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!

Flowchart: What Baseball Team Should I Root For?

Since we’re on the subject of flowcharts and the Major League Baseball season is just around the corner, I have prepared this handy guide that will help you decide which baseball team you should root for (click to embiggen).


Note, added March 4, 2011: This post unexpectedly went viral on us to the point that it shut down our server. We apologize to those with broken links (and my co-author Shea’s broken, soulless Yankee heart).

Note, added March 10, 2011: Thanks to our friends at ServInt Managed Hosting Services, we are back!

Note: Added August 20, 2011: Check out our new football flowchart!

Centering is Lazy

I am about to reveal something that will shock the world. Okay, maybe it will just shock my esteemed co-author Shea and a handful of people who have attended an Interpretation By Design workshop.

I don’t hate centered type.

VinesBorderWeddingInvitationLargeOn rare occasion, I actually center type myself (most recently in 2005). I acknowledge that there are schools of design theory in which carefully considered instances of centering are accepted and that talented professional designers do it all the time. Certain industries have created instantly recognizable visual vernaculars based on centered type, like wedding invitations and movie credits. (For the record, I designed my own wedding invitations and did not center the type.)

Here’s what I do hate: lazy graphic design decisions.

When I see a big, centered title at the top of a composition, it looks undesigned to me. In training sessions, I have described centered design elements as the Comic Sans or clip art of typographic layout. All of these—centering, Comic Sans, and clip art—are crutches that amateurs use because the computer makes them all too easy.

In our book and in training sessions, we demonstrate the use of a grid, a simple page composition mechanism devised by Swiss typographers in the mid-20th century. The grid creates order in compositions through alignment, both vertically and horizontally. (See a previous post about the grid here.) Unless you work with intricate details of letterspacing and point size, centered text rarely works within a grid, and without a grid, the work of amateur designers quickly becomes cluttered and inaccessible.

We ask that designers be able to defend their decisions about typefaces, colors, images, and other visual elements. This works with typographic alignment, too. So often, the choice to center type is a mere convenience, or to put it bluntly, lazy. It’s a default option in every word processor or page layout program out there, so of course, you see it everywhere. And centered type is symmetrical, which makes it that much more appealing to someone striving for balance in a composition. (Note: Symmetry is good on faces, boring in graphic design.)

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything, including centered type. So if you center your type, be able to explain why you did so, and as with any design decision, “Because it felt good” is not the right explanation. If you do choose to center type, and I still hope you won’t most of the time, here are some basic guidelines to follow:

  • Center only short blocks of type. The ragged alignment on the left and right make it hard for readers to follow long passages that are centered.
  • Do not center titles or headlines over flush-left/ragged right body text (also called left-justified). The uneven nature of this alignment will cause your centered headline to look off, even if it is not.
  • Never trust the computer to center your type for you. Because of optical effects created by the shapes of different letterforms, you’ll likely have to get into your compositions and tweak the position of each line of text to truly make it appear centered.

At the session Shea and I presented at the NAI National Workshop in Hartford last month, we asked groups of participants to choose colors and typefaces for an identity system for hypothetical organizations. One participant made the comment that the groups spent more time discussing the intricacies of colors and typefaces in that activity than they do on real projects.

Don’t let this happen to you in your design projects. Go ahead and center type, but have the discussion (even if it’s just with yourself) about why you’re doing so.

Ask a Nerd: Help! We have three months to make 27 wayside exhibits!

bio-lisa-1This message from the Nerd Herd came in about three months ago. We’ve been too busy railing against Comic Sans and making fun of each other’s baseball teams to get to it, so we asked our mysterious and reclusive third co-author (and also fifth Beatle) Lisa Brochu (pictured here in her natural habitat) to answer it:

Dear Nerds,

What if, hypothetically, a friend of mine worked for an agency that “forgot” they had funding for 27 wayside exhibits, suddenly realizing this fact exactly 3 months before the end of the fiscal year? Of course the whole project would have to be conceptualized, written, designed, fabricated, and paid for by then.

Any tips to avoid hurried, glaring mistakes in content development or design? Any magic tricks you know to legally maneuver a molasses-slow bureaucracy? Are we, er, I mean, is my hypothetical friend going to be ok or as doomed as a grasshopper pierced on barbwire by a shrike?

—Frantic in Cyberspace

Lisa replies:

Do you really have to have 27 signs? You might want to think about cutting the budget in half and spending half to get some professional help (not the on-the-couch kind, but the planner/writer/designer kind) and then spending the rest on the sign fabrication. Think purchase order (the all-purpose legal maneuver). If that’s not possible, at least do the following:

1. Check fabrication times so you know what your absolute drop dead deadline will be.

2. Determine whether any of the signs could be considered unnecessary or redundant (most signs are). The fewer you have to produce, the fewer mistakes you will make.

3. Write first, then find graphics that illustrate the text (no clip-art allowed).

4. After you write the first draft, edit. Edit again. Edit one more time. Come on, you can get that word count down if you really try – edit, edit, edit. Try to get to where you have no more than 100 words per panel – 50 would be better.

5. Follow the instructions in Interpretation by Design related to grid layouts (this works for signs as well as publications).

6. If any of these things go wrong, make sure your tetanus shot is up to date (that barbed wire is just filthy).

“I Hate the Grid”

I recently presented a two-day training workshop with our co-author Lisa Brochu. The participants were interpreters with a city parks department, nondesigners responsible for creating nonpersonal media. When I do these presentations, I talk primarily about choosing meaningful colors and typefaces, working with type and images, and using a grid to achieve a clean and organized composition.

As we worked on an exercise related to composition, I suggested to one participant that she move an item to reinforce her grid. The woman (who had identified herself as an artist* early in the class) said, “I hate the grid!” I laughed, because I certainly respect that some new designers feel constrained by using a grid, especially people who consider themselves artists and rely on intuitive decisions.

Still, I stand by the grid as a simple and effective way to organize information and create a consistent look and feel for compositions, from a single sign to a 200-page publication. And good designers find a way to make the grid work to their benefit.

Every rule designers impose on themselves, such as using two typefaces or working within a certain color palette, is meant to limit decisions so that compositions don’t become jumbled, meaningless messes. The grid is just like these other rules. Placing elements in a composition based upon “what feels good” rather than using a grid is like choosing whatever typeface (or however many typefaces) on a whim from page to page within a publication. It’s like choosing colors with no regard for a predetermined, meaningful color palette. Like these other rules, the grid helps us create consistent, accessible, clean compositions.

*Check back soon for more on the difference between fine art and graphic design.