Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.

Get to Know a Typeface! Myriad Pro

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Okay so this post isn’t just about getting to know a typeface.  I need some feedback too.  Look at this post as a buy one (as if you actually had to pay to view IBD) get one free.  This post begins in the land of Facebook several weeks ago.  I took one of those “What _______ are you?” quizzes that are so prevalent on Facebook.  This quiz was to figure out what “typeface” that I am.  I had never taken one of these quizzes but this one intrigued me.  After honestly answering all of the questions I came back as Myriad Pro.  I was somewhat disappointed. I must say I see myself as more a Georgia or Minion but thankfully I didn’t return as Papyrus.  I do know a few that have returned as Papyrus and they shall remain nameless.

About the same time I began work on a logo for the Southeastern State Parks Program Seminar (SSPPS).  SSPPS is an annual conference of 14 southeastern state parks system employees that meet annually to network, share ideas and showcase success stories.  This year’s conference is being hosted by Arkansas State Parks at Mount Magazine State Park.

As I was working on the logo the only typeface option for me was Myriad Pro, a typeface that I normally avoid due to its connection to Apple and my affinity for Microsoft products.  That’s right, I said affinity for Microsoft.  We will visit this issue in another post. Regardless of my affinities, Myriad Pro is a great, sans serif that is clean simple and easy to read.  So I used it.  That’s not quite the decision making process that we teach in IBD but in this situation it is what it is.

Apple has been through several different typefaces that have been directly connected to its identity.  A variant of the Garamond typeface known as Apple Garamond was recognized as the Apple font since 1984.  The “Think Different” slogan highlights the thinner Apple version of Garamond.

WebIn 2001 Apple begin switching to Myriad in the promotion of products and identity. The change from the serif Garamond to the sans serif Myriad was noticeable change and a refreshing look.  And what’s not to like about it.

WebI used Myriad Pro in the SSPPS logo at the top of the post, which is slightly different from Myriad Apple or Myriad Set.  In fact, Paul may be the only person on the planet who could tell you the difference between the three. Myriad met all of the requirements that I needed in the logo, so I used it. An interesting side note to Paul and me is that recently Apple has been using Helvetica and Helvetica Neue in interfaces, text bodies and even on the iPhone.  I guess you can’t improve on the perfection of Helvetica.

So back to my original second point, I need feedback on this logo.  Any suggestions or comments would be greatly appreciated.