The Rule of Third (Base) and other unwritten rules of graphic design/baseball

Not too long ago, my co-author and friend Shea called me with an interesting question: “Is there a way we could somehow incorporate baseball into our blog about graphic design and interpretation?” It seemed like a stretch, but since baseball is a mutual interest, we thought we’d give it a try this week.

In today’s post, I will discuss how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball (actually, for the purposes of this post, they are, in fact, written rules of baseball). Thursday, Shea will address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

If you intentionally hit a batter, don’t aim at his head.
Sometimes a baseball pitcher needs to send a message. Suppose the pitcher is unhappy with a player on the other team for violating one of the many unwritten rules of baseball, and he decides to intentionally plunk him with a pitch. It’s an unwritten rule that the pitcher should aim at the batter’s backside rather than a more vulnerable area, like his head.

Designers send messages, too, and it’s important not to aim at your audience’s head. Large fields of bright red, using lots of different typefaces, bolding everything, and filling every last square inch of white space—these are all examples of being overly aggressive, or aiming at your audience’s head. It’s important to get your message across, but you don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

Don’t step on the foul line.
This is more of a superstition than an unwritten rule, but many players—pitchers, mostly—avoid stepping on the lines drawn on the field as they enter or leave the field between innings. There are parts of the field clearly designated for different purposes—fair territory is for game faces and steadfast focus, foul territory is where players can relax and prepare for the next inning. Stepping on the line between those two areas muddies the distinction between them.

Designers rely on lines and areas with clearly defined purposes as well. A grid system helps designers decide where to place important elements on a page. (See a post on the grid here.)

Don’t slide with your spikes up.
When a runner slides into a base with the spikes on his shoes up, there’s a risk of serious injury. This is something noted jerk and Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb was famous for. Clearly, for designers, this rule relates to using starbursts. You’d have to be a real Ty Cobb to intentionally inflict those pointy aberrations on your audience.

Don’t make the first or third out at third base.
For various strategic reasons that I will resist detailing here, base runners should avoid making the first or third out of an inning trying to reach third base. They’re better off staying at second, if the situation allows, rather than risking making an out at third base. That said, there are occasions where it’s okay to force the issue and aggressively try for third base.

Designers use a Rule of Thirds as a guide to attractive compositions. Like baseball’s Rule of Third Base, though, there are times when the compositional Rule of Thirds can be violated. See a post about the Rule of Thirds here.

Pitchers should not show up their fielders.
When a fielder makes an error, pitchers have to resist outwardly showing their displeasure. Even though the pitcher has inherited a difficult situation because of his teammate’s misstep, he has to suck it up and focus on that next batter.

Similarly, every design project is a collaboration. If the copy writer comes in with too high a word count or the photographer gets thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, the project manager still needs to own the project and work with team members to get it right.

Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.
This is just a weasely thing to do. Swing the bat. This is not a concern in the American League because no one bunts there.

Well, there you go. Tune in next week when we’ll delve into the importance of working pitch counts when setting type!

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.