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.

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: www.thegridsystem.org. 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.

You’ve Got a Ticket to Design

I am a pack rat. My basement is filled with boxes of old photos, stolen yard sale signs, certain emotionally important Tastykake wrappers, and mix tapes from high school girlfriends. This occasionally earns me extended periods of the silent treatment from my wife, punctuated with flurries of the very loud treatment. But still I can’t throw anything away.

One of the things I hoard is ticket stubs. It’s likely no surprise to people who know me that I have nearly every ticket stub from every sporting event I’ve ever been to. Ticket stubs from especially important sporting events, like the only two baseball playoff games I’ve ever seen in person (in 1993 and 2008) and the time in 1999 when I caught a foul ball at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, are displayed prominently in my house. (What my wife hates more than anything is that I usually keep those ticket stubs in the plastic soda cups I buy at those games. There are a lot of plastic soda cups in my house.)

Ticket stubs offer an opportunity that many sites pass up. A thoughtfully designed ticket is much more likely to be kept as a souvenir and included in scrap books or photo albums than your standard-issue TicketMaster ticket. Given that most people are not like me and actually throw stuff away every once in a while, a generic, nondesigned ticket is likely to be discarded.

Visual interest and appropriateness are essential to making a ticket stub into a souvenir. The two tickets pictured here are from a trip I took to Spain in 2007. The first is from a three-minute carousel ride my then three-year-old son took at a medieval festival in the Basque village of Hondarribia, the second from a day-long visit to the Guggenheim museum of modern art in Bilbao. The tickets are attractive and the design elements—color, type, and image—are appropriate to each experience. They succeed in transporting me back to those moments.

The ticket pictured above for the Architectural River Cruise in Chicago is visually interesting and is more likely than most to be kept as a souvenir, but it’s not interpretive. If it had included the theme of the program or the organization’s mission statement, it would have been even better. Also, while the interpretive program, which Shea wrote about back in 2009 during a joint Caputo-Lewis family vacation, was terrific, I do not remember any mention of William Butler Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor, who is pictured on the ticket. (You’ll notice that the ticket is for a child under 7. This is because we put Shea in red suspenders and a beanie propeller hat and passed him off as a kid.)

When I am not able to keep a ticket stub, I breathe deeply into a paper bag for a few moments and look for another solution. On a visit to Kuala Selangor Nature Park in Malaysia, I was forced to hand over my ticket, so I photographed it instead. I don’t speak Malay, so I was really hoping that the inscription at the bottom of the ticket, “Sah untuk satu perjalanan sahaja,” was an inspiring theme or mission statement, but it turned out to be the rather uninspiring “Valid for one journey only” (which, no matter how you look at it, does not work that well as a program theme or an organizational mission statement).

Sometimes, ticket stubs are surprising sources of inspiration for designers, as with the unique typography featured on the ticket for the Sky Deck atop the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. And sometimes, tickets are not much to look at (even if they are unique), but people like me keep them anyway because they remind us of especially good experiences, as with a recording of the NPR show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” in Las Vegas.

If I visit your site and you hand me a ticket, you can pretty much rest assured that I’m going to keep it, much to my wife’s chagrin. For most normal people, however, it’s not such a sure thing. Any time you hand something to a visitor—be it a map, a brochure, or a ticket—I hope you’ll take the opportunity to make it meaningful and attractive, and convey your important messages. Remember, it may just end up prominently displayed in a plastic cup in someone’s house.

The Art (or Science) of Reviewing Designs

Art makes me uncomfortable. I know what I like and what looks good to me but that doesn’t make my daughter the next Pollack because of her creative use of paint and macaroni. The part that makes it really uncomfortable is all of the judging and opinion sharing that takes place with art. It just creates a stage for conflict that will never be resolved. I try to be open minded and receptive but just viewing art makes you draw conclusions. For these reasons I distance myself from art galleries, stay at home and enjoy my original Elvis on black velvet. Don’t judge me. I know you are.

For reasons that I have yet to fully understand friends and coworkers ask for my opinions about design projects (perhaps it has something to do with IBD, the book not the blog, though I still attest that Caputo and Brochu just needed someone to carry boxes of books and fetch water during presentations, which I happen to excel at) and ask for criticism. Who am I kidding? I actually volunteer to look at projects and I’m glad to help. It just puts me in a position to judge. Having a limited number of friends, I cautiously approach each review with a more scientific approach that’s more in my comfort zone.

Most would argue that graphic and interpretive design includes elements of art and I’m here to say that for every part of art that is involved in a product there is an equal amount of science involved. When I’m reviewing a project that I have created or that someone else has I try to keep three things in mind: function, meaning, and originality. Oh, yeah there is one other thing…if it is pretty. So make that four things.

The most important feature of anything a designer creates is overall function. If someone can’t read or use it then it is not worth the paper or compressed laminate that it is printed on. Function is the most difficult area to review for the creator or anyone close to the project because they know the who, what, where, and why of the creative process and cannot separate themselves from what they have done. As Paul has stated designers are also jerks that cannot accept the fact that someone couldn’t easily use something they have made but it happens all to the time to things Paul creates. Put the product in the hands of someone really disconnected, like your boss, your spouse, and see if they can figure it out. Your boss may not have a chance either way.

If there is anything that interpretive designers should be concerned about it is meaning or intent. As interpretive designers you may not have control over the inherent meaning of a project but you can make sure your design supports that underlying meaning. This is the part that involves reading into the emotions behind a project. So in a stereotypical sense, guys, try harder here. Pay attention to the story or statement of what you are designing and apply thought to the small decisions you make in order to echo that meaning in the design. Changing the leading or typeface in support can be the difference in success. Remember that the interpreter is responsible for the meaning and you are responsible for supporting that intent.

Originality in a project should stand out but should not go so far that it takes away from the function or meaning. There is something to say for tradition and the “if it is not broke don’t fix it” approach to design. I have seen too many projects changed for the wrong reasons or pushed through for the sake of change or because a designer wants to put his or her touch or style on it. Originality is important but should be carefully reviewed for success.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget the pretty factor. If you asked my wife if she thought I was handsome when we first met she would say something like “no, but you grew on me.” That’s not the most desirable response you want about a design.  We should all hope for more of a “love at first sight” reaction. Trust your instincts, but if you see there are some redeeming qualities there even though your body is still saying “run away” hang in there and work with that design. It may turn into a wonderful marriage or at least something (or someone) you can live with.

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.