Avoiding a Cheesy Cinco de Mayo

Have you ever wondered how something gets so far from its original intent that it really loses its meaning? I was reminded of this issue this week with two separate incidents.

While refueling my vehicle, on Monday morning I found myself in a conversation at the gas pump with a young man about the death of Osama Bin Laden. The young man I was talking to was nine years old on September 11, 2001 (I wasn’t for sure that he was actually old enough to be driving in the first place) and has a different way of looking at the events of that day and how he connects those memories to what happened to Bin Laden. Okay, this topic is way too serious for this not-so-serious blog. I know that the last thing you want to read here is my political commentary that could follow this example. Let me provide a second example that revolves around the less complicated topic of cheese dip.

The second event was the battery of emails that I have been receiving from On the Border, a chain restaurant that offers Mexican-type cuisine that is actually more like American-Mex that happens to be surprisingly delicious. I managed to get on their email list by being tricked into giving up my email address in exchange for free queso. It was a moment of weakness. The emails have been inviting me to return to On the Border to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Enjoying most things with mayo, I was seriously considering it.

Looking past the images of ice-filled buckets of “Mexican-type” beer I was looking for deeper meaning within the designs to develop a better understanding of what Cinco de Mayo is actually all about. I had a feeling that it was about more than cheese and cervesas (though that sounds like a perfectly acceptable holiday). Being a dumb American, it would have been easy for me to just accept this version of Cinco de Mayo and the carb-induced stupor that it could create and go to On the Border.

I knew there had to be more meaning behind it.  So my next step was Wikipedia. (I forgot to use the adjective lazy along with dumb above.) At least it was a start and at least my intentions were honorable, right? After leaving Wikipedia, I found myself reading several other online articles about the Battle of Puebla and how the under-armed and out-manned Mexican army defeated Napoleon III’s French forces. Who doesn’t love an underdog (that’s why I pull for the Yankees). I found it even more interesting and meaningful to me as a dumb, lazy, southern American that the battle had direct impact on the American Civil War, when the Mexican army was responsible for stopping Napoleon III from supplying the Confederacy with supplies that France had hoped would split the Union. Now that’s a reason for a holiday. I’m glad I didn’t accept Cinco de Mayo at face value.

On a much smaller and simpler scale I have seen interpretation in the form of programs, events, and designs perpetuate inaccuracies and still be widely accepted.

Special events at interpretive sites can move in directions that you never expected unless you have clear instructions for vendors, performers, and interpreters. Cinco de Mayo is not the first holiday that is drastically different from original concepts. You can take a look at how we celebrate religious holidays in the United States such as Christmas or Easter and realize their departure from the intended. Concessions are often made at events and festivals to meet specific needs and wants of visitors. True interpretive events should be managed different from that of festivals as to not confuse visitors or spread inaccurate messages.

Living history programs are an easy place for myths to be extended for the sake of adding character to the person being portrayed. If the story is not interesting or dynamic don’t transform it into something that it isn’t by adding character. Also be aware of your surroundings (competition and peers). I’ve seen many of the exact same type of living history programs presented all across the country because of limited amount of authentic living history supplies readily available through vendors.

Fire making is often over programmed because of its allure and the importance to survival (plus it is really cool thing to do in a program). I’ve seen the same period fire making kit come out of the same period haversack many times in different places. Creating fire in a program is great but by taking the tangible steps of making fire beyond the act itself and by relating it to something that the visitor can connect with (like a characters favorite time of night sitting around the fire with their family sharing stories or that fire was an opportunity for a child to do something important for his family) makes a demonstration a program. Me lighting our gas stove to melt cheese for dip has little value to you.

Non-personal media that has period or cultural-based graphic design elements needs to be carefully considered as well so that they don’t turn into something that looks like it came from a clip-art search. Decisions on how you plan to use elements such as colors, icons, imagery, and text should be weighed against their value of supporting the purpose of the piece. Oh yeah, and how those elements are used should also aide the communication and interpretive process. Don’t take the easy cheesy route.

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Oh yeah, did you know that Cinco de Mayo translates to May 5th?

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?

Ask a Nerd: What’s the problem with Comic Sans?

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From our “Ask a Nerd!” files, this question came in from “Steve” (whose real name is actually Steve; we just had some extra quotation marks lying around). Steve’s comments are in bold, with responses below.

Steve: In your book you come down hard on Comic Sans, saying it is an over-used default font that is very cold. I’ve avoided using it, Marker Felt, and Chalkboard, but for a different reason. To me they seem childish and informal, and I feared they would undermine my message, giving it less authority than it deserves. Do you think that a default font acquires coldness simply because it is used often?

IBD: Steve, let me say first that these fonts will undermine your message, so you have good instincts. The problem with Comic Sans 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 (to represent speech from a cartoon dog on the Windows 95 operating system), but now it is ubiquitous.

Much like the word “Smurphy,” Comic Sans loses its expressive quality (and becomes cold, which is what we’re getting at in the book) because it is used so much in so many different ways (in one famous instance, it was used on a gravestone; see the photo by Cory Doctorow above). When I see Comic Sans used, I feel that very little thought has gone into the design and it makes me think less of the site or organization it represents.

Steve: Would that apply to Helvetica and Times as well? Why or why not?

IBD: I believe Helvetica and Times are different because they were designed in a classical tradition, more for legibility than for expressiveness. It’s considerably more difficult to pick out Helvetica (which pops up all over the place) because it was designed in the modernist tradition not to be expressive, but rather purely functional. Times was designed specifically for use in newspapers and is often poorly used, but because it’s a traditional serif typeface, it tends to blend into the background. (See “Get to Know a Typeface! Times New Roman”)

Steve: I conducted a very unscientific study, asking a few people (fellow interpreters and general public) what comes to mind when I show them a few sample fonts, including these. None came up with anything like coldness for the printing emulation fonts.

IBD: First, it’s a great idea to show typefaces to others and get feedback, so kudos to you for doing that.

I’m sure that most people will not say “cold” or “impersonal” when asked to identify the expressive qualities Comic Sans tries to achieve. The design of the typeface itself actually is friendly or childish. However, it is so readily identified by even the casual observer, its inherent aesthetic qualities are overshadowed because anyone who sees Comic Sans on your communication has probably already seen it many times over that day alone.

As an interpreter and a designer, your task is to create meaningful communication, and using a font that has lost its meaning due to over-use does not help you do that.

Steve: I still feel if I needed to use a font to convey a very young or informal point of view I’d consider using one of these fonts. Convince me I’m wrong.

IBD: Don’t give in to the temptation! Remember, your nonpersonal media represents your site or organization. Even if you’re promoting a program for kids or a friendly community gathering, choosing the same typeface that countless others have used for take-out menus, personal e-mail, or garage sale flyers looks lazy and unprofessional.