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!

Get to Know a Typeface! Brush Script

In the heart of the famous Las Vegas Strip, nestled among extravagant, enormous themed casinos like the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Treasure Island, Paris, and the Venetian, sits the unassuming Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. It sounds grand, but compared to the bigger, newer, more expensive casinos around it, the Imperial Palace is often overlooked.

Once, during a cross-country road trip with friends, I stayed at the Imperial Palace with about 11 other people in the same room. It’s an experiment I am not anxious to repeat, though on the plus side, I think I ended up paying about $8 a night for the stay. Apart from its location and management’s willingness to overlook the fact that we could have fielded a baseball team with three reserves with the number of people we had staying in the room, the main advantage of the Imperial Palace is its “Dealertainers.”

Dealertainers perform three distinct functions: 1. Look like celebrity musicians, 2. Sing very loudly, and 3. Deal blackjack. And while most visitors to the Imperial Palace are simultaneously watching the performers and enjoying “free” beverages as they lose $5 at a time at the blackjack tables, there I am, commenting to my friends that the “Dealertainer” typeface (as seen on the banner behind Billy Idol) is our old friend Brush Script. This may be why my friends have stopped telling me when the annual trip to Las Vegas is happening.

(Note: The photo above is distributed by AccessVegas.com for promotional purposes only. So I will promote Las Vegas: Come to the 2010 NAI National Workshop, November 16-20, in—guess where—Las Vegas!)

When Brush Script was designed by Robert E. Smith in 1942, you could hardly have predicted how pervasive it would someday become. In its heyday, it was used widely in advertising and for other commercial purposes, as in the words “A” and “Release” in the end credits for the classic Tom and Jerry cartoon pictured here.

Brush Script is designed to evoke lettering crafted by hand with a brush and ink. It is informal but refined, more calligraphy than scrawl, not so much handwriting as artfully hand-crafted.

Of course, like many good typefaces, it ended up as a default computer font and became widely reviled because of overuse. You can see it everywhere from a sign welcoming you to Intercourse, Pennsylvania (the words “Welcome to”—thanks to Jeff Miller and the Towns with Strange Names Facebook page for the photo) to the phrase “Rich & Sassy” on sauce packets from Famous Dave’s barbecue to the milk cooler on my front porch.

When people who write blogs about graphic design get bored, they write top 10 lists of typefaces that they hate. Almost invariably, these typefaces are not inherently bad (except Comic Sans; that one is bad), but they are defaults that become overused. This is how Brush Script ends up in posts like 10 Most Overused Fonts in Design, Typobituaries, and A Plea from 16 Most Overused Fonts. These blogs are annoying because they all seem to list essentially the same typefaces, though when they discuss Brush Script, they usually make the good point that it should never (ever!) be set in all caps.

I argue that Brush Script is not a bad typeface, but that it has been subjected to both overuse and misuse. As handwriting typefaces go, it is well crafted and has stood the test of time. You frequently see Brush Script used to evoke a certain 1950s-ish feeling. The television network ESPN has one of the most carefully crafted visual aesthetics out there, and it’s not by accident that it used Brush Script effectively in promoting the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby last week. ESPN used the typeface in conjunction with a Vegas-style starburst (somehow they pull it off) and neon signage to evoke a drive-in movie theater or old-school diner.

As with any typeface, the fact that Brush Script is well-designed and can be used effectively does not mean that it can be used at any time for any reason. It has its time and place. Used effectively, with intent, and with other design elements that contribute to an overall effect (as with ESPN’s drive-in movie theater/diner), it contributes to a playful, fun atmosphere. Used carelessly and without thought, as it is on countless fliers and signs and T-shirts and whatnot, Brush Script is just another default font that’s going to end up on some annoyed blogger’s Top 10 list.

Ask a Nerd: Are Script Typefaces Legible?

Dear nerds,

I have been thoroughly enjoying the many discussions about different typefaces. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about scripted type (type that copies cursive handwriting). Some coworkers of mine and I have had some interesting discussions about using scripted type for subtitles on interpretive signs. Althought it might “set a mood,” my concern is that it might be difficult to read for certain audiences. I know studies have been done on the effect of all caps on reading speeds. Have you encountered similar studies that look at the effect of scripted fonts for interpretive panels?

Thanks for your continued help, Cal

Cal,

There has been a lot of research on typography, much of it contradictory or too specialized for general usefulness. Also, as my grad school roommate Kristy Pennino points out, most of the research is done by behavioral psychologists and not typographers. Still, there are certain points of agreement, like the fact that upper- and lower-case letters are more legible than all caps, as you point out.

Here’s an important point researchers agree upon related to your question: Regular, roman (not italics) type is more legible than slanted, italics, or oblique type. Typically, these studies relate to italicized versus roman type, but since most script typefaces are slanted, you can draw your own parallels. You can find a couple studies related to this subject on the Education Resources Education Center (ERIC) website:

EJ416365 – The Effects of Italic Handwriting on Legibility: The Methods and Findings of a Three-Year Study

ED265540 – An Evaluation of the Speed and Legibility of Italic Handwriting

Another important factor is the difference between legibility and readability. Certain typefaces are more legible than others because of the clarity of their design. At a certain size and/or a low enough word count, however, even less legible typefaces are still readable. That is to say, if you have few enough words and a large enough point size, you can get away with using a script typeface.

phils-small

philswinIn the examples here, the traditional serif typeface Adobe Garamond is more legible than Edwardian Script. In the longer sentence at the smaller point size, “The Phillies are World Series champions,” the script typeface is difficult to read and should not be used, but in the simple, two-word “Phils win!” both are readable and either one would be acceptable.

An article on Wikipedia (I know, weak reference, but it’s still a good point) has this to say:

“If the columns of a newspaper or magazine or the pages of a book can be read for many minutes at a time without strain or difficulty, then we can say the type has good readability.”

Think about how long you are asking visitors to read certain passages when making decisions about your typefaces. Once you get one short phrase or sentence, I’d err on the side of the more traditional, non-slanted typeface for better legibility.