Flush Left, Ragged Right: Getting the Perfect Edge

Have you ever asked yourself, Are my paragraphs the right shape? If not, fasten your seatbelts, folks. It’s typographic minutia time again!

When you’re dealing with blocks of text in an exhibit or on a sign, it’s worth taking the time to make sure your type looks as attractive as possible. One of the things some new designers overlook is the actual shapes of their blocks of text. (They’re probably too busy thinking about young people things, like texting and eating paste.)

I like to set my type flush left, ragged right (or left-justified, in Microsoft Word parlance). Flush-left, ragged-right type creates a straight line on the left, and an organic, ragged edge on the right. I prefer to set my type this way (as opposed to fully justified) in part because it maintains even word- and letter-spacing.

But here’s the thing: There’s a specific shape that you should strive to create with that ragged right edge. You don’t want to leave it to chance.

The text below (James Earl Jones’s baseball speech from Field of Dreams) was flowed into a text box in Adobe InDesign with no attempts at tweaking.

I have traced the paragraph and represented its shape to the right. (If my wife is reading this, she is just now realizing that she is married to the sort of person who traces the shapes of paragraphs.) You can see that it creates a haphazard shape. To my eyes, the short first line and the subsequent ski-jump slope shape are particularly unattractive. (Speaking of James Earl Jones, I’m just noticing that the shape above looks like a profile of Darth Vader’s head.)

Below, I have altered the text (through minor adjustments to letter spacing and a few hard returns) to create a more desirable saw-edge shape. The first line is longer than the second, then subsequent lines roughly alternate.

You can see that the right edge of the type still has an organic feeling to it, but it has a more pleasing, consistent look than the original, unmodified version.

Obviously, it’s not pragmatic to do this with every paragraph in a book or a magazine, but if you have three or four blocks of text on an interpretive panel or wayside, attention to this level of detail will make your work that much more attractive.

And speaking of trying to be attractive to people, I think I need to stop having my wife read these posts.

Get to Know Some Colors! Black and White are Colors

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense: Everyone who saw the headline of this post and said, “But [black or white] is not a color! It’s the absence of all colors!” you are free to go. I suggest that you spend the rest of your day here.

For those of you still here, I’m glad we can agree that black and white are both colors. All of those people who just left would have told you that black is not a color (and white is the presence of all colors) when you think about color as light frequencies, and that white is not a color (and that black is the presence of all colors) when you think about color in terms of physical pigments (like paint or ink). You can see more about this on the Color Matters website.

But let me ask you this: If one of those geeks is wearing a black (or white) T-shirt, and you ask them what color it is, would they tell you it’s not a color?

In terms of cultural associations, black and white are quintessentially opposite, as represented in the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. In many cultures, black is associated with evil, mourning, power, and Johnny Cash. White is associated with light, purity, innocence, and Madonna (the Christian religious figure, not the musician). Of course, as always, these associations vary across cultures (for instance, white is the color of mourning is China).

Black is the color of famous fictional villains such as Dracula, Darth Vader, and the Oakland Raiders. White is worn by brides, medical professionals, scientists, and me between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In martial arts, the black belt signifies the highest rank, while the white belt represents someone who would run screaming from the person with the black belt.

In design, black and white are considered neutral, but they have starkly different effects. While it’s true that black and white are technically neutral, I have always considered black to be cool and white to be warm. (I wish I had some reference to point you to so that I could back that up, but I don’t.) Part of the reason for this is that black shares traits and associations with cool colors (it’s somber and subdued), while white has a lot in common with warm colors (it’s bright and energetic).

In this Polo Black ad and others like it, the color black (that’s right, geeks, I said it) is mysterious and sophisticated (not to mention dreamy).

Apple has used a white backdrop as a part of its visual identity for years to convey friendliness, openness, and accessibility. The famous Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s used white the same way.

In the end, even though most graphic designers use black and white more than any other colors, it’s easy to overlook their importance as design elements (probably because they are so prevalent). Once you accept that black and white are indeed colors, the next step is to carefully consider the substantial impact they have on your communication.

And if anyone tries to tell you that black and white are not colors, ask them what colors a zebra is.

Relevance for the Irrelevant

I was one of the millions of people who tuned into the Superbowl last Sunday afternoon. I didn’t really have a team that I felt strongly about winning so I was pulling for the Green Bay Packers to lose since they knocked out the Chicago Bears. I have pulled for the Bears ever since the 1986 Superbowl Shuffling team beat the New England Patriots (a team from the Boston, that for obvious reasons as a New York Yankees fan, I love to see lose). Of course, as you now know, me pulling for the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t help their cause.

Just like most of our readers, for some reason, I felt obligated to tune in. Perhaps that has something to do with football and the NFL becoming more and more the national pastime. As a baseball fan, deep down inside, this bothers me. In semi-silent protest, I watched the game while hanging out on Facebook and paid more attention to the commercials than the game, all while trying to forget about Christina Aguilera’s butchering of the National Anthem. I wasn’t the only one on Facebook during the game.  It was interesting to see how Facebook responded to plays, calls from referees, and commercials.

After the commercial (posted above for your viewing pleasure) from Volkswagen played during the Superbowl, friend of IBD Joel Frey made the following comment: “It’s pretty amazing that Star Wars is still relevant 30+ years after its debut.” Of course I loved the commercial, which had nothing to do with the Darth Vader costume that I was wearing at the time, but Joel’s statement got me thinking.

I had to watch the game because I’m a sports fan and baseball hasn’t started yet but also because football is part of the American culture. The NFL has been responsive to changing times and changed the game to better meet the needs of modern audiences. Baseball has been slow to change. The NFL has worked towards parity amongst teams leading to better competition. In the meantime MLB has imposed no salary cap which in turn has allowed the Yankees to dominate the league (not that there is anything wrong with that). The NFL has taken on challenges such as steroids while MLB has avoided them. NFL ratings are at an all time high and MLB ratings are suffering. For the record, baseball is the best sport.

Star Wars has managed to stay relevant by offering new sequels/prequels, cartoons, toys, games, websites, licenses, and many other products/media to stay relevant as well as capitalize on. The success is partly based on a great product to begin with. The other part is planned and purposeful.

So this isn’t why you tuned in today, but it is why I wrote this post. Paul and I want to stay relevant to you and your work. We are about to begin our third year writing this blog, and we realize that there are millions of better things that you could be doing with your time. Writing frankly, we are not really sure why you aren’t doing those things. Writing honestly, Paul and I have not been very successful at staying interesting or relevant to anyone ever. Our wives stay with us because they feel sorry for us and still think they can help us. We are their ultimate project.

We could continue at this blog’s current pace for a lifetime. The internet could be long gone and we may continue to write these posts to simply entertain each other (which is how this blog really came to be). If you have ever spent time with either of us alone, you now know how much socialization we need. Based on what we have learned (here on IBD and in high school) is that it is much better with you here. As numbers, readers, comments and hits have grown so has our desire to stay relevant.

Through several conversations we are planning on shaking things up a bit this next year but before we do, we would like your input. We don’t want this blog to turn into a six-hour read, written by two guys hopped up on HGH who spit all of the time, without any possibility of instant replay, and who don’t ever change the rules.

We love baseball and could easily let IBD become steeped in tradition (a strange tradition of comments in parenthesis). So, here’s your chance to tell us which type of posts you like. Let us know what topics you would like us to write about. Tell us who has the best shaped head? What series (Ask A Nerd, Get to Know a Color, I’ve Got Problems, Get to Know a Typeface) do you like best? Would you like more or fewer posts? Do you like longer or shorter posts? All friendly comments are welcome all mean comments pointed towards me will be deleted, those directed towards Paul will be accepted. If there are no comments we are going to move forward with some plans, that you may or may not notice but we want you to be a part of the process.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention we need some ideas too.

Don’t Sink the Boat

For the first time since May of 1995, I didn’t put on a uniform when I went to work this week. When I began work as a seasonal interpreter at Millwood State Park more than 15 years ago, I didn’t know exactly what course my career would take. I just knew that I wanted to be a park ranger and I didn’t want to sink the park’s tour boat. I became a park ranger, and the boat only needed minor repairs and lots of cleaning. I now have a new job that doesn’t require me to wear the brown and tan uniforms that have become such a part of me. Though now that I think about it, that may have something to do with static, polyester, and legs that rub together when I walk.

I have moved into a fully administrative position as a regional supervisor. Needless to say I have taken a serious beating from my interpretive friends, who have made comments revolving around “the dark side,” “moving away from the east side,” and “gray and balding” (which I have now learned had nothing to do with the promotion). I have also heard from my non-interpreter friends who said things like “I just wanted to give you credit for sticking with that park rangin’ job.” And then there are those of you out there who are not surprised by this move, given that I love Walmart, Darth Vader, PCs, and the New York Yankees, which are all prerequisites for a job in administration.

I spent my last two days working at Parkin Archeological State Park leading 10 archeological site tours for a local school that visits each year. During each and every tour, I was reminded of how important leading those tours was for the students’ experience at the park and for me. After seven years and an unknown number of tours and other programs, I couldn’t help but think about how my view was about to change and how important even the smallest historic sites are to community. Leading those tours and preparing programs for that same group of teachers year after year is a tradition that supplements their curriculum.

The most important aspect of those programs is not me getting all sentimental and weepy, but the connection that is built between the site, the park’s mission, the program’s theme, and the visitor. If one of those elements is missing, the visitor’s connection is weak at best. It was a great way to leave a lasting impression of the park in me.

Now that I have had time to reflect and get over the symptoms associated with polyester withdrawal, I realize that my view is not going to have to change even though my window will. Whether I’m working at one park or working for a region, the responsibility is the same. It all comes back to the basics of those final tours: resource, mission, themes, and the visitor. Interpretation is the link between these items.

Arkansas State Parks knows the value of interpretation, which is evident though support for training, staff, planning, design, projects, and involvement in the National Association for Interpretation. The diversity of interpretive sites within Arkansas State Parks is truly amazing. The themes interpreted are mission driven and support stewardship and protection. It is an honor to work for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. It is also great to live in a state where citizens have provided support through a conservation amendment that offers a consistent source of funding. When you have visitors who care, connections are easier to build.

I’m excited about my new position, while at the same time still being gloomy about leaving a great interpretive site and some awesome co-workers, and hanging up the uniform. But I’m not going to change even though my clothes have. It is not about a uniform, but rather being an interpreter. Though, I was able to find solace in my new uniform, the sweater vest. Deep down inside, I’m still a park ranger and I still don’t want to sink the boat.

Blogging: Not Just for Aging Sci-fi Fans Anymore

With the World Series effectively over, we now resume our regularly scheduled posts.

A person of Walmart as seen on the People of Walmart blogWhen we launched this site back in March, we asked the question, “Why do we think the world needs another blog?” The Internet is already saturated with the unsolicited opinions of countless middle-aged nerds living in their parents’ basements. Blogging has given us everything from sites like People of Walmart, in which Walmart shoppers make fun of other Walmart shoppers (pictured here), to more useful special-interest sites like Cloud 9 Organize & Redesign, which offers budget-friendly interior-design advice, just to name two of the countless examples out there.

The software that drives many blogs, including this one, is called WordPress. It makes it possible for people who don’t design websites to create and maintain their own online presence. During the Enlightenment, this would have been like giving every individual a printing press and an unlimited supply of paper. Seventeenth-century streets would have been littered with scraps of paper with comments like “René Descartes thinks therefore he’s an idiot” and “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace made me want to throw up my fig pudding.”

One interesting feature of WordPress is that it allows us to see how some Internet users arrive at IBD (which, for the benefit of my wife Sheila, stands for “Interpretation By Design”). We can see what browsers and operating systems our readers are using, the web page that referred them here, the pages that they viewed on this site, and even where those people are physically located. (At the time of this writing, we’ve had readers from the USA, Ukraine, Thailand, Brazil, and Canada in the last six hours.)

Admittedly, this is creepy.

Possibly the creepiest thing we can do is see what search terms Internet users have searched to reach our site. So all of you people in Parkin, Arkansas, who search the term “Shea Lewis” three times a day, we’re on to you. So far, my favorite search term that has landed someone on this site is “can you wear sweatpants to a museum.” I hope that person eventually found some guidance on the issue.

Some other recent search terms and the pages to which readers were referred include:

So this is the world of the Internet these days. Shea uses fashion as an analogy for breaking out of his interpretive comfort zone and this site starts getting visits from people too cheap to buy their own sweat pants or too skinny to find sweat pants that don’t fall down.

On the other hand, blogs significantly broaden the ability of organizations to inexpensively and regularly reach a worldwide audience. The National Association for Interpretation maintains five different blogs (listed under “NAI Blogs” in the sidebar on this site). None of these blogs can quite match the popularity of People of Walmart, which once crashed its server after receiving 2.6 million hits in one day. But NAI’s sites offer a great way for InterpPress authors and NAI leaders to share thoughts, ideas, and information that you will not find on NAI’s traditional website, InterpNet.

I especially encourage interpreters at small sites like community nature centers, historic sites, or museums to maintain blogs. You may find a whole new market of visitors and supporters you never knew were there. And more importantly, they may find you.

I recommend that you add content at least weekly, write seasonal or topical posts, promote the site in your newsletter and on your traditional website, and mention sweat pants a lot.

World Series Game 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Many life lessons can be learned from Episode 5 of the Star Wars movies. The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite in the series, primarily because of Darth Vader. I’m not a dark person, but Vader’s power is overwhelming, and his character is at his best in The Empire Strikes Back. I like Vader because I can see the good in him and even if you don’t like him you must respect him. Much like the New York Yankees.

Last night in Game 2 of the World Series, the Evil Empire (as Paul refers to the New York Yankees) struck back. Once again, an Arkansan took the mound and stole the show. This time instead of the Phillies it was the Yankees who threw the ball better.


The Phillies’ rogue pitcher, Pedro Martinez (former pitcher for the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox – arch rivals of the Phillies and Yankees) set the stage for failure to the Republic, uh I mean Phillies. Martinez is the Star Wars equivalent of Lando Calrissian. He talks way too much, has passed his prime, needs to work on his hair, relies on trickery, is concerned only with himself, and sold out a long time ago. In most cases one can only handle small doses of Pedro Martinez without wanting to use the force to shut him up. The Yankees found the best way to silence him was with their bats and that’s exactly what they did. If for some reason that didn’t work, the Yankees’ fans were ready with their light sabers. Just like Luke Skywalker learning that Darth Vader was his father, Martinez learned who his daddy is.

I have to be careful since I know that hate leads to the dark side.

The series it tied (1-1) with the advantage to the Yankees. Perhaps my next post will compare the Phillie’s Matt Stairs to Jabba the Hutt.