lit gallery. The walls would be white, floors would likely be some wooden material. I think it would also do well as a paneled piece, possibly being broken into six different segments: three squares, two rows. I would want it to be large in order to encompass the idea that the hopefulness that I feel within Madison is large and all-consuming. As a member of the audience, I feel the piece would have more perceived power and impact as a big piece of art.



FALMOUTH FLEXIBLE. 2020. “Form and Function with Susanna Edwards and Sam Winston.” [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Nov 2020].

MATTHÄUS FROST. 2012. “The Solar Annual Report.” YouTube. Available at: [accessed 25 Nov 2020].

MCALHONE, Beryl, David STUART, Greg QUINTON and Nick ASBURY. 2016. A Smile in the Mind : Witty Thinking in Graphic Design. London ; New York Ny: Phaidon Press Ltd.

ROGERS, SA. 2013. “Art Aflame: 14 Pyro-Centric Sculptures & Installations.” WebUrbanist [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Nov 2020].

STEWART, Jessica. 2018. “How to Creatively Decorate Wood Using the Ancient Art of Pyrography.” My Modern Met [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Nov 2020].

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