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!

Get to Know a Typeface! Connecticut State of Mind

We recently received this question from Friend of IBD Patricia Perry through our Ask a Nerd! link:

I am a font nerd. I collect fonts much the same as other folks collect small china porcupines. I recently discovered “Connecticut.” I am in love with this font. Although it is not appropriate for every venue, I find its form and grace appealing. What are your thoughts on this cute little font?

To my knowledge, Patricia has never been in my house and I’m certain that she does not have a key to the safe in the basement, so I’m a little freaked out that she knows about my china porcupine collection. Nevertheless, Patricia is the one and only person ever to review our book on Amazon and she gave it five stars, so any question Patricia asks, we answer.

I had never heard of Connecticut as a typeface before (though I do know that there’s a suburb of New York City called Connecticut*). There’s not a lot of information about the typeface available online, but my guess is that it was designed by someone with artistic talents, but not much experience in typeface design. The first clue to this effect is that it’s available as a free download from a number of sites, including FontPark and Fonts 101.

I agree with Patricia that Connecticut is graceful. (I can’t believe I wrote “Connecticut” and “graceful” in the same sentence after this month’s college basketball championship.) The individual letterforms are great. They have an elegant, organic form, accentuated by tall ascenders, like those seen in the lower-case h and d in the sample above.

What bothers me is the way the letters interact with one another. You can see what I mean the sample above (which was created by a random text generator). The typeface is meant to emulate script writing, so it bothers me the way the letters don’t connect. This can be seen most clearly in the space between the i and s of is.

Look at the h and e in Shea. Not only does the terminal stroke of the h not connect with the e, but the angle of the stroke where the h would connect to the cross stroke of the e is different, so the illusion that you’re looking at handwriting is broken.

I would take Patricia’s comment that this typeface is not right for every venue one step further. I’d say that with this typeface, you have to not only choose the appropriate venue, but also use it in specific ways. I would definitely not use this typeface for large blocks of text at a small point size. But at a large size, short words, like my favorite Scrabble word Qi, emphasize the elegant, organic form while offering the opportunity to minimize the issues caused by the way the letters interact (if you’re only using this typeface for one or two words at a large size, you can take them into Illustrator and fix those issues).

There’s a lot to like about Connecticut (the typeface, not the cheating basketball team and its corrupt coach). Patricia’s affinity for its grace and elegance is certainly warranted. But as with many free typefaces that do not come from established, well-known typeface designers, it’s important to use it carefully and pay attention to the details.

And whatever you do, avoid the Merritt Parkway at rush hour.

*Note to Shea: This joke is funny because Connecticut is not just a suburb of New York, it’s its own state. I thought I’d explain, given how little time in your life you’ve spent in or near New York.