I’ve recently done two very exciting things that are both of astronomical significance.
One of them — which has just happened as I begin writing this — was attending a public lecture by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, on his Australian tour. More on that later. The other was the opportunity to design a logo for an astronomical organisation.
About a month ago, there was a crowdfunding campaign to help import a digital planetarium to Kenya and train operators in its use (I donated a small amount of money). Shortly after the campaign succeeded, there was a Facebook update asking if anyone had ideas for a new logo for the Amateur Astronomical Society of Kenya — which is recently formed, and will be taking charge of the planetarium for the benefit of Kenyan students. (The Society uses astronomical and astronomy interchangeably, but officially it’s the former.)
I got in touch by email and basically said, “I’ll do it!”, supplementing this offer with a rough draft.
Now, at this point I need to digress and explain what I do when I’m at work, which is not something I talk about much on this blog. I work at a graphic design studio called Inprint Design, which is part of an umbrella organisation called South Australian Group Enterprises. As part of their business model SAGE provides employment for people with disabilities (asperger’s syndrome in my case), which you can read about in more detail on their site.
At Inprint there are a handful of trained graphic designers, plus a larger team of grunts who (with few exceptions) have on-the-job training only. Two production supervisors distribute jobs to the team, often giving the same job to several of us in order to make the most of our creativity. They also approve our work before sending it to the client, and assist us when we need it. Senior designers (including the production supervisors) handle jobs that require a more experienced touch.
There are designers — out there in the world — who moan when amateur organisations and the like ask supporters to submit logos etc for free (even if, as in this case, the client is donation-supported in the first place). I won’t get into that argument, but it’s an attitude you will not find at Inprint Design. In fact, given our set-up, public design competitions can work in our favour because they are a training opportunity for supported staff.
Which takes us back to the story of my logo. I spoke to our manager before sending my draft to the AASK, and again after hearing that they were interested in Inprint’s services; she was more than happy for me to work on the logo. Because I would be doing it personally with none of the usual supervision, the AASK would get the logo for free. But I would still be using state-of-the-art graphic design software and a fair bit of experience in using it.
Here is the logo I came up with, which has been accepted by the Amateur Astonomical Society of Kenya [update: link added]. Click to see it large. I would say this is the highest profile design that I’ve ever personally been responsible for, and I’m very pleased with it.
My original idea — practically all of which survives in the final design above — was as follows. As an equatorial country, Kenya has an unobstructed view of both northern and southern hemisphere skies — a point well made on the crowdfunding campaign page — so I represented this with an iconic northern hemisphere constellation (Big Dipper) on the left and an iconic southern hemisphere constellation (Southern Cross) on the right. I put a giraffe between them because I imagine giraffes get a good view of most things, so this helps represent the notion of a good view of the sky. The colour scheme was based on the Kenyan flag, plus a little yellow to add a sunset effect.
Below is the original draft. Note that I accidentally represented the Little Dipper instead of the Big Dipper because I’m Australian and cannot be expected to know the difference (I picked up on the error myself, eventually). Also, at this point I had not yet given any thought to orientation.
The feedback from the AASK was very positive. Requests included adding the tagline “We Explore”, making the letters AASK stand out, and — if possible — including an outline of Kenya somewhere on the design. As you can see I succeeded, but not before mulling it over for some time.
At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to include the outline of Kenya. In my design, as you’ll remember, left represents north and right represents south, and I was worried that a map — with the conventional west-east orientation — would conflict with this. But once I hit on the idea of representing the green earth at the bottom of the logo, everything fell into place. (The map I used is freely available here.)
One suggestion was to use star colours (blue, white, yellow, orange, red) to make “AASK” stand out. I put the letters on the giraffe’s neck instead, but I liked the idea of incorporating star colours into the design, which is why the spectrum around the edge includes bands of blue, white, yellow and orange, taking the place of the sunset effect in my draft.
My AASK contact person noted that the font I chose for the “We Explore” tagline is reminiscent of the solar analemma. This was entirely unintended: I just liked it because it contrasted with the main font and filled up the space nicely. But I did choose my main font on the basis that it looks like the sort of thing a spaceship’s name might be written in.
I made the logo mostly in Adobe Indesign, with a touch of Adobe Illustrator for the stars. Feel free to ask technical questions if you think you can learn something from the answers.
OK, now let’s talk about Phil Plait.
I’ve been reading Phil’s blog and following him on Twitter for years, and I also have one of his books. When I heard he was visiting not only Australia but Adelaide (which, as a small city, all too often misses out), I jumped at the chance and acquired two tickets, one for me and one for Dad. Phil’s insatiable enthusiasm for science would be bound to appeal to Dad, who — being a geologist — thinks rocks are interesting. (OK, enough cheekiness for this paragraph, if only because it’s over.)
Phil’s talk was on the evening of Wednesday August 14. Dad and I arrived early and got good seats (speaking of which, the seats were the only part of the evening that I could possibly complain about, as they were not the most comfortable or spatious, but hey, free tickets). On the way in I introduced Dad to Paul Willis, director of the Royal Institution Australia — which was responsible for the Adelaide event — and no small name in Australian science communication.
I enjoyed the show. Having watched videos of other talks Phil has given I had a good idea of what to expect, but it is better live. For one thing, you see the speaker and the projected slides and movie clips in the proportion they are meant to be seen. I kept half an eye on Dad’s reactions and he clearly enjoyed it too.
After questions it was time for the signing queue, which is the bit I had really come for. That was where the two astronomical events — the logo and the talk — came together, because it meant I had something specific to share (no doubt the fact this opportunity was coming up gave me an extra incentive to do my best on the logo). The point of a celebrity signing queue, as I see it, is the opportunity to give them a brief moment of pleasure in return for the years of pleasure they’ve given you (having something to be signed is not important at all; anyone can use a pen).
It was an interesting experience; the word “awesome” feels about right. Most of what I said consisted of pre-rehearsed lines strung together, because that was the only way I could handle the pressure. I introduced myself with a cheeky “Very nice of you to come over from … um … you know … that place on the border between Mexico and Canada” — but he didn’t react to the national slight, being more interested in saying how happy he was to be in Australia. We talked about my AASK logo (which he liked a lot) and then the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast (because I did one episode for it, back in 2011).
Then comes that moment when you’ve said as much as you dared hope you’d have the chance to, talking to an internationally renowned arch-geek and aware of the queue of people behind you waiting their turn. There is literally a universe of topics I could have raised (like, I dunno, my memories of the first Hubble pictures, to pick something at random), but I felt it was time to go.
It is now almost the end of the following day. I’ve lent Dad my copy of Phil Plait’s book “Death from the Skies” (see, I told you he enjoyed it), and spent most of the day with family. The highlight was seeing my niece Elke (previously blogged about here), which merits another blog post — but meanwhile here are two pictures with Elke and Death from the Skies in the same shot.
Maybe some day she’ll read it.