The Power of the Close Crop

When I’m with friends or family in a public place and we want a group photo, I hate asking strangers to take the picture. It’s not that I don’t want to bother strangers. I like bothering strangers. It’s that strangers, as a rule, stink at taking photographs. Waiters, in particular, are the worst. (If you are a waiter and you are reading this post, I apologize. Also, I would like an Arnie Palmer and a dozen wings.)

The primary offense of the waiter-stranger-photographer is that they stand too far away and zoom all the way out (and somehow still manage to cut off everyone’s feet). The photo ends up being mostly sky with a tiny collection of nearly unrecognizable, feetless people at the bottom. On occasions when I do resort to asking a waiter-stranger-photographer to take a picture, I find myself saying, “Step a little closer, don’t be afraid to zoom in. And where are those wings I asked about?”

By way of example, I offer this photo of my family and me taken by a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, last summer. (To the waitress’s credit, she did not cut off our feet in the photo, and she was very good at her actual job, but you’ll see what I mean about the zooming. Did she think that tubby guy on the bench was part of my family? And does that guy think he’s fooling anyone drinking beer out of a paper Coke cup?)

Granted, nowadays it’s easy to crop digital photos, so this is less of a problem than it was in the days of rolls of film and printed photos. But still, why do people stand so far away and zoom so far out? And is it just me, or does my brother look like he’s eight feet tall in this photo?

On a seemingly unrelated note (I’m getting to the point, I promise), I recently received an email from Friend of IBD and noted Detroit Tigers fan Phil Broder with images of “actual billboards in Detroit, Michigan, put up by GM.” (The forwarded message says, “This is definitely cool … Pass this on to anyone who thinks old things can be cool!” I don’t know what it says about me that Phil thinks that I would think old things are cool.)

You can see a bunch more of these here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that these billboards were clearly not designed by the waitstaff at Smitty’s Clam Bar.

In my opinion, there are two elements to these billboards that make them successful. The first is the succinct, clever writing. Each slogan is short and packs a punch (much like most of the Tigers fans I know). The second element is a distinct aesthetic that relies on strong color combinations and sometimes extremely close-cropped images.

The close crop is not just a striking visual technique. It’s a powerful statement, one that expresses confidence that the subject of an image can withstand scrutiny. (Come to think of it, this may explain why waiters stand so far away when they take photos of my family and me.)

Moreover, in my opinion, close-cropped photos are more interesting to look at. (That said, cropping to the point of abstraction is a technique that has its place. For instance, I would not recommend cropping head shots down to a single nostril.)

Whether you’re a designer working with photos that have been provided to you, a photographer trying to capture the essence of a thing, or a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar, I’d recommend cropping just a little more closely than feels comfortable, and see how you like the result.

Dynamic Typography: As Seen on TV!

So there I was, sitting on my sofa, watching football and drinking beer (or maybe I was watching Golden Girls and drinking apple juice, I can’t really remember). I recall thinking, “I wish the freaking Eagles could score just once!” (or possibly, “Oh, Rose, you’ll never learn!”) and this commercial came on:

It stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked, not by the truck, but to see type used so interestingly in a purely commercial venture. I’m not a truck commercial sort of guy, but I always watch this one, purely for its visual aesthetic.

Moving type is not new, dating back as far as cinema itself, but a specific vernacular of moving type, commonly called dynamic typography, has sprung up in the last four or five years. It usually involves slab-serif or sans serif all-caps type appearing in exact synchronicity with spoken words. The words on screen fit together like puzzle pieces, with quick pans, rotations, and zooms. Frequently, words on screen will reflect their meaning through movement (e.g., if the word is “fall,” the word will actually fall off the screen).

Picture-7I think that the music video below, “Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo,” which my wife tells me translates to “Would you please shut off your stupid computer and come help with the dishes,” is a visual masterpiece. It was made in 2007, when this particular brand of dynamic typography was relatively new.

A quick search of dynamic typography on YouTube will turn up countless student projects that set type to music or movie quotes in this style. Here’s an example from student Linzi Bergmann, set to audio from the movie Zoolander:

While I really enjoy this style visually, the interesting thing about this type of moving typography is that it directly violates one of the tenets of good visual communication. Any presentation expert will tell you not to read the words on screen, that it’s redundant to visually represent words that exactly replicate what is being spoken. I look forward to the growth of this movement, when these beautiful and intricate typographic treatments are more than just visual reinforcements, but rather add their own element to messages.