Get to Know a Typeface! Connecticut State of Mind

We recently received this question from Friend of IBD Patricia Perry through our Ask a Nerd! link:

I am a font nerd. I collect fonts much the same as other folks collect small china porcupines. I recently discovered “Connecticut.” I am in love with this font. Although it is not appropriate for every venue, I find its form and grace appealing. What are your thoughts on this cute little font?

To my knowledge, Patricia has never been in my house and I’m certain that she does not have a key to the safe in the basement, so I’m a little freaked out that she knows about my china porcupine collection. Nevertheless, Patricia is the one and only person ever to review our book on Amazon and she gave it five stars, so any question Patricia asks, we answer.

I had never heard of Connecticut as a typeface before (though I do know that there’s a suburb of New York City called Connecticut*). There’s not a lot of information about the typeface available online, but my guess is that it was designed by someone with artistic talents, but not much experience in typeface design. The first clue to this effect is that it’s available as a free download from a number of sites, including FontPark and Fonts 101.

I agree with Patricia that Connecticut is graceful. (I can’t believe I wrote “Connecticut” and “graceful” in the same sentence after this month’s college basketball championship.) The individual letterforms are great. They have an elegant, organic form, accentuated by tall ascenders, like those seen in the lower-case h and d in the sample above.

What bothers me is the way the letters interact with one another. You can see what I mean the sample above (which was created by a random text generator). The typeface is meant to emulate script writing, so it bothers me the way the letters don’t connect. This can be seen most clearly in the space between the i and s of is.

Look at the h and e in Shea. Not only does the terminal stroke of the h not connect with the e, but the angle of the stroke where the h would connect to the cross stroke of the e is different, so the illusion that you’re looking at handwriting is broken.

I would take Patricia’s comment that this typeface is not right for every venue one step further. I’d say that with this typeface, you have to not only choose the appropriate venue, but also use it in specific ways. I would definitely not use this typeface for large blocks of text at a small point size. But at a large size, short words, like my favorite Scrabble word Qi, emphasize the elegant, organic form while offering the opportunity to minimize the issues caused by the way the letters interact (if you’re only using this typeface for one or two words at a large size, you can take them into Illustrator and fix those issues).

There’s a lot to like about Connecticut (the typeface, not the cheating basketball team and its corrupt coach). Patricia’s affinity for its grace and elegance is certainly warranted. But as with many free typefaces that do not come from established, well-known typeface designers, it’s important to use it carefully and pay attention to the details.

And whatever you do, avoid the Merritt Parkway at rush hour.

*Note to Shea: This joke is funny because Connecticut is not just a suburb of New York, it’s its own state. I thought I’d explain, given how little time in your life you’ve spent in or near New York.

Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?

Cal

One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.

Ask a Nerd: Does Graphic Design Matter?

On the “Ask a Nerd!” hotline, Joan from Canada writes:

Help! A client doesn’t want me to use photos on interpretive signs because they “add clutter and don’t help achieve sign goals.” They suggest text only, or text with a map. Do you know of any good, recent research to help me convince them otherwise? —Joan

Because research is based on carefully reasoned thought and statistics, while I prefer to deal in wild speculation and unsubstantiated generalizations, I turned to Carolyn Ward, editor of the Journal of Interpretation Research for help. Carolyn turned me on to the 2006 masters thesis of Kari Anne Jensen of Humboldt State University. The thesis, titled “Effects of the Artistic Design of Interpretive Signage on Attracting Power, Holding Time, and Memory Recall,” seems to have been written specifically for Joan.

Having defended a masters thesis myself once upon a time, I know that Kari Anne spent the better part of at least three Mountain Dew-addled years struggling through seminars, slaving over projects, and kowtowing to the whims of professors and advisors to arrive at this answer to Joan’s question:

Yes.

To make a long thesis short, here is Ms. Jensen’s abstract:

The majority of visitors to interpretive sites receive information from non-personal interpretive media such as signs, exhibits and brochures. In this study, attracting power, holding time, and memory recall were measured to evaluate two versions of an educational interpretive panel on display at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (USFS). The original version featured artistic design elements common in traditional interpretive signage. The manipulated version was created using the best practices of artistic design, as defined by research in museums and interpretive settings and cognitive theory. Components of the sign that were manipulated in this study include layout, typography, color, graphics, contour, and the inclusion of a multi-sensory flip-panel. The text copy remained the same for both versions. The manipulated version of the sign resulted in a significantly greater attracting power and holding time. More subjects were able to recall the main message of the manipulated sign, however there was no difference between the two versions in subjects’ ability to recall specific details.

Kari Anne has graciously shared her thesis document and defense with us, so if you’re interested, you can download those documents here:

Thesis Document
Defense Document

Thanks to both Kari Anne Jensen and Carolyn Ward!

Ask a Nerd: Are Script Typefaces Legible?

Dear nerds,

I have been thoroughly enjoying the many discussions about different typefaces. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about scripted type (type that copies cursive handwriting). Some coworkers of mine and I have had some interesting discussions about using scripted type for subtitles on interpretive signs. Althought it might “set a mood,” my concern is that it might be difficult to read for certain audiences. I know studies have been done on the effect of all caps on reading speeds. Have you encountered similar studies that look at the effect of scripted fonts for interpretive panels?

Thanks for your continued help, Cal

Cal,

There has been a lot of research on typography, much of it contradictory or too specialized for general usefulness. Also, as my grad school roommate Kristy Pennino points out, most of the research is done by behavioral psychologists and not typographers. Still, there are certain points of agreement, like the fact that upper- and lower-case letters are more legible than all caps, as you point out.

Here’s an important point researchers agree upon related to your question: Regular, roman (not italics) type is more legible than slanted, italics, or oblique type. Typically, these studies relate to italicized versus roman type, but since most script typefaces are slanted, you can draw your own parallels. You can find a couple studies related to this subject on the Education Resources Education Center (ERIC) website:

EJ416365 – The Effects of Italic Handwriting on Legibility: The Methods and Findings of a Three-Year Study

ED265540 – An Evaluation of the Speed and Legibility of Italic Handwriting

Another important factor is the difference between legibility and readability. Certain typefaces are more legible than others because of the clarity of their design. At a certain size and/or a low enough word count, however, even less legible typefaces are still readable. That is to say, if you have few enough words and a large enough point size, you can get away with using a script typeface.

phils-small

philswinIn the examples here, the traditional serif typeface Adobe Garamond is more legible than Edwardian Script. In the longer sentence at the smaller point size, “The Phillies are World Series champions,” the script typeface is difficult to read and should not be used, but in the simple, two-word “Phils win!” both are readable and either one would be acceptable.

An article on Wikipedia (I know, weak reference, but it’s still a good point) has this to say:

“If the columns of a newspaper or magazine or the pages of a book can be read for many minutes at a time without strain or difficulty, then we can say the type has good readability.”

Think about how long you are asking visitors to read certain passages when making decisions about your typefaces. Once you get one short phrase or sentence, I’d err on the side of the more traditional, non-slanted typeface for better legibility.

Ask a Nerd: Help! We have three months to make 27 wayside exhibits!

bio-lisa-1This message from the Nerd Herd came in about three months ago. We’ve been too busy railing against Comic Sans and making fun of each other’s baseball teams to get to it, so we asked our mysterious and reclusive third co-author (and also fifth Beatle) Lisa Brochu (pictured here in her natural habitat) to answer it:

Dear Nerds,

What if, hypothetically, a friend of mine worked for an agency that “forgot” they had funding for 27 wayside exhibits, suddenly realizing this fact exactly 3 months before the end of the fiscal year? Of course the whole project would have to be conceptualized, written, designed, fabricated, and paid for by then.

Any tips to avoid hurried, glaring mistakes in content development or design? Any magic tricks you know to legally maneuver a molasses-slow bureaucracy? Are we, er, I mean, is my hypothetical friend going to be ok or as doomed as a grasshopper pierced on barbwire by a shrike?

—Frantic in Cyberspace

Lisa replies:

Do you really have to have 27 signs? You might want to think about cutting the budget in half and spending half to get some professional help (not the on-the-couch kind, but the planner/writer/designer kind) and then spending the rest on the sign fabrication. Think purchase order (the all-purpose legal maneuver). If that’s not possible, at least do the following:

1. Check fabrication times so you know what your absolute drop dead deadline will be.

2. Determine whether any of the signs could be considered unnecessary or redundant (most signs are). The fewer you have to produce, the fewer mistakes you will make.

3. Write first, then find graphics that illustrate the text (no clip-art allowed).

4. After you write the first draft, edit. Edit again. Edit one more time. Come on, you can get that word count down if you really try – edit, edit, edit. Try to get to where you have no more than 100 words per panel – 50 would be better.

5. Follow the instructions in Interpretation by Design related to grid layouts (this works for signs as well as publications).

6. If any of these things go wrong, make sure your tetanus shot is up to date (that barbed wire is just filthy).

Ask a Nerd: WPA Style

Dear Nerds,

I work as a supervisor at Glacier National Park and I’m looking into ways to advertise our interpretive programs. I want to go beyond the normal advertisements in gateway communities, using newspapers, flyers, etc.

My first idea is to use the WPA styled posters as a guideline to create my OWN posters for each of our programs. My problem is….I have no graphic designing experience. I am, however, a (relatively) talented artist. I’ve already sketched, traced, outlined and created a basic design for one of the interp. hikes.

What I would like to learn is how to create the WPA “block” styled designs. I’m planning on searching the internet for help on this too….so I can let you know any answers I come up with.

-Jamie

Jamie, this is a timely question. With the state of the economy and economic stimulus packages being distributed by the federal government as I type, projects such as the Federal Art Project (FAP), a section of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), of the 1930s are being reconsidered for employing artists today. In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the FAP employed artists that spawned the recognizable style to which you are referring.

see-america1

You are on to a great idea. I love the WPA style. The designers/artists of the FAP were great at capturing a sense of place on paper with ink. Your idea is a great way to promote programs with a product that visitors can relate their experience to prior to or after attending. Communicating your theme through the image or poster may be the most difficult part of the project.

I do have one caveat before we go any further. We are flirting in a dangerous design topic area, but I love flirting with danger.  On occasion, I have been known to eat pop rocks while drinking soda and go jogging in corduroy (I have short “husky” legs).  The WPA style is really less about design and more about art.  Design and art are related but are more like distant cousins than siblings. Living in the South, that’s an important distinction.  I am not an artist, but can appreciate the sophisticated design elements of this type of graphic art. You mention that you are an artist but lack design experience. Hopefully I can help you with the recreating your version of these successful design elements.

The WPA designers were highly skilled at refining basic design elements of complicated scenes to communicate the intended message.  I’m confident that you can reach your goal because this is no different than what interpreters do on a daily basis. Good interpreters take the information (scientific data, sophisticated messages, and complicated scenes) and transform it into a memorable experience that provokes.  Through an exceptional use of color, composition (laying out “the thing itself”), and type, their designs are timeless.

The WPA designers’ success is achieved by capturing key elements, keeping the message simple and avoiding distractions. That’s where you should begin.  Find the element of the park that you want to highlight and capture the colors that truly represent that element.  Glacier National Park should afford you plenty of opportunities. Carefully consider the colors you choose. The color palette needs to be simple and representative of the place. Most of the WPA posters are limited to 4 colors plus black and white.

Since you will be using these products to promote a program, you will want to focus on an image or “the thing itself” that is highlighted in the program theme. There are two ways you can accomplish capturing the image.  This can be done by scanning a painting (not a good option for me…ask my wife about the bathroom) or by creating an original illustration (possibly based on a photo) in Adobe Illustrator.

(There are also shareware programs out there that can transform your digital images into paint by number-type schemes that could shortcut this process for you if you don’t have Illustrator.  Search on www.tucows.com for options like Impression X.)

Remembering how these design pieces were created through silk screen printing is an important consideration in capturing the style.  Silk screening added an element of design through the process itself.  The layering of paint adds to the character of the works. Adobe Illustrator (AI) is very good at mimicking the silkscreen technique used by the FAP with a layer palate and a limited, well-chosen color scheme.  The secret is in  layering  the colors with the appropriate amount of minimal detail.

There are several WPA Naturalist Service posters on which you can study the layering technique. Check the Library of Congress website http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaposters/wpahome.html where you can view archived copies of FAP products. You can also view National Park related WPA art as well as purchase prints, postcards, and stickers at www.rangerdoug.com.

national-parks1

The WPA composition is not that difficult to re-create.  The number of visual elements involved is very limited and key elements usually fall under the rule of thirds.  Effective use of this rule makes photos and graphics more interesting.  For more information on this rule and composition see chapter 4 in IBD.

To give you some ideas on composition there is a modern version of this style that has been highly successful for the national parks in the San Francisco area. Michael Schwab Studio has produced a beautiful collection of stylized promotional images of the bay area parks and historic sites. You can view the illustrations and Michael Schwab’s entire portfolio here www.michaelschwab.com/portfolio/posters/posters.html.  The scaled down, minimalist approach to represent a resource is achieved in a beautiful way.

I’m especially enamored with the illustration for Muir Woods.  If you have ever been there, you can see how well a sense of place is conveyed.  The Schwab Studio improved on the style of the WPA by placing more focus on the thing itself as well as refining the typography and message even further.

Type is the last component of the style.  The typography of the era is now recognizable as a style itself but was secondary in the composition to “the thing itself.”  The typefaces are almost exclusively sans serif with a few decorative fonts being used. The sans serif fonts are easy to read and add to the clean modern style, even though they were produced 75 years ago.  How’s that for being modern.  This should be an easy thing to replicate with your basic information of who, what, when, and where to disseminate.

As in most disciplines, there are no original ideas. Useing the WPA style to provoke visitors to attend your programs is a great use of design. Let us know how this progresses and send us your designs so we can post them and share them with the nerd herd.