Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.

Dynamic Typography: As Seen on TV!

So there I was, sitting on my sofa, watching football and drinking beer (or maybe I was watching Golden Girls and drinking apple juice, I can’t really remember). I recall thinking, “I wish the freaking Eagles could score just once!” (or possibly, “Oh, Rose, you’ll never learn!”) and this commercial came on:

It stopped me in my tracks. I was shocked, not by the truck, but to see type used so interestingly in a purely commercial venture. I’m not a truck commercial sort of guy, but I always watch this one, purely for its visual aesthetic.

Moving type is not new, dating back as far as cinema itself, but a specific vernacular of moving type, commonly called dynamic typography, has sprung up in the last four or five years. It usually involves slab-serif or sans serif all-caps type appearing in exact synchronicity with spoken words. The words on screen fit together like puzzle pieces, with quick pans, rotations, and zooms. Frequently, words on screen will reflect their meaning through movement (e.g., if the word is “fall,” the word will actually fall off the screen).

Picture-7I think that the music video below, “Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo,” which my wife tells me translates to “Would you please shut off your stupid computer and come help with the dishes,” is a visual masterpiece. It was made in 2007, when this particular brand of dynamic typography was relatively new.

A quick search of dynamic typography on YouTube will turn up countless student projects that set type to music or movie quotes in this style. Here’s an example from student Linzi Bergmann, set to audio from the movie Zoolander:

While I really enjoy this style visually, the interesting thing about this type of moving typography is that it directly violates one of the tenets of good visual communication. Any presentation expert will tell you not to read the words on screen, that it’s redundant to visually represent words that exactly replicate what is being spoken. I look forward to the growth of this movement, when these beautiful and intricate typographic treatments are more than just visual reinforcements, but rather add their own element to messages.