Handbag vs purse

[Embiggen the Dom-age]


Process Play-by-play

A nice, easy looking vs. random to get the ball rolling. Getting the stick out and poking Brain yields will hopefully yield a result, besides the word ‘yelp’.


Thinky time

There’s a point on the Q train where you emerge from the dank tunnel in Brooklyn and into the wintery light of the Manhattan Bridge. There’s something liberating about it – the blueness of its hulky struts, the stoic nature of its mood – and if you’re standing and facing toward the Brooklyn Bridge as the train jostles and heaves, you’ll find yourself smiling. There’s just something about looking across at it that stirs the primordial soup of your creative soul.

I bring this up because on the day I started concepting ideas for Round 1, the mile long stretch across that bridge turned out to be the most productive period of ideation each day for the entire week. Furiously typing into Evernote on my iPhone on that first day, I came up with 12 ideas spanning 4 subjects across Round 1. And included within that, was this one – Handbag vs purse.

By the time I dove back into the dank, dark tunnel leading into Manhattan, I was so invigorated, so excited about starting work on this project, I wondered if it would be extremely bad form to bunk off work in the middle of a brutal pitch. NOTE: If you’re a freelancer, the answer to this question is always, and most emphatically, yes. Bad form. Go to work.

It’s just as well. At lunch I went to a bookshop to buy a design book for inspiration, and while there, picked up a tiny moleskine to dedicate to RTR. It fits perfectly into my jacket or jean pocket. And it’s red. As everyone knows: Red ones go faster.

On the subway platform later than night, I started solidifying ideas for this project in that very notebook.

My first thoughts – often destined to be discarded – involved the pure physicality of a handbag vs a purse. Handbags are typically larger, and it’s been my experience that they are somewhat Tardis-like in their ability to hold contents. To have a purse, you need to be more streamlined in your choices. Less random shit. My mother always kept a coin purse inside of her handbag. A little soft gold mesh number, with the lips that clip together. I used to fiddle with it while watching her get ready for work. Loved the feel of the gold mesh, the coolness of it, and the satisfying clip of the clasp. And I liked to count the coins. So in my mind, a purse is always small. Compact. Tight lipped. Secure.

Brain leapt off the platform. Tight lipped! As a somewhat writerly organ, it began questioning the origin of the word pursed. As in ‘pursed lips’. Began thinking about how funny it would be if the word wasn’t pursed and was handbagged instead. About how that would change the whole meaning and feel and perception of the phrase. The timbre. The tone. If people stuff whole lives into handbags, surely handbagged lips, although closed, would hint at extreme contents held inside? I could see the poster. A face, squirrel nut-cheeked but with lips closed.

Handbagged lips. It’s just so silly. That image sounds difficult to pull off for the first project though. So Brain steps in. Isn’t it enough that the phrase ‘handbagged lips’ just sounds wrong? That by pure virtue of it being somewhat awkward to say, it declares pursed the superior choice, and through that, purse becomes the winner in the handbag vs purse RTR?

Do I really need to attempt to draw a squirrel-cheeked dude? Surely I can easily demonstrate that concept with words?

Brain confidently decided that it would write a snippet of text so fraught with tension, the mere introduction of the phrase handbagged lips would unravel its soul to fits of giggles. It would collapse in upon itself like a scared souffle. Magic.

Furthermore, Brain decided that the text block could be typographically treated and designed using the language of handbags in some way, then visually contained in the skeleton of an overly stuffed hangbag. With that plan in motion, it was on to the next step.

Total thinky time = 40 minutes

Prepy time

Idea chosen, I started to sketch out a plan of attack. It relied on finding the right image to lay the text over.

Ok, rough idea there. Find an image of an open bag with lots of crap inside. But what about the text itself? I toyed with the idea of finding an excerpt from a well-known book featuring the phrase ‘pursed lips’, but figured that would take considerable time. Brain got spooked. Easier just to write it. And so Brain did.

While working on that, I thought about the pacing and layout of the block of text. I wanted it to feel as though it was building up to something – a moment of tension – only to be torn apart by the introduction of the word handbagged. Situation diffused, as it were.

Eyes narrow to glare.
Fists uncock. Reload.
He can barely contain the
rage in the cage
of his mouth.
She takes one look at his
hangbagged lips
and laughs.

Of course she laughs. It’s the only possible conclusion. The line breaks are important as they effect the pace. I wanted certain words to lock arms together on a line so that when read aloud, they had a beat and bite to them. I knew it would mean certain lines would also have to be larger when laid out, but hoped that would actually add impact and emphasis in the right places. The toughest decision was if ‘laughs’ should have its own line. But that would’ve ruined the mojo of ‘handbagged lips’, so that thought was kicked to the curb.

With the writing done, the photo hunt began in earnest. It’s much harder to find an overhead shot of an overstuffed, open handbag than you might think. I thought about setting up the photo shoot myself, but could sense the dribble of time would speed up if I did that.

A bit deflated, I hit pause on the image search. Began a font hunt. I wanted to find something blocky that might allow me to break the text apart and massage into an odd shape. Unfortunately, nothing particularly tripped my trigger and made me go BANG. Perhaps, thought Brain, a crappy blocky font could be made to look nice by filling the blocks with hundreds of little handbags? So off I went to find all colors, sizes and shapes of bags.

Now, this is where you’ll see process helps you work through ideas to reach something that just might be workable.

During the image search, I began to notice a lot of details on bags. The clasps, the stitching, the touches that separated one high-end brand from another. I found lots of photos of gorgeous bags, with leather you could tell was soft and supple just by looking at it.

And then I found this bag (below), and noticed the letters in it. The A. The sideways E. The upsidedown U. The O.

Brain suddenly wets its pants with excitement. Brain says to me:

“I’m going to build some type, bitches!”

And with that, we sat down together at the desk with a hot cup of coffee and began.

Total Prepy time = 2 hours

Sit-down-and-doey Time

I’ll be honest, Prepy Time and Sit-down-and-doey Time had started to melt gooily into each other. When you’re finding images that you want to use, you start playing with them. And the act of play either makes or breaks an idea. Playing with these bags and letters in illustrator did both.

The first stumbling point was having to re-learn how to use the pen tool to trace those elements of the bags I wanted to use to create letters. The problem with learning as you go is that things take time. I was slow. There were a few ‘switch over to google and find a youtube tutorial on this thing’ moments. But I got it done.

Letters like the A, E and B were easy (direct tracings of existing shapes).

But others required finding a bunch of different pieces from different bags and creating the letters that way.

About four letters in, I laid out a few in a word and thought “This is never going to work. What a complete waste of time.” I stalked away from the desk in a bit of a huff. Sat on the couch, doodled with some alternatives and watched some mind-numbingly dull TV. And then I went back to sit at the computer and worked it out. A little half-hour break. That’s all I needed. Step away. Step back.

It seems like a lot of work, to create those letters only to shrink them down so you lose the detail in them. But I dunno. The detail is what makes them real. I hate the L tho. I really hate the L. Things with zippers, once shrunk down, just look like shit. If I had more time, I think I’d work out a different L.

The image and the text was ok, but I felt the design was missing a bit. I played with the idea of creating some color iconography in the bottom corner to represent Handbag vs purse, but after laying it in found it just confused the issue. I ended up just going with the outline of the most useful bag in terms of stealing type building pieces.

I don’t think it actually matters if you know what the genesis of this poster is about – that it was born of a “this vs that” statement. It’s got enough going for it that you can look it it, go ‘hmm’ and move on. The fact that it still kind of works without knowing the backstory makes it a bit more successful in my mind. It’s just a nice bit of text laid out and left there, and that’s enough.

More interesting to me is that the more I played with these words, the more I started to switch sides on the issue. I think the peculiarity of the phrasing is actually kinda neat now, but I’ll go into that more in the results summary.

Stick. Brain. Poke. Rating

Although the finished product could use some layout and design help, maybe a bit more structural solidarity to it, the act of designing letters was very productive for Brain. Given the time constraints and first cab off the rank status of this RTR, Brain is very happy with where it ended up. I’m actually going to rate it higher than I should, mostly because it’s the first project and I’ve dun gone and got it out’tha way. Yes, first cab off the rank, and the driver’s just relieved there’s not too much sick in the back to clean up. 3.5 sticks!

On a secondary note, design and poster success aside, I find myself very conflicted about my intial assement of the phrasing ‘handbagged lips’. In the context of the whole piece, perhaps handbagged lips is actually the perfect, the necessary, in fact the only choice? It’s kind of an interesting and unexpected word choice. I’d also be curious to read the rest of this story, to see what happens.

YOUR HOMEWORK: Should you choose to accept your homework, create the story or scene around this excerpt. Why is he so angry? What happens after she laughs?

MY HOMEWORK: 1. Begin reading Elements of Typographic Style. (I think it’s obvious I need to) 2. Is coke with your meal really fucking necessary? Stay tuned for Round 1, Project 2!

Total Prepy time = 15 hours
Went a little over with the last minute addition of the corner bag, but also wasted more time simply because it was my first project. I’ll get faster.



NOTE: I actually hate both handbag and purse. My ride across the USA stripped my life down to a debit card, an ID and loose cash in a plastic sheaf carried in a pocket. In Seattle, after the ride was complete, I was assaulted by a severe resentment at having to buy a purse/wallet. It actually made me visibly angry, symbolizing as it did, capitulation to reality and a slavery to identification and financial pigeonholing that I still have yet to recover from. I yearn for life to go back to the simplicity of this:

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