The Rule of Third (Base) and other unwritten rules of graphic design/baseball

Not too long ago, my co-author and friend Shea called me with an interesting question: “Is there a way we could somehow incorporate baseball into our blog about graphic design and interpretation?” It seemed like a stretch, but since baseball is a mutual interest, we thought we’d give it a try this week.

In today’s post, I will discuss how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball (actually, for the purposes of this post, they are, in fact, written rules of baseball). Thursday, Shea will address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

If you intentionally hit a batter, don’t aim at his head.
Sometimes a baseball pitcher needs to send a message. Suppose the pitcher is unhappy with a player on the other team for violating one of the many unwritten rules of baseball, and he decides to intentionally plunk him with a pitch. It’s an unwritten rule that the pitcher should aim at the batter’s backside rather than a more vulnerable area, like his head.

Designers send messages, too, and it’s important not to aim at your audience’s head. Large fields of bright red, using lots of different typefaces, bolding everything, and filling every last square inch of white space—these are all examples of being overly aggressive, or aiming at your audience’s head. It’s important to get your message across, but you don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

Don’t step on the foul line.
This is more of a superstition than an unwritten rule, but many players—pitchers, mostly—avoid stepping on the lines drawn on the field as they enter or leave the field between innings. There are parts of the field clearly designated for different purposes—fair territory is for game faces and steadfast focus, foul territory is where players can relax and prepare for the next inning. Stepping on the line between those two areas muddies the distinction between them.

Designers rely on lines and areas with clearly defined purposes as well. A grid system helps designers decide where to place important elements on a page. (See a post on the grid here.)

Don’t slide with your spikes up.
When a runner slides into a base with the spikes on his shoes up, there’s a risk of serious injury. This is something noted jerk and Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb was famous for. Clearly, for designers, this rule relates to using starbursts. You’d have to be a real Ty Cobb to intentionally inflict those pointy aberrations on your audience.

Don’t make the first or third out at third base.
For various strategic reasons that I will resist detailing here, base runners should avoid making the first or third out of an inning trying to reach third base. They’re better off staying at second, if the situation allows, rather than risking making an out at third base. That said, there are occasions where it’s okay to force the issue and aggressively try for third base.

Designers use a Rule of Thirds as a guide to attractive compositions. Like baseball’s Rule of Third Base, though, there are times when the compositional Rule of Thirds can be violated. See a post about the Rule of Thirds here.

Pitchers should not show up their fielders.
When a fielder makes an error, pitchers have to resist outwardly showing their displeasure. Even though the pitcher has inherited a difficult situation because of his teammate’s misstep, he has to suck it up and focus on that next batter.

Similarly, every design project is a collaboration. If the copy writer comes in with too high a word count or the photographer gets thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, the project manager still needs to own the project and work with team members to get it right.

Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.
This is just a weasely thing to do. Swing the bat. This is not a concern in the American League because no one bunts there.

Well, there you go. Tune in next week when we’ll delve into the importance of working pitch counts when setting type!

A Moment, Captured

The top four moments in my life—and I am careful not to rank these in any particular order—are my wedding day, the birth of each of my two children, and the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. For each of these moments, there is an emblematic photograph—an official wedding portrait by a river in the Colorado mountains almost 10 years ago, hospital-sanctioned portraits of the grotesque, misshapen heads of my newborn children (they’re much cuter now), and Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge on his knees at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia with his hands raised to the heavens as a city celebrates around him.

Really good photographs are like interpretive presentations. They capture our interest, tell an engaging story, and invite us to investigate further. My Japanese friend Masanori Shintani recently shared the above photograph of his daughter Aina with me. At first, it looked like a nice vacation photo, and the idyllic location—El Nido beach in the Philippines—is certainly somewhere I’d like to go. My interest was captured by the composition—the rule of thirds has been used effectively, the calming blue-green color palette is punctuated with bright warm colors—and the story it tells, of a gleeful child running along the beach, is uplifting. But it was the further investigation that turned the meaning of this image on its head (so to speak).

You don’t have to look long before you realize that there’s a rope that attaches the small blue and white boat in the image to some unseen anchor on the shore. Aina, running at full speed, has cleared the rope with her right foot, but her left foot is planted perilously in the sand underneath it. The way Masa tells the story, a split second after this photograph was taken, his daughter face-planted in the sand. (He laments not having an “after” picture, but his daddy mode kicked in and he ran to tend to his daughter.)

Suddenly, as I was looking at it, this image went from being a nice vacation photo to being packed with the energy of the moment to come. It stands on the razor-thin precipice between the glee of a playing child and the thump of a face on wet sand. It’s filled with conflict—you can practically feel the tropical breeze and the lulling motion of the anchored boats, but there’s a visceral reaction to the realization that this happy moment will end with a wet slap.

The real power of the image isn’t revealed until you discover the story behind it.

Unfortunately, photography can be used to disguise truths rather than reveal them. A story on CNN, ‘The sexy lady’ and other hotel photo tricks, shows how hotels use unscrupulous photography (and Photoshop) techniques and unrealistic-looking models to lure travelers. For some reason, I am on the email list for the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, which uses the attractive model technique to advertise its pool. My own experience is that the Luxor pool feels more like a Tony Siragusa family reunion than the natural habitat for exotic models.

I am usually distrustful of photographs, if for no other reason than that people tell me that I look like Clay Aiken in my photo on the back of IBD (the book), and I know for a fact that I look like a cross between Ted Koppel and Howdy Doody. (Besides, I look nothing like Clay Aiken; he’s wearing a suit, and he parts his hair on the other side of his head.)

However, photographs can be powerful interpretive tools, used to create impact and emotional connections. And like all forms of communication, any photograph that draws viewers in and communicates on multiple levels, as the photo of Aina above did with me, can be considered successful.

Just be sure you’re using photography for good rather than evil.