Defining the Strike Zone

Much to Paul’s chagrin, today’s post is dedicated to Jo Schaper, who challenged Paul’s take on starbursts (the explosive graphic design element, not the fruit-flavored candy packed with sweet goodness and that is more efficient than a dentist at removing a filling) in his post Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying on Monday. Her comment and Paul’s reply are presented here.

It is not uncommon for folks to challenge our opinions about elements of interpretive design (along with personal style choices – despite what you think we both still feel red Crocs are perfectly acceptable in public venues). In fact we welcome it. Through this blog we have learned that there is nothing more polarizing than discussions on Comic Sans, serial commas, and now starbursts.

This is where I have to applaud Jo (as well as Judy Sneed the official Pro Comic Sans Spokesperson of NAI Region VI) for speaking up for what they believe is an appropriate use of starbursts. Plus, I like anyone that is willing to give Paul a hard time about anything.

I think I can speak for Paul here. Facing this adversity he might say something like, “I disagree with Jo but at least I got her to think about the design decisions that she makes every time she starts a project. I bet the next time she goes to insert a starburst she thinks twice about how she uses it.” I like it best when Paul speaks without commas. The underlying goal behind IBD (the book not the blog) was to help interpretive designers make the best design decisions possible, which could be said in this instance as well.

Since I’m speaking for Paul, I think it also safe to say that he might also say something like this: “If I wasn’t a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I would pull for the New York Yankees because deep down inside I’m jealous and really think they are awesome, oh yeah and Arkansas I where I should live because if Shea lives there it must rock, oh yeah and Shea’s children are cuter than mine!” I would have to agree with both of Paul’s statements.

I see the opinions that we offer in/on IBD (the book and the blog) are equivalent to the role an umpire plays in a baseball game. When a pitcher stands on the mound and is looking at the batter, catcher, and umpire, he has many choices of what kind of pitch throw (cutter, fastball, curve, sinker, splitter, knuckleball, slider, change-up). It is the role of the umpire to confine the space where the pitch has to be thrown and up to the pitcher to be creative enough to put those pitches into that space. I also see us playing the umpire because our lack of baseball talent and the fact that Paul looks best in a mask.

A pitcher can throw pitches outside the strike zone and it’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they will be successful, it simply means they are pitching in the National League. Also the better you know the strike zone or the parameters and guidelines you will also know when to break the rules and throw outside the zone. The best pitchers throw a combination of strikes and balls in order to get that batter out. There is no guarantee that the batter is going to swing at the pitches outside the strike zone in order for the pitcher to get them out. Sometimes you end up with a walk (which has no design equivalent in this long drawn out analogy). The most important thing to remember is that you want to throw as many good strikes as possible, within the zone.

As interpreters and interpretive designers, I think we have to be careful about not only to be thinking about our clients or our visitors by simply giving them what they want. We need to place thought into what design decision help meet the goals of the project and the interpretive site. I have been guilty (and this blog has been guilty, and by this blog I mean Paul) of writing to our audience of interpreters and interpretive designers. We like talking and reading about topics that we are familiar with, comfortable with, and align well with what and how we think. We need to challenge and be challenged to grow. This can be said of personal interpretation as well. We all have had program participants that come to your program already knowing exactly or more about what you are presenting. That may be your objective but more than likely is not. It is my hope that Jo would comeback with an amazing design chock full of starbursts that makes Paul say, “Wow, that’s an effective use of the starburst.”

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this image of the 2010 NAI National Workshop logo, designed by Paul, complete with a starburst.

Buckets and Beards

I used to date a girl who loved to eat French fries while eating a Frosty at Wendy’s. I should have known that the relationship was never going to last (this and the fact that that she had a monobrow that I couldn’t stop staring at). I’m not a person who likes salty with my sweet. I tend to lend myself towards the sweeter things in life without much salt but I have been recently reminded that sometimes you have to have some salt to remind you how sweet life is. I put some salt in my life on a visit to Antietam National Battlefield.

For me battlefields are hard to visit. I get lost in all of the details of what took place, have a hard time relating to the men who fought, can’t grasp the landscape of today that doesn’t really represent what it was like at the time, and I’m secretly envious of men who can grow gapless beards. I also stay away from places that stir too many emotions. The salt running down my face in the form of tears really ruins the taste of my soft-serve ice cream.

Monday Paul made the statement, “I was struck by the quality of the site’s interpretive exhibits (and also by a masterful first-person program conducted by Ranger Mannie Gentile, but this is a blog about nonpersonal interpretation, so I won’t get into that)” when referring to our visit to Antietam National Battlefield as part of a field session of the NAI Region 2 workshop. This is a blog about nonpersonal interpretation, but I can’t not (which is southern for I must) talk about the value of personal and nonpersonal combination.

This field session was not our first choice, but based on the recommendation of a friend and the fact that no one else besides Paul and me had signed up a for a day in the car (discussing type on billboards session) it was decided that we would visit what our friend described as a “bucket list” kind of place. Normally I wouldn’t put a battlefield on my bucket list (with spaces occupied by goals such as visiting the new Yankees Stadium, seeing birthplace of Helvetica, or eating all cased meat known to man) but needless to say I was intrigued and based on some pre-trip interpretation we were receiving from a second passionate new friend at the workshop, it was a must-see.

Based on my views of the need of salt in my life, I hesitantly agreed to the trip and had hoped for an opportunity to take pictures of funny signs. (I did get one. You’ll have to read all the way to the bottom of the post to see it. Don’t just skip the writing part where I toiled for days trying to make this interesting, funny, and relevant or at least tolerable to see the picture. Okay, if I were you I would just skip ahead see the picture. Please, just come back for more of the story.) I knew that Antietam would be a salty place.

Upon arrival we had an opportunity to orient ourselves at the visitor center (a Mission 66-style visitor center—an interesting juxtaposition in and of itself to the battlefield.), visit the gift shop, and explore the exhibits. The interior exhibits were well done and provided most of what you would expect in a Civil War battlefield site.

I did notice the obvious lack of color, setting the tone for the experience, except for this handmade flag that was an excellent reminder of why this war was fought and the struggle to make the United States what it is today. Reconstructing a battle such as Antietam visually in Illustrator cannot come close to representing what actually took place on the battlefield.

After experiencing the museum, our group re-convened upstairs in the observation room with windows overlooking the battlefield itself. If there was one thing the exhibits did, they made you want to understand more fully what took place that day and see where it took place. Either of these two reasons are perfectly acceptable objectives for exhibits. The purpose of this gathering was for a personal approach to the interpretation of the battle by the fully bearded Ranger Mannie. I was filled with questions but decided to hold back to see if Ranger Mannie was successful at meeting my needs as a visitor and not to embarrass my NAI friends by asking why the soldiers were wearing wool in the summer.

Ranger Mannie was terrific in verbally illustrating the events leading up to, the day of, and the days following September 17, 1862. His approach was well tuned based on his experience, understanding, and passion. David Larsen in Meaningful Interpretation states that “interpreters must channel their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion, and love for the resource so their audiences can form their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion, and love for the resource.” This was accomplished through this use of sound interpretive techniques. With very few props, a couple of photographs of key individuals, Ranger Mannie used his body, inflection, timed pauses, and other well-timed techniques to tell the story.

I have no doubt that Ranger Mannie spent time specifically choosing the right words to assist in establishing his theme for the program. This was no accident. Mark Twain once said “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  This is an important lesson for those responsible for designing personal and nonpersonal interpretation. Finding the exact word that echoes the theme, provides brevity, is powerful, and poignant can be like capturing lighting in a bottle. This was also seen in the Battlefield’s wayside exhibits titles and text. An example of lack of effort in choosing the right words can be found on this blog.

The take-home message for me from the visit is the power of interpretation. The combination of the personal and nonpersonal interpretation at Antietam made the experience. It also reminded me that sometimes you need some salt in your life.

Oh yeah, here’s that funny sign.

Get to Know a Typeface! Comic Sans (with a little Helvetica mixed in)

I recently watched the documentary film “Helvetica,” which Shea reviewed back in March. The movie, predictably, features experts on typography who either hail the typeface as the solution to all of mankind’s problems or deride it as the manifestation of humanity’s worst attributes. What’s interesting about the typeface (and the movie) is the story about how and why Helvetica came to be and the function that it serves.

Regardless of how you feel about its aesthetics, you understand that Helvetica was designed with attention to detail and a strict adherence to a philosophical movement, and it fills a specific need in the design community. I found myself thinking that everything that makes Helvetica an interesting and viable typeface stands in stark contrast to everything that makes Comic Sans such a joke.

Yes, I am hard on Comic Sans, but I enjoyed the above YouTube video, where Comic Sans creator Vincent Connare explains the origins of his most famous creation. It’s humanizing to see a man who created one of the most used (and most reviled, in some circles) typfaces ever, admit to not being proud of his work.

The most important thing he says here is, “It’s often badly used,” which I think is the crux of why so many people dislike this typeface. Connare speaks directly to what makes Comic Sans inappropriate when he explains that it was designed to be used for text in speech bubbles for a cartoon dog—not, we can infer, for long passages of text or as large display type.

So to reiterate a recurring theme on this site: Don’t use Comic Sans unless the type you’re setting is in a speech bubble, preferably that of a cartoon dog.

Text as Art


Ryan’s Country Store in Eastern Arkansas is packed with local flavor. It is one of my favorite places to stop when traveling along Highway 64. There are not too many places around where you can pick up a fried pie and a new pair of rubber boots, but you can a Ryan’s. Conversations there revolve around the weather, prices of various items, and local politics.

I have always been intrigued by the store’s sign as well as their fried pies. When I first moved to the area, I had a hard time making out what the sign said. The text in the shape of a largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) was hard to read, though it was recognizable as a bass. I found myself wondering who would design a sign that was that hard to read, regardless of how creative it was.

But after living here for 6 years, I now understand that anyone who needs to know what Ryan’s is already knows. The sign serves more as form than function. Designers and interpreters do not have this luxury. Our work has to function first, then we can work on the form.