Phantom Logos

Have you ever had a condition that you were afraid to talk to anyone about? Good, I’m glad I’m not the only one. Some (my wife) might say that I’m a hypochondriac, which I know is a very serious (that’s right I said very serious) condition that will eventually lead to my end. I’m too afraid to even look it and its symptoms up online.

She says this because I once thought I had rabies. I still stand by my thoughts, which seemed to be a perfectly rational conclusion after being bitten by a raccoon. I would say I wish I did have rabies, just to prove it to her, but I don’t want to jinx myself. Did I say I was bitten by a raccoon?!

Back to my current condition, I’ve been thinking I was losing my mind. At times I felt things that were unnatural. I better bring this home before it really gets weird.

I have phantom vibration syndrome. I call it PVS. I have a work phone and a personal phone. Both are very busy. I primarily keep them on vibrate and one in each of my front pockets. There are times I hear one of my phones vibrating. I reach in my pocket, and my phone is elsewhere. I don’t even have to hear it. Sometimes my thigh simply vibrates. (Insert you own joke here.) It happens on a very regular basis, even after my diagnosis. It wasn’t until I heard about this on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and I looked it up online that I felt I could tell someone else about it, including you. Now I feel normal again. Paul, you are on your own.

According to a USA Today article, “Phantom cell phone vibrations can be explained by neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to form new connections in response to changes in the environment. When cell phone users regularly experience sensations, such as vibrating, their brains become wired to those sensations.” I like this because it also proves to my wife that I have a brain. I may have not had rabies, but at least I now have proof that I do have a brain. The sad part is that there are no treatments available at this time for PVS, but I plan on persevering.

The cool part about PVS is that the brain draws connections to something that may be absent. This can come into play in interpretation and design as well. We ask visitors to make their own conclusions and fill in their own blanks all the time. In fact, we encourage it. Storytelling and personal interpretation are great at exercising the brain.

We know graphic design is capable of this. A few logos that I have recently seen do this as well.

A Kolner Zoo in Germany well know for its elephants capitalized on that in there counter-form logo (I would normally say negative space but Paul constantly warns me not to be unnecessarily pessimistic).

Lands originally owned by the royal family for hunting, the Royal Parks have a modern identity that represents the natural and cultural side. They even have a cool winter version of the the logo currently on their website.

My Fonts is a website that we have discussed here on IBD, used ourselves, and shared in many presentations. I love the hidden counter form here. It is so friendly.

This is the second elephantesque logo in this post. I like this one as well. Elefont is software tool that aides in the creation of fonts.

Hold on. I’ve gotta run, my leg just vibrated.

Jump In

About this same time last year, NAI’s National workshop was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. Paul and I were asked to be auctioneers at the annual scholarship auction. Once I heard this news, I immediately started practicing counting. I had to make sure I could count higher than Paul. That competitive nature, contributed to a thought I had to once again embarrass Paul in public. My thought was to auction off our hair. Paul waffled (as any National League fan would) and a deal was was finally struck, my hair versus his goatee. (To this day, Paul still claims it was an even trade for the exact number of hair follicles.) As most of you know, for actions outside of my control, we both lost our hair.

Believe it or not we were asked to help again this year. We almost never get asked back, anywhere. So we were stoked. The competitive thought process began all over again.

Since this year’s workshop is Saint Paul (insert your own joke here), Minnesota Paul had the idea of taking a polar bear-type-plunge in the Mississippi River.

This time around I was the one not overly excited. (For this reason and 11 others.)

This is where I need your help. We need an acceptable challenge to help raise money at the auction. Please give us an idea. The auction is Friday night. We’ll be sure to give you credit at the auction.

The current leading idea revolves around a plate of lutefisk.

Going Viral (or “Why We Love Katie Couric”)

We have often talked about our goals for writing this blog: making the world a better place, taking over the world, and eradicating the use of Papyrus, Comic Sans, clip art, and centered type. One goal we’ve never mentioned to our readers—but we have definitely mentioned it to one another—is this: We want to crash the website.

We realize that many of you know most of this story already, but now that it’s in the rear-view mirror, writing about it may help us make some sense of the ordeal. For fear of awakening the beast, I will not mention the name or even the subject of the offending post.

It started innocently, with a silly Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named created solely for the purpose of tweaking Shea. It was posted late in the afternoon on a Friday, not exactly the prime moment to maximize hit counts. Nevertheless, early that evening, Shea texted me, “This could really take off.”

The thing is, to us, “really taking off” means that both Jeff and Pam Miller read a post, instead of just Jeff. For four days, the post accumulated modest stats as friends posted links on various social media outlets, but it hardly seemed like something that would extend beyond a few friends and their friends.

The following Wednesday morning, about 120 hours after it was posted, hits suddenly started pouring in. At first, nearly all of the hits were coming from a site called Reddit, which I had never heard of, though NAI Member Tom Davies told me that Reddit is “what the frog says after the chicken gives her the library book.”

Moments later, my father forwarded me a Google alert that he received with my name and a link to a site call SB Nation (above). He said, “You’re getting some hits.”

What happened next can be summarized with the following updates on the IBD Facebook page. First, mid-Wednesday morning:

No joke: NBC Sports just linked to IBD and said, “Here’s the absolute best [Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named] I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Then, about three hours later:

Our web host shut us down due to high usage! That’s a good thing, I guess. On the phone now trying to get the website back.

Then, moments later, a text from Shea:

Awesome! We [mildly off-color word deleted] crashed the website!

The site was up and down for the rest of the day. I started getting emails from friends who were seeing the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named on their friends’ Facebook pages or on Twitter. A friend in Cork, Ireland, received the link by email from his boss.

For the better part of 24 hours, I worked with our webhost to get us back online. I got to hear a lot of high-quality Muzak and I learned valuable lessons about the difference between a dedicated server and a shared server. On our third attempt to get back online, about 24 hours after the initial onslaught, we were shut down again in less than 30 minutes. I asked our webhost to post a “We’ll be back soon!” message and a link to a Flickr page with an image of the Information Design Example that Shall Not Be Named.

The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named made its rounds online, appearing on sites like Forbes Magazine (above), The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, and many of the surprisingly plentiful sites where depressed fans of the New York Mets go to self flagellate. It ended up translated into Chinese and it inspired this variation in Canada.

Katie Couric Tweeted about it.

Meanwhile, more than a week of silence followed on IBD, punctuated only by the occasional angry text from Shea. Several blogs made note of the fact that IBD had crashed, then helpfully posted a link to our site.

A lot of people took credit (or accepted blame), though the real culprit may have been Flickr user dellajane-alicecruz, who commented, “Sorry about that! My baseball-quilting swap group started it when I put the link on Facebook.” So it was either NBC Sports or Della Jane’s baseball-quilting swap group. I guess we’ll never know.

I’ll admit that it was a thrill to see something I created shared so extensively. Because the Internet mob tends to deal in extremes, the words “genius” and “hilarious” were thrown around next to my name on Twitter and on various blogs (trust me, I have screen captures of all of them). Though some of the nicest comments came from a site that uses both type on a curve and Comic Sans in its banner, so I’m a little conflicted.

For the record, I do not claim to be either a genius or hilarious, and I quickly learned that being called those things in the blogosphere does not get you out of helping out around the house. (“I’m high on Paul Caputo! I have Adonis DNA and tiger blood! I’m not doing dishes!”)

My theory is that the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named caught the imagination of a segment of the population because it made fun of everyone rather than just a select few. A post about viral marketing on the website NeboWeb says, “Viral memes…spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They’re shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear.” The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named still gets the occasional flurry of hits, but for the most part, it has indeed disappeared.

Before the post faded into obscurity in favor of arguing baby videos, Flickr user GreekGeek said this: “Congrats on the viral meme — don’t you wish you could predict and tap into such things ahead of time?” And that seems to be the take-home message. You never know what’s going to take off like this thing did, and when it does, how do you take advantage?

I’m not sure that I can fully explain the circumstances that led to our little Interpretation By Design getting such widespread attention, and I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin to intentionally recreate those circumstances. Ultimately, I’m glad to have the blog and our comfortable IBD community back. And I promise not to post something that might go viral again any time soon.

Though now that we have a dedicated server (courtesy of our friends at ServInt Managed Hosting Services) I have this idea for a football-based pie chart.

Getting Your Letter Spacing Right

Earlier this year, I found myself in Malaysia, which is odd, because I don’t remember leaving myself there. (Please click here for an audio file of the rim shot that joke deserves.)

I was on Pangkor Island, standing at the end of a dead-end street that, had it continued, would have dumped travelers right into the Straits of Malacca. Luckily for travelers, the road ended and this giant billboard prevented people from accidentally ending up with soggy shoes.

Before I continue, I should point out that a few weeks ago, Shea wrote a post asking what sort of posts you, our readers, would like us, your bloggers, to write about. One response that cropped up several times was that you would like an occasional post about the nuts and bolts of interpretive design. (Very few of you said, “More baseball!”) So because you asked for it, here’s a post about letter spacing.

A lot of people use the terms kerning and letter spacing interchangeably. These people probably have more active social lives than we do, but they are using these terms incorrectly. Both relate to the space between individual letters, but kerning means to tighten the spacing, while letter spacing means to increase the space. And neither of these should be confused with tracking, which refers to letter spacing throughout a block of type rather than between individual letters. (Remember, you people asked for this.)

Anyway, back to Malaysia: I was drawn to the billboard in the same way local TV journalists are attracted to abandoned warehouse fires. (“It’s so awful, I have to show everyone!”) I just couldn’t ignore the stacked type, the faux Polaroids, and the composition that makes it look like all of the design elements were loaded in a cannon and fired at the billboard from 100 yards away.

This sign was nearly the width of a two-lane street, and they still ran out of room for the word “beach” in the bottom right corner. Perhaps had they not letter spaced those lower-case characters in the sentence “Keep the cleanliness of the beach,” they could have kept that whole sentence on the billboard. (Besides, readers recognize words as shapes, so letter spacing lower-case type is generally frowned upon.)

The first thing I noticed that made me break out the camera was the script type “Ceria di Pangkor,” set in our old default typeface friend Mistral. Script typefaces are meant to be strung together to look like handwriting. When you letter space them, it breaks the connection between the letters and makes it look like you were writing during a bumpy van ride.

As you blow type up (and by that I mean making it larger, not actually exploding it), the imperfections and inconsistencies in letter spacing become more obvious and distracting. Basically, the larger the type, the more important it is to pay attention to the space between individual letters. The word Pulau (island) pictured here drove me crazy. The blue outline actually causes some of the letter combinations (“ul” and “au”) to touch while others (“Pu” and “la”) are left with space between them. At this large scale, that letter spacing issue is obvious and distracting.

Letter spacing is more art than science. Most computer fonts have letter spacing built into individual characters (one of the many things Comic Sans does poorly), but variations in the shapes of letters and the immense number of character combinations make letter spacing nearly impossible to automate.

Typographers have devised lots of tricks and techniques to help them get it right. Some typographers like to look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between each letter. (The image here is from a website called Computer Arts.) One of my grad school professors swore by the practice of simply covering the bottom half of the type with a sheet of paper to see where the issues might lie. These techniques help us see the gaps between the letters as abstract shapes rather than seeing the letters of the words.

Certain types of letters are more likely to cause issues. Tall, skinny characters likes lower-case i and l or the number 1 are likely to have more space on either side that needs to be tightened up (which is why the year 2011 is going to be a bad one for typography). Round characters like o and e should be tightened up so that their middles come close to touching while their tops and bottoms are far apart. Angled characters like the capital letters A and V or the number 7 are likely to start out too far from their neighbors.

Regardless of which technique you use, the first step is to recognize that the computer does not do everything for you. Getting your letter spacing right means understanding that any display type, whether it’s in a brochure or on a billboard, requires attention to detail.

Had enough? Next week, tune in for jokes about baseball and photos of our kids!

Technical note: Every layout program has its own way of handling letter spacing. I work primarily with Adobe products, and I really like the “Optical” setting (as opposed to “Metrics”) in the kerning menu.

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.