Knowing Your Audience is ILL

Last week, my family and I took our annual trip to the New Jersey shore, famous for its white-sand beaches, greasy food, and hairy backs. I grew up in the Philadelphia area (as I may have mentioned once or twice on this site) and spent at least two weeks at the Shore every summer as a child. These days, every summer, my wife and I take our children to the Shore for a little dose of the culture that made me who I am—boardwalk amusements, soft-serve ice cream, and a preponderance of Philadelphia sports paraphernalia.

At the Shore, I noticed people wearing the “ill” T-shirts pictured here. The designers of the shirts, which I found on a site called Philavania (official tagline: “Where porkroll egg & cheese is for breakfast, every damn day”), cleverly extracted the “ill” from the middle of the logo of Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball team, the Phillies, set in the typeface Scriptwurst. (Note that the product shot of the women’s shirt features a slender model, while the photo of the men’s shirt does not. I can only assume, based on my own week of eating cheese fries, cheese steaks, and fried cheese, that there are no men slender enough to fit the shirt in the photo left in the tri-state area.)

Of course, this raises the question, “Why would someone wear a shirt that says ‘ill’ on it?” Interestingly, this is exactly the question our mysterious and reclusive third author Lisa Brochu asked upon seeing these shirts on my computer screen (immediately followed by “Don’t you have work to do?”). Well, as Urban Dictionary tells us, the kids these days use “ill” to mean “cool, tight, or sweet,” as in “Dat ride iz ILL” (actual example shared by Urban Dictionary contributor Da Shizzle). I’m surprised Lisa didn’t know that.

So, the shirts are clever, provided that you are familiar enough with Philadelphia sports to recognize the Phillies logo typeface and your slang is current to at least 1997. If not, you may see someone wearing this shirt and assume that they are, as the word is traditionally defined by dictionary.com, “of unsound physical or mental health; unwell; sick [possibly from eating too many fried cheese products].”

But the folks at Philavania didn’t stop with just one clever twist on the Phillies logo.

On the Philavania website, you can find versions of the shirt not only in Phillies blue and red, but also the orange and black of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and green and silver of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Upon seeing these shirts, I had two simultaneous and equally strong reactions. I thought, “Why would you hybridize the identities of two different teams—the type and composition of one with the color scheme of another—that already have their own carefully constructed brands?” And I thought, “Those shirts are awesome.” (Oddly, I also thought, “I could use some cheese.”)

Finally, I thought, “There’s a lesson here.”

Interpreters and graphic designers talk a lot about knowing their audience. When I was in design school, any student who described his or her target audience as “general public” on any project was summarily dismissed from class and forced to work as an intern creating forms for the department of motor vehicles. Having a specific audience identified at the beginning of a project gives an interpreter or designer a significant head start towards success.

Look at the Phillies/Flyers “ill” shirt, for instance. You can identify the target audience as people who: 1. Like Philadelphia sports teams, 2. Are familiar enough with the Phillies’ logo to recognize it with five of its eight letters missing, 3. Are familiar enough with the Flyers’ team colors to recognize them on a shirt that contains the logo of a different team, 4. Speak 1997 slang, and 5. Want a shirt whose color will hide cheese drips.

At first, it seems that the folks at Philavania might have limited themselves by targeting such a specific market, but based on comments I’ve seen online and heard in person about the shirts, the people in that target audience overwhelmingly like the shirts. The shirt doesn’t resonate with everyone, but the people it does resonate with, it really resonates with them. As a communicator, I’d rather create a message that hits home with a specific audience than one that only marginally registers with a much larger audience.

Interpreters and designers stand a better chance to be successful by concentrating on a specific audience rather than trying to appeal to everyone all the time. Do a good enough job and before you know it, kids at your site will be saying things like, “Yo, that campfire program was ILL.” Do a bad job and they’ll be saying, “Yo, that campfire program made me ill.”

One final note, not entirely unrelated: In September of last year, I wrote a post called “Type and Branding: Lessons from the Phillies and the Jersey Shore,” in which I explain that the font the Phillies use in their logo, Scriptwurst, is proprietary and not available to the public. Nevertheless, Scriptwurst continues to be the most-searched term that drives readers to this website, presumably the result of people looking to find and download the font. A big IBD hello to all of those folks! Sorry we weren’t of more use to you.