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.

Streakers, Browsers, and Students: Sam Ham on Hierarchy

In late April, I presented a one-day Interpretation By Design workshop in Helena, Montana, during a training event sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the Montana Historical Society, and NAI Region 7. Sam Ham, keynote speaker at the upcoming NAI National Workshop and author of Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets, delivered a plenary session the day before I presented, so I had the distinct disadvantage of having to follow his act.

f_sam_hamOn the other hand, the event afforded me the opportunity to have dinner with Sam. We mostly talked baseball and compared notes on how we spent the most recent royalty checks from our respective books (Sam bought a small island; I bought a six-pack of Fat Tire beer).

The conversation briefly veered to the subject of interpretation. Sam offered a unique take on the notion of hierarchy in interpretive design that I feel compelled to share.

We talk in Interpretation By Design about three levels of visual hierarchy, including primary (the attention grabber, the element viewers notice at first glance), secondary (supporting information for those who are intrigued by the primary information), and tertiary (the real nuts and bolts for those interested in pursuing the subject further).

The idea that our primary audience is often a very brief one is well established. In their book, Signs, Trails, and Wayside Exhibits, Michael Gross, Ron Zimmerman, and Jim Buchholz present the 3-30-3 rule to describe the amount of time visitors might spend on a composition at each level of hierarchy (3 seconds, 30 seconds, and 3 minutes, respectively).

Sam, in his unique and energetic fashion, talked about how visitors can be described as “streakers,” “browsers,” or “students.” “There is no ‘average’ visitor,” he said.

In our interpretive media, Sam said, we want to make sure that even the streakers (whom I envision as shifty looking visitors in sunglasses and overcoats) come away with an understanding of our themes as they breeze on by. This can be accomplished through engaging but simple image-word pairings. For example, Sam suggested an exhibit with an image of a grey wolf paired with the word “Endangered.” Obviously, additional information should be included for those who stop to learn more, but even those who don’t will come away with an understanding of the basic premise of the composition.

This forces us away from topic-based titles to titles that convey the essence of our themes. The topic-title “Grey Wolf” with an image of a grey wolf accomplishes very little for a brief audience. When we sit down to write a theme or headline or design an exhibit, it’s useful to think of Sam’s streakers. What will that visitor who barely even slows down to review your communication come away with? It forces us to be creative. (“When I wrote the book,” Sam said, “I never imagined that people would write boring themes.”)

Trying to steer the conversation back to baseball, I suggested pairing an image of the Philadelphia Phillies with the title, “World Champions.” Sam, a Seattle Mariners fan, was not familiar with the term.