The Grid is Not Your Enemy

Some of our readers know already that we had a little incident this month where a post went viral and crashed our server. (Though many readers thought the message that appeared on our site for two days, “403 Forbidden: You don’t have permission to access / on this server,” was Shea’s finest work yet.) My one-post suspension imposed by the IBD commissioner is over, so it’s time to move on.

One of the promises we made to our new web host—ServInt Managed Hosting Services—was that our next few posts would get practically no hits at all. So this week I’m writing about the grid!

Friend of IBD Kelly Farrell recently sent me an email with the subject, “This page has a problem.” The body of the message contained only this link: www.thegridsystem.org. Any time Kelly sends me a link, even if it looks like spam, I know it’s going to be fun. I clicked right away.

I realized quickly that Kelly felt that the site’s problem might be that it was a little rigid, for lack of a better word. Arranged in a strict grid, the page contained many, many links to articles and resources related to—you guessed it—using grids in graphic design. (No mention of baseball, so far as I could tell.) At the top of the page was this quote from famed 20th-century Swiss typographer Josef Müller-Brockmann:

The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.

I was smitten.

Good graphic design requires restraint in terms of choosing a specific color palette or a limited number of typefaces within a composition or system. It also requires a system to guide where and how to place design elements. Using a grid is where it can be hardest for beginning designers to restrict themselves.

Whenever a new designer asks us to review a project, almost always, the first thing that jumps out is a lack of an underlying structure. (Also clip art.) In all of our training, writing, and relationship-advice call-in radio shows, we encourage designers to use a grid to guide placement of type and images.

Some people react against the idea of a grid because it sounds like what the IRS might use to create tax forms. If you’re one of those people, you can call it by its much sexier name, The International Typographic Style. With a name like that, you can bet that if James Bond were a typographer, he’d use it.

We discuss the grid in Interpretation By Design (the book)—complete with a nifty diagram of how to create one on pages 50 and 51. But the classic text on the subject is Müller-Brockmann’s 1961 Grid Systems in Graphic Design, which features the book’s grid right on the cover of the book. (Someone should steal that idea.)

There are other systems and philosophies that guide composition, but we encourage new designers to use the grid because of its visual cleanliness and relative ease of use. (You can start with a simple grid and work your way up to creating more complicated, versatile ones.) The grid reduces visual clutter and helps create hierarchy, but it can also be used creatively to create dynamic compositions.

Müller-Brockmann was well-know for his concert posters for Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (among much else). He created dynamic compositions not only within the context of a grid, but using the same grid for each one. You can see by looking at the posters above side by side how “beethoven” on the left falls on the same horizontal axis as “der Film” on the right. If you were to lay these posters on top of one another, you would see that the small type on each poster falls on the same vertical axis.

This is the same sort of system we recommend for series of exhibits or panels at interpretive sites. Using the same grid throughout a series of related compositions creates a visual consistency that ties them together, whether it’s five panels along a trail, a multiple-page publication, a series of publications, or a family of websites.

I admit, the word grid does not conjure up positive associations. It sounds rigid and uncreative, the designer’s logical Mr. Spock to the artist’s dreamy Captain Kirk. And when it’s enforced to its extreme, it makes Kelly Farrell send us links to websites that make designers look anal-retentive.

So don’t think of the grid as a grid—restrictive, severe, constricting. Think of it as a framework, the steel structure that supports the architecture of your composition. Or think of it simply as a system, a way to bring order to chaos. To paraphrase Josef Müller-Brockmann, think of it as an aid that will help you flesh out your personal design style.

So the next time you’re designing a publication, exhibit, website, or even some sort of flowchart, I hope you’ll use a grid to guide your composition. It may even land you on Katie Couric’s Twitter page.

The Perils of Social Media

Note: Since my relationship with Paul has been strained after a week where his Philadelphia Phillies blatantly stole free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee from my New York Yankees, I’m unsure that I can continue working on this blog with him. With that, along with the fact that we received a lengthy rebuttal to Paul’s post on social media earlier this week, it was decided that my post would be replaced with this one from our first guest blogger. Right now, I’m happy to give up my space to anyone who disagrees with Paul.

In the meantime I’m going to take the rest of the week off in order to reflect on the good times and place careful thought about the future of Paul and Shea. I’m glad to introduce Phil Broder, director of education at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, as our first-ever guest blogger on IBD. —Shea

Here’s what I’m not:

  • Antisocial
  • Antitechnology
  • A Luddite
  • Incommunicado
  • A curmudgeon.

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Well, to be fair, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I find a measure of joy in needling Paul and Shea, in rooting for the underdog, in taking the uphill side of an argument. I’m not in the social media resister camp (and I heartily dislike Paul’s division of social media into two camps—adopters and resisters; for an example of the idiocy of splitting any issue into just two camps, I need only point to Congress), but neither am I the first to jump with both feet into something new (case in point: today news outlets are reporting that stylish UGG footwear can cause knee, hip, and back problems. My lack of personal style saved me again). “How like fish we are,” said Aldo Leopold, “ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time. And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.”

I’m not prepared yet to bite into that hook. Social media is a tool, and like most tools, if properly used, it can build great things. But put a hammer into the hands of a toddler, and you’ll be dealing with smashed fingers, broken glass, holes in walls, and bedlam. Too many social media users are hammer-swinging toddlers (and I just had the most disturbing image of Shea in an argyle diaper). So let me start with what I find wrong with social media.

First, I strongly believe that we need to be present where we are. Most electronic devices tend to pull our attention from our surroundings. Who hasn’t been leading a program when someone’s phone rang? Ever watched someone miss a sunset because they were looking at a 4” screen? Does checking-in on Foursquare really enhance a visit to the Grand Canyon? Edward Abbey proposed banning even maps from wilderness areas. Wonder what Cactus Ed would say about an iPhone with built-in GPS, a Peterson’s field guide app, ratings of campgrounds, Google Earth, and a Groupon for a discount at the nearest Campmor shop? If we truly want to end nature deficit disorder, we need to stop contributing to it with all the social media distractions.

Too many people use social media as a substitute for real conversation. Posting something on your Facebook page isn’t the same as telling me about it. Maybe it’s easier for you, but what message should I get when family members relay important news via Facebook? My takeaway is that I’m not important enough for my sister to pick up a phone. In interpretation we talk about starting a dialogue with visitors, but Facebook users mostly seem to be monologue-ists. If you expect me to converse with you, don’t begin the conversation with a Facebook post.

Likewise, if you want to start an intelligent conversation, don’t use Twitter. At a mere 271 words, the Gettysburg Address is a classic example of brevity. Still, it’s too long to be Tweeted. Here’s how the writers of “The Daily Show” rewrote it for our modern era:

(And if you haven’t discovered http://historicaltweets.com, you’re missing some of the best revisionist history out there.) I’m concerned that any idea that can’t be boiled down to 140 characters will be ignored. Sociologists will tell you that the telephone effectively ended the age of letter writing, and now texting is ending the age of the phone call. Is Tweeting going to end the well-thought-out and supported argument? My greatest objection to Sarah Palin isn’t her politics, it’s that she seems to be trying to appeal mainly to people who can’t digest anything longer than 140 characters. Twitter is the lowest common denominator of communication.

Does anyone else find something appalling about the use of “friend” as a verb? I have many close friends, relationships that I’ve spent years cultivating, and they’re precious to me beyond value. Calling someone a “friend” just because you’ve clicked on them demeans and devalues the word. If you’ve got a Friends group at your park, zoo, or museum, would you rather have one friend who does volunteer work and makes an annual donation, or 100 “friends” who appear as tiny pictures on your Facebook page? And as far as getting in touch with old high school classmates, look, two decades ago they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and catching up with them through social media is just an exercise in phoniness.

Let’s consider the message you’re sending out through social media. Is it important? Does it have value? In what way does it improve the world? Let’s face it, just because some people can talk doesn’t mean they should. Social media is a huge outlet for a lot of people who just don’t have much to say, but haven’t learned to keep their mouth closed. Nobody wants to know the intimate details of your daily life, what you’re wearing, what you ate, or that you’re sitting down to watch “Jersey Shore.” Really, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere generating electricity to run the computers of vapid fools who want the whole world to know that they think we should all stop picking on Britney Spears? (As an aside, the backlash to mindless tweeting has begun. Recently, an AIDS charity enlisted stars like Ryan Seacrest, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, who promised to go “dead” on Twitter and Facebook until people donated $1million to the charity. A group of sensible people saw an opportunity, and encouraged people to donate to other AIDS charities. Their strategy worked. The charity couldn’t raise the million dollars, and world went without Gaga and Kardashian for a few days, until finally they gave up and reneged on the deal.)

Several social media sites seem bent on turning everything into a popularity contest. I like making my own decisions, not running with the herd. It matters to me that the news I read is accurate, and it scares me that it can be so easily manipulated on Digg and Reddit by the opinions of the masses. If your main concern is how many Facebook friends you have, or getting Pinged everywhere you go, then I’d just rather not know you.

Now, having said all that, let’s look at the positive uses of social media. MySpace has been a boon to small-time musicians for reaching out to their fans. I’ll never again have to pay $15 for a CD only to find that there’s one good song and 11 pieces of crap. Facebook is useful for people with a shared interest who may not actually know each other; I use it to communicate with other dog park users so that I’ll know when my Lab’s posse will be there, instead of just crossing my fingers and driving nine miles to find out.

Can social media work for interpretation? In some cases, yes. I know a musician who spent a summer in New York City on her “Where In The Truck Is Chloe?” tour. Every day she’d pile her guitar and amp into a pickup truck, tweet to all her fans where she’d be and when, then show up there, play a few songs, and leave when the cops showed up. What a great way to generate buzz! I’m stealing the idea; our turtle mascot will tweet the location of his next appearance, show up at some local beach or boardwalk or restaurant, slap hands with a bunch of kids while another naturalist shows off some real turtles, and then off we go. Social media presents a means for getting the word out about a program without having to wait for the next quarterly newsletter. Wonder what would happen if I tweeted “going kayaking at 5pm. Anybody wanna come with?” Or how about “dolphin stranded @ the point. Need helpers 4 rescue ASAP!”

Even Mark Zuckerberg will admit that Facebook was created as a means to help people connect. Instead, it’s become millions of billboards, with most of us no more than commuters trying to figure out what to pay attention to without having an accident. If you’re using social media to just blindly throw information into the cybersphere, hoping that it will hit someone who finds it useful, you’re mostly just contributing to the white noise that disconnects too many people from the natural world. Remember Tilden’s second principle: “Information is not interpretation.” But If you’ve given it thought, and come up with a plan for using social media to create dialogue, if you’re tweeting to provoke (there’s that Tilden guy again!), social media has plenty of potential.

Am I a curmudgeon? Quite probably. But he who knows enough is enough will always have enough. And when I’m confronted by someone blathering on about the tweet that they copied to their Facebook page to share with their 1,156 “friends,” when I hear people whose main goal is to attract fans to their blog, when I’m forced to endure perversions of language brought on by someone who only knows how to communicate using two thumbs on a tiny keyboard, well, I’ve had enough.

Breakin’ Out of Comfort Zones

I have always loved hip hop music. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the first three albums that I ever owned were Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982), Run DMC’s Raising Hell (1986), and Styx’s Kilroy Was Here (which is related to an unfortunate music-based Japanese-speaking period in my life, as well as a fascination with ninjas). I could also be due to the fact that I can’t sing and therefore rapping is an excellent alternative. It could also have something to do with an early exposure to the movies Breakin’ (1984) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1985), which features the art of breakdancing, something else I can’t do. Or maybe it has something to do with growing up in Memphis and seeing graffiti and being fascinated by the skill of the artist and their total disregard for rules and respect of other people’s property. Of course this is another skill that I lack, being able to paint or draw. Now I understand why I put my efforts into playing video games, consuming burritos, and becoming the only person in my high school that can tie a bowtie. Perhaps I should have taken some dance lessons.

All three of these elements that are a part of hip hop culture are also based around similar underlying concepts. Each has large elements that come from competition on the streets (not suburbia, where I lived), where one person would try to outdo the other in the form of rhymes, moves, or tags. Another element is all about personal style and adding your own personal take on a subject or media.

To a certain point, I have moved on, though I still enjoy rap music. My dancing can at any given moment turn to break dancing. (I still feel bad for the Civil War Round Dance at the NAI 1999 Region IV Workshop, which led to injuries and surgery. Please accept my apologies Pam Tooley and Susie Ruby.) My wife won’t let me paint anything. But when you think about it, this blog is nothing more than a modern nerd version of all three. In a digital format, Paul and I can bust rhymes back and forth, display our latest moves, and people can write on our walls. I know Jay-Z is impressed.

As interpretive designers we don’t talk much about the competition behind what we do. In most cases it is friendly competition. (At least that’s what I call it, out of a fear of real competition and being picked last.) There is some underlying competition out there when it comes to developing nonpersonal interpretive products and personal programs. Most of this competition can be good. There will always a drive to keep up with the Joneses or the interpretive site on the other side of the state. I have even heard in planning meetings statements such as, “I saw this design at _____, and we can take that concept and make it bigger and better” or, “They have a touch screen kiosk, we need a kiosk,” and “I wish Shea weren’t here.”

Creativity does breed creativity, but we should make sure we are making good decisions based on the needs of the site and visitor, not out of a need to be recognized for what is being done. Just because you have seen it, liked it, and can afford it, doesn’t mean it is what is best for your site. Every site is different. Focus on your mission, conveying your mission, and meeting goals, and avoid competition gone awry. This will keep your flow from hitting a proverbial graffiti-covered wall. (Using the word proverbial is a way to guarantee you a lyrical beat down on the street.)

Photo courtesy of Luis Ferrer.

If competition drives some, personal style can drive others. If there is anyone who is qualified to talk about style, that’s Paul and me. Designers have personal style that often is directly connected to comfort zones. Some find comfort in centering, defaults, and previous successes, others find comfort in sweater vests. Every time a train passes in front of me, I’m impressed with the diversity in style found in the graffiti on the cars. The unique use of self-created letterforms, layers, color, and counter form are all key elements in that artist’s personal style. Even though their personal style may be influenced by the amount of spray paint fumes, time, and thought went into their work, their goal is to be recognized by others for their style.

Our goal is to stand out and be original but not to the point where the design takes precedence over the content. With graffiti, style is more important than legibility. If you know what your personal style is in the design process, you will be able to avoid creating similar products. Much like I said before when talking about competition, if you keep your eyes on mission and the objectives of the product at hand, breaking out of your comfort zones will be easier and quite liberating even if you are wearing a sweater vest.

If you are feeling inspired you can download the free font Graffiti at Font River. They also offer Zit Graffiti that is more a tag-type font that is equally awesome.