Defining the Strike Zone

Much to Paul’s chagrin, today’s post is dedicated to Jo Schaper, who challenged Paul’s take on starbursts (the explosive graphic design element, not the fruit-flavored candy packed with sweet goodness and that is more efficient than a dentist at removing a filling) in his post Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying on Monday. Her comment and Paul’s reply are presented here.

It is not uncommon for folks to challenge our opinions about elements of interpretive design (along with personal style choices – despite what you think we both still feel red Crocs are perfectly acceptable in public venues). In fact we welcome it. Through this blog we have learned that there is nothing more polarizing than discussions on Comic Sans, serial commas, and now starbursts.

This is where I have to applaud Jo (as well as Judy Sneed the official Pro Comic Sans Spokesperson of NAI Region VI) for speaking up for what they believe is an appropriate use of starbursts. Plus, I like anyone that is willing to give Paul a hard time about anything.

I think I can speak for Paul here. Facing this adversity he might say something like, “I disagree with Jo but at least I got her to think about the design decisions that she makes every time she starts a project. I bet the next time she goes to insert a starburst she thinks twice about how she uses it.” I like it best when Paul speaks without commas. The underlying goal behind IBD (the book not the blog) was to help interpretive designers make the best design decisions possible, which could be said in this instance as well.

Since I’m speaking for Paul, I think it also safe to say that he might also say something like this: “If I wasn’t a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I would pull for the New York Yankees because deep down inside I’m jealous and really think they are awesome, oh yeah and Arkansas I where I should live because if Shea lives there it must rock, oh yeah and Shea’s children are cuter than mine!” I would have to agree with both of Paul’s statements.

I see the opinions that we offer in/on IBD (the book and the blog) are equivalent to the role an umpire plays in a baseball game. When a pitcher stands on the mound and is looking at the batter, catcher, and umpire, he has many choices of what kind of pitch throw (cutter, fastball, curve, sinker, splitter, knuckleball, slider, change-up). It is the role of the umpire to confine the space where the pitch has to be thrown and up to the pitcher to be creative enough to put those pitches into that space. I also see us playing the umpire because our lack of baseball talent and the fact that Paul looks best in a mask.

A pitcher can throw pitches outside the strike zone and it’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they will be successful, it simply means they are pitching in the National League. Also the better you know the strike zone or the parameters and guidelines you will also know when to break the rules and throw outside the zone. The best pitchers throw a combination of strikes and balls in order to get that batter out. There is no guarantee that the batter is going to swing at the pitches outside the strike zone in order for the pitcher to get them out. Sometimes you end up with a walk (which has no design equivalent in this long drawn out analogy). The most important thing to remember is that you want to throw as many good strikes as possible, within the zone.

As interpreters and interpretive designers, I think we have to be careful about not only to be thinking about our clients or our visitors by simply giving them what they want. We need to place thought into what design decision help meet the goals of the project and the interpretive site. I have been guilty (and this blog has been guilty, and by this blog I mean Paul) of writing to our audience of interpreters and interpretive designers. We like talking and reading about topics that we are familiar with, comfortable with, and align well with what and how we think. We need to challenge and be challenged to grow. This can be said of personal interpretation as well. We all have had program participants that come to your program already knowing exactly or more about what you are presenting. That may be your objective but more than likely is not. It is my hope that Jo would comeback with an amazing design chock full of starbursts that makes Paul say, “Wow, that’s an effective use of the starburst.”

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this image of the 2010 NAI National Workshop logo, designed by Paul, complete with a starburst.

Live from Australia, Part 2: Koalas Are Not Bears

I can’t think of a place more closely associated with its wildlife than Australia, with the possible and notable exception of old Shea Stadium and its car-sized rats. Australia has not one, but two animals—kangaroos and koalas—that people associate with it and nowhere else. Pictured above is my three-year-old daughter Maya at a park called Bungalow Bay on Magnetic Island in Queensland, where rangers demonstrate and let visitors handle animals, including koalas—a signature experience because it happens here and nowhere else.

And Australians are proud of their native animal friends. I made the mistake of referring to koalas as koala bears shortly after my arrival here last Sunday and was chased out of town by a mob of irate, torch-bearing interpreters yelling, “They’re MARSUPIALS!”

With the NAI International Conference having just ended Saturday, I’m feeling reflective about my time in Queensland. In addition to the fact that koalas are not bears, here are some things I have learned Down Under:

Stuff kills you here.
Australia is home not only to cuddly, bouncy animals, but also an amazing concentration of intensely venomous snakes and spiders, jellyfish that leave gash-like scars on people who swim in the ocean (but only during summer, so don’t worry), and schnauzers that can kill you with laser beams shot from their eyes. (I have not been able to confirm the existence of laser schnauzers with the scientific community, but I figure there has to be a reason for all of these “No Schnauzer” signs I saw all over Townsville.) While visiting the Mamu Rainforest Canopy Walkway near Cairns, we saw a whole bunch of the spiders pictured above. I’m not sure whether they’re venomous, but they’re the size of my fist so I’m not interested in finding out.

You can run, but you can’t hide.
In Australia, it’s warm at Christmastime and cold in July. They call strollers prams, drive on the left side of the road, and wear thongs on their feet. Here, Foster’s is not Australian for beer. And in spite of all these differences, they still have the same default fonts on their computers.

When I presented an Interpretation By Design session last week during the conference, a very nice Australian woman who I learned later is an important member of the Townsville interpretive community suggested that she liked to use Comic Sans for her communication aimed at children. (I could tell who our regular IBD readers were in the room by where the snickers were coming from.) I diplomatically explained that Comic Sans doesn’t look like actual children’s handwriting but rather an adult’s interpretation of children’s handwriting and that there’s a special circle of Hell waiting for Comic Sans creator Vincent Connare. And it just so happened that the very next image in my slide show was the above photo, shot in the market next to our hotel.

I asked: Do you really want to make the same decision about the type for your interpretive materials that the owner of this market made about how best to promote $3 sausage rolls?

Jon Hooper is a smart dude.
When I presented the IBD session, I had the opportunity to use a simple but very useful PowerPoint trick I learned from NAI’s Jon Hooper, who writes about PowerPoint for Legacy magazine. Shea and I routinely have too many slides for the time allotted when we present. At the last NAI National Workshop in Hartford, Jon was in attendance when we once again ran out of time and had to skip a bunch of slides to get to our big conclusion. The room filled with groans and complaints when participants saw what we were skipping.

Jon pointed out something that was new to me, but probably old news to most IBD readers: If, mid-PowerPoint show, you type in a number and hit return, it jumps you directly to the slide that corresponds with that number. So if you know that your big conclusion starts on slide 58, you can go there at any time and your audience will never know the difference. This trick can help you make fluid transitions from one part of your show to another. Thanks, Jon!

Interpreters are a fair dinkum lot.
At the risk of bashing your ear, every time I find myself somewhere chockers with my interpreter cobbers, I find them a bunch of daggy, bonza blokes. Whether it’s the NAI International Conference, the NAI National Workshop, or one of NAI’s regional workshops, I dip my lid to NAI members and interpretive professionals everywhere, whether they be city slickers or from the mulga. Hooley dooley, this is the ridgy-didge: Interpreters are real rippers, and have the fun of Cork, too! (I thought I’d try out some of the Aussie slang I’ve picked up. I may have to change my pen name to Paul “Hogan” Caputo and write like this all the time.)

I interviewed Sam Ham for a video series NAI is producing, and asked him, “How do you define success?” His response boiled down to: If you’re happy in life because you love what you do and where you do it, you’re successful—and interpreters are among the most successful people in the world.

And that’s a real purler.

Comic Sans saves the day

Yes, we’re hard on Comic Sans here at IBD. In fact, a month or two ago, I wrote that using it makes a designer look like a hack. So rather than kick a typeface when it’s down, I thought we’d give it its due. The above video, called “Font Conference,” presents Comic Sans in a new light.

Regarding my own interest in this video, there are two possibilities (perhaps not mutually exclusive):

1. It’s a funny way to anthropomorphize some of the common typefaces we’ve all come to know and recognize.

2. I am a bigger nerd than I thought I was. I am aware as I watch it that I am laughing out loud at jokes about typefaces, but I can’t help myself.

Regardless, there are a number of funny, quotable lines (“Pencil, telephone, hourglass! Diamonds, candle, candle, flag!”), but the top honor, in my opinion, goes to when the font Ransom, holding Courier and Curlz MT hostage, demands placement in a variety of media, including Microsoft Works. Times New Roman responds, “You’re insane. Nobody uses Microsoft Works!”

A Friendly Kids’ Typeface

Our wives are growing increasingly hostile as we shirk our parental duties in favor of posting to this blog (Shea has now lost and regained two kids in three days), but we made a sacred vow to you, the IBD reader, when we promised regular posts this week. So we continue (clandestinely), this morning from the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Whenever we criticize Comic Sans, we hear, “But I do kids’ programs, so it’s okay.” To which we say, “No, it’s still not okay.”

We both noticed as we walked into the zoo the sign for the kids’ train, which uses a rounded, friendly typeface, a terrific alternative to any of those faux handwriting typefaces. It still serves as a clear signifier that the train is for kids without being hokie or contrived.

I’d say more but my son is trying to climb into the lion pit and I think my wife has spotted me crouched behind this sign.

Get to Know a Typeface! Comic Sans (with a little Helvetica mixed in)

I recently watched the documentary film “Helvetica,” which Shea reviewed back in March. The movie, predictably, features experts on typography who either hail the typeface as the solution to all of mankind’s problems or deride it as the manifestation of humanity’s worst attributes. What’s interesting about the typeface (and the movie) is the story about how and why Helvetica came to be and the function that it serves.

Regardless of how you feel about its aesthetics, you understand that Helvetica was designed with attention to detail and a strict adherence to a philosophical movement, and it fills a specific need in the design community. I found myself thinking that everything that makes Helvetica an interesting and viable typeface stands in stark contrast to everything that makes Comic Sans such a joke.

Yes, I am hard on Comic Sans, but I enjoyed the above YouTube video, where Comic Sans creator Vincent Connare explains the origins of his most famous creation. It’s humanizing to see a man who created one of the most used (and most reviled, in some circles) typfaces ever, admit to not being proud of his work.

The most important thing he says here is, “It’s often badly used,” which I think is the crux of why so many people dislike this typeface. Connare speaks directly to what makes Comic Sans inappropriate when he explains that it was designed to be used for text in speech bubbles for a cartoon dog—not, we can infer, for long passages of text or as large display type.

So to reiterate a recurring theme on this site: Don’t use Comic Sans unless the type you’re setting is in a speech bubble, preferably that of a cartoon dog.