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.

Caffeine Induced Creativity

There comes a point in your life when you have to admit you are addicted to various things. For me it is SportsCenter, Facebook, caffeine, and long walks in the park. There is something comforting about SportsCenter and the fact that at any point during the night if I find myself awake with sore legs from the long walk in the park (or from all the caffeine that I ingested that day), SportsCenter is on ready to fill my mind with re-caps. Facebook works much the same way but for some reason I find it unsettling seeing how many of my friends are also up and lurking.

My addiction to caffeine (primarily consumed through 750 calorie, coffee-type beverages) is the one that I have had to curtail to control my other addictions. It’s a vicious cycle.  When I came across a new resource, Caffeine for the Creative Mind, a new book by Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield, I had to have it (which may have been a caffeine-induced impulse purchase based on the non blended iced venti with 2 1/2 pumps sugar-free cinnamon dolce, nonfat milk, 2 Splenda packets, whip cream, with cinnamon dolce and nutmeg sprinkles that I was consuming at the time of purchase). The book’s subtitle states that it offers 250 exercises to wake up your brain (which according to my calculations is the equivalent of 12-14 expresso shots).

Each day as interpreters or interpretive designers we are challenged to come up with new or creative ideas that are better than our last. I ran out of new ideas a long time ago. For several years Paul and I have used an image of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in our Interpretation By Design Workshops (which you could attend in Las Vegas at the NAI National Workshop if you were so inclined, or you could simply enjoy the weather, birding in the canyon, gambling, or buffets).

The Guggenheim was designed by Frank Gehry and has a unique quality that makes it stand out from any other piece of architecture around. The building is beautiful. Several weeks ago Paul and I were in Los Angeles, California, and we saw the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Our immediate reaction was that it was a duplicate or rip-off of the Guggenheim when in actuality it was another Gehry design that is different while basically using the same style.

Since that time I have seen other buildings designed by Gehry that have that same look and style that is notably his. Don’t get me wrong, they are awesomely unique but also strangely similar.  As interpreters and designers we can’t become a “one trick pony” turning out the same product over and over for our visitors or clients. Of course I’m no Frank Gehry either, I’m just a park ranger who has a blog and no tricks (unless you consider my skill as a juggler and balloon animal artist).

Caffeine for the Creative Mind provides you with stimulation to help break the mold of how you think. The activities range from “Prehistoric Voicemail?” to “You Got a D in Font Selection.” Some of the activities I see myself doing or have done since reading it and some borderline on public embarrassment in application (even though this is an area that I am well experienced in, I choose to avoid at this point in time). For those interpretive trainers out there many of these activities could easily be used in teaching interpretive techniques. I can’t wait to use some of these with interpreters and then run with their ideas. These activities could also be adapted to staff development, team building, strategic planning, and problem solving. I’m considering using some at our annual holiday party. At the very least just reading the exercises alone with get you thinking. Just remember because you buy, watch, and enjoy the P90X videos doesn’t mean you are going to develop abs of steel. It took Paul and me years of hot wings to develop ours.

The book is great. I just wish I could read it but my shaking hands (from caffeine overload or withdrawal, I can’t really tell the difference) and my urge to take long walks in the park make it difficult.

Designers Are Jerks

Picture-1

Designers are pompous, arrogant jerks—real loudmouths who feel they’re always right and that everyone else is an idiot. Well, luckily for everybody, there’s a website out there, www.design-police.org, that has taken it upon itself to formalize all of the hang-ups and attitudes that make people think this about us. Friend of IBD Brian Trosko turned us on to Design Police, which offers a free pdf for download with five pages of red tags meant to be cut out and applied to other people’s work. Each of the tags represents a common criticism in the design world.

Clearly, the folks responsible for this site have been through graduate school critiques and are lashing out at the world in response. I’ve included a few of my favorites with comments below.

align_this

grid

When we present Interpretation By Design workshops, participants frequently bring projects for us to review. Almost without fail, the first step to improving a project is implementing some sort of grid.

helvetica

comic_sans

First, this is funny because these tags themselves are set in Helvetica. Second, any chance we get to take a jab at Comic Sans, we take. Shea will have to make his own “Papyrus Does Not Communicate What You Think It Communicates” tags, as the Design Police make no mention of it.

overload

copywriter

Interpreters love words. Lots and lots of words. One of the hardest things for any writer to do is be concise, but it’s particularly important at interpretive sites, where visitors’ attention spans are limited.

double_space

This one is just for Shea, who is trying to shake the habit of double-spacing after periods, a practice that became obsolete with the advent of the personal computer. The reason that we no longer need to double space after periods is that most typographic character sets have that spacing built in already.

microsoft

word_art

If Microsoft Word is to page layout what the microwave is to gourmet cooking, then Word Art is sugar-free, caramel-cheddar popcorn that was overcooked by about a minute. Word processors should not be used for page layout because they’re not designed for that purpose. Word Art should not be used for anything because pretty much every one of its features violates some tenet of good typography.

photoshop

Sometimes you just can’t resist that last drop shadow, inner glow, blur more, craquelure, and ocean ripple effect. And if you can’t, you need some jerk designer to let you know that you’ve gone too far.

bad_logo

over-designed

And finally, every once in a while, you get one of those criticisms that just cuts right to the bone. If you get a comment like “Bad logo” or “Over-designed,” all you can do is shake it off or start over. Designers really are jerks.