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.

Accepting Criticism

I’m on vacation this week, and I’m spending some time in a bathing suit, so I figure what better time to write about being criticized?

Being a good designer means understanding the rules of type, color, and composition. But beyond that, it’s just as much about understanding and appreciating the perspective of your audience.

It can be difficult to invite criticism on a design project—especially when you’re happy with it and you’re really only seeking validation. It can be particularly hard to hear feedback from nondesigners on a design project, because when aesthetics are involved, everyone will have an opinion, but not everyone will be able to articulate their thoughts. There’s nothing worse than, “I don’t like it but I can’t say why….”

If you’re a surgeon and some guy on the street says he thinks you ought to practice your craft differently, you can say, “Well, I went to school for this, so I think I’ll do it my way.” Graphic designers, on the other hand, can’t really say (as much as we’d like to), “Well, I went to school for this, so you have to like my work.” On the other other hand, if you’re a guy on the beach in a bathing suit and some guy says to maybe lay off the cheese steaks and ice cream, you are free to punch him in the face.

Many of you may be familiar with the website Interpretation By Design. (I’ve included a screen capture for reference.) As we’ve done several times over the last couple years, we recently changed the look of this website. This time, when we unveiled the new theme, we posted a link on Facebook and asked for feedback.

I was looking forward to comments because I liked the new look, and hoped everyone else would, too. We received a handful of comments on Facebook, a few more in the comments section of the current post at the time, one more (oddly) in the comments section of a post from September of 2009, and a handful of text messages (all from Shea, who is just so happy to have an iPhone). I really wanted everyone just to say that they loved the site and how handsome and witty and charming IBD is exactly half the time (on Mondays), but that was not entirely how it worked out.

Some people liked the new look and said so. Some constructive comments led to changes that I consider improvements (the original bright white background was hard on the eyes, so now it’s a warm neutral), while other comments offered food for thought but did not lead to changes (some people are distracted by the rotating header image; others like it). In this case, asking for and receiving constructive criticism did not only lead to immediate changes on this site, but it helped broaden my perspective as I undertake future projects.

Oddly, I am much more apt to solicit feedback on projects that I am not happy with (in design circumstances, that is; I do not intend to solicit feedback on how I look in a bathing suit this week). If I am happy with how a project is going, I worry that constructive criticism is going to derail me. Nevertheless, I always do ask for comments (again, not on the bathing suit). Sometimes criticism leads to small changes that make big improvements, sometimes I do actually receive the validation I sought, and every now and again, I consider changing careers.

Ultimately, seeking feedback on design projects is not just some part of the process to be checked off a list. Take the time to really listen to comments, look for patterns in the feedback, consider new ideas, and make open-minded decisions about whether to make changes.

And maybe consider skipping that second cheese steak of the day after all.

The Rule of Thirds: It’s Just a Suggestion

To clear up some confusion, the Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the minimum number of trips you’re supposed to take through the line at a Las Vegas buffet. Turns out it’s a useful and simple technique for guiding composition!

That said, the word rule can be a little oppressive, so I’m going to write this post about the Suggestion of Thirds. In short, it goes like this: A composition divided into thirds (or fifths) is natural and pleasing to the eye, like a National League pitcher, while a composition divided in half or into an equal number of parts is cumbersome and awkward, like an American League hitter trying to bunt or pull a jersey over his steroid-engorged head. (The Suggestion of Thirds is really just a simplification of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. There’s a good post on that here.)

Some rules are designed to be ignored as soon as you learn them (see speed limits), while others are ignored because some people missed that week of school (see Shea and punctuation). The Suggestion of Thirds is one that you should know, but once you learn it, you may decide it’s not necessary in every occasion.

With all of that as preamble, the Suggestion of Thirds is widely used for good reason. Take the case of the adorable kitty cat souvenir in Greece.

In this original, uncropped version, our adorable kitty cat souvenir is smack-dab in the middle of the photo. It’s not terribly interesting.

Using the Suggestion of Thirds, you might crop it like this.

The lines that occur naturally in the photograph (in this case, the horizon and the wall) fall roughly on the superimposed guidelines that divide the photograph in thirds. The focal point of the photograph (in my opinion, the cat’s eyes) falls on an intersection of one vertical guideline and one horizontal guideline.

This is another possible cropping of the same photo.

This cropping has the advantage that one of the secondary visual elements, the mannequin in the background, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.

The Suggestion of Thirds can be applied to most images. This caterpillar in Malaysia curls around a vertical guideline and a horizontal guideline, with its head landing right at the intersection of two guidelines.

The focal point of this photo is the pillars of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, Greece. The pillars land roughly on an intersection of two guidelines.

And the eyes of this koala outside of Melbourne, Australia, fall right on the first horizontal guideline.

With landscapes, many photographers push the Suggestion of Thirds to the Suggestion of Fifths, as with this photograph of Philadelphia. (Note that the tallest building in the skyline, the Comcast Center, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.)

In instances where the Suggestion of Fifths is employed, the horizon typically falls either on the bottom guideline to show a lot of sky, as with the photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado, above…

…or the horizon falls on the top guideline to show the terrain, as with this other photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado.

The very worst thing you can do with any composition is put a starburst in it. The next worst thing you can do is split it in half, as with the photo of Puerto Rico here. This is one of the reasons we oppose centering things, and it’s one of the reasons we suggest that compositions like interpretive panels and even individual pages be divided into an odd number of columns.

One of your responsibilities as a designer is to edit images that are delivered to you. None of the photos I’ve used as examples in this post arrived perfectly cropped and ready to use. They all had to be cropped in some sort of layout program.

As a designer, you should be thinking about the Suggestion of Thirds at all times, even when you’re watching The Big Bang Theory or combing your goatee. You should use it when laying out compositions, cropping photos, or combing your kid’s hair. It’s easy to remember, simple to implement, and visually pleasing.

But it’s just a suggestion.

Getting Your Letter Spacing Right

Earlier this year, I found myself in Malaysia, which is odd, because I don’t remember leaving myself there. (Please click here for an audio file of the rim shot that joke deserves.)

I was on Pangkor Island, standing at the end of a dead-end street that, had it continued, would have dumped travelers right into the Straits of Malacca. Luckily for travelers, the road ended and this giant billboard prevented people from accidentally ending up with soggy shoes.

Before I continue, I should point out that a few weeks ago, Shea wrote a post asking what sort of posts you, our readers, would like us, your bloggers, to write about. One response that cropped up several times was that you would like an occasional post about the nuts and bolts of interpretive design. (Very few of you said, “More baseball!”) So because you asked for it, here’s a post about letter spacing.

A lot of people use the terms kerning and letter spacing interchangeably. These people probably have more active social lives than we do, but they are using these terms incorrectly. Both relate to the space between individual letters, but kerning means to tighten the spacing, while letter spacing means to increase the space. And neither of these should be confused with tracking, which refers to letter spacing throughout a block of type rather than between individual letters. (Remember, you people asked for this.)

Anyway, back to Malaysia: I was drawn to the billboard in the same way local TV journalists are attracted to abandoned warehouse fires. (“It’s so awful, I have to show everyone!”) I just couldn’t ignore the stacked type, the faux Polaroids, and the composition that makes it look like all of the design elements were loaded in a cannon and fired at the billboard from 100 yards away.

This sign was nearly the width of a two-lane street, and they still ran out of room for the word “beach” in the bottom right corner. Perhaps had they not letter spaced those lower-case characters in the sentence “Keep the cleanliness of the beach,” they could have kept that whole sentence on the billboard. (Besides, readers recognize words as shapes, so letter spacing lower-case type is generally frowned upon.)

The first thing I noticed that made me break out the camera was the script type “Ceria di Pangkor,” set in our old default typeface friend Mistral. Script typefaces are meant to be strung together to look like handwriting. When you letter space them, it breaks the connection between the letters and makes it look like you were writing during a bumpy van ride.

As you blow type up (and by that I mean making it larger, not actually exploding it), the imperfections and inconsistencies in letter spacing become more obvious and distracting. Basically, the larger the type, the more important it is to pay attention to the space between individual letters. The word Pulau (island) pictured here drove me crazy. The blue outline actually causes some of the letter combinations (“ul” and “au”) to touch while others (“Pu” and “la”) are left with space between them. At this large scale, that letter spacing issue is obvious and distracting.

Letter spacing is more art than science. Most computer fonts have letter spacing built into individual characters (one of the many things Comic Sans does poorly), but variations in the shapes of letters and the immense number of character combinations make letter spacing nearly impossible to automate.

Typographers have devised lots of tricks and techniques to help them get it right. Some typographers like to look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between each letter. (The image here is from a website called Computer Arts.) One of my grad school professors swore by the practice of simply covering the bottom half of the type with a sheet of paper to see where the issues might lie. These techniques help us see the gaps between the letters as abstract shapes rather than seeing the letters of the words.

Certain types of letters are more likely to cause issues. Tall, skinny characters likes lower-case i and l or the number 1 are likely to have more space on either side that needs to be tightened up (which is why the year 2011 is going to be a bad one for typography). Round characters like o and e should be tightened up so that their middles come close to touching while their tops and bottoms are far apart. Angled characters like the capital letters A and V or the number 7 are likely to start out too far from their neighbors.

Regardless of which technique you use, the first step is to recognize that the computer does not do everything for you. Getting your letter spacing right means understanding that any display type, whether it’s in a brochure or on a billboard, requires attention to detail.

Had enough? Next week, tune in for jokes about baseball and photos of our kids!

Technical note: Every layout program has its own way of handling letter spacing. I work primarily with Adobe products, and I really like the “Optical” setting (as opposed to “Metrics”) in the kerning menu.

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: 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.