Mount Rushmore vs. the Crooked Creek Campground: The Best and Worst of South Dakota’s Black Hills

When I was a freshman in high school, I ran for a class office—probably secretary or treasurer or dog catcher, because I did not have the confidence to run for president or vice president. I learned two things that fall of 1987: 1. The democratic process is a rigorous test of character, and 2. In a class of roughly 200, I had 17 friends. Someone with a crystal ball looking 24 years into the future would not have been surprised to see me sitting at a computer with Cheeto crumbs in my goatee, writing blogs about typography.

I lost that election to someone whose name I forget, but whose campaign slogan, I’m pretty sure, was “More Tunes in the Cafeteria.” The election results not withstanding, I remember enjoying the reaction to my campaign posters, which featured an image of Mount Rushmore, with my own face imposed alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

With Adobe Photoshop 1.0 still three years from being released, I accomplished this effect with scissors, a Xerox machine, and a lot of wasted paper. I recently called my parents in the hopes that they still had one of these posters stashed away, but they had to throw it away to make room for all of my Harvard-lawyer brother’s A+ tests and term papers.

Nearly two and a half decades after that fateful election, on Memorial Day 2011, there I was at the base of the real Mount Rushmore with my wife and two children.

As an experience, Mount Rushmore National Memorial creates a dramatic approach through a series of archways and US state flags, and ultimately allows visitors to get as close as the base of the sculpture. Through a variety of interpretive media, I learned that the reason the sculpture is located in South Dakota’s black hills is that those responsible (whose names I forget because visitors remember ideas, not facts) wanted to draw visitors to a beautiful part of the country. I also learned that sculptor Gutzon Borglum (whose name I had to look up because I can barely remember the names of my family members and friends, let alone historical figures) intended for the final product to include the upper torsos of the featured presidents, pictured here in the sculptor’s studio at the site.

One of the most impressive things about the the sculpture itself, is that it was crafted using blasts of dynamite, which reminds me a little of Shea’s approach to typography.

During our trip, we stayed at nearby Crooked Creek Campground, which featured a slightly less-sophisticated visual presence.

Visitors to the campground are greeted by directional signage that demonstrates that all-too-common grammatical structure in which the apostrophe signifies “Here comes the letter S!”

Next up was this stop sign, which is an improvement on those generic, government-issued stop signs because it specifies exactly where one should stop.

The campground also features more permanent, professionally produced signs for those who are really bad at both counting and directions. There are two more of these signs that read “2nd Left” and “3rd Left.” I figure these signs have to be the result of a committee meeting that started with someone saying, “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people who just don’t know what we’re talking about when we say, ‘Take the first left.’ People keep turning the wrong way and parking in the river, and their tents are floating away.”

Ultimately, I enjoyed both the sophisticated presentation of a popular National Park Service site and the home-cookin’, hand-painted visual vernacular of our road-side campground—because both were appropriate to the experience. That said, the next time I go camping in South Dakota, I’m bringing a can of black paint and editing the apostrophe out of that “Follow Sign’s” sign.

And the next time I run for political office, I’m using Photoshop instead of a Xerox machine.


Good Flag, Bad Flag

I recently received a 1,019-word email from Friend of IBD Howard Aprill on the subject of flag design. Howard does this sort of thing because he blames us for the fact that he now notices design stuff and reads blogs, and he wants to get back at us for wasting his time.

I received Howard’s email about a month ago and I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d share parts of it with you. Evidently, Howard stumbled across a website for the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), which I was disappointed to learn has nothing to do with making people angry. Turns out, according to the organization’s website, vexillology is “the scientific and scholarly study of flag history and symbolism.”

NAVA’s website (which, ironically, is a jumbled mess, full of boxes and centered type) links to a pdf of a brochure called “Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag.” The brochure contains this sage advice, with Howard’s comments in parentheses:

  1. Keep it simple. (Duh.)
  2. Use meaningful symbolism. (Double duh.)
  3. Use 2–3 basic colors. (Makes sense to me but I’m interested in your thoughts on this.)
  4. No lettering or seals. (Apparently this is the Comic Sans equivalent of the flag world.)
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

These points are consistent with the advice graphic designers and interpreters offer—essentially, keep it clean, use a defined color palette, and above all be meaningful. (Though I would argue, related to point #4, that it would be okay for an organization devoted to the conservation and understanding of sea mammals to use a seal in its design.)

Even better than NAVA’s five design principles, NAVA’s website features a link to the results of a 2004 survey that ranks the design of flags from 150 U.S. cities. The ratings go from #1, Washington, DC (on the left, above) to #150, Pocatello, Idaho, where they are as proud of their mountains as they are their Microsoft WordArt.

Howard’s hometown of Milwaukee ranks 147th on the list. While he recognizes that the flag, designed in the 1950s, violates all stated and most unwritten rules of design (and a couple international laws related to the Geneva Convention), Howard offers this impassioned defense:

I think it’s a time capsule that captures the essence of post World War II Milwaukee. You notice that it’s busy filled with LOTS of things. Well that’s how folks felt about their town. The gear represents industry (at one time we actually MADE things in this town), the Native American head represents our original inhabitants, the ship represents the busy port, the golden barley stalk on the left represents our beer brewing industry. It even features the old County Stadium for the Milwaukee Braves. You have to understand, the Braves moved here from Boston in 1953 and this town was INSANELY proud to get a big league team.

I told Howard that I hope Milwaukee gets a big-league baseball team again some day.

The NAVA flag brochure says, “All rules have exceptions…but depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.” The brochure holds up the Colorado state flag (pictured at the top of the post) as an example of a successful departure. It violates the rule of not using type in a flag, but does so elegantly and simply. I’d say that while the folks in Milwaukee departed from the rules with purpose, they also did so with reckless abandon.

Ultimately, flag design and interpretive design have a lot in common, in that they strive to be impactful, accessible, and meaningful. Because he makes the point far better than I could, I leave you with this thought from Howard:

In my opinion the challenges and components of flag design are very related to what we do in interpretation—trying to give relevance and meaning, building connections, tangibles (a piece of cloth) vs. intangibles (love of country, sacrifice, etc). We’ve all seen good flags and bad flags, just like we’ve all seen good interpretive panels and bad interpretive panels. I dare say there are things we can take away from the study of vexillology and apply to interpretation.

Please Read Signs

Friends of IBD continue to send pictures of funny and interesting signs our way. Over the last few years and many presentations later, our collection of funny signs and/or interesting approaches to design continues to grow. Recently the phenomenon has expanded to the IBD Facebook page, where a rash of photo shares have been taking place. I had to share some of these images with you.

I didn’t know they called my wife’s cooking science.

Looks as if they need some gradient off.

I always travel with my pair of counterforms just in case the opportunity to swim with marine stingers presents itself. It happens more than you would think. (I’m not sure what this comment means either.)

We know what we can’t do.

This is just awesome on so many levels.

I love the fact that people are thinking about us over the holidays, (even if it didn’t mean any gifts for us from readers). Just knowing that someone interrupted holiday shopping to take a picture of bad typography for us is the best gift we could receive (next to a 60 inch LCD HDTV or a New York Yankees grill cover).  Thank you Jeanette for the effort! This picture illustrates the worst use of the word “holiday” since Madonna’s 1983 use.

Sometimes you just have to state the obvious.

If you are on Facebook and haven’t liked IBD (not like like, but like like) you should check out the page. There are more images like these under the photo tab. Keep the images coming!

Play to Your Strengths (and Take Advantage of Your Friends)

On a recent trip the east coast, I was reminded why I don’t go to Italian restaurants in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s not that the Italian restaurants in Fort Collins are bad; it’s just that the Italian restaurants on the east coast are so much better.

I take food seriously, so when I go somewhere, I want to experience that place’s strength. In Fort Collins, we have great microbreweries and brewpubs. On a visit to Texas earlier this year, I sought out Mexican food and barbecue. (You know any Texas barbecue place with a hand-painted sign is going to be great.) In Los Angeles this summer, Shea and I enjoyed seafood and, of course, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘N’ Waffles. A couple years ago, my wife and I had sushi for breakfast in Japan at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because we knew it would be the best sushi we would ever eat. (We were right.)

Each of these places excels in at least one area of cuisine, and my goal as a consumer of food is to take advantage of the best options available.

It’s the same in the world of design.

When I was in graduate school, I was told by one professor that I should work to improve my “level of craft.” By this, he meant that, in the course of constructing three-dimensional projects like models or packaging samples, I should try to avoid accidentally gluing my hands to the table or impaling myself with an X-Acto blade. Other students in the program would construct elaborate scale models of the Parthenon out of corrugated cardboard in the time that it took me to get the dried glue unclogged from the bottle of Elmer’s.

From this I took it that perhaps my strengths as a designer lay elsewhere. I developed a particularly strong interest in typography, because no matter how tightly you kern, it’s pretty hard to injure yourself with a keyboard and mouse.

One of my responsibilities as a designer is to know what resources are available to me—not just where to get good photos and fonts, but utilizing the knowledge and expertise of fellow designers. Not every designer is going to be great at every aspect of design. Just as certain locales will specialize in a particular type of cuisine, certain designers will excel in a particular area, like color, composition, type, animation, and photography, to name a few. There’s real value to understanding the strengths of designers you know and getting feedback from them. (Just make sure you go to the right person for specific feedback, or else it’s like eating sushi for breakfast in Texas and Mexican food in Japan.)

I’ve found, as I’m sure it is with any profession, that being a designer is most rewarding when you can set aside ego and competition and open yourself up to ideas and inspiration from fellow professionals. (I probably don’t even have to say that to IBD readers. I’ve always admired the way interpreters inspire and support one another, rather than tear each other down.)

I would encourage designers—those new to design in particular—to add one more resolution for 2011: Keep an eye out for work that you like and talk to the people responsible for it. One particularly great place to do this is at an NAI event like the International Conference or National Workshop, but even if you can’t make it to an event, pick up the phone or fire off an email to someone whose work impresses you. I can guarantee the conversation will be worthwhile.

And now if I could just get a few restaurant owners here in Fort Collins to pick up a phone and call my people in Philadelphia, maybe we could get a decent marinara out here.

Happy 2011!

New Year’s Resolutions for 2011

Last year, I made one New Year’s resolution—to figure out what was in the mystery Tupperware in the fridge in my office and get rid of it. I have four days to achieve that resolution and I doubt it’s going to happen. I’ve sort of grown attached to the container, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the new life forms that have started to form inside it. This year, in the interest of adopting a more positive outlook, I resolve to cultivate my relationship with the Tupperware container and understand the world from its point of view.

A year ago, since I had my own resolutions taken care of, I made 10 resolutions on behalf of designers everywhere, and this year, the tradition continues. Here are 10 resolutions that I’d like to see the graphic design community adopt for 2011:

  1. I resolve to stop feathering edges.
  2. I will kern away the space between the 1s in 2011.
  3. I will root for baseball teams that are within 1,500 miles of my birthplace or anywhere I have ever lived.
  4. I will not use apostrophes to pluralize, even when it comes to numbers, acronyms, and names.
  5. I resolve to use fonts that did not come pre-installed on my computer.
  6. I will not comment on the typography of my menu to waitresses at restaurants. (This one’s for me.)
  7. I will run spell-check and proofread everything before it goes to press—even headlines and captions. (Thanks to Friend of IBD Steve Dimse, who took this photo near his house and reports, “These guys couldn’t get it right even when the dictionary was two feet away with letters five feet high!”)
  8. I resolve to use a grid.
  9. I will pronounce the T before the L when I say Chipotle.
  10. I will blur less.

If you have some of your own resolutions, we’d love to see them in the comments here.

Happy new year, and see you in 2011!

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.