The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.

Social Networking and “So What?”

Several weeks ago while on a flight I had a moment of inspiration, took out my laptop, and begin to write a blog post. I usually try not to work (not that writing this blog is work) on a plane for the simple fact that it is a finite amount of time where I can relax, think, listen to music, and not be connected. In this instance, I just had to write. I was fully engrossed. At one moment I chuckled to myself at how cute, clever, and funny I was being. I could imagine how literally 10s of readers would be laughing out loud (that’s LOL for everyone else but me) or at the very least Paul would find funny and then pretend that it wasn’t.

When I chuckled out loud (COL—you can use that one too) the lady sitting next to me asked me what I was working on. Up to this moment she had carefully ended every conversation starter that I had in my little book of airplane conversation tricks.  Lines like “How many words can you spell on a calculator?” and “I wish I had a Photoshop Eyedropper to capture the color of your eyes” got me nowhere at breaking the ice. Even though I have grown accustomed to awkward silences I still had some ambition to be friendly and get to know the person that owned the shoulder that my shoulder had been pushing against since we were somewhere over Kansas. Here’s my response and the remainder of the conversation.

Shea: I’m writing a post for my blog.

14C: You are a blogger?

Blogger: That’s right.

14C: Every blog I have ever read has left me thinking that the writer is narcissistic.

Blogger (carefully looking up synonyms for narcissistic in Microsoft Word while pretending that her tone didn’t bother me): I’m also a park ranger. [Found the following synonyms: vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, and selfish; okay she hurt my feelings.]

14C: So you blog about trees and nature? (COL)

Blogger/Park Ranger: And fonts. (COTI, crying on the inside)

This led into a longer explanation of interpretation, the profession, and various niche groups (including the 10s of IBD readers). I kept the description short, to the point, and based on the non-verbal cues I was receiving and previous law enforcement training, 14C was quickly becoming a threat to my safety. Despite her discontent the conversation continued.

14C: Really (displaying extreme disinterest). I guess you tweet too.

Blogger/Ranger: I do. But I don’t have much a following.

14C: All of this social media is just an attempt for people our age (though she looked much older than me) to stay relevant.

Blogger/Ranger: You are right. (I have over 15 years employing the use of this line and I knew it worked. I pretended to continue working while learning new words on my computer calculator).

Once I had time to reflect on the conversation, as well as define narcissism, it became apparent to me that our society has grown more narcissistic than ever. Blogs and social media have amplified this human nature to new heights. Of course, this blog is written for a very specific audience, which has similar interests, related to the profession of interpretation, which therefore cancels the narcissistic connotation for Paul and me (excepting for when it comes to conversations about Phillies/Yankees, cereal, and the use of Papyrus/Comic Sans).

The conversation with 14C got me thinking about how many of our personal and non-personal interpretive efforts are geared towards our own interests, thoughts, opinions, and ideas, much like a blog. The conversation also had me wondering how it is possible to answer Sam Ham’s question “So what?” for all of the various types of visitors to interpretive sites.  We live in a world where more visitors than ever care more about themselves or their own personal experiences than the resource or the thing itself. Can social networking outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, help lead to better visitor understanding and appreciation?

First of all I had to realize that a small dose of narcissism is part of us from birth. 14C hit the nail on the head when she said I was just trying to stay relevant. If we want to continue to be able to answer the “So what?” question for our visitors we have to be relevant to them. Wikipedia, another social-driven outlet, states that “Andrew P. Morrison claims that, in adults, a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism allows the individual’s perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others.”

Now there’s a connection we can understand between perceptions and relationships. Being relevant goes beyond just being on Facebook or Tweeting, you have to understand the nature of these networks as well as their strengths and weaknesses. While Facebook’s strength is “relationships,” Twitter excels at the spreading of information. Where Facebook allows interaction, Twitter allows exchanges. 14C is right, we have to stay relevant by using the media to the best of its ability.

One approach is to appeal to the voyeuristic nature of social media. Admit it, we have all spent more than what would be considered healthy looking at pictures of old flames that we have re-connected to Facebook. Come on, I know Paul and I are not the only ones. It is a great opportunity for us to imagine what life would have been like if things were different. Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. That is, admitting doing this not the looking at the pictures part. But interpretive sites can put all kinds of information, pictures, video, audio, podcasts, and almost anything else you can think of into these networks that will allow visitors or potential visitors to see what you are all about or allow visitors to re-connect with the memories of your site. If visitors come to your site with a better understanding of what the mission is then answering the “So what?” question becomes easier.  Be prepared for the positive responses along with the negatives. There are very little censoring capabilities with these networks.

How can we appeal to this narcissistic subculture? The best way is for it to happen on its own. Not to say something going viral didn’t begin without a little uncovered sneeze. Okay, that’s a little gross, but what I’m saying is that a grassroots approach to appealing to this culture can begin with some seeding. People like to have the feeling of discovery or doing something that involves exclusivity. That, combined with the narcissism of social networks, allows interpretive opportunities to go viral. By offering a behind-the-scenes tour or previewing the opening of a new exhibit, a website, or proof copy of a brochure, you can create that hype. If you use the word hype on Facebook you may be sent back to 1994 and receive a complimentary dial-up modem. The nature of the interaction on social media outlets, after attending your program, will definitely answer the “So what?” question.

You will notice a new feature at the end of each post on this website that will allow Facebook users to “like” posts and have that “like” reflected on their personal page. (We are saving the “dislike” plug-in for Paul’s posts.)

This begs the question, is it narcissistic to “like” your own post?

Inspired by Deadlines

Happiness for most interpreters is seeing a school bus leaving your interpretive site. Other interpreters and interpretive designers find complete happiness and satisfaction in their work by coming up with an original idea, working with it through the development process, and creating a program or piece that communicates the intended message and works effectively with visitors. I find happiness in sugar-based cereal, my children sleeping, and discussions about letterforms. Oh yeah, and being married to a wonderful woman.

I recently have found myself working from deadline to deadline with very limited amounts of time to dedicate to important projects. This is not how I like to work, but it is where I find myself. Working in this form and fashion does not allow much time for finding inspiration.

How can one become inspired? If we are in the business of inspiration or inspiring others, should it not come easy for us to be inspired? David Larsen in Meaningful Interpretation writes, “Interpreters must channel their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion and love for the resource so that their audiences can form their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion and love for the resource.” As interpreters know, this is no easy process and we must constantly work to develop programs and products that assist this process in taking place.  The best interpretive products, personal and non-personal, ever developed were led by inspiration.

There are many ways to become inspired. Most people in careers outside of interpretation believe that interpreters have the best jobs in the entire world. They think about how great it would be to work in that park, museum, aquarium, historic site or nature center. This happens to be one of the first things that interpreters forget about at work. They forget what brought them to the field of interpretation in the first place. I came to interpretation for the guacamole (if that makes no sense check this post out). It’s easy to do. Budgets, staffing, groups, visitors, emails, discussions about baseball, meetings, phone calls, and many other elements of day-to-day operations cloud the view of where we work.

The first thing you can do to help improve your inspiration is remember the resource. Get out in or bury yourself in whatever resource is at your disposal and be inspired by it. If you work at a zoo the latter part of that suggestion may not be the best idea, but draw colors from what you see, extract shapes from what you find, take textures and turn them into products, and finally develop meanings and relationships from what you love. Freeman Tilden referred to this as the “priceless ingredient.” This ingredient is something we hold that others would love to hold. Take advantage of how close we are to that resource and love it. Tilden wrote:

If you love the thing you interpret, and love the people who come to enjoy it, you need to commit nothing to memory. For, if you love the thing, you not only have taken the pains to understand it to the limit of your capacity, but you also feel its special beauty in the general richness of life’s beauty.

Remember, to find that first love that you had with a site or subject and inspiration in that area can be expected to follow.

Some find a steady flow of inspiration through thought and study. Immersion into thought is difficult to many designers and creators since it can be difficult and exhausting. Some of the greatest composers in the world speak to how fatiguing the thought process can be before creating. Freeman Tilden writes, “Except for the rare instances of inspiration, I should guess that the adequate interpretive inscription will be the result of ninety percent thinking and ten percent composition.”

The largest factor contributing to unsuccessful thinking is the demands on our time (and for Paul the digestion of sausage). There are always deadlines and to-do lists that are in the back of our minds blocking the creative flow. That is where thought or study through collaboration can be a great friend.  By joining forces when the blocks hit can allow developers to move forward in the creative process. Another set of eyes or cerebral lobes can bring out small elements that spark the imagination leaving you saying, “I didn’t look at it that way” or, “That’s a good idea.”

Back-up plans also include copious amounts of caffeine, frustration-driven design and finding a job where you can make real guacamole…like a restaurant. No matter how inspiration is discovered, remember where it came from, so the next time it is needed you can draw from the same source or use it to inspire new sources.

I’ve Got Problems

“When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong”—Buckminster Fuller

Generally speaking problem solving can be complicated. For me it is simple. I have a problem and my wife tells me how I am going to solve it. It is that easy. It is too bad that in most cases she created the problem for me in the first place.

When problem solving it is important to not lose sight of the problem at hand. It is easy to become distracted with side issues and loosing focus of mission, themes, goals, and the intended audience. If necessary, when working with a group or by yourself, focus specifically on the problem itself and avoid pitfalls that keep you from fulfilling that mission, theme, goal or meeting the needs of the intended audience.

I’m kind of a slow thinker. When problem solving I like to sit back, think, see what happens, collect information, synthesize approaches and then decide. My wife calls this being a procrastinator but I call it being analytical. You should be aware that some solve problems through various approaches that may or may not meld well with your approach. I tend to wait for the “Ah ha” moment to happen. The period before it hits is known as the incubation period.

Inspiration hits me at strange times, usually when I am away from the problem, program, or the computer. For me it is usually when I am driving or watching baseball. I don’t know if is because my mind works differently at those times or if it has to do with me eating peanuts and Cracker Jacks. More than anything it breaks my current cycle of thinking and allows new ideas to flow. The sugar and carbs help too.

If you wait too long in the incubation period you could be forced into the pressure cooker phase of problem solving. I have seen several talented people who thrive and excel under the pressure to meet a groups needs or finish a project under a tight deadline. Solutions to problems can flow out of necessity in this approach. Just leave time at the end for evaluation and re-design if necessary.

The longer I work as an interpreter and a designer I see that the majority of my work is problem solving. In some of my future posts I will take on common problems faced by interpreters and designers. Be on the look out for the I’ve Go Problems titles. If you have a problem professional or socially send them our way and we’ll take them on. In the mean time continue working on what problem solving approach works well for you and your specific situation. Don’t be afraid to take on different approaches or just listen to your significant other.