Defining the Strike Zone

Much to Paul’s chagrin, today’s post is dedicated to Jo Schaper, who challenged Paul’s take on starbursts (the explosive graphic design element, not the fruit-flavored candy packed with sweet goodness and that is more efficient than a dentist at removing a filling) in his post Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying on Monday. Her comment and Paul’s reply are presented here.

It is not uncommon for folks to challenge our opinions about elements of interpretive design (along with personal style choices – despite what you think we both still feel red Crocs are perfectly acceptable in public venues). In fact we welcome it. Through this blog we have learned that there is nothing more polarizing than discussions on Comic Sans, serial commas, and now starbursts.

This is where I have to applaud Jo (as well as Judy Sneed the official Pro Comic Sans Spokesperson of NAI Region VI) for speaking up for what they believe is an appropriate use of starbursts. Plus, I like anyone that is willing to give Paul a hard time about anything.

I think I can speak for Paul here. Facing this adversity he might say something like, “I disagree with Jo but at least I got her to think about the design decisions that she makes every time she starts a project. I bet the next time she goes to insert a starburst she thinks twice about how she uses it.” I like it best when Paul speaks without commas. The underlying goal behind IBD (the book not the blog) was to help interpretive designers make the best design decisions possible, which could be said in this instance as well.

Since I’m speaking for Paul, I think it also safe to say that he might also say something like this: “If I wasn’t a Philadelphia Phillies fan, I would pull for the New York Yankees because deep down inside I’m jealous and really think they are awesome, oh yeah and Arkansas I where I should live because if Shea lives there it must rock, oh yeah and Shea’s children are cuter than mine!” I would have to agree with both of Paul’s statements.

I see the opinions that we offer in/on IBD (the book and the blog) are equivalent to the role an umpire plays in a baseball game. When a pitcher stands on the mound and is looking at the batter, catcher, and umpire, he has many choices of what kind of pitch throw (cutter, fastball, curve, sinker, splitter, knuckleball, slider, change-up). It is the role of the umpire to confine the space where the pitch has to be thrown and up to the pitcher to be creative enough to put those pitches into that space. I also see us playing the umpire because our lack of baseball talent and the fact that Paul looks best in a mask.

A pitcher can throw pitches outside the strike zone and it’s their prerogative, but that doesn’t mean they will be successful, it simply means they are pitching in the National League. Also the better you know the strike zone or the parameters and guidelines you will also know when to break the rules and throw outside the zone. The best pitchers throw a combination of strikes and balls in order to get that batter out. There is no guarantee that the batter is going to swing at the pitches outside the strike zone in order for the pitcher to get them out. Sometimes you end up with a walk (which has no design equivalent in this long drawn out analogy). The most important thing to remember is that you want to throw as many good strikes as possible, within the zone.

As interpreters and interpretive designers, I think we have to be careful about not only to be thinking about our clients or our visitors by simply giving them what they want. We need to place thought into what design decision help meet the goals of the project and the interpretive site. I have been guilty (and this blog has been guilty, and by this blog I mean Paul) of writing to our audience of interpreters and interpretive designers. We like talking and reading about topics that we are familiar with, comfortable with, and align well with what and how we think. We need to challenge and be challenged to grow. This can be said of personal interpretation as well. We all have had program participants that come to your program already knowing exactly or more about what you are presenting. That may be your objective but more than likely is not. It is my hope that Jo would comeback with an amazing design chock full of starbursts that makes Paul say, “Wow, that’s an effective use of the starburst.”

In the meantime I’ll leave you with this image of the 2010 NAI National Workshop logo, designed by Paul, complete with a starburst.

Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

Since today is the Fourth of July in the United States (not sure what the date is in other countries), I feel I should mention that I love fireworks. Even if I don’t totally understand the point, I figure anything that is an excuse for a cookout and that can cause more than 400 people to show up at a Florida Marlins game has to be good for something.

However, when it comes to graphic design, the closest counterparts to fireworks are starbursts, which cause me to do what my son did the first time he experienced fireworks: burst into tears.

Whenever I make some unequivocal statement about what is good design and what is bad design, people come to me with arguments to the contrary. (“I use Comic Sans because I want people to equate my interpretive site with yard sales and take-out menus.”)

With that in mind, let me make this unequivocal statement: Starbursts are bad graphic design. Even if your product is FREE! or NEW! or simply AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME!, the starburst is the bold, blinking, animated gif of graphic design. The person who uses starbursts in design is the same person who emails you in all caps. Whatever reason a person has for using a starburst, I can assure you there’s a better solution.

I found this brochure in a rack at a highway-side restaurant in Wyoming. There are a lot of things wrong with it from a design perspective. It uses clip art, glowing drop shadows, random angles, roughly 8,000 fonts in every possible style, and a color palette loosely described as “all of them.” (It’s reminiscent of this design advice that Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel heard recently and shared on our Facebook page: “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”)

Even amidst all that chaos, what stands out most is that it looks like the brochure was attacked by a pack of eight-year-olds wielding yellow paintball guns. I can’t be certain of this, but I’d guess that the person who designed this brochure has a background in producing late-night infomercials.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely of a similar mind and the larger problem is what to do with that client (or boss) who asks for starbursts. This is your opportunity to politely resist and educate your client (or boss) about the more subtle and elegant ways of drawing attention to important information without resorting to the visual equivalent of punching your audience in the face. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as changing the color, size, or line thickness of your type, or possibly altering the composition to prominently feature important elements at the top of a page or within a large amount of white space. (There are lots of solutions, and all of them are better than starbursts.)

In the end, the things that make starbursts so terrible are what make fireworks so great: They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and they’re pointless.

Happy Fourth of July!