Our Bad Habits

I occasionally read or listen to books that could be categorized as being self-help that deal with business, leadership, or other topics that could be interpreted as a cry for help. The more that I dive into these types of publications the more I feel the urge to read more of them. More than anything I like to keep up with the next catch phrase and dream of life on the business circuit as a motivational speaker. (Though purposefully I avoid phrases that involve the movement of any cheese.)

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with me is me, and much of the information provided in these books is generic, and these books promise more than they could ever produce, and at the very least are mildly thought provoking or entertaining (which happens to be remarkably similar to posts on this blog). Paul and my attempts to win friends and influence people have fallen short. I’m pretty sure Jedi “mind tricks” may have a better chance of success than IBD eliminating the use of Papyrus and Comic Sans.

Recently when I came across 100 Habits of Successful Graphic Designers by Sarah Dougher at a used bookstore, I couldn’t pass it up. The book was the perfect combination of self-help and design. After my initial scan of the index, and not finding anyone named Caputo, I knew the book had potential. The version of the book that I have was published in 2003 but I have recently found out that there are newer editions and specialized editions for freelancer designers and publication designers.

As I have said before, I have a short attention span and I like books that can be read in chunks and picked up and put down easily. 100 Habits allows this to take place easily with each habit only being one or two pages. The book is sold as is presented as if “grabbing lunch with a fellow designer to commiserate or celebrate.” Just like eating lunch with us without getting stuck with the bill.

The book is divided into eight chapters (like other non-picture books, from what I hear) with the topics of self-promotion, working with clients, workflow and in-house dynamics, continuing education, community involvement, technology, personal growth, and partnerships covered.

Rockport Publishing states, “Noteworthy designers, both past and present, working in fields ranging from graphic design, fashion, architecture, typography, and industrial design sound off on every topic, ranging from deadlines, inspiration, competition, rules, respect, education, and handling criticism-all with a certain amount of irreverence. Their thoughts are boiled down into succinct, quotable quotes and one-liners that exemplify their character and demonstrate their philosophy on the world around them.” Since I didn’t go to school to be a designer, I didn’t recognize many of the names but found their contributions interesting. As an interpreter who does design work I found their insight invaluable. Here is a sample of some of the habits. You will notice a steady diet of Cheetos and TastyKakes is not listed as one of the successful habits.

Habit #17 – “Don’t talk about CD art in a CD art meeting” offers solutions for working with invested groups. In this example about designing a CD cover/art invested parties involve the band, the label, and management which is not much different to working for/with visitors, resource, managers, interpreters, and the local community of an interpretive site. The featured designers have solved this problem by focusing on the needs of the artist, whose voice is often lost because of others’ interest (which is no different for the resource getting lost in the complexities of a project).

Habit #25 – “Find an emotional connection with your audience.” Okay, maybe designers should spend more time learning from interpreters.

Habit#44 – “Read it all, forget it all, and do your own thing.” Read page 91 of Interpretation By Design.

Habit #66 – “Make design invisible.” This habit asks the question “Can it (subject) be presented in a way that feels more memorable—that is designed but at the same time doesn’t feel like design overwhelms the information?” We write often here about the unique design of interpretive sites around the world. Perhaps we should be looking for those locations whose designs disappear in the subject and are not the subject itself.

I have learned from the contributions of designers in this book. I have also learned that Paul designs under the pseudonym CaptainKakes and still isn’t in the book.

Research…blah, blah, blah!

Friend of IBD Steve Dimse sent us a simple email titled “Score one for Comic Sans!” The only content of the message was a hyperlink. The exclamation point made me suspicious, but I love spam (junk email and canned meat) so I clicked on the link. Steve let the link do the talking.

Let’s face it: Paul and I are hacks who have lured you to this website with false promises of providing insight into interpretive design. But if there is one thing that you can count on with IBD, it is Paul’s position on Comic Sans and my position on Papyrus (that and the fact that Lisa Brochu positions herself a far away from us as possible). That’s where comments about us being hacks, one-trick ponies, and broken records come from our wives.

Steve’s email echoes that sentiment with his exclamation point (maybe I’m just being overly sensitive) and the use of research (which should be saved for serious blogs). Since Steve didn’t explain the link, I was forced to read it instead of just looking at the pictures. The post from Jonah Lehrer is on the Frontal Cortex on Wired magazine’s website. Titled “The Educational Benefit of Ugly Fonts,” it had me at The.

The first concept that Lehrer presents is that research has proven that the more effort that someone has to put into learning, the more likely they are to remember it. In fact if you add rather than remove obstacles to learning, more is learned for a longer time. There’s new research in cognition from a collection of Princeton psychologists, Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, and Erikka B. Vaughan, who write about disfluency, which is defined by the authors as making the educational material harder to learn. Here’s what they said:

There is strong theoretical justification to believe that disfluency could lead to improved retention and classroom performance. Disfluency has been shown to lead people to process information more deeply, more abstractly, more carefully, and yield better comprehension, all of which are critical to effective learning.

Perhaps Paul and I owe you an apology for what we have been writing for years (and for that embarrassing incident in Las Vegas) but removing as many obstacles as possible in order to improve communication of interpretive messages is our story and we are sticking to it.

Here’s the interesting part (I know you have been waiting for this moment over the last two years): In the second portion of the study the researchers took standard instructional pieces (worksheets, handouts, PowerPoint presentations) and presented them to students in two formats. One was presented in Helvetica and Arial (IBD approved) and the second format was presented in Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicized, and Haettenshweiler (as is Comic Sans was not enough, but italicized, really). Okay, now here’s the interesting part, those students that used the materials in the second group (with Comic Sans Italicized) scored significantly higher.

This study demonstrated that student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly harder to read. The potential for improving educational practices through cognitive interventions is immense. If a simple change of font can significantly increase student performance, one can only imagine the number of beneficial cognitive interventions waiting to be discovered. Fluency demonstrates how we have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole.

How does can this be applied to interpretation? Don’t go all Haettenshweiler on you new exhibit project. We want our visitors to read and retain our themes but they have to be appealing to read in the first place. We also have to remember their motivations and their non-captive status, unlike the captive students. We are expected to know our audiences and adapt to meet their needs while still getting our messages across to them. Keeping the message clean, clear, and concise will improve your change of success.

And is it just me or does it seem strange that Wired magazine is still printed?

Thinking Inside the Box

Paul and I have never been short on words. We have been preparing for our preworkshop session at the upcoming National Workshop in Las Vegas and have found ourselves having to cut topics, activities, and valuable information to make room for bad jokes, irrelevant stories, family photos, and useless references to bits of knowledge that no one will ever use. I have recently been told by my wife to use restraint when I feel the need to be funny in front of groups such as the one in Las Vegas. She backed this up by saying that I’m always one comment away from being offensive and isolated again. She knows me well.

That’s part of the reason we created this blog, so that we could carry on conversations here, primarily with each other, as well as avoid contact with our wives while doing “work.” Writing for this blog is easy. We can say basically whatever we want to, go on and on about various topics, and feel secure in the fact that we and Jeff Miller are the only ones reading. When people come to a workshop session and we have to see the disappointment in their eyes it is best for us to be prepared. I’m glad that we can’t see the disappointment in you reading at home.

Exercising discipline in restraint to make the most impact is difficult since we tend to put out matches with a fire hose. I’m pretty sure you know how we feel about Comic Sans, Papyrus, and clip art. If not, Paul and I are making personal appointments with groups and individuals to discuss in Las Vegas. So far we have exactly one appointment each, with each other.

I was reminded of the value of carefully chosen decisions and using restraint when Daily Designer News highlighted the designer Timo Meyer’s movie icon project. The self-imposed challenge created by Meyer is to take a movie each day and transform the concept or theme behind the film into a simple icon.

A recent conversation with Kelly Farrell, while working on a T-shirt design involving icons, displayed the complexity in digesting key components of an activity into a universally recognizable icon. Meyer’s challenge takes this complexity to the next level by taking well-known, full-length feature films with complex stories and transforming them into something recognizable. This is what interpretive designers do each day. Here are a few of my favorite movies and icons from his Flickr page. I’ll let you be the judge if he is successful and if I have good taste in movies. I will give you the names of the films represented here at the end of the post (you can cheat by holding your mouse over the image to see the movie’s name).

If you have ever worked on a logo for an event or interpretive site you may have experienced this type of challenge. Transforming the essence of a park or museum into a memorable, describable, functional logo is no easy task. You have to rely on the basics of communication the sender, the message, and the communicator.

If you have ever attended a program presented by an interpreter who wanted to tell you everything they know about the site, you can relate to the opposite of this challenge. Exercising restraint requires discipline and planning. Some of the best interpretive programs and products that I have seen were almost completely planned around the concept of what not to convey.

If you have ever spoken with Paul for more than five minutes and had the urge to run away, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Here are the movies represented above: Mission Impossible, Twelve Angry Men, RoboCop, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Goonies (quite possibly one of the best movies ever made).

Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.

Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?


One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.

Shredding My Soul

The other day while clearing the “to be filed” stack on my desk I came across some notes from an Erica Wheeler workshop from several years ago. I am moderately obsessive compulsive about order in my office and with most things in my life. I am successful at maintaining that order in my office primarily because my children rarely enter the space. Order in other areas of my life can be found somewhere in between Shangri La and Chernobyl.

The “to be filed” stack on my desk is a refuge from the recycle pile for those documents that have the opportunity live a more fruitful life hanging in my color-coded filing system. Those items that I have disdain for, such as anything from Boston, things that involve the use of Papyrus, and all correspondence from Paul, I take to the shredder and then recycle them. It is the simple pleasures in life that really make you happy. The items that do make it to the “to be filed” stack have some importance and should be saved though I must admit that may or may not ever be used again. Much like my size medium Boy George and Culture Club concert T-shirt.

I found myself trying to make a decision if my notes from Erica’s Soulful Landscape workshop should be recycled or saved. They were in my right hand, which already made them closer to the recycle pile so their reuse was near, and due to their extremely personal nature they were facing a possible shredding despite an absence of animosity. To help me finalize my decision I started reading them again.

I found myself asking, “What is this emotional connection to ink on paper doing getting in the way of my progress and interrupting my logical approach to organization?” I don’t have time for feelings when it comes to keeping my office clean and organized. But the more I read the more I realized what I wrote on February 20, 2008, was still how I felt today. The words were powerful more than two years after being written and the subject matter was still compelling and deeply personal to me.

Erica Wheeler, award-winning singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, educator, and conservation advocate.

The feeling I had at that moment, at that workshop, is something that I’m still struggling with today. Reading my notes brought me back to that specific moment and reminded me of the process that Erica so skillfully guided the group and me through to reach my well-guarded feelings and emotions. Since that moment in 2008 I have not felt much, expressed very little, hidden feelings behind weak attempts at humor that only my children and Paul laugh at, and had a secret relationship with high-fructose corn syrup.

If we define interpretation as a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource, perhaps we (uh, I) should have a better working knowledge of emotional connections.

So what is it about emotional connections that make them so powerful? Emotions are a part of all of us and learned through instinct and observation. I don’t recall a class in elementary school on mastery of emotions but the concept should be considered for all men, especially those who think cereal is the honorary fourth meal of the day. Most psychologists would agree that emotions are there to assist in conveying and receiving information—something that interpretation is supposed to do as well. Emotions help us understand each other, relate to what others are feeling, and build connections, again part of the interpretive process. They help us make decisions and decide what is important to us.

In Erica’s workshop one of the questions she asks is, “What is true for me today?” The first step in interpretation is building an emotional connection to our site is for the visitor to know what is true or important to them at that moment. Hopefully that is part of the reason they came to your site in the first place. The problem is that in most cases we don’t have control over this concept in the visitors who come to our sites, but we do have control over the attitudes, truth, and emotions we put into and bring to work. We can improve our interpretive efforts by knowing what is true for us today and eating a large bowl of sugar-based cereal before coming to work. We are in the business of building connections.

Where does this come from? Feelings are much easier to experience than explain. Remember that emotions come from all of the parties involved. Interpretation is not one-sided. I was involved in a one-sided relationship once, which ended tragically. The interpreter and the visitor both bring history, pre-conceived notions, prior knowledge, and emotions to the program or blooming relationship. The girl I was in the one-sided relationship with also brought pepper spray to my/our relationship. Like all good relationships interpretation should be built around honesty, trust, and communication. Interpretation should take place in a comfortable setting and provide opportunities for interaction, sharing, and time for reflection. This is the case for personal and non-personal interpretation.

How can we harness this power and use it to the best of our abilities? We have to connect the resources, mission, and stories of our sites to the visitor’s emotions. Erica makes beautiful music from her emotions, and I make others feel uncomfortable with mine. In The Dream Society by Rolf Jensen he presents the concept of our culture moving from an information-based society to a dream-based society where emotional-based markets take precedence and value is defined through the lasting emotional experience and not on products or consumption. Jensen offers markets such as adventure, peace of mind, community, self expression, and beliefs/convictions that relate to emotions and interpretation. We have to create an emotional marketplace and interpretation is the currency for the exchange.

You may be wondering what it was in my notes from the workshop that inspired this post. Sorry, you can keep wondering. You can believe me when I say that it would provide enough fuel for Jay-Z to rap about it (minus the cursing, references to being married to Beyonce, and use of the word Hova part), Kenny Chesney to write a classic country song about it (minus the divorce, lost dog, or guns in my pick-up truck part), or Erica Wheeler to send me to a counselor. If you have a chance to attend a Soulful Landscape Workshop or see Erica Wheeler perform, take that opportunity.

Oh yeah, I decided to keep the notes, a silly emotional decision.