Tabletop Interpretation

One of the perks at last week’s NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was free admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota. There were many other perks as well, though I wouldn’t consider a lutefisk facial one of those benefits.

The museum was an amazing place. Here are some pictures and thoughts that I wanted to share.

The museum lobby also hosts a visitor center for the National Park Service’s Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area. I found this relationship strange initially (not a strange as the combination of fish and lye) but after understanding their proximity to the river as well as the visitation at the museum it made sense.

An overlook adjacent to the museum is highlighted by several wayside exhibits.

The National River site also takes time to interpret the urban landscape, a view a readily available as views of the river. I can imagine a planning meeting discussing the need to interpret the river but resolving to interpret other elements of the landscape. I love the rock pedestals but I’m not sure how well the fit into the landscape.

National River interpretation also spills over into a creative use of tabletop exhibits that are very well designed and an interesting use of space.

Paul wrote on Monday about the use of Twitter hashtags. Here’s the museum’s take on collecting feedback while visitors are waiting in line for their tickets. It sets the stage for visitors to share their thoughts throughout their experience. The questions give visitors something to Tweet about. This helps those struggling for something interesting to say. This is an effective use of social media through interpretation.

Okay, so I haven’t shown you anything from the inside of the museum. More to come in a future post.

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.

Missouri Compromise-Experience 1

Editors Note: This post along with my next two posts will revolve around three distinct interpretive experiences that my family and I had on a recent trip to Missouri. I tell you this so that if that you had already planned on not reading Thursday posts (as well as Monday posts) you now have a valid excuse.

Last week I had the honor of presenting an IBD workshop for employees of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) as well as other area interpreters in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I consider it an honor because of comments about my pants, I most likely won’t be invited back. My family was along for this trip, not for the presentation (in fact they didn’t want to hear me talk about anything besides pools and ice cream), but were there primarily due to the post-presentation weekend getaway to St. Louis.

On this mini-vacation, my family and I had three very distinct interpretive experiences at very different locations. It is not my goal to transform this blog into a “what I did on my summer vacation” blog or take away from our serious writing. But while visiting all three of these locations, I couldn’t stop thinking about sharing them with you and re-finding my family, who left me behind reading and photographing. My wife has accepted this compromise and has become aware that what used to be simply family fun is now IBD fodder.

The first location was the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center, managed and operated by MDC (which also happened to be the site of the presentation). Several weeks back I wrote about another MDC facility in my post A Marriage of Sorts. This is the second MDC site that I have been to and my love of their work continues. Based on what I have seen from the MDC they excel at getting things right.

We all know that a nature center should be the base for getting folks into nature and not the experience itself. One of the most effective elements to the design of this nature center is how the layout replicated nature, kept you guessing, and was filled with surprises. Upon entry you are immediately drawn into the exhibit area. The asymmetrical flow allows you to wander as if in a natural environment off of the trail. There are many directions for you to go.

My children loved this and immediately split up, going towards whatever met their fancy. I split off in search of illicit uses of Papyrus. My wife split off in search of single men. William (my three year old) split off and we haven’t seen him since. The layout makes the exhibit area feel larger that what it actually is. Upon my second pass though the exhibits, this became more apparent to me. The flow also naturally pushes you towards the trailhead and into the conservation area.

Three exhibits really stood out to me as being interesting, unique, or providing an interesting design.

This beaver lodge and trapper cabin exhibit is an excellent way of providing an opportunity for something that otherwise would be impossible to see the inside of. The interactive panels inside the lodge are a great way of illustrating life in the lodge while you are in a lodge. You can’t visit this center and not climb through the lodge. The trapper cabin exhibit adjacent to the lodge effectively illustrates the relationship between humans, beavers, and settlement of the area. The exhibit is supplemented with artifacts and real items to add character as well as authenticity to the interpretation.

What can a typeface do for an exhibit? Besides annoy freaks like Paul and me. It can evoke a sense of time and place. That’s the case in this mercantile exhibit. I don’t know if a historian would say that this is really the typeface that was historically accurate for trading posts or stores in southeast Missouri at the turn of the century, but it works here at setting the stage for an era.

Who’s to say we know it all? Well, my wife for one, Paul talking about grammar for two, but that’s not the case here. Maybe visitors should do more interpretation. This simple but well-designed exhibit allows visitors to reflect and add their own touch to what is being interpreted.

Looking at the artwork reveals what kids take from their visit to the nature center. It is also amazing to see what my children can take from the gift shop while unsupervised. MDC, I’ll put a check in the mail.

Here are a few other observations.

There are other options besides Comic Sans.

Interpretation of the building itself is a great way to show visitors how seriously you take your mission and provides them with information about making green choices in their own homes or workplaces.

The best-designed non-personal interpretive products cannot compete with personal approaches, even if the interpreter is Jeremy Soucy.

Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.

Shortest Post Ever (Excluding Parentheses)

I decided to challenge myself this week and practice what I preach. This is going to be the shortest post in the history of IBD. This is the point where in most of my posts, I make some sort of a confession, and then begin telling a story in attempt to relate some obsolete element of my life to whatever topic I am writing about that week. If that’s not working for me that week, I just start making fun of Paul. Okay, already getting too winded…sorry. Here are the rules, I’m going to keep the word count on this week’s post as low as if it was going to be placed on a wayside exhibit, the text in parentheses doesn’t count since it represents my thoughts, and the post starts at the beginning of the next paragraph. (How’s that for justification of breaking my own rules in this challenge?)

After reviewing a wayside exhibit proposal for a friend, I found myself telling her it was time to cut the text. Which is easier said than done. In IBD (the book not the blog, published in 2008, written by Caputo, Lewis, and Brochu, for sale through the link on the right side of this page) we refer to Gross, Zimmerman, and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 Rule from Signs, Trails, Wayside Exhibits where they say that most visitors spend 3 seconds looking at any given wayside exhibit, some look at the sign for about 30 seconds, and few spend 3 minutes reading the entire sign. (The 3-30-3 rule can also be adapted and modified to the 3-3-30-3-3 for the 3 readers of this blog who spend approximately 3 seconds reading our posts, 30 minutes making fun of us, who tell 3 friends about what idiots we are, and spend the next 3 days reading blogs that are more insightful than ours.) (Paragraph count: 76.)

I am also reminded here that each paragraph should have between 50-75 words and the number of paragraphs should not exceed three paragraphs. The most important elements of the theme should be included in the title. Especially, if most visitors only spend 3 seconds, primarily reading the title and looking at the message though images and graphics. (Paragraph count: 57, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 132, Words available for third and final paragraph: 92.)

I closed the conversation with a quote from Mark Twain who said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” Based on the sigh heard over the phone, she most likely will not be asking me to review her work again. We should be reminded of Gross and Zimmerman’s 3-30-3 rule (it was Gross, Zimmerman and Buchholz’s 3-30-3 rule but, I’m counting words and had to make a cut somewhere. Sorry, Jim.) and how we craft  messages for the maximum effect. This exercise has been a great reminder to me of how difficult it is to be brief, how to break rules, and the power of parentheses. (Paragraph count: 92, Total post word count excluding parentheses and starting with the second paragraph: 225, Words allotted in three paragraphs according to Caputo, Lewis and Brochu: 225.)

“I Hate the Grid”

I recently presented a two-day training workshop with our co-author Lisa Brochu. The participants were interpreters with a city parks department, nondesigners responsible for creating nonpersonal media. When I do these presentations, I talk primarily about choosing meaningful colors and typefaces, working with type and images, and using a grid to achieve a clean and organized composition.

As we worked on an exercise related to composition, I suggested to one participant that she move an item to reinforce her grid. The woman (who had identified herself as an artist* early in the class) said, “I hate the grid!” I laughed, because I certainly respect that some new designers feel constrained by using a grid, especially people who consider themselves artists and rely on intuitive decisions.

Still, I stand by the grid as a simple and effective way to organize information and create a consistent look and feel for compositions, from a single sign to a 200-page publication. And good designers find a way to make the grid work to their benefit.

Every rule designers impose on themselves, such as using two typefaces or working within a certain color palette, is meant to limit decisions so that compositions don’t become jumbled, meaningless messes. The grid is just like these other rules. Placing elements in a composition based upon “what feels good” rather than using a grid is like choosing whatever typeface (or however many typefaces) on a whim from page to page within a publication. It’s like choosing colors with no regard for a predetermined, meaningful color palette. Like these other rules, the grid helps us create consistent, accessible, clean compositions.

*Check back soon for more on the difference between fine art and graphic design.