Closing Quotes

If there’s one thing we’ve asked IBD readers to do over the last three years, it’s been to notice details. The problem with this is that people hate details. When they’re good at noticing them, it makes it impossible to function in normal society. When they’re bad at noticing details, it irritates people who are good at noticing details. Take this email (subject: “Ruined!”) that I received from an IBD reader just last week:

I’m reviewing applications for summer internships, and I just came across one where the first and third paragraphs of his cover letter are left justified, but the second paragraph is justified both left and right. And it’s driving me crazy! Why would he do that?! And why do I care?!  I blame you.

I read this email and I thought, Our job here is done. But everyone knows that’s not true. Our job here will never be done. Just walk down the street and you’re sure to find Comic Sans and Papyrus, centered type, clip art, double spaces after punctuation (including one in the email quoted above), undefined color palettes, too many typefaces in one composition, and design elements not arranged on a grid, just to name a few of the things we’ve been trying to rid the world of for 36 months.

Sometimes, the only way to appease detail-induced anxiety is to share your aggravation with others. This is why blogging is so much fun. If you have a blog, you can channel the rage you feel when someone says “presently” when they mean “currently” away from bludgeoning that person with a dictionary and toward a wittily worded blog post that no one will read.

[Note: This was my longest IBD preamble before getting to the point ever.]

So with that, I give you another detail that drives me crazy, and I hope it will drive you crazy, too: smart (curly) quotes versus dumb (straight) quotes. Smart quotes are called that because they know which direction they’re going. There is a clear delineation between the opening quote and the closing quote:

Dumb quotes are called that because they don’t have clarity about which way they’re going. (In fairness, maybe they should be considered quotation marks looking for a direction in life rather than dumb quotes. Seems less judgmental.)

Despite the judgment inherent in how typographers refer to these characters, they each have specific functions. Smart quotes are used as quotation marks around text, as with my hilarious typographic pun here (finger quotes—ha!):

Many typographers will tell you always to use smart quotes. InDesign has a setting in its preferences called “Use Typographer’s Quotes,” which automatically converts all quotation marks and apostrophes to the smart variety. But all too often, these typographers use their beloved curly quotes even when they shouldn’t. Specifically, when you abbreviate feet and inches, the straight quotes (called “prime” and “double prime” marks) are appropriate, as with this typographically sound description of my height:

If you were to use the smart quotes here, my height would go from “five feet, nine inches,” to “five apostrophe, nine closing quote.” (By the way, to get InDesign to give you prime and double prime characters, you have to go to “Insert Special Character,” then “Quotation Marks,” then “Straight Double Quotation Marks” or “Straight Single Quotation Mark.” Every single time. If you copy and paste, it turns it curly.)

In the end, I imagine that what this post will do for you is drive you a little bit more crazy than you already are. Just one more thing to notice out there that will annoy you. And for that, I offer my own closing quote: I’m sorry.

What kind of graphic designer are you?

As with any profession, it’s important for graphic designers to be introspective. I have experienced life as a graphic designer in multiple stages: with no actual training in the field (1996–1998), as a graduate student in visual communications (1999–2001), and as a professional designer (2002 to present). I have witnessed all of the below subspecies of graphic designer (and I have been or continue to be one or more of them myself). Thinking about where you fall in these categories can help you understand your work and why some people look at you that way.

Uber Conceptualist
This designer says things like, “The single straight black line in a field of white represents human kind’s unwillingness to recognize its own shortcomings.” Then when his client says, “Yes, but we asked you to design a logo for the county fair,” he sighs and walks away. It’s important for design decisions to have meaning, but when the meaning is so abstract it has to be explained to everyone who sees it, graphic design crosses over into fine art—a different field altogether.

Hack
This person uses Comic Sans and starbursts. Also clip art.

Prima Donna
This person hates you. How dare you question his design decisions? If you don’t like it—or don’t get it—it’s because you’re too dumb. And who needs you anyway? Also, every other designer who has ever created anything is just so corporate. Bunch of sellouts. Especially Paul Rand.

People Pleaser
The yin to the Prima Donna’s yang, the People Pleaser takes any suggestion that comes along. Bold this? Yes. Add 17 photos to page three? You’re the boss!

Tech Guy
One of the great things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Conversely, one of the terrible things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. The Tech Guy designer can tell you everything you would ever want to know (and usually much, much more) about all of the advanced functions in Adobe Photoshop, then uses the software to create fliers for book sales that look like laundry that got washed with Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Old Timer
The Old Timer has been setting metal type by hand since you were wetting your diaper, and doesn’t need any of these newfangled devices to help him.

Of course, these are gross exaggerations, and every good designer has at least some of the above in him. It’s important to balance the Prima Donna with the People Pleaser—to have confidence in your abilities and your decisions, but to be able to hear criticism with an open mind. It’s valuable to let your inner Uber Conceptualist battle it out with the Hack—to think in deeper meanings but to make your work accessible. And every designer should be able to make the best use of his tools—à la the Tech Guy—but to understand the origins of the principles of graphic design the way only the Old Timer can.

And while every designer should have a little of each of the above, maybe you lean a little too far in one of the above directions. And that’s why people look at you like that.

Uber Conceptualist photo by Fausto Giliberti. Old Timer photo by Leroy Skalstad.

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!

Going Viral (or “Why We Love Katie Couric”)

We have often talked about our goals for writing this blog: making the world a better place, taking over the world, and eradicating the use of Papyrus, Comic Sans, clip art, and centered type. One goal we’ve never mentioned to our readers—but we have definitely mentioned it to one another—is this: We want to crash the website.

We realize that many of you know most of this story already, but now that it’s in the rear-view mirror, writing about it may help us make some sense of the ordeal. For fear of awakening the beast, I will not mention the name or even the subject of the offending post.

It started innocently, with a silly Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named created solely for the purpose of tweaking Shea. It was posted late in the afternoon on a Friday, not exactly the prime moment to maximize hit counts. Nevertheless, early that evening, Shea texted me, “This could really take off.”

The thing is, to us, “really taking off” means that both Jeff and Pam Miller read a post, instead of just Jeff. For four days, the post accumulated modest stats as friends posted links on various social media outlets, but it hardly seemed like something that would extend beyond a few friends and their friends.

The following Wednesday morning, about 120 hours after it was posted, hits suddenly started pouring in. At first, nearly all of the hits were coming from a site called Reddit, which I had never heard of, though NAI Member Tom Davies told me that Reddit is “what the frog says after the chicken gives her the library book.”

Moments later, my father forwarded me a Google alert that he received with my name and a link to a site call SB Nation (above). He said, “You’re getting some hits.”

What happened next can be summarized with the following updates on the IBD Facebook page. First, mid-Wednesday morning:

No joke: NBC Sports just linked to IBD and said, “Here’s the absolute best [Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named] I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Then, about three hours later:

Our web host shut us down due to high usage! That’s a good thing, I guess. On the phone now trying to get the website back.

Then, moments later, a text from Shea:

Awesome! We [mildly off-color word deleted] crashed the website!

The site was up and down for the rest of the day. I started getting emails from friends who were seeing the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named on their friends’ Facebook pages or on Twitter. A friend in Cork, Ireland, received the link by email from his boss.

For the better part of 24 hours, I worked with our webhost to get us back online. I got to hear a lot of high-quality Muzak and I learned valuable lessons about the difference between a dedicated server and a shared server. On our third attempt to get back online, about 24 hours after the initial onslaught, we were shut down again in less than 30 minutes. I asked our webhost to post a “We’ll be back soon!” message and a link to a Flickr page with an image of the Information Design Example that Shall Not Be Named.

The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named made its rounds online, appearing on sites like Forbes Magazine (above), The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, and many of the surprisingly plentiful sites where depressed fans of the New York Mets go to self flagellate. It ended up translated into Chinese and it inspired this variation in Canada.

Katie Couric Tweeted about it.

Meanwhile, more than a week of silence followed on IBD, punctuated only by the occasional angry text from Shea. Several blogs made note of the fact that IBD had crashed, then helpfully posted a link to our site.

A lot of people took credit (or accepted blame), though the real culprit may have been Flickr user dellajane-alicecruz, who commented, “Sorry about that! My baseball-quilting swap group started it when I put the link on Facebook.” So it was either NBC Sports or Della Jane’s baseball-quilting swap group. I guess we’ll never know.

I’ll admit that it was a thrill to see something I created shared so extensively. Because the Internet mob tends to deal in extremes, the words “genius” and “hilarious” were thrown around next to my name on Twitter and on various blogs (trust me, I have screen captures of all of them). Though some of the nicest comments came from a site that uses both type on a curve and Comic Sans in its banner, so I’m a little conflicted.

For the record, I do not claim to be either a genius or hilarious, and I quickly learned that being called those things in the blogosphere does not get you out of helping out around the house. (“I’m high on Paul Caputo! I have Adonis DNA and tiger blood! I’m not doing dishes!”)

My theory is that the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named caught the imagination of a segment of the population because it made fun of everyone rather than just a select few. A post about viral marketing on the website NeboWeb says, “Viral memes…spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They’re shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear.” The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named still gets the occasional flurry of hits, but for the most part, it has indeed disappeared.

Before the post faded into obscurity in favor of arguing baby videos, Flickr user GreekGeek said this: “Congrats on the viral meme — don’t you wish you could predict and tap into such things ahead of time?” And that seems to be the take-home message. You never know what’s going to take off like this thing did, and when it does, how do you take advantage?

I’m not sure that I can fully explain the circumstances that led to our little Interpretation By Design getting such widespread attention, and I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin to intentionally recreate those circumstances. Ultimately, I’m glad to have the blog and our comfortable IBD community back. And I promise not to post something that might go viral again any time soon.

Though now that we have a dedicated server (courtesy of our friends at ServInt Managed Hosting Services) I have this idea for a football-based pie chart.

The Grid is Not Your Enemy

Some of our readers know already that we had a little incident this month where a post went viral and crashed our server. (Though many readers thought the message that appeared on our site for two days, “403 Forbidden: You don’t have permission to access / on this server,” was Shea’s finest work yet.) My one-post suspension imposed by the IBD commissioner is over, so it’s time to move on.

One of the promises we made to our new web host—ServInt Managed Hosting Services—was that our next few posts would get practically no hits at all. So this week I’m writing about the grid!

Friend of IBD Kelly Farrell recently sent me an email with the subject, “This page has a problem.” The body of the message contained only this link: www.thegridsystem.org. Any time Kelly sends me a link, even if it looks like spam, I know it’s going to be fun. I clicked right away.

I realized quickly that Kelly felt that the site’s problem might be that it was a little rigid, for lack of a better word. Arranged in a strict grid, the page contained many, many links to articles and resources related to—you guessed it—using grids in graphic design. (No mention of baseball, so far as I could tell.) At the top of the page was this quote from famed 20th-century Swiss typographer Josef Müller-Brockmann:

The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.

I was smitten.

Good graphic design requires restraint in terms of choosing a specific color palette or a limited number of typefaces within a composition or system. It also requires a system to guide where and how to place design elements. Using a grid is where it can be hardest for beginning designers to restrict themselves.

Whenever a new designer asks us to review a project, almost always, the first thing that jumps out is a lack of an underlying structure. (Also clip art.) In all of our training, writing, and relationship-advice call-in radio shows, we encourage designers to use a grid to guide placement of type and images.

Some people react against the idea of a grid because it sounds like what the IRS might use to create tax forms. If you’re one of those people, you can call it by its much sexier name, The International Typographic Style. With a name like that, you can bet that if James Bond were a typographer, he’d use it.

We discuss the grid in Interpretation By Design (the book)—complete with a nifty diagram of how to create one on pages 50 and 51. But the classic text on the subject is Müller-Brockmann’s 1961 Grid Systems in Graphic Design, which features the book’s grid right on the cover of the book. (Someone should steal that idea.)

There are other systems and philosophies that guide composition, but we encourage new designers to use the grid because of its visual cleanliness and relative ease of use. (You can start with a simple grid and work your way up to creating more complicated, versatile ones.) The grid reduces visual clutter and helps create hierarchy, but it can also be used creatively to create dynamic compositions.

Müller-Brockmann was well-know for his concert posters for Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (among much else). He created dynamic compositions not only within the context of a grid, but using the same grid for each one. You can see by looking at the posters above side by side how “beethoven” on the left falls on the same horizontal axis as “der Film” on the right. If you were to lay these posters on top of one another, you would see that the small type on each poster falls on the same vertical axis.

This is the same sort of system we recommend for series of exhibits or panels at interpretive sites. Using the same grid throughout a series of related compositions creates a visual consistency that ties them together, whether it’s five panels along a trail, a multiple-page publication, a series of publications, or a family of websites.

I admit, the word grid does not conjure up positive associations. It sounds rigid and uncreative, the designer’s logical Mr. Spock to the artist’s dreamy Captain Kirk. And when it’s enforced to its extreme, it makes Kelly Farrell send us links to websites that make designers look anal-retentive.

So don’t think of the grid as a grid—restrictive, severe, constricting. Think of it as a framework, the steel structure that supports the architecture of your composition. Or think of it simply as a system, a way to bring order to chaos. To paraphrase Josef Müller-Brockmann, think of it as an aid that will help you flesh out your personal design style.

So the next time you’re designing a publication, exhibit, website, or even some sort of flowchart, I hope you’ll use a grid to guide your composition. It may even land you on Katie Couric’s Twitter page.

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.