Have a Platypustastic New Year!

I have been making New Year’s resolutions on this site since we started doing this in 2009. And I’ve accomplished some amazing things based on past resolutions: I threw out that old, disgusting Tupperware in 2010, and I have not feathered an edge in months.

With that, here are some promises Shea and I make to you for 2012:

  1. We will learn about platypuses—web-footed, venomous, egg-laying mammals that they are.
  2. We will embrace new media. Learn about it. Talk about it. Use it.
  3. To my wife’s chagrin, I will at least triple the size of my collection of Major League Baseball ice cream sundae helmets.
  4. We will get a pet platypus.
  5. Shea will finally call Cy Sperling to see what can be done.
  6. We will not place photos in compositions at random angles (and certainly not with drop shadows).
  7. We will introduce a new word to the English lexicon: platypustastic.
  8. We will use that extra day in February to its fullest potential.
  9. We will become huge hockey fans. I will root for the Philadelphia Flyers because I grew up in Philadelphia and I am still connected to that community through family and frequent visits. Shea will root for the Montreal Canadiens because they have the most championships and that’s how he picks his teams.
  10. We will start a podcast. A platypustastic podcast.

Happy new year!

 

The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.

Get to Know a Color! Yellow Makes Babies Cry

Photo courtesy www.pitrih.deviantart.com.

Yellow is generally associated with happiness, but consider this disturbing scientifically proven fact: Yellow rooms make babies cry. So, designers, if you want to create compositions that make babies cry, use a lot of yellow. And expecting parents, if you’re debating whether to find out the gender of your baby before it’s born, definitely do it or you’re going to end up with a bunch of yellow gifts and an unhappy baby.

With that, welcome to the third installment of Get to Know a Color! We’ve touched on red and blue already, so we’ll wrap up the primary colors, also known as the Fisher-Price triad, with yellow.

Yellow is the brightest of the pure hues, which means that it was reading entire chapter books before it turned four and can do a dinosaur-shaped floor puzzle with no help from Mommy and Daddy. (Sorry, can you tell it’s the holiday season and I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family recently?) It actually means that it’s the first color you’ll see against a black background and has very little contrast against a white background.

Most everything you read about the color yellow will begin with its positive associations—it’s the color of optimism, sunshine, and joy. Yellow, a warm color, is found on ribbons that represent the hope of people waiting for their loved ones to return safely from war. It’s said that it encourages communication and stimulates the mind.

But this little tidbit from the website Color Matters is an important warning for designers who want to use a lot of yellow:

Yellow, pure bright lemon yellow, is the most fatiguing color. Why? The answer comes from the physics of light and optics. More light is reflected by bright colors, resulting in excessive stimulation of the eyes. Therefore, yellow is an eye irritant.

Photo by Alan O'Neill

This article goes on to say that in large quantities, cheerful, sunshiny yellow makes people irritable and argumentative. This may explain the disposition of my eighth-grade bus driver and every New York City cab driver.

The cultural associations with yellow, as with any color, are contradictory. While yellow is seen as overwhelmingly cheerful, if you ask someone, “What are ya, yella?” you’re calling them a coward (or you are worried about jaundice). A yellow journalist is one of low moral standards.

Globally, yellow is associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties in China, while in India it’s the color of the farmer caste, according to an article on the website Sensational Color. Yellow has specific associations in Greek (sadness), French (jealousy), Japanese (courage), Aztec (food, specifically corn), and Christian (greed) cultures.

Photo by Peter Firminger

Yellow is used to get attention and signify warning on traffic signs, as with this extra-adorable wombat crossing sign from Australia. In sports, it’s used on warning flags in auto-racing and to indicate penalties in American football.

And finally, if you’re a supervillain and need to thwart the Green Lantern’s fancy super ring, all you have to do is paint your death ray yellow and you’ll be fine, because as everyone knows, the Green Lantern does not like yellow, and his ring is powerless against it.

To sum up, pure yellow is like Reese Witherspoon: uplifting and cheerful in small doses, but too much of it at once is hard to take. And it makes babies cry.

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.

Don’t stack type! (Okay, maybe just this once)

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donutsIt is a commonly understood rule of typography: Don’t stack type. “Stacking” type is the practice of aligning letters vertically one on top of the other, as with the “Homemade Donuts” sign found on the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk seen at right here. Letters are meant to be read side by side, and stacking them severely inhibits legibility. (It does not, in fairness, make boardwalk donuts any less delicious.)

As with any rule, there are exceptions, and we came across one at the Navy Pier in Chicago tonight. The photograph above shows a work of typographic public art found on the pier. We searched for a deeper meaning, but ultimately realized that the sculpture spells out the call letters of local radio station 91.5 WBEZ FM (perhaps not quite the same level of social commentary as Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” statue in Philadelphia, but at least it’s a public station). Obviously, this is not “stacking” type in the traditional sense, but it gives us the opportunity to think about reasons to break the typographic rules that guide our compositions.

harry_carayWe wrote yesterday about the elegant type in the ticket line for the Sears (Willis) Tower observation deck. The photo here from that site shows the solution for those tempted to stack type. You can still set it vertically, but you’ll be happier with your composition if you turn the type on its side so that the letters are next to each other instead of on top of one another.

“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.