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 to express my interest, supplementing this offer with a rough draft.
Now, I work at a graphic design studio at which most staff are trained on the job, and my manager was very happy for me to develop my skills by working on this project, and to offer it to the AASK for free. Some people hold the view that public design competitions are bad because they take work away from professional designers, but that is not the attitude of the company I work for.
[Edit: I have substantially abbreviated the details on my workplace during a 2020 blog review.]
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 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 (who is also a scientist).
Dad and I arrived early and got good seats. 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. 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 my work on the logo meant I had something specific to share. 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.