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.

 

Fun with Googling Colors

I was on the phone with Friend of IBD Howard Aprill not long ago, when he described something as being the color “vermillion.” Because Shea and I are going to present a graphic design workshop this summer at Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee, where Howard works, and because I am a graphic designer, I felt I should know what color vermillion was. Rather than ask, I changed the subject of the conversation to baseball and on the side, quietly Googled “What color is vermillion?”

Of course, the rest of my afternoon was shot. I’ve always wanted to know the difference between sea foam…

…and sea mist. (Not much.)

Or the difference between cerulean…

…and manganese. (Cerulean’s a little darker, maybe?)

Then, of course, this led to further exploration. (All while Howard and I were still talking, mind you. This may explain why I apparently agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” during our workshop in Milwaukee this summer.) What if you Googled “What color is [something that is not a color]?” Some (but not all) of these turned up interesting results.

What color is nature? (I thought this would come back overwhelmingly green. Kind of refreshing that it did not.)

What color is energy?

What color is Greece?

What color is New Jersey?

And, of course, this led to even more exploration. (At this point in the conversation, evidently, I’ve agreed to buy everyone Brewers tickets and wear a T-shirt that says “I’m Ryan Braun’s pharmacist” to the game.) I took a few of the screen captures above and uploaded them to my favorite color-palette generator, Kuler, which I wrote about way back when.

Here’s what I got for vermillion:

Cerulean:

Energy:

Nature (I love this one):

And New Jersey:

I think what this amounts to is a kind of fun, Internet-based brainstorming—and sometimes it works better than others. I would never commit myself to generating a color palette for a project exclusively using this method, but the results that it returns could be a springboard for thinking about colors in ways that you haven’t before.

I plan to explore this more in the future, and I’d love to see some of the results IBD readers come up with in the comments of this post. In the meantime, I have to figure out why my presenter’s agreement with the Wehr Nature Center says I’m doing Howard Aprill’s laundry.

What kind of graphic designer are you?

As with any profession, it’s important for graphic designers to be introspective. I have experienced life as a graphic designer in multiple stages: with no actual training in the field (1996–1998), as a graduate student in visual communications (1999–2001), and as a professional designer (2002 to present). I have witnessed all of the below subspecies of graphic designer (and I have been or continue to be one or more of them myself). Thinking about where you fall in these categories can help you understand your work and why some people look at you that way.

Uber Conceptualist
This designer says things like, “The single straight black line in a field of white represents human kind’s unwillingness to recognize its own shortcomings.” Then when his client says, “Yes, but we asked you to design a logo for the county fair,” he sighs and walks away. It’s important for design decisions to have meaning, but when the meaning is so abstract it has to be explained to everyone who sees it, graphic design crosses over into fine art—a different field altogether.

Hack
This person uses Comic Sans and starbursts. Also clip art.

Prima Donna
This person hates you. How dare you question his design decisions? If you don’t like it—or don’t get it—it’s because you’re too dumb. And who needs you anyway? Also, every other designer who has ever created anything is just so corporate. Bunch of sellouts. Especially Paul Rand.

People Pleaser
The yin to the Prima Donna’s yang, the People Pleaser takes any suggestion that comes along. Bold this? Yes. Add 17 photos to page three? You’re the boss!

Tech Guy
One of the great things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. Conversely, one of the terrible things that desktop publishing did for the world was that it put powerful graphic design tools in the hands of anyone who owns a computer. The Tech Guy designer can tell you everything you would ever want to know (and usually much, much more) about all of the advanced functions in Adobe Photoshop, then uses the software to create fliers for book sales that look like laundry that got washed with Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Old Timer
The Old Timer has been setting metal type by hand since you were wetting your diaper, and doesn’t need any of these newfangled devices to help him.

Of course, these are gross exaggerations, and every good designer has at least some of the above in him. It’s important to balance the Prima Donna with the People Pleaser—to have confidence in your abilities and your decisions, but to be able to hear criticism with an open mind. It’s valuable to let your inner Uber Conceptualist battle it out with the Hack—to think in deeper meanings but to make your work accessible. And every designer should be able to make the best use of his tools—à la the Tech Guy—but to understand the origins of the principles of graphic design the way only the Old Timer can.

And while every designer should have a little of each of the above, maybe you lean a little too far in one of the above directions. And that’s why people look at you like that.

Uber Conceptualist photo by Fausto Giliberti. Old Timer photo by Leroy Skalstad.

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.

What Designers Want

Professionals in any field have hang-ups and annoyances that they deal with every day. Bank tellers have to deal with customers who want to deposit hundreds of dollars in nickels, firefighters have to deal with cats stuck in trees, and swimsuit models have to deal with sand.

As a graphic designer, my second-least favorite part of any project is the very beginning—the moment when I get my first look at the materials that have been delivered to me before I get started. (My first-least favorite part of a project is the very end—the moment when I open the box of advance copies from the printer and notice for the first time, after missing it on countless proofs, that the word “Public” on the front cover is missing a letter and that spell check didn’t catch it because it created another word.)

It’s rare that a graphic designer generates all of the text and images that he or she incorporates into a given project, so the collaborative process usually begins in the hands of someone who is not the designer. Any time I work on a new project, I try to outline how I’d like materials delivered. The longer I work with a given freelance client or contact at work, the more smooth that process becomes.

I don’t like to generalize, but graphic designers are cynical jerks who spend all day stroking their goatees thinking about how great the world would be if everyone would just listen to them. Chapter 7 of the book Interpretation By Design is called “Making the Collaborative Process Work,” which is code for “How Normal People Can Get Along with Cynical Jerks Who Spend All Day Stroking Their Goatees Thinking About How Great the World Would Be if Everyone Would Just Listen to Them.” On page 89, the subhead “What to Provide the Designer” is code for “Designers Will Moan and Roll Their Eyes About Whatever You Give Them to Work With.”

With that in mind, here are some of the points I try to emphasize when I work with a new client regarding the delivery of materials:

Text: Don’t Tab
Most of the time, the problems designers have with working files are the result of good intentions. In crafting the text for a publication, writers will format it in word processing documents—they’ll create tables and columns, place photos, and worst of all, use the tab key to create alignments. There’s nothing I hate to see more when I open a Word file than a bibliography or a list of works cited that an author has formatted using returns and tabs.

More often than not, your designer will not use the same program for page layout that you use to create the content, which means that all of that formatting you did in Microsoft Word will have to be undone by the designer before it can be re-done in page-layout software like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. As a designer, I’m much happier to receive text with no formatting at all (except bold or italics to indicate hierarchy) that includes notes to me with instructions. I’d rather see a note that says “Designer: this is a sidebar” than have to copy and paste text out of a box in a Word file.

Images: Original Files, Please
Again, the path to annoyed designers is paved with good intentions. If you want a photo cropped or otherwise corrected, most designers prefer that you provide instructions to that effect rather than manipulating the image yourself. If you do manipulate an image yourself, provide the original version along with the corrected version.

Also, your designer will prefer images as separate files rather than embedded in a word processing document. Personally, if a client has a specific place where they want an image to be placed, I prefer to be alerted with a simple note to the effect of “Hey goatee-stroking jerk: Insert image_name.jpg here.”

Provide Final Files All at Once
This point is really two points rolled into one. The important word in the first part is final. Most designers working on a freelance basis will incorporate one round of corrections into a bid before they add hourly surcharges. Significant changes to text that should have been finalized before it went to the designer will usually alter the layout and result in charges that could have been avoided—not to mention emphatic goatee stroking and muttering behind your back on the part of the designer.

The second part, all at once, means that most designers don’t want partial delivery of a project. When you say to a designer, “I’m giving you half of the text and 13 of 50 photos so that you can started,” he or she will stroke his or her goatee and say, “Okay,” which really means, “I’m going to eat Ding Dongs and watch the Cartoon Network instead of working on your project.” This is not because designers are jerks (which, I reiterate, we are), but rather because having all of the materials in front of us will allow us to make decisions about how to lay out a project.

We strive to make IBD a bridge between the fields of interpretation and graphic design. If you’re an interpreter who works with designers, I hope this post will help make some aspects of your projects go a little more smoothly. If you’re a designer who works with interpreters, lighten up a little, would ya?