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MICHAEL MASUMOTO'S COMMERCIAL GRAPHIC DESIGN

NARRATED BY THE ARTIST: JUNE 2016

Michael Masumoto Self Portrait - 2015

MICHAEL MASUMOTO - SELF PORTRAIT (2015)

For the most part, the following graphic design work has been drawn from my 2016 Portfolio video, which contains higher resolution images. You can view the video on my Portfolio main page. Some images are from my real world gigs, some are new works I created especially for this exhibit.

BUT FIRST: "I AM BIG! IT'S THE PICTURES THAT GOT SMALL..."

For the six years of the dot-com boom, I was the principal Professor of Web Programming and Design at San Francisco State University. At that time, our Multimedia Studies Program (MSP) was the #1 Multimedia program in the world. While I have a Master's Degree in Music Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, most of my professional career has been in graphic design, technical education, and advertising. After I left teaching, my husband and I opened a high-end art furniture workshop making lavish, handmade spectacle pieces, which has taken up virtually all of my time since 2005. But I'm a Multimedia guy to my core, a polymath; furniture-making alone can not satisfy me.

Polymath: A person of great learning, whose expertise spans a significant number of different fields. Such a person draws on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

During my association with the MSP, I was, in essence, the Web Guru of Multimedia Gulch, teaching and consulting for businesses. I had students or clients from virtually every major company in the Silicon Valley and Multimedia Gulch of that period, as well as places like NASA, Lawrence/Livermore Labs, Salon, UC Berkeley...

Working with so many people, from businesses large and small, public and private, all struggling to present themselves over the Internet... it gave me a unique perspective. I learned the vital importance of clear messaging, how to draw those intangible essentials from students and clients, and how to present those messages effectively. My classes were always sold out.

Successful businesses generally understand who they are, who their customer is, and can articulate these things in concrete, specific terms which can be communicated to their teams as well as to their customers. They set up pragmatic, functional systems with realistic, concrete goals and a comprehensible ethos that connects with their customer base.

I worked from the programming and design end of things, of course, but inevitably that would uncover issues which led back to deeper, systemic failures in communication, branding and messaging; I would then help my students and clients to clarify and correct these deficiencies. The most common problem: people had no idea what they were trying to communicate. Oh, they thought they did, and often had a lot to say, blah blah blah vague buzz words. But they couldn't or wouldn't express the essence of their brand, their clientele, their goals, in specific and meaningful terms. They thought, if they were too specific, they might alienate possible customers! But when they stayed vague, they couldn't establish a clear brand to attract customers.

In consequence, I developed skills that turned me into a kind of communications therapist. I question, listen, and analyze, working collaboratively with clients to develop pragmatic, implementable solutions.

TO BEGIN

A brand is the encapsulation of specific but intangible essential qualities of your product or company. A logo (with accompanying materials) is the graphical realization of that brand, that essence. Messaging involves communicating that essence in some constructive, directed and intentional manner to the public (through means verbal and non-verbal) to increase positive perception of your brand (among many other things).

Let's look at my new branding materials for our website, as an illustration of what I mean:

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Masumoto Herd Web Logo (2016)

The essence of the Masumoto Herd brand: craftsmanship, beauty, eccentricity, professionalism. Whether the medium is physical or digital, we stand for careful, meticulous handwork, the human touch. These are not empty "Core Principles" that corporations pass out in employee handbooks (largely identical, from business to business); the words we have chosen and the stance we espouse reflect the essential, intangible nature of our brand. These decisions restrict us, to a point; many legitimate approaches to Art became inappropriate for our brand. But we had to take some kind of stand, for good or ill, or our brand would represent nothing and be useless. So we chose attitudes and beliefs about Art and Work we both shared, reflecting our vision of what Art should be: individual, human and well-made.

With any business, however, a brand must be allowed to develop organically to reflect reality.

Our original logo was very severe:

Masumoto Herd Logo - 2010

Masumoto Herd Logo (2010)

This logo DID reflect the stated essence of our brand: Well-crafted, beautiful, professional, eccentric (although we consulted an Arts business expert who suggested an approach of obscurity and mystery, reflected in my design of a stylish cypher, to make us seem more exclusive. Why did I listen? Bad advice). The logo was conceived as a literal brand to burn into our furniture (and we're keeping it for that purpose). However, this logo did not end up projecting the true gestalt of our partnership... which is not surprising since we had never worked together before we opened Masumoto Herd. I was not sure what our gestalt WAS.

Although our living and working relationship is unusually harmonious (thank goodness; we are two of the lucky few who get along better because we've now worked together), Kai and I are a marriage of opposites. I have begun to recognize that our pieces consistently express harmonious dichotomies, contrasts of opposites, oxymorons (seriously funny; eternal transience; motion in stasis, etc). And we grossly underestimated the influence of our senses of humor upon our output. Plus, we started as a furniture workshop, but I'm a Multimedia guy; multimedia projects began to blossom. Finally, Kai and I had a long talk, wherein he declared, "You are the front man, you are the designer, so the company has to focus around you and your vision." So, we had to reposition. And our logo design had to change.

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Intangibles are hard to pin down, especially when they're YOUR intangibles. Focusing a brand, therefore, is often an iterative process. And the visual expression of that brand is your logo.

Within a more upbeat conception, our logo is now our first, seminal work: The Fantasium, a piece rich in dichotomous themes, a visual exhortation to Rejoice! It's won top competitive prizes, both as furniture and as sculpture. It's utterly unique with a distinctive profile. It embodies our brand's intangible essence. And the shared agony of creating that work cemented our personal bond. What could be more appropriate?

A properly made logo is a vital part of overall company messaging. A logo contains non-verbal cues about who you are and what you represent that impacts your company's image and affects people's attitude and behavior towards you.

Once you define specific core intangibles about your brand, it's easier to see what's right or wrong for your business because you understand, in concrete terms, what your brand stands for. These intangibles help you to shape your choices concerning the projects you undertake, your advertising, your avenues of promotion, etc by providing you with a natural center from which everything can flow. Does X relate to my brand? If you know exactly what your brand is, you can tell whether X relates to it or not. More importantly, your TEAM can determine if X relates to your brand and make rational decisions. This allows you to create consistent messaging across everything you produce. Consistent messaging (in combination with good products and/or services targeted at your core customer base, obviously) gives your brand an integrity that people will respect. Over time, consistency and integrity inspire trust. And that's what you want: a brand that your customers know that they can trust.

Commercial graphic design, then, has to express these intangible essentials about the nature of your brand and your business... and what your business aspires to become.

IN OTHER WORDS, when I make ads and campaigns and logos and pictures for you, I make sure that they encapsulate what your company and brand are all about, target the appropriate market(s), and reflect where you see your company going. And, if confusion about any of these things exists, I can help you clear that up.

MY GOAL FOR STARTUPS: KNOW THYSELF

Websites, smartphone apps, and other means of promotion, sales and advertising are a gestalt of many things: brand, message, presentation (as well as the delivery of content, in terms of websites and apps). Websites are the face a business presents to the world... but no business can be all things to all people, not even Google! A brand has to mean something that can be communicated in specific terms, even if that something is complex and intangible. Amazon, for instance, might be vast, but the essence of their brand is a storefront that embodies "maximum selection, minimum price."

If you can not communicate the ESSENCE of your brand to your own team in a pithy and meaningful manner, you can not communicate it to the world! Decisions must be made, about what one IS, and, more importantly, about what one IS NOT. This does not happen overnight; it's an iterative process.

The intangible can be very challenging to pin down, especially when it's YOUR intangible. "To be the best X on the market," is too vague; everyone wants to be the best, or claims to be so. What makes your X different from everyone else's? What specific quality of your brand makes you unique? What essence do you believe your brand should communicate? What do you stand for? How is that relevant to your target market? Who is your core customer base? Just saying, "every man, woman and child in the country," gets you nowhere. You have to narrow the field, pinpoint the heart of your business in concrete terms, and determine how your product or service relates to that heart; this often involves some stance, whether impossibly grand like "to enlarge the capacity for compassion in all mankind" (which we are to accomplish how, exactly?) to something as simple as "reliability." But it could be anything, depending on you, your business and your customers. When your business is new, pinning down these intangibles can feel overwhelming. Don't worry, it's accomplished in easy stages.

FOR ESTABLISHED BUSINESSES:
WHAT SPECIFIC MARKET ARE YOU TARGETING?

Even established businesses need to reposition their brand or brands from time to time to keep them relevant. When I was working in this field during the dot-com boom, everyone was scrambling to reposition themselves to take advantage of the Internet (at a time when the Internet was less generally adopted and so relevant to a much narrower base). But the core issues confronting a business expanding into a new market are the same, regardless of the medium. What specific market are you targeting? How do these new customers relate to your core business? To the overall vision for your company? Please tell me the essence of your brand or brands. What deficiency in your core business are we trying to address with this repositioning? Now, let's pin down the specific, essential intangibles of this new iteration of your brand... Once we have these essentials pinned down, questions concerning website, advertising and other means of promotion become relatively straightforward to address.

AND SO...

Whether you're a startup or a long-established firm, an outside consultant like me can be very helpful, providing perspective to ensure that your messaging and your approach are as focused and intentional as they can realistically be.

(OK, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup...)

NOW, THE ARTWORK!

Mastodon Rock Logo and Label - 2016

Mastodon Rock Vineyards Logo and Label (2016)

Here, I've created an imaginary small business, "Mastodon Rock Vineyards."

With a small business, I work to incorporate something specific about the owner's personal taste and/or point of view into their branding materials. A logo for a small business is partly a graphical manifestation of the spirit of the owners of the company. Bankers, venders, and other businesspeople will be interacting with the owners directly in the beginning, so the branding materials should feel authentic, to inspire trust. The branding can be aspirational, but you don't want something misleading and dissonant. Inauthenticity is difficult to support over time and might cause people to question your honesty. So, who are Mastodon Rock's owners?

I've imagined that the mythical Mastodon Rock property has been purchased by young, upscale intellectuals, a Bus. Ad. Major and his English Major wife, who love the outdoors (hiking, rock-climbing) and fine wine. They have formed a business partnership with their winemaker, an up-and-coming hotshot with poor people skills who knows only about wine. Together, they're opening a boutique winery specializing in high-end exotic varietals. They're nice people, somewhat square. So, these are my imaginary clients.

I've selected a font which reflects the wife's past, digging around in 18th-century manuscripts, because she's going to be the public face of the company. It's the Biographer font, from Sudtipos, an Argentinean foundry that specializes in fonts for advertising. Elegant script fonts also project an iconic, classy quality typical in the winemaking industry. I've contrasted Biographer with a sans-serif freeware font called Keep Calm Medium, drawn from British World War II posters. Keep Calm has a clean, Modern legibility without any high-tech implications, in keeping with my imaginary clients' antiquarian tastes. Both fonts imply something established, Old World, traditional, since high-end wines generally seek to project an aura of age and mellowness.

My imaginary clients purchased this property, not only for its beneficial micro-climate (beloved by the winemaker), but also because, as hikers and rock climbers, they all loved the Mastodon Rock landmark. I imagined that the name and landmark were handed to me by my clients, with their directive to feature these elements in my work. So, my first job: photograph Mastodon Rock.

Mastodon Rock Photo - April 2016

Mastodon Rock (2016)

Here is my photograph of a real location in California's state park system. It is, in fact, just outside Sonoma County's wine country, near the mouth of the Russian River.

This so-called "Mastodon Rock" is an unnamed coastal hill/rock at the Goat Rock end of the Kortum Trail near the town of Jenner. My photograph is unretouched; the ruddy color comes from the light of the setting sun. I could be mistaken, but I believe there was evidence discovered of worn spots at the base where mastodons are thought to have scratched themselves; hence, the name I chose. The rock is many stories tall. There is another, smaller rock nearby that is extremely popular with rock climbers, but "Mastodon Rock" is off limits because too many people have killed themselves climbing it.

In the imaginary world of my hypothetical business, however, Mastodon Rock is an attraction of the winery for visitors, safely climbable. The owners are in the process of installing a picnic ground nearby, at the end of a short, wheelchair-accessible hiking trail leading from the tasting room. These are the sorts of attractions that successful wineries possess, after all!

Mastodon Rock Logo and Label - 2016

Mastodon Rock Vineyards Logo and Label (2016)

Having selected my best photograph of the landmark, I set about to draft their logo. The goal: associate Mastodon Rock with great Wine. As I said earlier, this is an iterative process, but I'm starting from a classy silhouette, reminiscent of other upscale wineries and fine car logos. This is a boutique winery, so I've avoided the corporate logo look. I've made the logo a little wooly, to suggest the Mastodon. The Mastodon lore, I would spin enticingly in advertising for the winery facilities, but not the campaign for the wine itself.

In a real world job, this logo would go through a back-and-forth revision process with the company owners, to reflect their individual tastes more completely. We would also chat about their vision for the winery, etc, which might also enrich the character of the final design.

For the wine label, I chose to go with a more expensive, full-color photographic image, the picture was so appealing. Were my clients to ask for a lower-cost, single-color option (common with wines to be cellared), the black-and-white logo could be switched in easily.

Mastodon Rock Vineyards Ad - 2016

Mastodon Rock Vineyards Ad (2016)

I created a sample advertisement to show my approach to the look of the Mastodon Rock promotional materials. This sample is not a photo, it's a piece of digital art I created using Blender 2.77a, an open-source 3D modeling and rendering package. The wine glasses are copies I made of Schott Zwiesel Tritan Cru glasses, which the Wall Street Journal ranked very highly. I modeled, composed and lit everything in this picture.

The campaign reflects the prowess of their hotshot winemaker, who has taken many top prizes before striking out on his own. This first-draft campaign is a trifle generic, the messaging still embryonic, though containing props symbolizing the highest end, recognized by connoisseurs (our target market). I've kept the design sleek and Modern so as not to drain focus from the wine, our main event. Were the rock climbing to take off and a small cafe to open, we could start featuring the wine within that context IF the winery were to turn out to be a big tourist draw... or we could keep the focus on the wine in isolation and begin to convey a message of increasingly single-minded obsessiveness and attention to perfection through our progression of advertisements, on the gamble that the wine will continue to win top awards. For a small company like this, a certain opportunistic flexibility, allowing one to incorporate winning developments over time, is probably better than something too monolithic, although a unifying theme does need to be pinned down. These decisions really have to be made in consultation with the owners, since they reflect long-term vision that's not up to me.

Real World Logos Set #1 - 2016

Real World Logos Set #1 (2016)

I haven't done a ton of branding since we opened our art furniture workshop, but there are a few pieces I've created in recent years.

My Unique Law branding has been a winner for attorney Kathleen Hunt. She was drawn to Victorian-era styles, so I developed this retro-professional feel for her. It implies outside-the-box thinking and quirkiness combined with a comfortable sense of tradition and solidity, which is the essence of both her and her practice, in my opinion. Her old-style printed business cards on beautiful cardstock with that Edison Lightbulb logo receive consistent praise from clients, she informs me. I'm thrilled that her business has grown so successfully, but I was just supporting the excellence of her work.

I was on the Board of Directors for the Humboldt Woodworking Society several years ago. We were suddenly running the largest woodworking show on the North Coast, so our group desperately needed a more professional look for the upcoming media push. The Arts-and-Crafts era is deeply embedded in the psyche of the Northern California woodworking community. I drew the hand plane logos (the locally-recognized trademark of the organization) from a still-in-service 19th century tool in the possession of one of my husband's colleagues. The show was a big success. And, since the introduction of this logo, the group has more consistently attracted the participation of local professionals, which was the intended goal.

The Spring Show was a proposed North Coast Musical Theater organization which never materialized. However, my logo was universally admired. When I was assembling my portfolio, the first thing my husband asked was, "Are you including the Spring Show logo?" Honestly, I had forgotten all about it... which gives me the opportunity to look at it with the eyes of an outsider.

The Spring Show logo says Spring, Fun, Theater! From this remove, I really love the subtlety of the "singing" tulip. The lack of obviousness differentiates this logo from those of most community musical organizations, which usually have a string of musical notes coming out of whatever. Because you can mistake it for an ordinary flower, the tulip creates a potential talking point, which is a nice touch. The clean, crisp design says, "Professional but Not Stuffy." I would never have overlapped the image and text for a corporate logo, but, for this particular arts non-profit, I think the layout contributes to the core message of fun unconventionality designed to appeal to the region's Bohemian theatrical base.

Happy Milk Ad - 2016

Happy Milk Ad (2016)

Happy Milk is an imaginary product, whose ad is another work of digital art I made using Blender 2.77a. This picture is not a photograph. Even the milk froth is a painting that I applied to the inside of the fake bottle!

Honestly, I came up with the idea and burst out laughing. But this absurd campaign does accurately reflect the goofy/sophisticated nature of my sense of humor, both sweet and sarcastic. I like that it's G-rated, a touch sleazy, yet very sex-positive. Clearly, this is not targeted at women, although I know some women who would like it. The suggestiveness isn't just heterosexual, either. This approach would sell milk to a sophisticated niche market. Science fiction fans, gay men, computer nerds. My people! You would have to sell "Cream," too. Such a great mixer for Kahlua cocktails!

I'm sorry, but sex sells. Isn't this kind of thing in keeping with the times?

I believe that the essence of the campaign would be feigned cluelessness, as if we did not entirely understand what we were suggesting. How wholesome this product is, how morally upright! An essential part of a balanced breakfast! The faintest whiff of blatantness, and the campaign would disintegrate. It might go kinky, within severely restricted limits (only suggestion, never directly showing anything). But always squeaky clean and positive. Some people wouldn't appreciate it... my mother rolled her eyes and said dryly, "How tasteful." But I know people who would definitely buy this product.

MY TAKE ON SEX IN ADVERTISING

Suggestion is more provocative and interesting than blatantness. Just showing half-naked bodies, bumping and grinding in grungy, jittery black-and-white, isn't edgy, although a lot of people think it is. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy nakedness, but in terms of breaking boundaries, it's a dead end. I mean, Josephine Baker took off everything but a few sequins and a handful of ostrich plumes on film in the early 1930's; it's been done. Suggestion is where you can really push the envelope because imagination is much more potent than reality.

When I was about 18 or 19, I learned about how powerful suggestion could be. I was at a Society for Creative Anachronism outdoor camping event that was about 105 in the shade. I couldn't go shirtless in a pair of shorts or anything normal because I had to wear Medieval clothing. But I was a starving undergraduate. I had little money and I could barely sew. So I had prepared by making myself a shift from about 4 yards of cheap muslin, into which I had cut and hemmed a neckhole and some belt-holes, which I had then belted. With my long hair, I looked like Jesus. I couldn't wear normal underwear because the sides were open; sewn together, the thing would have been too hot to wear. At home, it had looked nice, like a Medieval beach coverup; the way I had it belted, I just kind of assumed... After walking around the campground for an hour, however, I was told that I was flashing everyone; humiliated, I changed clothes and sweltered. Embarrassing, but a non-event.

A few weeks later, I went to another one of these SCA roasters. I was a cute young thing, a part-time photographer's model, and I had been on swim team when younger, so I was used to showing skin and didn't really think much about it. This time, I had made myself a loincloth to wear under this light muslin shift, so I would be decent in public. Watering their front yards in Summer, most people would wear about a quarter of what I had on. But, apparently, my outfit still made me look like I was somehow provocatively naked, the sides flopping open randomly, exposing the edges of my body, the loose yardage below my belt flapping in the breeze, exposing my bare legs.

Good god! SCANDAL! People were FREAKED OUT. The entire campground was buzzing! Before, when they could actually see something, I had been boring and forgettable. But when it looked like they MIGHT be able to see something, but couldn't... WELL! They became convinced that I was about to expose myself AT ANY MOMENT! I became a public spectacle, corrupting, dirty. Everyone I met berated me for indecent exposure; I had to keep ripping open my clothes to display my underwear because they thought I was lying about wearing any; even then, they were still furious. I was shocked; with the loincloth, I was wearing 5.5 yards of fabric! I mean, there were other people at this event wearing nothing but rabbit fur bikinis. Then some people started asking my friends about the size of my private parts, speculating. It was beyond insane! But it taught me a lesson I'll never forget.

It's the MYSTERY that makes something intriguing, the implication, the suggestion. The thing itself is nice enough, but it's not genuinely provocative. Fantasy is where all the power lies.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

For six years, MICHAEL MASUMOTO was the principal professor of Web Programming and Design at San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program, at that time the #1 multimedia program in the world. He has helped a multitude of companies, large and small, to focus their web presence, branding and company messaging.

Michael was an online education pioneer, producing and/or writing many technical training courses. He also produced, wrote and programmed the first interactive talking children's book for the Web, the award-winning "Boogers and Boogeymen."

In 2010, Michael founded a high-end art furniture workshop in partnership with his husband, Kai Herd. Their work has won top prizes in competitions throughout California. They have recently expanded into video production services.

Michael holds a Master's degree in Music Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has composed and produced six operas (among other works), and has recently completed his first piano sonata. Michael also holds a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley.

Additional Artworks

Michael works in a variety of media, both physical and digital. Click the links below to see additional samples of his work.

For more about Michael's musical work, please visit the Music section of this website. For more about Michael's movie and motion graphics work, please visit the Video Production section of this website. And, of course, for more about Michael and Kai's physical multimedia projects, please visit our Art Furniture section. Thanks!

Last Updated: June 15, 2016
COPYRIGHT © 2010-2016 MICHAEL MASUMOTO

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