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Valle dei Calanchi, Italy

We are so excited and proud to announce the Partners in Design Climate Action Fellowship!

For years, we have been inspired by the work of the Civita Institute—a nonprofit organization that promotes and inspires design excellence through cultural exchange between the United States and Italy—that awarded a fellowship to one of our partners in 2012 at a critical time in her career.

To pay it forward, and following the recent announcement that Italy is set to become the first country to require mandatory 33 hours of climate-related lessons into public school curricula, we decided to sponsor a new fellowship through the Civita institute, to increase awareness of our changing climate and encourage actions that can be taken by architects, planners, designers, artists, writers and other arts professionals to contribute to a more sustainable societal response.

Since the founding of our office, we have made it a point to take on certain projects on a pro bono basis that have the potential to really make a difference in our community. It’s one of the most important reasons why we design—to care for the earth, to foster diversity, humanity, equal rights and access to education—and we relish the opportunity to empower these projects with the best communication powers possible. From our work on anti-bullying, environmental advocacy, global aid, and civil rights projects, we know that powerful design can broadcast a stronger message to help superheroes do their jobs.

If you are interested in exploring a project in climate action, we encourage you to apply! The 2020 application period is now open open. Visit the Civita Institute to learn all the details.


At Partners in Design we have a few thoughts about what’s on the mind of this lad featured in a New Yorker cartoon. The fewer the signs the better. Do you go to a museum to read signs or rather to look at art or artifacts?

Signs are best at wayfinding, keeping you out of harm’s way and blazing in Times Square. Useful and delightful signage deserves great design… consider us if you’re considering these. Post examples of some of your favorite signage of all time with your comments.


I’m searching for ‘green’ today. Let it pour like a visual remedy! I started the hunt this morning looking through photos of a recent journey to Spain, and by the end of the day I’ll eat all sorts of green things in a salad. The psychological effects of color can have great benefits, better than most meds. The 4 psychological primary colors are red, blue, yellow and green. They relate respectively to the body, mind, the emotions and the balance between these three. For me today it’s the need of green.

Green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment whatever and is, therefore, restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it’s the color of balancea more important concept than many people realize. When the world about us contains plenty of green, this indicates the presence of water, and little danger of famine, so we are reassured by green, on a primitive level. Green shows us harmony, rest, peace, refreshment and love. But I want to give it to you straight… negatively, it can indicate stagnation and, incorrectly used can perceived as being too bland. Make your greens grow and you’ll be fine.

The spritzer bottle just makes me giggle, I have a passion for green plastic, and the chocolate wrapped in green makes me think of the evergreen cocoa tree, very exotic and dark. I have a new favorite artist who uses lots of it too, Matt Magee.


Ever thought of a rubber duckie as high design? That distinction may be an over rating since most of them annoyingly can’t even float in water upright. I know this because I sort of have a collection and I float them from time to time. Most of them would drown if I didn’t rescue them. My favorites are with sailor caps.

The history of the rubber duck is linked to the emergence of rubber manufacturing in the late 19th century. Sculptor Peter Ganine created a sculpture of a duck in the 1940s, then patented it and reproduced it as a floating toy, of which over 50,000,000 were sold.


We’ve designed a new website… FOR OURSELVES! It’s a new mind-set about keeping our friends and clients in the loop of design crusades.

Partners in Design is all about making GOOD graphic design for over 30 years, including branding programs, logos, print, books, posters, electronic media, interpretives, signage and exhibit design.

The biggest change you’ll notice on our new site is at last we’re admitting that we do more than traditional graphic design. A fact of life. Over time, you just become more expert, seasoned and proficient. Now with our graphic design, we also offer writing and editing. Our team does illustrations and photography, too. We’re also doing color consulting, book design and publishing. And we create original art, selling cards, posters and a few other tchotchke.


We wait patiently here in the Pacific Northwest for the clouds to break. Our gray winter skies can be monotone at best. We don’t get any more rain than my hometown of New York City, but we have long stretches of cloud cover and we say bye-bye to the sun for many a day. Yes, we get SAD (seasonal affective disorder); we are in essence starved for light. Waiting for the sun to break through is a great Seattle winter pastime, supplemented with drinking warm beverages, reading books and watching movies.


There are some other very useful things that help the ‘winter blahs’…

•Take short walks

•See friends

•Get out of bed and stay active

•Don’t over eat

•Change the colors of your living and work environments (we can help with that)

•Communicate with bright designs (we can help with that too)

•Looking at photos of sunnier times (we took lots of photos this summer)

So look up, and if you’re lucky enough to catch a patch of blue… smile.


I’d like to share a little bit about a personal project I’m creating, it’s called “I’m Different Press”. I’m designing cards and posters with unique and necessary messages of wit and inclusion. I believe in diversity… look around, it’s one of the greatest assets of America. I use messages of pride, inclusion, anti-bullying and acceptance in my graphics.

Our motto is be different and make a difference. These simple prints may begin a good conversation… what you say matters. Some of the proceeds also support non-profit groups who are making headway in equality rights and protecting youth.

If you have a moment visit my online shop. Be yourself with pride. Dare to be you. I would like to hear your suggestions for future cards and posters.


Cover designs by Peter Mendelsund


Book cover design by Partners in Design

It seems the only reason I signed up to the online sharing site Pinterest was to follow my passion for book cover designs. Though I would love to hold these volumes of literature in my hand and turn the pages, the online collection is rich. I can see the design interpretions of thousands of great publications from all around world within moments. The process and the visual storytelling is what I dream of just as I fall asleep at night.

Though my studio has only afforded me only a handful of book cover design assignments I’m still an enthusiast for covers. Sometimes I’d say my designs for some publications end up being cover designs of a sort, but strung together to make brochures or enlarged to make posters. I’m drawn to the classic cover designers like Paul Rand, Romek Marber and Jennifer Heuer, and one of my favorites Peter Mendelsund who was recently interviewed on NPR. You may be as enthralled as I was, but in any case when you work with Partners in Design it’s one of our inspirations. I’ll be designing a cover shortly for a book we’re having published, “B in the World”. You may want to look into this project with an important message.

B in the World005

I can’t help but post a few of these, they’re delicious and preposterous! Concoctions whipped up by Andy Warhol, his mom, and Suzie Frankfurt. I couldn’t resist and just located a used copy, it should be here in a few days… in time for the holidays. The book condition described a stain on the back cover… I wonder from which recipe.

I’ll will post a few drawings of my Thanksgiving feast. If you do a food drawing we’ll post it here and make our own collective visual feast.


I hope you don’t mind if I show admiration for a collection of other designers’ work in the field of art-science visual storytelling. We also call this design realm “infographics” and this story is told and illustrated in the new book “The Best American Infographics 2013,” by Gareth Cook, with an introduction by David Byrne.The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…

I picked just one example from the volume to live by today… eating. There’s a renewed interest in seasonality of our foods to make them healthier and sustainable, and these charts marvelously distinguishes each morsel in a circular calendar. Another good article I read recently gets back to the heart of the matter… seeds.





Another “quotester” by our designers. Thank you Josef Albers.


Thanks to our client Ann Cook who led us to this great title, “Drunk Tank Pink,” and which we’re running to our local bookshop to buy and start reading. We’ve been working with Ann for years on her school district calendar. A publication that has a long life in many Sumner, Washington homes, often being referenced year-long, many of them on refrigerator doors. The project has a large print run and a limited budget… so the solution has been to print good photos with two colors, black and an annual feature color. Ann and Partners in Design has the best of times selecting the “wow” color that will best reflect the school district programs for each year. Ann brings great color discovers to the table and she allows us to dissuade her from color disasters and select color winners.


So back to the book… does pink make strong men weak? Can pink jail cells calm violent prisoners? Is it true that football locker rooms (the ones for the visiting/opposing teams) are painted a certain shade of pink to weaken the players?

One of the most interesting examples of color effects, and a local story, is Baker-Miller Pink – R:255, G:145, B:175. Also known as “Drunk tank pink,” this color has been used to calm violent prisoners in jails. Dr. Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research in Tacoma Washington, was the first to report the suppression of angry, antagonistic, and anxiety ridden behavior among prisoners: “Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink, he can’t. The heart muscles can’t race fast enough. It’s a tranquilizing color that saps your energy. There’s evidence that these reactions are short term. Once the body returns to a state of equilibrium, a prisoner may regress to an even more agitated state.

Is it true that football locker rooms (the ones for the visiting/opposing teams) are painted a certain shade of pink to weaken the players? University of Hawaii associate head coach George Lumkin was a member of the 1991 staff that saw visitor locker rooms at Iowa and Colorado State painted pink in the belief that the color made players passive. Now the WAC has a rule that a visiting team’s locker room can not be painted a different color than the home team’s. In other words, it can be pink, black or any color of the rainbow, as long as both locker rooms are the same color.


Considering our waste-stream, there’s the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. Within the category of reuse may we suggest a closer look at the strategy of turning things inside out? The practice has great philosophical meaning and it’s considerate of the environment. Simply respectful to the original resource… to honor it again and preserve some of it’s history.

As a designer I was inspired over a cup of tea this morning. Peering inside the tea packaging there was the glimpse of another visual world. I saw an unexpected other life to this packaging. It was intriguing and I wondered about other ways we could get this to happen in more of our design projects at Partners in Design.  Please add your ideas below.


The outside of this Korean tea packaging looks like this… sedate and simple. The zip-lock top keeps the contents fresh and I can store another green tea in it when I have finished this batch.


On the inside there’s another package design. Life number two. A little more colorful… rice, wheat?

  • Open up envelopes and turn them inside out, tape or glue, and use them again.
  • Unfold shipping boxes and decorate the craft paper interiors with designs, refold inside out to make favorite gift boxes.
  • We always turn our grocery produce bags inside out to use them repeatedly. Don’t worry the inks used on these bags are food-grade.
  • Using press-sheets as wrapping paper.
  • Remember turning your craft paper grocery bags for textbook covers?
  • We like this one a lot, sort of turning something inside out… re-purpose an unwanted t-shirt and easily turn the shirt into a re-usable tote bag.

Tote 11 sm

In today’s divisive political climate, here’s a New Year’s resolution from Partners in Design. Let’s each of us use our talents for the greater good. Do something, say something about what you believe in. Design something.

Join us this Sunday, January 13 in Seattle for a rally against gun violence in Washington state sponsored by Stand Up Washington.

Change starts at home.



In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Civita looked much the same as it does today. A saddle of land connected present-day Civita to Bagnoregio (known then as Rota) with the Convento di S Francisco occupying the middle ground before it was lost to an earthquake. The monastery can be seen in the drawing (below) sent back to Rome by a visiting monk. Together, the population numbered close to 1,800 citizens.

The Medieval city was divided into four contrade, or neighborhoods: Mercatello (the Merchant quarter); Ponte (the Bridge); Civita (the Town); and Carcere (the Prison). The area boundaries, interestingly, roughly correspond to the ancient Etruscan ideal city plan with most of the upper class Renaissance families building in the most favorable southeast sector and the communal prison located in the northeast. Still today, Civita displays its contrade banners during festas and other important ceremonies.

Most of the beautiful golden warren of buildings you see in Civita were built during this time, including the Palazzo Alemanni, the largest, most imposing house in Civita facing the main piazza. A walk around the town today can give you a real sense of what the city might have looked like in the 16th century—that is, at least from the buildings that are still standing.

Starting in 1695 and continuing for over 100 years, the city endured a series of devastating earthquakes, not to mention landslides, locust infestations, and malaria. By 1800, more than 40% of Civita’s land mass had been lost. Although the rate at which the city continues to crumble is glacial, the process continues through to today. “The clay soil here falls away like fresh ricotta,” says Erino Pompei, the mayor of Bagnoregio until 2009, whose name bears an eerie resemblance to another lost Italian town.

The twentieth century brought WWII bombings and isolation for well over a year in the mid-60s when the old bridge was demolished and a new one being built. In 2004, engineers began a cliff stabilization project, funded by the Province of Viterbo and the EU, that will cost more than $15 million when it is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The project involves planting concrete shafts in the dirt below the rocks on which Civita sits and reinforcing them with thousands of iron rods. The blocks are meant to act as dams to keep the claylike soil from getting too wet and unstable. Last year, a fascinating and extensive exhibit detailing Civita’s geological past and the stabilization project opened at the Museo geologico e delle frane located in the Palazzo Alemanni.

The hope is that for the next few centuries at least, Civita will be safe. After that? “Niente può fermare la natura,” says Signore Pompei. “Nothing can stop nature.”

Ciao from Civita!

From the studio where I have been working these past weeks, I could (and still can) hear the voices of tourists as they pass by the balcony window. When I first arrived in Civita it was quite hot, in the high nineties, and during the Italian pausa between 1:00 and 4:00 pm, it was a welcome relief to take shelter inside the cool tufo building. Now in October, there are far less visitors, but in late August and early September school children were still on holiday and families were squeezing in one last vacation trip.

The heat did not keep the tourists inside. So as I worked I could hear the mingling of languages as visitors passed by my window—mostly Italian, but always with a smattering of English, German, French and what I think was Japanese. The words drifted into my room like a cloud…a word cloud.

Word clouds or “tag clouds” as they are properly called, became all the rage in the late 1990s as a feature of early personal websites and blogs. The form was used widely to visualize the frequency distribution of keywords that describe website content, and as a navigation aid. Before long, word clouds were being used to editorialize and visualize everything from Biblical passages to presidential debate analysis.

But the idea behind word clouds is not new. It could be argued that traditional maps were the very first rudimentary “word clouds” since the type size of the name of a city, region, or feature is represented relative to its population or importance.

Then there are calligrams, type or handwriting arranged in a way that creates a visual image that expresses the content of the text. Visual designers and educators have used calligrams as a visual means of expression for decades.

During my stay in Civita, I was looking for a way to convey the rich mix of both “hearing” many languages and seeking a way to describe how people experience this place. A word cloud/calligram seemed like the perfect solution. So beginning from that first week in August, I decided to track what I could hear outside my studio window. And so began my “map” of the most common words heard during one hour of the daily pausa when most “sensible” Italians were indoors cooking the midday meal and resting.

Obviously, what I could catch was dependant on my limited Italian, college French, and zero understanding of any Asian language. English jumped out at me without my having any say in the matter, and so my resultant Civita word cloud may be a bit biased in that respect. Simple observation, however, was all that was needed to determine that there have been far more Italian tourists in Civita than any other group these past seven weeks. That should most certainly provide a hometown advantage.

Do a Google search for Civita di Bagnoregio and one of the first things you will find is a reference to it as “la città che muore” (the dying town). This immediately sets a particular tone, but in fact, this appellation is taken out of context from a text by Bonaventura Tecchi an Italian essayist born in Bagnoregio. In 1947, Tecchi formed the “Pro Civita Committee” whose mission was to save Civita from what seemed at the time to be inevitable death. Tecchi was referring to the erosion of the cliffs around Civita, not voicing a prediction for the future of Civita. Here is the full quote:

“I would never have become a writer unless I had lived for a few months every year, from July to November, starting in my earliest youth, in the valley of Civita, with the vision of the white crests, the golden volcanic clay, the eloquent ruins, in the land of Saint Bonaventure…with the memory of ancient earthquakes, the slip constant…in the city that is dying.”

One of my NIAUSI colleagues here is exploring Civita through the lens of adaptive reuse of its buildings over the years, particularly since the 1960s and 70s when many restoration projects began to take place. It has been sobering to see graphic visual examples which she has found in the archives here of just how deteriorated Civita had been before those restorations projects began to gain a foothold. For those of you who know Civita, the picture below (taken from Piero Bormioli’s book) shows the view of the city in the late 1960s, looking west. Osteria Il Forno d’Agnese currently occupies the building on the left.

Today, tourists walk into the main piazza and we hear them comment on how “old” and “worn” the buildings and some of the public infrastructure seems. If only they knew….in actuality, Civita is in pretty top form today. Certainly, there are areas that need attention and repair, but in most cases, they are receiving it. Civita has become a destination and those in authority know it. A major stabilization project targeting one of the most vulnerable cliff areas on the northwest side of the city was recently completed, funded with money from the Province of Viterbo and the EU. as I write this, dust drifts in my open window and I can hear the whirring of additional anchor rods being drilled into the cliff by seismic workers nearby.

Keeping Civita alive takes a lot of work and much resources. But over the decades, it has attracted scores of people who have worked to save it. The reasons are varied and numerous. Some people, like the Rocchi family who own both a bruschetteria and ristorante here, have lived in Civita for over 500 years. The family is very dedicated to the idea of helping Civita survive in the 21st century while simultaneously respecting the geography and geology that surrounds it. Other one-time residents like the Bastoni and Medori families continue a close connection to Civita through the successful businesses that they have established here over many years. It is in their interest to see Civita thrive.

Then there are the contributions made to Civita by the late Astra Zarina and her husband Tony Costa Heywood, who today counts himself as one of the town’s handful of full-time residents.

Zarina was a respected Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, who in the 1980s was instrumental in establishing the UW’s Rome Center, housed at the Palazzo Pio near Campo d’Fiori.

In the early 60s when the couple first visited Civita, much of the town was in a state of extensive disrepair, as noted above. Zarina and Heywood had the foresight to envision the value and potential to restoring buildings in Civita, and their training as architects gave them the skill and vision to make it a reality. But it took hard work and many years. Zarina handled restoration projects for some of the first buildings in Civita in the late 60s for architect friends, leading the wave of reclaiming these beautiful structures. Tony recalls how difficult it was to get workers to even agree to work on a project in an area as remote and difficult to reach as Civita. There was unreliable electricity to run power tools and pozzolana, the volcanic ash cement used here as mortar for the tufo buildings, needed to be mixed by hand. But they persevered.

Civita was enlivened further still when Zarina established the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns program in this ancient borgo. Starting in the late 70s and continuing for 30 years, architecture and design students had the opportunity to spent two months in Civita every summer, living with local families and learning the lessons of continuity and change in Italian architecture. In 2007, the pair donated a portion of their own personal restored property to NIAUSI, the organization that is funding my Fellowship, to establish the Civita Institute as a permanent study center in Civita.

These, then, are the real saints and saviors of Civita…the people who loved the city, saw its potential and worked to ensure that it would not become “la città che muore.

It is impossible, and possibly inauspicious, to evade ecclesiastical interactions while in Italy. Despite the presence of the Vatican city-state in Rome, Italy has one of the least religious Catholic populations in the world. Yet even the smallest Italian city displays a rich layering of religious iconography, placemaking, and storytelling. Civita and its neighboring hamlet Bagnoregio are no exceptions.

One of the most fascinating religious discoveries I have made here concerns saints known as i incorruttibili misteriose or “the mysterious incorruptibles”—devout individuals whose remains do not decompose after death. The phenomenon of incorruptibility is taken as a powerful sign of saintliness in the Catholic Church and most of these individuals have already been canonized. Visitors to certain Italian churches, myself included, are shocked by the display of a corpse, dressed in religious vestments and encased in a glass coffin at the high altar or in the crypt.

Officially Civita has two Patron saints, Santa Vittoria (St. Victoria) and Sant’ Ildebrando (St. Hildebrand), both of whom have separate altars dedicated to them in the city’s main church Chiesa S. Donato.

Santa Vittoria, martyred in 251 AD is remembered for persevering through abuse and her remains are kept in an urn under the left altar. Sant’ Ildebrando was born in Bagnoregio and was its Bishop from 856 to 873. His body rests under the right altar. An interesting miracle attributed to him is that when he was old and bedridden, his servants brought him a cooked partridge, but as it was a fast day, he was unable to eat the bird. So instead, he prayed over it and it came to life and flew away. Here in Bagnoregio, the people are very zealous in honoring Sant’ Ildebrando and regularly make the trip up the hill to Civita since it is said that he has a reputation for dealing severely with those who do not give him due respect.

But Civita’s most famous son is S. Bonaventura (St. Bonaventure). Chapels and statues to him seem to be present on every corner in these two towns. Bonaventura was born Giovanni Fidanza around 1221 AD in a house no more than 50 meters from where I am writing this now.

As a young child, he fell seriously ill and his mother took him to the nearby Convento de San Francisco, which used to occupy the ground between Civita and Bagnoregio before it was lost in a 17th century to an earthquake.

In the grotto that now marks the spot of the old monastery, it is said that St. Francis prayed and healed Giovanni, then blessed him with the name “O Buona Ventura,” seeing much good fortune in his future. Bonaventura went on to join the Franciscan order and became a scholar and teacher and a primary biographer of St. Francis. He traveled widely but often came back to Italy and his home in Bagnoregio. After his death, his right arm was placed in a reliquery made from silver and gold donated by the people of Bagnoregio, an event that is celebrated every year on March 14.

A church, the Chiesa di S. Bonaventura, was built on the site of his childhood home but after the structure was damaged in another earthquake, a chapel built with some of the salvaged tufo bricks was dedicated in a new church in Bagnoregio.

The most endearing story I have heard about S. Bonaventura came from the sacristan in the church here, also named, interestingly, Bonaventura. Apparently, when Pope Gregory X made Bonaventura a cardinal, he sent several messengers to him with the symbolic red cardinal’s hat. When they arrived, they found Bonaventura washing dishes and he asked them to hang the red hat on a nearby tree since his hands were wet and dirty.

Civita iconography can roughly be divided into three categories—religious, historical, and vernacular—the latter spanning many time periods. What is most interesting to me about this visual language is how each of these three very distinct layers mix. Not surprisingly, this is a recurring theme here in Civita given its amalgam of past incarnations, beginning from its Etruscan beginnings and extending up to today. Having the luxury to spend an extended period of time here looking and learning allows one to begin to perceive the extent of this intermingling in a much more subtle way.

There is also a welcome tendency here to leave well enough alone. Whether this is due to the relatively easy-going lifestyle of the Italians, their innate sense of design, or their tendency to reuse materials (more about that later), the result is that even the simplest of vernacular signs has a natural balance and pleasing composition. Hand-printed signs lettered decades ago hang happily and comfortably beside cantinas and tabacchi. Typography, especially handwritten, is satisfying as well.

Tabacchi are in fact, good examples of vernacular design. In Italy, a tabacchi is where you go for local bus tickets, phone cards and postage stamps. Tabacchi display this sign: a big white “T” on a blue or black background. The text “sali e tabacchi” refers to the two products—salt and tobacco— that these shops sold that were initially controlled by the government. Nice sign, right?

Historical signs carry with them the weight of imagination and memory, making them particularly interesting in cultures like Italy where time reaches back so far into the past. The Etruscans, Civita’s first inhabitants, and the Romans who followed, were both cultures that understood well the power of symbols and used iconography extensively for protection, fertility, wealth, crop germination, death, and birth rituals. In fact, one of the first things the Romans did on their relentless march to conquer the ancient Etruscan cities was to smash their black clay wear which was heavily decorated with symbols. Symbols common here in Civita include the horse—an archetype that both the Etruscans and Romans associated with honor and spiritual journeys to other worlds—the lion, and the eagle.

Religious iconographic art is sometimes referred to as “windows into heaven” and the Greek work anagogic—literally meaning “leading one upward”—was often used to describing their purpose. Iconography was an integral part of Christian life, despite a great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries when the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), suspicious of any sacred art that represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons. In addition to the Bishops’ hat and keys, associated with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the pervasive religious icon here in Civita, as in much of the rest of Italy, is the Madonna. Not only is she visually represented everywhere, but her presence is alive in many of the built-in altars and icons on buildings and in Civita’s caves and grottos.

For a palpable look into this iconography “mix” we need look no further than Civita’s main piazza and its beautiful Medieval church, the Chiesa S. Donato. Here, in tangible ways, we can see not only the layering of symbols, but also symbol “borrowing” as well as active incorporation of artifacts from one culture to another.

Rosettes—which some scholars believe derived from the Etruscan paterna or mundus—the symbol of the ever-present life-force—abound as decorative elements. The Etruscan lions and Roman eagle now grace the outer entry of the Porta S. Maria, placed there in the 1500s to commemorate Civita’s triumph over a nearby city-state. Roman sarcophagi, frieze fragments, and corbels are set into the lower outer walls of the church and the nearby bell tower.

Enter the church and you will see a holy water font made from two ancient Romans Corinthian capitals turned upside down. When Civita celebrates its festas in the piazza,the Medieval symbols depicting the town’s four contrade, or neighborhoods (the Market, the Bridge, the Caisson, and the Prison) are unfurled and live on. Going back even further, the physical divisions of these four contrade correspond closely to the Etruscan layout of the ideal city, a circle divided into four areas, favorable and unfavorable.

Coming from a young country, this concept of flow and continuity in history is striking. We try hard to understand it, but we may never fully absorb its effect. Michael Adams in his book Umbria, writes: “To the Italian…acceptance of the past is natural and effortless. For him, the centuries merge more easily than for the rest of us, partly because he lives (in Umbria and especially in Civita) surrounded by so many of the physical symbols of the past, but even more because here the essential thread has never been broken…with no Reformation, no French Revolution, lies like a caesura across the line of his history. The Romans (and Etruscans) are his ancestors, as they are not ours, and all that lies between, all the troubled history of two thousand years, has been assimilated, unified, and transmuted into a culture singularly free of contradiction.”

For visitors in any context, doors hold special significance. Here in Civita, since I am most certainly a visitor, I’ve found myself taking a particular interest in them, although I am hardly alone in this respect.

Here in the Civita Institute’s Sala Grande there are years of archived materials from the University of Washington’s Italian Hilltowns Program, which was based here in Civita di Bagnoregio and conducted for many years by Astra Zarina, one of the co-founders of the University’s Rome Center. After spending several hours browsing through the materials, it became obvious that doors and gates (and windows) occupy a good portion of the students’ study, but with a noticeable difference in focus.

Student projects tended to document architectural styles, details, age, and construction materials. My interests lie more along the lines of discovering and describing the enormous variety of doors here in Civita, every one of which seems to have its own particular beauty that it carries along with its long, imagined history. Many in fact are wonderful examples of palimpsests, something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. And then, there is their meaning.

The English word “portal” is, in fact, derived from the Latin portalis or Italian porta which means “door” or “gate.” Doors and doorways have been symbolic across cultures for as long as history has been recorded. A door is, of course, both an entrance and an exit, so it has been associated with portals and passageways on many levels throughout history. Doors are closely related to gates and thresholds because the three share some very similar symbolic features and sometimes work together to create passage.

Doors were first seen in recorded history on paintings inside Egyptian tombs. The ancient Romans had advanced architectural elements and were known to have used single, double, sliding, and folding doors. Fun fact: the Roman god Janus is the god of doors and doorways (which makes him, naturally, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions.) Doors still continue to symbolize all of these elements today.

First and foremost, a door is an entrance. On a literal level, this will usually lead to the inside of something (a house, building, or other structure). But on a metaphorical level, a door can become an entrance to nearly anything, although in ancient art it is most commonly used to symbolize the entrance to another world. On a personal level, a door might symbolize whether you are an intimate or an outsider.

The other common symbolism for doors, and one that particularly interests me, is transitions. At the simplest level, a door or doorway symbolizes the transition and passageway from one place to another, or can symbolize the passage from one world to another in religion, mythology, and literature. But a deeper meaning arises when doors, gates, and passageways serve as symbolic transitions for individuals experiencing change. Most of us have a memory of taking a deep breath before crossing some kind of threshold, be it to an interview, a meeting with a teacher or mentor, or a dining room filled with happy, laughing people, none of whom we know.

Doors are associated with privacy, control, and protection much more than a welcoming, open-view gate. Often a doorway provides little view to the other side when closed. And when open, we generally take far less notice of them.

Taking that step across a doorway also means you’ve crossed a threshold and thresholds are typically boundaries or points at which two places (or cultures or experiences) meet. It is where two worlds come together and provide the traveler a point of passage. Crossing the threshold means taking chances and leaving the past behind. All appropriate musings for a visitor in Civita, and rich mapping material.

Here in Civita, as my second week begins, I’ve been thinking about the many ways we “map” our world. There is a story I heard once about the American astronauts, who when they first landed on the moon, named some of the craters after their wives. I suppose when we are far from home, there is a need to feel reassured by what is near and dear.

As users, we assign great ambitions to maps. Implicitly, we trust them to make sense of the world, reveal things that are invisible to the eye. But often, they do so in a coded language, so much so that much still remains invisible to many who do not know how to analyze the data.

In traditional societies, there was no need for maps. Words and memories built history, and what was “known” was transmitted from memory to memory. But yet, there seems to be this need we have to define the areas we explore and inhabit, to mark our territory, to organize it and often, change it.

Edward Tufte, the professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University who is noted for his writings on information design and data visualization, says there are only two industries where the consumer is commonly referred to as a “user”—illegal drugs and the computer industry.

Tufte’s books, The Quantitative Display of Information and Envisioning Information are classic reads for graphic designers. His most recent book, Beautiful Evidence, sets out to explode the myth that there are pre-specified ways of displaying particular information. Instead, Tufte believes that the content should dictate the form, a concept not all that different from the “form follows function” principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. His thesis is that the information doesn’t care what is done to it or how it is displayed. Do whatever it takes. Adapt as you analyze. Link it to the content.

Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction:

“A colleague of Galileo, Federico Cesis, wrote that Galileo’s 38 hand drawn images of sunspots ‘delight both by the wonder of the spectacle and the accuracy of expression.’ That is beautiful evidence. Science and art have in common intense seeing, the wide-eyed observing that generates empirical information. Beautiful Evidence is about how seeing turns into showing.”

My Civita mind map has generated five distinct perspectives that will be the blueprint that guides my project: symbolizing, discovering, describing, navigating, and imagining.

As I explore various ways of translating Civita’s treasure trove of content using these multiples perspectives as the underlying framework, I will keep Tufte’s advice in mind and let content lead the way.

This morning, a little etymology…

The origin of the word “map” dates from the early 16th century, from the medieval Latin mappa mundi, literally ‘sheet of the world.’ The position Civita occupies as one of the most unusual locations in Italy—its almost fantasy-like setting coupled with its history of concerned preservation and multi-layered past makes it rich mapping quarry.

Certainly, Civita is not the sole location where a project like this could take form. Many other locations are rich in history and traditions enough to warrant a similar depiction, but a special place like Civita is more than deserving of the effort. Or perhaps it is more meaningful to say that a project such as this is implicit in a place like Civita. With a myriad of mapping potential, I decided to begin with a Civita mind map as is a graphical way to represent all the possible ideas and concepts I might want to explore.

Mind maps have always been common visual thinking tools in the arts and sciences field but they have recently become all the rage in the education world, since they encourage students to avoid thinking linearly. Essentially, a mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea.

Here’s an early example of a mind map by Walt Disney done in 1953, the original of which can be found in the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Mind maps are process-oriented, not an end in themselves, even if they do sometimes wind up being fun to look at, like this promotional one by Wendy McNaughton for Dell Computers.

In a mind map, as opposed to traditional note taking, information is deliberately structured in a way that resembles much more closely how your brain actually works. They open you up to new ways of organizing information and they’re more realistic, because most projects aren’t orderly to begin with. Mind maps naturally hook into your right brain, where creativity and intuition can help you. Mostly, they help you get the big picture before getting bogged down in the details. Mind maps force you to avoid the prioritizing that happens almost unconsciously in lists and sequence arrangements. In the process, you might discover something that might have been lost or overlooked had you taken a more left-brain approach by creating a prose version of the same information.

There’s only one key to making a mind map: you need to let go of the idea of what it “should” look like and allow yourself to explore implicit rather than explicit connections.

So—on to my own mind map of Civita. I’m looking forward to what the exercise may uncover that might have otherwise slipped past unnoticed.

After traveling by car, plane, bus, plane, bus, train, bus, and walking, I have arrived in Civita di Bagnoregio for my two-month fellowship sponsored by NIAUSI, the Northwest Insitute of Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy, or as it is referred to here, Istituto Civita with an accent on the first syllable (CHEE-vee-tah). Sorry, Rick Steves.

It’s time to give a little background on why I’m actually here.

Working as a graphic designer for the past twenty-some years, I’ve seen the discipline become an increasingly insistent presence in the daily lives of ordinary people, mostly in the service of selling products. But graphic designers also work to interpret, inform, educate and build community through the exchange of information and ideas. As a design professional working in Seattle and a student of Italian, I was marginally aware of the NIAUSI’s Fellowship Program in Civita but it was only when I became curious to learn more that I decided to propose this project because what I discovered surprised me.

Practicing architects and historians had access to a body of technical analyses about Civita’s built form and history and the continuing record of the important work being carried out in conservation and sustainable development of the tuff towns of Italy. The NIAUSI archives contain a wealth of information and project records since past fellows have contributed much richness and specificity to this dialogue, including Gabriela Denise Frank’s CivitaVeritas which offered a welcome personal perspective.

Yet most of this material did not seem easily accessible to the general public. For the casual but interested traveler (or reader) there seemed little more than enticing but short blurbs by Rick Steves and other travel writers, depicting the area as either a dying town or a study model in preservation.

As a graphic communicator, I wanted more. 500—even 50—years ago, Civita was certainly a vastly different place. How had it changed? What forces, events, and people occurred and layered over time to make Civita the specific place it is today? Each bit I discovered made me want to know more, even as each piece seemed to depict a distinctly different place—a multitude of Civitas. And…perhaps this was the key. Perhaps Civita needed to be pulled apart and examined separately before it could be understood as a unified whole.

Maps are essential tools of interpretation for the graphic designer. Audiences see information before they read it, and often we see instead of reading at all. This makes maps ideal devices for conveying complex information. Not only can maps extend factual content, but the manner in which the information is envisioned and arranged can express an emotional component as well. Usually, most of what we conjure when we think of traditional “maps” depicts conventional reality—freeways not bird migrations; shopping footprints instead of lost buildings. But this narrow view of maps denies their potential—rarely do they tap into our subjective memories.

No two people “see” the same city, even with the exact same map. A city is many worlds in one place, or many maps of the same place. Maps—in essence and intent—present arbitrary selections of information. A series of maps may represent many places in the same way or the same place in *many* ways.

What if a series of maps served as an invitation to look at the richness of a place—in this case Civita—with new eyes, allowing a viewer to enter these worlds on their own terms, alter, add, or plan with them? I decided my project would focus on the latter, creating an “atlas” of sorts— Civita Immaginato—Civita Imagined. The series might serve as a ticket to actual territory, but might also offer an open-ended invitation to go beyond what is mapped on the surface, examining the many layers of meaning, culture, and history in one single place through specific and distinct lenses running the gamut from serious to light-hearted, legendary to humorous.

The objective: a small, modest collection, deeply arbitrary, of one person’s exploration of the history and future of a place. The hope: when viewed together, the maps might hint at the richness and complexity of Civita and its surrounding areas as they have been experienced and altered by both residents and visitors.

As I begin my NIAUSI Fellowship, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity. During the next two months, I know I will be meeting people whose lives, on the surface at least appear to be very different from my own. How difficult will it be to connect, and what, if anything, will serve as that connector? Language? Food? Temperament?

On my way east, I stopped for a few days in Washington, D.C. to help settle our daughter in at American University where she’s beginning her studies in the School of International Service. During the welcome ceremony, one of the speakers cautioned against defining oneself too closely or tightly by any one characteristic (gender, race, religion, nationality, etc) no matter how important you deem it to be in your life. His reasoning was that by identifying too closely to any one signifier you risk the danger of it becoming your only defining quality. Then, he said, it becomes “all about you.”

At the other extreme, of course, is as global travel broadens our lives and way of living, we lose a bit of each of our separate cultural identities along the way. Changing dollars to Euros instead of lire felt like one small but obvious reminder. Then when I landed in Rome, I was struck by how many of the signs were offered in English. Many were in Italian and English but a fair number were English only. In a remote location like Civita I wondered how these cultural and economic pressures to reach out to as many people as possible might play out.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out. I opened the New York Times Style magazine to discover this fashion ad for the Italian brand Brunello Cucinelli.

I keep imagining the camera crews knocking over the Italian nonnas on the bridge to get that perfect shot of the supermodels. Maybe there’s more that connects us than we think. Oh, and if anyone can figure out the meaning of the tagline, please let me know what it is.

In a few short weeks, I’ll be beginning my Italian Adventure, traveling to Civita di Bagnoregio and living there for two months as a Fellow of the Northwest Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in Italy (NIAUSI). If you don’t know about this organization, and you are a designer of any persuasion, you might want to check them out. The organization is a non-profit corporation established in 1981 by academics, students, and professional members of the Pacific Northwest design community and grew out of the University of Washington’s Rome Program, founded by the esteemed educator and scholar Astra Zarina to promote intercultural communication and awareness of design in the built environment through exchange between the Pacific Northwest and Italy.

Today, in addition to the three yearly fellowships they award (including one to an current student or alumnus of the UW Rome program) they serve as a resource and an opportunity for professional growth and individual enrichment for any designer interested in studying cross communication and improving the quality of the built environment. And I’m honored to be the first recipient of the recently renamed Astra Zarina Fellowship.

More about my evolving project to come. For now, suffice it to say that its objective is an unconventional series of graphic maps. With no shortage of  landmarks and treasures in Civita and the surrounding region, I hope to share thoughts and sometimes idiosyncratic observations in words and images on history, traditions, culture, people, geology, and food. What better place to undertake this project than in la bella Italia.

Ci vediamo! 

We’re back from the Vancouver Winter Olympics! Great international time for all!

From a design point of view…
The fashion was HOT and the mascots rocked. The overall volunteer color, and there was lots of it, was called “chill”. It coordinated well with the Olympic logo’s “winter ocean”. The leader of the mascots was Quatchi, a shy and gentle giant, a Sasquatch… he’d be a great hockey goalie. Here he is with Sumi on the side of a financial tower. I like blue AND fur… so I was happy. Read the rest of this entry »

I found ugly, excessive ugly, the real McCoy. If for a second you didn’t understand what you were looking at I wouldn’t be surprised. Any theories why these exist? Maybe the question is, should they exist? It’s a free country. Don’t you want to write a play or story and one of your characters just ordered one of these. No the paws of your dog do not have to be chopped off to have one of these of your own… they’re cast… that’s a lovely scene too.

Michael and I were watching a film the other day at the art museum (SAM) of Australian aboriginals, a clan of 27 doing a painting on heavy linen. The painting was almost the size of the floor of a small room. Out in a flat windswept settlement, the painters sat on the dirt ground around the canvas’s perimeter… all very squat. Dogs obediently watched on. They painted a communal journey of sorts—spirit and heritage that they coaxed out in contemporary media. The museum projected this movie onto the floor for viewing, giving you the artist’s perspective. Here are a few examples of paintings similar to what we saw in the gallery, and here is one (the bigger one) I imagined and drew after our visit. I think I’ll do a few more and see where they go. They would make nice scarves or book end papers.

Seattle_Public_LibraryI’ve been itching to say it since we started writing this blog… Seattle has the best library system in the US! Well just look at it, need we say more. The head librarian got everything single thing she and her committee asked for and more… and it came in under budget. The Central Branch is just the tip of the iceberg… which by the way it looks a little bit like when you approach it some city avenues… it’s only one of many newly constructed or refurbished neighborhood libraries in Seattle. Each environment is comfortable, user friendly and architectural inspiring. They all do an incredible business; each is a true community hub. Just look around it’s where the action is. They shuttle books around from one location to another at your whim with such efficiency… I think they put Amazon to shame.

It’s quaint, but it must have been utilitarianism that drove this package solution. In design, form follows function, or in this case… form follows fish. This is one of the design apexes we have here in the Northwest design community to look up to. They say we’re only good at designing big empty, boring boxes to put our computer software in… well, also beer bottle labeling. Fast-forward 134 years since the think-tank canning of salmon here and we have Apple computer designing pretty boxes and Microsoft copycatting those boxes… dead end there. How about challenging the visual and spatial intelligence of software consumers, and becoming responsible to the resources used in packaging?

Wish I could give credit for this image… but the source is unnamed.

Give someone tickets to an independent “think” movie… loafers beware… they’re labors of love and have little monetary rewards for their directors. You won’t find the likes of “Spiderman”, “Twilight” or “Street Fighter” among them. ID films on DVD release are a convenient gift option, or invite a friend over for a meal and watch. I think you may not know of these. Our favorites are:

Limbo There is little doubt that the most discussed aspect of writer/director/editor John Sayles’ Limbo will be the ending. Unconventional and unexpected, the conclusion will inspire outrage in some movie-goers.

Other films in our opinion… Read the rest of this entry »

It would be great to be able to congratulate the designer of the Lego spruce tree, in production for 30 years. But I can’t. I’ve cast a wide net for clues, but it comes back empty. The designer’s story will remain shrouded, yet we can still cheer the elaborate form of green plastic. I think it must be lauded as a toy icon—one of Lego’s brand-defining moments—a sculptural wonder and an engineer’s folly.

Though in my search a story did emerge, more of a tale of lineage and predecessors, a timeline of a botanical oddity. If all things Lego enchant you, then you may enjoy this nice hike through the near-monochromatic forest.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’m starting a fantasy wish list. I’ll be posting individual items (gifts) or ideas as the holidays approach. There will be few limits on the selections… and undoubtedly I’ll express more greed than sole-searching restraint.

This one, a classic Josef Albers painting… just a little thing, but a window to a great many big things. It’s a 12-inch by 12-inch canvas. Only 3-color, oh c’mon, how much can it cost? It speaks to my heart and my design head. The size is another thing about it. His later “color-field” painters became too big in my opinion—appropriate only for hanging on museum walls.

“Easy—to know that diamonds—are precious.
Good—to learn that rubies—have depth.
But more—to see that pebbles—are miraculous.”
—Josef Albers

Josef and Anni Albers were artistic adventurers who were both pioneers of twentieth-century modernism. Josef Albers (1888-1976) was an influential teacher, writer, painter, and color theorist—now best known for the Homages to the Square he painted between 1950 and 1976 and for his innovative 1963 publication The Interaction of Color. The couple met in Weimar, Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus. This new teaching institution, now so renowned for its effects on all modern design, emphasized the connection between artists, architects, and craftspeople.

Look what my neighbors pulled off. This is a little bit of a Halloween recap, but it has to be mentioned on this blog. Kevin and Betsy across the street are masters in lantern making and of course a large gourd is a perfect form. The orange glow from a Jack-o-lantern is unique… nothing else communicates the same way as the candle light reflecting off pumpkin flesh.

Kevin took a Japanese saw and “sliced” clear through a hollowed-out pumpkin. Then the disks were restacked and set apart with toothpicks. I saw if from my window… not expecting it. “Look how wonderful, look what Kevin and Betsy did with their pumpkin” I said to my family. They came running. Some things on our street are now taken to be expected.


Oh my heavens it’s the scary yellow scallop squash! Happy Halloween from your pals at Partners in Design. It’s a great designer holiday, I often think of it as our very own. We knew this photo of our favorite seed packet designs would come in handy someday. Design lesson of the day: appropriate and make uniquely you own… redirect meaning. Long visual history of it in the making of collages (ORIGIN early 20th cent.: from French, literally ‘gluing.’).Boo!


There are only six studies like this drawing by Michelangelo throughout the world today, done in preparation for painting his “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. Its quality is soft and smudgy due to the chalk used, and the purpose and fashion in which it was executed…it was a sketch.

Sketching is something we all have in common with Michelangelo… we have all sketched to communicate an idea, simple as it might have been. Everyone. Usually the communication works pretty well. If you have a more elaborate or artful message  to convey, chances are you will rise to the occasion and find yourself more technically able. This is something I truly believe.

We recently had one of these drawings on display here in Seattle. When Michelangelo was invited back to Rome by the Pope to paint the altar wall, the resulting work, his “Last Judgment,” was a truly original if controversial masterpiece. Read the rest of this entry »


A part of our “word of the day” series.
We won’t post a new one every day, but you
get the idea. Give us ideas for new words.
Foreign and made-up words count.

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It is a beauty of things unconventional.

The ideology of wabi-sabi is ongoing and has the need to be nurtured… as most natural systems do… or they become extinct. Saving this universe of beauty is elusive since wabi-sabi is not easily reducible to formulas or catch phrases without destroying its essence. Making rules or precisely practicing it is impossible… describing it is like holding sand in your hands.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty. Wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

Read the rest of this entry »


I’ve read that Bocce is about to explode in this country. Those of us on the Bocce court are looking around and laughing to ourselves. It would be great, but me thinks it may be the over zealousness of Bocce equipment marketers and fashion. Now we’re really laughing… Bocce fashion? Oh yes I’ve seen Bocce Bikinis. What do you think of when you hear the word “bocce”? Total blank, or are you thinking little old Italian men tossing balls on a dusty court? It may be America’s newest sport, but it’s on of the world’s oldest games. If you can imagine first played with round rocks, or even coconuts, now played with composite or metal balls. A game of skill and strategy. Simple to play and very social… better than Facebook. Multi-generational, and can be played by anyone of any physical ability level.bocceball

There’ll be more bocce talk on this blog in the future. So I’ll cut this short now. Just wanted to throw out the pallino to see if there were any other enthusiasts who are getting the bocce bug.

bocceIn my old neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights this is what’s going on there, they’re a feisty bunch… I learned to play in Seattle, we play on lawn bowling courts. Don’t get me started about the difference between the sports… it’s huge! But mostly in the head.




I’ve been reading that coffee is having its third wave in the USA. This time it speaks to traditional roots and the purists at heart (no flavorings, please). Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters is now in Manhattan, and so the wave may span coast to coast.

I’m a tea drinker myself, but keep rowdy coffee drinking friends. A baffled friend asked me for a visual reference guide. Read the rest of this entry »


Walking on an Olympic mountain trail heading towards the Elwah Valley is a piece of big geological magnitude… not allowing for much notice of the smaller details. The sky finally clearing of clouds, with dramatic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca emerging… turning vibrant and ultramarine. Just off the trailside, almost not noticing, stood an alpine anthill. Covered in dried heather needles, all gathered from nearby plants and placed meticulously. Read the rest of this entry »

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