Seersucker, Stripes, Star Wars, Synthesis, and San Francisco

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start to summer (official arrival is June 21 at 8:28 AM CDT, to be exact). What really makes me happy is that Memorial Day also makes it acceptable (to some) to break out all seersucker-related clothing, even though the fashion police have long supported a permanent ban.

Living in the South, what’s not to like about seersucker? It is ultra cool, breathes well, is guaranteed to wrinkle, comes in fashionable colors (though sucker purists steer clear of anything but traditional blue) and has vertical stripes. It is even recognized by Congress when the Senate holds Seersucker Thursday in June (traditionally the second Thursday in June), where members dress in the traditionally southern attire (impressions of Colonel Sanders are not appreciated, but aggressive mustaches and bow ties are).

My wife says that based on my husky disposition that I should never wear horizontal stripes, but vertical stripes have a different effect. They make me look like Matlock. Seersucker also has its own fan page on Facebook with 260 fans. IBD’s fan page has 464, if that tells you anything.

In most cases in design, a bold element such as stripes, vertical or horizontal, should be used in small doses (much like seersucker for everyone but me). Unless it’s used in a way that represents the message or improves communication of that message, right? Or it’s used in a way that is original, supports the grid, or becomes a design element.

Several years ago I received a book titled The Star Wars Chronicles. Before you run away to read another blog that is much more insightful, witty, and generally more interesting, this is not going to be another Star Wars post. It just happens to be coincidence that the example I am using in today’s post is Star Wars related. I digress. I was immediately interested in the content of the book, obviously, but I was continually impressed with the visual interest of the design. A large component was striped elements, horizontal and vertical. I had to learn more about who was responsible for the book’s layout and design. I was so impressed, I was sure it was George Lucas himself.

I was wrong; it was Designer Earl Gee and Fani Chung of Gee and Chung Designs out of San Francisco, California. Their work has won countless awards, their logos start logo trends, their products have a special place in the Library of Congress (Paul and I have been banned from that library for incidents related to Paul’s red Crocs and my affinity for seersucker), and most importantly, their work is interpretive in nature. Many of their designs break the mold of what is generally acceptable in design circles (this is unconfirmed but they may even use PCs). Gee’s approach is apparent in this quote from an Adobe Design Center article:

“To me there is nothing risky about being innovative,” says Gee. “It’s far riskier to look dull and boring, and miss the chance to be unique.”

As interpretive designers we should always remember that it is our specific sites and stories that make us unique. By asking ourselves questions like, What makes our site special? What makes us stand out from others? What elements of our mission makes us different? You can focus energy into interpretive products—personal and non-personal—that can be enhanced through innovative design.

The Star Wars book goes beyond being innovative; it is also a perfect synthesis of the writer’s work and design. Each purposeful design element supports the message or current theme. The design is bold, stands out, and is forceful (no pun intended, okay intended), but it doesn’t take away from the content, it enhances it. Bold design choices such as stripes may not always be the best decision in design or fashion but if used properly they can be effective. Most importantly designers should strive to interpret the interpretation. The design itself should not be the interpretation but should be interpretive while maintaining legibility and other basic design functions.

The Adobe article goes on to say, “For designer Earl Gee, every design choice matters. No element is merely decorative. It either contributes to what the client wants to communicate, or it doesn’t belong on the page.” This should be the case for everything we design and how we manage interpretation. It should be purposeful.

The real purpose behind me wearing seersucker is to embarrass my wife.

The CCC in Parachute Pants?

When I began junior high school my modus operandi was to stay off of the radar and try not to be noticed. Being somewhat scared by the idea of conflict between me (nerd) and upperclassmen (complete with mustaches and other tosterone induced signs of coolness). I wanted to disappear into the crowd. That all changed when my Grandmother bought me a red pair of parachute pants (at that date and time parachute pants were really cool, I promise). I was excited about my stylish new pants but quickly found out that it is hard to go unnoticed when the friction of your (uh, my) husky legs rubbing together in copious amounts of red nylon creates such a “whooshing” sound that is reminiscent of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince scratching some old school vinyl. I was officially on the radar from that point on. Now erase the image you may have of me in parachute pants or anyone in parachute pants for that matter and I will continue.

Sometimes it is a good thing to go unnoticed in the products we create. That’s right, some things go best unsaid or mostly unnoticed. We have had several posts on IBD that were written to help improve the chances that your product will be read or used by visitors. You may now be wondering why go to the trouble to create it, if it is not designed to be conspicuous?

What sparked this post for me was a recent trip to Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas and the discovery of a well designed sign at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Overlook of the Petit Jean Valley. In most cases the architecture of the CCC (a public relief program that was active from 1933-1942 employing young men across the country to primarily focus on natural resource conservation projects) compliments the landscape, is aesthetically pleasing and was designed to enhance the visitor’s experience.

Petit Jean CCC Structure 001

Upon arriving at the overlook, I was immediately I was drawn to the view and the dramatic landscape. Secondarily, I recognized that I walked right through a CCC picnic pavilion as a gateway to the view’s most dramatic point, without even noticing the pavilion. The historic structure encased the view and made it possible for our group to enjoy it safely from it’s most dramatic point. After soaking in the landscape we began to notice the “parkitecture.” Freeman Tilden states in Interpreting Our Heritage that interpreters “do well to…create the best possible vantage points from which beauty may be seen and comprehended; and…do all that discreetly may be done to establish a mood, or sympathetic atmosphere.” The CCC was successful at reaching this same goal at Petit Jean State Park, setting the stage for an interpretive experience.

While looking more closely at the construction and elements of the structure I noticed a stone carved sign that did an excellent job of blending in. Pretty much the polar opposite of red parachute pants, again lose the image.

Petit Jean CCC Structure 002

I’m not sure if the sign is original to the structure (more than likely not) and then was altered in 1981 by the YACC or added in 1981, but either way it speaks volumes to the understated design of the CCC. The material for the sign is consistent with the other construction materials and the landscape. There is no reason for it to stand out; the message is understated, matter of fact, and perfectly appropriate. As simple as it is, it has plenty of character. From the inconsistent kerning (letter spacing) to the regal, hand carved, serif, letter forms that are consistent with the era work well to speak volumes.

Next time you are creating a sign or product take into consideration the impact of the product on the landscape.  Sometimes the location may call for red parachute pants and other times it may simply call for classic blue jeans. You make that call.