Post-apocalyptic Survival Skills

An adventure in primitive pottery

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you found yourself in a world without electricity?

pencil drawing of sandwich

I’ve been wondering about this ever since I was a teenager. The question occurred to me while reading Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams. The hero finds himself stranded on a primitive planet and realizes that despite all of his modern sensibilities, he has zero survival skills. Eventually, he identifies something he’s good at and settles on the honorable profession of village sandwich-maker.

While that story isn’t exactly post-apocalyptic, the scenario is the same – when the lights go out for good, how are you going to be a valuable member of your tribe? It’s almost certain that the cannibalistic clans that emerge from the chaos won’t need insurance salesmen, Realtors, or graphic designers. We’ll be the first to go. I’m not worried though, because last year I figured out what my new profession will be.

My First Taste of the Dirt

Some 15 years ago, I worked at a summer camp in North Carolina. Despite having no previous pottery experience, I found myself in charge of the ceramics hut. Pretty quickly I learned how to work with clay and I quickly fell in love with the craft.

While I loved that summer, pottery is not a hobby I’ve kept up over the years. I got distracted by my new profession: graphic design.

pencil drawing of bucket of mud

Fast forward to our family vacation at the lake last summer. I watched as my kids played in the water and kicked up muddy clay from the lake bottom. A family friend casually mentioned that when she was a kid, she used that same clay to form small cups and bowls, simply sitting them in the sun to harden. It was a lightbulb moment. Even though I’d seen this same cloudy clay-water dozens of times, I never realized that it was the same basic stuff that potters use every day.

Armed with a shovel and under the gaze of many an odd stare, I dug up a bunch of mud and brought it home. Over the next couple of months, I researched the best way to strain this bucket of muck into usable clay. It took many tries. Eventually, I ended up with my first baseball-sized lump of clay. This was – no fooling – one of my proudest moments ever.

Getting Lit

The next puzzle was how to fire the clay without a kiln. I settled on the ancient technique of the pit fire. It’s the same method primitive peoples used. Basically, you dig a hole, insert your greenware (dried creation) and light a fire over it. My friend Ken, a real-life and ridiculously talented potter, pointed out that I could use my chimenea instead of a pit. So thanks to Ken, Google, YouTube and the weird chimenea that conveyed with my house, I successfully “pit” fired my first self-harvested clay. I couldn’t believe it.

Christmas Gifts

OK, so I had figured out the process, but what was I going to do with 10 pounds of clay? I needed something to justify the dozens of hours I’d spent on this project. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because pit-fired pottery is not “food safe”. Luckily, my neighbor had her yearly candle-pouring party coming up (just in time for Christmas). Candles would make a great gift!

I turned the clay into 20 hand-sized bowls, fired them and then poured the candles. My wife decided to knit washcloths to go with each package. Then our kids created bookmarks that we added to our gift packages. (What can I say, we’re a creative family!)

It’s empowering to know that even without my precious computer, I can be resourceful and make practical art. And like I said at the beginning, when the lights go out and the world descends into another dark age, I’ll have a skill to help feed my family and justify my existence in the village. If you’re still around then, swing by my pottery hut and we’ll swap goods.

What will your survival skill be?

Have a great week,


How Do I Find Good Stock Photography?

Whether you’re working on a brochure, a website, email newsletter or social media post, you’re going to need some images. In our highly visual world, it’s imperative to have great images, graphics and illustrations to help tell your story.

Stock images and stock photography sites can be an excellent resource. But the downside of stock photography is that it’s, well, stock photography. You and lots of other marketers have access to all the same photos and illustrations, meaning your project isn’t truly original. Pay attention to websites you visit and posts you see on social media – you’ll start to notice stock photos (maybe even some of the same ones) everywhere. In fact, if you want to hear an “insider baseball” rant, ask a graphic designer who their least favorite stock photography model is. They’ll probably have one. I’d post a picture to mine, but I really don’t want to see his face on my blog!

So, how can you incorporate stock images into your work so it still looks graphically pleasing and professional?

If possible, work with a professional graphic designer who can help you select the very best stock images and can skillfully weave together stock shots and custom images taken by a local talented photographer. This allows you to get the best of both worlds and you save a little money over using custom photography exclusively.  If you’re on your own though, here’s some tips.

When mixing custom photos and stock images, keep a few things in mind:

  • As much as possible, keep the lighting consistent.
  • Avoid using too many generic shots, such as hands shaking or a smiling person on a headset. Your project ends up looking like everyone else’s.
  • Use a mix of stock photos and stock graphics, such as designs, illustrations and icons. This is a great way to add visual interest and stave off monotony.
  • Avoid cheesy pictures or images that are obviously stock. If it looks unrealistic, don’t use it. And, when in doubt, get a few opinions.

webpage with red mark up

Here’s an example of how I was able to use a blend of custom and stock photography:

Selecting the best stock photo sites

Choose your stock photo sites wisely. Two sites with a large catalog of images at a good price are and These sites do cost money, but are more affordable than they used to be. If you’re planning to use a lot of stock photography, you might want to invest in a subscription versus paying for each photo individually.

If you are fortunate enough to have a big – or unlimited – budget, use It’s the gold standard for stock photography but it doesn’t come cheap with a single image starting at $175.

Free, low-cost photo options

OK, so what happens when you have little to no budget or you’re a nonprofit trying to create blog posts and social media content on a dime? A number of free or low-cost stock image sites are available, and some actually aren’t bad depending on your project and specific image needs. Just remember, when it comes to free or low-cost stock sites, the hardest part is combing through all the files to get to what’s good. So set aside some time for sorting, sorting and more sorting – that’s half the battle!,, and have cool commercial photography available for free. Also check WikiMedia Commons and Flickr where you might find images available for use under public domain or a creative commons license. Some government sites also have images available in the public domain.

Get permission for photo use

Whether you’re using free or paid sites, make sure you’ve looked at the licensing agreements and understand how you can — and most importantly can’t – use the images. Some are available for editorial use only and some require attribution. Do you need a model release? Is there any time limit to when you have to use the images you purchase?

Making certain you have the rights to the images you’re using is critical. Certainly don’t just download any image you find on Google or someone else’s blog or website.

Bottom line

When it comes to creative work, great imagery can take your project to the next level. Even if you’re working with a small budget, there are ways to make your projects look high-end. This is where consulting with a professional graphic designer is helpful. We can come up with creative ways to get around a low photography or stock photo budget.

Here’s an example of how I was able to get creative and use low-cost stock photography for a project that had a small budget for photography:

open spread pages with red mark up

I’d love to hear how you find and use stock images. Do you have a favorite site? Let’s hear about why it works for you.

Have a great week,


How Do I Remove the White Background from a Logo?

Ever tried to overlay a logo or other graphic onto an image only to find there’s an annoying white background behind it? Frustrating for sure.

If you’re looking for a graphic with transparency to use in your design projects, there are three potential solutions. Note, these solutions require that you have access to Adobe Creative Suite. If you don’t, skip on down to solution No. 3.

1) In Illustrator

icon resizingIf your graphic is a professionally created logo, one option is to get access to the original graphic file – preferably an EPS or Adobe Illustrator format. What you want is a vector image, which means the image has been created digitally in such a way that it can be re-scaled up or down without losing its resolution and becoming pixelated.

It’s likely the vector file already has built-in transparency. That pesky white background doesn’t appear until someone saves a version of the graphic in a format like a JPG or GIF to use on the web. Take that EPS or Adobe Illustrator file and save it as a “PNG” file. Make sure you check the box labeled “preserve transparency.”

2) In Photoshop

Open a relatively high-resolution version of the graphic in Adobe Photoshop. Use the pen tool to trace around the object and then create a clipping mask. This is pretty technical and can be challenging if you don’t know your way around Photoshop very well or if the graphic is complicated by features like hair, soft edges and lots of “holes” like those in the letters D, O and R.

pen tool cutting letter

You can sometimes get away with using the “Magic Wand” to select around your logo/graphic especially if the graphic is pretty simple. Once you’ve masked out (or deleted) the unwanted background, export your image as a PNG with transparency preserved. If you don’t preserve the transparency, Photoshop will add white back into the areas you just cleared away.

3) But I don’t have these fancy programs!

If you don’t do a lot of graphic design work, you may not have Photoshop or Illustrator. In that case, try one of these programs:

GIMP is a free Photoshop alternative. It’s powerful, but not the most user-friendly so it might take you a little time to learn your way around this one.

Inkscape is a free vector program will do the trick. As with Gimp, this app is off the beaten path so there may be a steep learning curve.

If you don’t have access to the high-resolution version of your logo or the original files, it’s going to take you a lot of time and energy to do this on your own, especially if all you have is a low-resolution graphic. This might be a good time to hire a professional graphic designer to re-create your logo. Graphic designers then provide you with all the various file formats you could need – saving you a lot of headache in the future.

Need help re-creating a new logo or need additional formats for an existing one? Get in touch at ab@andrewbartondesign for help. 

Have a great week,