Making something you love

I’ve been working on an audio documentary called Containers about how global trade has transformed the economy and, well, everything.

It represents, for me, a return to storytelling, after a couple years as a manger. Maybe because of that, I’ve been happily obsessive with each piece of it. Here, I’m going to share some stories about making the podcast and returning to creative work.

First up is the story of the logo, which is stunning. So you know what I’m talking about:

Logo for Containers. Art by Fawna Xiao, design by Jim Cooke.

This project doesn’t scream “this will have a gorgeous logo.” My prism on global trade is container shipping, which brings you just about everything you buy, and may be the least sexy industry on earth. The setting for the 8-part podcast is the Port of Oakland, which is one of the largest ports in America (though dwarfed by LA/Long Beach and Newark).

I’ve always been fascinated with the Port, not least because it is so high in the mythological mix of this town. We put shipping cranes on sweatshirts here, you know? The port is part of our lore as a radical city with a working-class history. And it’s our symbol: It’s what you see coming from San Francisco on BART or across the Bay Bridge or on a ferry.

So that was my first thought. Maybe I should just use a photo of an Oakland crane. Or a big ship. Or an individual container sitting in the port. Lord knows I have hundreds of photos like that, but it didn’t feel like an authentic representation of the project, even if it was the most recognizable.

Credit: Alexis Madrigal

Containers is not just about the stuff, the ships and cranes and warehouses. It’s about the people who make the supply chain work. The not-so-subtle secondary meaning of the title is that these people and places have stories that go far beyond their narrow economic role.

So I was stumped for a while.

There’s an artist here in Oakland named Fawna Xiao. She works at the excellent coffee shop closest to Fusion, Modern Coffee and she is a tremendous printmaker. After I discovered her work but before I started working on Containers, I bought one of her prints last year.

Fawna Xiao’s beautiful work.

When I visited her studio, I remember Fawna describing her process. She prints on each piece many times, ink layer on ink layer. Over time, the shapes she creates take on the property of volume. Three dimensionality pops out of the overlapping ink fields. I find them mesmerizing.

And as I got deeper into the Containers project, I kept thinking about the way that cargo ships get sold and resold. And when they do, they need a new coat of paint. They also encounter the elements, docks and tugboats, all kinds of stuff. Weathering occurs. They age. And so, you end up with these gorgeous surfaces that, though they are basically big flat steel planes, take on the feel of a landscape.

Credit: Alexis Madrigal
Credit: Alexis Madrigal
Credit: Alexis Madrigal
Credit: Alexis Madrigal

It is a combination of capitalism and nature and chance and time that prints the design of these ships’ hulls, but I kept seeing this strange consonance with Fawna’s work.

So I asked her if she would accept a weird commission, to print work that would be turned into a logo for the podcast. She accepted and I sent her over pictures of hulls that I’d taken over the months, along with a few of other things.

Credit: Alexis Madrigal
Credit: Alexis Madrigal

And then I waited. After a few days, she sent over some process shots.

When I first saw them, I wasn’t sure what I thought. I’d expected one big print. I worried the grid might not work at the tiny iTunes logo scale. But I had 100% faith that Fawna would make something beautiful. “I’ve been playing with shipping container abstractions,” she texted. “My grid idea may not translate too well if the image is small (or might just look like a little grid which could be cool).”

A few days later, we met up at her studio and she revealed the final pieces of art.

I was stunned. I loved them so, so much. I stood up on the picnic table out back of her studio and snapped a million pictures.

Credit: Fawna Xiao

I got lost in individual squares and rectangles. There was so much narrative possibility in each abstraction and the connections of color and form between them.

And then as a whole, the feel of each piece was alive, dynamic, mysterious, bold. It’s almost embarrassing to describe my reaction, but I just couldn’t believe how much I loved them.

When I got home, I started playing with them, trying to figure out what kind of type treatment to use. I’m not a professional, but I couldn’t help wanting to play with the shapes and colors.

I especially liked the one on the lower left, which suggests a shipping crane shape. On the other hand, I worried about the scannability of all of them.

And that’s when all the materials and some of these sketches went to Gizmodo Media’s art director Jim Cooke. He immediately made a fantastic move, stacking the squares on top of the rectangles, using both pieces of art to open up white space for the type. Then he dropped in a few treatments. Here a couple of the outtakes:

And here, as at the beginning, is the final version of the logo that we came to. It’s beautiful, scans well, and (I think) sets the tone for the rest of the project as an unusually humanistic project about logistics.

Within each container, there is always more to see.

And the other moral of the story is: hire artists.