The Great Debate: Legible vs. Expressive

It’s one of the biggest dilemmas designers face: How much legibility are you willing to sacrifice in favor of achieving a certain effect? (Also, do you brush the cheese puff crumbs off your shirt right there at your desk or do you at least attempt to get them into a trash can?)

Friend of IBD Phil Sexton came to us with this question (the design one, not the cheese puff one) in regards to one of his projects, a poster for Eagle Theatre in Old Town Sacramento. The building, the first structure built specifically for use as a theater in California, was in use during 1849 and 1850.

For inspiration, Phil and colleague Robert Mistchenko looked to playbills appropriate to the period, like the one pictured here, the famous Boston John Wilkes Booth playbill from March 18, 1865. Of course, there was a problem, which Phil describes:

One of the great and fabulous things about old handbills is their total disregard for any design sense; indeed to our 21st century eyes, they are nearly impossible to read. If we were to be absolutely true to those times, our information would be nearly impossible for some people to decipher, and probably be seldom read. If we objectively meet good design standards, it would conflict horribly with our mission, and would stick out badly.

Designers love these old playbills, with their slab serifs and their wood type, precisely because they violate every rule in the book, but they are truly terrible at conveying information.

The most obvious rule these playbills violate is that you should limit your compositions to two typefaces, typically a serif and a sans serif. We encourage designers to select two typefaces carefully according to their specific needs and what they intend to say about their site or organization, then stick with those typefaces as part of a larger identity system. (There’s some leeway here for a third typeface, if it’s decorative and used more as an image than for conveying information.)

The intent of this rule is not to prevent designers from having fun, but to prevent interpretive media from looking like those placemat menus at diners (like the one from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Ocean City, New Jersey, below).

As with all design rules, this one can be broken effectively. This spin wheel at the New Belgium Brewery serves the dual function of conveying a sense of fun and confusing visitors who have exceeded the limit of four free samples in the tasting room.

Of course, none of this answers the question we started with. While there is no simple answer, I say you should at least attempt to get the cheese puff crumbs in the trash can, but if a few miss, don’t worry, the cats will get them.

In regards to that other question, I think it’s the designer’s challenge to achieve balance between legibility and appropriate, pleasing aesthetics, but we should err on the side of legibility. I believe our first obligation is to the information we’re meant to convey, our second to the aesthetics.

That being said, truly effective graphic design does both well. The solution Phil and Robert came up with maintains the aesthetic of the old-fashioned playbills, but uses only two typefaces. Of course, this poster does a lot of things that we discourage (using all caps, skewing type, and centering, to be specific), but all of these rules are broken in the name of achieving a certain aesthetic and conveying a certain meaning, so in all cases they are justified (well, they’re actually centered, but you know what I mean).

Phil reports that the final product will be printed on parchment paper with weathered edges. He first indicated that budget constraints were preventing them from printing on specialized paper, but Phil is a tormented soul and caved to the little design devil on his shoulder.

Ever since Phil asked me about using 19th-century playbill typography in contemporary design, I’ve been noticing around town this poster for the Fort Collins Winter Farmers’ Market. It uses the old-school playbill aesthetic, but with contemporary twists like color and peppermint mocha splatters. (That last part may be related to the fact that this particular poster was found in the Dazbog coffee shop near my office.)

While I think the Farmer’s Market folks have done a nice job with this poster (though the bright colors seem a little incongruous), I’m a little skeptical, because I doubt they’ll have cheese puffs there.

Hobo Hauntings

Over the last few weeks I have felt that I’m being stalked. Based on the overwhelming popularity of IBD (the book and the blog) I have had to consider hiring a bodyguard. I watch a lot of episodes of TMZ and now realize that you haven’t arrived until you have a supersized man walking behind you and a dog that fits in a purse. I would hope that Paul would have my back if we were together at one of our favorite scenes (like hanging out an Office Depot) and it turned tragic (Paul asked where they keep the Apple computers and they tell him they don’t carry them), but based on my experience with graphic designers they will turn on you in a heartbeat.

Over a year ago I made a decision to change a typeface in a logo that I was designing for the upcoming NAI Region VI workshop in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. As with many of the design projects that I work on, I send them to Paul for a review, comments, and suggestions. Paul’s reaction was “Is that Hobo? No Hobo!!!” Based on the number of exclamation points being used I knew that Paul (a chronic over-punctuator) was serious about the use of Hobo and I would have to change it at the very least to avoid any additional chastising. I have never dealt well with peer pressure. Ever since I made that decision I can’t but help noticing the removed typeface in conspicuous locations on a daily basis. Perhaps it is less of a stalking and more of a haunting a sort of “ghost of typefaces past.” That typeface is Hobo.

Created in 1910, Hobo is a sans serif that is known for its lack of descending straight lines and overall casual feel. Created by Morris Fuller Benton, who as a typographer worked for the ATF (American Type Founders, not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), designed over 200 typefaces. According to Benton’s biography on Wikipedia the “large family of related neogrotesque sans-serif typefaces, known as ‘gothics’ as was the norm at the time, includes Alternate Gothic, Franklin Gothic, and News Gothic. All were more similar to, and better anticipated, later realist sans-serif typefaces such as Helvetica than did the other early grotesque types of his contemporaries.” As a park ranger I’m not sure what that really means but I think it is saying something about Benton being really great and designers today who like black lipstick, skinny jeans, and black fingernail polish.

I know exactly what you are thinking, “Didn’t Paul write about Hobo in his post Get to Know a Typeface: Hobo on Monday, March 29, 2010?” Yes, he did and I’m impressed with your knowledge of IBD posts. I’m still not satisfied with my decision to drop Hobo and use N.O. Movement Bold. In fact I still kind of like Hobo. I think it has something to do with all of these Hobo cameo appearances that are constantly reminding me of a design decision that I made. Which should actually be working the opposite way, much like the ubiquity of Papyrus and Comic Sans, to reinforce that I made the right decision to drop an overused font? The difference is that Hobo is not that bad of a typeface it is just overused. Hobo (much like Papyrus, Comic Sans and Paul) has websites that display others’ disdain for them (I Hate Hobo).

I have to admit that I’m happy that a logo I created didn’t land on one of those websites but why can’t I find peace with the decision I made? Because Hobo was what I looking for in a typeface that represented the unique style of Eureka Springs while still being easy to read in the negative space (or counterform, for those fancy pants non-Hobo using graphic designers who live in Fort Collins, Colorado) of the exclamation point. I think the lack of straight lines, decenders, and the overall casual feel and roundness is as eclectic as Eureka itself. I understand why the change needed to be made and I am being constantly reminded of that same reason.

In the mean time I’m going to order this pledge provided by Lure and hang it in my office.

I still like Hobo.

I mentioned peer pressure earlier in the post. There will be an informal gathering of IBD readers at the NAI National Workshop next week in Las Vegas, Nevada  immediately following the Superstars of Interpretation on Wednesday night. This idea actually came from a reader/commenter known as Joan (we cannot confirm or deny that her name is actually Joan). Paul and I will be looking for the closest Office Depot to the Las Vegas Strip so we can discuss the pros and cons of metal and plastic paperclips.  Seriously, there will be a gathering, location to be determined. Check the IBD Facebook page during the conference or ask us. Help us make it go viral at the workshop, without the flu-like symptoms.

Type on a Curveball

This post is going to make Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller happy for the simple fact that I’m about to discuss something that the World Champion New York Yankees have done that could have been improved. Correctly setting type on a curve is as not as simple as it seems.

The week of July 11, 2010 was a tough week for the New York Yankees organization and fans alike. On July 11, 2010 Bob Sheppard passed away and two days later on July 13, 2010 George Steinbrenner also passed away. For over 56 years Sheppard was the voice of Yankee Stadium where he served as the public address manager. I’ll never forget hearing his voice on a trip to Yankee Stadium a few years ago. It was so memorable that Reggie Jackson referred to it as “The voice of God.” Steinbrenner was the only Yankees owner that I have known since he took ownership one year before I was born in 1973. His aggressive nature, hands-on approach to management, and check writing ability led the Yankees to 7 World Championships and 11 pennants as well as the nickname “the Boss.”

The two had very different roles in the Yankees organization and contributed on very different levels. Much like the authors/contributors of IBD, Lisa is the boss and brains where Paul and I are the projected voices that disappear in the background except for the 10s of fans that really care. With the team facing such significant losses in the middle of the season the two needed to be honored on the uniforms of the Yankees. In 2009 when the Philadelphia Phillies lost play by play announcer Harry Kalas the Phillies honored him by wearing a round, black patch with a simple sans serif, capital H and K on it over the heart.

The Yankees followed suit by applying two patches to their uniforms honoring Sheppard and Steinbrenner in two separate ways. The patch designed for Sheppard is nothing short of classy and representative of the man and his contribution and career.

I particularly like the classic New York Yankees’ typeface (name of typeface) on the patch in all caps along with the two pieces of stadium façade accent art (all consistent with elements of Yankee Stadium) not to mention the diamond shape and the classic microphone (now a part of the baseball hall of fame).

On August 14, 2009, in one of our Live from Chicago Posts, Paul posted a picture of an exhibit in the Field Museum that turned into a discussion about type on a curve that preoccupied Paul and me for several hours while our wives and collective five children filled the need of paternal/spousal units with ice cream.

In the post about this exhibit, Paul stated: “Typically, typographers advise against placing type on a curve (just because Adobe Illustrator lets you do it doesn’t mean that you should). However, we’re always on the lookout for effective instances of breaking the rules, and this circular exhibit at the Field Museum offers just that. The type here follows the curve of the contours of the exhibit itself.”

The patch honoring “the Boss” (Steinbrenner not Brochu) is an example where the execution of type on a curve fell flat, if that makes sense. Especially when being compared to the Sheppard patch and worn on the same uniform. The black oval patch is worn over the heart just above the classic NY logo. But there is just something about this patch that just doesn’t look right. The more I studied it, the more my eye went to the top curved text. The letter spacing is inconsistent and doesn’t effectively follow the curve of the oval. There are other problems with the design but I can only take so much of myself being critical of my team. Much more and I could be forced to pull for a team in the National League.

There are many programs today that will allow you to apply type in various shapes or create multitude of lines for the type to follow. This approach can be used and can be effective but requires additional thought and adjustments to each character. The problem is that many of the programs that allow you to place type on a curve don’t allow you to make these needed adjustments. The severity of the curve and the number of characters in George M. Steinbrenner III is part of the issue with the GMS patch. If you are applying type to a curve always consider altering the curve if it becomes too much of a problem. Also use other typographic techniques like avoiding combinations of italics/bold, decorative typefaces, and all caps to improve readability.

When using this technique consider the relationship of each letter with adjacent letters. Remember that we read by recognizing the relationship between those letters and that our eyes recognize the overall shape of the word in order to be read. When the characters get distorted or the relationship changes it becomes difficult to read. The solution is simple, adjust the kerning (space between letters) letter by letter to improve readability. If altering the kerning still doesn’t fix the problem you may have to apply each letter as an object that can be rotated and moved individually.

George and Bob, you will be missed. Let’s go Yankees!

I ♥ Whatever

I arrived at work one day not too long ago to find this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker taped to my office door.

I’ve never been to Nepal and have no emotive response to the country one way or the other, so I was confused by the sticker’s meaning. I put on my Indiana Jones mystery-solving fedora, which I keep handy at all times, and set about decoding this cryptic message. At the time, the National Association for Interpretation’s national office, where I work, was hosting 26 people at a training course, so anyone could have been responsible.

The first thing I noticed was a Post-It note attached to the sticker with the following message:

do a blog post about this!
Phil Sexton

Well, I’m no Indiana Jones, but I had narrowed down my suspects. It turns out that Friend of IBD Phil Sexton wanted me to do a post on this “I ♥ Nepal” sticker. If this were an Indiana Jones movie, it would have been called Indiana Jones and the Sticker on the Office Door. It would have been really short and not that interesting, but it probably still would have been better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Though the mystery was not great fodder for a movie, it did raise this important question: Why did I keep thinking about Indiana Jones? Well, any loser with too much time on his hands knows that Nepal is where Indiana Jones finds that his bitter ex-girlfriend Marion, who owns a bar and can handle herself in a drinking contest, is in possession of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra that Indy is racing to keep out of the hands of the Nazis.

It’s possible the reason I was thinking of Indiana Jones was that the “I ♥ Nepal” sticker features what graphic designers refer to as the “Indiana Jones gradient blend.” This, of course, is the vertical blend from red to yellow featured in the logos for all of the Indiana Jones movies. (Every time I use a phrase like “Indiana Jones gradient blend,” it fills me with wonder that I have any social life at all.)

Other graphic elements of note in the decal are a hot-pink iconic heart shape and a rounded sans serif italicized typeface. The heart shape could be the subject of a whole other blog. That shape is believed to have originally represented something other than a heart—and it’s a discussion not really fit for polite company. Maybe we’ll save that one for Valentine’s Day.

The “I ♥ …” phenomenon was popularized in the 1970s with the beyond-famous “I ♥ NY” campaign. The logo, designed by graphic-design legend Milton Glaser, is one of those “so simple anyone could have done it but no one did until a famous graphic designer did it” phenomena. It’s incredibly simple: three letters in a typeface (American Typewriter) that someone else designed and a symbol that’s been around for centuries composed in a rough block shape. But like a catchy tune, it captured the imagination of the public, caught fire, and has spawned countless imitations and permutations.

To me, one of the great things about the story of this logo is that Glaser designed it for free to help promote a city he loved. One of the ridiculous things about this logo is that, according to a story in the New York Times, when Glaser designed a logo that read “I ♥ NY More Than Ever” after 9/11, the city threatened to sue him for copyright infringement.

Because of Milton Glaser (who is the subject of a documentary called To Inform and Delight, which sounds like a great definition of interpretation to me), the use of the heart symbol to mean love has become so ingrained in popular culture that now any symbol used in this composition is roughly understood to mean love.

If Glaser’s “I ♥ NY” campaign had never existed, this Apple laptop skin, a logo designed for a new Apple store in New York City, wouldn’t make sense. Out of context, “I Apple NY” conjures images of mischievous teenagers throwing rotten fruit at Manhattan from across the river in Newark, New Jersey. But in context, it’s yet another example of Apple’s sophisticated and elegant marketing (right down to the use of the appropriate typeface).

On the other hand, the most nonsensical use of this vernacular that I’ve seen is this “I Jack LA” found on a site called Karmaloop. The composition is an obvious reference to the “I ♥ NY” campaign, with a close-but-no-cigar slab-serif typeface, a color scheme derived from the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and yellow, and the face of noted Laker fan Jack Nicholson replacing the heart. This is one of those instances where the viewer understands the point of the composition, but it’s just too big a mental leap to correlate Jack Nicholson with the word love.

There are other examples of this composition in which symbols represent words other than love. For instance, Bob Barker would approve of the “I ♠ My Cat” shirts available all over the internet. Perhaps the best example is this contribution from Gary Larson’s The Far Side:

Though he had a long and distinguished career in graphic design, Milton Glaser is most famous for a simple composition he designed for free out of love for a city. More than three decades later, the composition has, to borrow a word from a horrible person I used to work for, impermanated the visual landscape, from the Massachusetts native who shamrocks Boston, to Friend of IBD Phil Sexton, who clearly hearts Nepal.

Dynamic Typography: As Seen on TV!

So there I was, sitting on my sofa, watching football and drinking beer (or maybe I was watching Golden Girls and drinking apple juice, I can’t really remember). I recall thinking, “I wish the freaking Eagles could score just once!” (or possibly, “Oh, Rose, you’ll never learn!”) and this commercial came on:

It stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked, not by the truck, but to see type used so interestingly in a purely commercial venture. I’m not a truck commercial sort of guy, but I always watch this one, purely for its visual aesthetic.

Moving type is not new, dating back as far as cinema itself, but a specific vernacular of moving type, commonly called dynamic typography, has sprung up in the last four or five years. It usually involves slab-serif or sans serif all-caps type appearing in exact synchronicity with spoken words. The words on screen fit together like puzzle pieces, with quick pans, rotations, and zooms. Frequently, words on screen will reflect their meaning through movement (e.g., if the word is “fall,” the word will actually fall off the screen).

Picture-7I think that the music video below, “Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo,” which my wife tells me translates to “Would you please shut off your stupid computer and come help with the dishes,” is a visual masterpiece. It was made in 2007, when this particular brand of dynamic typography was relatively new.

A quick search of dynamic typography on YouTube will turn up countless student projects that set type to music or movie quotes in this style. Here’s an example from student Linzi Bergmann, set to audio from the movie Zoolander:

While I really enjoy this style visually, the interesting thing about this type of moving typography is that it directly violates one of the tenets of good visual communication. Any presentation expert will tell you not to read the words on screen, that it’s redundant to visually represent words that exactly replicate what is being spoken. I look forward to the growth of this movement, when these beautiful and intricate typographic treatments are more than just visual reinforcements, but rather add their own element to messages.