Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

Since today is the Fourth of July in the United States (not sure what the date is in other countries), I feel I should mention that I love fireworks. Even if I don’t totally understand the point, I figure anything that is an excuse for a cookout and that can cause more than 400 people to show up at a Florida Marlins game has to be good for something.

However, when it comes to graphic design, the closest counterparts to fireworks are starbursts, which cause me to do what my son did the first time he experienced fireworks: burst into tears.

Whenever I make some unequivocal statement about what is good design and what is bad design, people come to me with arguments to the contrary. (“I use Comic Sans because I want people to equate my interpretive site with yard sales and take-out menus.”)

With that in mind, let me make this unequivocal statement: Starbursts are bad graphic design. Even if your product is FREE! or NEW! or simply AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME!, the starburst is the bold, blinking, animated gif of graphic design. The person who uses starbursts in design is the same person who emails you in all caps. Whatever reason a person has for using a starburst, I can assure you there’s a better solution.

I found this brochure in a rack at a highway-side restaurant in Wyoming. There are a lot of things wrong with it from a design perspective. It uses clip art, glowing drop shadows, random angles, roughly 8,000 fonts in every possible style, and a color palette loosely described as “all of them.” (It’s reminiscent of this design advice that Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel heard recently and shared on our Facebook page: “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”)

Even amidst all that chaos, what stands out most is that it looks like the brochure was attacked by a pack of eight-year-olds wielding yellow paintball guns. I can’t be certain of this, but I’d guess that the person who designed this brochure has a background in producing late-night infomercials.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely of a similar mind and the larger problem is what to do with that client (or boss) who asks for starbursts. This is your opportunity to politely resist and educate your client (or boss) about the more subtle and elegant ways of drawing attention to important information without resorting to the visual equivalent of punching your audience in the face. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as changing the color, size, or line thickness of your type, or possibly altering the composition to prominently feature important elements at the top of a page or within a large amount of white space. (There are lots of solutions, and all of them are better than starbursts.)

In the end, the things that make starbursts so terrible are what make fireworks so great: They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and they’re pointless.

Happy Fourth of July!

New Belgium Beer: Say Goodbye to the Trippel Girls

According to the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Fort Collins, Colorado, the top two reasons tourists visit the town are its proximity to nature and its beer. The New Belgium Brewing Company, which I bike past twice a day on my way to and from work, is the most popular local brewery—its signature product, Fat Tire Amber Ale, can be found in 26 states. Not only does New Belgium craft good beer, but it is a prominent member of the Fort Collins community. It’s a model of environmentally friendly practices and is consistently ranked among the top places to work in surveys like this one in Outside Magazine.

The brewery offers a free tour that focuses very little on the actual beer-making process and very heavily on the company’s social and environmental ethics. I have taken the tour four times now, and each time it has done an amazing job of creating an emotional connection to the company and its product. (That may have something to do with the free samples included on the tour, which may explain why, after 90 minutes on my most-recent visit, I was hugging our guide and saying a little too loudly, “I love you, man!”)

If you live in Fort Collins, this bottle is a mainstay at parties—including every Fourth of July cookout that took place in the town yesterday. The bike on the label is an homage to a trip brewery founder and CEO Jeff Lebesch took through Belgium to learn about brewing this style of beer before he started the company. One of the perks the company offers to employees on their first anniversary is one of these cruiser bikes, and you see them all over town.

For 19 years, the labels for all of New Belgium’s beers have featured artwork by local artist Anne Fitch, including the Fat Tire bike pictured here. So it was something of a shock recently when New Belgium unveiled its Explore Series pictured below, which to my knowledge is the first time New Belgium’s labels have deviated from their familiar style. The series includes four beers, including the three pictured here and one more I’ll discuss below. All of New Belgium’s other beers continue to feature artwork by Anne Fitch.

On my most-recent visit to the brewery, I asked our guide about the new labels. He snarled and said, “We’re as happy about them as everyone else is,” which I took to be not very. When I asked if the same woman who did the artwork for all of the other labels designed these as well, our guide responded, “No, these were done on the computer,” as though someone at the company grabbed a computer monitor with both hands and shouted “Beer labels!” and this is what it spit out.

One of the four beers that now features the new label is Trippel Belgian Style Ale. The original label depicts three angelic, robe-clad women affectionately known as the “Trippel girls” (pictured above, left; the new look is on the right). New Belgium acknowledges the challenge it faces in rebranding this beer on its website with the following disclaimer:

We know you may be attached to the Trippel girls (who isn’t!?) or that Abbey holds a sacred place in your heart, so rest assured that while the packaging has changed, the well-loved liquid remains true. Our hope is that you’ll celebrate with us as we set out to Explore new beers and get reacquainted with old friends.

According to spokesperson Bryan Simpson, the decision to create the new look was made because the first beer in the Explore series, the Ranger IPA, is different enough from others crafted by New Belgium that it deserved a different visual treatment. The three other beers in the series were rebranded with the new look because they are a bit more adventurous than the company’s mainstays, designed for that beer fan looking for what Bryan describes as that “next level” of the craft brew experience.

From a pure design perspective, I like the new labels. They’re consistent and clean and instantly recognizable. Plus, the beer tastes the same as it did before. But there’s a strong emotional attachment to the illustrative labels New Belgium fans are accustomed to, and the new look for these selected beers is a decided departure—a surprisingly conservative look for a company that is known to push the envelope visually. New Belgium has an uphill battle on its hands in this rebranding effort. (I ran into the same thing in designing a new logo for the National Association for Interpretation in 2007, and still run into people who have an emotional connection to the logo NAI used for 20 years.)

I’ve always enjoyed the visual aesthetic New Belgium uses in its advertising and on its website, which to me evokes an early 20th-century circus. The company’s advertisements are frequently photographs of real, three-dimensional shadow boxes that they keep on the walls of the brewery.

At the end of the tour, visitors enjoy their final samples in a tasting room that includes a life-size version of an advertisement that appeared on the back of Rolling Stone magazine, among other publications. The ad is pictured above on the left, while on the right, NAI members Kelli English and Kevin Damstra pose on the version found in the tasting room.

One of the subthemes you’ll hear if you take the tour of New Belgium is that experimentation is encouraged, even if it results in failure. The company originated, as many do, with a leap of faith and massive debt. Today, the Lips of Faith series of beers is the result of creative recipes devised by brewery employees, and the Follow Your Folly program encourages creative input on all sorts of content matter from the community. (Seriously, go check out the Follow Your Folly website. It’s one of my favorites.)

This new branding effort from New Belgium looks to be another experiment from an interesting company—one that balances the risks of tinkering with the visual presentation of a product whose look and feel are well known and widely liked with the benefits of continually innovating and refusing to stagnate.

And now I’m thirsty.