The R.F. Experiment: How I Wasted My First Year in Business (A Cautionary Tale)

It’s April 5 and 36 degrees. Why it’s near freezing a week before spring break I really couldn’t say. I suppose it’s for the same reason I recently wore cargo shorts and flip-flops to a Christmas E…

Source: The R.F. Experiment: How I Wasted My First Year in Business (A Cautionary Tale)

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Dawn’s Tips for Great Holiday Card

For those of you who have been anxiously waiting by your mailboxes, fear not! The 2013 Massa Christmas Card is at the printer’s as we speak, and should go out in tomorrow’s mail. Yes, I am VERY late this year.  The pressure of living up to the precedent* I have set is catching up with me. Truthfully, it almost didn’t happen this time, but for a good snowy Saturday trapped in the house, and a good printer whose motto is “your first call for the last minute!”

Speaking of last minute, I realize this post is coming way too late to help anybody this year.  It is also not intended to teach you how to make cards like mine. For me, it’s a labor of love… but I wouldn’t wish that kind of insanity (not to mention expense) on anyone else.  However, as a professional, I can’t help noticing some very common, yet very fixable issues with the cards I receive. Here are some simple tips to help you make next year’s holiday card your best one ever!

1. If at all possible, use a REAL camera.

Hey, I love the convenience of my cell phone camera as much as anyone. It’s perfect for posting spontaneous moments on all your social media, but for a holiday card it just doesn’t cut it. Take a look as this picture of my nieces (click to enlarge) – the girls are gorgeous, the composition is good, the setting is cozy. Heck, even Chewy the dog is adorable and I’m not much of an animal person. Unfortunately, none of that translates because of the poor cell-phone quality photo. Had this shot been taken with a better camera – even a point-n-shoot – the results would have been far superior.

If you absolutely must use a cell phone, take the shot outdoors. Natural light is much more forgiving!

And speaking of lighting…
We all love the twinkling beauty of our Christmas lights. “Hey! Wouldn’t the kids look great in front of the tree?”  Yeah, they would… but that’s a tough shot to pull off for even the experienced amateur photographer.  Typically, if the tree lights look good, the subject is way too dark. Consequently, if the subject is well lit, the lights loose their ambiance.


I’m not suggesting you don’t try.  Hey, go for it!  Mess around with your camera settings and take lots of shots.  That’s the biggest benefit of the digital age – no film to develop & waste.  However, if it doesn’t work out, don’t be reluctant to scrap the idea and try something else.

As a General Rule, Less is More.
I know! I know!  Choosing only ONE photo for your holiday card is a task reminiscent of Sophie’s Choice. “But they’re all so cute… how can I possible pick just one?!?!” I hear ya. Just the other day I was looking through old Christmas pictures and wanted to re-print every single outtake from when my boys were younger.  Hence the onslaught of postage-stamp-sized images on the dreaded photo montage card. The card companies make a killing on these, but personally I’m not a fan.  Trust me on this – ONE gorgeous, well-lit, well-composed photo is worth 1,000 so-so ones.

However, if you absolutely must do a photo montage, choose close-up images and fill the frames.  (Click images for bigger view, and NO, this isn’t REALLY one of my cards!)


Rules are made to be broken…
My cards certainly do NOT fall into the “less is more” category!  That being said, I want to give a big shout-out to two other “completely-over-the-top” card-senders that I know.

First, to my niece, Denise.  Denise is a wonderful photographer, who just happens to have three very photogenic kids.  Her holiday cards typically consist of four 5×7-inch photos that are beautifully composed, perfectly lit, and expertly printed. I hate having to choose only one side to display.

Second, to my good friend Maryanne.  Mare’s cards kick sand in the face of the less-is-more rule!  They typically contain multiple themes, oodles of photos, and an over-abundance of stickers, and glittery embellishment on the front, inside, back, envelopes, and anywhere else she can stick something. Despite the unconventional design standards, these are truly the most fun cards I received and I cherish each one.

Bottom line, if you do something different and/or wonderful… go big or go home.

And last but not least, let’s talk about printing
A bad print job can wreck havoc on even the most beautiful photos. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Photos ALWAYS print darker than what you see on your computer screen.  Don’t be afraid to make adjustments — go lighter and brighter!
  • Less isn’t always more when it comes to cost.  Sure, the local drugstore only charges five-bucks for ten-thousand cards, but chances are the 17-year old kid that works there hasn’t changed the chemicals in the processor in weeks. That makes for dark & dirty-looking prints.
  • If you can spend a little more, try a small local print shop. You’ll get better quality and customer service. This year, I’m very pleased to use Comptime, in Ramsey, NJ. (
  • For a good-but-cheap option, try an online service like  Coupons and discounts are readily available… and if you can’t find one, call them and ask!  Also, there’s no law that says you have to order from the “holiday card” section. If you’re a little more design/computer savvy, try the over-sized postcards, which are very cost effective.

Well, that’s my 2-cents on the holiday photo card subject. A big thanks to the Nichols Family for allowing me to make and example of their cell-phone photo… and my all your future holiday photos be merry & BRITE!

*For those who are not familiar with my Christmas cards, check out a few samples in my portfolio under “fun stuff!”

Dawn Massa is a seasoned Art Director/Graphic Designer, and owner of Lightly Salted Graphics.

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Print Vs. Web: Playing Nice With Others — part 2

Web design has come a long way in the past decade-and-a-half.  Gone are the garish web-safe colors. And who can forget all those jelly-like buttons of yester-year that just screamed “CLICK HERE STUPID!” Thankfully, both the Internet and its audience have become much more sophisticated.  There are still, however, a number of things that drive print designers like myself absolutely bonkers…

  1. The Great Font-Fight!  Typography is my area of expertise, and also my great passion. Good type is what separates the men from the boys, the art directors from the amateurs, the Clark Kents from the Supermans, Beatles from the Biebers, the… well, you get the idea.When designing the comps for my website I painstakingly sweat all the details… especially when it came to the type. I specified classic fonts (ITC Garamond, and Univers to be exact) and marked up the styles, weights, point sizes, leading, kerning, – I could go on, but I’m sure I lost half of you already – for every single word in the site. Yeah, I am the “Type Nazi” and the war has begun.

    Conversation Between JKO Consulting and Lightly Salted Graphics; A Paraphrase:
    JKO: “The developer says he can’t use those fonts. You have to chose substitutes from the free “google fonts” list.

    LSG: “WHAT! I’m not using any cheesy @$%#&!$@^ google fonts on MY site!”

    JKO: “Well, the fonts you specified are not web fonts – they won’t render in a browser. Google has some nice fonts. Besides, Helvetica and Ariel are the same as Univers.”

    LSG: “Blasphemy… How dare you! They’re not even close.”

    We went on like that for a while until, just like the real Nazis, I eventually lost the battle. The fact of the matter is, there are only a certain amount of web-safe fonts out there and they range in style from “reasonably OK” to “down-right horrible.” Yes, you can purchase the classics in a web-font format, but it costs is just too extravagant. How terrible sad.


  2. Control, or Lack There Of
    When designing for print, it’s inevitable that you’ll be somewhat disappointed when your project comes off the press. The CMYK process simply cannot duplicate the colors you see on the computer monitor… or in your imagination. The upside is, your audience doesn’t see your monitor, or inside your head.  It typically looks just fine to them, and, they’re all seeing exactly the same thing.Not true with web design!  The variables are insurmountable, and so is the control you have as a designer. My “painstakingly well-thought-out” font and color choices render one way on the Safari browser, and a completely different way on Firefox.  Throw Internet Explore, Google Chrome, Opera, and a bunch of other lesser know browsers into the mix and you have a complete lack of quality control.

    That’s only half the battle.  Now take into consideration all the different operating systems, monitors, tablets, and smartphones everyone in the world is using to view the web.  Not to mention all the personalized settings these devices are using. From the fonts and colors, to the layout and structure… you have little or no control over how your design looks to your audience.

    So what’s my solution? As long as it looks good on MY monitor, I’m good. Ok, admittedly that’s probably not the best solution. First, I have a pretty bad-ass monitor. The average Joe’s will undoubtedly pale in comparison. Second, it’s always about your audience and not your ego. That being said, I take into consideration as many things about my audience as possible, and try to work within the potential rendering problems. Then I design the best-darn-looking site I can for a bad-ass monitor! It’s the only way to keep sane.

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Print Vs. Web: Playing Nice With Others — part 1

It’s been a little over 2 years since I launched, and in all that time it has not been updated… nope, not even once!  How awful. There’s nothing worst on the web than a stagnant, outdated website. (Well actually there are a LOT worst things on the web, be we won’t go there!) As proud as I was to have built a site all by myself, visually and structurally it just wasn’t as the level it should be. I finally came to terms with the fact that I needed professional help.

Over the past year I’ve worked with a few different web professionals, both on my site and sites for clients. During that time I gained a much better understanding of how to make my site more effective and user-friendly. And I learned some other things too!

Things My Original Website Sorely Lacked:

  1. I desperately needed CMS – a content management system that allows me to easily insert new portfolio pieces, client testimonials, etc. without messing up my site beyond my ability to repair it.
  2. I needed my site to be responsive so that it works not only on a desktop, but also on smartphones, tablets, and whatever the next latest & greatest device will be in the Jetson-like future.
  3. I needed more bells and whistles! Drop-down menus, rollovers, mouse-overs, cute little logo animations, things that scroll, things that change color, visual cues… something to make it look “ALIVE!” As it was, it just kinda sat there like a bad toupee.

Things I Love About the New Site:

  1.  “Go Directly to the Work. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.” I love that the audience immediately lands on the portfolio page. (Well, immediately after the 9-second self-indulgent logo animation.) My original site landed on the “About Me” page… and let’s face it, who really cares about me?  They came to see my work, and hopefully will hire me because of it.
  2. It’s Clean and Not Distracting. Try as I may, I STILL design web pages like a print designer. I’m the first to admit that my new site looks like the front page of a newspaper.  So sue me… I’m OK with that!

At first glance, the mostly-white color scheme might seem out of character for me, and even a bit, well… bland.  That’s intentional. There is a method to my madness. For starters, it’s in keeping with the Lightly Salted concept… salt is white! More importantly, in reviewing many other portfolio websites I’ve noticed so often that work samples get lost amid the overly-designed website itself.  I wanted the design of my website to purposely take a back seat.  However, if you have a few minutes to “mouse around,” you’ll find some little surprised that spice things up a bit!

Things I Learned About Myself:

  1. I Need to Stick to What I’m Good At
    As I keep my eye on the job market I notice that employers now expect jacks-of-all trades.  In a typical job post, unrealistic employers seek a whole lotta bang for very little buck: 
    “BFA in design, a killer portfolio, and expert knowledge in Quark, Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash, HTML5, CSS6, JavaScript, Final Cut Pro, wireframe, SEO, Ajax, Web 2.0, 3.0, & 46.0, print production, copywriting, video directing, video editing, photo styling, photo retouching, photo-realistic portrait painting, photosynthesis, online marketing, social media, social disease healing, social security retirement decisions, Microsoft Office, and Powerpoint a MUST. Copy machine repair & light plumbing knowledge a plus! Compensation $10 – $12/hour commencing with experience”

    News Flash: No one can do all that, and do it all WELL. Not to mention that high school babysitters want $10-$12/hour to sit on my couch and text while they eat all my food!

  2. I Am a Really Good Art Director
    The fact that I don’t have the technical chops to bring all of my ideas to life on the web no longer bums me out. Partnering with other professionals has given me a new-found confidence in my art directing capabilities.  Some have called me “too picky.” To them I say, “too bad.” If it’s not right, it’s not being published – end of story.  Others have thanked me stating my attention to detail and ability to articulate creative direction has made them better at what they do. To them I say, “awesome – glad we worked together!”
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Miscommunication in the “Communication Arts”

Almost every profession known to man has it’s own set of “code words” that separate them from the rest of the human population. E.R. physicians run around yelling things like “Code Blue! STAT!” Military personal talk in terms of HUNDREDS of hours, when the rest of us only have 24 in any given day. Even the world’s Oldest Profession uses words like “tricks” and “johns” …which sounds to me like they’re talking about an amateur magician who practices in the bathroom.

Graphic designers are no exception. I was recently pricing insurance and the agent asked me, “What’s the square footage of you office?” To which I replied, “I dunno… 13,824 picas?”

OK, so the general public really doesn’t need to understand our design lingo. However, when our code words turn into miscommunication with a client, that’s a whole other story.

For example, talking color with clients is always fun …

LSG: “Would you like this brochure printed in 1-color, 2-color, or 4-color process?”

Client: “Well, I’m using a photo of a black man, wearing a red shirt, with blue sky in the background, so… THREE.”

LSG: “Ummm, ok… so that will be 4-color process – cyan, magenta, yellow and black.”

Client: “But I don’t like yellow!”


Recent I had miscommunications with TWO different clients over the SAME word. The word: “comp” (as in comprehensive sketch).  I sent “Client A” my comps for his new website. Here’s how it went down:

LSG: “I sent over those comps last Monday. What did you think?”

Client A: “Oh yeah… didn’t really have time to look at them.”

LSG: “Oh. Ok, sure… but if we’re going to meet your deadline I’ll need some feedback soon.”

Client A: “Yeah, I’m not really interested seeing in any more comps. Can you just send me the design for my website.”

LSG: “But I can’t design the website until you approve the comps???”

Long story short, I was talking design and he was talking real estate! Client A thought I was sending him other company’s websites that were comparative to what he was asking for. I then felt the imminent need to send Client A a long-winded e-mail explaining the difference between the two. I don’t think he cared. Actually, he was probably annoyed… but he approved the comps!

The interaction with “Client B” was much worst. Client B though comp stood for complimentary… as in “Lightly Salted Graphics will do a dozen design ideas for our new ad, on the house.” They didn’t think they’d have to pay me! What am I… A hotel in Vegas?!?!?

What they were really asking, was for me to do the work on “spec.” Definition: “made, built, or done with hopes of but no assurance of payment or a sale; without commitment by a client or buyer.” Um, yeah… no thanks!

Let’s face it, the word “comp” is probably outdated anyway.
I mean, when is the last time I actually did a “quick sketch” of ANYTHING and showed it to a client?  Maybe I should use the words “mock-up?” Or simply, “design suggestion?” “Prototype,” perhaps? I’m not sure, but if I don’t want to be expected to design for free, I better come up with something… STAT!

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“Does Your MOTHER know you’re Ramones?”

It’s TYPEFACE TUESDAY, and this week we salute Univers 39 Thin Ultra Condensed.

The inspiration for this week’s Typeface Tuesday came from a rare opportunity I had last night: One child was at baseball, the other child was fast asleep, and I had Netflix Instant Streaming all to myself!  Free at last from the mind-numbing silliness of SpongeBob Squarepants, I could choose to watch WHATEVER I wanted… something from this year’s Oscar list… or maybe a compelling documentary… or an independent art film…

Naaahhh! I picked the cult-classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, starring, none other than, the Ramones. (Yeah, talk about mind-numbing silliness!) It’s been about 30 years since I last saw this “raunchy fun” flick. Unfortunately, this time around I found it to be a lot more raunchy and a lot less fun.  At 16, I remember agreeing with Riff Randall (the main character & their #1 fan) that Joey IS ‘kinda cute.’ At 46, all I could think of while watching him was, “didn’t his mother EVER make him brush his teeth???”

Despite my middle-aged disappointment, it did provide the inspiration for this week’s Typeface Tuesday. Univers 39 Thin Ultra Condensed is a lot like Joey Ramone. It’s freakishly tall, skinny, and a little bit weird looking… but like a moth to the flame, there’s just something strangely appealing about it.

So, in honor of Typeface Tuesday, go watch Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and use Univers 39 Thin Ultra Condensed on your next project. Gaba Gaba Hey!

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The #1 Most Super-Important Design Rule That Should Never Be Broken… Ever.

Mother’s Day 2012 has come and gone. This year, I did not entertain myself with the silly notion that I was would lounge around while my kids cleaned their rooms and doted on me as the “Queen of the Castle.”  Instead, I spent the entire weekend (plus most of Monday) doing what most moms only dream of on Mother’s Day… sanding, taping, priming, and painting the front door of my “castle.”

“Why?,” you ask, would I spend Mother’s Day doing such a back-breaking job? Well, it’s my penance. In 2006, I broke the #1 Most Super-Important Design Rule That Should Never Be Broken… Ever. I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with our second child.  The nesting syndrome had kicked in with a vengeance and we… (gulp) hired a contractor to do some renovations.

You see, the #1 Most Super-Important Design Rule That Should Never Be Broken… Ever is: “NEVER MAKE ANY MAJOR AND/OR IRREVOCABLE DESIGN DECISIONS WHEN YOU’RE PREGNANT.” The reason why you never make any major and/or irrevocable design decisions while you’re pregnant is, the answer will ALWAYS and inevitably be “I don’t care… just get it done before the baby comes.”

This explains our unfortunate choice in vinyl siding.  (Why we ever opted to cover over the cedar shakes in the first place is a whole other design mystery.) The question I focus on today is, “what the heck actually COMPLIMENTS this bizarre color we chose???” The manufacturer calls this color “sage,”  which leads one to believe it’s some shade of green. It’s not. It’s more like a gray… but it’s not that either. You would think with my graphic design background, choosing coordinating colors would be part of my natural skill set.  It is… except when it comes to my siding, it’s NOT. This one has had me stumped from day one, and continues to stymie me every time I pull into my driveway.

The first and most major problem is how this particular color siding so completley blends in with the existing roof.  It’s like camoflage. “Why did you not even consider the color of the roof?,” you ask. Answer: “I don’t care… just get it done before the baby comes.”

Next: the shutters.  “Mrs. Massa, what color shutters do you want?” asks contractor the as he shows me a variety of five very dated-looking swatches. Answer:  “I don’t care… just get it done before the baby comes.”

And lastly, the door. Ah yes, the door! Our contractor never suggested that the very-dark-brown traditional door circa 1972 might not look so great with our new weird-color vinyl. That was OK with me… one less thing to “get done before the baby comes.”  After the baby came, however, it didn’t take long to realize it had to go.

My first course of action was to paint it… purple. Next, we replace the old door with a new door. I stained the new door. I re-stained the new door. I re-painted the trim around the new door. I’m never satisfied. My neighbor tells me I paint my front door more often than he cuts his grass. Why? Because in 2006 “I didn’t care… I just wanted it done before the baby came.”

So, pictured is the latest incarnation of the door. I love the way the red and white make the leaded glass pop. I hate the way it looks against our weird-color vinyl.  My almost-ten-year-old finds it to be a source of great embarassment, stating that it looks like we live in a fire truck. My six-year-old (yup, THAT baby) loves it for the very same reason.

And so it goes… the never-ending penance I will pay for breaking the #1 Most Super-Important Design Rule That Should Never Be Broken… Ever.

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