RECYCLED PAPER or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)?

September 6th, 2011 | Comments Off on RECYCLED PAPER or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)?

A discussion on LinkedIn among designers concerned with the difficulty of using the FSC mark on their projects prompted this post. Green Graphic Design – FSC logo usage

Some designers feel it’s too much trouble to deal with the very stringent FSC guidelines for the use of their mark, which costs printing companies quite a bit to license.

My issue with FSC is their certification of logging operations that are not sustainable and that do not meet FSC’s own Principles and Criteria. has details.

But there’s more to the story…

What is a designer’s responsibility to protect the resources we use?

‘…self-righteous and cheesy’ is an interesting reaction to a mark designed to clarify environmental responsibility, which most people respect. But it’s good that FSC is drawing some lines, even if it’s just in the use of their mark.

The problem I have with FSC is certification of plantations that clearcut native forests, kill wildlife and pollute groundwater. These practices are not sustainable and these plantations do not meet FSC’s Principles and Criteria. It seems obvious they should not be certified. However…

That said, it’s a tough situation because FSC is trying to apply principles developed in fairly well-regulated, mostly northern countries to control the worst abusers of sustainable forestry practices – typically in countries with weak or nonexistent environmental regulations. How can FSC hope to control repressive governments in Burma, or overpopulated and underfed nations in Africa, or war-torn regions of South America?

In these places, FSC is certainly better than nothing.

People in developed nations use far more paper and other forest products per capita than do people in third-world countries, and the logging companies are usually owned by northern interests.

Those of us who profit from the use of paper (and other forest products) are directly responsible for the demand, and we can and should protect the resource and promote sustainable forestry practices. If the moral imperative to protect the environment doesn’t move you, there’s still your own best interest to consider.

Every paper company offers at least 30% recycled paper, though it’s often made from ‘pre-consumer’ paper – trimmings from the printshop floor. The best is 100% post-consumer recycled paper, which is made from the paper we recycle in our offices and homes.

Every printer uses some form of vegetable ink (soy, linseed…) because all inks have varying amounts of oils from renewable and nonrenewable sources. Low-VOC inks are made with less petroleum-based oil, are less toxic in the air and water, and easier to clean off the press and get out of paper when it’s recycled. Of interest to designers especially, vegetable inks are more transparent, which translates to brighter colors but can be tricky on colored paper.

Because of the FSC’s problems enforcing their Principles even while they continue to tout their green credibility, I don’t recommend FSC paper to clients. I do always suggest recycled or even tree-free paper, and recommend printers like Greg Barber’s company ( or and Some wholesale printers now offer recycled paper and vegetable ink, such as

Then I use the recycled logo with the circling arrows and some variation of “PRINTED on RECYCLED PAPER with VEGETABLE INK – PLEASE RECYCLE” at whatever size and location fits the project best.


Gaia Graphics and Associates

… creative by nature …

100% solar-powered website

(not to be ‘self-righteous and cheesy’)


Microsoft Tags vs QR codes: The great debate

July 3rd, 2011 | 4 Comments »

As more people get smartphones and become familiar with 2D codes – including the old barcodes, QR (Quick Response) codes, and my favorite, Microsoft Tags – we’re reaching the tipping point for mainstream acceptance of this new magic.

Microsoft Tags are usually several colors but can be one color (grayscale, black-and-white, or a spot color). QR codes and barcodes are limited to one color and require more space than a color Tag, which can be as small as 3/4". One-color Tags must be 7/8"

Since early 2009, Gaia Graphics has used Microsoft Tags on interpretive panels, business cards, maps, brochures, real estate signs, and books. We like Tags. Here’s why.


A Tag is a new kind of bar code, designed specifically to be scanned by a mobile phone. You can print, project, or display Tags almost anywhere. When the end user scans a Tag with their phone, the Tag automatically opens a webpage, dials a phone number, sends a text message, or takes some other action on the phone.

Tags can be scanned from ads, signage, magazines, retail shelving, products, packaging, clothing, Powerpoint presentations, etc. The Tag then takes the user to a website, video, map, menu, coupon, tutorial, survey, social network, and who knows what else some clever person will think of next.

On some phones, you just point your camera at the Tag and the Tag is scanned. Other phones you have to point and then click. Microsoft Tag requires an Internet connection to work. And if you don’t have an unlimited data package for your phone, extra charges could apply.


We’ve used Tags for a couple of years now. This post was originally written for a group of National Association for Interpretation members on LinkedIn and is focused on interpretive panels, but we’ve also put Tags on brochures, business cards, websites, real estate signs and other design projects, including a wildflower book. The book has three Tags in a row that take people to our client’s website, our local Native Plant Society, and the Gaia Graphics Flickr page where multiple views of the 300+ wildflowers shown in the book are displayed. (We also used Flickr during production in collaboration with the botanists, both to catalog our image resources and choose photos for the book.)


USA Today, TV Guide, Conde Nast, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Porsche, Amway…

The first instance I found of Tags being used on interpretive panels was a collaboration between Microsoft, NASA and a Chicago museum and airport, before Tags were released in open beta. It tickles me to think my company might have been second, when we put Tags on trail signs for the City of San Luis Obispo (California) in early 2009.

On the end-user side, I recently watched two pre-teen boys go from slouch to excitement when they saw the Tag on a panel and downloaded the software on their own and then their adults’ phones. The family huddled around the sign about 20 minutes altogether, which drew another six hikers (plus two babies in backpacks). The boys were the stars, showing the other group how the Tag works. Then they all went hiking. (On the other hand, everyone else I saw on my two-hour stakeout either ignored the Tag or skipped the panel altogether.)


Microsoft Tags and QR codes are read by smartphones, which have a camera and internet access. Next to the Tag we show the link to download the Tag Reader software, but newer operating systems include reader software for different kinds of 2D codes. A year from now I expect most people and their phones will recognize 2D codes, and within five years I think we won’t have to include the Reader link.

You can also set up a Tag to dial a phone number or send a text message. We’ve used the dialer on real estate signs, large enough to capture from a car at the curb. I’ve also seen Tags on freeway billboards, but have not tested their readability since I’m either driving or too slow to get my phone out. The target market must be people in traffic jams.

Tags use an arrangement of cyan-magenta-yellow and black triangles within a black square that has a white border. Colorful tags are more appealing to me than a QR code that looks like a black-and-white TV set on the fritz. Microsoft Tags can also be rendered in a single color (grayscale, black-and-white, or a spot color) and still look better than static. Both barcodes and QR codes are limited to one color.

Another graphic disadvantage of regular barcodes and QR codes is the relatively large display area required. Color Tags require only 3/4″ square. I found that 1/2″ color Tags work, but wouldn’t risk it, especially not with a bitmapped file. One-color Tags must be 7/8″ including the white border around every Tag. Additional info like the Reader link and base URL need additional space.

We made the total Tag footprint larger in the old days (ha) because we wanted to explain what it was. See the 2009 trail sign at the end, which gives the Tag and related info plenty of room. Now we tend to use a 3/4″ color Tag, showing the Reader link as “” and the base URL, such as “” in a space about 1.5″ tall. This allows us to use one or more small Tags that can be tucked somewhere near the logos, to separate them from interpretive content. People will find them.

Like all codes, Tags have metrics so you can track usage (users are not identified, except to Microsoft). The trail signs went up February 2009 and have only had 50 hits, 40 of which occurred in the past 12 months and 10 last month alone (June 2011). I think we’re near the 2D code tipping point and expect to see the numbers increase significantly. Tracking parameters have expanded since we began using Tags, which are no longer in beta, so the metrics are better.

Tags only interest a subset of visitors, but for them, the technology is highly engaging. I think codes in general enhance not only visitor experience but also panel management. For example, custom Tags use dots or an image within the square – a logo for example, or more advanced designs that can reproduce an image like a bunch of hot air balloons. In marketingspeak, Tags are both a low-cost advertising channel and a branding opportunity. For managers the value is in seeing which exhibits and events draw the most interest, or reaching out with surveys, deals for members, and fundraising appeals.

Tags can be customized, as long as the image correlates to the color and placement of dots. Notice that the black edge and white boarder remain.

Microsoft is not paying me to endorse their Tags! As a graphic designer since the late 1980s, I’ve always favored Macs to PCs. But Microsoft got the Tags right from the beginning, with one bad software update that turned out to be Apple’s fault. Otherwise, once I open the Tag Reader my iPhone sees the Tag and jumps to the website in a second, even when the Tag looks blurry.


Low light conditions: I’ve tested Tags and QR codes at the same time of day (though not recently) and QR failed more often in low-light conditions such as dusk. At first the QR Reader that I had read nothing, but I downloaded a different Reader and it worked fine when the light was good.

Glare: Materials that reflect light could make it hard for a camera to see a complete 2D code. Consider matte paper instead of glossy and HPL instead of fiberglass or porcelain panels to avoid glare.

Resolution: Cameras may have a problem reading 2D codes if they are low resolution (fewer megapixels), or require a button be pushed to take a picture of the Tag (thus shaking the camera). My 3 year-old iPhone had more problems reading Tags than my new one. It may have been resolution or software or both, I’m not sure.

Other readability issues: I always download the pdf version of the Tag so I can open it in Illustrator and get the live vector paths, which print more sharply than a bitmapped image.

Range: Cellphone range can be an issue for remote interpretive panels but I expect mobile coverage will only get better, especially as unused, long-range AM radio waves are adapted for cellphone traffic. Range and other technical issues will be resolved as the hardware and software improve.

Tag metrics: Currently Microsoft doesn’t tell Tag publishers how much time users spend on the website that was called up by a Tag, or if they download or email content like trail maps and brochures. If analytics code has been installed in the website, the website owner could get this data. If you need user data, you could set up a Tag that takes people to a website where they enter personal identification to get a discount, take a survey, or link to a customer loyalty program. Proper opt-in and privacy practices apply.

Cost: Microsoft Tags are free – free to download the Tag Reader application, free to scan Tags, free to create and use Tags. (Usage fees charged by the phone’s carrier may apply.) Microsoft could institute a licensing fee in the future, but I expect the Tag to remain free because what’s in it for Microsoft is the tracking data. Like Facebook, user data is where the big money is. And the more people adopt the technology, the more channels and eyeballs Microsoft’s ad servers get. The big debate about tracking user data is outside the scope of this post, but most people who have a website are interested in the metrics because it’s a good way to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.

Nature and technology: Whether or not we should encourage people to use smartphones in the woods is another debate, but if you look at it from a visitor-centric viewpoint the answer could be to let the visitor decide. For example, a Tag on a panel could take users to a mobile version of a zoo map. Very useful.



Microsoft Tags have several new functions. Here are some I haven’t tried yet:

Location-aware Tags: Location awareness is a fun idea because users can interact with the place, what Microsoft calls ‘highly actionable and engaging mobile experiences’. For example, a single Tag on a poster advertising an exhibit or event can deliver different experiences depending on where the customer is. When the Tag is scanned outside the exhibit, users can be directed to buy tickets or get more information. When the same poster Tag is scanned on site, the exhibit schedule or special offers only available for attendees can be displayed. A Tag scanned in a magazine ad for shoes can show the nearest retailer that has the shoes in stock, regardless of where the Tag is scanned.

Mobile platforms: App Download Tag is a new type of Tag that can be linked to a specific mobile marketplace or mobile site that has been optimized for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry or other device. The same Tag works for all mobile platforms, or end users can be sent to a default URL if a specific platform is not indicated. I’m not sure how interpreters might use this one. Any ideas? Comment welcome!

by Terre Dunivant, Gaia Graphics and Associates, San Luis Obispo, California

Keeping Our Creeks and Beaches Clean

June 26th, 2011 | 1 Comment »


Save the date, save the wildlife!

Join Sammy Steelhead on a beautiful morning in September to clean up water pollution throughout San Luis Obispo County and the state of California!

Join Sammy Steelhead and good people from all over San Luis Obispo County to clean creeks and beaches on a beautiful Saturday in September!



…creative by nature


Cockblocker Posters to Prevent Sexual Assault

June 3rd, 2011 | Comments Off on Cockblocker Posters to Prevent Sexual Assault

By Jamie Crutchfield, Gaia Graphics and Associates

In recent headlines there have been three rapes involving alcohol abuse in a nine-day period. Now Cal Poly university leaders are making a call for change in the university’s alcohol related “campus culture.”

The call for change is not only aimed at students who abuse alcohol and also towards bystanders who have the opportunity to speak up before a situation arises.

Gaia Graphics worked with Cal Poly’s SAFER Program (Sexual Assault Resource and Prevention) and psychology professor Shawn Burn, PhD, to create flyers to inspire students to take action to prevent alcohol abuse and potential assault among their peers.

The flyers are specific to either women or men, and are posted inside the doors of bathroom stalls to take advantage of a captive audience. Some examples of each are posted here.

The statistics on flyers is borrowed from studies conducted by Dr. Burn’s psychology class in campus wide polling. The central concept of “norm appeal” social marketing is that much of people’s behavior is influenced by their perceptions of what is “normal” or “typical” of others.

In theory, reminding students that the majority of their peers are reacting in a positive and healthy way causes them to strive to emulate that same behavior.

The technique has been successful in major national campaigns against drunk driving and smoking and now can be applied locally in preventing sexual assault and violence in San Luis Obispo.

We created about 20 Cockblocker posters – about half for women and half for men. To see more Cockblocker posters, click here (top row of thumbnails, far right).

Gaia Graphics & Associates …creative by nature ~


California Schools Expand Environmental Education

December 30th, 2010 | 10 Comments »

by Susan McIntosh, Gaia Graphics & Associates

California’s landmark Education and the Environment (EEI) Curriculum incorporates learning about and protecting the environment into the history, literature and science classes of K-12 students throughout the state. Through real-life examples and hands-on learning, the curriculum is designed to prepare today’s students to become future scientists, economists, and green technology leaders.

Check out this sample page from Education and the Environment Initiative Expanding Environmental Literacy for K-12 Students.

At Gaia Graphics & Associates, environmental education is at the heart of our work. The interpretive signs, maps, posters and brochures we create are designed to promote environmental awareness and informed choices.

Our clients include:

Cambria Community Services District
California Native Plant Society
California State Parks
Cayucos Land Conservancy
City of Morro Bay
City of San Luis Obispo
County of San Luis Obispo
Earth Day Alliance
Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County
Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo
Los Osos Community Services District
Morro Bay National Estuary Program
NOAA Coastal Discovery Center
San Luis Coastal Resource Conservation District
San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Upper Salinas/Las Tablas Resource Conservation District

and many other local and regional agencies.

Join us in celebrating the expanded California EEI curriculum and in making a difference in our world!

Ban Plastic Grocery Bags!

November 19th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

by Susan McIntosh
Gaia Graphics & Associates

Starting next July, the choice of paper or plastic will no longer be an option for residents of Los Angles County.

In a bold move the State of California has yet to accomplish, the County of Los Angeles has banned the use of plastic grocery bags and will require grocers to charge for the purchase of paper bags. Although the ban is limited to the unincorporated areas of the county, it will affect grocery bag choices for almost 1.1 million Southern California residents.

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica environmental group, said of previous efforts to promote recycling of plastic bags at grocery stores, “You cannot recycle your way out of the plastic bag problem. The cost of convenience can no longer be at the expense of the environment.”

The ban will significantly reduce the use of plastic bags in L.A. County, which are said to account for 25% of the litter picked up each year.

Finding the Happiest Place on Earth

November 15th, 2010 | Comments Off on Finding the Happiest Place on Earth

by Terre Dunivant
Gaia Graphics & Associates

San Luis Obispo, home of Gaia Graphics & Associates on California’s Central Coast, has been named one of the “happiest place on Earth” by author Dan Buettner of a new book called Thrive.

In Thrive, Buettner unravels the stories of each happiness hotspot, revealing how he discovered each location and found the happiest people in Denmark, Singapore, northeastern Mexico, and San Luis Obispo, where I’m writing this from my home office. It’s 72 degrees and sunny, a little November breeze ruffling the leaves of the orange tree, a hint of woodsmoke puffing through the window screen. 

Economists, psychologists, sociologists, politicians, writers, and other experts interviewed by Buettner explain what contributes to each region’s happiness. Essentially, it’s all about the way we live our lives: the food we eat, the way we exercise, and the social networks we foster that feed our bodies and spirits. 

The Happy Tax

For graphic designers in San Luis Obispo, we have what I think of as the ‘sunshine tax’ or the dollar cost of doing business in paradise. Many of us could make more money in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but all that stress and traffic is not worth a bigger income. Maybe ‘happy tax’ is a more accurate idea. 

San Luis Obispo is a great place to pursue happiness, and the Gaia Graphics crew feels not only happy but blessed to work with the City of San Luis Obispo’s Open Space programs, which clearly contribute to the overall level of happiness here. 

We’ve designed direct mail fundraising brochures that consistently bring in high donations to preserve land and develop recreational opportunities. We worked with botanists from Cal Poly and the Native Plant Society for 16 months to produce a beautiful wildflower book showing hundreds of local flowers in full color. We’ve created a whole series of interpretive panels for hiking and biking trails, which detail natural and historical wonders of San Luis Obispo.

Happiness happens when you do what you love, in a place you love, with people you love.

The Past and Present South Hills Natural Reserve

October 25th, 2010 | Comments Off on The Past and Present South Hills Natural Reserve

by Susan McIntosh and Huc Ambrose, Gaia Graphics & Associates

We are very fortunate that the City of San Luis Obispo makes maintaining accessible open space a big priority! With the abundant variety of trails and environments to enjoy, it can be challenging to explore them all and to learn what makes each area unique.

These interpretive panels at South Hills Natural Reserve are a big help in recognizing which hills are which, and in revealing some of the history and natural features of the area. Can you imagine Meadow Park as part of a legendary dirt track, and racecars roaring through the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo?!

Check out other interpretive panels created by Gaia Graphics and other City of SLO open spaces!

Interpretive Panels for the Wild and Rocky Irish Hills

October 25th, 2010 | Comments Off on Interpretive Panels for the Wild and Rocky Irish Hills

by Susan McIntosh and Huc Ambrose, Gaia Graphics & Associates

The Irish Hills panels, designed by Huc Ambrose, required a bit of digging into San Luis Obispo’s past as a mining town.

We needed a few specific images for these panels, so Huc grabbed his camera and took a hike in this wonderful City of San Luis Obispo Open Space. The meandering trails provided some great views, and just the photos Huc needed to complete the project (but NOT the mountain lion photo, which is a stock image from Dreamstime).

Check out other interpretive panels created by Gaia Graphics and other City of SLO open spaces!

And to explore that mountain lion and other wild and FREE images:

Royalty Free Images

Go Reusable! End Plastic Bag Pollution

September 15th, 2010 | Comments Off on Go Reusable! End Plastic Bag Pollution

by Susan McIntosh, Gaia Graphics & Associates

Can a plastic bag’s journey touch your heart?! This mockumentary really tugged at mine, using wry humor to point out the unnatural disaster we are creating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

What will you do this week to go reusable and move plastic bags toward extinction?

Learn more on this plastic trash sign we created for the City of Morro Bay.