On a Plain

People say I have an accent that can make me hard to understand. I know that I speak plainly. They are just distracted by my southern charm and wit. I have also been accused of writing the way I speak. I do my best to keep contractions that make Paul cringe out of my writin’.  For those who work for the federal government, speaking or writing plainly is now a mandate signed by President Obama. On October 13, 2010, he signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The deadline for implementing portions of the law is fast approaching (July 2011).

When you look through the guidelines provided by the the Plain Language Action and Information Network (or PLAIN, which is not nearly as clever as IBD) you can see many common threads between the recommendations and interpretive writing. (Aside #1: I find it interesting that it took 112 pages for the federal government to outline how to write plainly.) (Aside #2: I also find it interesting that they recommend that you avoid the use of parenthesis in communication.) With topics like “Think about your audience, and organize” you can see the power of using interpretive techniques to improve communication.

There’s a section or two about grammar, nouns, verbs, and all that stuff that Paul loves to write about that I don’t really get but it must be important in some way to writing but I’m sure Paul will get around to writing a post about sometime between now and the next three years. (I wonder if Paul can resist editing this sentence?) I did read the first sentence of that section, which I liked: “Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.”

The section on writing for the web makes some interesting points that Paul and I have ignored on this blog. This image from the website shows how the human eye tracks on websites. The area shown in red is where the viewer spent the majority of their time.

If we had room in the budget (or any budget at all) and had the exact same study done on IBD, it would be expected that posts such as Monday’s Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph? written by Paul Caputo would yield the following results (keep in mind the area shown in red is where the visitor spent the majority of their time).

Take some time and brush up on your plain writing skills. You may find validity in some of your tried and true interpretive writing techniques.

Scratched IBD Cover

I have heard that a person that is considered a genius is one step away from being off their rocker. Some time ago Paul and I wrote a book titled Interpretation By Design, along with our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu. It is not often that one of the co-authors of a book happens to be the art director for the association publishing the book. It wasn’t only Paul’s responsibility to remove all of the y’alls and fixin’ tos from my writing (not that I have an accent); he was responsible for the layout, overall design, and cover for the book.

For some time I have made fun of one of the book covers that Paul designed and submitted to Lisa and me for review and comments. Needless to say, it wasn’t accepted. To this day, Paul claims that we should have approved it (because of the creative genius behind it) and that our oversight is gross negligence. I claim that for people to buy a book they must pick it up and look at it and if their eyes are bleeding, that won’t happen. Lisa and I simply wanted something that didn’t look like gummy bears had melted on the cover of an excellent book or a manual to hosting baby showers. Oh yeah, Lisa is also Paul’s supervisor.

I need your help today. Let me know what you think of the cover in the comments section. There are two versions above (one I call melted gummy bears and the one I call Design Your Baby Shower). You are more than welcome to review both.

I do have to give Paul some credit. There is a clever element, I just wonder if anyone can figure it out. Paul, you can’t play. After some comments have been posted, if no one picks up on the one possibly redeeming element to the design, I will follow up with further discussion in the comment section. We may even let Paul defend his decisions and explain what pushed him off the rocker.

Get to Know a Color! Red

My six-year-old son Joel recently started wearing the Philadelphia Phillies clothing I’ve been buying him since he was born. I know that Joel resents the Phillies because they’re frequently on TV when he’d rather be watching Spongebob Squarepants, so I asked him about it. I figured he had decided to embrace the Phillies out of affection for his father or a desire to relate to his extended family, much of which is in Philadelphia. The actual reason is much simpler than that: after stints with green, yellow, and blue, red is now Joel’s favorite color.

This got me to thinking about how and why people relate to certain colors. This also made me hungry, because it turns out that red is an appetite stimulant, which may explain why there are so many fat Phillies fans.

Anyway, welcome to the first installment of “Get to Know a Color!” Every now and again in the coming months, we’ll delve into the meanings, associations, and usage of a specific color. (To paraphrase Buster Bluth, as I have done before, this party is going to be off the hook.)

The human eye can perceive roughly 10 million colors, so if I do one a week, I’ll be done in the year 194,317, or shortly before the Earth is swallowed up by the sun. To narrow it down a bit, Isaac Newton, who devised the first color wheel in 1666, identified seven pure spectral colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Since indigo and violet are both essentially purple, we can narrow that to six. Given that primary season just ended in politics, we’ll start with red. (Get it? Because it’s a primary color! Now we’re having fun.)

First, a note about creating meaning with color: The color wheel is your friend. We encourage designers to select a color palette using the color wheel. Colors that oppose each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, yellow and purple, or green and red—are complements. Used together, they create a bold statement. Colors adjacent to one another on the color wheel, like green and blue or orange and red, are analogous. They create a softer, subtle visual presence. Selecting colors carefully based on a specific kind of color palette will reinforce your message.

Look up color psychology online and you’ll find a lot of sweeping statements about specific colors. An article about color psychology on the website infoplease says this about the color red:

The most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing. It is also the color of love. Red clothing gets noticed and makes the wearer appear heavier. Since it is an extreme color, red clothing might not help people in negotiations or confrontations. Red cars are popular targets for thieves. In decorating, red is usually used as an accent. Decorators say that red furniture should be perfect since it will attract attention.

One important thing to keep in mind when you read this sort of thing is that these meanings vary across cultures. For instance, in China, red is associated with good luck, but in South Africa, it’s associated with mourning. If you’re on Wall Street, the last thing you want to be is in the red. In Jamaica, if you’re red, it means that you’re drunk. In Germany, if you had 99 balloons, they would definitely be red.

Another factor to keep in mind is that sometimes these generalizations can be contradictory. Red is associated with love and warm emotions, but it is also associated with danger and alarm. In the United States, red is the color of the Republican party; globally, it’s associated with communism.

Whatever the associations, red is the most intense color on the color wheel. According to Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, the human eye sees colors as electromagnetic radiation measured in nanometers. Of all the colors, red has the longest wavelengths, followed by orange and yellow. (For more on this, have a look at “The Physics of Color” on the website Colors on the Web.) This is why, if we were at a really awesome party and you got us talking about color, you’d hear us say that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Because red is so intense, it is used to attract attention. In print, it’s frequently used as a highlight color. Online, it should be used sparingly because it’s tough on the eyes in large quantities on screen (not sure how Netflix gets away with what they do). In short, red is to color what bolding is to type, or what habanero chilis are to dinner (evidently, I’m still hungry). It’s a powerful tool that should be used carefully.