Closing Quotes

If there’s one thing we’ve asked IBD readers to do over the last three years, it’s been to notice details. The problem with this is that people hate details. When they’re good at noticing them, it makes it impossible to function in normal society. When they’re bad at noticing details, it irritates people who are good at noticing details. Take this email (subject: “Ruined!”) that I received from an IBD reader just last week:

I’m reviewing applications for summer internships, and I just came across one where the first and third paragraphs of his cover letter are left justified, but the second paragraph is justified both left and right. And it’s driving me crazy! Why would he do that?! And why do I care?!  I blame you.

I read this email and I thought, Our job here is done. But everyone knows that’s not true. Our job here will never be done. Just walk down the street and you’re sure to find Comic Sans and Papyrus, centered type, clip art, double spaces after punctuation (including one in the email quoted above), undefined color palettes, too many typefaces in one composition, and design elements not arranged on a grid, just to name a few of the things we’ve been trying to rid the world of for 36 months.

Sometimes, the only way to appease detail-induced anxiety is to share your aggravation with others. This is why blogging is so much fun. If you have a blog, you can channel the rage you feel when someone says “presently” when they mean “currently” away from bludgeoning that person with a dictionary and toward a wittily worded blog post that no one will read.

[Note: This was my longest IBD preamble before getting to the point ever.]

So with that, I give you another detail that drives me crazy, and I hope it will drive you crazy, too: smart (curly) quotes versus dumb (straight) quotes. Smart quotes are called that because they know which direction they’re going. There is a clear delineation between the opening quote and the closing quote:

Dumb quotes are called that because they don’t have clarity about which way they’re going. (In fairness, maybe they should be considered quotation marks looking for a direction in life rather than dumb quotes. Seems less judgmental.)

Despite the judgment inherent in how typographers refer to these characters, they each have specific functions. Smart quotes are used as quotation marks around text, as with my hilarious typographic pun here (finger quotes—ha!):

Many typographers will tell you always to use smart quotes. InDesign has a setting in its preferences called “Use Typographer’s Quotes,” which automatically converts all quotation marks and apostrophes to the smart variety. But all too often, these typographers use their beloved curly quotes even when they shouldn’t. Specifically, when you abbreviate feet and inches, the straight quotes (called “prime” and “double prime” marks) are appropriate, as with this typographically sound description of my height:

If you were to use the smart quotes here, my height would go from “five feet, nine inches,” to “five apostrophe, nine closing quote.” (By the way, to get InDesign to give you prime and double prime characters, you have to go to “Insert Special Character,” then “Quotation Marks,” then “Straight Double Quotation Marks” or “Straight Single Quotation Mark.” Every single time. If you copy and paste, it turns it curly.)

In the end, I imagine that what this post will do for you is drive you a little bit more crazy than you already are. Just one more thing to notice out there that will annoy you. And for that, I offer my own closing quote: I’m sorry.

The Rule of Third (Base) and other unwritten rules of graphic design/baseball

Not too long ago, my co-author and friend Shea called me with an interesting question: “Is there a way we could somehow incorporate baseball into our blog about graphic design and interpretation?” It seemed like a stretch, but since baseball is a mutual interest, we thought we’d give it a try this week.

In today’s post, I will discuss how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball (actually, for the purposes of this post, they are, in fact, written rules of baseball). Thursday, Shea will address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

If you intentionally hit a batter, don’t aim at his head.
Sometimes a baseball pitcher needs to send a message. Suppose the pitcher is unhappy with a player on the other team for violating one of the many unwritten rules of baseball, and he decides to intentionally plunk him with a pitch. It’s an unwritten rule that the pitcher should aim at the batter’s backside rather than a more vulnerable area, like his head.

Designers send messages, too, and it’s important not to aim at your audience’s head. Large fields of bright red, using lots of different typefaces, bolding everything, and filling every last square inch of white space—these are all examples of being overly aggressive, or aiming at your audience’s head. It’s important to get your message across, but you don’t have to beat people over the head with it.

Don’t step on the foul line.
This is more of a superstition than an unwritten rule, but many players—pitchers, mostly—avoid stepping on the lines drawn on the field as they enter or leave the field between innings. There are parts of the field clearly designated for different purposes—fair territory is for game faces and steadfast focus, foul territory is where players can relax and prepare for the next inning. Stepping on the line between those two areas muddies the distinction between them.

Designers rely on lines and areas with clearly defined purposes as well. A grid system helps designers decide where to place important elements on a page. (See a post on the grid here.)

Don’t slide with your spikes up.
When a runner slides into a base with the spikes on his shoes up, there’s a risk of serious injury. This is something noted jerk and Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb was famous for. Clearly, for designers, this rule relates to using starbursts. You’d have to be a real Ty Cobb to intentionally inflict those pointy aberrations on your audience.

Don’t make the first or third out at third base.
For various strategic reasons that I will resist detailing here, base runners should avoid making the first or third out of an inning trying to reach third base. They’re better off staying at second, if the situation allows, rather than risking making an out at third base. That said, there are occasions where it’s okay to force the issue and aggressively try for third base.

Designers use a Rule of Thirds as a guide to attractive compositions. Like baseball’s Rule of Third Base, though, there are times when the compositional Rule of Thirds can be violated. See a post about the Rule of Thirds here.

Pitchers should not show up their fielders.
When a fielder makes an error, pitchers have to resist outwardly showing their displeasure. Even though the pitcher has inherited a difficult situation because of his teammate’s misstep, he has to suck it up and focus on that next batter.

Similarly, every design project is a collaboration. If the copy writer comes in with too high a word count or the photographer gets thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, the project manager still needs to own the project and work with team members to get it right.

Don’t bunt to break up a no-hitter.
This is just a weasely thing to do. Swing the bat. This is not a concern in the American League because no one bunts there.

Well, there you go. Tune in next week when we’ll delve into the importance of working pitch counts when setting type!

Graphic Design Apps We Kind of Like

Every now and again, I wonder if my iPhone could be more to me than just the second-favorite member of my family. To that end, I regularly search the Internet for new apps that I might add. Invariably, I come across articles with titles like “10 Apps Every Redhead Must Have” or “The Best Apps in the History of the World for Baseball Fans” or “Download These Apps Now or You Will Die.” That all seems a little stark for us, but there are some good smart phone apps for graphic designers that I kind of like, so I thought I’d share.

Note that I am a cheapskate, so the apps listed here are free, with one notable exception at the end. Also note that I use an iPhone, so I ran these apps past my Android-using co-worker Jamie King, who confirmed their existence on that platform or suggested similar alternatives.

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Palettes
You may have guessed already that this app generates color palettes. You can create color palettes one color at a time using standard color sliders, or you can generate palettes from photographs.

When you have a palette that you’re happy with, you can export it in any number of ways. The app provides detailed information (hex codes, CMYK and RGB breakdowns, etc.) for each color. (Available for the iPhone. Jamie reports that this does not exist yet for Android users, but suggests one called My Color Guide.)

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Adobe Photoshop Express
Friend of IBD Amy Ford told me about this app, which allows you to make some of the basic adjustments you would make in the full Photoshop, like cropping, brightness, contrast, etc., right on your phone, as seen with this photo of my daughter below.

With the availability of this app, it is now officially possible to install Adobe Photoshop on any electrical device, including your toaster, your rechargeable toothbrush, and yes, your Android phone. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

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SimpleDraw
This app allows you to draw on your screen in several basic colors and different stroke weights. It is great for quick sketches, playful doodling, and entertaining your children in airports. You can save images that you like to your phone or email them to Grandma and Papa right out of the app. Note that if your children have been eating yogurt with their fingers, your screen will get sticky. Also note that if you only have one mobile device, your children will fight over it until one of them drops it in their yogurt. (Available for the iPhone. For Android users, Jamie suggests a similar app called Kids Doodle.)

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SignGuru
Friend of IBD Joan Lawrence recommended this app to us. And when she did, she said, “I haven’t had time to check it out yet, but it sounded good.” Well, if she had checked it out, Joan would have found a terrific app loaded with information. A section called “Specs and Guidelines” contains information on everything from color combinations to engineering basics, as well as guidelines on the Americans with Disibilities Act (ADA) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), among much else.

Not only that, a section called “A Good Sign?” shows you images of signs, which you evaluate with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and the app tells you whether your opinion is “Correct!” or “Incorrect.”

As a person who frequently tells other people that their opinions are incorrect, this appeals to my sensibilities. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

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WhatTheFont
This app identifies typefaces for you. Yes, it should be called WhatTheTypeface, but WTT is not as funny as WTF, and it’s free, so what are you going to do? Using the camera on your device, you photograph type that you find in the environment around you and upload the image. WhatTheFont uses recognition software to put a name to the typeface. I struggled with this app until I realized that your photos have to be oriented vertically rather than horizontally, but since then, I’ve been enjoying it. It doesn’t get it right every time, but even when it can’t find an exact match, the app suggests similar typefaces. (Available for the iPhone.)

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Dexigner
I almost didn’t download this one because the icon violates my first rule of logo design: No eyeballs. (Rule #2: No globes.) (Rule #3: Cleverly put a globe in an eyeball and you are banned from logo design forever.) Anyway, I did download the app and found that it contains a lot of useful design-related information, including a calendar of upcoming conferences and competitions, a list of recommended books, directories of designers, studios, and museums, and a lot more. (Available for the iPhone. Jamie did not find this on the Android market, but said that one called Dsgn: Design & Typography News might work.)

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MLB.com At Bat
Okay, so this is in no way a graphic design app, but I put it here because it’s just so great. Seriously. In my tenure as an iPhone owner, I have purchased only one app, and it’s this one. Best $14.99 I’ve ever spent. I like to stream the local Phillies radio broadcast and pretend that I’m eating a cheesesteak on the New Jersey boardwalk. (Available for the iPhone and on the Android market.)

Well, there you have it, our Top 7 Apps that Redheaded Baseball Fan Graphic Designers Must Have or They Will Die. Go get ’em!

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.

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.

Wordle Word Clouds: So This Is Fun

Last week, NAI Executive Director Tim Merriman came into my office and said, “Paul, come here.” In my mind, this conversation almost always ends with, “You’ve screwed up one too many times and now you’re fired.” In reality, Tim hardly ever fires me. In this particular instance, he wanted to show me a website he had learned about called Wordle.

Wordle generates word clouds based on text that the user enters. Tim was impressed with the potential use this tool has for social marketing or qualitative research, whereas my thought was, “Neat!” (Note added October 15, 2010: Tim wrote a serious, grown-up post about word clouds on the NAI Blog.)

After learning about the site from Tim, I went to Wordle and entered all of the text from my September 21, 2009, post about the Phillies typeface, Scriptwurst. The reason I chose this post is that roughly 98 percent of the hits we get on this site are from people looking to download the Phillies font Scriptwurst, which they cannot do because it’s custom designed and proprietary. But every time I write “Phillies font” or “download Scriptwurst,” we’re likely to get a few more hits, and we’re obsessed with numbers so I’ll try to do that a few more times.

Wordle allows users to select from a handful of fonts (most of which I had never heard of) and control settings related to orientation, composition, and color. The example above uses the typeface Powell Antique, a color palette called Heat, and a typographic orientation of mixed horizontal and vertical. You’ll notice that the largest words are those repeated most often in the post, namely “Phillies typeface.” (Hello Google searchers!)

This composition is set in the typeface Loved By the King in a color palette called Milk Paints. The composition mode is set to “Any Which Way.” Given my aversion to handwriting fonts and my affection for the grid, it was difficult for me, emotionally, to include the above in this post. But notice the way the words “Phillies Typeface Scriptwurst” jump out. (Cha-ching!)

This one is set entirely horizontally in the typeface Vigo and the color palette Kindled.

And finally, this one is set in the typeface ChunkFive with a color palette called Organic Carrot. I notice as I write this that naming typefaces and color palettes can be a little like naming indie bands—the weirder the better.

There are limitations to Wordle. For instance, you cannot tweak the word list once you’ve created a cloud that you like, nor can you force the word cloud to fill a specific shape. However, you can create custom color palettes, and most importantly, you can create a vector-based pdf of your word cloud, which can be edited in a program like Adobe Illustrator. (To do this, click the print button, then print to a pdf.) The advantage to this is not only that you can use the pdf for high-end printing purposes, but you can also edit it or use it as part of a larger composition. You could even tweak your word cloud to include multiple typefaces—like the Philles typeface Scriptwurst, if you can find a place to download it.

Also, the site states explicitly that any composition you create is yours and can be used for any purpose, so if you’re creating T-shirts or posters or other sales items, there’s no need to worry about copyright issues.

I recently became aware that a post I wrote last November about an online color scheme designer led to many wasted hours that could have otherwise been used productively. One reader spent three days spinning the color wheel round and round on her computer screen nonstop until she passed out from exhaustion and was hospitalized with dehydration. I can only hope that this Wordle post will have the same effect.

I hope you’ll check out Wordle and create compositions meaningful to your own organization. And don’t worry about those financial reports your boss has been waiting for since last week. You have word clouds to create.