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.

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.

Get to Know a Typeface! Minion

Normally, on this site, we write about expressive typefaces that evoke strong responses. And since Shea and I are bitter, unhappy people, we write about typefaces that are easy to hate like Comic Sans and Papyrus.

Minion, designed by Robert Slimbach in 1990, is one of those typefaces that only a typographer could love (not that other people dislike it; they just don’t notice it). If Minion were at a high school dance, it would sip punch with its back against the wall trying not to make any sudden movements while Curlz MT and Mistral breakdanced in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, Comic Sans would try to make his friend Marker Felt laugh so hard that milk came out his nose and Papyrus would be smoking in the girls room. (This metaphor may be starting to break down.)

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is one of the most influential books on typography. It discusses everything from the anatomy of individual letterforms to how to choose and combine typefaces, from the basics of effective composition to the history of the field going back more than 500 years. Some designers call it the Typographer’s Bible, and it’s set in Minion. (The cover pictured here is from an old edition of the book; I used this one instead of the newer one because it’s the one I’ve had on my shelf for about 10 years.)

Minion is a serifed typeface designed in the “classical tradition,” which is designer code for “It was designed to look like pretty much every other serifed typeface out there.” What makes it so great is its flexibility. If it played high school sports, it would never make the football team, but I can guarantee you it would make varsity running cross country. (Meanwhile, Comic Sans would play sousaphone in the band and Papyrus would smoke in the parking lot and make snarky comments about how people who play team sports are such conformists.)

There is nothing to dislike about Minion. Sure, typographers who like to argue about the tiniest of details will say things like, “The slight upward angle of the cross-stroke of the lower-case e is too whimsical,” but it’s expertly designed to maximize legibility, and the practical advantages to most designers are immeasurable.

In short, the advantage of Minion, specifically Minion Pro, is that it contains more characters (called glyphs) than most other fonts. A small fraction of Minion’s glyphs are pictured here; you can see that it has a lot more versions of the letter O than you’re likely to ever use. When I laid out an article in Legacy magazine that required unique characters from the Hawaiian language, Minion Pro was the only typeface on my computer that had characters with the diacritical marks I needed. The cover of The Elements of Typographic Style pictured above pays homage to the importance of glyphs by featuring 11 of them based on a lower-case a in a row in red.

Minion Pro has multiple weights (bold, semi-bold, medium, roman) plus old-style letterforms and small caps. Most typefaces simply use small versions of upper-case letters for their small caps, while in high-end typefaces like Minion, small caps are upper-case letters specifically designed to be read at smaller sizes.

Beyond the practical benefits of a large character set, there are aesthetic applications as well. Suppose you were setting the word “Phlegm” at a display size and wanted give it that extra bit of flair we all know it deserves. Most classical typefaces don’t give you many options, but among Minion’s many glyphs are traditional characters that contain swashes. The swashed m in the top “Phlegm” is just that much more elegant than the traditional version underneath.

Another important feature of Minion is ligatures, where certain letters in sequence are joined. Most classical typefaces include “fi” and “fl” ligatures, but Minion Pro includes many more. The top example of “Office” here features an “ffi” ligature, while the example underneath does not. (Most of the time, your computer will default to any ligature included in the font you’re using when the appropriate letters appear in sequence. I had to trick the computer into not defaulting to the ligature on the second example.)

Some interesting typographic trivia (if there is such a thing): The ampersand (&) derives from a ligature of the letters E and T (et is Latin for and).

Like many who were scared to talk to girls and who were not that great at sports in high school, Minion found a niche in the grown-up world where it is appreciated for its strengths. These days, Comic Sans thinks about those high-school glory days while it goes to work on take-out menus and garage sale flyers, and Papyrus begrudgingly tries to make a living promoting massage therapists on business cards on coffee shop bulletin boards, but that nerd Minion is the one that finds itself on the pages of the book typographers call their Bible.

Graphic Design Resolutions for a New Decade

A decade of poor letterspacing is coming to an end!

For the last 10 years, the back-to-back zeroes in the years 2000–2009 have wreaked havoc on typographic design, their rounded forms making those numerals look too far apart unless consciously kerned by an attentive typographer. To celebrate the dawn of a new typographic decade, featuring a much more visually appealing “01” character combination, it’s time for some graphic design resolutions!

Since I have already made my resolution for 2010 (I resolve to figure out what’s in that Tupperware container in the fridge at my office) and also because I am an insufferable jerk, I thought I’d propose some resolutions for graphic designers in general. Here we go:

  1. I will not use eyeballs or globes in logo designs.
  2. I will spell “a lot” as two words.
  3. I will stop with the drop shadows already. (Guilty as charged.)
  4. I will use a single space after periods, an em-dash (—) instead of two hyphens (–), and an ellipsis (…) instead of three periods (…).please
  5. I will not use quotes for emphasis (pictured).
  6. I will throw away that clip art CD.
  7. I will travel to Jupiter with John Lithgow to rendezvous with a giant, creepy baby and try to figure out what happened to HAL 9000. (Roy Scheider only.)
  8. I will not put auto-play audio or video on my website.
  9. I will not underline text on my website unless it’s a link.
  10. I will stop being such a nerd. (I make this resolution every year. It hasn’t worked yet.)

To all of our readers who have made writing this blog so much fun this year, happy holidays, happy new year, and thank you. See you in 2010!

Get to Know a Typeface! Papyrus

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This post is more for me than you. I’m sorry but I must use this platform to get this off my chest. Please avoid Papyrus.

The post could have ended there, but as usual, I say too much and end up needing to apologize for something I’ve written. If I have or will offend you with this post, including Chris Costello (the type designer who created the monster known as Papyrus), I am sorry. I guess I could have taken Paul’s post on Comic Sans and inserted his comments here to cover Papyrus. You know, that’s not such a bad idea.

Here we go: “The problem with [Papyrus] is not only that it is used a lot. It’s that it’s almost always used inappropriately, which has caused its original intent to be lost. It was designed with a specific use in mind, but now it is ubiquitous.”  Well said, Paul. Costello agrees and says on his blog titled “Papyrus…Love It or Hate It?” that “Dude, Papyrus is ubiquitous because it was bundled with OSX and Windows operating systems, plain and simple… I had nothing to do with that decision.” I like his honesty and use of the word “dude” in the post.

Costello goes on to say in another post, “I cringe when I see Papyrus so poorly executed…and so often. But again, like any licensed software, what people do with it is out of my hands.” I think that it is awesome that Costello’s blog provides a place for people to rant or rave about his creation. Some of the comments provide insight into his creation and its original use, while others are just hilarious. There is even is a post from Costello’s mom, who has a take on Papyrus.

Much like Comic Sans, Papyrus in and of itself is not that bad of a typeface. It is the users of Papyrus who over use and abuse it.  It can be seen everywhere. I see it most commonly in restaurant menus (primarily Italian restaurants) and in signage or advertisements for day spas (primarily the type found in strip malls). I have even seen it on a sign for a dentist’s office. Which was an effective use considering the cavities found within each letter form. But really, please avoid Papyrus.

To learn more about Papyrus or Chris Costello check out his website at www.costelloart.com. Costello is also collecting comments and displaying his newest type creations known as Driftwood, Costello, and Sheriden’s Letters. Will one of those be the next Papyrus? Only time will tell.

For those who love Papyrus, and I know you are out there, check out http://iheartpapyrus.com.

Do I need a hobby or something else to care about? I want to hear from the herd, what is the typeface that really bugs you? For me it is Papyrus, for Paul it is Comic Sans, what is it for you?