Attack of the Crab Monsters

My children are happiest in water. Usually, if there’s any conflict between them, I can put them in a pool, or failing that, a bath tub (and if that’s not possible, I can turn a hose on them out on the back porch) and it improves their mood (or at least redirects their ire from each other to me). I took a trip with my family to Australia in 2010, when my children Joel and Maya were six and three years old, respectively. When they talk about Australia, they talk almost exclusively about time spent in water—oceans, pools, one particularly rainy day in Tasmania, etc.

Joel, in particular, tells a story about having his pinky pinched by a crab while we were at the beach on the southern coast near Melbourne. This story has grown with retelling in the two years since; it now concludes with my brave son glaring at the offending crab still attached to his hand, then flinging it high in the air with a flick of the wrist, presumably to splash back into the ocean when it finally lands somewhere over the horizon. (The actual story involves a lot of tears followed by promises of ice cream.)

I was recently alerted by Friend of IBD and author of the Nature Geek blog Katie Fisk to the existence of something called a Japanese spider crab (pictured above in a photo by Hans Hillewaert). I Googled the spider crab and came across this pre-1920 photo from Popular Science Magazine. I assumed at first that this was a big, Internet-based practical joke at my expense, but these things appear to actually exist. It turns out that Japanese spider crabs can measure up to 13 feet from claw to claw.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is in the ocean, so this is something I did not want to know—first because the mere existence of such an animal is terrifying, and second because my son, now almost eight years old, continues to antagonize crabs by telling and escalating the story of being attacked in Australia. With a couple more retellings, the offending crab will be one of these enormous Japanese spider crabs rather than the tiny thing it actually was. Eventually, the story will turn into this:

This is a real-life example of one of my favorite graphic design techniques—scale shift, taking a small object and making it huge so that people see it in a different way. In the book Interpretation By Design (just several thousand copies left, order soon!), we use the example of an image of an acorn blown up to cover an entire wall. I can also imagine an exhibit about great inventions beginning with a huge image of a paperclip (certainly a great invention if there ever was one).

Scale shift works by making big things small, as well. Imagine an exhibit about human history (to name one small topic) beginning with a wall covered with an image of outer space. Off to one side of the image, a small, blue-green planet is marked with an arrow and the text, “You are here.”

Whether you’re making small things big or big things small, scale shift is one way to interest viewers by subverting their expectations.

Thankfully for all of us, there are no real giant mutant acorns or paper clips coming to kill us as we splash innocently in the ocean on vacation. Unfortunately for all of us, the Japanese spider crab is real, and it’s ticked because Joel is telling that story again.

Have a Platypustastic New Year!

I have been making New Year’s resolutions on this site since we started doing this in 2009. And I’ve accomplished some amazing things based on past resolutions: I threw out that old, disgusting Tupperware in 2010, and I have not feathered an edge in months.

With that, here are some promises Shea and I make to you for 2012:

  1. We will learn about platypuses—web-footed, venomous, egg-laying mammals that they are.
  2. We will embrace new media. Learn about it. Talk about it. Use it.
  3. To my wife’s chagrin, I will at least triple the size of my collection of Major League Baseball ice cream sundae helmets.
  4. We will get a pet platypus.
  5. Shea will finally call Cy Sperling to see what can be done.
  6. We will not place photos in compositions at random angles (and certainly not with drop shadows).
  7. We will introduce a new word to the English lexicon: platypustastic.
  8. We will use that extra day in February to its fullest potential.
  9. We will become huge hockey fans. I will root for the Philadelphia Flyers because I grew up in Philadelphia and I am still connected to that community through family and frequent visits. Shea will root for the Montreal Canadiens because they have the most championships and that’s how he picks his teams.
  10. We will start a podcast. A platypustastic podcast.

Happy new year!

 

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.

Let’s Talk Politics

Being raised in the South, I was taught never to talk openly about religion, race, or politics in mixed company. Talking about cars, caliber, and cured meats, though, is perfectly acceptable at any given moment and in mixed company. After writing this blog for the last year and a half and taking the time to get to know our readers, I think it is safe for me to take on politics today. Mid-term elections were held on Tuesday, and regardless of where you stand on the issues or the candidates, the one outcome that I am pleased about is that the political ads will come to an end and the yard signs can come down.

If I were to run a political campaign (don’t laugh, it is possible when Paul runs to replace McDonalds long-standing Mayor McCheese, I know he will ask me to run his campaign based on my knowledge of Chicken McNuggets alone), I would apply interpretive principles to the communication approach and would use interpretive design principles in the creation of any supportive non-personal approaches. Just by writing this blog I’m expecting to be contacted by hundreds of potential candidates who will come to woo me with possible political appointments (or promises of Big Macs and McRibs) just so that I can help improve their chances of being elected.

The television and radio advertisements continue to become worse with each election. I would rather hear the candidates’ position on an issue rather than all of the mudslinging. My mother was a strong southern woman who helped shape me as a person. One thing that I learned from her was that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all—or at the very least preface the comment with something like “well shut my mouth” or follow it with a statement like “bless his/her heart.” It all comes back to the fact that it is not what you say but how you say it, and interpreters excel at taking difficult information, topics, or concepts and presenting in a way that is not offensive and facilitates the person receiving the information to make up their own mind or decide if they want learn more about the topic.

When I worked at City of Rocks National Reserve in Almo, Idaho, the park dealt with unique audiences, with specific needs of the resource, in a very non-controversial way. Rock climbers (who want to climb on the granite spires), trail enthusiasts (each with their own view of trail use from hiking, biking, horseback riding to motocross and ATV use), traditional ranchers (who use the reserve for grazing), solitude seekers (who want to see the historic landscape as it was at the time of the California Trail), and park managers all seek to meet their own interests. Interpretation and interpretive communication is the key to their success. Developing an understanding amongst all of the users of interpretive themes and mission of the Idaho Department of Recreation and Parks and the National Park Service is of utmost importance. There’s no room for mudslinging between groups, well unless you are on horseback crossing a creek in the reserve.

Oh yeah, and for the record the illicit use of Photoshop in those television ads should be banned.

Speaking of banned, if I were running a campaign starbursts, swooshes, clipart, and color palettes of red and blue would be banned in all signage.  I also personally take offense to being categorized as an elephant and a donkey which, is directly related to the fact that I have cankles (where your calf muscles meet your ankles at the same location) and that my wife often refers to my son’s unusually large ears as “having daddy’s ears.”

Based on the signs that I have recently, seen it seems as if political sign designers all went to a meeting with Taco Bell executives to explore how you can take the same 7 elements, manipulate, and transform them into something that is remotely recognizable as a sign (or Mexican food). They are all basically the same (and taste the same) but are presented differently. Somewhere in that process the candidate has a sign that is not discernible from the one next to it and still tastes like a taco (okay, maybe I took that analogy too far).

These signs are a touchy subject for me.  My wife and I have been searching for a new home to purchase. While driving through prospective neighborhoods, we would see a sign (placed in the spot where you place political signs or realty signs), drive past it and say “What did that sign say?” In the process of creating these signs the first and most important rule in design was broken. If no one can read it (especially at 35 miles per hour) the value or investment in the sign is lost. Of course while my wife was taking detailed notes about the neighborhood I was critiquing the signs and making statements like “I wouldn’t vote for him since he used a clipart thumbs up.” or “That use of Comic Sans by that candidate may the first effective use of that typeface.” We still haven’t found a house.

If I were designing those signs I would remember the principles of interpretation and try to relate to the reader. Of course you have to include the key elements that are required of the sign (name, party affiliation, slogan, position, and sour cream) but I would also break the mold. I would work hard to provoke the audience to learn more about my candidate. Perhaps create a series of signs that asks questions so that the reader is inspired to get involved in the process and hopefully become a better person simply through being a part of the whole. I would have to use a different color palette besides blue or red. Not to say they couldn’t be included but would be expanded upon. We know the power of colors—in fact Paul has entire series of posts on getting to know a color with several more to come. I’m not even going to write about swooshes, starbursts, and clipart. But I can’t help it.  Swooshes are for Nike, Starbursts are delicious, and clipart is evil. What I’m trying to say is that instead of working hard to make a sign look political the effort should be placed in make the sign interpretive.

Oh yeah, I would also work hard to change election day to sometime in July when it would be acceptable to wear seersucker suits. That way you could tell which candidates have a sensible style about them. At least we have two years until the next election.

Pistons poppin’, ain’t no stoppin’ now—Panama!

Continuing an annual tradition on this site, I will begin with a shameless plug on behalf of my employer: The National Association for Interpretation’s 2011 International Conference will be held in Panama, May 4-7, at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort about 30 minutes outside of Panama City. NAI’s International Conference on interpretation is one of the best events in the field and you should make it a point to be there. (I began this tradition last year, when NAI unveiled dates and a location for the 2010 event in Australia, and I made some promises in a post titled “Free Beer (in Australia) for Interpretation By Design Readers.” Little did I know that you can’t get Fosters in Australia.)

Because I like the NAI International Conference so much, I enjoy developing the website and publications associated with it. We’ve done surveys and know that the location is one of the primary reasons participants attend, so creating a sense of place when publicizing this conference is important. One of the challenges I run into, however, is that NAI is now six for six in selecting places I have never been to hold this event.

So once again this year, I set about the process of trying to make meaningful decisions with only my own preconceptions and what I could find online as background knowledge. I put together a template for the event’s website and posted it on the Interpretation By Design Facebook page with a note asking for feedback, some of which I’ll share below (with last names changed to initials to protect the identities of the snarky).

Type
Using expressive type is something of a departure for me. It’s even more of a departure for me to use expressive typefaces that are meant to emulate handwriting, because I find them insidious and stupid (not to put too fine a point on it). However, for Panama, I wanted something that conveyed a sense of fun and energy—a sort of typographic salsa dance. I think the typeface Luna Bar, which I found for free on one of our favorite free font websites, almost does the trick. (See our post, “Free Fonts!” for more about websites with free fonts.)

panama-luna_bar

One of the reasons I hate handwriting typefaces so much is that they don’t look like handwriting. For instance, when a character is repeated, as with the letter “a” in the example above, handwriting typefaces start to take on an even, un-handwriting-like cadence.

Panama_Script

One solution to this problem is to use multiple typefaces. In the example above, I’ve set the second and third “a” in the typefaces Christopher Hand and James Fajardo, both found on the site DaFont. So while I normally try to limit myself to two typefaces for an entire identity system, I’ve used three in one six-letter word for this event. (To quote Buster Bluth on Arrested Development, “We have unlimited juice? This party is going to be off the hook.”)

I thought this was a pretty good solution, though my wife pointed out that the style of the first “a” is so different from the second two that it still looks weird. But she doesn’t read this blog so I’m not going to worry about that. Some comments on the type that came in from our Facebook page include:

I like how you combined two different typefaces…;) (Amy F.)

I think I actually see three different fonts?? (Linda S.)

Amy and Linda are so clever.

Color and Image
An image of a palm leaf by John Nyberg found on the free stock photo website stock.xchng is the foundation for the color palette. I used red highlights because red is the complement to green and I wanted to create an intense, high-energy palette. The screen capture to the left above is what the site looked like when it was posted on Facebook. To the right is how it looks now, with some modifications made after comments came in. Some of those comments include:

I’m waiting for the Christmas comment. (Shea L.)

Shea, In Arkansas, is lime green a Christmas color? (Paul C.)

The red is just pink enough not to be Christmassy. (Amy F. )

I like the colors (even if they are sort of christmassy – is that a word?). (Linda S.)

Maybe add a toucan or something up in the left or right corners. (Jeff M.)

I’ve got to agree with Shea and the Christmas comment (slight reminder of Christmas) but a bird (maybe parrot?) in the corner as Jeff suggested would eliminate that issue. 🙂 (Lynda D.)

The idea that the particular green and bright red I had used might evoke Christmas had not occurred to me, but the comment came up enough that I thought I’d add some photos with other colors. Thankfully, photographer extraordinaire Jerry Bauer generously provided us with some of his photos from Panama, which will be extremely helpful as we continue to promote this event. I’ve used some of Jerry’s photos in the new website template and in the magazine ad pictured at the top of this post.

The Facebook comments continue:

I love the palm/palmetto leaf. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about the color or style of the text. (Rachel D.)

The design makes me want to put on lime green tights, grow my hair long (well, at least on the sides of my head), and sing Panama or Pa-na-ma (with hyphens). (Shea L.)

Excuse me while I go take a cold shower to get that image out of my head. (Amy F.)

Things can get weird on the IBD Facebook page.

Composition
This particular identity system has gotten a generally positive response (which, trust me, is not always the case). I was lucky to find a strong, high-resolution image for that eye-catching, top level of visual hierarchy, with expressive type and colorful supporting images to establish a sense of place. Still, the comments came in:

I like the colors and texture. But, to quote Shea: “There seems to be a heirarchy issue.” Is Panama the most important thing to see? I had to make a point of finding “NAI” and “international conference.” (Kelly F.)

I’m in agreement with the Kelly/Shea concern with hierarchy. (Linda S.)

To borrow a term from Jebediah Springfield, I embiggened the phrase “NAI International Conference” on the website and in the magazine ad. The palm leaf and the word Panama are still the most important, but the name of the event is not far behind.

One final comment:

Like the design, like the layout, like the colours…. hate the fact it’s in tables – any chance of getting some lovely semantic html and css to shape that layout? (once you learn css you will love what it can do for design!) (Charlie W.)

Charlie makes an excellent point. It’s all too easy to rely on comfortable technologies, so by the time we unveil the next NAI International Conference website, I’ll see about implementing some lovely semantic HTML and CSS. CSS offers a lot more control over typography online than does a typical HTML editor like Dreamweaver, so it’s definitely the designer’s friend. (And we don’t have many of those.)

One final note: If you want to present a session at the NAI International Conference in Panama, the Call for Presentations closes October 15. If you make it to Panama and I’m lucky enough to be there, too, I’ll buy you a Fosters.