Forever Stamps

The most difficult part about moving (besides carefully packing your wife’s collection of vintage Fiesta ware) is having to establish a relationship with a new postmaster. When you live and work in small towns, this relationship is important. Barbara has made this transition easy for me, and seems quite accepting, in public venues, of my inquiries into daily USPS operations, requests to browse through the stamp inventory, requests for various USPS products, and of course my bad jokes.

I was fairly new to the area when I came in with my first request for the Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamp series. In my defense details in the initial media release by the USPS said the stamps were “to be released in 2011.” Last time I checked January 2011 is in the year 2011. Much to my disappointment, Barbara was often quick to tell me that the stamps had not arrived yet. A couple weeks ago, the stamps had arrived. I bought all of the sheets that were available.

At that time I felt obligated to share with her the story about the Star Wars stamps. (Update: I only have three sheets remaining and they now are reserved for very special correspondence. They are not for mailing the water bill—a mistake my wife made that was twice as bad since they are only 41-cent stamps and two had to be used. Egads!) I told Barbara about those Star Wars stamps and my relationship with my former postmaster Robert (whom I have only spoken with only three times via phone in the year since we moved), which were featured in a blog post here on IBD. I couldn’t tell if Barbara was comforted or disturbed. Now that I put this all in writing, I’m a bit disturbed.

The new Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps are awesome (not quite as awesome at the Star Wars stamps, but equally awesome to watching Paul eat hot wings). USPS.com states:

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design (Forever®) stamp pane honors 12 of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers. Encompassing everything from furniture and electric kitchen appliances to corporate office buildings and passenger trains, the work of these designers helped shape the look of everyday life in the 20th century.

Each stamp features the name of a designer and a photograph of an object created by the designer, as well as a description of the object and the year or years when the object was created. The selvage features a photograph of the “Airflow” fan designed by Robert Heller around 1937.

I know what you are thinking. “So what, right?” This is a blog about interpretive design (along with baseball, food, and working with people who have Cheeto dust in their goatees) not industrial design. Graphic design is a subset of the design profession, like industrial, fashion, or interior design. Each discipline has something that interpretive designers can learn from. (Insert your own joke here about what Paul and I could learn from fashion design. Keys to humor success include the use of red Crocs, bow ties, sweater vests, bowling shirts, and a very worn-out 2008 World Championship Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt.)

When looking at the objects featured on the stamps it is easy to see beauty in simplicity. The organization of hard materials to create something practical while ergonomic, original, and affordable is no easy challenge. It requires a person that is creative and analytical.

Rhead’s Fiesta ware Disc Picture, featured above, is a classic example of simple beauty. (A second example is my son and I’m not really sure what that means but I know it’s true.) It’s a practical item but the design adds to its usefulness while still be unique enough to stand out. There are plenty of pitchers out there today but this one stands out. It has also stood up to the test of time. Nonpersonal interpretive media can be the same way. Making an exhibit stand out by applying interpretive techniques, such as strong interpretive writing, makes that exhibit less like a piece of Tupperware serving up your message and more like a disc picture.

Since much of what we do in interpretive graphic design is related to a computer screen, we don’t spend enough time thinking about the tangible materials that will make up the product or be displayed within the end product. These materials can inspire you. Whether it is a color, texture, overall feeling or even a typeface, take time to look at the material objects that the exhibit will be constructed out of or even a part of the subject matter.

Much like interpretation being a combination of arts and sciences, interpretive and graphic design is as well. You have to draw from your creative side so that you are not creating the same product over and over while still applying that creativity in systematic way that improves the message being presented. Many shortcomings in interpretive projects lean too far in either direction. Balance is the key.

The stamps are also “Forever” stamps which will always be valued at the current first-class rate. That can keep foolish over-postage accidents of valuable (intrinsic value) space saga stamps from happening.

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.

Logo Abuse

I have wasted too much brain space on pop-culture factoids. I have always been fascinated with elements of pop-culture. It probably has something to do with me primarily living outside pop-culture trends and my late-80s Dungeons and Dragons expertise. I have even been dubbed by one IBD reader as the “trend-guru.” I’m not sure if that is a compliment to me, an insult to Paul, or some sort of club that I unintentionally joined that has been charging $14.99 a month to my credit card. I like the idea of staying current, and I especially find it gratifying when I see something in popular culture that relates to my work or passions. 

A couple weeks back, I was really excited to watch the Academy Awards. Not because of the red carpet, a movie that made me cry that will go unnamed, or seeing what typeface the larger than life letterforms on the stage are set in, but because of a movie where design was at the premise behind the film.  The short film Logorama was up for Best Animated Short Film. Some of you may remember my post on the film Helvetica (by some of you I mean Paul) where I mentioned that “the 2007 release Helvetica brings recognition to a typeface that was created not to be noticed.” That’s right I just quoted myself.

The short film Logorama won Best Short Animated Film. If Helvetica was created to go unnoticed then the logos featured in Logorama were created to get noticed. The 16 minute French animated film does an excellent job of highlighting logos by taking them out of their context and pretty much abusing them. This is no different from me trying out for the football team as a freshman in high school.

Logorama deservingly won the Oscar.  It is worth watching from a design standpoint. Every time I watch it another logo stands out to me that I didn’t notice previously. It is amazing how many logos are involved in the film and it is great fun to see how many you can count. No wonder I didn’t make the football team. I have to give a disclaimer here, as much as I enjoy the artistic approach to the animated logos some of the content, violence, and language in the film is for adult audiences (not that kind of adult). Based on the amount of Disney films shown in my house, I was a little taken back by some of the violence and language especially coming from Ronald McDonald. You could mute the movie and just watch the visual scenery (the best part), download the French version to learn words they never taught you in French class, or make up your own story and act out the parts in funny voices. Really, no wonder I was the manager for the tennis team. Logorama can be downloaded for $1.99 on iTunes.

I also hope that in 2011 that another design-type movie is nominated for an Academy Award. I have yet to see it but based on the title alone, it’s awesome. Typeface the movie has to be great. Everything that I have heard about it echoes my enthusiasm, but I do have a small circle of friends. In a world of digital design Typeface focuses on a Wisconsin print shop where layout and design is still one element at a time.

From what I have read the Hamilton Print Shop and Museum is similar to Hatch Show Print Co. in Nashville, Tennessee. Some of you may remember my post on Hatch (by some of you I mean Paul, who am I kidding even Paul doesn’t remember that one) where I mentioned that “Hatch Show Print Co. is in operation today using the letterpress process in a world of desktop publishing, offset printing and computer processing.” Okay, two quotes from me, by me, is even too much for me in one post. The film is currently available in limited screenings but I hope to offer a full review in a future post. The film has a great website with the story of the movie, photos, video, and store. A DVD of Typeface is scheduled to be available later this spring.

Now I’ve got to explain to my wife how I failed to notice three months of $14.99 charges on the credit card to dnd.meetup.com.