Can you make Twitter avatars look good? 7 Steps to Beautiful Work

Getting a decent looking avatar is pretty easy for a personal account. All you need is a decent shot of your face, right? Get mostly your face with the eyes lined up on a third (you know the rule of thirds) against a background that doesn’t detract from your face and you’re good.

It can be quite a bit harder for organizations, especially if you have a brand that isn’t represented by the main logo. In my temp assignment at U.Va.’s Office of Engagement and Annual Giving, this issue came up.

U.Va.’s graphic identity is pretty easy most of the time. All we have to do is slap a Rotunda on it. The HoosNetwork case is different because it’s a new brand and it’s got enough different ideas running around and through it that the Rotunda, at least by itself, doesn’t communicate what we need. The Rotunda is U.Va. and U.Va. is the Rotunda, but this doesn’t work for HoosNetwork and the Rotunda. (It doesn’t always work for U.Va., in my thinking, either.)

HoosNetwork started as a Twitter handle, @HoosNetwork. As we started developing more and more content, on our own and with alumni, on the UVA Global Network, HoosNetwork developed into a concept for a content channel. The Director for Engagement Strategy worked with a designer to get a logo.

HoosNetwork graphic identity

The downside is that this logo doesn’t work so well for Twitter. It looks great at higher resolutions, but is crowded, jumbled and illegible at something like 48×48 pixels. The Twitter handle is not an exclusive property for HoosNetwork digital events. So what can you do?

HOOSNetwork-Twitter-73x73-textonlyText-heavy avatars were tried, with drop shadows and outlines. One version included a Rotunda; another version was text only. It wasn’t working. One problem was that the text logos were done at low resolutions so they didn’t look good if a user clicked on the avatar to zoom to full size. The drop shadows and outlining techniques didn’t play well at the lower resolutions.  While I like the minimalist philosophy, this simple text and two color look was too simple.

I hadn’t worked on an avatar for Twitter before so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I came up with something that looked pretty good and worked pretty well, but it took some trial and error to get there. I think this avatar works because it does a handful of things really well: (1) it gets the message out, simply (hashtag HoosNetwork! and we’re with U.Va.–didn’t you see the Rotunda?), (2) it stands out amongst all the “regular” avatars of people’s faces, logos & indistinguishable graphics, (3) it’s in the ballpark of current design trends, (4) it is recognizably related to the HoosNetwork graphic identity shown above and (5) it looks good at all the different sizes Twitter displays it.

HoosNetwork Twitter avatar

Here are a few things to remember when you’re rolling out your own homegrown profile pic or logo for Twitter.

  1. Have a plan.
    It’s okay to deviate from the plan, but having an idea of what you’re doing is much better for directing your creative flow. It also helps to have some idea of what you’re going for so you can know when you’re done. The potential for fiddling is real.
  2. Allow yourself to be inspired, even if you’re not a designer.
    I’m not a designer. That’s surely obvious by now. Like anyone working on the web, I like to think that I appreciate good design. In this case, my initial inspiration was the color blocking trend in fashion.
  3. Be aware of current design trends, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
    I don’t know a whole lot about flat design, but I was pretty sure that drop shadows and text outlines looked bad to me partly because they seemed out of place in contemporary design.
  4. Know your parameters.
    Twitter posts avatar dimensions. Facebook and others do it for images as well. Twitter avatars have to look good at the most commonly displayed sizes, 48×48 pixels and 73×73 pixels. But they also have to look good at sizes as small as 24×24 and as big as 500×500. This is why simplicity helps in designing an avatar. Lots of text and creative flourishes may look great at 500 pixels, but does it scale down to 48 pixels?
  5. Try many versions.
    Try new ideas, jump off on tangents, play around with something just to see what it looks like. Remember to save your work and to track your versions. I came up with nine different candidates, mostly variations on the initial theme. Each one helped clarify my thinking for the next.
  6. Don’t go with your favorite.
    I come from a writing background and the mantra, “kill your darlings.” You may really love what you come up with on one run, but remember to ask the important questions. Does it look great at every size? Will the user get what you’re trying to communicate? Does it make sense with your organization’s existing brand and graphic identities?
  7. Get an outside opinion.
    After you’ve worked up a few versions, show them to someone else. You need to respect this person’s opinion and also trust them to be honest. Getting an outside opinion isn’t about having someone else make a tough decision for you. In my experience, showing your work to someone else, explaining it and walking them through your process goes a long way towards clearing up your own feelings on your work. It’s likely you’ll have a good idea of what works best and looks best after talking it through with a trusted colleague or friend.

Follow these steps and put the time in. You’ll have a good chance of coming up with an avatar that looks great and communicates your message while still being a design n00b.

A word on software. I’ve used both Adobe Photoshop and the free/open source GIMP software for photo editing. I’ve found that I very much prefer GIMP to Photoshop for tasks like this one that involve logo and text graphic manipulations. It was simply quicker and easier to get where I was going for this project using GIMP. If you haven’t used it, then you should try it out. It’s free software, in so many ways.

Finally, I can’t talk about the need to create and play with multiple versions without showing the goods. Here’s a gallery of the iterations I went through to get to the final avatar displayed above.

[AFG_gallery id=’2′]

Copy for UVaClubs — Winter Party Ideas

I wrote this for the purpose of providing ideas that Regional Engagement Officers could share with volunteers.  — ajh

Winter is coming, and with it, the opportunity to hang out as only ‘Hoos do. Whether the party is out in the cold or cozy inside, lively or reserved, ‘Hoos know how to do it better than anyone else.

Here are some ideas to get it going in the cold months coming:

1) Potluck dinner with seasonal foods, recipe share.

How could this not be a huge success? Seriously, show me one person who doesn’t like food.

What you need: Plenty of people who like to eat, and a handful of people who like to cook.

How it works: You can set rules to only include in-season and locally cultivated foods. You could add a theme for a particular holiday or cooking style. Be sure to share recipes. Get the competitive juices flowing with a cook-off competition centered around a particular dish like a chili or pumpkin pie.

Why it’s cool to party this way: The pleasure of breaking bread in good company is universal. Jazz it up with a Jeffersonian Dinner structure.

2) Year-in-review via YouTube

December is our time to remember and YouTube parties are great fun for that purpose. This is also a great idea to pair with a cook-off (see above) or an Ugly Sweater party (see below).

What you need: A computer connected to a TV. Google Chromecast also works great for YouTube parties.

How it works: Limit submissions to the past year and collect them based on category (e.g., humorous, tear-jerker, awkward, etc.). Start with a little pre-game mixer to lubricate your laughboxes.

Why it’s cool to party this way: YouTube is here to stay. Maybe. We already share YouTube videos in work emails and Facebook posts, but why not share the the top viral or most poignant videos of the year.

I mean really, what does the fox say?

3) Have fun inside, on location.

Do you suffer from “I can’t be in public alone” syndrome? Don’t fret. It’s very common to feel uncomfortable going to a restaurant or movie alone. College exists so that we can meet friends for life and then use them as insulation against uncomfortable loneliness later.

Have something you want to do this winter? Invite local ‘Hoos along.

What you need: A place that has stuff to do, like a bowling alley, movie theatre, live theatre, museum, brewery, winery, sports arena, art gallery, etc. Get involved with, or start a service project in your community and involve ‘Hoos with Cavaliers Care.

How it works: Get ‘Hoos to meet you at a great place to see cool stuff or do fun stuff.

Why it’s cool to party this way: All opportunities here are cool whether you’re engaging in community service, taking in the latest entertainment or participating in high culture.

4) Bad Santa, White Elephant Gift Exchange

By whichever name you call it, Bad Santa parties are popular because they’re just so fun. It’s an icebreaker, a party game and organizing theme all in one.

What you need: A gracious host and a gift limit. $10-$20 usually yields an interesting assortment. A reasonable price ceiling keeps envy under wraps.

How it works: Rules vary by region and personal flare so feel free to put your stamp on this twisted tradition. Create a system where one person chooses a gift and then is at the mercy of the next person in order who has the choice to steal away the gift just chosen or pick her own.

Why it’s cool to party this way: It’s a cheap investment. It gets everyone involved in a ridiculous process of giving and stealing presents. Require gifts to be handmade to add a DIY element to the festivities.

5) Super Bowl Party

It’s the Super Bowl. The only reason it’s not a national holiday is because it always takes place on a Sunday.

What you need: A host with a big TV, or a favorite neighborhood sports bar.

How it works: These parties kind of work themselves out. The NFL provides the entertainment: commercials, halftime performances and, you know, the actual game. Have everyone bring a food dish, and BYOB.

Why it’s cool to party this way: More people watch the Super Bowl than vote or go to church, combined. Probably.

6) Holiday Lighting Tour

We love lights. Maybe it’s because we still fear the night and its unknowns in our DNA. Some will have the chance to see the Tree Lighting at Rockefeller Center or the Lighting of the Lawn on Grounds. For the rest of us, our neighborhoods are full of people who put the work in arranging and showing off their lights.

What you need: A place with a lot of lights. It could be a well-known street that is gung-ho for decoration and holiday spirit, a city park or a tree lighting.

How it works: Walk, carpool or caravan. Pick a spot to meet up before the tour for introductions and after the tour for libations.

Why it’s cool to party this way: Because you might get to see insanely awesome light shows like this:

7) Winter Film Series

How many people re-watch It’s A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street every year? Friends don’t let friends watch holiday movies alone. Mix it up with Elf or Fargo in between the classics.

What you need: Willing hosts with television and a film selection with a broad appeal.

How it works: Choose the frequency (weekly, every other week, monthly) and select the films. Rotate homes or venues. Bonus if you can get a local coffee shop or pub to hold the event.

Why it’s cool to party this way: It’s cold outside in the winter, which makes film screening inside a perfect winter activity. Also consider the talent you might take in: Jimmy Stewart, James Caan, Will Ferrell. That’s cool.

8) Tool time skill share

Growing interest in sustainability and a lagging economy encourage finding new ways to make our favorite stuff last longer and exploring new ways to express ourselves artistically. Tap your talented base of Wahoos and learn a new skill this winter.

What you need: A garage or workshop with some open space.

How it works: Skill shares are growing in popularity and the cold winter months offer the time to take on projects because there is less to do outside. Organize around a type of tool or task group. Poll your constituency and see if anyone has a skill that they’d like to share. Skills could be something like the tools and troubleshooting process in fixing a leaky faucet or how to sew patches into your favorite jeans. This can get pretty broad so be sure to pare it down to make it manageable.

Why it’s cool to party this way: Learning is cool. Ask Mr. Jefferson: “Knowledge indeed is a desirable, a lovely possession.”

9) Ugly Sweater party

These parties are popular around Christmas, but you don’t really need to limit yourself. Around Valentine’s Day, for example, might be an even better time to rally together in full force around absurd fashion and community in opposition to the atomizing nature of Valentine’s Day.

An Ugly Sweater Party is perfect to pair with a clothing drive because Cavaliers Care.

What you need: Ugly, ugly sweaters. Try your local thrift store, or that sweater your grandmother knitted for you when you were too old to be getting hand-knit sweaters (but c’mon, is one ever too old for grandma’s knitting?).

How it works: This is a party that begs for a contest. Judge winners in categories like funniest, most awkward, most embarrassing to wear, etc. Anyone can host the party, but it also is highly portable. I imagine that it adds quite the extra psychological edge in pub trivia, or offers a nice preliminary for a wine tasting excursion, for example.

Why it’s cool to party this way: It’s not, but that’s why it’s cool. Apologies, but do you not understand the lessons that hipsters taught us?

10) Fireside storytelling

It’s not exactly a Jeffersonian dinner, but a theme built around FDR’s fireside chats is also a great idea to open up and connect to each other, with some modifications. If the point of the Jeffersonian dinner is deep conversation, then a party built on a fireside chat points towards performative revelation. Storytelling is an ancient and contemporary human skill, endemic to our ways of life. How could it go wrong?

What you need: Start with a fireplace, your own or that of a local establishment. Embrace narrative around a theme.

How it works: A recent example in Charlottesville involved Information Technology professionals telling personal stories that in some way reflected an “Epic Fail.” Participants told their stories on stage to an audience at a local coffee shop. Example themes around which to center stories could be: “on Grounds,” “two heads are better than one,” “first times,” “forever young” or “wahoowa.” Stories don’t have to contain intimate revelations nor do they have to be knee-slapping funny. You could have judging or ranking of the stories as to how well each one played on the theme (ironically, sincerely or otherwise).

Why it’s cool to party this way: Stories connect us. It’s a great way to get to know people because even if the language someone uses in a story is facetious, the themes often remain an authentic individual expression. Besides who doesn’t love the chance to show off a little bit?

How to Move to New York City (Without a Job)

This post first appeared on the UVA Global Network.

The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding. — John Updike

New York is romance; it engenders unmatched love in its residents. We’ve seen the movies and read the books. I decided it was time to get adventurous and make something happen. Vision and opportunity I had, but how do you get to New York with little money and no job? Get creative, and follow these three simple steps.

Everything I knew about New York City derived from Seinfeld episodes.

Step One: Find a patron.

This is the most necessary step. As you may have heard, New York is expensive. Average rent in Manhattan was over $3,000 in 2012. The good news is that warmhearted patrons are everywhere waiting to part with their hard-earned largesse. As the enterprising youngster in search of material for the finest bildungsroman this side of “Bright Lights, Big City,” all you have to do is ask.

I couldn’t find a patron so I found a friend, which I don’t recommend. Friends make unhappy patrons. Mixing friendship and money is like having beer before liquor (never sicker).

Parents are unhappy already because you don’t have a job so they make better choices as patrons. Unfortunately, your parents don’t live in the city so you still have to find a place to sleep at night.

A friend and I at Rudy’s Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. Does my process work?

Step Two: Find a couch.

Friends are a bad idea as your major funders, but they often have serviceable couches.

My friend lived in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is cool. Knowing cool places is a crucial skill on par with knowing the subway (HopStop saves lives). For the best couch-surfing experience, find a friend in one of the cool neighborhoods. If you’re unsure, look for vegan cafes, bars with long lists of IPAs, and record stores that sell vinyl.

I’ll assume you’d like to keep your friends so the next step is to find gainful employment.

Step Three: Find a job.

I was sleeping on an IKEA futon in Brooklyn, jobless, the night before my 30th birthday. Never do this. It leads to long nights.

Be ready to network. Unlike catered networking events in college, this hustle will make you feel dirty. Asking about jobs was my opener at parties. Luckily the hustle is just as much a part of New York culture as a bagel and lox. Fresh faces are looking for a way in and longtime residents are looking for a way up.

Everything is better on a boat, including the view of Manhattan’s West Side.

Two months after I arrived, networking got me a job with a windowed office overlooking 8th Avenue. I moved to Manhattan. Days of tailoring cover letters were finally over. Veni, vidi, vici, New York.

Moving is hard. New York is harder. But you’re young and resilient; you’ll come out strong and prosperous. I eventually left the city, but I still walk fast, drink hoppy IPAs and enjoy the Brooklyn-like restaurant scene in Charlottesville.

On Leadership: Communication Strategies for Better Team Performance

First posted on the UVA Global Network

What makes a great leader? Great is the key word because “we’re not looking for just good” (as I was once told in an interview). We have each seen examples of excellent and horrific leadership. I’ve witnessed ownership give paychecks a week early for Hurricane Sandy relief and I’ve seen management that enjoys making employees cry. Everybody has a different style of leadership, but some are more effective than others.

Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells was famous for treating players differently, including such polarizing stars as Lawrence Taylor and Terrell Owens. Parcells’ leadership style was sometimes criticized for being unfair, which prompted his response: “I’m not interested in being fair. I’m interested in being right.” Most leaders are interested in being both right and fair, as far as each is possible. Honest communication is of the utmost importance for developing cohesiveness and trust in fair, right leadership.

One strategy for building a cohesive unit is encouraging casual conversation. Talking just for the sake of talking reinforces a leader’s approachability and concern for employees so that they will feel comfortable bringing up problems or new ideas with team leadership and with each other. In high school, a football coach used to ask me to tell a story before each summer practice. I became more and more comfortable as a new part of the team as this was part of an overall approachability the coach cultivated, but he didn’t waste the opportunity to lead either. He shocked me once when he asked if I thought I was a man. After I responded in the affirmative as I thought I should, he said, “That’s interesting. I wasn’t a man until after college.” Modeling honest communication in leadership through informal channels increased team cohesiveness under this coach and also established a precedent for feedback that was necessary for team success.

Along the same lines, the best professor I had in college showed that admitting one’s ignorance is a great way to build trust. When our professor fielded student questions to which he did not have an answer, he would respond, “I don’t have an answer now, but I’ll get back to you with one.” He always came back with an answer, and we always gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Honesty gets a lot more traction than the alternative. In my experience, dishonesty is often transparent and one of the quicker ways to lose trust and unravel your team. Talk informally with your employees and answer questions honestly to cultivate trust and team cohesion. We can’t all be in the Hall of Fame, but we can improve our leadership in the interest of being right and fair.

What are the qualities or strategies that you think make great leaders?