Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Useful Calendar Part 2: Dragons and Robbers

I wrote about the origins of the Useful Calendar, and why I call it that, in this post yesterday. Today I'll finish the story.

The Useful Calendar Goes International

Once I started selling the calendar on Etsy, I shifted from a hyper-local focus and made it into an international calendar. It now includes all US federal holidays and many international observances, as well as important holidays of the world’s major religions. 

Each year it seems that I discover some holiday or observance I haven't included before that I feel I should add, either because it's from a country that I see as on an equal footing with others I've chosen to include (if the Belgian National Day, why not the Swiss?), or because I find it to be a delightful occasion and think others will too (such as the Japanese Doll Festival). Depending on when these occur, I may drop something else to fit it in (July and August almost always have room; February and March are always crowded). 

2012: The Year of the Dragon and a Bigger Calendar

A few years ago, my husband suggested that I make the one-page poster version larger, so I made it tabloid-size (11 x 17 inches) in 2012. 

It was the year of the dragon, and with our own bankruptcy and foreclosure still fresh in my mind—stemming from the failure of the Observer in 2006— and knowing that so many others had been through a similar experience what with the recent real estate bust, I drew my dragon as a (mortgage) banker in a blue suit. It was sort of my own little inside joke.

The 2012 calendar—the year of the dragon—at twice the size of the 2011 edition

And since I had a little extra space in January, I added a quote from Patricia Wrede's book, Talking to Dragons: "Always be polite to dragons."

Design Innovations Spurred by a Robbery

My approach to designing these has been pretty much haphazard and jury-rigged, using Adobe's Illustrator program when InDesign is better suited to the task. But in 2012, when I was nearly finished with the 2013 edition, I got an opportunity to start fresh with an InDesign template created by my friend, Marsha Micek, a professional graphic designer. 

The impetus for this improvement was the theft of my computer (and my husband's) along with our backup drive in October 2012. I had to start all over again, including re-entering all of the data and text, at a point when I should have been printing it out for a craft show that weekend. I cancelled my part in the show and spent the next couple of weeks scrambling to reconstruct the calendar with Marsha's excellent (and patient) guidance, in order to get it ready for another craft show in early November.

The 2013 not-quite-so-useful calendar, with July starting a day late and ending a dollar short!

The new template worked great, but in my haste, and being more than a little flustered, I completely messed up the month of July, starting it a day late and giving it only 30 days (the second mistake kept me from screwing up the months that followed, however). My husband discovered the error a few months into the year. He thought it was amusing, but I was mortified. How can I call it the "useful" calendar when a mistake like that?

In this year, I stopped circling and naming the full moons and instead did some drawings of the moon phases to use across the bottom of each month. I did this to add another graphic element to the design, as well as to provide a little more moon phase information for those who were looking for that sort of thing.  

I obsessively checked and double-checked the 2014 edition, and discovered no embarrassing errors in that one, though I do recall some minor errors I found and fixed after I thought it was done.

After my daughter graduated from college and completed a 6-month internship at Experience Life magazine, I realized that I had access to a skilled proofreader, and asked her to read the 2015 edition. She was very thorough and caught some spelling irregularities and inconsistencies that had existed for a few years, plus my placing of Cinco de Mayo in March. I like to think I would have caught that one myself before printing it. 

I had been doing a few sketches of sheep for this year's calendar when I learned that some people called it the year of the goat. That led me to do a little more research, and some goat drawings, and to then work this dichotomy into the calendar design, along with a brief explanation about it, because, you know—Arty Didact. 

I wrote about the goat/sheep year confusion here earlier this year.

Calendrical Curiosities and Serendipities

Among the things I enjoy about creating this calendar each year are the serendipitous discoveries I make during the research phase, such as the Japanese Doll Festival that I mentioned above. So many of these holidays have interesting stories behind them that I wish I had room to say something more about them without sacrificing the functionality of the calendar.

A few years ago, I started putting notes on the backs of the cards to offer a little bit of explanation, especially for those holidays that I thought most of my audience would be unfamiliar with. Then I realized that the stories behind even familiar holidays are often forgotten, so I mixed it up a bit, changing some of the occasions for which I offer explanatory notes from one year to the next, and introducing some calendrical trivia where I had room (August, mostly). 

The 2015 calendar cards, showing the notes on the backs of March and September

This has become my way of sharing the serendipitous pleasure of learning something new and interesting as you make your way through the year.

Of course, these little trading-card size calendar pages don't allow for much in the way of telling the stories behind holidays, and so I have often thought about introducing a third version of the calendar that would be a sort of zine, or an almanac, with short informative articles about calendar-related topics. And while I'm at it, why not provide space for people's own notes, like a planner? I played around with a prototype of this last year, but didn't have time to develop it further.

And so now, while my updated list of dates and events for the 2016 Useful Calendar is in the hands of my capable fact-checker, I am in the process of developing the new Useful Calendar-planner-almanac. And playing around with what to call it. Because Useful Almanac sounds even sillier than Useful Calendar. On the other hand, there's branding. 

So my current working prototype (really a couple of prototypes, this journal made with scratch paper being one) has multiple names. Or maybe one name followed by an explanatory subtitle.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Beginnings of the Useful Calendar. But, wait: Aren't All Calendars "Useful"?

I was getting ready to do a little show-and-tell about some design innovations I'm working on for the 2016 edition of the Useful Calendar, when it occurred to me that I should probably first give you a little background on this annual project of mine—the story behind it, and why I call it the "Useful Calendar."  It has changed quite a lot since I began it 10 years ago. 

The first Useful Calendar in 2006, and a few other early editions, on letter-size card stock (cartridge paper)

Introducing the Useful Calendar

I've been compiling the Useful Calendar since 2006, when it was a free promotional item for readers of the Minneapolis Observer, a monthly newspaper my husband and I used to publish. I had seen promotional calendars from other businesses, and felt that they weren't informative enough or convenient enough in format to be truly useful.

I included dates that I thought would affect planning, and put it all on one page, so that a person could glance at this calendar and quickly see not only the date of Easter, or day of the week for the 4th of July, but also major local events that can obstruct traffic and parking, and cultural events that a considerate person might want to know about so they don't plan a community potluck luncheon in the middle of Ramadan, for example.

At the same time, I did not want to clutter it with what I considered to be frivolous or promotional events, even those that promote worthy causes. So, no Coffee Day or cancer awareness, or even Black History Month. Because I wanted it to fit on a page and still be a readable font size.

And that's why I called it the Useful Calendar.

How a Calendar Led to an Etsy Shop 

Soon after I created the first Useful Calendar, the Observer went out of business. We then launched a much smaller publication called MOQ (Minneapolis Observer Quarterly), a literary zine about "exploring the bucolic city," and I continued to create the Useful Calendar under this new moniker and give it away to subscribers and others to promote the publication. Really, though, I made it because I found the calendar useful and I hoped others would too. It was too much work to create it only for myself.

In 2009, I also made it into a set of cards, because I really liked the idea of having a smaller, pocket-sized version of the calendar that I could keep in my purse. I made them the size of Artists' Trading Cards (ATCs, 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches), because I was into those at the time. I then designed and made a paper pocket to hold it, and laminated it with packing tape for durability. 

An assortment of pockets with the 2014 calendar cards
This innovation was, in truth, also all about me, and what I found useful and pleasing. But I truly hoped that others would think so, too.

So I launched an Etsy shop, which I called Arty Didact, reflecting the way I like to combine art and information (i.e., didactic art), the calendar being a primary example of that. I have steadily added many different products to my shop, to the point of it becoming rather too eclectic, but that's another story.

The 2011 version introduced the Chinese zodiac animal as a theme, and included a few planetary notes, plus made-up names for the full moon dates, which are circled.

When working on the 2011 edition, I was pondering what to illustrate the calendar with, when I hit upon the idea of using the Chinese zodiac animal. It was the year of the rabbit, and the drawing I did for that year's calendar soon became the iconic image for my Etsy shop.  

Just as selling the calendars led me to open an Etsy shop,  opening an Etsy shop changed who I was making the calendars for, which led to further changes in the focus and format.

Read the rest of the story here.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A fading tulip and a crying baby at Dogwood Coffee

I'm sitting at Dogwood Coffee on Lake Street admiring the fading orange tulip that's still standing tall exuding good-natured cheerfulness. A woman walks in holding a baby dressed in striped leggings and a brimmed hat, with a pacifier in its mouth that's not doing the job.

Unhappy baby is crying and fussing as Mom props him on her hip while standing at the counter. A man at a nearby table makes a face at the baby in an apparent attempt to cheer him up.

Baby screams and out drops the pacifier onto the floor.

Mom laughs as she picks up the pacifier and the man apologizes as the baby continues to cry loudly.

Mom explains that some people just set Baby off. Even her father has that affect.

Man offers to babysit some day. Mom laughs. Man laughs. Baby calms down.

Mom and now quiet baby go on their way.