Accepting Criticism

I’m on vacation this week, and I’m spending some time in a bathing suit, so I figure what better time to write about being criticized?

Being a good designer means understanding the rules of type, color, and composition. But beyond that, it’s just as much about understanding and appreciating the perspective of your audience.

It can be difficult to invite criticism on a design project—especially when you’re happy with it and you’re really only seeking validation. It can be particularly hard to hear feedback from nondesigners on a design project, because when aesthetics are involved, everyone will have an opinion, but not everyone will be able to articulate their thoughts. There’s nothing worse than, “I don’t like it but I can’t say why….”

If you’re a surgeon and some guy on the street says he thinks you ought to practice your craft differently, you can say, “Well, I went to school for this, so I think I’ll do it my way.” Graphic designers, on the other hand, can’t really say (as much as we’d like to), “Well, I went to school for this, so you have to like my work.” On the other other hand, if you’re a guy on the beach in a bathing suit and some guy says to maybe lay off the cheese steaks and ice cream, you are free to punch him in the face.

Many of you may be familiar with the website Interpretation By Design. (I’ve included a screen capture for reference.) As we’ve done several times over the last couple years, we recently changed the look of this website. This time, when we unveiled the new theme, we posted a link on Facebook and asked for feedback.

I was looking forward to comments because I liked the new look, and hoped everyone else would, too. We received a handful of comments on Facebook, a few more in the comments section of the current post at the time, one more (oddly) in the comments section of a post from September of 2009, and a handful of text messages (all from Shea, who is just so happy to have an iPhone). I really wanted everyone just to say that they loved the site and how handsome and witty and charming IBD is exactly half the time (on Mondays), but that was not entirely how it worked out.

Some people liked the new look and said so. Some constructive comments led to changes that I consider improvements (the original bright white background was hard on the eyes, so now it’s a warm neutral), while other comments offered food for thought but did not lead to changes (some people are distracted by the rotating header image; others like it). In this case, asking for and receiving constructive criticism did not only lead to immediate changes on this site, but it helped broaden my perspective as I undertake future projects.

Oddly, I am much more apt to solicit feedback on projects that I am not happy with (in design circumstances, that is; I do not intend to solicit feedback on how I look in a bathing suit this week). If I am happy with how a project is going, I worry that constructive criticism is going to derail me. Nevertheless, I always do ask for comments (again, not on the bathing suit). Sometimes criticism leads to small changes that make big improvements, sometimes I do actually receive the validation I sought, and every now and again, I consider changing careers.

Ultimately, seeking feedback on design projects is not just some part of the process to be checked off a list. Take the time to really listen to comments, look for patterns in the feedback, consider new ideas, and make open-minded decisions about whether to make changes.

And maybe consider skipping that second cheese steak of the day after all.

Getting Your Letter Spacing Right

Earlier this year, I found myself in Malaysia, which is odd, because I don’t remember leaving myself there. (Please click here for an audio file of the rim shot that joke deserves.)

I was on Pangkor Island, standing at the end of a dead-end street that, had it continued, would have dumped travelers right into the Straits of Malacca. Luckily for travelers, the road ended and this giant billboard prevented people from accidentally ending up with soggy shoes.

Before I continue, I should point out that a few weeks ago, Shea wrote a post asking what sort of posts you, our readers, would like us, your bloggers, to write about. One response that cropped up several times was that you would like an occasional post about the nuts and bolts of interpretive design. (Very few of you said, “More baseball!”) So because you asked for it, here’s a post about letter spacing.

A lot of people use the terms kerning and letter spacing interchangeably. These people probably have more active social lives than we do, but they are using these terms incorrectly. Both relate to the space between individual letters, but kerning means to tighten the spacing, while letter spacing means to increase the space. And neither of these should be confused with tracking, which refers to letter spacing throughout a block of type rather than between individual letters. (Remember, you people asked for this.)

Anyway, back to Malaysia: I was drawn to the billboard in the same way local TV journalists are attracted to abandoned warehouse fires. (“It’s so awful, I have to show everyone!”) I just couldn’t ignore the stacked type, the faux Polaroids, and the composition that makes it look like all of the design elements were loaded in a cannon and fired at the billboard from 100 yards away.

This sign was nearly the width of a two-lane street, and they still ran out of room for the word “beach” in the bottom right corner. Perhaps had they not letter spaced those lower-case characters in the sentence “Keep the cleanliness of the beach,” they could have kept that whole sentence on the billboard. (Besides, readers recognize words as shapes, so letter spacing lower-case type is generally frowned upon.)

The first thing I noticed that made me break out the camera was the script type “Ceria di Pangkor,” set in our old default typeface friend Mistral. Script typefaces are meant to be strung together to look like handwriting. When you letter space them, it breaks the connection between the letters and makes it look like you were writing during a bumpy van ride.

As you blow type up (and by that I mean making it larger, not actually exploding it), the imperfections and inconsistencies in letter spacing become more obvious and distracting. Basically, the larger the type, the more important it is to pay attention to the space between individual letters. The word Pulau (island) pictured here drove me crazy. The blue outline actually causes some of the letter combinations (“ul” and “au”) to touch while others (“Pu” and “la”) are left with space between them. At this large scale, that letter spacing issue is obvious and distracting.

Letter spacing is more art than science. Most computer fonts have letter spacing built into individual characters (one of the many things Comic Sans does poorly), but variations in the shapes of letters and the immense number of character combinations make letter spacing nearly impossible to automate.

Typographers have devised lots of tricks and techniques to help them get it right. Some typographers like to look at their type upside down or in a mirror. (There’s a good post about this on the website Type Cast Creative, where the image above came from.) Others like to imagine balloons of equal volume squeezed between each letter. (The image here is from a website called Computer Arts.) One of my grad school professors swore by the practice of simply covering the bottom half of the type with a sheet of paper to see where the issues might lie. These techniques help us see the gaps between the letters as abstract shapes rather than seeing the letters of the words.

Certain types of letters are more likely to cause issues. Tall, skinny characters likes lower-case i and l or the number 1 are likely to have more space on either side that needs to be tightened up (which is why the year 2011 is going to be a bad one for typography). Round characters like o and e should be tightened up so that their middles come close to touching while their tops and bottoms are far apart. Angled characters like the capital letters A and V or the number 7 are likely to start out too far from their neighbors.

Regardless of which technique you use, the first step is to recognize that the computer does not do everything for you. Getting your letter spacing right means understanding that any display type, whether it’s in a brochure or on a billboard, requires attention to detail.

Had enough? Next week, tune in for jokes about baseball and photos of our kids!

Technical note: Every layout program has its own way of handling letter spacing. I work primarily with Adobe products, and I really like the “Optical” setting (as opposed to “Metrics”) in the kerning menu.

Who Needs a Watch?

I wake up several times a night and check my watch to see what time it is. I have really bad vision so I have to wear a watch with a light that I can put really close to my face to see the time. If I had an alarm clock large enough to see, it would look like a solar flare from Arkansas. I have told my wife that I wanted to be buried with my watch, that way (if for some strange reason), I woke up I would know what time it was. I know that won’t happen, though, because when I’m dead she’ll take one last opportunity to tell me, “That’s a dumb idea,” and pawn my watch.

Recently my watch died. This may surprise you but I had the geekiest watch on the planet (Casio G-Shock GW6900BC-1) with crazy meteorological features, solar panels, and atomic capabilities. I want to replace it, but a similar watch is expensive. My daughter Anna (the middle child) and I were talking about it and she said that I don’t need a watch since I have a phone and it has a clock.

I continued my search for a watch just to show my five-year-old daughter who was boss. Not wanting to make a huge investment in something that I’m not sure is even needed anymore, I found a really cool retro (Casio CA53W-1ZD) calculator watch, but the purchased was foiled when my wife said, “That’s a dumb idea,” after I showed her the watch. A recent Huffington Post article titled You’re Out: 20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade mentions that a “survey by Beloit College of its class of 2014 found, few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.”

Let’s face it: elements of lives today will be obsolete before we know it. So what steps do we take to make sure what we are writing today isn’t the next newspaper and can continue to be relevant for generations to come? What should we do to make sure that the investment our interpretive site is making into exhibits is going to hold the test of time and not become the next set of encyclopedias?

When writing text for a brochure, exhibit, or website, remember that it is all about the relating to the reader. Visitors to our interpretive sites come for various reasons. Some want to see what the place is all about. Some are seeking an escape. Some relate to your mission. They all come because it means something to them in the first place. Regardless of why they are there, they are there and that’s an opportunity. When writing for that visitor take some time to look into the motivations behind their visit before you put pen to paper. (Okay, I know I’m not the only one that still does that too, am I?)

Think of your piece of writing like a song on played on country radio. There’s a reason that twangy stuff is so popular, and it has nothing to do with sleeveless shirts, tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Who hasn’t been dumped, lost a good dog, or been stalked by a psycho woman after you cheated on her and she dug her keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive, carved her name into your leather seats, then took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, and finally slashed a hole in all four tires. (All kidding aside, she was psycho.)

But write to relate to your audience. Country songs are written with universals in mind, so regardless of you proximity to Nashville, Tennessee, you can still relate. I’m just glad I’m writing to a primarily non-country audience today.

When creating a program or non-personal product, remember that the experience is everything. Visitors today care more about what they can do or say they did than what they can take home. No one says it better than Old Spice (that’s a phrase I never thought I would type).

As you know, people forget facts but they will remember experiences. Go out of your way to craft messages in your non-personal media that help convey the experiential process. Phrases such as “You have arrived” or “Welcome to _____!”  or wayfinding signs that indicate key photo opportunities will let visitors know that the experience has reached its precipice. I’m not saying anything bad about our visitors, but sometimes they don’t know they have arrived or have experienced something of significance if you don’t tell them.

Kulula Airlines: Lessons from Flying 101

I’ve been traveling a little more than usual these days, so my nerves may have been a little frazzled when I boarded a plane in Denver earlier this month and saw the scene pictured here. As I stepped off the walkway and onto the plane, I noticed a very serious and technical-looking panel of knobs and buttons on which someone had crossed off the word “Auto” and scrawled “No!”

Granted, it was just on the walkway and not on the actual airplane, and you very rarely hear about fatal walkway incidents at airports. Still, it was jarring to see such informal communication here. This is a setting in which you’re hoping the technical equipment doesn’t need to be relabeled on the fly (so to speak). It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if there are parts of the plane held together with duct tape.

So I was a little skeptical when Friend of IBD Phil Broder sent me a link to photos of the airplane pictured above. Just as a matter of principle, the first thing I do whenever Friend of IBD Phil Broder sends me anything is go to to see if he’s trying to set me up. Evidently, it’s true that South Africa’s Kulula Airlines has turned the exterior of one of its planes—called Flying 101—into a big typographic comedy routine.

The plane is covered with snarky labels like “front door (our door is always open … unless we’re at 41,000 feet),” “co-captain (the other pilot on the PA system),” “tail (featuring an awesome logo),” and my favorite, “black box (which is actually orange).” You can see detailed photos on Kulula’s website. The plane debuted in February of this year, and this is not the first time it’s been featured in a blog.

On its website, Kulula has this to say about its plane:

Flying 101 has flown around the world several times thanks to the power of email and internet. This plane was designed in-house by our graphic design team as part of our bigger strategy to demystify air travel and explain some of the unknowns around air travel and flying.

This speaks to two important aspects of visual communication: the value of humor and the power of the unexpected. In my experience, all viral internet phenomena can be categorized into three categories: humorous, inspirational, and adorable kittens. (This is why Rupert Murdoch has been trying for years to genetically engineer a humorous, inspirational, adorable kitten; if he ever succeeds, he’ll rule the media world.) The Kulula plane falls into the humor category, but not necessarily because the jokes are the funniest ever written. (And for the record, if they’re trying to demystify flying, I really don’t want to know where the black box is; that does nothing to put me at ease.)

The jokes on Flying 101 range from mildly amusing to chuckle worthy, but I don’t think Kulula is in danger of losing its in-house graphics department to jobs writing for late-night comedy shows. What makes people more likely to laugh at the jokes is their unexpected context. Most of us have never seen a joke written on an airplane, so we’re laughing in part out of surprise. Kulula has generated invaluable free publicity with the online buzz created by a series of jokes that are marginally funny by placing them in an unexpected medium.

The element of surprise is a powerful visual tool, and not just when it comes to humor. For instance, an interpretive exhibit about oak trees might jar its audience with a 10-foot-tall image of an acorn, a technique called scale shift. The use of an unexpected typeface or color, if implemented carefully, can be an effective visual tool. Merely placing part of a sign upside down—a technique called drunken accident—will likely catch the eye of a passerby.

Of course, sometimes the element of surprise is a bad thing—like when you’re starting a week-long trip on three hours of sleep and you realize that the technicians at your hometown airport are communicating to one another with messages written in crayon.