Creating Five Alarm Concepts (Take 2) – Von Glitschka

Download Slides.

Von Glitschka’s presentation, Creating 5 Alarm Concepts, is one of the better sessions of the HOW Conference. His talk was well organized and well thought out.

He started by stating that not all design problems require a “homerun” that sometimes the answer really is as simple as a sign saying “2 hotdogs for 99¢.” A hit is a hit, the point is whether or not your  solution works.

But when we are called upon to come up with a complex concept, a 5 alarm concept, what do we do to generate those ideas?

Loading the Chamber

First, according to Von, it is important to load the chamber by which he means to fill your head with ideas gleaned from outside the design field. He was careful to mention that we must also look outside of the world of design as it will deepen our well of inspiration. Instead of just one source of inspiration, we will have many. It takes dedicated and purposeful focus and as designers, we should be great thinkers. It is very easy as designers to concentrate on the look rather than the project as a whole.

One area this manifests itself is in the eternal battle between Marketing and Graphic Design. Many times each side is looking at something different while assuming the other should see things their way. He offered 4 points that we designers should keep in mind when talking with Marketing:

  1. Reaching the audience appropriately. Concentrate on solving their problems, not the company’s.
  2. If someone’s comments sound negative, step into their shoes. Don’t take the criticism personally, rather try to see where they are coming from.
  3. Understand the realities of investment and return of investment for your client. Realize that there are real business goals behind this project that must be met. If the design doesn’t bring in business, there probably won’t be business for the designer.
  4. Educate the client, help them understand. Sometimes, you must help them realize that they are not the final audience. Move them from thinking about what they like to what the audience likes.

He continued to say that we should dig deep into the client’s head to help develop a solution. He spoke of research as an ongoing process throughout the life cycle of the project rather than a stage near the beginning.

Gathering Conceptual Triggers

Research involves many facets, but the point of all of it is to collect “conceptual triggers” which he equated to matches. The more matches you have, the more concepts you can illuminate.

He lists 2 types of conceptual triggers:

  1. Reading
  2. Travel

You can collect these “matches” anywhere if you look for them.


Reading, Von says, is equivalent to thinking with someone else’s head. Through careful reading of a wide variety of sources, we can expand our knowledge across many disciplines (be a good thinker). Great design is not an island unto itself. Sources include books, magazines, blogs, etc.


You collect matches just by traveling. When you are someplace new, you tend to notice things more clearly. Von Glitschka collects textures by photographing interesting textures he sees. You also meet new people and see things you never have before such as animals, art, nature, architecture, history, food and festivals.

He uses the example of Petra, Jordan which was created by Bedouins who were on the move much of their lives. When the created Petra, they incorporated design elements from the areas they had traveled through to create something entirely new and different. His exhortation to “be a Bedouin” means to source your various experiences into your design making something new and interesting.

Travel can be done where you are as well. Visit places you haven’t before, make a habit of noticing things around you.

Harvest your inspiration

We are often inspired by thoughts, visuals, and words. To capture these, we must have a plan. He suggests always keeping a pad of paper or some other way of recording the ideas.

When doing this, keep these things in mind: Embrace the rabbit trails, work with simple tools like pen and paper, and find an environment that is conducive to this type of thinking.

Here are some techniques to begin:

Word associations
Not just a simple list of words, but words that relate to the subject in different ways. Look at the diagrams pdf in Von’s presentation to get a better idea of what he’s talking about. Basically, though, it contains 8 categories: metaphors, facts, historical, slang, emotional, personification, hyperbole, idioms, and puns. Thinking of your subject, fill in words or phrases in each of these categories and then select ones that seem to have some type of connection or suggest a creative solution.

Mind Mapping
Everywhere I went at the conference, it seemed the speakers were talking about mind mapping. The process basically goes the same way you may have learned pre-writing in school. You begin with your subject in the middle, and then write down everything you can think of that has to do with it. Branch off of those ideas to new ideas and so forth. Peter Samis has some examples on his website. You don’t necessarily have to draw images with it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Although the above were the two ideas I liked best, he also listed others that may be of value to you and your workflow. Again, download the presentation to get the whole story.

My take

This was one of my favorite presentations. Von Glitschka is both entertaining and knowledgeable and shares that in a comfortable, easy-to-digest way. I see these ideas fitting into our culture here at Mutual by using his brainstorming ideas in creative team meetings. I think that we use these techniques on both personal and team levels to produce more ideas faster. I especially like his ideas concerning finding an environment that stimulates creative thinking and humbly suggest we create some type of Brand library where we could house books, magazines and other appropriate materials in a warm and inviting area that would lend itself to creative thinking.

Finally, I would encourage everyone to spend time reading and traveling, gaining new experiences or “matches” to utilize when creating new concepts.

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Creating Five Alarm Concepts – Von Glitschka

Von Glitschka is a illustrator, designer, author and owner of Glitschka studios ( based in Salem Oregon.

5 Alarm Concepts was one of the first sessions I decided on, and it did not disapoint. The Five-Alarm Concepts session was all about learning how to establish conceptual triggers that help you think through problems and formulate new ideas.

Von talked about “Loading our mental chambers” with everything around us. It helps our creativity and mental process if were able to look outside our areas of expertise to find new and intriguing information.

Conceptual Triggers
Anything you experience or see, and store in your mind is a “match”. Matches have the ability to spark creative solutions at anytime. Some of the ways to collect matches are:

Reading is a great tool, and allows you to think with someone else’s brain. It also improves your communication skills, verbally and linguistically.

Two Books I’m reading now

“Change by Design” by Tim Brown from IDEO

“A Fine Line” by Hartmut Esslinger from Frog Design

Traveling exposes you to new and exciting environments and forces you to collect matches whether you know it or not. Experiencing other cultures, foods, people, art, architecture and history will provide you with the ammunition you need to creatively solve your next problem.

Leave Your Comfort Zone
Experience things you would have never dreamed about and put yourself in unfamiliar situations. Von referenced a recent trip to the slums of Africa that had a profound impact on his life. He collected matches and saw the amount of creativity kids can have when making their own toys with no money.

In order to put all these matches to good use you have a system in place to capture your thoughts and inspirations at a moments notice. Inspiration can come in many forms, thoughts, visuals, words ect.

Work by Von Glitschka


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Lunch with a Speaker – Christopher Chapman

Christopher Chapman

Tuesday I was supposed to take part in a roundtable lunch with a speaker. I signed up to dine with illustrator Eleanor Grosch. After meeting with the other six designers at the table (including the infamous “other Kelly Anderson” from Sports Authority) we started to eat our sandwiches, then our side dishes, then our desserts. Over 20 minutes in and Eleanor Grosch still hadn’t showed up. Finally, one of the event organizers came over and apologized that our speaker hadn’t showed up and invited us to go to another table. I decided to head two tables over to a speaker who had one guest and an assortment of TOYS! I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I sat down, soon followed by the rest of my former table.

Our new speaker was Christopher Chapman, an in-house designer who worked for the company in charge of making merchandise for the Disney Store and the theme park gift shops. He was speaking at the In-Howse conference, which was why I hadn’t heard of the session he was having later in the day.

Despite working for a company like Disney, Chris’s challenges were similar to most other in-house designers: designers not being involved as early in the process as they should be; clients trying to design for them; trying to defend and expand the brand.

Chris’s solutions to his problems were very proactive. He recommended always involving the client, so they feel as so they are a part of the process, and they will be more likely to support and defend the final design. This also allows you to make changes earlier in the process, which saves significant time and effort on the designer’s part.

His next big idea was to educate your client. You can do so in a very straight-forward manner, or, my favorite option, give your clients design books for Christmas presents. He recommended Orbiting the Giant Hairball as a great gift for a new marketing manager or other business person who doesn’t understand the value of design and the design process.

Finally, he also pointed out that sometimes your client is right. It hurts the pride, but take a step back, look at the suggestion as if it had come form another designer and then decide if it’s a valid point. Just because your client didn’t go to art school doesn’t mean they can’t recognize a flaw in the design.

Overall, it was a great lunch, and I found myself actually happy that Eleanor hadn’t shown up. Chris gave everyone at the table a Vinylmation Micky toy (I got the Godzilla Micky) and some great recommendations for further reading on in-house design.

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IdeaSelling – Sam Harrison

“If they birthed it, they can’t kill it.”

Sam Harrison is the author of ideaSELLING a book for creatives to improve their presentation skills to clients. His session was on how to survive and successfully sell your idea pitch to a client. His ideas were deceptively simple. While they are most relevant to agencies, they still apply to in-house designers.

  • Understand your client. What does your decision maker do on Saturday night? Where does he/she sit on the buyer’s bench? Why should he/she care?
  • Ask the right questions. Open-ended questions are always better than “yes/no.” Your last question before exiting should be: “What else should I be asking you?”
  • Involve your decision makers. “If they birthed it, they can’t kill it.” If they feel like they own it, they’re less likely to be defensive, and more likely to buy in and be excited about your idea.
  • Understand the business. It makes for better concepts, and your knowledge will show when you present.
  • Know the room. Know where you’ll be presenting. Have a feel for how loud you will need to talk, where to set up, whether people in the back will be able to see you.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice.
  • Avoid handouts. But have leave-behinds.

Harrison’s 5 Big Secrets

  1. Have 1 theme or big idea. You should be able to say it in one breath. It will make your pitch more focused, and you more confident.
  2. Have a strong start. Open with a story, a question, a fact, a quote, your objective, or with a some straight talk.
  3. Use simple language. Keep it short and sweet. Reduce, round, relate.
  4. Paint pictures. Help the decision maker visualize your idea, help them see your ideas as reality.
  5. Add drama. Use drama if the decision maker appreciates it, you understand your decision maker’s wants and needs, and you know you have credibility.

And finally, Harrison recommends you remember to prepare to close your pitch. Don’t buy it back. End it simply, strongly, and firmly.

I have purchased the book ideaSELLING, and if you’d like to check it out, it’s in the Graphics area.

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Make Stuff – Mike Perry

Mike Perry is a designer and artist, best known for his work with American Outfitters. He is an avid creator of zines and his style has greatly influenced the graphics community. His presentation was more of a show-and-tell than anything. When it came to giving advice and answering audience questions, he was amusing, but not very helpful. When asked by a designer she could do to become inspired, he actually recommended she smoke pot. In a more serious tone, he did point out that a lot of his success has come from hard work and his constant need to keep actively creating stuff. If you have time, check out his web site.

Some examples of Mike Perry’s Work

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Developing a Personal Style – Eleanor Grosch

Eleanor Grosch is a freelance illustrator who is known for doing flat, colorful illustrations, primarily of animals. Her session was on developing a personal style. A great deal of her discussion was about how she has had to overcome criticism about her style, which is apparently similar to an artist famous in the 50’s. Grosch posed the question for artist faced with similar criticisms to ask “what am I bringing to this style?” She also showed a great deal of her work. I checked out her web site and I personally think she had some stronger pieces online.

She gave out a handout with questions to help you uncover your personal style.

  • What did you do as a child? Did you draw/paint/build?
  • What kind of music do you like? Fun/somber/instrumental?
  • What are you drawn to most? Color/shape/texture/line?
  • Which typefaces do you think are attractive? Script/sans-serif/serif/thick/condensed/extended?
  • Which other designers/illustrators/painters/sculptors do you like best? What is it about their work do you enjoy?

Some examples of her work:

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Color Trends by Pantone

Yes, Mutual of Omaha may already have a color palette, but I couldn’t resist checking out the color forecast session hosted by Pantone. Our speaker opened by discussing what influences the trends in color. Here’s a quick summary of a few of them:

  • World Events such as the World Cup, BP oil spill, Olympics
  • Movies such as the turquoise used in Avatar, or the black and gold of the Oscars
  • Retro Style because to young people, everything old is new
  • Fashion and Jewelry
  • Technology such as high definition televisions allowing greater, bolder images and color
  • Interior Design

The Summer 2011 Color Forecast

Sublime Form

Inspired by the exuberance of natural forms as seen in botanicals and flowers. Confident, intense and luminous. The combinations are vibrant and outgoing and reach out into the use of complementary colors – those that are opposite each other on the color wheel.

Sublime Form Palette


Neutrals programmed into a palette of pales. Using in combinations with a group of mid-tones in rose, mauve, and blue helps to “solidify” the pales, while deeper tones of green, brown, black and blue add weight and divide the lights and darks into a strong contrast.

Programmed Palette


A family of mid-tones and a deep shade of green add a more understated and muted presence. Shades of ashy purples, mauve, tourmaline and withered rose are sophisticated and quiet, equally divided between warm and cool tones. These hues have a vegetable dyed appearance, organic and natural. Mixes are often very “rooted” in appearance, underscored by brown or sand.

Branching Palette


This palette also uses grounded browns, russets, umbers and taupes. But it also uses a pulsating excitement with the addition of dynamic reds and flambee pinks topped by burnished metallics of bronze and gold.

Balance Palette


This palette that works off neutrals in the gray family and a deep graphite blue. It relies primarily on the excitement of the hotter hues of yellow, orange and fascinating juxtaposition of texture, light and color.

Focus Palette


The Pantone session held a lot of great insight into where color has been and where it is going in the next months. If you’d like to check out the palettes yourself, they are saved as an InDesign document on Universal Share in the graphics folder and is titled “Pantone Palettes 2011.”

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Brainsqualling with Stephan Mumaw

Stephen Mumaw in his nun's habit to remind us that "creativity is a habit."

What could be better first thing in the morning than listening to a 6-foot tall guy in a nun’s habit and making crafts with Play Doh and pipe cleaners? Stephen Mumaw, co-author of Caffeine for the Creative Mind led a session on how to get the most out of brainstorming. His two main points:

  1. Creativity is a habit
  2. Think before you think

Sister Stephen gave some very practical tips to help with group brainstorming sessions:

  • The ideal number of people to include is 5-7. More than 7 and no one will speak. Less than 5 and you won’t get enough variety and input.
  • Don’t surround yourself with other you’s. Variety of opinions is important, so go ahead and ask someone from another department to join in.
  • No pop quizes. NEVER call someone to a meeting to start brainstorming immediately. Always give notice, preferably a week.
  • Value time. Give yourself and team members plenty of time to come up with a great idea.
  • Start the fire with a creative match. Try starting a brainstorming session with a creative exercise to get everyone in the right frame of mind.
  • Leave the judge at the door. Don’t allow negative feedback and comments in an initial brainstorming session. You need bad ideas and good ideas to get to great ideas, and negative comments will silence all ideas.

In between brainstorming tips, the group got to try some creative exercises. The first was to build a Colorado Sasquatch made of the random craft materials on the table, working in groups of three. The next exercise was to build an amusement park ride for a bug, also out of the materials on the table. The final exercise was to design your ideal desk if you had infinite resources to do so.

Our group's Sasquatch was a mountain biker who loves to drink Fat Tire beer (made in denver) and he only eats organic hikers.
Our team's ride for a bug is the PLUNGE OF DEATH, a rollercoaster that ends with a flume ride into a toilet.
It took little prodding to get the designers to get creative with the supplies.
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Inspiration: You Are What You Keep

Gail Anderson

Former Rolling Stone art director, Gail Anderson explains how projects she did for herself influenced her work later on as a creative. Five things inspire her: Illustration, Obsession, Nostalgia, Magazines, and Celebrities.

Illustration. Gail has many illustrations of herself and others that all bring out different qualities. She often uses these to inform her later work. Illustrated books she read as a child made her want to illustrate, to do what these other people were doing.

Obsession. One of the most interesting things she collects are various obsessions. For example, she began filling her school notebook covers with tiny, very complex images and words. As a designer, she used this idea and what she learned about form to make very complex covers and story designs at Rolling Stone.

She also goes through phases of collecting things like salt and pepper shakers and bottle caps. Often, she will use these as literal points of inspiration for her work. Her Type Designers Club annual featured many bottle caps from her collection and a magazine cover she did utilized a large letter she had in her collection.

Nostalgia. As stated before, she gains inspiration from many of her childhood books and records, especially the ones with illustrations on them.

Celebrities, especially Michael Jackson. She made scrapbooks as a child of the Jackson Five and of course Michael Jackson. She would lay out cut out photos and write her own captions and headlines. This scrapbooking helped teach her about layout and the relationships between objects on the page.

My Reaction

Although entertaining and containing interesting slides, Gail Anderson’s presentation did not seem to connect as well to the audience. Was she stating that we should all start collections of stuff? How specifically can we gain inspiration from our collections or other items? The others may have other opinions, but I left feeling like I’d seen something neat, what drives one particular accomplished person, but found little in terms of practical application to my job.

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