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!

With love, from Paula Poundstone

Regular readers of this site know that I am a fan of the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, and I am a hoarder of ticket stubs. (See the post You’ve got a Ticket to Design.) So when I had the chance last night to meet regular Wait, Wait panelist Paula Poundstone after a hilarious show in Boulder, Colorado, I had her sign my ticket stub just for you, the IBD Nerd Herd.

As she signed the ticket, I told her what IBD stands for. She said, “Well, everybody knows that.”

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.

Going with the Flow

What’s not to like about flowcharts? They are capable of transforming a complex issue or process into something that is simple, cut, and dry. I love how they work, you respond to a question and you get an answer. Sometimes your answer leads to another question but eventually you get an answer. Order can be brought from chaos through a flowchart. Now, if there were a flowchart on how I should appropriately respond to my wife, I would use it all the time. Wait, let me refer to my flowchart on when to use flowcharts…okay, I’m not so sure it would really work well after all.

Wikipedia.org defines a flowchart as “a type of diagram that represents an algorithm or process, showing the steps as boxes of various kinds, and their order by connecting these with arrows. This diagrammatic representation can give a step-by-step solution to a given problem.” (I must admit I just used this definition of flowchart to add the word “algorithm” and the phrase “diagrammatic representation” to our searchable list of keywords that will surely bring hundreds of hits to IBD.)

Paul and I often get asked difficult questions like, What color should I use in this logo? Which is better, In Design or QuarkXPress? What is the best file format for my project? and Do you know where your children are? All of these would be easier to answer with a flow chart. So why not create a FC (that’s flow chart for the really cool) to answer the ever-present question of which typeface should I use?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do it. Twenty-two year-old graphic design student Julian Hansen has created one for us. You can view the full image here. The FC asks some great questions and at the very least conceptualizes the thought processes behind choosing a typeface. Of course, much like IBD, there is an insane amount of humor woven into the chart and it shouldn’t be taken literally. Though I specifically love the path to Futura and Frutiger, along with the questions that lead to OCR.  Oh yeah, there is even a path to Comic Sans (though I think you know where we stand on that path).

I wish design decisions could be this easy. For years we have advocated that one of the most important areas for designers, non-designers, and interpretive designers to grow in is the ability to verbalize to supervisors, co-workers, and advisory boards on the reasons behind design decisions such as font selection. As the designer, if you can’t explain why you made a decision to foster support you shouldn’t expect support. Saying something like I just like it, or because I said so, only works with my wife.

If you haven’t created a FC in while take the time to do so. I use them in developing complicated PowerPoint programs, to map project progression, and as a way to conceptualize problem solving/solution finding. There are plenty of programs that more than likely already on your computer to help you with the process or you could always use free downloads such as SmartDraw. You could also go on with life, as a normal person.

I ♥ Whatever

I arrived at work one day not too long ago to find this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker taped to my office door.

I’ve never been to Nepal and have no emotive response to the country one way or the other, so I was confused by the sticker’s meaning. I put on my Indiana Jones mystery-solving fedora, which I keep handy at all times, and set about decoding this cryptic message. At the time, the National Association for Interpretation’s national office, where I work, was hosting 26 people at a training course, so anyone could have been responsible.

The first thing I noticed was a Post-It note attached to the sticker with the following message:

Paul—
PLEASE
do a blog post about this!
Phil Sexton

Well, I’m no Indiana Jones, but I had narrowed down my suspects. It turns out that Friend of IBD Phil Sexton wanted me to do a post on this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, it would have been called Indiana Jones and the Sticker on the Office Door. It would have been really short and not that interesting, but it probably still would have been better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Though the mystery was not great fodder for a movie, it did raise this important question: Why did I keep thinking about Indiana Jones? Well, any loser with too much time on his hands knows that Nepal is where Indiana Jones finds that his bitter ex-girlfriend Marion, who owns a bar and can handle herself in a drinking contest, is in possession of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra that Indy is racing to keep out of the hands of the Nazis.

It’s possible the reason I was thinking of Indiana Jones was that the “I ♥ Nepal” sticker features what graphic designers refer to as the “Indiana Jones gradient blend.” This, of course, is the vertical blend from red to yellow featured in the logos for all of the Indiana Jones movies. (Every time I use a phrase like “Indiana Jones gradient blend,” it fills me with wonder that I have any social life at all.)

Other graphic elements of note in the decal are a hot-pink iconic heart shape and a rounded sans serif italicized typeface. The heart shape could be the subject of a whole other blog. That shape is believed to have originally represented something other than a heart—and it’s a discussion not really fit for polite company. Maybe we’ll save that one for Valentine’s Day.

The “I ♥ …” phenomenon was popularized in the 1970s with the beyond-famous “I ♥ NY” campaign. The logo, designed by graphic-design legend Milton Glaser, is one of those “so simple anyone could have done it but no one did until a famous graphic designer did it” phenomena. It’s incredibly simple: three letters in a typeface (American Typewriter) that someone else designed and a symbol that’s been around for centuries composed in a rough block shape. But like a catchy tune, it captured the imagination of the public, caught fire, and has spawned countless imitations and permutations.

To me, one of the great things about the story of this logo is that Glaser designed it for free to help promote a city he loved. One of the ridiculous things about this logo is that, according to a story in the New York Times, when Glaser designed a logo that read “I ♥ NY More Than Ever” after 9/11, the city threatened to sue him for copyright infringement.

Because of Milton Glaser (who is the subject of a documentary called To Inform and Delight, which sounds like a great definition of interpretation to me), the use of the heart symbol to mean love has become so ingrained in popular culture that now any symbol used in this composition is roughly understood to mean love.

If Glaser’s “I ♥ NY” campaign had never existed, this Apple laptop skin, a logo designed for a new Apple store in New York City, wouldn’t make sense. Out of context, “I Apple NY” conjures images of mischievous teenagers throwing rotten fruit at Manhattan from across the river in Newark, New Jersey. But in context, it’s yet another example of Apple’s sophisticated and elegant marketing (right down to the use of the appropriate typeface).

On the other hand, the most nonsensical use of this vernacular that I’ve seen is this “I Jack LA” found on a site called Karmaloop. The composition is an obvious reference to the “I ♥ NY” campaign, with a close-but-no-cigar slab-serif typeface, a color scheme derived from the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and yellow, and the face of noted Laker fan Jack Nicholson replacing the heart. This is one of those instances where the viewer understands the point of the composition, but it’s just too big a mental leap to correlate Jack Nicholson with the word love.

There are other examples of this composition in which symbols represent words other than love. For instance, Bob Barker would approve of the “I ♠ My Cat” shirts available all over the internet. Perhaps the best example is this contribution from Gary Larson’s The Far Side:

Though he had a long and distinguished career in graphic design, Milton Glaser is most famous for a simple composition he designed for free out of love for a city. More than three decades later, the composition has, to borrow a word from a horrible person I used to work for, impermanated the visual landscape, from the Massachusetts native who shamrocks Boston, to Friend of IBD Phil Sexton, who clearly hearts Nepal.

Get to Know a Typeface! Papyrus

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This post is more for me than you. I’m sorry but I must use this platform to get this off my chest. Please avoid Papyrus.

The post could have ended there, but as usual, I say too much and end up needing to apologize for something I’ve written. If I have or will offend you with this post, including Chris Costello (the type designer who created the monster known as Papyrus), I am sorry. I guess I could have taken Paul’s post on Comic Sans and inserted his comments here to cover Papyrus. You know, that’s not such a bad idea.

Here we go: “The problem with [Papyrus] is not only that it is used a lot. It’s that it’s almost always used inappropriately, which has caused its original intent to be lost. It was designed with a specific use in mind, but now it is ubiquitous.”  Well said, Paul. Costello agrees and says on his blog titled “Papyrus…Love It or Hate It?” that “Dude, Papyrus is ubiquitous because it was bundled with OSX and Windows operating systems, plain and simple… I had nothing to do with that decision.” I like his honesty and use of the word “dude” in the post.

Costello goes on to say in another post, “I cringe when I see Papyrus so poorly executed…and so often. But again, like any licensed software, what people do with it is out of my hands.” I think that it is awesome that Costello’s blog provides a place for people to rant or rave about his creation. Some of the comments provide insight into his creation and its original use, while others are just hilarious. There is even is a post from Costello’s mom, who has a take on Papyrus.

Much like Comic Sans, Papyrus in and of itself is not that bad of a typeface. It is the users of Papyrus who over use and abuse it.  It can be seen everywhere. I see it most commonly in restaurant menus (primarily Italian restaurants) and in signage or advertisements for day spas (primarily the type found in strip malls). I have even seen it on a sign for a dentist’s office. Which was an effective use considering the cavities found within each letter form. But really, please avoid Papyrus.

To learn more about Papyrus or Chris Costello check out his website at www.costelloart.com. Costello is also collecting comments and displaying his newest type creations known as Driftwood, Costello, and Sheriden’s Letters. Will one of those be the next Papyrus? Only time will tell.

For those who love Papyrus, and I know you are out there, check out http://iheartpapyrus.com.

Do I need a hobby or something else to care about? I want to hear from the herd, what is the typeface that really bugs you? For me it is Papyrus, for Paul it is Comic Sans, what is it for you?