A Tribute to Bass

The Academy Awards are this Sunday. In an effort not to make this post about baseball or the movie Moneyball (clearly the best movie of the year even though it included Brad Pitt), I will avoid any additional references. Instead I’ll write about something new and old. Over two years ago Paul wrote a post about his Affair with Movie Title Sequences. I was reminded of his post when I came across a link to a new website dedicated to the work of Saul Bass. Paul doesn’t have a website dedicated to his work.

In that post Paul stated that “One of the most famous title sequence designers was Saul Bass, a graphic designer and film maker who died in 1996. His work influenced (and continues to influence) a generation of designers (you’ll certainly see his influence in the Catch Me if You Can title sequence).” In an effort not to make this post about Star Wars I won’t make any additional references about the Bass tribute Star Wars title sequence. (You can see the video in Paul’s post.) Bass’ influence can be seen in movies and graphic design elements everywhere from the original AT&T logo to the Girl Scouts logo today. See if you recognize any of these others.

The website I mentioned above is an online archive of Bass’ work. Web designer Christian Annyas is created the web-page. She goes on to say, “I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years. To prove I’ve sat through at least the first ten minutes of them I started making screenshots of the titles. Then my computer crashed and I almost lost them all. To save them for future generations I created this little website.” I love it when people gives back to the greater good. It’s also an interesting way to self promote. Not that we would know anything about that. Annyas has also created an online database of other title sequences as well.

At the very least it is a great place to waste some time. As far as the Academy Awards go, I’m pulling for Brad.

 

We Fear Change, Part 1: Facebook

We live in turbulent times. REM stopped making music, major college athletic programs change conferences almost daily, and Leonard and Penny split up after more than half a season together (I’m watching Big Bang Theory on Netflix Qwikster, so I’m a little behind the times). With all of this change, it’s a little unsettling when you reach for one of your comfort blankets at the end of a long day only to find that Mark Zuckerberg has knitted it into a completely unfamiliar pattern.

Welcome to what we’re calling Garth Algar “We Fear Change” Week here on IBD. I will discuss Facebook today, and Shea will address Netflix Thursday. Some day down the road, when we’re all emotionally prepared for it, we’ll write about the new logo for the Florida Miami Marlins baseball team.

In the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, the hateful Benjamin Kane (played by Rob Lowe) comes to Garth (Dana Carvey) with the insidious notion of giving arcade tycoon Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray) a regular interview segment on Wayne and Garth’s cable-access TV show. Garth responds with a simple “We fear change” and starts smashing the robotic hand he’s building with a hammer.

Those of you who use Facebook may have noticed that there have been some changes recently to the design and functionality of the popular social media site. Those of you who don’t use Facebook, this is why two-thirds of the people you know recently spent the better part of a week screaming as though someone (Mark Zuckerberg) had stabbed a fork through their hands.

To say that the reaction to Facebook’s redesign has been negative is a little like saying some people didn’t like the movie Cabin Boy. (Note: One of my favorites.) As with all of Facebook’s previous changes, this one was met with tears, confusion, and threats to cancel accounts (and that was just one guy).

The difference now is that there’s another option. Google+ is gaining momentum and is seen by many as an alternative to Facebook, if only they could get their friends to come along. The irony is that many of Facebook’s changes (increased interactivity, larger images, tweaks to the “list” feature) are in response to the emergence of Google+.

And this is the crux of the issue: Facebook is in the unenviable position of needing to stay current, respond to competitors, and adapt to emerging technology, all while keeping the Garth Algars of the world from freaking out.

The day the changes were unveiled, there was a collective uproar on the site. When I posted on my Facebook page that I didn’t mind the changes (I actually like the new scrolling, Twitter-esque news feed), it garnered a pile of comments, some of them unnecessarily personal. (I will say that I don’t support the changes wholesale; Facebook needs to address the fact that some of the new features have upended privacy settings by allowing friends of friends to see items only meant for a select few.)

The thing is, this all felt familiar to me. I was searching for reactions to the new look on Google and found articles going back years where irate Facebookers were screaming that they wanted the old site back. Every time the site has been updated, features have been added, users resisted, then got used to them and even came to enjoy and rely on them. (In 2006, Facebookers were unhappy with this gimmicky new thing called a “news feed”—now a staple of the Facebook experience.)

Facebook is an optional leisure activity, like watching baseball or visiting interpretive sites. People don’t want to feel confused and annoyed by something they choose to do in their spare time. Any change to a comfortable environment is going to be disruptive to some people.

Interpreters faced with the task of creating materials for visitors—especially repeat visitors—should be extra careful that changes to exhibits, publications, websites, and logos are not just for change’s sake, but for the improvement of a product. If you make drastic, unnecessary changes to a place where visitors come to learn and relax and enjoy some solitude, you may just find your self playing the role of that robotic hand in Wayne’s World.

If you make changes that are warranted and actually improve your product, people will get used to them, but you still may find yourself cursed out on a highway construction sign.

Get to Know a Color! Good Green, Bad Green

If you are green over your neighbor’s green thumb, you are filled with envy at how good she is at making plants grow. If you’re green around the gills in the town green, you’re about to throw up in a common public area. And if seeing your friend’s wallet full of greenbacks makes the green-eyed monster rear its ugly head, you’re jealous over how much (American) money your friend has.

And if you think this is the stupidest hat you’ve ever seen, then you have good sense.

As with all colors, green has many and sometimes contradictory meanings. It is associated with nature and regeneration. In fact, the word itself has its roots (ha!) in the Old English grōwan, which means to grow. It has a relaxing effect, which is why guests on TV shows calm themselves in “green rooms” before going on air. (Though based on the review I heard of his performance at the Oscars, James Franco has other ways of relaxing before going on air.)

On the other hand, green is associated with illness, jealousy, and inexperience. If you’re roping cattle, which you probably are not, the last thing you want to be is a greenhorn.

According to Sensational Color, green represents paradise in Iran, eternal life in Japan, hope in Portugal, and beauty in China. In Ireland, green represents leprechauns and rolling hills and fertility and Saint Patrick and bread that’s been left out too long and pretty much everything else. I think it’s the only color they have over there.

Green has a decidedly negative connotation with NASCAR race car drivers. When I first read this, I assumed it was because NASCAR is about the least green activity I can think of—43 cars burning as much fuel as possible for up to five hours at a time. The real reason, it turns out, is that there was a really bad accident involving a green car in 1920.

Though green is a combination of yellow, a warm color, and blue, a cool color, it is generally considered a cool color. That said, there is such a thing as warm green (lime green, for example). I used a warm green to promote the NAI International Conference in Panama (which starts this week!). While cool green has a calming effect, this warm green has a higher level of energy about it.

According to most sources, green takes up a larger portion of the spectrum of colors visible to the human eye than any other color. It’s technically a secondary color (along with purple and orange), but I have bestowed upon it the status of Honorary Primary Color. This is because there are two warm primaries (red and yellow) and only one cool primary (blue). So whenever a designer is using the primary colors and wants to achieve warm/cool balance, they add green.

Used with its complement, red, green creates a vibrant, lively palette (and one that for many is closely associated with Christmas). A low-contrast, analogous combination like blue and green creates a calm, soothing palette. In fact, a blue-green palette has such low contrast that, according to Wikipedia, many languages in Africa and Asia do not even have words to distinguish between the two colors.

When it comes to interpretive design, we encourage designers to select meaningful colors based on some sort of natural or cultural feature related to their site or organization. One of my favorite examples of meaningful, effective use of color is this is this illustration by Michael Schwab Studio, which perfectly captures the thick canopy of Muir Woods National Monument through simple but considered use of color, including a just-right shade of green.

Because of its associations with nature, green is used in design to represent organizations that are environmentally friendly. Of course, this has led to greenwashing, where corporations or other organizations falsely claim environmentally friendly practices. (Before I forget, I should point out that this Interpretation By Design blog appears only on organic, FSC-certified, recycled computer monitors. That’s why it’s so expensive.)

Organizations that want to emphasize their focus on nature use organic forms and a green-based color palette. The logos above are from a collection of 75 green logos on the site 1stWebDesigner.

To sum up for designers, green is a pleasing, popular color that is safe to use in large quantities, unless the thing you’re designing is a Yankees hat.

Also in this series: Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple, Orange.

 

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.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2011

Last year, I made one New Year’s resolution—to figure out what was in the mystery Tupperware in the fridge in my office and get rid of it. I have four days to achieve that resolution and I doubt it’s going to happen. I’ve sort of grown attached to the container, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the new life forms that have started to form inside it. This year, in the interest of adopting a more positive outlook, I resolve to cultivate my relationship with the Tupperware container and understand the world from its point of view.

A year ago, since I had my own resolutions taken care of, I made 10 resolutions on behalf of designers everywhere, and this year, the tradition continues. Here are 10 resolutions that I’d like to see the graphic design community adopt for 2011:

  1. I resolve to stop feathering edges.
  2. I will kern away the space between the 1s in 2011.
  3. I will root for baseball teams that are within 1,500 miles of my birthplace or anywhere I have ever lived.
  4. I will not use apostrophes to pluralize, even when it comes to numbers, acronyms, and names.
  5. I resolve to use fonts that did not come pre-installed on my computer.
  6. I will not comment on the typography of my menu to waitresses at restaurants. (This one’s for me.)
  7. I will run spell-check and proofread everything before it goes to press—even headlines and captions. (Thanks to Friend of IBD Steve Dimse, who took this photo near his house and reports, “These guys couldn’t get it right even when the dictionary was two feet away with letters five feet high!”)
  8. I resolve to use a grid.
  9. I will pronounce the T before the L when I say Chipotle.
  10. I will blur less.

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If you have some of your own resolutions, we’d love to see them in the comments here.

Happy new year, and see you in 2011!

The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.