Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.

8 thoughts on “Accepting Limitations

  1. You forgot one, Paul. The last sentence in the second to last paragraph should also be in red (baseball metaphor).

    You’re welcome, Sheila. 😉

  2. This baseball-impaired person thanks you for the new hierarchy of information, and for the use of a colour that so clearly means ‘Warning! Avoid!” for the baseball references.

  3. I read part of your column to my boss and we are now going to institute a ban on random animations and dissolve feature usage during evening program PowerPoint presentations. IBD is slowly taking over! Muwahahaha

  4. Wrong Hitchcock animation, IMHO. The title sequence for North by Northwest is much more visually compelling, and has an even better main theme (also by Bernard Hermann.)

    Other than that, muah.

  5. Phil, I chose Psycho to illustrate this post because it’s both simple and clever. The titles for North by Northwest are also interesting, and would be a great illustration for a post about clever uses of a grid.

  6. Wow … back to back shout-outs in the IBD blogs. Thanks guys. I have a feeling that I will be buying the beers @ NAI 2010 in Las Vegas in a couple weeks. Of course, that will probably lead to lengthy discussions of baseball, movies, fonts, Shea’s wardrobe and the obligatory “I love you man” spoken by many.

    I have met Paul’s wife Sheila, and I cannot imagine that sweet young lady using profanity, especially when discussing IBD or baseball, but perhaps when she reads what Paul has just posted about her she may have a few choice words directed at him.

    I have not had the good fortune of meeting Shea’s wife, Sebrena. We are facebook friends, and over the years of NAI blogs, IBD blogs, talking with common friends and following the families travels, etc., I feel as if I do know her a little bit. I do not know her well enough to know if she would ever use profanity, but knowing Shea, there is a possibility she has.

    My wife Pam is the best wife in the world. Not only does she put up with me, she has made me a better person. In our 11+ years of marriage, and nearly 14 years together, I have heard her use profanity. One directed at me, and once at this little old woman. The little old woman deserved it. I am still not sure if I did though.

    So in order to get this post back to the subject at hand, baseball, as I type this, I am watching game 5 of the World Series. The Giants are currently leading 3-1 in the 8th inning. My good friend Angus and his family are probably very happy. Not having the Padres or the Phillies there, I too am rooting for the Giants and happy. Not having the No-Good Stinkin’ Yankees there has me very happy, as it does for Paul, Angus, Amy and millions of others around the globe.

    As usual, Paul’s blog post goes on to talk about graphic design, design rules and theories, fonts and plugging his IBD Workshops. And as usual, I cannot figure out why.

    NAI Rocks. Looking forward to seeing many of you in Las Vegas.

Comments are closed.