Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

Since today is the Fourth of July in the United States (not sure what the date is in other countries), I feel I should mention that I love fireworks. Even if I don’t totally understand the point, I figure anything that is an excuse for a cookout and that can cause more than 400 people to show up at a Florida Marlins game has to be good for something.

However, when it comes to graphic design, the closest counterparts to fireworks are starbursts, which cause me to do what my son did the first time he experienced fireworks: burst into tears.

Whenever I make some unequivocal statement about what is good design and what is bad design, people come to me with arguments to the contrary. (“I use Comic Sans because I want people to equate my interpretive site with yard sales and take-out menus.”)

With that in mind, let me make this unequivocal statement: Starbursts are bad graphic design. Even if your product is FREE! or NEW! or simply AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME!, the starburst is the bold, blinking, animated gif of graphic design. The person who uses starbursts in design is the same person who emails you in all caps. Whatever reason a person has for using a starburst, I can assure you there’s a better solution.

I found this brochure in a rack at a highway-side restaurant in Wyoming. There are a lot of things wrong with it from a design perspective. It uses clip art, glowing drop shadows, random angles, roughly 8,000 fonts in every possible style, and a color palette loosely described as “all of them.” (It’s reminiscent of this design advice that Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel heard recently and shared on our Facebook page: “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”)

Even amidst all that chaos, what stands out most is that it looks like the brochure was attacked by a pack of eight-year-olds wielding yellow paintball guns. I can’t be certain of this, but I’d guess that the person who designed this brochure has a background in producing late-night infomercials.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely of a similar mind and the larger problem is what to do with that client (or boss) who asks for starbursts. This is your opportunity to politely resist and educate your client (or boss) about the more subtle and elegant ways of drawing attention to important information without resorting to the visual equivalent of punching your audience in the face. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as changing the color, size, or line thickness of your type, or possibly altering the composition to prominently feature important elements at the top of a page or within a large amount of white space. (There are lots of solutions, and all of them are better than starbursts.)

In the end, the things that make starbursts so terrible are what make fireworks so great: They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and they’re pointless.

Happy Fourth of July!

8 thoughts on “Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

  1. Wow…a mention in IBD…not only have I arrived, but i’m left speechless…

  2. It may be bad design from an interpretation standpoint but
    a) If it is what the customer wants, you give it to them.
    b) Out in the commercial world, Batman is still king.
    c) The graphic artist rarely has any artistic control. They are given a napkin sketch and that’s what they are to reproduce and make “look good.”
    d) The graphic artist rarely deals with the customer. He/She is dealing with the ad salesman, who thinks everything should be red and yellow. (Actually, yellow coupons do get more response, as long as not everything is yellow.)
    e) There should be only one starburst per ad. It *is* to draw attention to the most important offer or price, not multiples to be used like bullet points.

  3. Jo, I think that any graphic designer who finds himself in a situation where all he is doing is prettying up napkin sketches needs to find another line of work.

    True graphic design is about communication and problem-solving, conceptualizing and knowing how to visually represent the meanings of a resource (be it an interpretive site or a commercial client). Graphic designers have a great responsibility beyond simply “giving customers what they want.” You want clients to be happy, and bringing your professional expertise to the table is the first step to doing that.

    And the second step is saying no if the client wants a starburst.

  4. Just for the record, I only ask for a starburst when I want to annoy the art director.

  5. When I worked for a national packaging design consultancy they called starbursts “violators” because they violated the elegant designs the firm created for brands like Frito-Lay, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, etc. Unfortunately violators arrived as client orders so protests from the design team were futile. Our clients carefully tracked market performance of the final packaging so I’m assuming violators must have delivered sales.

  6. If the goal of good design is to communicate, then maybe sometimes “ugly” is good design. Tons of direct marketing data supports the fact that violators work–starburst shaped and otherwise.

  7. “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”

    That’s got to be simultaneously the funniest and saddest thing I’ve ever read!

Comments are closed.