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!

Who Needs a Watch?

I wake up several times a night and check my watch to see what time it is. I have really bad vision so I have to wear a watch with a light that I can put really close to my face to see the time. If I had an alarm clock large enough to see, it would look like a solar flare from Arkansas. I have told my wife that I wanted to be buried with my watch, that way (if for some strange reason), I woke up I would know what time it was. I know that won’t happen, though, because when I’m dead she’ll take one last opportunity to tell me, “That’s a dumb idea,” and pawn my watch.

Recently my watch died. This may surprise you but I had the geekiest watch on the planet (Casio G-Shock GW6900BC-1) with crazy meteorological features, solar panels, and atomic capabilities. I want to replace it, but a similar watch is expensive. My daughter Anna (the middle child) and I were talking about it and she said that I don’t need a watch since I have a phone and it has a clock.

I continued my search for a watch just to show my five-year-old daughter who was boss. Not wanting to make a huge investment in something that I’m not sure is even needed anymore, I found a really cool retro (Casio CA53W-1ZD) calculator watch, but the purchased was foiled when my wife said, “That’s a dumb idea,” after I showed her the watch. A recent Huffington Post article titled You’re Out: 20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade mentions that a “survey by Beloit College of its class of 2014 found, few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.”

Let’s face it: elements of lives today will be obsolete before we know it. So what steps do we take to make sure what we are writing today isn’t the next newspaper and can continue to be relevant for generations to come? What should we do to make sure that the investment our interpretive site is making into exhibits is going to hold the test of time and not become the next set of encyclopedias?

When writing text for a brochure, exhibit, or website, remember that it is all about the relating to the reader. Visitors to our interpretive sites come for various reasons. Some want to see what the place is all about. Some are seeking an escape. Some relate to your mission. They all come because it means something to them in the first place. Regardless of why they are there, they are there and that’s an opportunity. When writing for that visitor take some time to look into the motivations behind their visit before you put pen to paper. (Okay, I know I’m not the only one that still does that too, am I?)

Think of your piece of writing like a song on played on country radio. There’s a reason that twangy stuff is so popular, and it has nothing to do with sleeveless shirts, tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Who hasn’t been dumped, lost a good dog, or been stalked by a psycho woman after you cheated on her and she dug her keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive, carved her name into your leather seats, then took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, and finally slashed a hole in all four tires. (All kidding aside, she was psycho.)

But write to relate to your audience. Country songs are written with universals in mind, so regardless of you proximity to Nashville, Tennessee, you can still relate. I’m just glad I’m writing to a primarily non-country audience today.

When creating a program or non-personal product, remember that the experience is everything. Visitors today care more about what they can do or say they did than what they can take home. No one says it better than Old Spice (that’s a phrase I never thought I would type).

As you know, people forget facts but they will remember experiences. Go out of your way to craft messages in your non-personal media that help convey the experiential process. Phrases such as “You have arrived” or “Welcome to _____!”  or wayfinding signs that indicate key photo opportunities will let visitors know that the experience has reached its precipice. I’m not saying anything bad about our visitors, but sometimes they don’t know they have arrived or have experienced something of significance if you don’t tell them.

Why Clip Art is Evil

Author’s note: One of the first pieces I ever wrote for NAI was a commentary in the July/August 2003 Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” For a long time, much as I am the guy who hates Comic Sans now, I was known as the guy who hates clip art. Not long ago, I received an email from Friend of IBD William Bevil, who said, “In much the same way that you tackle Comic Sans, I think it’s time to talk about the perils of clip art. I don’t think you guys have posted on this before?”

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything about clip art on this blog yet, so I thought I should. Then I thought, rather than try to recreate all those same arguments from 2003, I’d just share that article with you. You’ll see antiquated references to things like “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” CDs, and New Jersey, but the points remain. So with that, I give you this article from 2003:

Why Clip Art is Evil
I long for the days when an image was worth a thousand words. Now, with the advent of what is generously referred to as clip art, many pictures are barely worth the words it takes to name the digital files that describe them on the free CDs that show up every time you try to order an inkjet printer. In a world where there are synthetic, mass-produced solutions to nearly every question—from “What’s for dinner?” to “Who let the dogs out?”—it seems only natural that our options for visual expression are limited to a pre-established set of generic, soulless pseudo-cartoons.

Now, it’s important that I differentiate between clip art and illustration. Illustrators are talented, purposeful people who create artwork intended to speak to a specific audience. Frequently, illustrators specialize in a specific area of interest, a comforting notion to interpreters who rely on the accuracy of the information they put forward. Many of NAI’s members are illustrators, and not only is their artwork expertly produced, but its focus on specific subject areas (animals, plants, etc.) makes it meaningful.

Clip art, on the other hand, magically appears in the middle of a stack of CDs that you thought contained only software for the computer you threw away last year and, possibly, your missing “Best of Van Halen.” Your clip art CD proclaims—usually with several exclamation points—that it contains “over 3,000 images,” each evoking exactly the same emotive response: This image is free! It doesn’t have to be meaningful! This is how interpreters—people who devote their lives to conveying unique, relevant messages—end up creating newsletters and brochures peppered with cartoons created by robots in a New Jersey warehouse. (To be fair, no one actually knows where clip art comes from.)

Most interpretive sites do not enjoy the luxury of a budget that allows for paying illustrators or photographers. However, alternatives to clip art are not as elusive as one might think. First, many people do not consider themselves to be illustrators. But even a person with no artistic skill at all (if such a person truly exists) stands a better chance of effectively conveying the sense of a message or the attitude of an organization than does clip art.

Clip art appears everywhere. It was designed to be ambiguous and personality-free so that it might accidentally suit a wide range of unforeseen purposes. Those individuals who venture to create their own illustrations will find that not only do they have access to any image they want (after a couple minutes with a pen and paper), but that their illustrations take on a certain style, giving their publications a personality that is unique.

Take, for example, the case of the disgruntled elf. In my search for artwork to accompany this article, I stumbled across “Elf–Disgruntled.EPS,” and placed him in my document. I then placed “Balloon07.EPS” right next to him and sat back to enjoy my creation. Then—perhaps after one too many Dr. Peppers—I wondered what NAI’s staff members might come up with if I asked each to draw a disgruntled elf. Several had actual work to do and declined, but to those who agreed, I stipulated that each artist should spend five minutes on his or her drawing. Five minutes later, I found myself in the possession of images that had personality, and more importantly, would never coincidentally show up in some other interpretive association’s magazine.

Note from 2011: Of the four NAIers who drew elves for this study, I am the only one still employed by NAI. That's likely not a coincidence.

In addition to having unique illustrations at my disposal, I discovered other possible resources. One staff member told me that both of her sons are terrific artists and would love to have work published. Another staff member once drew a weekly cartoon for a college newspaper, and assorted staff family members include two college art majors, an interior designer, and a high school art teacher. A simple decision to find an alternative to clip art turned up a variety of sources for free, high-quality artwork with a relative minimum of effort—all of this in an office of six full-time employees.

Because clip art appears everywhere—and because anyone who has ever been in a room that had a computer in it knows that it’s not that hard to place a clip-art file in a word processing document—it has the opposite effect of sprucing up a document. The only story it tells is that of someone who needs to get a newsletter to the printer sitting at a computer and scrolling through a list of 3,000(!) images, looking for the one that comes the closest to saying what he or she wants it to say.

Non-personal interpretive media frequently serve as the first contact a member of the public has with a site. If brochures, web sites, or magazine advertisements don’t effectively convey the mission of a site—or do so in a unique, creative manner—then the personal interpreters at the same site may never get the chance to tell their story. A good interpreter makes the most of the resources available to him or her, be it in person or through non-personal media. A good interpreter would not settle for a generic message created by someone who knew nothing about his or her site.

There is interesting, expressive artwork out there, and it’s not hard to find. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might surprise yourself when you sit down with a pen and paper. And if you don’t, someone else at your site surely will. So put the clip art CD back in the stack of old printer drivers and “Hits of the ’80s” and break out a pen. You’ll be glad you did.